The German State Claps Only for Israelis

Berlin’s film festival ended with an award for a movie on the West Bank and an Instagram hack damning Israel’s war. German cultural figures rushed to distance themselves from pro-Palestinian statements, in a craven display of conformism to state power.

The Berlinale Film Festival logo in Berlin, Germany. (Paul Zinken / dpa / picture alliance via Getty Images)

The 74th Berlin International Film Festival, commonly known as the Berlinale, concluded on Sunday not with a whimper, but with a social media hack, a series of strongly worded press releases, and an announcement from Germany’s federal cultural minister that she claps only for Israeli artists.

On the final day of the Berlinale, the Instagram account for its Panorama section released a three-slide infographic statement. Panorama is the festival’s largest section, described on the Berlinale website as “explicitly queer, explicitly feminist, explicitly political — and at the same time seeks to think beyond these categories — always looking for what is new, daring, unconventional and wild in today’s cinema.” The second of the graphic’s slides stated:

In response to the pro-Palestine actions that targeted Berlinale 2024, and in light of the extreme rise of the 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.

The statement references recent activism criticizing the festival’s neutrality on the ongoing genocide in Gaza, including a die-in at the European Film Market. However, this statement was not an act of atonement sanctioned by the Berlinale itself; rather, it was later revealed to be the work of cyber activists who had hacked into the Instagram account, and it was soon deleted. In a 102-word statement from the Berlinale, the festival describes how the Panorama account “was briefly hacked and anti-Semitic [sic] image-text posts about the Middle East war with the Berlinale logo were posted on the channel.” It concludes with the announcement that the Berlinale has “filed criminal charges against unknown persons. The LKA (the state criminal office) has begun an investigation.”

The Instagram post is not the first falsified apology targeting a cultural institution’s silence. In December, activists impersonated a statement from the Lévy Gorvy Dayan Gallery in New York, pasting a faux-apology from the gallery on its door. These actions serve two purposes: the first is the direct dissemination of the sentiments within the statements, confronting pro-Israel and apathetic patrons with the language of liberation and justice. Secondly, organizers know these cultural institutions will either have to accept their statements (unlikely) or directly refute them. This in turn sets spaces like the Berlinale up for swift public backlash when they are prompted to proactively assert their complacency with the ongoing violence against Palestinians, financially and politically supported by the German state.

No Other Land

The Instagram hack followed a contentious weekend of events, beginning on Saturday when the documentary No Other Land was awarded both the Panorama Audience Award (decided by audience vote) and the Berlinale Documentary Award (decided by the festival’s jury). No Other Land documents the half-decade-long relationship between Basel Adra, a Palestinian activist opposing the ethnic cleansing of his West Bank community and Yuval Abraham, an Israeli journalist who works with Adra to shed light on the ongoing violence there. Adra, Abraham, Rachel Szor, and Hamdan Ballal codirected the film to call for an end to the occupation. In their directors’ statement, they articulate the hope that the film will help

resist the reality of Apartheid we were born into — from opposite, unequal sides. Reality around us is becoming scarier, more violent, more oppressive, every day — and we are very weak in front of it. We can only shout out something radically different, this film — which at its core, is a proposal for an alternate way Israelis and Palestinians can live in this land — not as oppressor and oppressed, but in full equality.

During the awards ceremony, both Abraham and Adra gave speeches condemning the Israel Defense Forces’ siege on Gaza and calling for a cease-fire, with Adra calling for an end of German military aid to Israel. He stated, “This situation of apartheid between us, this inequality has to end. We need to call for a cease-fire.” These speeches were criticized by both German and Israeli media. Berlin mayor Kai Wegner took to Twitter to describe the speeches as “intolerable relativization,” writing that “Berlin is firmly on Israel’s side. There is no doubt about that. Full responsibility for the deep suffering in Israel and the Gaza Strip lies with Hamas.”

In Israel, Abraham’s speech was described by public broadcasting service Kan as “antisemitic.” Claudia Roth, Germany’s federal culture minister, issued a statement describing the speeches given by No Other Land’s directors as “shockingly one-sided and characterized by deep hatred of Israel.” However, upon the release of footage showing Roth and Wegner clapping at the awards ceremony, the cultural ministry issued a statement clarifying that “Claudia Roth’s applause went to the Jewish-Israeli journalist and filmmaker Yuval Abraham, who spoke out in favor of a political solution and peaceful coexistence in the region,” and not to Adra.

In a press release issued by the Berlinale, the festival further distanced itself from pro-Palestinian sentiment by stating: “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.”

Better Understanding

Controversies surrounding this year’s Berlinale echo the festival’s 1970 cancellation, which centered around the Michael Verhoeven film o.k. Verhoeven’s film was a direct criticism of American involvement in Vietnam, based on the Incident on Hill 192 and depicting the depravity of American militarism and the culture of silence that allowed war crimes to be perpetrated and then covered up.

Back then, in a 7-2 decision, the Berlinale jury decided to ban o.k. from the competition, based on the International Federation of Film Producers’ Associations (FIAPF) guideline that “All film festivals should contribute to better understanding between nations,” and jury leader George Stevens’s belief that the film was anti-American. Subsequent controversy over the censorship eventually led to the suspension of the festival.

Today, the Berlinale is still a member of the FIAPF, and the 1970 decision to censor Verhoeven’s film for being “one-sided” is echoed in the Berlinale’s February 26 press release:

The Berlinale sees itself — today, as in the past — as a platform for open dialogue across cultures and countries. We must therefore also tolerate opinions and statements that contradict our own opinions, as long as these statements do not discriminate against people or groups of people in a racist or similarly discriminating way or cross legal limits. From our point of view, it would have been appropriate in terms of content if the award winners and guests at the Award Ceremony had also made more differentiated statements on this issue.

As in 1970, the Berlinale has taken a position of cowardly neutrality, afraid of alienating its funders, donors, and patrons. In doing so, it illuminates the facade of “objectivity” that so many cultural institutions are granted. And yet, we see that the bold, urgent voices of artists and activists persist, undeterred by social and legal repercussions, stark reminders that moral clarity does not — cannot — exist within the confines of the ​​administrative, bureaucratic machine. If the German state embodies the institutionalized and yet simultaneously perpetually egoistic guilt of its constituents, then those willing to risk their livelihoods and reputations are beacons of truth, honesty, and morality.

The current German state is gleefully complicit in the atrocities in Gaza. But we may also find hope in individuals like Adra, Abraham, and the activists who remind us that liberal decorum is not and cannot be liberation.