Berlinale Series 2020: The Wild Heartbeat of Serials

The Berlinale Series programme is marking its sixth successful year of existence. A good time, then, to talk to the new section head Julia Fidel about this year’s series selection. In this interview, she discusses the special power of the serial, the section-spanning series and a new mainstream beyond the consensus.

Cate Blanchett in Stateless

It is far from being your first Berlinale, but this is the first time you have led a stand-alone programme series. Can you tell us something about your first year at Berlinale Series?

Julia Fidel: I’ve always been a total series junkie. I’ve followed Berlinale Series with great interest and a lot of enthusiasm ever since the previous section head, Solmaz Azizi, created the programme. To be taking over from her now is, of course, fantastic and I’m excited about adding my own personal touch. When it came to the composition of the selection committee, it was important to me, on the one hand, to maintain a certain continuity and to include selectors from previous years. But on the other, I wanted a fluid and fruitful exchange with the “film Berlinale”. For this reason, two members of the Competition selection panel have joined ours. This was also in accordance with the wishes of Carlo Chatrian, the Artistic Director, who was an important partner during the selection process.

The market is currently being flooded with new serial formats and streaming platforms. Can you see a problem in this, in terms of a development towards quantity over quality?

I don’t think the quality is suffering. We are currently in a consolidation phase of serial production in which a lot of potential has already been exploited. The market is realigning itself and different opportunities and requirements are being integrated. More is being invested in series today – as a whole but also in the budgets of the individual episodes. It may seem a little overwhelming, but it also has many positive effects: we are currently experiencing the emergence of a new mainstream, one that is more diverse, more polyglot and more open to much larger sections of our society. For me, it is a welcome change that, for example, access to non-English language series has become much easier and that they also attract large audiences.

What does it actually look like, this exploitation of new spaces by serial formats?

The content of series has become strongly differentiated. This might make it seem confusing at first, and some people may be missing the linear, mass-audience series that everyone talked about the day after broadcast. With something like (German soap opera) Lindenstraße or – from my youth – Beverly Hills 90210, you could assume that everyone in your class had seen the series at the weekend. And that, of course, brings people together. But the problem with building a consensus on the part of the producers and broadcasters is that a large number of people are excluded. Many individual realities of life simply disappear in favour of a perceived mainstream. If you decide to show these realities, then that opens up entirely new world views, perspectives and, ultimately, also social groups and identities. Today, many more people feel represented by TV narratives. Perhaps someone suddenly discovers the realities of their world in a fictional story for the first time here and feels a bit more understood and taken seriously. If you consider it in these terms, I think it’s acceptable that we might no longer be able to all talk about this one series.

Asta Kamma August in Sex

The Berlinale was one of the first film festivals to create its own programme for serial formats. Others have now followed suit. Do you think this tendency will be further reinforced?

I think it’s a great achievement that we were the first to put series on the big screen. There are now many examples of international festivals that are also presenting series programmes. We are looking for series that we want to select regardless of form and genre boundaries. We’re also open to discussing forms of presentation in the festival outside of the eight premiere slots we have in Series. The Forum already programmed Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (In Face of the Crime) ten years ago and DAU. Degeneratsia is being screened in Berlinale Special. This year, we received Hillary, a documentary series which we think is fantastic, but it was clear from the start that it could be best presented in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele as part of Berlinale Special. Following the screening, there will be a discussion with director Nanette Burstein and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The strengthening of a series-based streaming culture is often closely associated with a raging fear of the death of cinema. Can you explain this a little?

The large, primarily US streaming companies are, of course, a welcome excuse to explain why audiences are staying away from the big cinemas. I think it’s a pity – without wanting to take the side of the streamers – that there are so many people complaining about these providers. The energy expended on finding people to blame could instead be invested in ideas about how the undeniable advantages of film and the magic of the cinema experience can again be used to reach audiences more effectively. If you look at how little is invested in independent cinema, up-and-coming directors and innovative cinema formats, it is hardly surprising that top-quality independent directors gratefully accept the freedoms offered to them by the streaming platforms.

Leila Bekhti and Tahar Rahim in The Eddy

This year, Berlinale Series is also presenting some cinema directors who have stepped into serial formats...

A good example of this is The Eddy by Damien Chazelle which is a logical progression in his work as a film director. The entire series is conceived in a very cinematic way, with impressive tracking shots, and is produced incredible extravagance. He is also using music in extraordinary, innovative ways. You get a very strong sense in The Eddy that someone has turned his very personal enthusiasm for something into images and sounds. And you shouldn’t forget that making such a series is a mammoth project where you don’t just require three months but over half a year for the shoot alone. You have to really want to do it.

On the other hand, it does, of course, provide an unparalleled chance to intensively explore a new topic and directors given such an opportunity take it. Just like Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair, two multi-award-winning filmmakers who, with Mystery Road 2, have created an incredibly cool, stylised noir series. Trigonometry by Athina Tsangari is also interesting. She has already tried out various forms of production including a stage play. She interprets the possibilities of serial narrative very freely, which gives each episode a different dynamic. One episode, for example, is shot entirely in long, handheld tracking shots and thus gains a very special form that does justice to its hectic, exuberant atmosphere. And this further emphasises the episodic nature of the work.

In Stateless, by and starring Cate Blanchett, the pilot is a prelude, a prologue to everything that comes next. It builds and introduces an entire world which is then developed further in episode two.

Philipp Hochmair, Ella Rumpf and Anja Kling in Freud

But you haven’t just selected directing talents from the film world; you also have stars from the world of series themselves, correct?

Yes. Freud, for example. With it, Marvin Kren, the producer, creator and director of the series – who we already know from 4 Blocks (Berlinale Series, 2017) – has created an awesome project with an incredibly strong, idiosyncratic style. It is a really flamboyant narrative with story arcs conceived to stretch over several episodes – something that would be impossible to do in a film. And Jason Segel is coming to us with Dispatches From Elsewhere. This is an anthology series with each episode devoted to a different character. It is an interesting artistic decision that can only be undertaken in a serial format.

Patrice Robitaille and François Létourneau in C’est comme ça que je t’aime

Speaking of different formats, the programme itself is very diverse in this regard. What can audiences look forward to this year?

It was important for us to show a broad range and I also set out from the start to break a little with the expectations prompted by this programme. I constantly asked myself: what expands my view of the world and my idea of what a series is? I think it’s important, for example, that we’re showing all five episodes of Trigonometry even if a three-and-a-half-hour running time is a little out of the ordinary.

You can also see a completely different way of depicting things in Sex, a Danish web series by Amalie Næsby Fick. We’re screening all six episodes of this short-form series that is aimed at a young audience used to viewing shorter episodes on small screens. I find it appealing to show it on a big screen and thus to draw attention to its visual qualities, engaging music and the very nuanced performances of its main characters.

The Canadian-Quebecoise series C’est comme ça que je t’aime (Happily Married) constructs an entire world of its own with black humour and 1970s interiors. It reminds me of John Updike’s novel “Couples”, a colleague in the selection committee thought of the Coen brothers and I have had a long conversation with the writer about parallels with The Ice Storm by Ang Lee. We find ourselves in a very special microcosm in the series, a purely adult world in which boredom leads to some very surprising twists and turns.

Immersing yourself in a story is also connected to the time spent on developing the narrative and to the depths that can only unfold with the passage of time...

This deeper immersion occurs on two levels: it’s not only the directors who have a closer connection to their stories but also the viewers. I think this is a decisive factor in why series are so attractive. Serial content can, of course, develop an entirely different connection to the audience than film. You watch a film, in the best case scenario you have an intense experience – and then you go home. The film may make you think for a while and you might want to discuss it, but it is over. It is a closed story. A series stays with you for much longer, you develop your own rituals with it and, over the longer period, over possibly many seasons, the characters and their stories become a part of your life.

Thalissa Teixeira, Ariane Labed and Gary Carr in Trigonometry

You don’t just have big US productions in the programme; there are also European and two Australian series. What makes these special?

Overall, we’ve had an incredibly strong year and, in the end, we’ve had to decide against productions that moved us and that we wanted to see more of. A very relevant topic is dealing with female sexuality. In Trigonometry, we experience a completely stereotype-free, enlightened and relaxed way of dealing with intimacy that is so natural and casual it takes a while to notice how unusual the normality depicted here actually is – or how normal the extraordinary nature of this relationship appears to us. Sex is about a young woman who must deal with the fact that her boyfriend doesn’t share her sexual interest. The hurt and rejection she experiences as a result is also rooted in the fact that such a subject is not discussed in public – but it finally is here.

C’est comme ça que je t’aime also focuses on these grandiose dialogues between married couples that are so pointed and deeply funny, especially because of what is not being said – and are a mirror of their age.
Freud is a costume drama but, instead of burying all the emotions, desires and needs under layers upon layers of fabric, we experience the characters this series is about with all their blood, sweat, tears and wildly beating hearts!

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the audience?

I mentioned earlier the lack of a consensus and an opportunity to talk about series we have seen together. But, in this regard, our programme offers exactly that: we can watch plenty of series together and then talk about them directly with each other via social media and, of course, in the cinemas themselves in our post-screening Q&As. We’re really looking forward to this.