Timely political themes mark festival pics

BERLIN — Snowfall and icy temperatures greeted red carpet guests as the Berlin Film Festival kicked off on Thursday with Benoit Jacquot’s historical drama “Farewell, My Queen.”

Ever the comic, fest topper Dieter Kosslick opened the proceedings with a Statler and Waldorf-like skit high in the balcony of the Berlinale Palast theater bantering with show host Anke Engelke.

The festivities took on a sobering tone as German culture minister Bernd Neumann climbed the stage to make the point that “the Berlinale is more political than ever — characterized by upheaval and new beginnings.”

“Thanks to the many courageous filmmakers, activists and artists who have a forum this year at the Berlinale, extensive pictures will be seen of events in North Africa and other places suffering suppression, brutal violence, despotism and human rights abuses. Unfortunately we are currently seeing these images on a daily basis from Syria and all of our solidarity goes out to them.”

Neumann pointed out that it was one year ago during the Berlinale that protesters in Egypt drove Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt but that people, particularly artists, continued to suffer under oppressive regimes in countries such as Iran and China.

“It’s therefore important that at the Berlinale, the festival with the biggest audience in the world, flags are waved for human rights and the freedom of art. Because democracy needs culture and culture needs freedom.”

Well in tune with the fest’s political message, “Farewell, My Queen,” which stars Diane Kruger and Lea Seydoux, draws parallels to the present day as it chronicles the first days of the French Revolution from the perspective of the servants at Versailles.

The themes of freedom and power are also explored in many of the films unspooling over the next 10 days in the Competition section, including Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s documentary “Caesar Must Die,” about prisoners who stage a theatrical performance of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”; Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s “Bel Ami,” starring Robert Pattinson and Uma Thurman; Christian Petzold’s “Barbara,” about an East German doctor who is harshly reprimanded for wanting to leave the GDR; and Nikolaj Arcel’s “A Royal Affair,” about an 18th-century physician who uses his proximity to the Danish throne to alter the political landscape.

The themes are also evident in Brillante Mendoza’s “Captive,” about a group of tourists and missionaries taken hostage by Philippine terrorists, and Frederic Videau’s kidnapping drama “Coming Home.”

Watching the 18 films that are vying for the Golden Bear this year will be the international jury presided over by Mike Leigh. Members include Anton Corbijn, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jake Gyllenhaal, Francois Ozon, Algerian author Boualem Sansal, German actress Barbara Sukowa and Iranian helmer Asghar Farhadi, whose Oscar-nominated “A Separation” won the Berlinale’s Golden Bear last year.

“The trip started here,” Farhadi said. “And maybe I’ll be here again with my next movie.”

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