A seasoned Berlin Film Festival goer looks at how the event maintains its niche in a crowded international marketplace.
8 Feb 2012 - 11:19 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:10 PM

My first Berlin Film Festival had been in February 1991, not much more than a year after the Berlin Wall had fallen. The city was waking out of a deep kind of slumber, having been hidden away for so long and the festival was keen to incorporate much of the city's newly incorporated landmarks and venues in the former East.

Now, of course, the festival largely takes place in glittering new buildings in Potsdamer Platz, formerly a no man's land between East and West Berlin, while the European Film Market (EFM) is held nearby in the historic arts museum, Martin-Gropius-Bau, which stands just near remnants of the Berlin Wall in an area that once housed Hitler's Gestapo and SS. So there's a lot to take in even if you're at a film festival.

The Berlinale, as it is known, boasts an extensive program of films that are attended by a huge local audience. Its competition might not attract the strongest of films, which usually aim for Cannes (for prestige) or the Venice and Toronto events, which are timelier for the awards season and the autumn release of dramatic films in the US. Yet it makes up for that in its eclecticism.

The festival also programs the world's largest showcase of gay and lesbian cinema, and two Generations sections dedicated to older and younger children—this is where many antipodean films have premiered of late. After such screenings, children in the audience are able to ask questions, as they did in regards to the rusty red canine in last year's Red Dog. This year, Kiwi director Robert Sarkies (Scarfies, Out of the Blue) will be on hand to present the New Zealand feature Two Little Boys starring Australia's Hamish Blake (Hamish and Andy) and Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords). The film tells of a long-term friendship being put under pressure by an unfortunate incident involving a hot meat pie, a ginger cat and the untimely death of a Scandinavian soccer star, or so the blurb says. The kids are bound to ask about the cat—and not to have a clue about the meat pie.

The Oscars and the BAFTAS (the awards ceremony is Feb 12) take a little heat out of the festival which always strives to include a few of the contenders in its program. Meryl Streep is even receiving a lifetime achievement award and the 17-time nominee (this year for The Iron Lady), who is always good value in person—and funnier than one might expect—is bound to put on a show. Max von Sydow, who has received a best supporting actor nomination for Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, will also be in Berlin.

While the previous Berlinale director Moritz de Hadeln had more of a bent towards Hollywood, Dieter Kosslick, who has helmed the fest since 2002, is more inclined towards European cinema. This fact often means that the list of festival films that end up reaching our cinemas is a short one. Strangely enough, for the moment this list does not yet include Angelina Jolie's directing debut, the Serbian war picture In the Land of Blood and Honey, even though it's apparently good. The film, which has no stars though it features Slavic stalwart Rade Šerbedžija, did badly at the US box office (US$231,845). This is a turn-off for Australian distributors who will wait until the price comes down before snapping it up.

The burning question, of course, is whether Jolie's path will cross with that of her ex, Billy Bob Thornton, who at the time of our interview for the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) was wearing a vial of his then wife's blood—as she was wearing his. Thornton's fourth dramatic feature as director, Jayne Mansfield's Car, is a world premiere and stars Thornton, John Hurt, Ray Stevenson, Robert Duvall and Australia's Frances O'Connor. As in The Hunter, O'Connor is a woman amongst a seasoned cast of male actors, though she says she doesn't mind at all. “There is not a lot of ego involved: you just come to work.”

[ Watch interview with Frances O'Connor for The Hunter ]

Keanu Reeves will visit the festival to mentor young filmmakers and to present Christopher Kenneally's Side By Side, a documentary about filmmaking featuring the likes of James Cameron, Danny Boyle, David Fincher and Richard Linklater. More in heartthrob mode will be Robert Pattinson, who romances older women including Uma Thurman in Bel Ami, an adaptation of the classic French Guy de Maupassant novel, while Isabella Rossellini teams up again with Guy Maddin for Keyhole after they made The Saddest Music in the World together in 2003.

Many of the Berlin films will be political. Most prominently, Isabelle Huppert, soon to appear on stage in A Streetcar at the Adelaide Festival, stars in Brilliante Mendoza's fact-based Captured (pictured) about foreigners kidnapped in the Philippines, while Javier Bardem will be the interviewer in Sons of the Cloud: The Last Colony, a documentary he produced about the current political turmoil in Northern Africa. As in Jolie's film, there's blood in the title of Daniele Vicari's harrowing Diaz - Don't Clean Up This Blood, a dramatic reconstruction of the police brutality during the 2001 G8 Summit in Genoa from the viewpoints of the police and local and foreign citizens who were caught up in the tragedy.

Retrospectives have long been an integral part of the Berlinale program. One of Kosslick's coups this year is the festival's ambitious A German-Russian Film Experiment that focuses on films made between the two countries during the 1920s and early 1930s, a period that became important in the development of cinema aesthetics.