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Berlinale: 60 years on

Since its birth in 1951, the Berlin International Film Festival has grown from cold war cultural outpost to global beacon of progressive politics to A-list world player, complete with Hollywood stars and blockbuster movies. But is the Berlinale a victim of its own success?

Film fans at the Berlinale festival in 1963.
Photo courtesy of BerlinaleFilm fans at the 1963 edition of the festival: compelling and often controversial programming has long marked the Berlinale out from its more prosaic cousins in Venice and Cannes.

Since its birth in 1951, the Berlin International Film Festival has grown from cold war cultural outpost to global beacon of progressive politics to A-list world player, complete with Hollywood stars and blockbuster movies. But is the Berlinale a victim of its own success?

For decades, Berlin’s cultural high ground has been propped up – sometimes precariously – by its annual celebration of international cinema. The Berlinale was established during the frigid early Cold War years, when both sides of the divided city could indulge a national passion for film. When the Wall went up, the American-backed festival became a cause célèbre – a symbol of western cultural openness. In the 1970s it moved to the left, becoming, in the words of Quentin Tarantino, the world’s most “serious” film event. Compelling and often controversial programming across the Berlinale’s varied sections – from the experimental “Forum” to the pioneering “Panorama” – has long marked it out from its more prosaic cousins in Venice and Cannes. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it has turned into a truly ‘big-ticket’ affair: an event at which industry jetsetters rub shoulders with critics, hipster auteurs and fans.

When film meets politics

The Berlinale has always been embroiled in the politics of the city; as East Germany saw ever more censorship and oppression, it became a monument to freedom of expression. In the 1960s, the festival refused to screen Ost films and, whenever possible, paraded Hollywood divas as the ‘fruits’ of the glamorous Free World. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) opened the inaugural festival and its star Joan Fontaine lit up the red carpet. In 1958, Gina Lollobrigida stood by while West Berlin’s Mayor Willy Brandt trumpeted the festival’s significance as the emblem of an open, cosmopolitan city in a rousing opening speech. Only days later, Nikita Khrushchev gave the western forces six months to leave the city.

By the 1960s, Berlin was helping to launch the careers of emerging European auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni – the former won the 1960 Best Director Silver Bear for his pioneering New Wave work À bout de souffle (Breathless; 1960). The latter won the Best Film Golden Bear for La Notte a year later, when the great Indian director Satyajit Ray sat on the jury. As the only European film festival to be held in a major metropolis (today it is the only A-list film festival to be held in a capital city), the Berlinale was soon known as the “Olympics of film”. In 1966, it honed its progressive, anti-establishment aura: that year, the critic Enno Patalas told readers of Filmkritik magazine that the Berlinale should be a “festival for the audience rather than for the stimulation of consumers […] a festival of the auteur rather than the star […] a place of confrontation, not simply mutual compliments”.

A very public festival

The Berlinale soon became a paradise for auteurs seeking the approbation of serious film lovers – critics, cineastes and the very cine-literate public that makes it, to this day, the best-attended film festival in the world. In fact, one of its most distinctive features is the way it engages with the city. “You don’t have many people from Cannes or that area going to the Cannes Film Festival,” says Rainer Rother, the head of the Berlinale’s “Retrospective” section since 2006 and artistic director of the Deutsche Kinemathek. “The Berlinale has not only been for the experts, the sellers and buyers. It is proud of being a very public festival. It’s part of the tradition to hold the festival very much in the centre of the city, in close touch with the people of Berlin.”

The American film writer David Hudson, a contributor to such online publications as GreenCine Daily, and now The Auteurs, has been living in Berlin for 15 years and regards the Berlinale as his “hometown festival”. For Hudson, it showcases some of the “most interesting, innovative, challenging cinema in the world at its particular moment”, but “it’s also a social occasion”. No self-respecting cinephile wants to miss the party. Nor, it seems, do the A-listers. Gary Shapiro – Hollywood insider, former studio executive with Sony and Columbia, and current member of the judging committee of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film – has been coming to the Berlinale since the early 1990s. “Berlin always felt smarter than Cannes. The smartest group of people, the best organised, the best product. And the staff aren’t snooty,” he says, with a laugh, from his pool-side in L.A. A couple of years back, he brought Robert De Niro over to receive an award at the Golden Camera (Germany’s equivalent to the Golden Globes takes place right before the Berlinale). Later, at the film festival, they met up with Martin Scorsese, Tilda Swinton and Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones. “We had such interesting conversations. The atmosphere is great – it’s such an eclectic mix of people.”

The German star director Tom Tykwer, who in a decade covered the film spectrum from arthouse hit (Lola rennt / Run Lola Run, 1998) to Hollywood blockbuster, has attended the Berlinale for 27 years. “There is no festival in the world that has such an open-minded audience,” he said as his latest film, The International, launched the 2009 edition. “They are so curious, euphoric and full of expertise. The audience really appreciates the diversity of films from all over the world. That is why the Berlinale is a place everyone wants to go back to.”

Feuding plagues the festival

But being an adventurous, inclusive, cross-cultural film event has never been easy. In the 1960s, the Berlinale’s administration (initially controlled by the West German government) was privatised to avoid diplomatic tension and ultimately encourage films from the Soviet bloc. Berlin quickly became the main western showcase for eastern European cinema. This new relationship was not always peaceable: it was seriously jeopardised in 1979, when The Deer Hunter’s (1978) critical depiction of Vietnamese society caused the USSR and other socialist states to boycott the festival. Internal politics have also threatened the Berlinale. In 1964, many critics were furious when it snubbed Godard’s Bande à part (Band of Outsiders). They screened the film at their own “Critics’ Week”, which was set up to counter the festival. “Critics always demand masterpieces,” says Rainer Rother, “but festival programmers have to make difficult choices.”

The Berlinale faced what was arguably its biggest crisis in 1970, when the competition collapsed because of the German entry O.K., a film detailing the rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl by U.S. soldiers. In an interview at last year’s festival, O.K.’s director Michael Verhoeven recalled that the jury president, American director George Stevens, demanded the film be pulled. People were “shocked and almost paralysed” by the film, he said. “The Berlinale changed for the better at that point. There was so much solidarity among the other filmmakers.” Many jury members, including the Serbian firebrand director Dušan Makavejev, complained of censorship and walked out, effectively ending the festival.

Breaking new ground

Such tensions inspired the creation of a new Berlinale section in 1971, the “International Forum of New Cinema” or “Forum”. This was set up by members of the Friends of the German Cinematheque, which had also just founded Berlin’s arty Arsenal Kino. Rother says it was the right time to start the Berlinale’s most groundbreaking section. “A lot of new arthouse cinemas were opening in Berlin – it was important [for us] to screen aesthetically challenging films,” he says. No one was happier about this than film critic UlrichGregor, Forum’s inaugural director (he remained in the job till 2001) and a former organiser of Critics’ Week. “Aesthetically challenging” is an understatement when it comes to the 1976 Forum entrant Ai no corrida (In the Realm of the Senses). This explicit art-erotica film by Nagisa Ôshima was already banned in many countries; at its Berlinale premiere, the West German police confiscated it and charged Gregor with “disseminating pornography”. Again, the film world rallied in support of artistic freedom – and the rebellious spirit of the Berlinale was forever etched in history.

Asian cinema became a mainstay of the event in the 1980s and 1990s. Zhang Yimou’s Golden Bear-winning Hong gao liang (Red Sorghum) was the first Chinese film to pick up a major international award – ironically in 1989, the year of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Asia continues to feature strongly, especially in the Forum, which acts as both a discoverer of hidden gems and a springboard to international distribution. The two awards and widespread recognition won by Shion Sono’s Ai no mukidashi (Love Exposure, 2008) at the 2009 festival led to its release in Germany and the UK – an unlikely fate for a four-hour-long foray into Catholicism, cults and “Peek-A-Panty” pornos… in Japanese! Gay cinema has also been a cornerstone since the early 1980s. It mainly made its presence felt in Panorama, the section for “debut films and exciting new discoveries” directed by the actor/producer/gay activist Manfred Salzgeber and, from 1992, his protégé Wieland Speck. The Berlinale is the only major film festival to have its own queer prize, the Teddy Award, introduced by Speck in 1987. Pedro Almodóvar was its first recipient – for La ley del deseo (Law Of Desire) – and films like Mala Noche (1985) were singled out in Berlin before Gus Van Sant found his audience. According to Rother, the Berlinale always reacted to the social changes in the world, not just the changes in cinema”.

Going mainstream?

But some argue that the Berlinale has seen a dearth of challenging content in recent years, as exemplified by the films selected in the Competition, the festival’s leading section. For David Hudson, last year’s Ily a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long, 2008) starring Kristin Scott Thomas had “the sheen of ‘quality’ European television” and was “easily forgotten”: “There [have been] handfuls of these films in every Competition lineup in the past few years.” These “unchallenging” films disturb Hudson more than the presence of George Clooney and Madonna on the red carpet. As the festival becomes more of a tabloid event, a sanitised global film junket held in the gleaming halls and hotels of Potsdamer Platz, has it lost its claim to being quintessentially Berlin?

Rother agrees that the Berlinale has become more mainstream, but says it now has two parts: “the glamour plus the outsiders winning the Golden Bear”, referring to a recent tradition that saw the jury snub all the big-budget, big-name contenders, to award to the top-prize to outsiders, whether to a South African opera film or to Latin American indie productions. But these outsiders are, according to veteran critic Ron Holloway (a Berlin-based film writer and historian who passed away in December 2009), often also ‘insiders’ – in Holloway’s words, examples of “festival incest”: “[It’s] the prevalent practice among affluent festivals to pre-fund productions that will later find their way back to competition slots in the same festival.” Holloway noted that the 2009 Golden Bear winner, La teta asustada (The Milk of Sorrow), a Peruvian-German production, was one of several films in the Berlinale Competition that had been funded by the festival-sponsored World Cinema Fund (WCF).

Furthermore, the quality of these so-called outsider films has been called into question, earning festival director Dieter Kosslick extended criticism. Nevertheless, since he took over the helm in 2001, Kosslick has also been venerated for reviving the Berlinale. “The mainstream press loves him, the stars and guests seem to love him,” Hudson notes. “He’s had terrific ideas for rejuvenating the festival. The Talent Campus, all that.” Gary Shapiro agrees. “He’s fabulous, so charismatic – he’s very global, very hip and very energised. From an American point of view, he’s brought a lighter touch to the festival. I love the food series [the “Culinary Cinema” section] he’s created.”

An opportunity for local cinema

More importantly for Germans – and Berliners – Kosslick, with his experience in film funding and development, has used the festival to promote local cinema. “What the Berlinale has done for German film is probably its greatest strength,” says Hudson. “It is all the more important because Cannes continues its tradition of snubbing German films.”

Hudson and others have singled out the Silver Bear winner Der freie Wille (The Free Will; 2006), Matthias Glasner’s enthralling portrait of a rapist, as a recent highlight. In 2009, the Silver Bear that the German writer/director/producer Maren Ade – one of several upcoming German directors associated with the so-called “Berlin School” – picked up for Alle Anderen (Everyone Else) helped the film gain US distribution. “It never would have happened if it hadn’t premiered in Berlin,” says Hudson. “Most other festivals – especially Cannes – would have passed over it.”

Werner Herzog, a leading light of New German Cinema in the 1970s and 1980s and now the 60th Berlinale’s jury president, also got his break at the Berlinale: as a 26-year-old, he won the Silver Bear for his debut feature Lebenszeichen (Signs of Life; 1968). The early films of his contemporary Rainer Werner Fassbinder were routinely nominated for the Golden Bear, which gave him important exposure outside Germany.

So what of the next 60 years? Will the Competition be capable of discovering the next daring generation of filmmakers? Hudson suggests separating the job of festival director and Competition programmer. “I simply have not liked the overall shape and tone of the Competition lineup. […] It’s the Competition that determines the character of the festival for the rest of the world, so this is potentially a very serious problem.” Shapiro is more upbeat. “The Competition has a hipper edge, it’s more eclectic and international. It also has to do with the evolution of Berlin into a more interesting global city: years ago, people wanted to go to Rome and Paris, not Berlin. But this is changing as Germany lightens up. I’m leaving paradise and going to a cold dark city because I love this festival.”