This is a newly updated version of our guide.
I’ll be honest and admit that, to me, Glühwein and snow are way overrated. Winter as a whole I could do without, tbh. But there’s one reason I don’t skip Berlin for all of its winter months and that’s Berlinale. For ten glorious days, at any time of day, we have our pick of dozens of different films. Most are from corners of the world I’ve not yet explored (the first Bhutanese film noir, anyone?), though there’s also Perspektive, an entire program of homegrown German titles (with English subtitles, of course, like all non-English films in the festival). Yet it’s not a simple escapist matter of buying popcorn and bingeing; you might be able to avoid your phone’s increasingly deplorable Trump notifications, but you won’t be able to avoid what the last German Oscar winner (fingers crossed for Toni Erdmann in 2017!) so elegantly called: the lives of others.
This is because, whatever glamorous image the advertisers want to conjure up, the Berlinale is not about movie stars and big explosions (though they always have a couple in the mix; this year the red herring is another Hugh Jackman outing as Wolverine), it’s about the smallest stories on the biggest of screens. Go to one of the films in Competition, for instance, and find yourself immersed in the life of a Syrian refugee stuck in Helsinki, a transgender woman shunned after the death of her lover, or a Portuguese family suffering under the economic crisis. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not about film as a ‘reality check’ of some sort, we get enough of that every day now, thankyouverymuch. And it’s certainly no replacement for speaking up about the injustices we see around us, but it’s not another swipe left, not another stupid sitcom, not another scroll deeper down the endless well of social media. It’s a chance to very literally see the world through another person’s eyes — and in a nicely heated cinema to boot.
I try to avoid films that come pre-charged with buzz from other festivals, since you can usually always catch them in regular rotation during the year to come, but this year I’m definitely not going to miss an early look at I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the ever-relevant essayist and novelist James Baldwin, nor could I avoid mentioning the seductive summer romance Call Me By Your Name by the director of the transcendent Tilda Swinton movies I Am Love and A Bigger Splash (did I mention this one’s scored by Sufjan Stevens?). As far as more obscure films are concerned, I am stoked about a documentary set in a deserted town in the Georgian mountains where they used to mine for a metal mysteriously called manganese; a colorful film about a throuple’s tribulations amidst a surfer community in the South China Sea; a typically Norwegian piece of laconic navel-gazing set on an Oslo balcony; and ok, ok, that new 3D conversion of Terminator II: Judgement Day… And if you’re looking for a horror film to scare any Berliner out of their wits, try Berlin Syndrome, in which an Australian backpacker is seduced by a friendly local English teacher only to find herself his captive — in Friedrichshain. Yikes.
What follows is a quick and dirty guide to how the festival works, and how you can score tickets with the least amount of frustration. Before studying the program, all you need to know is that — and I’m simplifying here — Competition films are the ones in, erm, competition; Panorama films are by semi-established international filmmakers; Forum and Forum Expanded are younger, riskier, and artier; Generation ones are (not just!) for kids, and only €4; and the other, smaller sections are fairly self-explanatory. All of them (aside from those blatant red-carpet ‘Specials’ that are there so that Gala and L’Oreal will still show up) are guaranteed to be special or great or crazy or stunning ortcetera.
You can download the program brochure at the Berlinale website, or pick up a paper copy for handy marking up at the Arkaden or in other cinephile locations around town. And if the sheer number of options seems paralyzing, there’s always seats left over somewhere; simply try the box office at any participating theater on the day of and let the fates of film be your guide (remember they don’t take cards!). Students and other disadvantaged folks pay half price for same-day tickets, and starting half an hour before every Berlinale Palast screening starts, all left-over tickets for screenings there are 50% off!
If you do have a wish list, use the Berlinale’s handy programming tool and apps, and figure out what goes on sale when. Though the festival only releases a limited number through their website (online sales do not exactly encourage a fun festival vibe, I guess?) and you’ll have to pay a €1,50 surcharge per ticket, you will be able to get tickets at home. (You’ll need an Eventim account, though, best set that up beforehand.) When you’re successful (coordinate with your friends every morning over coffee and Skype!), you can either print them out, get a special ‘mobile’ ticket, or — if you love lines — pick them up with your printed confirmation at the Arkaden.
If the online contingent is sold out, or you just don’t trust the speed of your internet, you can bring snacks and line up early at the Potsdamer Platz Arkaden, at Kino International, at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, or Audi City Berlin out west. What’s more, and this is might be the best tip I’m giving you here today: For a €2 surcharge you can get tickets for ANY screening that is for sale (see below) at ANY Berlin ticket office (Koka36 on Oranienstrasse, for instance). Just be sure to note down the ticket code for your chosen screening beforehand (find it in the printed program or on the website) so those poor devils won’t have to wade through all the Berlinale events to find the one you mean.
Now, as for when you should buy your tickets, that’s where shit gets crazy German (and I mean that in the nicest way, sort of):
Starting Monday, February 6th, 10:00am, you will be able to get tickets for ALL screenings at the Friedrichstadt-Palast, HAU, the Volksbühne, and those in Culinary Cinema and Berlinale Goes Kiez (which just might take the Berlinale to the cinema around the corner from you in Neukölln, Wedding, heck, even in Weißensee or Wilmersdorf, check the entire list here).
That same day, you’ll also be able to buy tickets for ALL screenings on the Berlinale Publikumstag (February 19th), when the awards have been awarded, the filmmakers have mostly left, and us regular folk can take over the festival grounds (hence the friendlier pricing: €8 per screening, €4 for films in the Generation kids program).
Though this already seems like being spoiled for choices, many more tickets actually won’t be on sale yet on February 6th, as they only go on sale three days in advance (again, a smaller number of tickets online and the rest at the three main ticket offices). Just to fuck with people (I can only assume), tickets for repeat screenings of Competition films may be purchased four days in advance. Dizzy yet? I bet just showing up and catching whatever’s playing is sounding pretty sweet right now, but it really isn’t that complicated when you use Berlinale’s ‘Programme Planner’, which clearly shows when exactly the screenings you’ve selected will go on sale. As for snacks, remember that there’s a street food fair set up on Joseph-von-Eichendorff-Gasse right near the main venues at Potsdamer Platz, starring all your favorites from Markthalle 9, so no need to resort to bland mall food at the Arkaden.