Ups, downs, East, West: De Hadeln's Berlinale


Complete Berlinale

BERLIN -- There is more to being a festival director than meets the eye, especially if your event happens to be situated on the border between East and West, or, in this case, on the exact spot that once divided the two.

Moritz de Hadeln, the Berlin International Film Festival director of 22 years, knows that better than most. Through the glass-walled cafe on the fifth floor of the snazzy Renzo Piano building at the festival home on Potsdamer Platz, de Hadeln points to an adjacent street and said: "That is where the wall ran right there. Beneath this complex is Hitler's Bunker. The Russians couldn't destroy it."

But the longtime festival director's experience of the Cold War (and beyond) stretches far beyond his ability to identify key sites. "Everyone keeps telling me to write my memoirs," he said. "Everyone knows the official history of the Berlinale, but there's a lot more that happened behind the scenes."

Director of the Berlinale from 1979-2001, de Hadeln has a story or two to tell about those ominous days in which he played his own role in bridging the gap between East and West.

De Hadeln inherited the festival the year after the so-called "Deer Hunter" scandal when the East Bloc pulled all films from Berlin in protest at the film's perceived anti-Communist sentiment. "There was a lot of work to be done after that film," he said. "It was very difficult year. The Americans didn't want to come and neither did the eastern Europeans."

The scandal provided a taster of what lay ahead as some of de Hadeln's stories show. He recounts how two Russians diplomats appeared in his office the year he programmed "Ninotchka," as part of an Ernst Lubitsch Retrospective.

"A 300-page memo arrived explaining how the Soviets would block all films from the East Bloc playing at the festival if we played it," he recalled. "So we booked the Paris theater opposite the Astor, and played the film outside of the festival around the clock. Everybody knew about it. The Russians poured in."

Same thing happened another year when the festival planned a South African film from the play write, Athol Fugard.

"As we announced we were playing a film from South Africa, we got a three-foot telex citing all of the boycotts on South Africa," he recalled. "We arranged a screening for three East Bloc diplomats. 25 showed up. ... We did not mention the word South Africa in the catalog once and agreed with the director he would mention it every third word in the press conference," recalled de Hadeln's wife and business partner, Erika de Hadeln.

Veteran journalist Ron Holloway remembers those days well. "The Russians would come over with huge boxes of caviar to give to everyone," he recalled. "They wanted to do all these deals. They were always trying to get Russians onto the jury to make sure a party film was voted for and always threatening de Hadeln they would pull all the East Bloc films from the festival."

Although he had many dubious encounters, there was only one time de Hadeln felt really scared. He recalls a scouting trip to Uzbekistan when he was taken outside of his villa a thousand miles from anywhere and given a very strange talking to.

"I had a KGB agent accompany me for the whole trip who was supposedly a film expert," he recalled. I was out taking a breath of fresh air when a guard started talking about Switzerland's international policy. Then he mentioned the Czech Republic's Red Organ, then Soviet airplanes, and so on. He was trying to see if I was willing to work for them. I said to him, 'I don't understand is your country still using human spies with all that technology."

It seems he had a lot of politics to deal with all round. "The festival had very much a political agenda," he explained of the event which was and still is part-financed by the German government. "It didn't mean it wasn't about the quality of the films. We weren't building up the United Nations. But there was a lot going on."