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The Boston Phoenix Say Hello to Hollywood

The Berlin Film Festival enters the Tinseltown era

By Jeffery Gantz

MARCH 13, 2000:  "When they begin copying Hollywood, it's all over," Billy Wilder told a reporter from Berlin's Die Welt newspaper back in 1952. Say hello to Hollywood, Billy. The year 2000 saw the Americanization of the Berlin Film Festival, which celebrated its 50th anniversary (and first in the capital of a united Germany) in its glitzy new corporate quarters at Potsdamer Platz, with its searchlights panning the sky as if looking for Wim Wenders's angels, its massive red-carpet entrance just waiting for Joan Rivers to pounce on Leonardo DiCaprio, and its giant outdoor video screen enabling the public to ogle the stars at live press conferences. You can sum up the difference between the old festival and the new by their respective shopping malls: the Europa Center, at the heart of the old West Berlin, is a rabbit warren where you can browse and get lost for an entire afternoon, whereas the new Potsdamer Platz Arkade is a three-story straight-line affair à la Lechmere or Copley Place.

Here's one critic's lowdown on Berlinale 2000:

Good movies may be in short supply at Berlinale 2000 (of course, the critics say that about every film festival), but stars aren't. Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, and Jude Law turn up for The Talented Mr. Ripley, George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube for Three Kings (out of competition), Kenneth Branagh, Alicia Silverstone, and Natascha McElhone for Love's Labour's Lost, plus all the directors. But once the star of The Beach hits town, Leomania rules. DiCaprio, alas, leaves a trail of tears: "Leonardo broke thousands of Berlin girls' hearts," "Teenie hunt for Leonardo," and "Leo disappointed his Berlin fans," the tabloids scream. Not that Leo is the only Ugly American at Berlinale 2000: festival director Moritz de Hadeln sends a heated note to Warner Bros. after the Three Kings delegation keeps the press waiting a half-hour and then delays the screening another 25 minutes.

Digital wave of the future? Having missed the festival's opener, Wim Wenders's The Million Dollar Hotel, I'm happy to read in the Berlinale's daily news mag, Moving Pictures, that the Sony-sponsored digital-cinematography workshop over at Sony's circus-tent-topped CineStar complex will include "a special electronic screening" of Wenders's film. Said "screening" turns out to be just a five-minute snippet, but the workshop does include some test footage that Wenders shot with a Sony digital 24p film camera, the lack of grain and occasional "jaggies" being compensated for by the almost painted surfaces (Cologne at sunset looking like Caspar David Friedrich). This isn't just irrelevant technology of the future: Wenders used a Betacam digital camera for The Buena Vista Social Club, and George Lucas is planning to shoot the next Star Wars installment digitally. But the bottom line is money: consider spending $40,000 for 40 minutes of film stock and processing as against $70 for the digital equivalent.

Playing hooky I: My professor friend at the American Academy in Berlin invites me to a Saturday-morning Goethe-Institut party to which she assures me famous directors are coming. On arrival, however, I learn that only famous German film directors are expected, and apart from Wim Wenders and Volker Schlöndorff (neither of whom is in attendance), who would that be? The one filmmaker I snag (easily identifiable by his black turtleneck and dark glasses) is Peter Semple from Hamburg, who's making a documentary about Lemmy Kilmister and Motörhead.

Playing hooky II. Having tossed away the morning, and with the sun actually shining (a rarity here in February), I'm not going to spend the afternoon indoors watching Leonardo gambol through The Beach, so I jump on the U-Bahn and rode up to Jahn Sportpark, where Hertha Amateurs are playing FC Union in a minor-league Berlin derby. What I expect: something on the order of BU versus Northeastern, wooden bleachers, neighborhood atmosphere. What I get: a 22,000-seat stadium metal-fenced into two halves, 200 or so policemen, and security even tighter than what the Berlinale is providing for Leonardo -- right in front of me guards are patting down an angelic-looking blonde eight-year-old girl and taking away her water bottle. FC Union is the old East Berlin workers' team, and its devoted fans take no prisoners. A smart reporter would enter through the home gate and bask in the bright sun among the 300 or so Hertha supporters; me, I wind up on the chilly visitors' side, in the midst of 2500 rabid fans whose suspicious stares stop only when I repair to the souvenir stand and come back with an FC Union baseball cap. After surviving the first half, I stage an honorable retreat to the Berlinale, where the civil-war horrors of Aleksandr Proschkin's Catherine-the-Great-era melodrama Russkij Bunt ("The Captain's Daughter") seem tame by comparison.

Whoa, Moritz, we haven't even written anything negative yet! I'm heading toward the Film Market area with the Phoenix's "Film Culture" columnist, Gerald Peary, when we nearly get run down by a Velo taxi carrying a smiling gentleman of distinguished appearance. "That looked like Moritz de Hadeln," I gasp. "That was Moritz de Hadeln," is Gerry's answer. Well, we all know the critics are expendable, but surely it's bad form to wipe out a juror (Gerry is one of the judges for FIPRESCI, the international federation of film journalists) before he's seen all the competition movies. As for the Velo taxis, they're rickshaws that run on bicycle power; I never find one available, but this free shuttle service promises to take guests as far afield as the Delphi cinema, a mere half-hour trip at the vehicle's top speed of 15 mph. Maybe next year.

A little night music, please. One thing the 50th Berlinale has that the previous 49 did not is its own bank of restaurants and nightspots. The Restaurant Potsdamer Platz 1 is as Milan-upscale as you'd expect from an establishment whose name is its address -- beige would stick out like neon red here, and at most the vermouth will be allowed to breathe on your martini. Just down the street, Andy's Diner & Bar promises "Coca-Cola" and "Miller Genuine Draft" -- it's Edward Hopper come to Berlin. Billy Wilder's is dark, intimate, and American (ask for a Manhattan, or a Berliner Weiße); Alex is dark, intimate, and European/eclectic, with palm trees and lindy-hopping waiters. Most Impressive Entrance award goes to the Sony CineStar's Cinebar: a red carpet on which has been imprinted the typewritten screenplay from Taxi Driver leads to a futuristic bar whose glass counter slowly changes from blue to aqua to green and back (for maximum color contrast order Campari and soda).

And the films? I finally catch up with The Million Dollar Hotel in a tiny theater in Neukölln, the only place in Berlin where Wenders's film isn't dubbed into German. (The Boston equivalent would be finding the only undubbed print of, say, Wings of Desire in Hyde Park.) Wenders's tale of down-and-outers in a fleabag LA hotel is buoyed by great performances from Jeremy Davies, Milla Jovovic, and Mel Gibson, but this is black comedy that takes itself seriously, and I can't buy into either the characters or the plot. There's a mystery that gets unraveled at the end, and a moving final thought from Davies, but that's not enough to excite the critics or the public or, in the end, the competition jury (which gives it only a consolation prize).

All the same, American films dominate Berlinale 2000. Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia wins the Golden Bear, the fourth Hollywood victor in the past five years (Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line won in '99, Brazilian Walter Salles's Central Station in '98, Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flint in '97, Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility in '96). Magnolia also finishes a comfortable first in the Tagesspiegel newspaper's critics' poll. Milos Forman's Man on the Moon (Best Director), Norman Jewison's The Hurricane (Best Actor for Denzel Washington), and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley (in Berlin as in America award-challenged) all generate a decent buzz, and even that sackful of (accurate) football clichés, Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday is treated like a serious competition entry.

Of course, these films have already opened in the US, which explains why the American press hasn't descended on this Berlinale like the blackbirds that crowd the rooftops about Zoo Station. The non-American competition contingent is marked by lots of voiceovers (which dissipate most of the suspense), large casts (which keep the characters at a distance), and stories that reflect gloomily on this century or else retreat from it. Augusti Villarongi's El mar ("The Sea") serves up two suicides and three murders as it inflicts on its characters the Spanish Civil War, tuberculosis, and sexual and homosexual repression; Ljubisa Samardzic's Nebeska udica ("Sky Hook") tries to find escape from the NATO bombing of Belgrade in basketball; Volker Schlöndorff's Die Stille nach dem Schuß ("The Legends of Rita") presents its terrorist heroine as a victim of the political double-dealing between East and West Germany. Less ambitious films like Rudolf Thome's Paradiso -- Sieben Tage mit Sieben Frauen ("Paradiso -- Seven Days with Seven Women"), Stanley Kwan's You shi tiaowu ("Island Tales"), Lucio Gaudino's Prime luci dell'alba ("First Light of Dawn"), and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Mayis skintisi ("Clouds of May") at best realize a few small, feel-good moments. Jonathan Nossiter's Athens-set Signs and Wonders and Laetitia Masson's Love Me share the unofficial prize for most confusing entry, though I suspect Masson's imaginative and original film, which cuts between Sandrine Kiberlain's dreams and her real life, both present and in flashback (and you can hardly tell which is which), might reward a second viewing; I hope it reaches the US.

My favorite competition film is Zhang Yimou's Wo de fu qin mu qin ("The Road Home"), a cousin to last year's Venice Golden Lion Winner Yi ge dou bu neng shao ("Not One Less"), in which Gong Li look-alike Zhang Ziyi plays an 18-year-old village girl who falls for the new schoolteacher. Ju Dou or The Red Lantern this is not. Many will find The Road Home sentimental and nostalgic and politically naive; I'd call it Zhang's John Ford film -- certainly the shot of the schoolteacher's funeral procession snaking through the snow bears comparison with Ford's best. It receives the Silver Bear from the competition jury, whose president is Gong Li herself, Zhang's erstwhile and estranged star. My favorite film overall is Kenneth Branagh's out-of-competition Love's Labour's Lost: he turns Shakespeare's play into a 93-minute musical set in 1939 Oxbridge, where our heroes (including Alicia Silverstone, Natascha McElhone, Adrian Lester, and Nathan Lane) sing and dance to Gershwin, Kern, and Berlin before World War II intrudes. The crooning and hoofing are more than adequate, Branagh's condensation is expert, and there's a deadpan-uproarious running newsreel parody and, at the end, even a Casablanca homage.

Unter den Linden. On the press shuttle bus, FIPRESCI president Klaus Eder recalls for me a more innocent time when the Berlinale was held in June, when festival guests could sit out under the lindens (Berlin's signature tree) and argue over the films, when you could go to a movie marathon at midnight, then breakfast at four and fall into bed around eight. In 1978 the politics of international film festivals prompted the Berlinale to switch to its present winter date, and there's no likelihood of its moving back. Which is shame, I think, looking at a linden leaf that a friend saved for me from last summer, because the heart-shaped foliage would be the perfect symbol for a film festival that, underneath the Hollywood glitz, still has heart.

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