At the Berlin Film Festival

Shane Danielsen

At the beginning of February there were reports that members of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party had for the first time been invited to attend the Berlin Film Festival’s opening night. The outcry was immediate. More than two hundred members of the European film industry signed an open letter protesting at the invitations, declaring them ‘incompatible with the festival’s commitment to being a place of “empathy, awareness and understanding”’.

The festival’s staff called a meeting with the directors, Carlo Chatrian and Mariëtte Rissenbeek, and demanded they explain the decision. They claimed they were helpless: the invitations, according to Rissenbeek, were issued at the behest of Germany’s culture minister, Claudia Roth, not by the festival: ‘Both the federal government commissioner for culture and the media and the Berlin Senate receive invitation quotas for the Berlinale, which are allocated to the democratically elected members of all parties in the Bundestag and House of Representatives.’

But a few days later, Rissenbeek’s story changed: now it was all about free speech and inclusivity, and allowing even those with whom you disagree to be heard. ‘Members of the AfD were elected to the Bundestag and the Berlin House of Representatives in the last elections,’ she said. ‘Accordingly, they are also represented in political cultural committees and other bodies. That is a fact, and we have to accept it as such.’ Never mind that the AfD have proved themselves inhospitable to most democratic principles, and certainly to the values of the Berlinale, which has long been proudly polyglot, cosmopolitan and queer.

None of this was encouraging. But then, a few days later, during a radio interview with Deutschlandfunk Kultur, Rissenbeek somehow managed to make matters even worse, suggesting that the invitations had mostly been a question of risk-management. Since there was no way of predicting how the AfD will do in the next election – they currently have 83 seats in the Bundestag and 17 in the Berlin State Parliament, and are polling second in the country – it would, she implied, be unwise for a festival such as Berlin, funded primarily by the state, to make an enemy of the party.

By now the festival’s full-time staff were in open revolt, many of them already angered by Chatrian’s ‘blasé’ response to concerns about their safety. Emergency meetings were held, PR teams consulted, and eventually the AfD representatives were uninvited, 24 hours before the opening night, a development which allowed the far-right to claim a moral victory: they were being ‘cancelled’, were they not, by the very people who supposedly espoused tolerance and the free exchange of ideas?

The Golden Bear, in the end, went to Mati Diop’s documentary Dahomey, about the return of 26 looted artworks to Benin from France, and the ongoing legacy of colonialism; it was the second documentary in a row to win the prize, following Nicolas Philibert’s On the Adamant last year. But another non-fiction film, which premiered out of the main competition in the festival’s Panorama section, caused a bigger stir. No Other Land, directed by the Palestinian filmmaker Basel Adra and the Israeli journalist Yuval Abraham, chronicles the elimination of Palestinian villages in the West Bank. In his acceptance speech, Abraham said: ‘I am living under a civilian law and Basel is under military law. We live thirty minutes from one another, but I have voting rights, Basel does not have voting rights.’ He ended with a call for a ceasefire in Gaza and a ‘political solution to end the occupation’.

This was not exactly incendiary, let alone antisemitic. Nor was it without precedent among Israeli artists: a number of prominent Israeli directors, including Ari Folman and Nadav Lapid, had recently published a letter declaring that ‘critique of Israeli policies in the occupied territories is not antisemitism.’ Yet Abraham, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, was branded an antisemite by German politicians – including Berlin’s mayor, Kai Wegner, who described the speech as an ‘intolerable relativisation’. The festival, pusillanimous to the last, issued a statement declaring that ‘the sometimes one-sided and activist statements made by award winners were an expression of individual personal opinions. They in no way reflect the festival’s position.’

That night, anonymous activists briefly hacked the festival’s Instagram feed. Under the heading ‘Genocide is genocide: we are all complicit’, they wrote:

In response to the pro-Palestine actions that targeted Berlinale 2024, and in light of the rise of the extreme far-right in Germany, we acknowledge that our silence makes us complicit in Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza and ethnic cleansing of Palestine. After long internal discussions, we have decided to finally shed the idea that ‘German Guilt’ absolves us of our country’s history, or our current crimes as a nation. We are raising our voice to join the millions around the world who demand an immediate and permanent ceasefire, and we urge other cultural institutions in Germany to do the same. From our unresolved Nazi past to our genocidal present – we have always been on the wrong side of history. But it’s not too late to change our future.

A press release from the Berlinale referred to this message as ‘antisemitic image-text posts about the Middle East war’, and said that the festival had filed criminal charges ‘against unknown persons’ with the LKA, the State Criminal Police Office.

Claudia Roth, the federal culture minister, was meanwhile facing intense criticism after TV footage aired of her applauding Adra and Abraham as they accepted their award. To which her office replied, unbelievably, that she had been clapping only for the Israeli director, not for his Palestinian colleague. When this didn’t stop some of her parliamentary colleagues from demanding her resignation, Roth quickly doubled down, calling the speeches at the gala ‘shockingly one-sided and characterised by deep hatred of Israel’.

Yuval Abraham tweeted on Tuesday:

A right-wing Israeli mob came to my family’s home yesterday to search for me, threatening close family members who fled to another town in the middle of the night. I am still getting death threats and had to cancel my flight home. This happened after Israeli media and German politicians absurdly labelled my Berlinale award speech – where I called for equality between Israelis and Palestinians, a ceasefire and an end to apartheid – as ‘antisemitic’. The appalling misuse of this word by Germans … empties the word antisemitism of meaning and thus endangers Jews all over the world.

His message concludes: ‘If this is what you’re doing with your guilt for the Holocaust – I don’t want your guilt.’


  • 6 March 2024 at 5:02pm
    Dan says:
    So are they pro apartheid or anti-apartheid?