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Bordering on miraculous

Ekkehard Knörer is pretty optimistic about this year's Berlin film festival

Keith Richards in Martin Scorsese's "Shine A Light", Neil Young alias Bernard Shakey in "CSNY Deja vu", Eugene Hutz in Madonna's "Filth And Wisdom"

There will be plenty of music at Berlinale 2008, that much is sure. Yesterday evening the festival and the Competition opened with Martin Scorsese's homage to The Rolling Stones, "Shine a Light". The film tries its best to create a backstage atmosphere with wobbly and grainy black and white footage. But you don't buy it for a minute that there might have been any real problems with the playlist or the set. Afterall this is a meeting of two professional corporations. "Making this film was like drinking the elixir of youth," Scorsese said at the press conference later. Keith Richards grinned. "Yes we also rejuvenated ourselves several times during the making of the film."

The complementary film programmes include documentaries with Neil Young (who, as Bernard Shakey, presents a tour of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young) and Patti Smith "Dream of Life". And Madonna is also putting in an appearance, following up on her rather flaccid second career as an actress with a directorial debut "Filth and Wisdom." Not that these musicians have much in common with good cinema in the narrow sense of the term, and they certainly aren't the new big thing. But Papa Scorsese and Mama Smith aren't the worst parents in the world.

"Patti Smith: Dream Of Life"

And "worst" is about the friendliest adjective you could use to describe last year's Competition, which hastened from low point to low point. Last year, festival director Dieter Kosslick's shameless fixation on proportional representation, pseudo-politics and celebrity brought with it an open disregard for qualitative and aesthetic criteria, terminating - one might say thankfully - in a declaration of artistic bankruptcy. And now that things really can't get any worse, one could say, with cautious optimism, that the current year looks at least on paper to be a lot more promising.

Daniel Day Lewis in P.T. Anderson's "There Will Be Blood"

As far as quality goes, P.T. Anderson's oil-epic "There Will Be Blood," with a once again frighteningly intense Daniel Day-Lewis, is beyond all doubt. His Oscar is already settled, as is the German premiere, which will take place before the Berlinale ends. That aside, Hollywood will be represented chiefly in the nonsensical category "Competition/Out of Competition," which can best be translated as "If you give us the stars, we'll book the B-League too." Bargain packs like "The Other Boleyn Girl" with Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman or "Fireflies in the Garden" with Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Emily Watson and Carrie-Ann Moss are the kind of offers that the Berlinale just can't refuse. Music video genius Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") is also a part of this category, with "Be Kind, Rewind." In his case, if you can't hope for a strict plot, you're guaranteed a stack of the most delightful home-made film experiments. He tells the story of a guy who works in a video store (Jack Black) who, after accidentally erasing all the video cassettes, opts to refilm them himself in the cheapest way possible and to astonishing success. The only Eastern Europe film in the Competition is Andrzej Wajda's "Katyn".

John Malkovich in Damian Harris' "Gardens of the Night", Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky und Jim Myron Ross in Lance Hammer's "Ballast"

From the US independent sector comes first-time director Lance Hammer's Sundance hit "Ballast," a family portrait set in the Mississippi delta, as well as Damian Harris's "Gardens of the Night," which tells the story of two abducted and abused children and features John Malkovich. Erick Zonca, whose "La vie revee des anges" remains a pleasant memory ten years later, also makes his English-language debut. Zonca presents a thriller "Julia," with the fabulous Tilda Swinton (photo) as a woman astray. We can also look forward to Mike Leigh's new comedy "Happy-Go-Lucky," since Leigh has never been known to sink below a certain standard. Friendly familiar Berlinale faces rather than true masters perhaps, Japan's Yoji Yamada and France's Robert Guediguian are back, the latter, whose somewhat unsuccessful Mitterand-portrait "Le promeneur du champ du Mars" showed in Berlin in 2005, returns with "Lady Jane" to the Marseilles where his earlier films were so convincingly rooted.

Tilda Swinton in Erick Zonca's "Julia"

The Made in Germany section is looking a bit dead. The most exciting young German auteurs have no finished projects to offer and Dominik Graf has again only filmed for TV. This leaves only Doris Dörrie's death and lost dreams film "Hanami - Kirschblüten" (Cherry Blossoms),and Luigi Falorni's filming of Senait Mehari's life story "Feuerherz" (Heart of Fire), which is already making headlines for its creative interpretation of the truth.

Kelly Lin in Johnnie To's "The Sparrow"

It looks as if the highlights might come from the far east this year. Johnnie To, Hong Kong's most interesting directors in years, presents one of those projects close to his heart (like "PTU," from the Forum programme five years ago) that he directs between his top-class commercial productions. "Sparrow" (photo) is, with several interruptions, four years in the making; so you can expect something special. Perhaps most delightful, though, is the acceptance of Hong Sang-Soo's new film "Bam Gua Nat" (Night and Day) into the Competition. This Korean director (more here) is among the most headstrong and exciting representatives of contemporary world cinema. A male artist gets engulfed in romantic entanglements: no surprises there for Hong, whose works depends on variations of trusted territory, rather that constant new inventions. This time, though, Hong has left his homeland and transplanted Seoul to Paris. Almost miraculously, this breathtaking meeting of two unfamiliar worlds is showing in Berlin, not in Cannes. It really looks as though the stars are aligning for a good year.

Ekkehard Knörer

Translation: Michael Roberts

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