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49th Berlin International
Film Festival (1999)

by Eddie Cockrell


Hollywood, History and Sex:
The Berlin Film Festival Delivers on All Three

Posted 19 February 1999

Brlien, 16 February -- "You are the first people to see this, ever!" gushed a young American filmmaker to a sold-out theater in the early days of the 49th Berlin International Film Festival, and it is this giddy spirit of discovery (repeated with only minor variations by not a few other directors) that seizes nearly everyone during the 12 days of excess promised -- and delivered on -- by this huge festival.

At just past the halfway point, the event has taken, as is its custom, a number of different paths. Each of these strands represents a strong part of what this huge, eclectic festival strives for, and the fact that to date there don’t seem to be clear-cut buzz titles on the lips of everyone at the central Cine Center on the Budapesterstrasse, well, there are plenty more movies to unspool between now and 21 February.

On one hand, the Hollywood studio machine has cranked up to full bore, with appearances and/or press conferences by Steven Spielberg (The Last Days), Spanish hunk Javier Bardem (Between the Legs), Brenda Blethyn (Little Voice), Tim Roth (The War Zone), Meryl Streep (One True Thing), Bruce Willis (Breakfast of Champions) and a large percentage of the cast from The Thin Red Line (including Sean Penn and Nick Nolte). Perhaps the most surprising and exciting guest to date was legendarily reclusive director Terrence Malick, who took the stage before the public premiere of The Thin Red Line but, characteristically, had only a few quick words of greetings before the show.

Then there are the dozens of filmmakers and stars from elsewhere in the world, the Claude Chabrols and the Victoria Abrils, who are little-known in the United States but treated like royalty here.

This very public Berlin is a large part of the festival’s current success, as organizers take justifiable pride in attracting the cream of Hollywood. And the thousands of journalists accredited each year give the press screenings and conferences the air of a party -- if not a war zone, as was the case with the completely packed out Zoo Palast cinema for the press show of David Cronenberg’s Existenz.

But it is possible -- and often desirable -- to avoid this element of Berlin altogether. As mentioned in the pre-festival report, a strong component of this year’s festival are the films about the Holocaust, racism and discrimination organized into a kind of pan-sectional program under the title "Documents Against Forgetting." Of these movies, the two with the highest profile in the Competition section were The Last Days (executive produced by Spielberg under the banner of his Shoah Foundation) and Eyal Sivan’s The Specialist, which assembles highlights of the early 1960s Jerusalem trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann in a very provocative way. Kurt Gerron’s Karussell, which uses eye-witness accounts and recordings to tell the sad story of the popular and successful Jewish actor of the 1920s and 1930s who was last seen running a cabaret at a concentration camp.

And then, of course, is the sex. Over and above the obvious publicity value of the subject, Berlin has always prided itself on an ability to find an program movies that explore the possibilities of sex in often dizzyingly avant-garde ways. Thus fest fave Monika Treut and subject Sandy Stone (the self-proclaimed "Goddess of Cyberspace") spoke at length after the world premiere screening of her new documentary Gendernauts, which explores the challenges and triumphs of those looking to alter what nature gave them. Gay themes are big in Berlin, with movies as varied as the German drama Lola + Bilidikid (Turkish transvestites in the urban underworld), Better Than Chocolate (a sunny, saucy look at a pair of young Canadian lesbians) and A Glass of Rage (a slick yet narratively experimental short feature in which a Brazilian couple love as hard as they fight).

With six days yet to go and a promise of snow in the forecast, Berlin’s cozy screening rooms and elegant cinemas will continue to yield riches both conventional and extraordinary.

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