Berlin gets political

Fest programs connect with unfolding world events

BERLIN — After a toothless decade, the Berlin bear has discovered its political bite again in the face of global crisis.

Unspooling under the shadow of imminent war, the 53rd Berlin Intl. Film Festival (Feb. 6-15) reasserted its historic identity as the most engaged of all Euro fests, with an explicit political agenda set by sophomore fest director Dieter Kosslick.

Repeating this year’s motto, “toward tolerance,” at every opportunity, even though he could barely pronounce it, Kosslick made sure every film and every fest event was viewed in connection with the greater drama unfolding beyond the Potsdamer Platz.

When Kosslick replaced Moritz de Hadeln last year, some criticized the appointment as having more to do with his connections to the leftist Social Democrats than with his credentials as a cineaste. Yet it’s precisely his worldliness that has given the fest a renewed sense of purpose, after losing its bearings during the complacent 1990s that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

From “Chicago” at the beginning to “Gangs of New York” at the end, by way of Michael Winterbottom’s refugee drama “In This World,” Alan Parker’s capital-punishment thriller “The Life of David Gale,” Zhang Yimou’s meditation on political assassination in “Hero” and Gabriele Salvatores’ assertion of the power of empathy to overcome fear in “I’m Not Scared,” the carefully balanced program demanded that the audience respond as much to the films’ subject matter as to their aesthetic achievements.

The result was an unusually strong and open competition, with films of many different types making contrasting claims for the jury’s blessing.

It’s hard to remember a year when there were so many real contenders — aside from the obvious Oscar candidates “The Hours” and “Adaptation,” there were also supporters for “Good Bye, Lenin,” Wolfgang Becker’s serio-comedy about German reunification; Li Yang’s dirty industrial thriller “Blind Flight”; and “My Life Without Me,” Isabel Coixet’s tear-jerker about a young mother dying of cancer.

In a tough market, the sales biz was surprisingly brisk.

In the U.S., Palm Pictures took market title “Noi the Albino,” which also sold to a dozen other territories, while Strand took Israeli gay drama “Yossi and Jagger.” Sony Pictures Classics picked up “My Life Without Me” and the Israeli crowd-pleaser “Broken Wings,” while Miramax paid $1.75 million for rights to “I’m Not Scared” in North America, the U.K., Australasia and France.

Salvatores was one of many filmmakers who seized the opportunity to connect his movie — a not obviously political drama about a 10-year-old boy in a tiny village who discovers a kidnapped child held prisoner under a deserted house — to the looming conflict in Iraq.

Wearing a badge with the title of his movie, he said, “This means, I’m not scared to say no to war.”

“The Berlinale considers itself a platform for political discussion. This year’s motto — toward tolerance — highlights this position,” Kosslick said. “Within the Berlinale program. there are numerous films that contribute to social and political discussion.”

In this light, even the camp Dutch musical “Yes Sister, No Sister,” on the face of it a bizarre selection for the competition, could be seen as plea to tolerate differences, with its story of a nasty neighbor who learns to love the irritating oddballs living in the rest home next door. The pic’s over-the-top antics certainly placed great demands on fest auds’ capacity for forgiveness.

The 53rd Berlinale embraced the high-kicking glamour of “Chicago,” the literate gloss of “The Hours” and the engaging solipsism of “Adaptation” as easily as the dazzlingly gritty “In This World” or Slovenia’s more rudimentary “Spare Parts,” another grim movie about refugee smuggling in the shadow of a nuclear power plant.

The Oscar contenders, refreshingly, found themselves being considered as movies again, not just as racehorses in a high-stakes derby.

Indeed, the Berlinale laid out its red carpet for more Hollywood movies than ever. Stars such as Nicole Kidman, George Clooney and Nicolas Cage brought a media spotlight that helped the fest to promote its larger claims to political relevance.

Finding themselves in a country that’s resisting the U.S.-led march to war, some stars took the chance to speak out.

Ed Norton, in Berlin for “25th Hour,” commented, “It must be good to be in Germany and France, because I have completely forgotten what it is like to be proud of your government.”

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