Berlin lineup takes more lighthearted approach

The Bear is letting its hair down.

When the Rolling Stones and helmer Martin Scorsese walk the red carpet across Marlene Dietrich Platz into the glass-fronted Berlinale-Filmpalast Feb. 7, history will be made in two ways. For the first time in its 58 years, the fest will open with the world preem of a documentary (“Shine a Light”). And the theater, which during the rest of the year doubles as a music hall, will get the next best thing to a live concert: Scorsese’s record of the Stones’ two concerts at Gotham’s Beacon Theater in fall 2006, which also includes guest appearances from Christina Aguilera, Jack White and Buddy Guy.

Pic marks Scorsese’s return to Berlin after five years, when “Gangs of New York” closed the 2003 event. This year’s closer, Michel Gondry’s Sundance entrant, “Be Kind Rewind,” also bookends the fest in lighthearted style, with the tale of a bunch of vidstore geeks who try to remake the big-budget pic they’ve accidentally erased.

Fest topper Dieter Kosslick, now in his seventh go-round, sees Gondry’s pic as a fun comment on the previous 10 days, which this year sports a much more geographically balanced Competition plus a mix of Cannes favorites and newer helmers that recalls Kosslick’s 2004 lineup.

Among Croisette-style names battling it out for the Golden Bear are Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”), Mike Leigh (“Happy-Go-Lucky”), France’s Robert Guediguian (“Lady Jane”) and Erick Zonca (“Julia”), plus three Asian middleweights — Hong Kong’s Johnny To (with three-years-in-the-works “The Sparrow”), South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo (“Night and Day”) and China’s Wang Xiaoshuai (“In Love We Trust”).

Newer names include two Berlinale Talent Campus alums — 2004’s Lance Hammer with Sundance hit “Ballast” and 2003’s Fernando Eimbcke, from Mexico, with “Lake Tahoe.” There’s also Brit TV helmer Justin Chadwick with BBC Films/Focus Features’ “The Other Boleyn Girl,” starring Eric Bana, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman (all expected to attend the world preem), and Yank Dennis Lee with Julia Roberts/ Willem Dafoe starrer “Fireflies in the Garden.” Both are noncompeting.

The Official Selection pie is also seasoned with Berlin regulars, including Polish vet Andrzej Wajda (“Katyn”), Germany’s Doris Doerrie (“Blood Cherries”), Nipponese vet Yoji Yamada (“Kabei: My Mother”) and the U.S.’ Errol Morris with one sure-fire talking point, “Standard Operating Procedure,” about the Abu Ghraib atrocities.

“The whole selection process went pretty smoothly this year,” opines Kosslick. “We weren’t affected by the WGA strike, and the program has the feeling of having been curated on its own terms, without outside influences. We didn’t miss a lot of films we could have got.”

Kosslick adds he chased the Scorsese, Anderson and Chadwick pics at an early stage, with Lee’s movie coming much later. “Anderson’s movie would also have been great for opening night, but it’s a long film,” he notes.

Light ‘Song’

Between the opener and closer, the 21 movies in Competition tick all the traditional Berlinale boxes of contempo socio-political themes, but Kosslick avers the program isn’t as dark as it may look on paper. “It’s not all tragedy. We have Iranian veteran Majid Majidi’s ‘The Song of Sparrows,’ which is a perfect Sunday afternoon film, set in the summer in Tehran. You’ll have fun,” he promises.

The Berlinale has always been a showcase for German (and Germany-lensed) productions but, with the local cinema “now on the international map,” Kosslick has eased off on overloading the Competition with Teuton fare: “The big pressure to demonstrate a point has gone.” However, counting co-productions and the German Cinema sidebar curated by Hof fest topper Heinz Badewitz, there are still 75 German features spread through the fest.

“I think 2008 will become one of the biggest years ever in German cinema,” says Kosslick, “because a lot of the films which have been made with the new money from the Ministry of Culture will be ready in the next couple of months.” Unfortunately for the Berlinale, many upcoming pics by local name directors — Tom Tykwer’s “The International,” Bernd Eichinger’s “Red Army Faction,” Hermine Huntgeburth’s “Effi Briest,” not to mention locally shot U.S. pics “Valkyrie” and “Speed Racer” — are still in post.

Also notable about this year’s Berlinale is the sense of synergy throughout the whole fest. Gone (regrettably, some may say) are the pre-Kosslick days when rival sections battled each other for titles; now regional consultants are shared across the board and internal harmony (almost) reigns.

One potentially sensitive theme that peppers the whole fest’s lineup is a recognition of Israel’s 60th anni by the inclusion of many films from Israeli filmmakers. “Israel and I have something in common: We both turn 60 this year,” jests Kosslick. “But as I’m not having a big party for my birthday, I’m not having a big one for Israel’s either.”

Doubtless aware of antagonizing Arab sensibilities, Kosslick is playing the theme in a minor key. “But we’re definitely having more films than before about the country and its neighbors. It’s also connected with the work in the region of our (production support body) World Cinema Fund.

“The Middle East is one of the most interesting areas at the moment for cinema. It’s true we don’t have any Arab film in Competition. But we’re showing Morris’ film about Abu Ghraib, and we have films from other Arab countries in the rest of the festival, like ‘The Aquarium’ from Egypt, in Panorama. I don’t think we missed anything suitable for Competition.”

Over in Panorama, the Rolling Stones opener has a strong echo in six music docus, including “Patti Smith: Dream of Life” from Sundance, and Smith will be on hand in Berlin for a live concert. Panorama topper Wieland Speck’s program also mirrors Mideast themes with docus “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” and “A Jihad for Love” (gays in Islamic countries), plus the latest movie (“Lemon Tree”) by Eran Riklis, direcor of acclaimed “The Syrian Bride.”

Speck’s selection is especially strong this year with what he dubs “favela movies,” pics centerd on “the criminalization of youth in poor areas, and not just in the so-called Third World.” But his biggest coup is the world preem of the helming debut of Madonna, “Filth and Wisdom,” a DV-shot drama about three quirky wannabes in sordid London.

“She simply wrote to us and asked us if we’d be interested in showing it,” says Speck. “So we watched it, and I invited it.” Madonna and the Berlinale make a perfect fit, he adds. And just like opening night with the Stones, the crowds are sure to be out when Madonna hits town.

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