Critics demand a fair fight from fest

Berlin taps Eastern pics but there's room for more

It’s taken its time to form, but the new wave of Eastern European auteur films is beginning to break across the international festival circuit, with Berlin a key target on the calendar.

Last year’s Cannes Palme d’Or win by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s gritty tale of illicit abortion, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” put a new international spotlight on talent from the region.

Cannes can’t be faulted for the limelight it gives director-writers like Mungiu once it brings them onto the Croisette, but longtime observers of the Eastern European movie scene say Berlin has the potential to do better.

Berlin-based critic, film writer and radio broadcaster Jorg Taszman says Berlin’s old Cold War period reputation for being more experimental than Cannes in its choice of directors has eroded in recent years.

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Eastern European auteurs such as Hungary’s Marta Meszaros (honored last year with a Berlinale lifetime achievement award) and Bela Tarr, or Russia’s Elem Klimov were all discovered by Berlin “long before Cannes snatched them,” Taszman says.

But Berlin, he says, lost its touch in the 1990s by ignoring many new trends in the East: Among other omissions, Czech director Jan Sverak’s Oscar-winning “Kolya” was turned down, as was his next movie, “Dark Blue World.”

Last year, films from Eastern Europe peppered the Berlin festival slate — mostly in sidebars — although vet helmer Jiri Menzel’s “I Served the King of England” unspooled in Competition.

“It is high time that Berlin discovers more talent from Eastern Europe and opens up the competition for filmmakers like Czech directors Bohdan Slama or Petr Zelenka,” Taszman says. “The new, popular and commercially successful films that are in between arthouse and mainstream, from Russia or the Czech Republic, for example, need to be shown in Berlin.”

Russian film industry sources agree: One, who prefers to remain anonymous, criticizes Berlin for consistently ignoring the country in its Competition choices.

The Russian film industry is rapidly evolving and producing many excellent films, but this was not reflected in the choices of Berlinale programmers, despite the fact that this year Russian films could be found in Panorama (“Mermaid”), Forum (“Nirvana”) and Generation (five pics).

“I don’t see any changes for Russian films at Berlin this year,” the Russian says. “Russian films are very often in side programs but not in the main Competition. Every year there are French, African, Asian and American films in Competition, and if we are honest not all of them are films of high quality or interesting stories. But a Russian film has to be a masterpiece to be chosen for the Competition section.”

Two other titles from Eastern Europe that will get an airing during the 58th edition of the Berlinale are Macedonian director Teona Strugar Mitevska’s third film “I am from Titov Veles”and Polish master Andrzej Wajda’s “Katyn” (Official Selection Out of Competition.)

“Titov Veles” is a Chekhovian tale of three sisters struggling to make sense of their lives and fates in a heavily polluted mining town set against a breathtaking natural landscape of towering mountains.

A co-production with France, Slovenia and Belgium — home to cinematographer Virginie Saint-Martin, whose Super 34 widescreen lensing helps carry the director’s highly arthouse vision — “Titov Veles” premiered last August at the Sarajevo Intl. Film Festival before going on to a Toronto Discovery program screening. At Berlin it is in the Panorama program; French outfit Insomnia is handling sales and has already notched deals with the U.S., English-speaking Canada, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and the Netherlands.

The latest production of a distinctive filmmaker whose work spans more than half a century of Eastern Europe’s history, Andrzej Wajda’s “Katyn” screens Out of Competition at Berlin.

Wajda, 81, has been in Berlin’s Competition three times and received an Honorary Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement in 2006. His new film — about the wartime massacre of the Polish officer class that the Russians blamed on the Nazis — is an intensely personal epic that ignited long-repressed debate in Poland following its September release. Wajda lost his own father in the 1940 massacre.

Poland’s foreign-language Oscar entry for this year’s Academy Awards, “Katyn” notched up 2.7 million admissions domestically — almost 10% of the country’s recent annual total admissions figure.

“I lost my father when I most needed him,” Wajda says, adding that even when German forces found the mass graves in 1943 and announced that a “Karol” Wajda (his father’s name was Jakub) was among the dead, “for me, it was easier to believe he was alive and would come back to us after the war.”

Wajda says he has only made films for Polish audiences; international acclaim is incidental.

But the importance — and resonance the film is likely to have in Berlin at its international premiere — is underlined by his comment: “I think that the story of Katyn is strongly rooted in the Polish conscience as a sin committed by Poland’s Western allies during the Second World War. It’s time that this conspiracy of silence was broken.”