Berlinale lineup courts controversy

Festival mixes politics and personality without sacrificing star power

If scientists locked in a laboratory had to come up with a perfect Berlinale film, they would likely emerge with something close to opening night title "The International."

"It's got stars (Clive Owen and Naomi Watts) for the red carpet, a German director in Tom Tykwer and a current, political subject (evil banking consortium financing war)," says Berlin film critic Jan Schulz-Ojala. "To top it off, it was shot in Berlin with German financing. You can't get much better than that for the Berlinale."

The cherry on top: Tykwer is a long-time FOD -- Friend of Dieter. Festival director Dieter Kosslick likes inviting his friends to the party because it helps contribute to Berlin's uniquely cozy atmosphere. It's what Paul Thomas Anderson last year called "running a film festival as if he's having a party in his living room."

Dieter's party keeps getting bigger. Last year's blow out, which included the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman exceeded everyone's expectations.

"It was the most glamorous Berlinale ever!" gushed German tabloid Das Bild in its festival wrap last year. "For a few days, Berlin was Hollywood!"

A glance at the 2009 lineup suggests Kosslick is sticking to his usual mix of star power flavored with local content and spiced up with a healthy dose of politics.

Harald Zwart's "The Pink Panther 2" notwithstanding, Berlin is not the spot for studio tentpoles. Instead, the focus, as in previous years, will be on high-profile indie projects with big-name casts and a political edge. Titles such as the out of competition entry "The Reader" from the Weinstein Co. will provide serious broadsheets with an opportunity to debate German history, guilt and the Holocaust, while local glamour sheets can gush about Kate Winslet's premiere outfit and the Hollywood potential of German co-star David Kross.

It's a similar story with "The Messenger" from first-time director Oren Moverman. The story -- an American soldier becomes romantically involved with the widow of a fallen officer -- has enough torn-from-the-headlines appeal to interest the "serious" media, while the star power of headliners Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton ensure there will be sufficient bulb flash on the red carpet. The same goes for Rebecca Miller's "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee." The somber tale of a 50-year-old housewife heading toward a nervous breakdown has a lot of glossy magazine appeal with a cast that includes Keanu Reeves, Robin Wright Penn, Winona Ryder, Monica Bellucci, Maria Bello and Julianne Moore.

But what makes Berlin unique is not the celebrities. There are as many, and usually more, celebs in Cannes, Venice and Toronto. The difference is the politics. From its origins, its history and its ongoing reality, the Berlin festival is a political animal.

"If you take a film with a political theme to Berlin, you know you will find an audience there that will take it seriously," says Maria Kopf, a co-producer on two politically-charged competition entries: Lukas Moodysson's "Mammoth," which highlights issues of globalization, and "Storm," from Germany's Hans-Christian Schmid, a courtroom drama set at the war crimes tribunal in the Hague.

What's also unique is Berlin's legendarily cantankerous critics -- just ask Zack Snyder, whose "300" was slaughtered by the German press following its Berlinale premiere -- only to go on to conquer the world.

Berlin's scribes are toughest on their own -- so expect Tykwer's "The International" to have a rough ride in the local press. But German films aren't shying away from the harsh lights of the Berlinale stage. This year's lineup will feature a parade of high-profile local productions including Florian Gallenberger's WWII-era biopic "John Rabe"; Kai Wessel's "Hilde," which stars Heike Makatsch as acting/singing legend Hildegard Knef; and "Effi Briest," Hermine Huntgeburth's new adaptation of the classic Theodor Fontane novel, starring Julia Jentsch ("Sophie Scholl") and Sebastian Koch ("The Lives of Others").

Easier-to-categorize competition titles such as Stephen Frears' period drama "Cheri" or Chen Kaige's operatic drama "Forever Enthralled," often have an easier time with the press. But that can also play against them, since Berlinale juries traditionally favor controversy over consensus.

But whoever ends up hoisting the Golden Bear at the end of the 59th Berlinale, be sure Kosslick's concoction of the serious and silly will continue to intoxicate festival attendees.