Berlin festival off to a casual start

Renee Zellweger, Tilda Swinton add touch of glam

BERLIN -- The Berlin International Film Festival celebrated its 60th birthday with an opening bash that despite its stylish flairs had the casual feel of kitchen party.

Instead of the all-star lineup many had expected for the anniversary fest, for 2010 the Berlinale has gone back to its roots. The opening film, Wang Quan'an's "Apart Together" is a reminder of Berlin's groundbreaking role as an international platform for Asian cinema. And this year's competition -- despite featuring the world premieres of Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" and Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" -- is more indie art house than glossy mainstream.

There were plenty of empty seats at the opening-night ceremony -- a result of a snowstorm that, while nothing by Washington standards, kept many from reaching Potsdamer Platz for the gala.

The crowd was low on non-German VIPs, though jury member Renee Zellweger and Berlinale regular Tilda Swinton added a bit of Hollywood glam.

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The event kicked off with a video greeting from South Africa: opera singer Pauline Malefane and the cast of 2005 Berlin Golden Bear winner "U-Carmen" belting out an English and Xhosa version of "Happy Birthday to You." What followed was a clumsy, if charming, greeting-cum-comedy routine from festival director Dieter Kosslick and host, German comedian Anke Engelke.

The historic occasion inspired the politicians taking the podium -- Germany's culture minister and the mayor of Berlin -- to speak of the changes the festival and the city has gone through in the past 60 years. From the capital of the Cold War to the center of a united Europe, Berlin and its festival have mirrored the political transformation of Germany itself.

But fest organizers knew better than to focus on the serious and the solemn. Kosslick and crew kept it light and tight, finishing up in just under a hour. If the ceremony is anything to go by, this year's Berlinale might not be a prime vintage, but it should go down smoothly.

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