02/10/2012 06:07 PM

Beyond Hollywood

Berlin Film Festival Bets on Fresh Blood


Hindered in the festival's ability to draw star power, Dieter Kosslick, the head of the Berlin International Film Festival, is instead focusing on presenting new discoveries, including German films and the best from abroad. The biggest star in town this week is Angelina Jolie, but Kosslick is also set on creating new ones.

So the good news first. Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and their entourage have been in Berlin since Tuesday -- and they'll remain in the city until early next week. The extended presence of the Hollywood glamour couple, beloved in Berlin, is the best thing that could happen to Dieter Kosslick, head of the Berlin International Film Festival, also known as the Berlinale. If there is one thing that has been missing from the festival in recent years, it has been major marquee stars.

This absence has helped to fuel a seemingly eternal discussion over just what it takes to create an A-List film festival that can compete with the best. The answer is as tricky as it is simple: You need the best, most artistically valuable films to be included in the competition, and you need the glitziest stars you can possibly lure to the red carpet.

Both factors are extremely difficult to deliver -- especially if, as Kosslick well knows, your festival is planned each year during the bitter February Berlin cold and not, like Cannes and Venice, in May or September, and under palm trees and the beach or along canals with a gorgeous lagoon as your backdrop. The lone edge Berlin has on its bigger competitors is that it is a true world city. Unfortunately, for anyone who is forced to schlep between Potsdamer Platz's skyscrapers in minus temperatures and icy winds, Berlin's slight advantage can quickly be forgotten.

The weather often puts people in a bad mood, and, for some, where better to direct that sentiment than at the films in competition? Both Cannes and Venice also have their share of films that aren't exactly art -- quite the contrary. But there is a general suspicion about every film in the competition in Berlin that it is either mediocre or boring -- and this is where the coldness and films often have a very unholy alliance.

Sundance and Oscars Create Tight Berlinale Schedule

This is, of course, unfair, because Berlinale already has a tough enough time of it. It is also well known that the situation for a festival that is held in February is also precarious because of the Sundance Film Festival, which begins at the end of January, and the Oscars, which have been moved to an earlier date in recent years and take place on Feb. 26 this year. This often leaves too little time between those events to attract the best new American films for debut screenings or A-list actors. What is left are films from Europe and the rest of the world, which have been the bread and butter of Berlinale in recent years.

This hasn't hurt the festival in terms of audience numbers, which continue to grow as moviegoers in the German capital embrace art house films from Asia, the Arab world, Eastern Europe and South America. Whereas competition entries at Cannes and Venice can continue triumphantly to other festivals and perhaps on to an Oscar win, the best that candidates for Berlin's Golden and Silver Bear awards can hope for is a late-night airing on a German public broadcaster.

Nevertheless, the path taken by festival director Kosslick in recent years was in no way the wrong one. He made a virtue out of necessity by increasing the share of German productions in the competition and also by reanimating a reputation, established by the Berlinale during the 1970s, of being the most political of the A-List festivals in Europe. With Christian Petzold ("Barbara"), Hans-Christian Schmid ("Home for the Weekend") and Matthais Glasner ("Mercy") this year, three German directors are competing for the Golden Bear award. In addition, "The Wall," a filming of Marlen Haushofer's bestselling novel starring Martina Gedeck (known abroad for her leading role in "The Lives of Others"), is part of the Panorama showcase. And star German director Dorris Dörrie's "Bliss" is part of the festival's special program. Meanwhile, Werner Herzog's documentary "Death Row" about American prisoners facing capital punishment will be screened along with Volker Schlöndorff's Nazi resistance drama "Calm at Sea".

Of course one could complain that there is little to no risk whatsoever in selecting films from the usual suspects on the German film scene. Indeed, some critics have lamented this lack of risk-taking -- including outsider filmmaker Klaus Lemke, who literally dropped his pants at Thursday night's festival opening in protest at the fact that his film didn't get included in the competition this year.

Fresh Blood Instead of Old Hat

In any case, this year's selection process was completely different than it has been. A noticeably large number of entries in this year's competition come from international directors with no, or just one, other film under their belts, including the Indonesian filmmaker Edwin, who is showing only his second feature film "Postcards from the Zoo," Greece's Spiros Stathoulopoulos ("Meteora"), Portugal's Miguel Gomes ("Tabu"), Switzerland's Ursula Meier ("Sister") and France's Frédéric Videau ("Coming Home"). This has led Jay Weissberg, a critic with the US-based entertainment industry newspaper Variety, to brand the selection "underwhelming."

However, the strategy isn't just to corral all the usual festival veterans who didn't get their films done in time for Venice 2011 or weren't invited to Cannes. Instead, it is banking on unknown talents who might get a chance to unexpectedly win over critics and audiences over the course of the competition. Since they are virtually unknowns, and therefore hard to gauge, they have a shot at being discovered in Berlin and gaining more attention after the festival. That seems to have been exactly what happened last year, when the organizers made an impassioned plea on behalf of imprisoned Iranian filmmakers at the start of the festival, which got a lot of media attention, and the Iranian divorce drama "Separation" went on to win the Golden Bear. It has now received two Oscar nominations.

This year, Kosslick and his team are also placing their bets on fresh films and ones that address political issues. All 18 of the films in the running for the Golden Bear are world premieres, and a whole series of festival entries have recent revolutions in the Arab world as their subject matters. What's more, the Occupy movement is also being featured in Tony Gatlif's documentary "Indignados," and the first movies to come out about last year's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan will also be shown.

Not Enough Gossip

Though all of this is admirable, it presents one problem. It doesn't offer any fodder for the gossip columns or front pages of the tabloid press, where a tourist draw like the Berlinale really belongs. Indeed, when the experience-hungry masses are waiting in line for hours in the freezing cold in Potsdamer Platz waiting to get their hands on tickets for the new action film by Bollywood heartthrob Shahrukh Khan, they don't want to just catch glimpse of German film and television stars. No, they want to see the glitterati of foreign films, as well. Among those expected to make appearances this year are teen sensation Robert Pattinson ("Twilight," "Bel Ami"), "Batman" star Christian Bale, Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas and Michael Fassbender ("Shame," "Haywire"), a current Hollywood favorite.

However, if there is any superstar made for the Berlinale, it is sex symbol, action hero, supermom and UN goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie. This year, she will be showing "In the Land of Blood and Honey," her debut work as a film director, which is not an entry in the official competition. It is a disturbing drama about the Bosnian War and, as such, perfectly suited to fulfill the Berlinale's political pretensions. And what better mix can there be than glamour and pretension?


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