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French flies as fest’s fave fare

Berlin opening, closing with French titles

BERLIN — If the streets of Potsdamer Platz echoed to the strains of “Deutschland uber alles” in 2006 — as German pics dominated the Competition and carried off three acting prizes — this time Berlinale auds will more likely be humming “Non, je ne regrette rien,” in what could well be fest topper Dieter Kosslick’s theme song.

For the first time in its 57-year history, the Berlin Intl. Film Festival opens and closes with movies by French helmers — Olivier Dahan’s Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en rose” and Francois Ozon’s English-language fairy tale “Angel.”

Joining them in the Competition section are two French pics by veterans: Andre Techine’s early-’80s AIDS drama “The Witnesses” and Jacques Rivette’s Balzac romance “Don’t Touch the Axe.”

“Four years ago, we had ‘Chicago’ as the opener,” Kosslick enthuses, “so why shouldn’t we have a film about Piaf? It’s a great film, great entertainment and a European story. Piaf is a French national treasure, but the story and songs are of international interest.”

On paper, this year’s Official Selection looks to be one of the strongest yet of Kosslick’s six to date, up there with his 2004 menu. And despite the lack of any first-time features, it’s certainly one of the best balanced.

There’s a nice mix of veteran directors (Techine, Rivette, Jiri Menzel, Bille August) and younger talent (David Mackenzie, Christian Petzold, Park Chan-wook, Stefan Ruzowitzky), spiked with U.S. heavyweights (Robert De Niro, Steven Soderbergh, Clint Eastwood, Paul Schrader), emerging helmers (Italy’s Saverio Costanzo, China’s Li Yu) and less familiar names (Argentina’s Ariel Rotter, China’s Wang Quanan, Canada’s Ryan Eslinger, Brazil’s Cao Hamburger).

“The films in Official Selection this year are all very personal stories, which deal with a more and more complicated modern world,” Kosslick opines. “There are also several which deal with history and war, such as Eastwood’s ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’ and Israeli Joseph Cedar’s ‘Beaufort.'”

Geographically, the Competition is much less Euro-centered than usual, with four of the 22 titles from East Asia. Kosslick visited Korea, China, Hong Kong and Japan last year and sampled some 10 films during the trip — an experience he dubs “very useful.

“There’s a long history between Asian cinema and the Berlinale. My predecessor, Moritz de Hadeln, put China on the map, which took a lot of courage, and I found filmmakers just wanted to come here. They had the feeling it’s a lot of fun.”

In general, Kosslick characterizes the Asian selection as dealing with “how money is taking over everything and how people should return to certain values.” However, the hottest ticket is likely to be “I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK,” an offbeat love story set in a mental institution from South Korea’s Park (“Old Boy”).

Kosslick claims he didn’t have a tough time finding films this year. “If directors win awards at a festival, they stick with it. And the most crucial thing is to keep your personal relationships with the artists.”

Aside from distributing more of his 26 slots to Competition this year (22, up from 19), Kosslick’s biggest programming change has been not to pursue his successful 2005 strategy of shunting all U.S. nonpreems (read, possible Oscar contenders) into noncompeting slots. This year, both “The Good German” and “The Good Shepherd” slug it out for the Golden Bear.

However, in the Official Selection as a whole he has three world preems of Stateside fare: Gregory Nava’s “Bordertown,” with Jennifer Lopez as a journo investigating a series of murders of Mexican women workers; Zack Snyder’s CGI fest “300,” from Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae; and jury prez Schrader’s “The Walker,” a murder mystery set among Washington’s upper-class set, with Woody Harrelson and Kristin Scott Thomas.

Among those getting honorary gongs is U.S. helmer Arthur Penn, who’s being given a Lifetime Achievement Golden Bear Feb. 15 and a 10-pic retro.

Though the 2005 Berlinale fumbled the ball on last year’s major German hit “The Lives of Others” — later even more scandalously rejected cold by Cannes — Kosslick is undimmed in his belief: “It’s very important to have an international festival in Germany to platform German cinema.

“This was the major reason we changed the policy of the festival six years ago, and the past five years have proved us right. German cinema is on the map. Its diversity proves there’s not just one kind of German film business, and it also proves the industry is healthy. Everyone now comes here to find German films.”

Carrying the German-language banner in Competition this year are Petzold’s “Yella,” centered on a woman escaping a dreary marriage in the east, and fact-based drama “The Counterfeiters,” by Austrian-born Ruzowitzky (“Anatomie”). German money also is present in two other pics, August’s Nelson Mandela yarn “Goodbye Bafana” and London-set “Irina Palm,” with Marianne Faithfull as a sex worker, directed by Bavarian-born Sam Eduard Garbarski.

As usual, there are also several German productions in Panorama, which Kosslick reckons is becoming “stronger and stronger, because it’s free from all the wheeling and dealing that goes on around the Competition.”

Panorama boss Wieland Speck notes that, though he’s lighter this time on sheer crowdpleasers, “We’ve never had so many pictures directed by actors — Julie Delpy, Antonio Banderas, Steve Buscemi, Sarah Polley, Mitchell Lichtenstein. This year, we also have quite a few coming-of-age films, such as Bruce McDonald’s ‘The Tracey Fragments,’ as well as lots of documentaries on music, politics and film history.”

As with the Official Selection, submissions to Panorama were again dramatically up, by some 600-800 titles, putting a huge strain on Speck and his staff to winnow the 3,000 pics down to 50-odd choices.

“It’s partly due to the popularity of the European Film Market,” he says, “but also to the increased popularity of the fest itself.”

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