Fresh, Spiffy Berlinale

Billing itself as “reflecting the present and looking at the future,” this year’s Berlin Intl. Film Festival rolls into its 45th stanza with big guns blazing, running Feb. 9-20.

Headlined by a 27-pic Competition that observers see as potentially the strongest in several years, this could be the go-round that sees Berlin reassert itself on the fest stage, following a period of uncertain identity in the New Europe of the ’90s.

The proceedings kick off Feb. 9 with Margarethe von Trotta’s Berlin drama, “The Promise.” The German Oscar entry headlines a year that all section heads see as a stronger one for German fare, liberally spread throughout the event. Germany’s federal president, Roman Herzog, will open proceedings.

Despite growing competition by some titles from the up-and-coming Rotterdam festival – a battle now considered resolved by Berlin’s honchos – and a budget frozen for the past two years, the Berlinale is in fighting form.

Co-topper and Forum boss Ulrich Gregor calls the financial constraints “not catastrophic, yet” and notes the federal government remains committed to the fest’s future. Like his co-programmers, Gregor also appears more relaxed vis-a-vis the Berlinale’s traditional rivalry with Cannes.

Where last year’s competition was trumpeted as the year of “America and Europe coming together” following the acrimonious GATT spat, the 1995 lineup “very precisely reflects the worldwide production situation at the present moment,” according to competition boss and co-topper Moritz de Hadeln.

For Yank fare, that translates into a seven-pic selection less dominated by mainstream crowd pleasers and mirroring the growing power of indie directors: Wayne Wang’s double-header “Smoke” and “Blue in the Face” (latter noncompeting), Abel Ferrara’s vampire pic “The Addiction” and Richard Linklater’s cross-pond romance “Before Sunrise.”

Even the U.S. majors are repped by lower-key quality fare: Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” (Buena Vista), Robert Benton’s small-town dramedy “Nobody’s Fool” (Paramount), and Bruce Beresford’s psychodrama “Silent Fall” (Warner). Redford, reportedly due to attend the Berlinale, goes out-of-competition.

One crowd pleaser that won’t be showing is Michael Caton-Jones’ “Rob Roy.” De Hadeln says international distribber UIP wanted to unspool the tartan actioner as a work-in-progress, but no print was available that could be shown at the fest’s main venue, the newly renovated Zoo-Palast.

De Hadeln says he would have liked to have shown Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” which is reportedly headed for the Croisette in May. “Cannes needs a good program too,” he shrugs.

The Competition also bulges with East Asian fare, with new pix by Hong Kong’s Stanley Kwan (Shanghai-set period meller “Red Rose White Rose”), Ann Hui (the Alzheimer dramedy “Summer Snow”) and Raymond Leung (mainland rural drama “Back to Roots”). They’re joined by mainlander Li Shaohong’s period prostie drama, “Blush,” and South Korean Im Kwon-taek’s partition movie, “The Taebaek Mountains.”

“Any respectable festival has to acknowledge the fact that a lot is going on in East Asia,” notes De Hadeln. The Berlinale’s buffier section, the Forum, also includes tasty Asian morsels from the past year.

Two Competition titles already generating buzz are Brit helmer Michael Winterbottom’s theatrical bow, “Butterfly Kiss,” a hard-edged femme road movie with lesbian undertones, and Canadian director Patricia Rozema’s steamy lesbian drama, “When Night Is Falling,” both of which De Hadeln promises will be eyebrow-raisers.

France is repped by two major names: Bertrand Tavernier with the tough street drama, “The Bait”; and Agnes Varda with her cinema celebration, “A Hundred and One Nights.” Both East Europe and Scandinavia are thinly repped, reflecting the state of production there, De Hadeln says.

Panorama head Wieland Speck also notes that the more imaginative Central Euro/Balkan fare is coming from less familiar territories, rather than traditional producers like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. Speck is high on the “Parajanov-like fairy tale” Ukrainian film, “The Voice of Herbs,” the Serbian transvestite pic “Marble Ass,” and two Turkish entries, “Lobster Pot” and “Dad Is in the Army.”

As usual, the Panorama is strong on gay fare (such as the “very L.A.” lesbian comedy “Bar Girls”) and U.S. indies, whose five features he calls “small but beautiful.” Selection includes the moody, gay-themed “Lie Down With Dogs” (a Miramax pickup), dysfunctional teen drama, “A Boy Called Hate,” and B&W East Village fresco, “Rhythm Thief.”

The 57-title section (boiled down from more than 1,000 viewed) includes an Israeli mini-sidebar of five movies, “all very different,” according to Speck, plus five strong Gallic pix, notably Nicole Garcia’s “Raphael” (“a man’s film, but directed by a woman”) and the crazy apartment movie, “Mayday,” by first-timer Pierre Grange.

Speck says he was disappointed that Christopher Ashley’s gay musical, “Jeffrey,” wasn’t ready in time, but says the Belgian chamber psychodrama “Suite 16” is one to watch for in this year’s Panorama.

Berlin’s fest-within-a-fest, the Intl. Forum of Young Cinema, pitches in with its customarily eclectic mix of challenging, often difficult and committed fare, this year with a strong history-and-politics slant.

Russia and East Asia are two areas of exciting cinema, says Forum boss Ulrich Gregor, whose team waded through 650 submitted films alone for their final 88 titles. He notes the overall quality of submissions was “no higher” than last year.

Gregor picks out helmer Kyun Dong-yeo (“Out to the World”) as “the best of South Korea’s young filmmakers” and has warm words for his section’s five Japanese titles. Like Speck, he also sees the quality of German movies improving.

Instead of a country focus, this year the Forum pays tribute to the cinema centennial with a clutch of “rediscoveries” nominated by international crix, including the 1967 Taiwan bauble, “The Dawn,” and the 1936 Marathi-lingo Indian classic, “The Holy Tikaram.”

Asian fare also dominates the fun midnight screenings, with the Filipino political satire, “The Laughing Barrio,” along with Wong Kar-wai’s arty actioner, “Ashes of Time,” and Godardian “Chung King Express.”

Also mirroring the centennial, the Berlinale’s opening night will see a 71/2-minute compilation of earliest surviving German shorts, the so-called Wintergarten Program. Fest closer is the 1929 German silent street-film classic, “Asphalt,” with orchestra.

French thesp Alain Delon is honored with a retro and a Feb. 17 screening of the 1969 crimer, “The Swimming Pool,” and Buster Keaton and other silent comics are the subject of the main Retrospective. De Hadeln notes, however, that the growing tendency in the past three years for rights’ holders to charge for retro screenings is forcing the Berlinale to reconsider such sidebars in the future.

“It’s just not right. This is a cultural service we’re performing,” blasts De Hadeln, who puts this year’s tab for retro rights at $12,800 (20,000 marks).