A look at the early days of the Berlin Film Festival

Berlinale came to fruition thanks to the initiative of American Film Officer Oscar Martay. A committee first met on Oct. 9, 1950 to found an international film festival in the German city. Martay was joined by colleague George Turner, two Berlin Senate Administration reps, four German movie industry reps and a journalist. This body agreed on the name Berlin International Film Festival and set the inaugural fest for June 6-17, 1951.

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” opened the first Berlinale in the Titania-Palast cinema, with star Joan Fontaine in attendance. Historian Alfred Bauer, who previously worked for the Reich Film Office and advised the British military government on film issues, presided as fest director.

With the fest kicking off six years after WWII ended, much of Berlin was still in ruins or in early stages of reconstruction. The fest provided the divided city an opportunity for recognition as a “showcase of the free world.”

The first fest ceremony took place in the sold-out outdoor arena, the Waldbuhne. The Berlin Bears were awarded to films of various genres including drama, comedy, crime or adventure, musical and documentary. The audience selected Disney’s “Cinderella” as its favorite pic.

Although most prize winners were chosen by a jury of exclusively German members the first year, the FIAPF pressured the fest to have Berlinale audiences select all prize winners. Expert juries were reserved for only the most prestigious fests, and Berlinale still had to earn this title.

FROM THE PAGES OF VARIETY
Fests stay the same. . .

In the Daily Variety edition of Friday, June 30, 1961, film producer and exhibitor Robert L. Lippert declared “shocking and inexcusable” reports that American film personalities were virtually ignoring the Berlin Film Festival. “With more than 50 percent of the American film industry’s revenues now coming from the foreign market, and a $20 million gross last year from West Germany alone, it would seem that more Hollywood stars would have the good sense to make an appearance at such an event as the Berlin Film Festival.”

For the first time in the fest’s history, the Golden Bear prize for best film was awarded to a country rather than a film or individual. Fest organizers opted to honor Spain’s entire film program, which included Emilio Martinez Lazaro’s “Las Palabras de Max” and Jose Luis Garcia Sanchez’s “Las Truchas.” Also of note in the March 8, 1978, edition of Weekly Variety: “Sexiest-seeming ‘girl’ at the grand opening of the 28th International Film Fest here turned out to be Romy Haag, a Dutch transvestite in sequined white see-through evening gown.” Haag was there to provide a humorous opening to the fest, which was, as the article noted, “shorn of porn,” then a bustling industry in West Germany.

Launched in 1978, the market portion of the Berlin Film Festival had grown into a viable sales platform by 1983, but caused some buyers to go into festival overload mode. Quoted in Variety of March 2, 1983, rep Charles Schreger of Triumph (Columbia-Gaumont) praised the market as well-organized, but noted that it was easy to contract a case of “festivalitis,” which “causes you to think a mediocre film is good after you’ve seen too many bad ones.”

TIMELINE

1951: Berlin Film Festival begins.

1952: The Federation Internationale des Associations des Producteurs de Films bans the festival from awarding jury prizes; only after negotiations does the governing body agree to recognize the event as a regular film festival. Orson Welles’ “Othello” is banned from the fest after alleged “anti-German remarks.” “One Summer of Happiness” wins the Golden Bear, with its one nude scene the subject of much debate.

1956: The festival receives its “A” status from the FIAPF, meaning a jury can award the Golden Bears, rather than the audience. Not surprisingly, the jury’s first awards are widely criticized.

1959: The cinematic movement known as the New Wave finds a home at Berlin, as Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Agnes Varda become regulars.

1965: The festival begins selecting its own jurors, rather than countries sending designated representatives.

1970: The festival is shaken by a scandal over competition film “o.k.,” from director Michael Verhoeven, which portrayed the rape and murder of a young girl by soldiers. Amidst accusations of censorship and political motivation, the jury, led by American George Stevens, resigns. The competition is canceled and the fest’s future uncertain.

1971: “Old” and “new” factions reunite to present the festival, which debuts a new section, the International Forum for New Cinema.

1974: The first Soviet film is shown at the fest; it was Rodion Nakhapetov’s debut, “With You and Without You.”

1977: Wolf Donner takes over leadership at the fest; German film is given higher priority.

1978: Donner creates a children’s section at the festival.

1979: Controversy over the inclusion of Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” leads several Socialist countries to withdraw from the fest; the Golden Bear is awarded to Peter Lilienthal’s “David.”

1980: Moritz de Hadeln takes over as festival director and pledges to expand the film market.

1990: For the first time in history, the East German and West German festivals were held concurrently and residents were able to travel freely without visas.

1998: Martin Scorsese withdraws his film “Kundun” after Chinese objections and jury miscommunication; the jury misses the opportunity to screen Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful.”

2000: Fest moves to Potsdamer Platz on its 50th anniversary.

2002: Dieter Kosslick takes over as the festival’s director.

2007: A record 220,000 tickets were sold to the general public.

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