A star-studded 62nd Berlin Film Festival
On Valentine's Day, Hollywood icon Meryl Streep was up on the podium at the Hyatt Hotel taking questions from the press. She was attending the 62nd Berlin Film Festival. The room was packed and a crowd outside was pressing to get in. Cameras were poised at the front of the room taking shots from every angle. Streep was gracious and smiled benevolently. She had come to Berlin for the award of an Honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement. In the middle of questions about her latest movie “The Iron Lady” about British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a young Austrian journalist stood up and announced that the bunch of white roses he was holding were for her. Then he jumps onto the podium, hands them to her and kisses her on both cheeks. She takes it in stride and laughs saying, “Oh my husband didn't send me flowers.”
Talking about the Golden Bear award, she said, “It's like a dream.” Speaking about “The Iron Lady” she said it's a film that seeks to address the themes of power, loss of power and the costs of “the big life.” What did she think about playing the controversial 1980s' politician? “I learned a lot of things that surprised me,” she said. “Yes, she was unreasonable, autocratic and had hubris …but she followed her beliefs. And though she would not have admitted it, she was a feminist.” Then a Russian journalist walked forward to present Streep with a Matroschka doll painted by a Siberian artist with images of her in some of her iconic roles. And another journalist took the mike and told Streep “I love you Meryl!” Now she looked amazed and the crowd applauded. It looked like the 2012 Berlinale was Meryl Streep's festival.
But the festival this year was also being called the “Jolinale” reflecting the impact of megastar Angelina Jolie who had spent several days here, together with partner Brad Pitt and some of her children. She was in town to present her debut film as director -- “In the Land of Blood and Honey”. The film is a heart-breaking tale set in wartime Bosnia in the early 1990s and relentlessly transmits the horrors, cruelty and senselessness of that war, of all wars. It zeroes in on a young couple whose budding love is thwarted and poisoned by the conflict, in which they find themselves on opposite sides.
Speaking to the press, Jolie said about the film: “We wanted to learn what happens to societies, to human beings in war, how they're changed by war. The couple's love could have been beautiful but it wasn't because war changed everything.” The film is harrowing because as Jolie put it, “We had a responsibility to show that war is truly horrible.” The audience, the press loved Jolie's commitment to making the world a better place knowing that she could be relaxing in the lap of luxury if she chose. And there was an award for Jolie at the 11th Peace Gala in Berlin. It was presented by Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed el Baradei and a laudatio was delivered by anti-poverty campaigner Bob Geldof to a star-studded audience.
But the festival also made room for entertaining films aimed at a different audience. There was feverish excitement at another venue ahead of a special gala screening of director Farhan Akhtar's “Don -- the King is Back”. In this Indian-German co-production, the Don's escapades take him to Berlin, which is what gives this pretty vacuous action film a connection to the festival. A charming gangster and a beautiful female cop do battle. Opposites attract. The considerable German fan base of Bollywood giant Shah Rukh Khan was mobilised for the gala event -- with signs, flags, saris and sometimes screams, eagerly awaiting the arrival of their idol. They may have been a little disappointed at the Hollywood look-alike film that was missing the joy, sorrow and emotion of Khan's earlier films. But the audience's adulation was undiminished when Khan appeared on stage at the end of the film, joined by Priyanka Chopra and director Akhtar, charming his fans with appreciative comments about Berlin and playful posing as the Don. “Will you marry me?” -- cried one corpulent admirer from the audience. To appreciative cheers Khan jovially replied, “Of course. On my next visit.”
The Berlinale is known as a “political” film festival and this was underlined in the speech of German Cultural State Minister Naumann at the opening ceremony when he pronounced, “The film festival is more political than ever. It reflects our time of upheaval and change. It unifies in an exemplary way great cinema, political reflection and openness to the world.” Noting the role of film as a motor for change, he said this meant that courageous filmmakers, activists and artistes working in the Middle East / North Africa and elsewhere faced persecution. He emphasised the importance of the festival showing solidarity with democracy, human rights and artistic freedom. “Democracy needs culture and culture needs freedom,” he said. A theme of the conference was the Arab Spring with documentaries, feature films and podium discussions featuring outstanding writers, journalists and filmmakers including the Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jalloun and Spanish actor and producer Javier Bardem.
The eight-person international jury this year was chaired by British film director Mike Leigh and included stars like Jake Gyllenhall, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Barbara Sukowa and Algerian writer Boualem Sansal, who were introduced at the opening ceremony. Like last year, there was an Iranian representative on the jury, director Asghar Farhadi, whose 2011 film “Nader und Simin -- Eine Trennung” won the Golden Bear at last year's Berlinale. Last year his fellow Iranian film director Jafar Panahi was a jury member but was not permitted by the Iranian government to attend the festival.
The French film, “Farewell My Queen”, which was a contender in the competition section opened the festival. German actress Diane Kruger starred in this slow-moving film in the role of Queen Marie Antoinette, who was beheaded during the French Revolution. The story covers a period of time leading up to and immediately following the storming of the Bastille in Paris when the royal court was in confusion and disarray about what the events outside meant for them. Kruger, the director and fellow cast members were on hand for the screening.
French actress Isabelle Isabelle Huppert was here to promote another contender, “Captive”, together with Philippine director Brillante Mendoza. The film is based on the true story of a kidnapping of tourists and missionaries in 2001. According to Huppert , Mendoza's approach as a director was to use the script only as a general guideline and to keep the actors in suspense from day to day, just like the experience of hostages. “It's not a classical movie,” she said. It was the most incredible and extreme experience I've ever lived!”
At the Berlinale too each day was a little different than expected. An estimated 60,000 visitors were in town for the festival, braving freezing temperatures and snow. They had a choice among nearly 400 films screened at the festival during its 10 day run, from February 9 to 19.