The first weeks of February are maybe my favorite time in Berlin. No matter that it’s winter. The annual Berlinale International Film Festival has become a tradition in my Berlin life. I’ve been visiting the film festival for four years and since the very first time, I fell in love with the amazing atmosphere: good storytelling, outstanding acting, intelligent and diverse people—including children—and a fascinating collection of casual interactions with strangers.
Why Berlinale matters
Berlin has a lot of cultural, political and artistic events every year. However, the Berlinale is both a combination of high-quality mainstream and independent cinema, providing different insights on our world’s diversity. It matters because it represents a number of different countries, languages and traditions. Not all places in the world tell stories in the same way. I’ve seen amazing Japanese dramas focused on family life and weird, young road movies set in Tehran. Berlinale, I believe, is a way of traveling without even having to leave Berlin.
Movies are a fantastic way to escape reality, but they’re also a way to connect with the world. A good movie can capture a single emotion and play it out with an intensity sometimes hard to feel in real life.
Tips before the Berlinale
The weeks before the film festival are the time for preparation. The official program, including all the films and short movies and activities, is normally released the first week of February (the 2016 program released on February 2nd – see it here). After this day, you have some four or five days to carefully read and plan your movie-watching schedule.
How to select what movies to see…before the Berlinale
I want to be honest about this. Make a huge list. I always start writing down all the movies I would love to watch, because, once you are on the line for two hours (yes, that’s how it is), you’ll slowly start to see the tickets of your dream list sell out before your eyes. The best way to choose your movies to watch is simply to have several options. If you want to see this amazing Latin American gay themed movie, keep that as option A. But consider carefully what your option B is, because sometimes you’ll need to improvise. If you have really bad luck, because German and expats in Berlin woke up really early or click faster than you do, improvise as best you can. Just go for the risk and take any movie that captures your attention—whether it’s by the title or the short description in the official Berlinale program. I’ve had to do this several times, and I’ve never come away disappointed…maybe a bit confused but never disappointed.
How to buy tickets
Listen, buying tickets for the Berlinale is a tricky affair—not always easy, but it’s what it is. Tickets for each screening come available three days before the screening, at 10 a.m. each day. For repeat screenings of the Competition films, tickets are available four days in advance. But be warned that if the Competition film got positive reviews from the beginning, tickets are going to sell fast. They’re available to buy two ways: either online or at one of the official Berlinale ticket offices. You can plan everything in advance—which movies to see, what time to show up to buy tickets—and still there will be surprises. Don’t always expect to get a ticket for what you want, especially if it’s a movie in the competition, or with A-list celebrities. Those are always going to sell out faster. Be prepared with back-up choices, or just go with the flow and pick your movies indiscriminately. That’s a good way to discover new actors, new places, new things.
On the day of a screening, you can buy tickets at the box office in the cinema where the film is being screened. Check the box office times on the official Berlinale page here.
Buy online, or on line?
You want to watch the movie, right? Then queue up in the line at one of the ticket offices around Berlin. If you are unable to do it, talk to friends and take turns queuing up. As I mentioned before, the line forces you to interact with strangers. You need a coffee or a quick visit to the restroom while you’re waiting to get your tickets? Simply smile to your neighbors in the line and get them to hold your place briefly. Remember you can only buy two tickets for every movie, so if you need three for a larger group, then it’s often easy to just ask your neighbor if you can pay him cash and he can buy the ticket for you. Bad luck: Your neighbor wants to see the same movie and is not able to help you. Be quick and smile to someone else!
It may sound funny, but it’s true. Smiles are all that matter in the queue. Online tickets are limited and normally depend on how fast you can click; you need to be sure that you’ll do it exactly at 10 a.m. Otherwise, you know, you’re screwed. And then back-up choices become tricky because you can’t watch the live screen of what’s selling out… Sometimes it’s just easier to wait in the queue even if that means starting your day at 6 a.m., four hours before tickets even go on sale. Last option to enjoy your movie is to go straight to the cinema and hope that the Tageskasse has tickets (these are the tickets with discount for students, because the other tickets are technically pre-sale). If everything fails, smile again and hold your sign at the cinema door with your happy written “I NEED ONE TICKET” because sometimes people change plans and come to sell their tickets at the doors, or a friend doesn’t show up.
Know about the Berlinale Kino Tag
The first day of the festival is the most important if you plan ahead. That’s because the last Sunday of the Berlinale, also known as Kino Tag, offers all the movies with a discount of around 50%—and tickets for the Kino Tag go on sale the first day of the festival (rather than typically three or four days before the screening). This means that the very first day that tickets are available, you can secure your place for the Kino Tag. It’s a bit of a gamble because you won’t know what movies are going to get the best press, but it’s a good way to discover new directors, themes or actors. It also means you’ll likely spend an entire Sunday in the cinema—but with Berlin’s winter weather, that’s not always a bad Sunday.
Take a chance on the Berlinale Generation films
While there is a huge demand for movies that are in the Berlinale official competition, the Generation movies are great and cheap. If you have a limited budget (like 99% of the people who visit Berlinale), then you can have your need for good cinema satisfied with these outstanding independent films, for just 4€ a movie. Like so much of Berlinale, you can take the gamble at just 4€ per movie to discover new actors. And with the Generation films, focused on younger directors and actors, it’s a real opportunity for seeing something fresh.
What to do during the Berlinale
How to select what movies to see…during the Berlinale
You can determine this according to your taste but also to the regular functioning of the cinema industry. A movie with Nicole Kidman or Tilda Swinton is more likely to hit the cinemas later than a retrospective movie about gay rights in Africa. So, you need to take into account what are the chances of seeing the movie after the Festival ends. If the movie is a great movie like The Grand Hotel Budapest the Berlinale is a perfect chance to enjoy it before it’s officially released, but you can also be certain that it will hit the cinemas.
I tend to organize my list according to countries, for example (that’s the traveler in me). I go for the Latin American movies to practice my language skills (and, uh, those sexy Latino guys). I’ll also go for new things, choosing movies by the country: have I ever watched a film from Guatemala? Here’s my chance. You can also organize it by themes, movies about coming out gay (the gay themed movies) or movies which explore topics like climate change. The most common way to choose what to see is, however, knowing your cinema idols. You love this director, this actress, this photography or this style and tradition? Become an expert and look out for their films!
Quit your friends, quit your lovers!
You don’t have to go to everything with your friends or lovers. You would have problems to agree with other people’s schedules and taste. Drop it. You can agree with friends to watch some movie and then watch two more by yourself. If you want to be social, talk to strangers. Don’t be afraid to go alone to watch a movie; during the Berlinale, everybody does it. It’s a film festival! Follow your instinct and your passion. You can agree to meet friends for coffee and lunch if you are with them in the same venue, but then make sure to go for what you will enjoy, and your friend for what he or she will enjoy.
Stay after the movie
This is important. And it’s what makes attending a film festival special. If the movie includes a section for Q&A, stay! Not all screenings have this, but many do—especially the premieres. You can enjoy a small conversation with the directors, the writers, the actors and learn more about the movie and the industry. It’s also an opportunity for members from the audience to ask questions. Be brave and ask your question! They always allow two or three people from the audience to satisfy their curiosity before the conversation is over. As one of the only film festivals in the world open to the public, it’s a great chance to start a conversation with the film industry.
Other Berlinale tips
- Don’t forget that Berlinale goes for almost two weeks, but that you have a job and bills to pay and appointments. It’s natural to have this feeling to quit it all and spend all your time (and all your savings) in the Festival. Sadly, you need some self-control. Spending all day, every day, in cinemas can also be exhausting. Make sure you get some exercise to counter-act all that sitting!
- Give yourself time to eat, to go to the bathroom and to change venues. You really won’t make it if your movie ends at 16:45 around Prenzlauer Berg and you plan to be at 17:20 at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Be realistic. You know how good the BVG is, right? Remember that even bikes can have a flat tire and you’ll need to make time for last-minute travel changes.
- Don’t overpay. People who resell tickets are normally passionate about cinema so they’ll probably charge you the same amount they paid for the ticket, but if someone is asking you more, don’t do it. It goes against the idea behind Berlinale: an accessible film festival for everyone.
- Turn your phone off, don’t take photos, don’t take videos, don’t answer your phone. If something is more horrible than enjoying a film and seeing some jacksass playing Tetris in front of you, I don’t know what it might be. Keep in mind that you just might be sitting a couple of seats away from the producers or the directors. Be polite and respect other people’s artistic work. If you hate the movie and you’re bored, just leave the room. It’s not an issue at film festivals where time is precious.
- The best thing about Berlinale is: CLAPPING. You have to clap after the movies because some of these productions are being shown for the very first time. Clapping, indeed, is the best part of Berlinale. It’s where you really get to feel the atmosphere and the collective mood about the film. Sometimes there isn’t clapping at the end of a screening, but that’s okay. It’s a fascinating moment of collectivism, a whole cinema full of people feeling similar emotions after a screening.
For more about the Berlinale, check out the official website at berlinale.de. I’ll be attending screenings throughout this year’s festival and you can stay tuned for updates and film reviews here on the blog, or on Twitter @travelsofadam.