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Tracking the Golden Bear

Jochen Kürten (sp)
February 5, 2006

As the 56th Berlinale opens its doors on Feb. 9, Deutsche Welle takes a look back at the turbulent and glamour-filled history of the festival and its founding amid a war-ravaged Germany.

The Bear of the YearImage: AP

When the 56th edition of the Berlinale gets underway on Feb. 9, stars, journalists, paparazzi and film producers will throng the glitzy Potsdamer Platz in downtown Berlin, where most of the action takes place.

The buzz and hoopla won't be that different from the first Berlinale, which took place on June 6, 1951. But the background certainly will be.

Plakat zur Berlinale 1951
The official poster for the first Berlinale in 1951

The first Berlinale, which opened with Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca," took place against a bleak backdrop of a bombed-out German capital. Six years after the end of World War II, large parts of the city still lay in ruins. Reconstruction had begun, but Berlin was still far removed from the pulsating metropolis it once had been in the 1920s.

Still the Berlinale did manage to inject some much-needed excitement and flamboyance into postwar Berlin. Ever since American cult actress Joan Fontaine, who starred in "Rebecca," glided down the red carpet at the first Berlinale, the film festival rapidly established itself in the 1950s as an international meeting point for the stars of world cinema.

It wasn't just Hollywood, but also celebrities from other big cinema nations and studios in Germany, such as Sophia Lauren, Errol Flynn, Hans Albers and Hildegard Knef, who graced the Berlinale. The film festival became a byword for glamour and fashion.

Artsy and intellectual

In the 1960s, it wasn't just divas and Hollywood celebrities making the headlines at the Berlinale.

Jean-Luc Godard
French director Jean-Luc GodardImage: dpa

The film festival transformed itself into a hub for artsy and intelligent cinema with directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut presenting their works in Berlin.

In the politically-laden 1970s, the reverberations of the 1968 student revolts and the Vietnam War made an impact on the Berlinale too. The festival witnessed angry protests against the US-critical film "O.K." by German director Michael Verhoeven.

Following a few more turbulent years, the Berlin film festival underwent a further change with the emergence of the "Forum" section in addition to its mainstay, "Competion" category which ends in the ceremonial awarding of the Golden and Silver Bears.

The "Forum" section provided a showcase in particular for documentary and experimental films. It also offered a platform for films from countries, which until then had never been in the spotlight of international cinema.

For Ulrich Gregor, longtime former head of the section, the new developments finally completed the Berlinale's claim to be a showcase for international cinema by including all forms and genres.

"It included the whole spectrum -- right from Hollywood films to independent ones from various countries, Europe and also non-European nations right to documentaries and other experimental forms," Gregor said.

Boost for German Films

Berlinale Bären p178
The coveted Golden and Silver BearsImage: dpa

However, the "competition" category has remained the centerpiece of the Berlinale with hits such as "La Notte" by Michelangelo Antonioni or "Hong Gaoliang" by Zhang Yimou being premiered here. It's this section that has also traditionally drawn the stars, given the prestige attached to winning the Golden and Silver Bears.

Current Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick has ensured that the section continues to take center stage at the festival.

"What we do is also cultivate a so-called connections business, where you really have to know a lot of people and where you have to understand them," Kosslick said. "You have to speak their language and I think you have to have a certain passion for that."

Part of Kosslick's passion in the past years has also been the focus on homegrown cinema -- something that was ignored by his predecessor Moritz de Hadeln for a long time.

For a few years now, German films have been and have been prominently visible in several categories at the Berlinale.

Heinz Badewitz, head of the "Perspective German Cinema" section, says the international movers and shakers in the movie business also come to Germany to watch and potentially buy homegrown entries.

"Our target group includes international buyers and festival directors from the whole world who come here to see the latest in German film in a compact manner," Badewitz said.

Asian Cinema in the spotlight

Another relatively new development at the Berlinale in the past decade has been the increasing presence of films from Asian countries. Movies from China, Taiwan, Korea and Vietnam have celebrated huge successes at the film festival in recent years.

Berlinale Film Tian bian yi duo yun Taiwan
Scene from Taiwanese film "The Wayward Cloud" by Tsai Ming LiangImage: Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin

Moritz de Hadeln, the previous Berlinale director, who also encouraged Asian cinema during his term, says political films in particular find a deep resonance in Berlin, which was long politically and physically divided itself.

"Asian filmmakers have something exciting to offer at the moment. One of the new things is a contemporary Korean film, it's about relations between North and South Korea," de Hadeln said. "It's a film that would not have been made two or three years ago in Korea."

A political festival at heart

Indeed, the Berlinale has long been a political festival.

In the 1970s and 80s in particular, it was a platform for Eastern European filmmakers. Many films from the Soviet Union or from East Germany, which were controversial at home, celebrated their international premieres at the Berlinale.

And, last year the film festival embraced another continent, which had never before been among the victors -- the film "Carmen Khayelitsha" by South African Mark Dornford-May picked up the coveted Golden Bear.

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