The 69th Berlinale: What you need to know

Cineastes are converging on the German capital for the latest edition of the Berlin International Film Festival, which opens February 7. The last Berlinale headed by Dieter Kosslick may well be dominated by women.

1. The opening film

The Berlinale (February 7-17) kicks off Thursday with The Kindness of Strangers (above) by Oscar-nominated Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig. The Danish-Canadian coproduction portrays the intersecting lives of four people on a cold winter's night in a New York Russian restaurant, and stars Zoe Kazan, Tahar Rahim, Andrea Riseborough and Bill Nighy. Scherfig, who won the Silver Bear in 2001 for Italian for Beginners, is one of seven female directors in the 2019 competition. Dieter Kosslick promises a "wonderful opening" by a filmmaker "who has a keen sense of characters, big emotions and humor."

2. The competition

This year, 17 films are competing in the official competition for the coveted Golden and Silver Bears. A diverse roster of international directors are competing for the awards that take center stage at the Berlinale, include Francois Ozon from France, Isabel Coixet from Spain, Agnieszka Holland from Poland and Zhang Yimou from China. Audiences are also eagerly looking forward to films by Wang Quan'an from China, who won the 2007 Golden Bear for Tuya's Marriage, and Turkey's Emin Alper, directors who have both been openly critical of their governments at home.

Agnieszka Holland is again in the running for a Golden Bear following her strong 2017 entry, "Spoor," this time with "Mr. Jones," a drama about intrepid journalist Gareth Jones

 3. The jury

The six member jury that decides who takes home the Golden and Silver Bear awards is headed this year by French actor Juliette Binoche, whose celebrated three-decade film career was crowned with an Oscar for her role in The English Patient in 1997 — for which she also won the Silver Bear in Berlin. Two other female actors will sit on the jury, including Germany's Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann) and British stage and screen icon Trudie Styler.

Read moreHead of Berlinale on the film festival's most unforgettable moments

4. World premieres

The Berlinale will again host some much-anticipated world premieres, with Charles Fergus' four-hour documentary, Watergate - Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President, promising to evoke strong echos of the scandal-plagued Trump presidency. Meanwhile, Heinrich Breloer's two-part film adaptation of the life of Bertold Brecht, simply titled Brecht, is also expected to garner a lot of attention. A new documentary about British rock music icon PJ Harvey, A Dog Called Money, will also make its debut in Berlin, as is Juliette Binoche’s film Who You Think I Am, an inter-generational love story that will show in the Special Gala section.

World premiere, a new film about Berthold Brecht

5. The Germans

Fatih Akin is set to headline the competition entries from German filmmakers who traditionally are strongly represented at the festival. The director, who has already won numerous awards in Berlin and Cannes, including the Golden Bear for Head-On (2003), presents his new film The Golden Glove, the story of a serial killer who targeted women in Hamburg in the 1970s. Akin will face competition from several renowned German directors, including Angela Schanelec and Nora Fingscheidt. German film is also strong in various other festival sections, including of course the "Perspektive Deutsches Kino" ("Perspectives on German Cinema") series showcasing local filmmaking talent.  

A photo history of the Berlinale

Selfies, stars and fans on the red carpet

Berlin's film festival has upped the glitz and glamor in recent years, as attested by the timeline of fascinating images on show at a new exhibition, "Between the Films — A Photo History of the Berlinale." Here in 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio thrilled fans on the red carpet by stopping to take a few snapshots. In today's smartphone era, the camera he's holding already feels old school.

A photo history of the Berlinale

Berlin invites the world

In 1955, the Berlinale was held for the fifth time. Great sums were investing in publicity and marketing. Ten years after the end of World War II, the German Federal Republic wanted to show it was culturally anchored in the West. Posters promoting the festival were also widely present in communist East Berlin. World stars such as Peter Ustinov (pictured) contributed to the hype of the event.

A photo history of the Berlinale

Smiling despite the Cold War

In 1961, the Berlinale was still held at the end of June. While the instability of world politics was most directly felt in Berlin, Willy Brandt, then the city's mayor and later West German chancellor, was still beaming as he shook hands with Hollywood icon Jayne Mansfield (accompanied by her husband, Mickey Hargitay). Five months later, construction of the Berlin Wall would start.

A photo history of the Berlinale

Freezing in the summer?

The Berlinale was also held in 1962, despite the recently constructed Berlin Wall newly dividing the city. Photographer Heinz Köster took this shot of Hollywood star James Stewart in front of the Telefunken-Haus on Ernst-Reuter Square, a skyscraper completed in 1960. Berlin can still be chilly in the summer — at least that's the impression given by the way the actor is shivering.

A photo history of the Berlinale

Stars in a divided city

The Cold War was part of the picture at the Berlinale. Stars coming to the city, such as Italian diva Claudia Cardinale, would often pose in front of the Berlin Wall. A bizarre juxtaposition emerges from these shots, with the grinning glamour of Hollywood set against the backdrop of a divide that caused suffering for many people, not only in Berlin, but on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

A photo history of the Berlinale

A fresh wind

In the wake of the revolutionary movements of 1968, the Berlin film festival would also be transformed by a leftward shift that celebrated daring, auteur filmmaking. Ten years later, film critic Wolf Donner (pictured center), who took on the direction of the Berlinale in 1976, moved the film festival from June to February, giving it an edge over Cannes, which is held in May.

A photo history of the Berlinale

Preempting a new era

In 1988, the atmosphere of political change could again be felt in Berlin as Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika policies took hold, with Aleksandr Askoldov’s "The Commissar" screening after a long ban in the Soviet Union. Also that year, filmmaker Agnes Varda premiered two films starring Jane Birkin (pictured), the drama "Kung Fu Master" and the docudrama "Jane B. par Agnès V."

A photo history of the Berlinale

Back in reunified Berlin

After filming "One Two Three" in West Berlin in 1961 while the Wall was being built, director Billy Wilder returned to the German capital and its film festival over three decades later. He is shown here with Horst Buchholz, the lead actor of his Cold War film, the two standing in the slush in front of the Brandenburg Gate in February, 1993.

A photo history of the Berlinale

A new millennium on the red carpet

Dieter Kosslick became the festival director in 2001, giving a new impetus to the venerated celebration of film. A promoter of German cinema, he also boosted the level of glamour on the red carpet and brought more color to the festival. He personally accompanies guest stars to their film premieres, and often wears his trademark black hat — as he is pictured here alongside Judi Dench in 2007.

A photo history of the Berlinale

The festival's photographers

The "Between the Films – A Photo History of the Berlinale" exhibition — on show at the German Cinematheque in Berlin from September 28, 2018 through May 5, 2019 — is also a tribute to the work of the festival's press photographers. Erika Rabau, shown here taking a well-earned nap at the 1995 festival, was the Berlinale's official photographer from 1972 until shorty before her death in 2016.

6. The Forum

The Forum program presents 39 uncompromising films willing to take risks, including works focused around political and social justice issues that often employ unconventional cinematic forms. The 49th Forum his a distinct literary bent, with many films based on the written word, and using verse or poems — for instance, The Children of the Dead from Austria, which is the experimental cinematic expression of the ghost novel by the same name by Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek. Mother, I Am Suffocating. This is my last Film about You, a powerful black and white film about exile set in Lesotho and Berlin ("about people who live on the margins of a society that is new to them," according to the director, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese), will also feature.  

Fatih Akin's drama "The Golden Glove" is in the running for the Golden Bear

7. The Panorama

The Panorama program section has even more films on its plate: 45 production from 38 countries will be presented over the next days. According to the festival, this year's Panorama offers a "controversial, political and challenging" program with a large number of films about "people who try to leave behind systems of heteronomy and oppression." This year, the section also features many films by women and about women, with a focus on portraits of women artists from all parts of the world. Typical is the section opener, Jenna Bass’s Flatland, a contemporary coming-of-age western centered on three women in South Africa. 

8. The Retrospective

"Self-determined. Perspectives of Women Filmmakers" is the theme of this year's Retrospective section of the Berlinale that attracts cinema-goers from all over the world. The 2019 edition is therefore showcasing some 26 feature and documentary films that were directed by women in both West and East Germany between 1968 and 1999. While the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s is often associated with male filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, women directors like May Spils and Ula Stöckl were central to this inventive cinematic wave.  Forgotten female filmmakers who worked exclusively in the the state-controlled DEFA studio system in East Germany will also feature in the 2019 Retrospective.

A scene from the 1968 film, "A Cat Has Nine Lives," by director Uta Stöckl, whose work will feature in the Retrospective section

9. The prizes

…will be awarded at a gala at the Berlinale Palace on Saturday, February 16. The Golden Bear is the festival's coveted top prize. Last year, it went to Romanian director Adine Pintilie for Touch Me Not. Silver Bears are awarded for individual achievements in direction and acting; the other festival sectors also hand out awards. The honorary Golden Bear this year goes to revered British actress Charlotte Rampling, who rose to prominence in early films like The Night Porter (1974), and more recently starred in 45 Years (2015), another of  the 100 TV and feature films in which she has performed. Meanwhile, four Berlinale Camera awards go to filmmakers who have close ties to the Berlin film festival, with French New Wave legend Agnes Varda a recipient this year.

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10. Dieter Kosslick

After almost two decades at the helm of the Berlinale, Dieter Kosslick's era is coming to an end at the 69th edition of the festival. Kosslick has been the festival's artistic director since 2001, and has continually reinvigorated the film event, especially in 2019 with his focus on films about women that are made by women. While in recent years, Kosslick has often been criticized for the competition's lack of artistic quality, Kosslick has been willing to take risks while also ensuring that the program inspires the broader public attending the great audience festival.