It may sound like a cliche to say that the Berlin Film Festival rose like a phoenix from the ashes of World War II, but when Berlin’s governing mayor, Ernst Reuter, opened the very first festival, at the Titania Palast in Steglitz on June 6, 1951, the city was still struggling to recover. Two million “West” Germans were unemployed. Tens of thousands more huddled in makeshift camps within the city’s tightly regimented borders. “Foreign” films meant, for the most part, Hollywood studio pictures.
Just three years prior, the former German capital had been blockaded by the Soviets. With rail and road access denied, the city had to survive for almost a year on an Allied-run airlift that brought in 4,000 tons of food and supplies each day. That same year, 1948, had seen Stuart Schulberg produce the first of the “Marshall Plan Films” in Berlin.
So in 1951 the festival brought to Berliners not just a much-needed dose of flashlight glamour, but also the opportunity to see films from nations such as France, Sweden and Mexico. The opening film was Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” and although Hitch himself did not make the protracted journey across East German airspace, Joan Fontaine did, and crowds cheered her all the way in from Tempelhof Airport after a long, slow flight through the “corridor” that traversed GDR airspace. Other guests at the 1951 festival included Alf Sjoberg with “Miss Julie,” Anthony Asquith with “The Browning Version” and Curzio Malaparte with “Forbidden Christ.”
The man who initiated this event was Dr. Alfred Bauer, who boasted both a persistence of vision and an ability to outwit bureaucracy at its own game. A film buff, whose “Deutsche Spielfilm-Almanach 1929-1950” was hailed as a definitive catalog of German sound film, Bauer had helped the British army’s film adviser during the immediate postwar years, and had contacts in Allied circles. In July 1950 he presented a report to the Berlin mayor’s office as well as to the three Allied commandants, proposing the establishment of a film institute in Berlin, an organization that should be empowered to launch a film festival. After a full year of official meetings and negotiations, the festival budget accorded to Bauer by the city was pitiful — 150,000 German marks (about $37,000) — and even that had to be bridged with a loan from the Office of the Allied Kommandatura.
The timing was right, however, and the political will to ensure public success underpinned the occasion. Berlin was divided into four sectors, administered, respectively, by the American, British, French and Russian authorities. For the Americans in particular, the Berlinale seemed a perfect “showcase for the free world.” Bauer shrewdly opted for June 6, 1951, to offset the propaganda effect of the World Youth Festival held that summer by the GDR authorities, and a modest film festival of sorts, also in East Berlin, featuring films from Soviet satellite nations as well as China.
Stars like Gary Cooper, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Errol Flynn all made the effort to attend the festival during the fifties. Not surprisingly, Hollywood productions were the most popular on display, and scooped many of the “unofficial” awards distributed in the early years. These prizes were voted on by the audience, but this system soon began to malfunction. The Intl. Federation of Film Producers finally recognized the festival only in 1955, placing it on a par with Cannes and Venice, so that a jury could finally be appointed for the following year’s competition. Gene Kelly’s “Invitation to the Dance” took the Golden Bear in 1956, and there were Silver Bears for Robert Aldrich’s “Autumn Leaves,” Laurence Olivier’s “Richard III” and Burt Lancaster for his performance in “Trapeze.”
The following year yet another American film, Sidney Lumet’s “Twelve Angry Men,” won the Golden Bear. Only in 1958 did a jury accord top honors to a European film — and one destined to become an all-time classic — Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.” Berlin’s affection for Americans and American cinema was symbolized by the porcelain bear bestowed on Walt Disney by a beaming Willy Brandt, then mayor of West Berlin, in 1958.
The Americans did not wholly predominate, however. By 1959, more than 50 countries were participating in the festival. Japan began sending films to Berlin in 1953, and when the first international jury met in 1956 under the presidency of Marcel Carne, its most distinguished member was “Madame” Kawakita, who would embody the spirit of Japanese cinema in the years ahead.
The festival shifted its main screenings from the Titania to the Delphi theater on Kantstrasse and the Capitol at Lehninerplatz, and (for big open-air screenings) to the Waldbuhne near Glockenturm. Gradually the Gloria-Palast and the Filmbuhne Wien on the Kurfurstendamm assumed pride of place. After six years, the festival found what would be its familiar home for two generations — the Zoo-Palast. Journalists trudging past the modest facade of Hotel am Zoo on Kurfurstendamm may not realize that for years this was the hub of the Berlinale. Looking back, the whole event seems tiny compared with the multiple-choice three-ring fest of today. The Competition became the main focus, and apart from that there were just the “Info-Show” (a fledgling version of the Panorama) and the Retrospective.
Bauer reigned at Berlin for 26 years. When he retired in November 1976, he had established the festival as part of a triumvirate with Cannes and Venice that dictated the trends and tastes of world cinema. His innate conservatism had been mitigated by genuine enthusiasm for cinema and for bringing together people of different cultures. Wolf Donner succeeded him and in three short years introduced fundamental changes, including the switching of dates from June to February. Moritz de Hadeln directed the Berlinale from 1980, in an uneasy partnership with Ulrich Gregor at the Intl. Forum of Young Cinema, and in 2002 Dieter Kosslick inherited the post, although in his role as managing director, he has enjoyed more decisionmaking power than his predecessors.
Peter Cowie was for a decade the international publishing director of Variety Inc. and is author of many books including the official publication, “The Berlinale. The Festival,” released this month.