Provocateur theory

Berlin continues to offer a high-profile showcase for politically (and sexually) charged fare.

So you want to win the Berlin International Film Festival's Golden Bear? Forget about that big crowd-pleaser with the broad, inoffensive message. If you really want to win in Berlin, you've got to go for explicit sex and divisive politics.

All of the Big Three festivals like a bit of steamy sex or heated political debate -- last year, Ken Loach won the Festival de Cannes' Palme d'Or for the revolutionary tale "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," and the Venice Film Festival gave Ang Lee the Golden Lion for "Brokeback Mountain" -- but nowhere do politics and sex seem so sure a bet as in Berlin.

Three of the past five Golden Bear winners have been films with explicitly political themes: Last year, it was the aftermath of the Yugoslav war in "Grbavica," while in 2003, it was the issue of illegal immigration in "In This World," and in 2002, the British massacre of Irish protesters in "Bloody Sunday."

The other two winners -- 2004's "Head-On" and the 2005 production "U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha" -- both had strong political subtexts: "U-Carmen" highlights the poverty of South African townships, while "Head-On" deals with the identity crisis of ethnic Turks living in Germany.

2006 was a virtual political sweep of the top prizes. "Grbavica" took gold, the best director Silver Bear went to Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross for "The Road to Guantanamo" and Jafar Panahi took the Jury Grand Prix for "Offside," a look at a ban on women at Iranian sports stadiums.

"Maybe it has something to do with Berlin the city," says Gerhard Meixner, co-managing director of Berlin-based Razor Film Produktion, a co-producer of Hany Abu-Assad's 2005 suicide bomber story "Paradise Now." "This is a very political city in a way that Cannes and Venice are not. Companies are noticing the trend (for political films in Berlin). I think if they have a political film, they'll be looking to Berlin as the place to launch it."

Adds Dirk Schurhoff, managing director of sales and acquisitions for German sales group Beta Cinema: "You see that with a title like (2006's World War II drama) 'Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.' Berlin was the absolute perfect place to launch that film. Its politics fit the festival perfectly, and I'm sure Berlin was a major help in the success that led, eventually, to its nomination for an Oscar."

And the sex? Last year, Moritz Bleibtreu won the best actor Silver Bear for playing a sex addict in a Celluloid Dreams title: Oskar Roehler's sometimes-explicit exploration of self and sexuality, "The Elementary Particles."

"We sold it everywhere," Celluloid head of sales and acquisitions Charlotte Mickie says. "I think Berlin was a good place for the film, which also has strong philosophical themes, and it is a German film."

Marcus Hu, co-president of New York-based Strand Releasing, sees Berlin as one of the top locations for finding or launching films with strong sexual content and has picked up a raft of titles with gay or transsexual themes there, including 1999's "Fucking Amal," 2003's "Yossi & Jagger," 2005's "Primo Amore" and 2006's "En Soap."

"By the time we had Gregg Araki's 'The Living End' there in 1992, Berlin was already established as one of the premier places for films with gay, lesbian and transgender subject matter," Hu says.

Sex-themed Golden Bear winners include 1996's "The People vs. Larry Flynt," Milos Forman's biopic of the founder of Hustler magazine, and 2001's near-pornographic "Intimacy" from Patrice Chereau.

Even Tsai Ming-liang's often-bizarre sex musical "The Wayward Cloud" found a receptive audience in Berlin, winning a Silver Bear in 2005.

Mickie thinks Berlin is well-suited for more risque sexual material, recalling the bold "crucifix-on-a-crotch" poster campaign that touted "People vs. Larry Flynt" around the German capital.

"Can you imagine that in Venice?" she asks rhetorically.

Charles Masters in Paris and Gregg Goldstein in New York contributed to this report.