Cinephile Paradise: Filmlovers Flock to Berlin Film Festival

By David Gordon Smith in Berlin

It's show time in Berlin as the curtain rises on the city's 57th International Film Festival. This year's highlights include the world premiere of the Edith Piaf biopic "La Vie En Rose," a film series dedicated to food, and a 15-hour Fassbinder flick.

For a few days in February each year, Berlin transforms itself into the center of the film world with the annual Berlin International Film Festival, also known as the Berlinale. The bleak winter city gets a touch of movie magic as international celebrities descend on the German capital and hundreds of films play at packed movie theaters across the town.

The 57th Berlin International Film Festival opens Thursday with the world premiere of Olivier Dahan's Edith Piaf biopic "La Vie en Rose" and runs until Feb. 18. Fesival director Dieter Kosslick has lined up a total of 373 films will be shown in the public program during the 11-day festival.

Twenty-six films will be shown in the official competition section, with 22 of them competing for the festival's Golden and Silver Bear awards. The bear is the symbol of Berlin. The winners will be announced on Feb. 17.

Previous winners of the Golden Bear for best film have included Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," "Spirited Away" by Hayao Miyazaki, Jean-Luc Godard's "Alphaville" and Barry Levinson's "Rain Man." Last year's winner was the challenging "Grbavica" by the Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic about the systematic rape of Bosnian women by Serbian soldiers during the 1990s Yugoslav wars.

No Clooney, but De Niro's in town

Among the celebrities coming to town this year are Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Judi Dench, Sharon Stone, Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Lopez, Milla Jovovich, Richard Gere and screen legend Lauren Bacall. Unfortunately George Clooney, the star of Steven Soderbergh's "The Good German" which is in competition, will not be coming this year, despite having been a hit at the festival in previous years. The film, though set in Berlin, was filmed entirely on Los Angeles backlots.

Cinema fans queue up for film festival tickets in Berlin Tuesday.
DPA

Cinema fans queue up for film festival tickets in Berlin Tuesday.

The president of this year's jury is the American director Paul Schrader, famous for his 1980 classic "American Gigolo." Schrader's own "The Walker", whose star-studded cast includes Woody Harrelson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lauren Bacall, Willem Dafoe and rising German star Moritz Bleibtreu, will be shown out of competition at the festival. Schrader will be helped in the difficult task of choosing the winning films by Willem Dafoe and five other jurors from the international film world.

One oddity of the festival this year is the number of films directed by actors, including Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd," Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima", Julie Delpy's "Two Days in Paris," Steve Buscemi's "Interview," and "El Camino de Los Ingleses" by Antonio Banderas. Banderas is unique in participating in the festival both as director and actor -- he can also be seen in Gregory Nava's "Bordertown" starring alongside Jennifer Lopez.

Films for foodies

A mouthwatering series of films is dedicated to food in the movies. "Eat, Drink, See Movies," organized in conjunction with the German chapter of the Slow Food movement, features food-related movies from around the world, including Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci's classic "Big Night," which tells the story of an Italian restaurant in New York, Alexander Payne's vinophilic road movie "Sideways," and "How to Cook Your Life," a documentary by renown German director Doris Dörrie about the San Francisco chef, food author and Zen priest Edward Espe Brown. The films are accompanied by talks by food experts, dinners and tastings.

"Bonnie and Clyde" director Arthur Penn is honored with a retrospective of his work, while a series of films pays tribute to the legendary photo agency Magnum. The work of Black German film directors is showcased in the series "New Perspectives -- Black Artists in German Film."

France will also play a leading role at this year's Berlinale. For the French film industry, 2006 was one of the most successful years in recent history, with French films commanding a proud 44 percent of the domestic movie market. Kosslick is hoping some of that Paris movie magic will rub off in Berlin with "La Vie en Rose," François Ozon's costume drama "Angel," and new works from Jacques Rivette and André Techiné.

Other highlights include a remastered version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's classic "Berlin Alexanderplatz," which will be shown in the east Berlin Volksbühne theater in all its 15-hour glory -- a test of any cinephile's Sitzfleisch. Fassbinder's adaptation of Alfred Döblin's classic novel was originally broadcast as a 14-part television series in 1980.

Critics lament absence of German films

Observers have been critical of what they say is an under-representation of German films this year. Only two home-grown productions are in the official competition: Stefan Ruzowitzky's World War II drama "Die Fälscher" ("The Counterfeiters") and the business thriller "Yella" by Christian Petzold.

Last year, many accused Kosslick of transforming Berlinale into a cinematic parallel universe because the German films he chose fared poorly in their commercial runs. German flicks like "Requiem," "The Free Will" and "Longing" together drew a total of 185,000 cinema-goers -- developments that led SPIEGEL this week to ask whether the festival director was a "flop-maker." But more damning, Kosslick and his film selection jury rejected "The Life of Others," which would later draw an audience ten times that size and go on to win every imaginable European film prize as well as the Oscar nomination for this year's best foreign film.

However the festival director Kosslick was pragmatic at the festival's opening press conference. "German film is strongly represented in all sections of the festival," he said. He emphasized that German actors such as Martina Gedeck and Julia Jentsch as well as Moritz Bleibtreu were all appearing in the festival in international productions. "I think the German film industry can be very satisfied," Kosslick said.

With reporting by Annett Meiritz and SPIEGEL.

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