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58th Berlin Festival Opens with Mick, and Marty, and Pen and Ben

2008 is not only the 58th edition of this major European film festival, all old, but it is also the ninth anniversary of the move from West Berlin to Potsdamer Platz in the actual physical center of the new undivided Berlin. The present location, now an ultra-modern stand of new architecture including the space age SONY Center, a film museum, many upscale restaurants and two sets of state-of-the-art cinema multiplexes among its many attractions, was once a No-Man’s-Land hugging the sinister wall between East and West during most of the Cold-War years. When the wall came tumbling down in ’89 and the two Germanys were reunited it soon became apparent that a move from the old West Berlin HQ on Budapster Strasse in the shadow of the monumental bombed out WW II relic Gedächtnis Kirche would soon be in the offing. The festival was set up originally by the American occupiers of West Berlin in 1951 as a kind of cultural counter-attack to the Soviet encirclement and isolation of the city and the present SONY Center location is a kind of reminder that it's about time to start forgetting the Hitler Era and move on to better things.

The festival is now so firmly ensconced in its new surroundings that the old days when the oceanic Zoo Palast was the venue for gala events is now a fast fading memory, although the Zoo Palace cinema is still used for certain peripheral screenings and a few other venues on the distant west side of town such as the Delphi film palace in Charlottenberg and the Urania cinema on a wide boulevard closer in to the new center are still used as regular festival screening sites. The new gala center of the festival, however, is the 1,600 seat Berlinale Palast located at aptly named Number 1 Marlene Dietrich Platz. This imposing piece of modern architecture with its soaring glass façade was designed by Renzo Piano and is used as a music theater the rest of the year. This is where the gala red carpet star arrivals are now staged and simultaeously shown on a giant TV screen off to the side of the main entrance. Across the square the nerve center of the festival is the Hyatt hotel which is where the press conferences following principal screenings are held and where the computer room for the press corps is located. At the side of this building there is always a crush of cordoned off stargazers during the day, waiting patiently whatever the weather, to catch a glimpse of a big star checking in for a press conference through the side entrance. On Day One, Friday, it was the arrival of director Martin Scorcese and the Rolling Stones live, here to present the opening film of the fest, Scorcese’s rockumentary “Shine A Light” featuring the seemingly ageless Stones.

The big arrival yesterday, (Day 2) was Daniel Day-Lewis, here to plug his latest, the highly touted oil tycoon drama, “There Will Be Blood”. Today, Sunday, day number three, the conference hall was festooned with the appearance in the flesh of the smouldering dark haired beauty, Penelope Cruz, the Spanish star being accompanied by hairless British actor Ben Kingsley, and French femme director Isabel Coixet, representing the competition film “Elegy” in which Ben and Pen are the improbable focus of love interest. At the press conference table seated next to each other they comprised a remarkable visual contrast as Penelope has an amazing pile of brown hair topping off her delicate features that looks almost like a haystack – enough hair to easily cover two heads, whereas Sir Kingsley (he has been knighted and the word “sir” was clearly printed on the name card in front of him) was sporting a completely shaved crown with not even a strand or two at the neck – the Cueball and the Haystack. Sir Ben looking no different than he did as Ghandi, the role for which he won the Best Actor Academy Award, 1982, was quite straightforward but discrete in answering questions regarding his feelings for his beauteous younger co-star. “We create characters who love each other on the screen and as characters we do – aside from the fact that working together intently on the film over a period of time creates a certain feeling of intimacy among all of us” (nodding towards Ms. Coixet, who nods her agreement). All I can say is, ‘nice work if you can get it’. Penelope spoke slightly accented but clear coherent English and exhibited a lively, engaging personality. No shrinking violet she. Giant illuminated images of her glowing physiognomy and big brown eyes are all over the place these days, around Potsdamer Square and everywhere else as well it seems, as Ms. Cruz is this year’s Oréal icon. It was actually kind of sobering to see that in the flesh she is just a rather petite, nice-looking young lady with an incredible mass of hair on her head.
Come to think of it, Incidentally, Jagger was also knighted (2003) so that, even if nobody goes around calling him “Sir Mick” that still does make two authentic “sirs” in three days here, which is a record not too many film festivals can boast of. .
This is just the beginning of the fest and more screen Divas are expected to show as the days roll buy. Personally, I’m hoping to lay eyes on Scarlett Johannson who plays Ann Boleyn’s sister (opposite Natalie Portman) in “The Other Boleyn Girl” scheduled for a world premier here on the 15th. Other upcoming films of interest in competition or non-competition special slots include; “Fireflies in the Garden” with Julia Roberts and Willem Dafoe, “French director Robert Guédiguian’s “Lady Jane” which is a gritty socio-drama but has oblique references to the Stones’ song of the same name, and a new Mike Leigh film called “Happy Go Lucky”. Films by famous directors in the over-seventy five category include “Kabei – Our Mother” by Japanese old master Yamada Yoji (third time in Berlin with a competition film), and the Polish non-competition entry “Katyn” by 80 year old director Andrzej Wajda who has been a familiar figure in Berlin over the years and was warded a Life Work career Golden Bear here three years ago. The Katyn film dealing with the mass murder of Polish Prisoners of war in WWII by the Russians which was cynically blamed on the Germans and covered up for decades afterward, created quite a sensation in Poland when it came out there in September but this will be its first unvieling at a major international film festival.
Among an enticing slate of sidebar events are two retrospectives of distinguished twentieth century directors, Spaniard Luis Bunuel, who died in 1983 at the age of 83, and Italian director Francesco Rosi who was born in 1922 and is still around – in fact, Mr. Rosi, now 84, will be coming around to Berlin to present some of his films. The Bunuel retro is a complete review of all of his films starting with the immortal “Andalusian Dog” (1931) which starts out with a scene of an eyeball being sliced in half with a razor blade –brrrr… and covering all of his Mexican and French works. Rosi is a director who unflinchingly attacked the Maffia, the petroleum industry, and every other form of corrupted power in films such as “Lucky Luciano”, “The Mattei Affair” and “Christ Stopped at Eboli”.

For those with a fine tuned palate there is a section of films involved with Cuisine (among them Bunuel’s “Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie” which has a long dinner scene) which will be coupled with a gourmet food tasting following the projection. Sounds like a tasty dish to me. ´

Among films centering on music is "Trip to Asia", a documentary following the Berlin Philharmonic to Japan under the baton of that man with the outstanding crown of unmistakable gray curls, British star conductor Simon Rattle. And in the realm of cinema curiosities, an iconic singing pop star turns to directing a feature film. The name of the flick is ¨Filth and Wisdom¨and the first time director is none other than Luise Ciccone, better known as Madonna¨. I asked a German journalist who has already seen it if it was at all interesting, and his considered assessment was,¨It wasn't as bad as I expected it to be¨.
Looks like it's going to be an interesting ten days with maybe a few bumps here and there. Please fasten your seat belts and stay tuned.
Alex Deleon in Berlin.
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