As birthdays go, 60 is not quite as significant as 50 or 75, but it seems that anytime a person or an event reaches a milestone that involves a 0, it is an opportunity for reflection on the past. For its 60th anniversary, the Berlinale is both looking back and looking forward, with a number of retrospective programs as well as ambitious new ones that will define the Festival for decades to come.
First a look backwards….the Festival was established in 1951 as a kind of cold war cultural outpost when Berlin was a tiny democratic city-state in a sea of Communist repression. In those years, the Festival made a point of its democratic inclusion of world cinema as a direct reproach to the censorship of its neighbor East Berlin and, by extension, the whole of Eastern Europe. However, even during its first decade of free expression, the Festival refused to screen any films from its Eastern bloc neighbors.
In its first two decades, the Festival was devoted to the new cinema movements sweeping across Europe (Eastern Europe not included however). It was the first film event to recognize the talents of Jean-Luc Godard (winner of the Best Director Silver Bear in 1960 for BREATHLESS) and Michaelangelo Antonioni (whose film LA NOTTE won the top prize Golden bear in 1961). The Berlinale thus became a paradise for auteurs and serious film lovers, as opposed to the more glitzy ambience of Cannes or Venice (the only other festivals that are older).
In its second decade, the administration of the Festival moved from being run by the West German government (with active assist from the United States and Great Britain) to being privatized to avoid diplomatic tension and ultimately encourage films from the Soviet bloc. In fact, Berlin became over the years the most important film event for exposing new films from Eastern Europe, a distinction it still holds today.
Internal politics were, however, quite conservative in the 1960s, and they reached a head in 1964 when the Festival refused to screen the newest Jean-Luc Godard film BAND OF OUTSIDERS. That vocal protest from film critics generated a parallel non-sanctioned event, originally called Critics Week, which proudly showed the film. Eventually, the Festival created a new section in 1971 caled the International Forum of New Cinema, where more experimental films could be shown and appreciated. That section continues to this day as one of the more intriguing in the Berlinale tapestry.
The Berlinale faced what was arguably its biggest crisis in 1970 when there was widespread opposition to a German competition film O.K. by Michael Verhoeven that detailed the rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl by American soldiers. In the midst of the conflict of the Vietnam war, this was incendiary stuff, leading to that year’s Jury President, American director George Stevens, to threaten a boycott unless the film was pulled. Other jury members walked out when the film was taken out of competition and the Festival limped to its conclusion with alot of animosity and resentment.
The creation of the Forum in 1971 and the addition of the Panorama section in 1992, which highlighted new works from emerging directors, has made the Festival a mix of glamorous glitz and gritty “serious” cinema. The Panorama, founded by producer/activist Manfred Salzgeber and now run by his protege Wieland Speck, has been an especially well-respected strand, with a decided emphasis on the new gay cinema and films about outsiders and revolutionaries in general. The Panorama has introduced a host of outstanding filmmakers in its almost 20 years history, including the first works of Pedro Almodovar and Gus Van Sant.
The Festival has also made a commitment to cinema from its home country, running the popular Deutsches Perspective section, which has been embraced by both local audiences and international critics, programmers and distributors. German films, which have been consistently ignored by the other top flight festivals in Cannes and Venice, have been embraced here, with the Festival creating the international reputations of such icons as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlondorff, Margarethe Von Trotta and Werner Herzog (who serves this year as Competition Jury President).
In the past few years, particularly under the helm of the popular and charismatic Dieter Kosslick, the Festival has expanded in ways. The Berlin Talent Campus brings together young directors with professional mentors to guide them in their careers. The Co-Production Market and World Cinema Fund have provided financial opportunities for the production of films from smaller countries, including last year’s Golden Bear winner THE MILK OF SORROW (Peru), which is one of five international films competing for the Oscar.
Of the Competition section, the Festival’s glitziest program, there have always been ups and downs. Some critics have been negative about the Festival’s choice of mainstream films and even Hollywood titles as an excuse for bringing big stars to the red carpet. This year, the Festival will screen the new Martin Scorsese thriller SHUTTER ISLAND, Roman Polanski’s THE GHOST WRITER and the mega-musical NINE in the Competition section. Whatever the qualities of these films, some might say they are being included mainly to attract the movie stars (Leonard DiCaprio, Ewan McGregor, Daniel Day Lewis, Penelope Cruz) to the red carpet.
OK….l have no objection to that. A little Hollywood stardust adds some excitement to an event that is mainly about quality international cinema. A true public festival, the Berlinale has something for literally everyone and, in that sense, is my own personal favorite on the festival calendar. Happy Birthday, Berlinale…..