Organisers of the event, which started in 1951 as a Cold War culture showcase for the divided German capital, say a raft of precautions will keep audiences safe as they take in the latest movies from around the globe.
Artistic director Carlo Chatrian defended the decision against accusations it was irresponsible at this stage of the pandemic, saying the communal movie experience was crucial for the battered industry, as well as for society at large.
“Seeing a film in a theatre, being able to hear breathing, laughter or whispers next to you — even with correct social distancing — contributes in a vital way not only to the viewing pleasure, but also to strengthening the social function that cinema has,” he said.
The Berlinale will open with “Peter von Kant”, a gender-flipped adaptation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s classic “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant”.
The film by acclaimed French director Francois Ozon stars Denis Menochet, Isabelle Adjani and Hanna Schygulla, now 78, who played the cruel young seductress in the original.
It is among 18 contenders for the festival’s Golden and Silver Bear top prizes, to be handed out on February 16th.
Indian-born American director M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) is leading the jury, which includes Japan’s Ryusuke Hamaguchi, whose “Drive My Car” is now nominated for four Oscars.
Seven of the filmmakers in competition are women.
The festival will also award an honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement to French screen legend Isabelle Huppert.
Berlin ranks with Cannes and Venice among Europe’s biggest film festivals and prides itself on being most welcoming to the general public, selling thousands of tickets to red-carpet premieres and screenings across the city.
Last year, the Berlinale competition was staged strictly online, just as the first vaccines were rolling out across Europe.
It awarded the top prize to a Romanian satire about pandemic-era hypocrisy, “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”, about a teacher whose sex tape winds up on the internet.
This time the event will screen around 250 films, a quarter fewer than in previous years, with limited cinema capacity as well as vaccine, testing and mask requirements and a shorter competition run, as Germany posts more than 150,000 new coronavirus cases per day.
Local media have savaged the decision to go forward.
The Berliner Morgenpost warned of a “catastrophe” if the festival turned into a “superspreader event”, while weekly Die Zeit called it “irresponsible” and “backward” not to have an online programme.
Scott Roxborough, Europe bureau chief for The Hollywood Reporter, also questioned the festival’s choice, saying it arose from deep anxiety about the future of movie-going.
“People are still very uncertain what the industry will look like after corona,” he told AFP.
“Most theatres will have reopened or partially reopened but we still haven’t seen a real bounce back of arthouse movies, of independent movies in the way that a lot of people had hoped.”
Big-name filmmakers and stars are awaited in the German capital, with France’s Claire Denis premiering “Both Sides of the Blade” with Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon of last year’s Cannes winner, the feminist shocker “Titane”.
“Carol” screenwriter Phyllis Nagy will present her abortion rights drama “Call Jane” starring Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver.
Paolo Taviani, 90, who won the Golden Bear a decade ago with his late brother Vittorio with “Caesar Must Die”, will unveil “Leonora Addio” about the murder of a Sicilian immigrant boy in Brooklyn.
And Indonesia’s Kamila Andini will be the first Southeast Asian woman in competition, with “Before, Now and Then” about a war refugee who befriends her husband’s mistress.
By Deborah Cole