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Breathless: a Berlinale diary

Ekkehard Knörer guides us through the rather populist selection of the Competition and the overwhelming variety that awaits film fans in the Panorama and Forum sections.

See all our Berlinale film reviews at a glance.

The Berlinale is in the sixth year of Dieter Kosslick's regency, and the trend is to consolidation. Unlike in the past, this year has seen no minor structural modifications or new types of events, that is apart from a focus on cookery and culinary cinema. But Kosslick, who was awarded the Eckart Witzigmann Prize by the German Academy for Culinary Studies last year, sees the food focus as icing on the cinematic cake. In contrast to the endless fiddling of recent years, everything now appears very much to the head chef's tastes. And at first sight there seems to be no reason to complain. Business is booming, a particularly high number of films were submitted this year, and Martin Gropius Bau museum, site of the festival's "European Film Market" once again threatens to burst at the seams. There will be stars galore, and even if George Clooney can't come, Clint Eastwood and Cate Blanchet will step into the breach.

Scene from Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima", Cate Blanchet in Steven Soderbergh's "The Good German"

Unfortunately, from the critic's perspective – international critics included – the state of the festival is by no means as rosy as some boulevard rags and hurrah patriots make it out to be. The major problem – which in fact does primarily have to do with Kosslick the populist – is that the Competition has definitively slid into the realm of aesthetic irrelevance. While the Mostra in Venice under the cinephile Marco Müller has become an excellent yardstick for the state of world cinematography, Kosslick has turned the Berlinale into a motley amusement park, a high-speed discourse-machine that makes much ado, sometimes about nothing and sometimes – worse yet – about sundry political topics that happen to be in vogue. Like some cultural journalist chomping at the day's bit, Kosslick never tires of explaining that responsibility for these issues lies with cinema itself.

Jeanne Balibar in Jacques Rivette's "Don't Touch The Axe", Oldrich Kaiser in Jiri Menzel's "I Served The King Of England"

The very opposite of a firm stance, Kosslick's concept runs: it's all in the mix. Accordingly, the festival dishes up year for year a mixed bag of films where mediocrity seems to be the sole common denominator, selected on the basis of "a bit of this, a bit of that." For Kosslick, art does not lie in originality, reflection or an understanding of form; art is applied social democracy. And so in another bout of the festival's dependable arbitrariness, this year's competition stirs together a good deal of Hollywood (with stars and a tad demanding), a bit of art (but not too demanding), the traditional large dose of Asian ingredients, one or two tried and true or trendy directors, the "Competition (out of competition)" spectacle (the most absurd category in the festival), and last but not least an array of political themes selected with no regard for their cinematic treatment.

Scene from Zack Snyder's "300", Robert de Niro directing "The Good Shepherd"

But enough bellyaching. You can also see things pragmatically and take heart that despite everything there are still plenty of interesting films, if not in the Competition, then in the Panorama and above all in the Forum, although the categories run together far more than in the past. It is very cheering, for example, that "Don't Touch the Axe," the most recent film by Nouvelle Vague master Jacques Rivette, based on Balzac's "La Duchesse de Langeais," will be seen not in Cannes but in Berlin. Other old masters present are Andre Techine and Jiri Menzel, who will show "I Served the King of England," based on the book by Hrabal. Steven Soderbergh is coming from the USA with his 1940s pastiche "The Good German," and Robert De Niro with the Mafia epic "The Good Shepherd." Neither film is a masterpiece if you believe local critics, but they do offer pleasantly ambitious cinema. More interesting perhaps, if "out of competition," is Zack Snyder's film version of Frank Miller's Thermopylae comic "300" and the second part of Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima diptychon "Letters From Iwo Jima."

Lim Soo-jung in Park Chan-wook's "I'm A Cyborg, But That's Ok". Scene from Li Yu's "Lost In Beijing"

The Asian section boasts on the one hand the whimsically titled "I'm a Cyborg, but that's OK," the latest work by South Korean director Park Chan-wook, who was recently much hyped for his style-over-substance spectacles "Oldboy" and "Lady Vengeance." On the other, realistic, end of the spectrum, is the Korean / French co-production "Desert Dream" by Zhang Lu, and the Chinese film "Lost in Beijing" by Li Yu. Last year's "celebration of German cinema," meanwhile, has died down somewhat.

Karl Markowics with sweethearts in Stefan Ruzowitzky's "The Counterfeiter", Nina Hoss in Christian Petzold's "Yella"

It could well be read as a gesture of self-assurance that after the four films in last year's Competiton, there are only one and a half this year. German cinema is on the world's lips again – although it might not (yet) be at the top festivals, it is shown regularly in cinemas in all number of special screenings in Europe and further afield. This success is also visible in the regular appearances of German actors and and actresses in international film festivals: Martina Gedeck is in Robert de Niro's film, Moritz Bleibtreu is in a Paul Schrader, Jasmin Tabatabai a Hal Hartley, Julia Jentsch a Jiri Menzel and Andre Hennicke is in Saverio Costanzo's Italian Competition contribution "In Memory of Myself".

Scene from Pascale Ferran's "Lady Chatterley"

Christian Petzold's "Yella" is his second film after "Gespenster" to be screened in the Competition, making him the most prominent name in the new German cinema, also dubbed "The Berlin School". These films are still having a tough time getting a foothold in Germany and particularly at the Berlinale fairground. Too sparse, too intellectual, too precise to compete with all the noise, too uncompromising for the bellowing stags of populism. Alongside Petzold's "Yella", which almost looks like an attempt to remake the B horror-movie "Carnival of Souls" undetected, Thomas Arslan's "Vacation", Maria Speth's "Madonnas" and Angela Schanelec's "Afternoon" are scattered throughout the Panorama and Forum sections. In the Competition there is Stefan Ruzowitzky's German/Austrian co-production "The Counterfeiters", a story about counterfeit money-making in Nazi Germany based on real events.

Scene from E. J-Yong's "Dasepo Naughty Girls", Robert Wiseman

The Panorama programme includes "Woman on the Beach", a fascinating and hilarious film by Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, who is still virtually unknown in Germany. And there is "Lady Chatterley" based on D.H. Lawrence's novel by director Pascale Ferran, which deservedly received critical acclaim in her native France. "Fay Grim" is the latest work by the former darling of independent film, Hal Hartley, who has recently got caught up in some very peculiar aesthetic worlds. Steve Buscemi's remake of Theo van Gogh's "Interview" (with Sienna Miller) has turned out to be a rather lacklustre psycho conversational duel. And then there's the colourful but hollow film of the comic, "Dasepo Naughty Girls" by E.J-Yong, whose version of "Dangerous Liasons," "Untold Scandal" was such a pleasant surprise two years ago.

Scenes from Okamoto Kihachi's films "The Last Gunfight" and "The Elegant Life"

As always, the Forum section offers an overwhelming variety. For starters there's the excellent "State Legislature" from the grand master of documentary, Frederick Wiseman. He offers nothing to see but three and a half hours of sittings and parliamentary debates from the Capitol of Idaho, the ultra conservative potato state. But one stands to gain nothing less than mind-boggling insights into the machinery of American democracy. At the other end of the spectrum and at just under three hours, comparatively short, is the sole "Bolllywood" film of the festival, the mafia film remake "Don" starring Shah Rukh Khan. And then there are new films from Heinz Emigholz, for example, Guy Maddin and Ulrike Ottinger. There is a small retrospective of selected films by the little-known Japanese genre master Okamoto Kihachi, and Charles Burnett's almost thirty-year-old key work of US independent film, "Killer of Sheep" has finally been given the honour of a festival screening, in its gloriously restored version.

Clara Bow in "It", Asta Nielsen in "Zapatas Bande"

The same goes for the top treat of the retrospective, the screening of the Asta Nielsen classic "Hamlet", with its newly composed score. On closer inspection this has aged considerably less well than something like the "Fleur de Paris" with Mistinguett, another classic film being shown in the "City Girls" retrospective of female stars of the silent screen, or Ernst Lubitsch's wonderful film of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windemere's Fan" with its brilliant conversion of verbal to visual, or the spectacular melodrama "A Cottage on Dartmoor" by the great if almost forgotten Briton, Antony Asquith. Then there are masterpieces that have seldom or never graced cinema screens, such by the likes of Mikio Naruse, Allan Dwan or King Vidor.

Jane Fonda in "The Chase", Paul Newman in "The Left-Handed Gun", both films by Arthur Penn

The second area of focus this year is Hollywood director Arthur Penn, who has given an Honorary Golden Bear. In this section too there are unique opportunities to see works that have almost never been shown on the big screen. However faulty the festival director's concept might be, it is basically impossible to knock a festival like this one. The Retrospective alone is enough to keep any film fan smiling for a long time.

See all our Berlinale film reviews at a glance.

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