Two Berlin filmmakers reflect on their city

Andreas Kleinert and Christian Petzold look back

Two film directors -- one from the stark East, one from the posh West -- take a personal journey through the city that has been home to the Berlin International Film Festival for six decades.

"That is S block there. Over there is U block. For Soviet -- Union."

Andreas Kleinert

Andreas Kleinert is playing tour guide -- for a tour through his childhood in East Berlin.

"And here's where the Lenin statue used to be. Must have been 60 feet high. The ground was all red marble. As a kid, I used to go roller skating on it."

It's hard to imagine a city that's been through as much turmoil and transformation as Berlin in the past 60 years.

And what's true for the city is as true for its film industry. Berlin's film scene used to be the twin solitudes of East and West: GDR filmmakers worked within the constricting but protected bosom of the communist state while West Berlin directors kept to the underground, making experimental cinema far from Germany's "real" movie industry in Munich.

How times have changed. Berlin is now Germany's cinema capital with its biggest film festival (the Berlinale), biggest studio (Babelsberg) and more artists per square foot than anywhere in the country.

But, again like the city itself, Berlin's film industry still seems uncomfortable with its new status. In rushing to become Germany's Hollywood -- complete with red-carpet premieres, blockbuster studio shoots and soon its own Walk of Fame -- the city's filmmakers worry they may be losing what made the Berlin scene special.

Christian Petzold

On the eve of the 60th Berlinale, two of the city's directors -- East Berliner Kleinert and West Berliner Christian Petzold -- took us on a very personal tour of the German capital and reflected on how their city and its film business has changed.


Kleinert turns up his collar against the cold. He looks up. The statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin that used to tower over the square is gone. All that remains are some non-descript boulders. It's not Lenin Square anymore, either. In 1992 it was rechristened United Nations Square by the government of the new, united Germany.

"Now don't tell people I lived in the housing blocks -- the stereotypical East German," Kleinert says. "Our house was around the corner there, it was an old building, not like this concrete stuff."

The 47-year-old director smiles. His gentle manner and light humor take the edge off his imposing 6-foot frame and stern bald head. He isn't defensive about his past, he just wants to make sure people get it right.

Kleinert was one of the last to go through the East German film system. He studied at the GDR Film Academy in Potsdam outside Berlin and got his first work at DEFA, East Germany's state movie studios.

Hearing Kleinert describe it, East Berlin sounds like a filmmaker's paradise.

"They built these huge sets. Had hundreds of extras. I actually had a bigger budget for my graduation film than I did later on the free market," he remembers. "In the DEFA system the directors were treated like gods. They were completely sealed off form the problems of a production. You'd never talk to the director about something as crass as the budget."

Untethered from the demands of commercial success, East Berlin filmmakers could be more experimental -- Kleinert's first films were inspired by Russian avant guarde director Andrei Tarkovsky and full of metaphoric image and allegory.

More Sundance coverage  

But Kleinert's not nostalgic for that time. His early work is Kafkaesque in its critique of East German society. A recurring metaphor is of a man trapped -- in a city, in a room -- a politically charged commentary on life in a dictatorship.

"This here was a favorite spot for suicides. Still is," Kleinert says, pointing up to the high-rise behind him. "They let you out on the roof terrace. People just go right over."

Even without Lenin, even with the mobile phone shops and billboards, the GDR is still everywhere in Friedrichshain. Turning east from Lenin Square you pass housing estates snaking around entire blocks; in the park a soldier -- monument to the Spanish resistance -- thrusts his sword at an unseen fascist.

Around the corner was the jail where Rosa Luxemburg, founder of the German communist party, sat before the Freikorps -- right-wing paramilitaries who became foot soldiers of the SS -- took her, shot her and tossed her in the river. On Jan. 15, 1919.

Any trip through Berlin is a trip through history.

The prison is gone now, torn down like the Berlin Wall. But driving down Friedrichshain, Kleinert is spooling the tape back. Like all Berliners of a certain age, Kleinert has a blueprint of the divided city in his mind, like tracing paper over a map. Lines mark boundaries, invisible now but indelible. History, personal, political, cultural, etched into every street sign, tram stop and public square.


"I went to Kreuzberg because I wanted the exact opposite of my parents. I knew they wouldn't come to visit too often."
To understand Petzold -- to understand the West Berlin film scene -- you have to go across town from Lenin Square and back about 30 years.

Back then, West Berlin was a hermetically sealed island, shut off from the rest of Germany by a concrete barrier 12 feet high and 4 feet thick. The population was left alone, as if in a biotope.

Petzold, a self-described "small-town film geek," spent his days studying, his nights either at the Dschungel Club -- partying alongside David Bowie and Iggy Pop -- or at the movies.

"The main reason I came to Berlin was the cinema," he recalls. "The cinemas were dying out in Germany at the time. The art houses were all closing down. But there were 260 cinemas in Berlin. It was a cinema laboratory."

In the rest of West Germany the multiplexes were showing "Top Gun" or "Dirty Dancing." In West Berlin, in grimy art-house theaters like Arsenal in Tiergarten or Moviemento in Kreuzberg, it was New Hollywood and Andy Warhol.

West Berlin's film scene had a similar experimental edge. West Germany's big film studios -- and all its big directors -- were in Munich. They were busy turning out fluffy mainstream comedies and big-budget entertainment like "The NeverEnding Story." At West Berlin's dffb film school, Petzold and a handful of other students were busy with their obsessions.

"We were the intellectual group at the school, discussing things like: What should the themes of a new German cinema be?"

Together, almost by accident, they launched a cinematic movement that came to be labeled the Berlin School. French critics -- who loved their films -- called it the German Nouvelle Vague.

The Berlin School was the opposite of everything German cinema was at the time. It was not flashy and mainstream, plot-driven and escapist. In a Berlin School film, ordinary people do mostly ordinary things. Not much happens and it usually ends badly.

"Berlin the city wasn't necessarily the location of these films but Berlin was the intellectual inspiration," Petzold says. "Berlin is a philosophical city -- people here spend all night debating. The issues -- about the fall of communism, the end of industrial production, the rise of neo-capitalism -- these became the issues of the Berlin School films."


Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, much of Kleinert's East Berlin has been bulldozed or sandblasted away. But two landmarks remain untouched: the Kino International cinema and, facing it on the other side of Karl-Marx Allee: Cafe Moskau. Kino International is where those "god-like" DEFA directors had their big GDR premieres. And Cafe Moskau was the spot for the afterparty.

"Everyone came to Cafe Moskau -- the party apparatchiks, the dissidents, the artists -- it's where they all mixed together," Kleinert says. "And my aunt served them. She was what they call a Berliner Schnauze (a Berlin mouth) -- she'd tell anyone what she thought of them."

Despite this -- or maybe because of it -- she and her husband turned Cafe Moskau into a money machine. Once, looking through his parents' attic as a child, Kleinert came across boxes and boxes stuffed with Ost Marks: the profits from Cafe Moskau, stashed there for safekeeping.

"It was illegal to have too much money on your bank account," he recalls. "So my aunt and uncle had to keep the cash at our house ... When the Wall came down it was all over for them. My aunt ended up working bar at some dive."

The fall of Wall meant the end of the DEFA era as well. From one day to the next, directors -- guaranteed jobs for life -- found themselves on the streets.


"Ah ... the scrambled-egg smell of the five-star hotel."

Petzold -- hair wet from an early morning badminton session, mind charged with residual adrenaline -- is sitting in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel, a five-star palace in a neighborhood of five-star palaces. It's breakfast time and the guests are shuffling past to their meal of espresso, sausage, and, yes, scrambled eggs.

The Marriott sits in what used to be the no-man's land -- of gun towers, barbed wire and German shepherds -- between East and West Berlin. The Wall ran right past here. There're still a few feet of it, kept up for tourists, just around the corner.

"When they started to build up Potsdamer Platz, I thought it was ridiculous, this longing to be a Capital City," Petzold says. "Vienna or Paris have centers but Berlin doesn't, every neighborhood is its own center. So they built Potsdamer Platz and said, 'This is our center.' It was like putting up a skyscraper in L.A. and saying, 'This is the center of Los Angeles.' "

Petzold shot a film here -- "Ghosts" -- which ran in competition in Berlin in 2005. It's the story of a woman who has lost the sense of who she is -- her child has disappeared -- and is searching for it -- child and identity -- in a city that, itself, seems ephemeral.

Potsdamer Platz -- all glass and steel -- "Metropolis" come to life -- is the symbol of new Berlin. And the symbol of the new Berlin film scene. It's the headquarters of the Berlin International Film Festival and its European Film Market. The Sony Center, just a few feet away, is where the Hollywood studios come to have their red-carpet premieres.

"Every year at the Berlin festival, the papers say the same thing -- more stars, more stars," Petzold says, "but we have stars here every night -- every second night there seems to be a premiere with Will Smith or George Clooney."

Petzold doesn't begrudge the fans their stars. He just wishes the Berlin industry hadn't been so quick to embrace Hollywood glitz and dismiss the alternatives.

"From the start, people hated the Berlin School, just hated it," he says, resigned. "The movement here was all: we have to copy Hollywood. We need to make the really big films, we need the stars. It's like here on Potsdamer Platz: we need skyscrapers. We need five-star hotels, high society. Events. And we need a film scene that fits that. The Berlin School didn't fit this new image of the city. It was dirtier, cheaper, more bad-tempered. The industry didn't want that. They said: you don't belong here. You aren't part of the new Berlin film scene."


"I just see the posters for a film like that and I think, 'What?'"

Kleinert is complaining about "Beloved Berlin Wall," a new German-language romantic comedy. The plot: shopaholic West German meets cute but bumbling East German border guard. Despite the odds, they fall in love. In Berlin these days, this is what passes for political cinema.

"I don't understand it," Kleinert says. "Those kind of films don't find an audience, either ("Beloved Berlin Wall" was a flop), but they get the subsidies. That's what they want nowadays."

Kleinert is standing outside his apartment in Pankow, the old government district of the GDR.

The gentrification of East Berlin started in the center and is moving out in circles. First it was Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg. Now it's Friedrichshain and Pankow.

"It's sort of like New York, you know? One area gets too expensive so all the artists move out and colonize another," Kleinert says. "Then that gets too expensive and they move again."

Kleinert looks out his window to a building hidden from the main street. It's dilapidated and smeared with plaster of a brown-gray hue that, more than Soviet Red, was the real national color of the GDR.

"That's the way a lot of houses used to look," he says. "People now say, 'Oh my God, how horrible!' But I always thought it was sort of beautiful."


"You notice the rents are going up, you're starting to see designer coffee shops."

Petzold has lived in the same apartment in Kreuzberg for 25 years. He has seen the yuppies and real estate speculators encroach on what used to be the experimental laboratory of West Berlin. The Dschungel Club is long gone, replaced by the four-star Ellington Hotel.

Berlin's film scene has also moved upscale. Studio Babelsberg, empty after the fall of the Wall is now booked solid. Not by the city's underground filmmakers; by the Wachowskis and Joel Silver, Roland Emmerich and Quentin Tarantino.

Walking down his neighborhood streets, Petzold everywhere sees evidence of new money coming in. But somehow Petzold's Berlin -- the dirty, bad-tempered Berlin, the experimental Berlin -- keeps pushing back. Starbucks are everywhere now, but every corner still has its Turkish Doner shop -- greasy and loud.

"Berlin is still rich, it's still complicated," Petzold says, smiling. "They won't ever be able to smother it."