Berlinale: The Best and Wurst of It

German automobiles are renowned for their engineering. However, this fine-tuned ethos of fine-tuning is not reserved to cars. Engineering itself is a German national trait, hard-wired through natural selection's work on the prevailing German zeitgeist, or Ganz Organisiert (totally organized).

Along for the evolutionary ride came German philosophy (Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Weber, Heidegger, et. al.) to bring Teutonic precision and wit (at least with Nietzsche) to how one "should" behave. "As I do, so I legislate for others," Kant's categorical imperative implores. No wonder you rarely see a jaywalking German.


However, German philosophy - often deliberately impenetrable - suffers from what is common to most marvels of German industry: wondrous overkill and a seeming delight in obfuscation. A question thus invariably comes to mind in contemplating other aesthetically stellar feats of German engineering, from Bosch professional power tools to Porsche engines to the Berlin International Film Festival (or Berlinale): do I really need this ridiculously complicated level of German craftsmanship? Or does something more mundane and human-centered suit my pedestrian needs better?


Before we get to all that, please indulge me a back story.

Back in 1962, my late father owned a Mercedes Benz automobile. He dumped it for a series of Buick Centuries, after I, at the inquisitive age of three, ambled onto our sloping Omaha, Nebraska driveway - where the prized German import sat parked at an angle - and found a way to open the driver's door and pull the emergency brake. The Benz proceeded to roll down the driveway over my right knee, rendering me a bloody screaming mess, as my helpless, hysterical mother watched in horror from the kitchen window.


My late father did not buy another German car until almost 20 years later when he purchased "The Ultimate Driving Machine" from John Markel (whose father brought the first of Henry Ford's model Ts to Omaha in the early 1900s). My Dad's black BMW was handsome, with sharp styling and heated leather seats (an innovation of clear value during our cold Nebraska winters). However, the "Bimmer" never consistently worked. It was always in the shop for one intricate repair or another.

So, my late dermatologist father, despite his love for Germany and all things German - he served in Wiesbaden for several years after "The War" as part of America's grossly underappreciated German rebuilding effort - returned the BMW to John Markel and didn't procure another German car until many years later.


Because of that BMW memory, I never bought a German car either, let alone other aesthetically tantalizing German products that piqued my interest over the years. I just don't need the headache or heartache of a thing so sophisticated in its beauty and engineering that it consistently failed in its core mission. As in love, so in stuff: is it dependably there for me or not?

Instead, I've been a Japanese car man since offloading, back in 1998, my American-made, Fleetwood Bounder Monkmobile, which suffered from the very starter issue that plagued the identical Fleetwood Bounder mobile meth lab in Breaking Bad.


Nevertheless, I have retained my love for Germany, Berlin in particular. Its dour, relentlessly real weather suits me. Though Berliners can be annoyingly officious, parsimonious, and rule-bound, their inherent reserve allows me to purchase a liberating intellectual lebensraum in their presence. While it pains the more emotionally needy and extroverted side of my nature (read: Irish), Berlin's dreary detachment and indomitable order act as a mental colonic that removes distraction and delusion.

This absence of noisy cultural intrusion is one of the great pleasures of visiting the richly and darkly historic city, which was "Brooklyn" before there was the loud, hipster-consumerist playpen known as Williamsburg, let alone its west coast doppelganger of Portland. Nevertheless, you will increasingly find in Berlin the same virus plaguing other beloved Monk cities (from San Francisco to New York): American and European "tech bros" running ramshackle over low-tech entrepreneurial diversity, driving up rents and real estate in their inexorable march towards the all-encompassing app.


Yet, despite the triumph of "techne" (whose dehumanizing effects the controversial Martin Heidegger obliquely warned his countrymen about), there remains in Berlin an appreciation of the authentic auteur, albeit with an overt bias towards left-leaning auteurs. Though the city's earnest appeasement of every self-identified victim group threatens to reprise the social justice shouting matches ("Black Lives Matter!" "All Lives Matter!") that mar American public discourse in the Obama era, there is a refreshing, heart-warming beauty in Berlin's welcoming embrace of "the other."

These better, if naïve ("if we are super generous towards Muslims, they won't attacks us"), angels of recent German vintage, plus my memories of my Dad's ill-fated BMW, are foremost in mind as I sit in the baby stroller capital of Pankow, in the redoubt of one Frankie "Two Kids" Foelsch (pioneer of the German fashion trifecta Basecap, Brille undt Bart), reflecting on Berlin's defining cultural event: the annual Berlin International Film Festival (or Berlinale).


The Berlinale is widely considered - along with Venice, Cannes, Sundance and Toronto - among the five most important film festivals on earth. It is certainly the most ambitious: selling 370,000 tickets to 400 films over its 10-day run (February 11-21).

However, as intrepid L.A. film publicist Matt Johnstone (Nakom) reminded me, the Berlinale is really seven festivals - with confusing section names like Panorama, Forum, and Generation that mean nothing to the first-time attendee -- under one giant umbrella. Its astounding variety (from classic retrospectives to Berlin-based talents to Hollywood releases to documentaries to indigenous peoples cinema to shorts to children's movies to surreal Iranian westerns to complex Chilean political dramas) makes for a rich, overstuffed smorgasbord of global cinema.


However, it can also make navigating the darn thing a real bear.

For starters, my 60 Euro Monk press credential (normally free at any press-respecting festival) was a cold slap in the face. Secondly, one is forced to jockey for space in the under-sized Berlinale pressroom, which was outfitted with desultory PCs and not one Apple computer (hardly a sign of the "creative class" vortex that Berlin aspires to be).

Moreover, most screenings require tickets in addition to one's credential. Ascertaining what those ticket-based screenings are (one is handed an inscrutable small sheet with tiny lettering for this purpose), why they are ticket-based, and where to procure these special tickets (not at normal ticket counters!) was hard to ascertain and, like most things at Berlinale, never fully explained. If you just show up at a screening expecting your credential to get you in, you will be told to wait in a special line. After waiting 20 minutes for entry, you will usually be told that there are no seats left, often when there are.


As an enterprising American, after a few days you think you have finally it figured out and, thus, decide to only see the tiny sliver of films with a little "P" (for press) next to their names. However, after you are again denied entry, you are told that some of these screenings marked "P" also require a ticket, which you could not possibly have known in advance.

Say, what?!

After repeated setbacks, I finally realized that the Berlinale screening calendar is a deliberately opaque jigsaw puzzle (no surprise that Germany's Bosch bought Scintilla, AG, the Swiss inventor of the electric jigsaw) designed to mercilessly test anyone without a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) degree. Some of the information you desperately need is no doubt found in a protocol document buried deep inside the Berlinale management office. The rest is in the fearsome Berlinale program. However, good luck finding that information at a glance, even with the color-coding and other systems of organization that Berlinale peeps have proudly instituted.

If you plead your confusion to a Berlinale staffer, they will invariably respond, "Oh, it's very easy," with crisp annoying gusto. Yes, it's very easy if you have a German brain, which is able to construct elaborate feats of obscurantist engineering, but not to one's midwest American brain, which seeks the least convoluted path to any solution.

If you are not the kind of person who likes to study NASA rocket manuals, this labyrinthine process is likely to cause you to blow a gasket, which is probably why the vast bulk of those attending the Berlinale are Berliners. I eventually did blow a gasket after being denied entry to two straight "press lounges," despite my press credential. It turns out, to even enter Berlinale press lounges, one needs a special press credential that one is never told about. Moreover, one needs to ask the Berlinale press office about these special press credentials in advance, though one doesn't even know they exist until one receives a rude and stolid press lounge rejection. To add further insult to the ongoing absurdity, these special press credentials are only given out by the Head of Press, who is conveniently "in a meeting" whenever one arrives to ask her about them.

And you thought hard-core S & M died with the Berlin underground sex club scene of the 90s.

As if this Orwellian double world inside a Kafka play set on the farthest moon of Jupiter is not sufficient, there's more. Not only is the festival progamme impossible to reconnoiter, there is little attempt to pamper the poor press schmuck whose simple noble intention is to review the films found herein. In fact, the Berlinale is downright hostile to pampering. For a festival of this alleged stature, with such a high level of government and corporate support, there should be locally grown food and drink, of great and sumptuous variety, provided free to filmmakers, press and other VIPs. Nowhere is such an offering on easily accessible display, even though there is a whole section of this year's Berlinale devoted to Kulinarisches Kino (Culinary Cinema).

Of course, if you are a Syrian refugee, you can get gourmet Mediterranean food - courtesy of Sardinian chef Robert Petza - from a food truck! Allah be praised!


In addition, there should be myriad, easily accessible festival-run lounges where film fans, press and filmmakers can kibitz, But the Berlinale organizers abdicated that responsibility to well-heeled corporate sponsors, whom, as I have noted, won't let you in. Ah, yes, that old familiar stench of European elitism: liberal on the outside, classist on the inside.

As for genuine parties and after-parties, you have to know someone to be invited, and even then it's near impossible. Zero attempt is made in advance or in person to connect a press person who has flown all the way across the Atlantic to such insider happenings. And good luck trying to get suddenly AWOL Berlin "freunds" to help on this head (it's as if you asked for a private audience with Lucifer).

In other words, there is nothing at Berlinale as cutting edge, let alone as gracious and welcoming, as found at Crotty-reviewed boutique festivals like the Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF), Sonoma, or what portends to be the case at the upcoming San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. The Berlinale is sterile, cold, and perfunctory, with the same red carpet nonsense and other "celebrity" frou-frou as found at the increasingly awful and unimaginative Palm Springs International Film Festival and Santa Barbara International Film Festival in my home base of Southern California (both of which were previously trashed in this space).


Fortunately, all these deficiencies can be remedied. First, the Berlinale should station an army of multilingual volunteers around the festival epicenter of Potsdamer Platz - though slightly less obstreperous than the Scientology cult members that stalk the area - to help out-of-town guests immediately get their bearings. Not just a single person waiting inside a door at a desk, but, rather, an overt congenial show of proactive support to the people who came from all corners of the globe to the city's signature cultural event.

Secondly, there should be a festival boot camp for press, where part of an afternoon, over drinks and food, is spent explaining the peculiar way that Berlinale works. To help in this regard, there should be press buddies assigned to foreign press in particular to walk them through the daunting Berlinale matrix.

Thirdly, the festival needs to do away with its special ticket insanity. A press person like me wants to sample a variety of films without having to wait in line or even stay for the whole film. The more films I see, the better it is for the festival and those who paid inflated fees to have their films shown (not to mention the extortionate sums paid to publicists to market the films to people like me).


Unfortunately, the official Berlinale press screenings often conflict with other screenings. In addition, press screenings are often in the morning, not the most auspicious time for film viewing. It behooves the Berlinale to make it super easy for press to see films throughout the day without a special ticket of any kind.

As a filmmaker (Crotty's Kids, Master Debaters), I would rather have ten members of the press at a festival screening than ten regular patrons. To that end, at every screening there should always be at least ten reserved press seats right near the exit (to not disturb non-press filmgoers). Press members should be given carte blanche freedom to quietly come and go to the press seating area. Moreover, if the film does not sell out, and more than ten press members want to attend, they should be allowed to take any other available end seat. If the end seats of the first ten rows were always reserved for press, few would be disturbed when they came and went.

Unfortunately, the sort of practical, welcoming spirit is not part of the Berlinale DNA. However, if you are a refugee from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea and "other crisis regions around the world," that's another matter. As revealed to me by Berlin-based film critic Karsten Kastelan, the Berlinale, through its "sponsored cinema visit" program, gives away free tickets to refugees and goes out of its way to connect said refugees to volunteers so they can find their way to the screenings of their choice. Why is that same level of care not directed towards those who actually paid a tidy sum to fly to the Berlinale? There must be some special victim credential we forgot to pick up.


Then again, I shouldn't be shocked by such treatment. Germans approach most things - festivals and political problems alike - as feats of social engineering. So why would the Berlinale be any different? The films here run on time. The seat quality is superb, even if the concessions are unoriginal. The projectionists know what they are doing. The bathrooms and common areas are clean and tidy.

And, to be fair, it takes a high level of organizational skill to pull off a film festival and film market of this daunting size and breadth without a major hitch. Team Berlinale does it with calm, concise aplomb. As a result, I am certain they feel they've fulfilled their functional duty (the very "standing-reserve" POV that philosopher Martin Heidegger warned his countrymen about), as long as they check off a box for nearly every "socially disadvantaged" minority that could possibly apply to or attend the Berlinale.

However, actual care, feeding and comfort, creating a warm and inviting atmosphere where patrons and press from different countries and cultures can casually and calmly discuss film in a friendly, open, nurturing and humane environment, screenings in novel locales, location tours, plus genuine esprit de corps are not things that team Berlinale does well, if it even crosses their mind to do them at all.


If you are a person whose idea of a vacation is deciphering a vast cinematic puzzle, then the Byzantine Berlinale is for you. For everyone else, don't even think of wrestling with the ferocious Berlinale bear until management realizes that big is not better, greed is not good, flesh and blood people trump slavish devotion to rules, and doing things in a convoluted, if internally logical, way because "that's how it's always been done" is the enemy of goodwill, common sense, and the intimate, joyful, celebration of global film.

James Marshall Crotty is the peripatetic publisher of Monk: The Mobile Magazine, author of How to Talk American (Houghton Mifflin), and director of the urban debate documentary Crotty's Kids. He writes about the intersection of travel, culture, and politics. To learn more, please go to