Berlin 2013: Politics in Focus as Festival Kicks Off

The Grandmaster - film still

Wong Kar-Wai's "The Grandmaster" opened the 63rd Berlinale Thursday night.

BERLIN – The Grandmaster, the opening film of the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival, promised crowd-pleasing kung-fu action, but in its opening ceremony, the Berlinale preferred to strike a somber note and put politics in the spotlight.

The Berlin festival is proud of its position as the most political of the big film festivals, and this year, German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann used the opening night event as a platform for a political appeal to the government of Iran.

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After evoking the lessons learned in Germany from 12 years of Nazi dictatorship and suppression of freedom of speech, Neumann called on Tehran to lift its travel ban on Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi and allow him to travel to Berlin for the world premiere of his latest film, Closed Curtain, next week.

"There can be no democracy without the freedom of creative expression," Neumann said.

Panahi is under house-arrest in Tehran, and the regime has banned him from working as a director for 20 years as punishment for his involvement in the anti-government Green Movement protests in Iran in 2009. Panahi, who won a Silver Bear in Berlin for Offside in 2006, was supposed to be part of the Berlin jury two years ago but was prevented from leaving the country. Despite living under house-arrest, he secretly shot Closed Curtain together with director Kambuzia Partovi and had the film smuggled out of the country to compete in Berlin.

The host of the Berlin Festival opening ceremony, German comedian Anke Engelke, evoked the 2011 festival, reminding the audience of the empty chair the jury had symbolically erected onstage to symbolize Panahi's absence.

The evening's serious tone was lightened somewhat by a musical and comic performance by actor and musician Ulrich Tukur (The Lives of Others), who entertained the audience with a series of 1930s swing numbers together with his German band the Rhythmus Boys.