The German film industry is eagerly awaiting the appointment of the Berlin Film Festival’s new director, expected to be announced tomorrow, and as the guessing game surrounding the choice shifts into high gear, one thing looks increasingly clear: the new head will face considerable financial and political challenges at the Berlinale.
Speculation in the local industry has been rife with likely candidates to succeed Carlo Chatrian and Mariëtte Rissenbeek, who have co-led the Berlinale as artistic and executive directors since 2020 and will step down after this year’s edition when their respective mandates end.
A number of potential contenders have now quashed those rumors, among them Matthijs Wouter Knol, CEO and director of the European Film Academy, who made it clear to Variety that he was not in the running and was very content in his current post; Kirsten Niehuus, head of funding org Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, who said she was not a candidate; and Unifrance chief Daniela Elstner, who denied the speculation as false.
Also seen as a possible pick was Munich Film Festival director Christoph Gröner, who likewise appears happy to remain where he is.
“We are of course flattered by this appraisal, but I am at the helm of the Munich Film Festival along with [artistic co-director] Julia Weigl,” Gröner told Variety. “In view of the recent developments at the Berlinale, with a reduction in sections for German programming, we define ourselves as No. 1 for German filmmaking — and therefore also want to increasingly appeal to the international industry in the middle of summer. We can only wish the Berlinale all the best.”
While a completely unexpected selection is certainly possible, other names regularly discussed by industry insiders include Christoph Terhechte, artistic director of the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film (who declined to comment on the rumors); Christian Jungen, artistic director of the Zurich Film Festival; Berlinale programmer Paz Lázaro; and Maria Köpf, who recently stepped down as co-managing director of the German Film Academy. The latter three could not be reached for comment.
The Berlinale has been talented at keeping cards close to its chest. Rissenbeek wasn’t a candidate either when she was appointed to co-helm the festival. She had actually been tapped by the then culture commissioner to find candidates for the post and walked out with the job. If Variety were to come up with a hypothesis based on this recent example, Köpf, who sits on the search committee and coincidentally just resigned from the German Film Academy, could get the job.
Claudia Roth, Germany’s federal government commissioner for culture and media, triggered a furious international backlash in September with her decision to forego the festival’s dual-leadership structure and instead return to a single director to manage both the artistic and administrative aspects of the event – a move that made it impossible for Chatrian to continue in his role after Rissenbeek decided to step down following the 2024 edition. More than 400 filmmakers and talents, among them Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Béla Tarr, Olivier Assayas, Kirsten Stewart and Margarethe von Trotta, signed a letter condemning the culture commissioner for the move.
Roth then set up a six-member committee tasked with the responsibility of finding a sole director to succeed Chatrian and Rissenbeek that included Oscar-winning director Edward Berger (“All Quiet on the Western Front”); producer Roman Paul (“Paradise Now”); Anne Leppin, the German Film Academy’s now sole managing director; actress and producer Sara Fazilat; State Secretary Florian Graf, head of the Berlin Senate Chancellery; and Roth herself.
Local observers also took Roth to task for not including people with more film festival expertise in her search committee.
Writing in Berlin daily Tagesspiegel, Andreas Busche expressed concern that there was “not a single person on the search committee” with a minimum of experience in international festival operations or at least curatorial expertise.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s Andreas Kilb likewise addressed the difficulties of finding an ideal new director: “Those multi-talents who combine aesthetic flair with an instinct for film politics, stage presence with skill in dealing with sponsors and who also have a sense of finance are as rare as winning the lottery.”
Whoever takes the reins, the new leadership will have to deal with a precarious financial situation that could be exacerbated by the government’s current budget crisis. A ruling by Germany’s constitutional court last month blocked Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government from tapping €60 billion ($64.4 billion) in unused pandemic emergency funds for ambitious climate protection measures and other expenditures, blowing a major hole in the federal budget.
The festival already drastically reduced its lineup earlier this year due to rising costs. Its budget last year amounted to some €32.3 million — that included €12.9 million in institutional funding from the federal government, which is expected to reduce that figure to €10.7 million next year. As a result, the state of Berlin has agreed to increase its contribution to the Berlinale from €20,000 to €2 million a year, local newspaper BZ reported. Financing for the Berlinale has been traditionally split three ways between federal funds, ticket sales and sponsorship, which has also reportedly seen significant cuts.
Media watchers like Busche have warned against growing political encroachment over the festival resulting from its funding needs following comments made by Christian Goiny, a representative of Berlin’s conservative CDU ruling party, who said increased financial support should be “accompanied conceptually and in terms of content.”
While the Berlinale has long been seen as a very political festival, there is concern that its artistic integrity could be further compromised if government overseers push for only the right kind of politics and further constrain the new director.
Pointing to Roth’s statement earlier this year that the Berlinale needed a good structure in order to “live up to its claim of being the largest public festival and a political film festival,” Busche stressed that the latter could “not be achieved by decree” but rather by its programming.