Berlin's Lost Films of 2020: What Happened to the Titles that Premiered Pre-Pandemic?

My Salinger Year
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Berlinale 2020 opener 'My Salinger Year'

From the opener to the Golden Bear winner to arguably last year's biggest A-list draw, movies given the red carpet treatment in 2020 have struggled to be seen outside Potsdamer Platz. 

With much of the world having experienced the longest year in living memory since last February, only hardened film history buffs may recall the 2020 Berlinale, the last major festival and market to take place physically before the COVID-19 pandemic led to global cinemas began shutting their doors and considering some unfortunate existential questions.

But what of the movies given the splashy red carpet treatment in 2020? New titles from international film auteurs were screened, reviewed handed prizes and — in many cases — snapped up by eager distributors, yet 12 months later very few have reached an audience beyond those in Postdamer Platz.

"It's a very strange situation because we have the film, we've sold it everywhere but we're still in the waiting room to release it," says Jean-Christophe Simon, CEO of Films Boutique, about Mohammad Rasoulof's There is No Evil, which won the Golden Bear for Best Film. Films Boutique had a similar issue with Agnieszka Holland's Czech-language period drama Charlatan, which also premiered in 2020.

"I don't think it is such a big deal if you are talking about a filmmaker who makes a movie once every five years," says Simon. "But for very prolific directors, it could become a problem: if their new films are ready and their last ones haven't been screened yet."

That's the case for Korean director Hong Sangsoo, a Berlinale regular who last year took Berlin's Silver Bear for best director for The Woman Who Ran. The movie has barely been seen, but Hong is back in Berlin this year with his latest: Introduction.

While many U.S. distributors, including the studios, have shifted to premium video-on-demand releases (PVOD) or sold their movies on to streaming companies to bow online —see Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always,  Kitty Green's The Assistant, and Kelly Reichardt's First Cow, all of which screened in Berlin last year — most international territories have not followed suit. Distributors point to the underdeveloped VOD markets in many countries, as well as to the art-house audience (most 2020 Berlin titles are art-house fare), which would still prefer to see their movies in a theater.

"The audience and our distributors all want to see the film on a big screen," says Olivier Tournaud, sales and distributor manager as Israeli-based Cinephil, about Viktor Kosakovskiy's Gunda, an animal-rights documentary which was a surprise hit of last year's Berlin and quickly sold out. So far, however, no one outside the Berlin festival audience has seen the movie.

"We hoped it would go out in March, then that became April, then the Fall," says Tournaud. "We're still waiting. But the feedback, from Berlin, from the reviewers, from everyone who has seen the film, is really good so we're hopeful when cinemas do eventually reopen, people will want to come out to see it."

Here are some of the titles that bowed in Berlin last year, with their current release status.

Charlatan

Agnieskka Holland’s Czech-language biographical period drama — about the healer Jan Mikolášek — was well received after its Berlinale 2020 world premiere, and has since made the Oscar shortlist for best international feature. But despite selling out worldwide for Film Boutique, it’s only screened in select Eastern European territories (where it grossed an impressive $2.1 million).

Gunda

One of the unlikely hits of Berlin 2020, Viktor Kossakovsky’s black-and-white, dialogue-free documentary follows the daily life of a pig (and a two cows and a one-legged chicken). After receiving rave reviews, Neon quickly pounced on U.S. rights from UTA, while Cinephil sold out globally, with Joaquin Phoenix boarding as an exec producer. But a year on and, despite being shortlisted for the best documentary Oscar, Gunda hasn’t left the sty, with distributors still waiting for lockdowns to lift. If all goes to plan, Cinephil says the film should be released around the world from April to October, country-to-country as cinemas open.

Minamata

Several months before a failed legal case would derail an A-list career, Johnny Depp was singled out for praise for his turn as noted American photographer W. Eugene Smith, whose heartbreaking images from Japan helped draw attention to the Minamata mercury poisoning tragedy in the 1970s. HanWay sold out much of the world for Andrew Levitas’ Berlin-bowing film, including to MGM for the U.S., where a Feb. 5 2021 date was first slated. But this was postponed and the film is yet to be released in any territory. MGM is believed to be setting a new date imminently.

Mogul Mowgli

Riz Ahmed recently won the British Independent Film Award for best debut screenplay for this music-soaked story of a rapper struck down by a disease on the cusp of his big break, in which he stars and co-wrote with director Bassam Tariq. Premiering in Berlin’s Panorama section (followed by a hot ticket afterparty in the city’s The Reed nightclub) to solid reviews, the film was picked up by BFI Distribution for the U.K. from sales agent Charades and released both theatrically and on the BFI Player in the fall of 2020, sadly just days before a second national lockdown began. In December, Strand Releasing acquired U.S. rights, with plans for a theatrical release in spring 2021.

My Salinger Year

Last year’s Berlinale opener — featuring Margaret Qualley as a budding poet working as assistant to Sigourney Weaver’s JD Salinger-repping literary agent in 1990s New York — didn’t exactly wow the critics, who considered the Philippe Falardeau-directed film rather cliched and a surprising curtain-raising choice. Its star power had, however, seen Memento already score a number of major international pre-sales, with IFC Films/Mongrel securing U.S. rights a few months after the world premiere. A year on from Berlin and the film — which has now changed is title to My New York Year — is finally readying for launch, with the U.S. release currently slated for March 5. In the U.K. Vertigo Pictures recently boarded the picture, making it the first to be confirmed for theaters when indoor cinemas reopen on May 17.

There is No Evil

Mohammad Rasoulof's feature — telling four stories about the death penalty in Iran — won the Golden Bear, with Jury president Jeremy Irons saying that the film showed "the web an authoritarian regime weaves among ordinary people, drawing them towards inhumanity. Rasoulof’s daughter Baran, who also stars in the film, received the Golden Bear on his behalf, with the director — unable to leave Iran — addressing a news conference via video call. The movie was snatched up worldwide from sellers Finecut, including for Kino Lorber in the U.S. But a year on, it still hasn’t been released anywhere.

Undine

Christian Petzold's Berlin-set love story, starring Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski and inspired by the ancient myth of a water nymph who kills any man who betrays her, premiered to critical acclaim in competition in Berlin 2020. The Match Factory closed deals for most of the world but, so far, Undine has only been released in a handful of territories, including Germany, Italy, Russia, and South Korea. IFC Films picked up the movie for the U.S. with an eye to bowing it late last year but is still holding back.

The Woman Who Ran

Hang Sang-soo is in Berlin this year with the black-and-white Introduction, but what about his Silver Bear winning title from 2020? The Woman Who Ran, a typically low-key but heavily nuanced drama from the South Korean filmmaker, barely scratched the box office after being well received in competition in 2020, having brief releases in Korea, France and Russia, amassing under $150,000 in total. It was released on art house streaming platform Mubi in December.