Berlinale digs into issues but also programs lighter fare

With an official selection that’s high on dramas and short on laughs, Berlin’s Bear slopes into its 60th birthday party (Feb. 11-21) with serious — repeat serious — celebrating on its mind.

But that’s how it’s always been at the Berlinale, which takes its contribution to film culture as no laughing matter and has been somewhat freer than Europe’s other top two fests — Cannes and Venice — from local film politics.

Though he likes to play the farceur in public, fest topper Dieter Kosslick has, in his nine years at the helm, brought a sober, calculated feel to the main lineup that’s sometimes paid dividends and sometimes hasn’t. His shop window this year more than reflects his policy of headlining the fest with politically and socially aware fare, as well as trying to build — as all fests do — a family of filmmakers associated with the event.

With European production at the fore again — this year comprising half of the 20 competition titles — Kosslick has corralled new works by Berlinale honorees, a host of crime-oriented dramas and a tip of the hat to that most fabricated of European “new waves,” Dogma 95.

In a bold, flag-planting decision, the fest opens with “Apart Together,” the fifth feature by China’s Wang Quanan, who won the Golden Bear three years ago with “Tuya’s Marriage.” Romantic drama, starring Lisa Lu, tells of the long-ago love between a mainland woman and a KMT soldier who fled to Taiwan in 1949. Noncompeting closer, “About Her Brother,” is also by a Berlinale fave, 78-year-old Japanese journeyman Yoji Yamada (“The Twilight Samurai”).

Around Wang and Yamada, Kosslick has assembled other past Berlin honorees such as Denmark’s Pernille Fischer Christensen (“A Soap”), with “A Family”; Sarajevo-born Jasmila Zbanic (“Grbavica”), with her sophomore feature, “On the Path”; Iran-born Rafi Pitts (“It’s Winter”), with drama “The Hunter”; and German maverick Oskar Roehler (“The Elementary Particles”) with “Jud Suss: Rise and Fall,” about the making of Veit Harlan’s notoriously anti-Semitic 1940 costumer, with local star Moritz Bleibtreu as propaganda reichsminister Joseph Goebbels.

In programming Dogma 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg’s estranged-brothers drama “Submarino,” and marathon runner-cum-bank robber drama “The Robber” by Benjamin Heisenberg (whose magazine Revolver first published the Dogma manifesto in Germany), fest makes a quiet, maybe unintentional, nod to the long-defunct Danish movement it helped platform in Dogma’s better days (“Mifune,” “Italian for Beginners”).

Veteran auteurs are less visible than in recent years, but two heavyweights will still unspool their latest works: Martin Scorsese brings his Massachusetts-set ’50s crime drama, “Shutter Island,” to an out-of-competition berth, while Roman Polanski is repped in competition by the Babelsberg-shot political thriller “The Ghost Writer,” with Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor, from the Robert Harris novel. Polanski, naturlich, won’t be attending, but he has the likely honor in absentia of being the only Berlin competitor to have finished post-production under house arrest.

Pic is joined in competition by fellow vet Zhang Yimou’s comic costumer “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop,” inspired by “Blood Simple.” This is showing in Sony Pictures Classics’ “international version,” reportedly lighter on goofball humor than the original (“A Simple Noodle Story”), which has racked up some $40 million in China. Lesser-known 73-year-old Japanese maverick Koji Wakamatsu (“United Red Army”) rounds out the vet contingent with “Caterpillar.”

With the competition light on star thesps and comedy — Noah Baumbach’s Ben Stiller/Jennifer Jason Leigh starrer “Greenberg” and Zhang’s pic are the only out-and-out laffers — most of the major red-carpet thesps are to be found out of competition (Hindi superstar Shah Rukh Khan in the U.S.-set “My Name Is Khan,” dealing with post-9/11 anti-Muslim sentiment) or in the bulging Berlinale Special section (the star-studded “Nine”).

Decision to trim the out-of-competition section and almost double the size of Specials to a massive 22 titles is this year’s biggest structural change.

Aside from including a raft of costume crowdpleasers — Jackie Chan starrer “Little Big Soldier,” martial arts pic “True Legend” by Yuen Woo-ping, Teuton-helmed yarn “Henry of Navarre” and Gerard Depardieu starrer “The Other Dumas” — the huge grab bag of populist fare, docus and restorations (including a fully restored “Metropolis”) is a calculated bid for bigger box office. Following last year’s initial tryout of the giant 1,600-seat Friedrichstadtpalast, which saw SRO biz and helped boost sold tickets to 270,000, Kosslick has extended the fest’s reach into more neighborhood theaters than ever.

While the Big Bear celebrates its 60th, the Little Bear more quietly marks its 40th: The Forum, initially launched as an alternative, more experimental challenge to the fest (like Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight), still operates as a separate unit under the Berlinale umbrella. Under topper Christoph Terhechte, the Forum has come under criticism for a fuzzier identity, though he’s tightened the program considerably and this year fields a potentially more challenging lineup, with pics by Germany’s Angela Schanelec (“Orly”) and Thomas Arslan (“In the Shadows”), Turkish Tayfun Pirselimoglu (“Haze”), Hungary’s Szabolcs Hajdu (“Bibliotheque Pascal”) and Japan’s Sabu (“Kanikosen”), combining name recognition with typically challenging fare.

For the fest’s Panorama section, with its unique combo of accessible arthouse, political docus and a big chunk of gay-oriented fare, this year is simply business as usual for topper Wieland Speck and his team. Good word is already circulating on world preems “Kawasaki’s Rose,” a drama by Czech Jan Hrebejk (which opens Panorama Special); Vienna-born, Berlin-based Feo Aladag’s Turkish family drama “When We Leave”; and Oz genre riff “Red Hill” by newbie Patrick Hughes. The lineup also features name-appeal helmers like Ferzan Ozpetek (“Loose Cannons”), South Korea’s E J-yong (fake-umentary “The Actresses”) and three U.S. offbeaters: James Gandolfini starrer and Sundance competer “Welcome to the Rileys” by Jake Scott (son of Ridley) plus world premieres of romance criss-crosser “Open” by Jake Yuzna (son of Brian) and Trent Cooper’s inventor comedy “Reinventing Robert Axle,” with Heather Graham.

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