The Berlin Film Festival opened Feb. 9 with mixed reactions to its lead film and loud complaints about organization.

Germany’s Federal President Roman Herzog officially opened ceremonies the night of Feb. 9 to record crowds in Berlin’s grand old Zoo Palast, the traditional Berlinale venue which has been splendidly refurbished since last year.

Herzog’s comments preceded an evening program dedicated to the magic of cinema’s first days and the unhealed wounds of Germany’s recent past.

An ancient – in cinematic terms – short film, one of the first ever made exactly 100 years ago by Berlin natives Emil and Max Skladanowsky, was first to roll. The Ur-reel, a sequence of burlesque snippets, debuted in 1895 in Berlin’s illustrious Wintergarten cabaret.

Zooming ahead to the present, Margarethe von Trotta’s “The Promise,” the story of love strained by decades the lovers spend on either side of the Berlin Wall, headlined the evening. Though its debut evoked exuberant reactions from locals – both positive and negative – it drew only faint praise from out-of-towners.

Oscar hopeful

The film is this year’s German send to the Oscars and, since Mifed, it has been ballyhooed as the first strong theatrical release to skillfully deal with both sides of Cold War reality. Fine Line picked up U.S. rights to the film in late December. (See review, page 49).

Asked why so many German helmers had passed up the tricky subject in the half decade since the Wall collapsed, von Trotta suggested that filmmakers first needed to gain a critical distance to the period. “After all,” she said, “the Americans needed 10 years before they started doing Vietnam films.”

People who came to see the films on sale at the Berlin Market, however, spent much of its opening day (Feb. 10) grumbling about lengthy ticket queues, needlessly complex procedures and unfair rules. “I’m here three hours and I’m complaining,” said Udy Epstein, who came primarily to buy films but, like many others, was incensed that market participants have no access to post-5 p.m. screenings. One of Epstein’s colleagues complained it took him 15 hours just to check in, get accredited and figure out how things worked.

Other guests on hand to do business, like Australian Rod Webb, director of scheduling at SBS Television, were astounded to find they had traveled half the globe with checkbook in hand – only to find their access to screenings limited.

But the inconvenience is a direct consequence of the record number of attendees, which surpassed 11,000 the first day of the festival. And despite less than ideal conditions, the market had already begun to buzz.

London-based J&M Entertainment had already picked up international rights to Mitch Marcus’ delinquent drama “A Boy Called Hate” two days before the market opened, and that film screened here to other buyers over the weekend. Skouras-Paramount distributes the pic in the U.S.

American independents were eagerly planning visits to roughly a dozen key screenings, which include among others Michael Winterbottom’s “Butterfly Kiss” and Canadian helmer Patricia Rozema’s erotic tale of lesbian love and protestant theology, “Waiting for Night to Fall.” Among international buyers, Abel Ferrara’s black-and-white vampire pic “The Addiction” is expected to fare well.

Other attendees, meanwhile, had utterly different concerns; Gorky Studio was searching for a filmed version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” while Hong Kong-based newcomer Media Asia busily shopped its rural drama “Back to Roots.”

So far, though, no film had emerged from the pack like last year’s Cuban sensation “Strawberry and Chocolate” and it remained to be seen whether the American independents would generate enough interest to earn good buzz.