Last November, shockwaves were sent through the film festival circuit when 79 of Germany’s most prominent filmmakers published an open letter calling for a “new start” for the Berlin Film Festival following the 2019 exit of long-time artistic director Dieter Kosslick.
The high-profile directors, including Fatih Akin, Maren Ade, Christian Petzold and Sebastian Schipper, demanded “more transparency”, a streamlined program, more selection input from women and an uptick in quality to put Berlin on “an equal footing with Cannes and Venice.”
In the past 12 months, two of Berlin’s key programmers have vacated their positions and last week, German authorities revealed their plan for the new-look top job with Locarno Film Festival artistic director Carlo Chatrian and German Films MD Mariette Rissenbeek jointly taking the reins.
In her first interview since her appointment, we spoke to Rissenbeek about the selection process — she had a front row seat having also served on the selection committee — the new structure, that controversial letter and the health of the German film sector today.
Congratulations on your new role. That’s pretty exciting…
Thank you. It’s all a bit of a rollercoaster. It is very exciting…
Can you take me through the selection process?
Ms Grutters [German Culture Minister Monika Grutters], Mr Böhning [Former Head of the Berlin Senate Chancellery Bjorn Bohning] and I initially discussed the kind of person we were looking for and after feedback from the selection advisory group it was clear we needed someone who had a strong curatorial background and experience of working with programmers. We arrived at a shortlist of three artistic directors from festivals, each of whom also had experience as a critic. But all three were men and none were German so we started to discuss having a second person who could help the artisitic director know the German industry. We thought this second person should be a woman. We had a number of names. This was around the end of April. At that stage Ms Grutters and Mr Bohning had a talk and approached me. It took me a while to think about it but during Cannes I let them know that I could imagine it. We had a proper interview after that.
It’s interesting that the shortlist for Artistic Director didn’t include a German…
If you want someone with a strong personality and experience in the international film area there aren’t so many people with that profile in Germany. It just worked out like that. We didn’t not want a German but it also made sense to talk to those with international backgrounds. We spoke to one journalist, professionals from film institutes, cinemateques etc. We had a variety of candidates, including German professionals.
Were you concerned about a potential conflict of interest given that you were one of three on the selection committee?
When the minister proposed that I could be a candidate I told her I thought it could be a conflict and thought it would be inappropriate. The ministry did some investigation and told me there was no formal problem if it was dealt with openly and I stepped back from my position on the selection committee. After that we had a couple more talks on the issue and they reassured me it would be fine if I became a standalone candidate.
How will the roles of ‘co-head’ play out? This is closer to the Cannes and Venice model and something Dieter recently suggested.
We had discussed that for a while. I will be Executive Director. Carlo will be Artistic Director. We always felt that the roles would be equal but different with distinct functions. It was important to find that balance. Carlo and I see these roles on the same level. I oversee the budget, Carlo the lineup. We still need to discuss it more to further define our roles. I won’t curate but I’m also responsible with Carlo for the program. He isn’t in charge of personnel, sponsorship or budget but he will also want to know what I decide in this area. We will both want to know what’s happening globally.
Did you know Carlo before?
I met him at least a couple of times a year at festivals to discuss upcoming German movies. We know each other through work. And of course I met him during the appointment process. He is a dynamic person. He is emotional, considerate and has a wide knowledge of film history. I think our skills are complementary.
You are a fluent German speaker, right?
Yes. I am Dutch but I studied German when I was in the Netherlands. I moved to Germany in around 1980 when I was 23 and started to work in the industry a few years later.
Do you feel pride in assuming this role as a woman? This is the first time Cannes, Berlin or Venice has appointed a woman to its lead role.
I must admit, I was brought up by my father and he didn’t make a distinction between his sons and daughters. There was never any less opportunity for me. It was only later that I realized that people looked differently at your career chances as a woman. I see there are very few women in these types of roles so yes I am very proud of it. On the other hand, Carlo and I are co-heads: we make a good couple, we fit together and it was a natural choice.
What’s the timeline for the handover?
For Carlo, I think he will begin concentrating more on Berlin from October. For me, I need to make sure there is a successor at German Films. We will launch an advert for my position and hopefully we will have someone in place at the end of the year. I could start for Berlin next March, possibly a little earlier, but that isn’t set yet. We will be at the Berlinale next year as observers. It’s Dieter’s last Berlinale so we don’t want to be looking over his shoulder…
How do you assess the strength of the Berlin Film Festival today?
I meet many filmmakers and festival reps throughout the year and I get the impression the festival and EFM is very well attended. I can’t see major problems. But, perhaps I’m wrong.
There was something of a backlash against the Festival and its leadership last November. Do you understand those frustrations?
I was surprised there was criticism towards Dieter from the industry and media. Dieter made the Berlinale into this film family hub, which it wasn’t before. He made it more international. I understand that some felt frustration over international festival reps not always attending German strands at the festival. Those strands often include a number of first films. I think some frustration came from filmmakers concerned about exposure but it’s always harder to get attention if you are a newcomer.
Do you know what budget you’ll have?
As far as I know, the budget at the moment is around €25-26M. There isn’t any indication that this budget will significantly change. Sponsorship is key of course but I think the public contribution is safe. I’m not aware of any cuts.
You oversee the national promotion agency for German films and have worked there since 2002. You were a producer before that. What is your assessment of the health of German cinema at the moment?
I think we have more generic diversity right now. We recently organized screenings of German films for international festivals and we had a number of horror movies and fantasy thrillers, for example. We’re seeing a number of filmmakers moving between film and TV now. Baron Bo Odar doing Netflix series Dark, for example, or Tom Tykwer and Achim Von Borries doing Babylon Berlin. Bad Banks by Christian Schwochow is another example. I think there is a new level of young directors coming through who work both in TV and film. There remain strong theatrical voices such as Christian Petzold, Maren Ade and Wolfgang Fischer. Of course there is also a general and growing challenge for European independent cinema to achieve visibility in the U.S.
What fundamental challenges do you see in the German industry today?
One of the biggest is the on-going trend that German broadcasters don’t pre-buy theatrical movies as much as they used to. At least not for much money. In France, broadcasters are made to pre-buy films. The problem in Germany is substantial. It will become more difficult to produce independent films.