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Weighty themes, fest vets fill selections

Kosslick makes a few major course adjustments for Berlinale

Though he’s weathered plenty of criticism of his programming choices in recent years, particularly in the German press, Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick appears to have made few major course adjustments with the festival’s 62nd annual edition. If anything, the sheer number of Berlin alumni in this year’s typically serious-minded competition lineup suggests a deliberate, if not defiant, reaffirmation of the talent Kosslick has brought to the festival over his 11-year tenure.

Three Berlinale regulars will deliver a strong showing for Germany on its home turf. Christian Petzold (“Yella,” last year’s “Dreileben: Beats Being Dead”) is returning with “Barbara,” his latest collaboration with “Yella” thesp Nina Hoss; Hans-Christian Schmid (“Distant Lights,” “Requiem,” “Storm”) is bringing his domestic drama “Home for the Weekend”; and Matthias Glasner (“Die Mediocren,” “Sexy Sadie,” “The Free Will”) explores family tensions in a remote Norwegian town in “Mercy.”

The roster of non-Teuton alums vying for the Golden Bear is equally imposing. Though better known of late for stirring controversy at Cannes, Filipino helmer Brillante Mendoza (whose “Slingshot” premiered in Berlinale’s 2008 Forum section) will deliver one of the fest’s most buzzed-about entries, “Captive,” a kidnapping drama starring Isabelle Huppert. Italy’s Taviani brothers (“The Lark Farm”) will be in attendance with “Caesar Must Die,” centered around a Shakespeare production mounted by maximum-security prison inmates in Rome, while Benedik Fliegauf (“Forest”) makes his competition debut with “Just the Wind,” an account inspired by the murders of Romani families in the helmer’s native Hungary.

Returning to the festival that honored him with a Golden Bear for 2006’s “Tuya’s Marriage,” Wang Quanan is back in competition with “White Deer Plain,” a 188-minute Chinese epic about the Cultural Revolution. Out of competition, Wang’s fellow mainlander Zhang Yimou (a frequent Berlin visitor with such films as “Hero,” “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop,” “Hero” and 1987 Golden Bear winner “Red Sorghum”) will premiere his local B.O. smash “The Flowers of War,” about the 1937-38 Nanjing massacre.

All in all, it’s a fairly bleak-sounding selection based on subject matter alone. It’s par for the course for most festivals and certainly for Berlin, which has never shied away from challenging its audience (easily the largest of any fest, with nearly 400 films screening to roughly 500,000 attendees) with grim, confrontational and politically charged fare.

Partly out of aesthetic pride, partly due to the increasing difficulty of competing with Cannes and Venice for auteur prestige or Hollywood luster, Berlin has often staked its reputation on the promise of challenging but rewarding work from lesser-known international filmmakers, such as Maren Ade’s “Everyone Else” or Ulrich Koehler’s “Sleeping Sickness.” This year it will attempt to keep that promise with such competition debutantes as Ursula Meier (“Sister”), Miguel Gomes (“Tabu”), Frederic Videau (“Coming Home”), Antonio Chavarrias (“Childish Games”), mono-monikered Edwin (“Postcards From the Zoo”) and Kim Nguyen (“War Witch”).

Nonetheless, Kosslick arranged a splashy start with the festival’s opening-night selection, “Farewell, My Queen,” a French Revolution costume drama starring Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette. Helmer Benoit Jacquot’s pic is one of two monarchy-themed historical dramas in competition, both set in roughly the same era; the other is Nikolaj Arcel’s “A Royal Affair,” the story of a small-town physician who rose to power in 16th-century Denmark.

A very different period piece, and one of the fest’s highest-profile selections, is Billy Bob Thornton’s “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” a tale of two rival families set in late-1960s Alabama that happens to be the sole American-directed entry in competition. The U.S./Hollywood presence is stronger in the festival’s noncompeting strands, which will present screenings of Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire,” Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” and Angelina Jolie’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey.”

As usual, the Berlinale will serve as a European platform for Oscar contenders that have already played Stateside, though in terms of critical and commercial reception, the selection of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and “The Iron Lady” reps a considerable downturn from last year’s sterling choices, “True Grit” and “The King’s Speech.” For red-carpet wattage alone, the festival’s hottest ticket may well be Robert Pattinson starrer “Bel Ami,” Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s oft-filmed novel.

Striking less frivolous notes are the numerous documentaries programmed throughout the fest’s sidebars. Past Berlin jury president Werner Herzog will present “Death Row,” a four-part, 188-minute companion-piece to his recent “Into the Abyss” in the Berlinale Special section. Portraits of artists abound, from such world premieres as Kevin Macdonald’s “Marley” and Klaartje Quirijns’ “Anton Corbijn Inside Out” to Sundance-preemed titles including Matthew Akers’ “Marina Abramovic the Artist Is Present” and Alison Klayman’s “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.”

Roughly a month before the one-year anniversary of Japan’s earthquake/tsunami disaster, the Forum will present three nonfiction efforts examining the fallout of the disaster: Shunji Iwai’s “Friends After 3.11,” Toshi Fujiwara’s “No Man’s Zone” and Atsushi Funahashi’s “Nuclear Nation.” It’s the sort of sober, topical programming that befits a festival clearly trying hard to be taken seriously; whether the quality lives up to the promise, only the next 10 days or so will tell.