Made to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Berlinale at which it premiered, “Trace of the Bears” is a very watchable history lesson from helmer Hans-Christoph Blumenberg and co-interviewer Alfred Holighaus. Deftly marbling together interviews with helmers, stars, historians and festival directors past and present alongside often fascinating archive footage, the pic recounts how the Berlinale evolved from a Cold War propaganda device into the A-list fest it is today. However, despite the pic’s merits, it’s hard to imagine such vanity filmmaking will have many airings beyond its fest showcase and co-producers’ TV stations in today’s bearish market.
At the risk of cultural stereotyping, there’s something quintessentially German about the meticulous historiography of “Trace of the Bears” and the evenhanded clarity of its method. Always to the point, keeping the festival firmly in its sights, the pic stands in contrast to films produced to celebrate Cannes’ anniversaries, such as the impressionistic short “Histoires de Festival,” directed by Cannes prexy Giles Jacob, or Gallic helmer Olivier Jahan’s rich but procedure-focused tribute to the Directors’ Fortnight, “40×15.”
After a rather bland but dutiful montage of famous thesps and helmers rhapsodizing about how great the Berlinale and the city itself are, docu delves properly into a straightforward chronological history. Founded by military film officer Oscar Martay and film historian Alfred Bauer (the latter became fest’s first artistic director) to promote Western cinema in the divided former German capital, the fest struggled from the start for films with Cannes and Venice events. Plus ca change.
Archival highlights include footage of a lecherous Errol Flynn openly inviting blondes to visit his casting couch in the 1950s, and material covering the unrest that led to the founding of the Forum section in 1970 in which a young Werner Herzog denounced the public’s lack of access to the festival.
But kudos are especially due to the pic’s fair coverage of the scandals that have peppered the fest’s history, such as the uproar over attempt by jurors to throw Michael Verhoeven’s anti-war fable “O.K.” out of the competition in 1970, and the kerfuffle made by Soviets and Chinese over “The Deer Hunter” in 1978. Film historian Wolfgang Jacobsen pops up throughout to provide concise analysis of the macroeconomic and industrial forces shaping the fest.
Pic will win no prizes for its tech credits, which are no better than fine. Given its HD-shot origins, the docu would probably look better on TV than it did at the projection caught.