Berlin’s history steeped in film

Thomson follows heart in programming sidebar

Just a few weeks ago, Dieter Kosslick (the maestro of the Berlinale) was telling me about the magnificent opening he had planned — the newly discovered version of “Metropolis,” half an hour longer than ever before, played in the cold, open air (with a regiment of heaters) on a screen as large as the city. He was exuberant, exhilarated, he was his own audience. It was like talking to David O. Selznick (not that I ever had that privilege — though I have read more of his memos than anyone should have to); it was like talking to the oldest spirit of showmanship in the movies, and it was a reminder that Berlin has always been in love with cinema.

David Thomson, film critic, scholar and author of more than 20 books about cinema, programmed the Play It Again… retro and wrote the introductory essay of the book for the Retrospective that will be published in a bilingual edition (German/English) by the Berlin publishing house Bertz + Fischer.

So 30 years before the Berlinale began, this city was the work place of Lubitsch, Lang and Murnau. That all three, eventually, chose to come to America is a sign of how greedy Hollywood was for new talent, but it’s also a measure of types of cinema that Americans did not do as well, or as naturally, as Germans. Try to think of the edifice of film history without Lubitsch, Lang or Murnau — it’s not possible, just as it’s more or less the truth that Lang was inspired to make “Metropolis” after a visit to the United States and Manhattan. Was it simply that the German imagination was more attuned to darkness, or expressionism? Were German films more affected by theater and opera — to say nothing of the German experience of slump, fury and revitalization after 1919? These things are still open for argument, but it’s plain that film noir (though identified by the French) was inspired by the Germans. And it’s surely the case that films as vivid and American as “Citizen Kane” and “Some Like It Hot” could not have existed without German vision and irony. It took an escapee from Vienna — Erich von Stroheim, with “Greed” — to teach America what novelist Frank Norris had seen in the golden light of Death Valley.

Equally, if one thinks of the great festivals of the world, Cannes is a bourgeois seaside town looking for a bit more luster; Venice is a Renaissance city trying to stay afloat; and Toronto is a streamlined city of the world anxious to be not simply Canadian. But Berlin is the stuff of history: it is the capital city of two world wars; it is the demolished wasteland of Rossellini’s “Germany Year Zero”; it is the site of blockade and airlift, Checkpoint Charlie and the Wall; and thus it is the place where the Cold War was officially terminated. Berlin is where our action has been. Berlin nearly wiped us out.

Which leads to a confession. Berlin was also a place I had never been to. Why? Well, I was born in London in 1941. The house I lived in was hit three times by bombs (not that I noticed or was old enough to count). They were probably German bombs (though I do not dismiss the possibility that English bombs fell by mistake — as in an Ealing comedy). You see, I was raised as a helpless victim of propaganda. In short, I went to see British war films made in the 10 or so years after the war that were generally more stupid, more exultant and more anti-German than those made during the war (think of “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”).

I was afraid of Germany, and of the country that had done such terrible things. I still am — just as I realize now that many Germans feel exactly the same way.

Ideally in programming a retrospective of 60 years of the Berlinale, and in order to dispel my last reservations, I would have shown some Lubitsch, Lang and Murnau, and I might even have shown “Triumph of the Will” (in fact, it is against the law in Germany now to show that film — and I think it might be time to amend that law). But I would have shown “Germany Year Zero,” “People on Sunday,” Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair,” Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” and film after film by Fassbinder.

There was no time for such extras (that’s hardly a surprise), and so I faced the absurd task of choosing from all the thousands of films that have played the Berlin Film Festival. Should I pick the prizewinners? Would you try to pay tribute to the Academy by running all its best pictures — or are you kinder than that? I recognized that Berlin in its very argumentative nature had always enjoyed “scandals” or big events, films that were fiercely debated — and so I felt more inclined to honor “The Deer Hunter” and “Ai No Corrida.” As I looked back over the early years, I saw films I might not have seen in a long time — Alf Sjoberg’s “Miss Julie” and the Powell and Pressburger “The Tales of Hoffmann” — that I longed to see again. As I went through the lists and the books, I came upon a wondrous still of Julia Roberts in “Mary Reilly” and I thought (as I have done ever since that film came out in 1996) that it was misunderstood, that it is an extraordinary version of a subject — the Jekyll and Hyde tale — that is very Scottish, very English and very German. So I selected “Mary Reilly,” not quite foreseeing the furore there would be. To cut a long story short, the retrospective screening of “Mary Reilly” in Berlin will be presented by myself and its director Stephen Frears — he will speak against the movie and I will defend it.

Quite literally, thousands of worthy films are not in my retrospective. But don’t let that put you off seeing Skolimowski’s “Le Depart,” Renoir’s “The River” or Larissa Shapitko’s “The Ascent.” Or take the chance to see Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” again on a bigscreen. All I have tried to do, using the Berlin lists, is to show the way diverse countries and moods have contributed to our history. I hope there will be films that surprise the audience. I hope there will be some films that many people have not seen. Are there holes in the list? Yes! Too few comedies, too few musicals, too few fantasies. But Berlin may not be the easiest place for sustaining such dreams. Indeed, most of the 20th century dreams formed in Berlin turned to ruin — and a good thing, too.