Letter from Thessaloniki

Thank God the Berlin International Film Festival is not what it used to be. I remember what it was during the 1970s – a Cold War showcase for the celluloid wonders of the Free World marketplace. The two Berlins that I have known since then no longer exist. Gone is their raison d’etre. Gone is the concrete structure that determined the social, political and economic forces that were unique to the once-divided city with unjustified cosmopolitan ambitions. It was there that I first fell in love with film festivals. It was love at first sight. It was also there that I first started my journalistic career. Nostalgically, I evoke the first piece I wrote. It was about Nikos Koundouros’s «Young Aphrodites,» one of the soft-porn works that earned him a huge international – and financial – career.  To the despair of my parents, who were financing my studies in architecture, far-flung festivals have since become my way of life. At that time, West Berlin was the par excellence place where «amerikanische» cultural values were triumphing. Then, the festival’s flagship theater was the huge modernistic Zoo Palast, a short walk across the main railroad station. It was exactly here that Koundouros received a Silver Bear for directing «Young Aphrodites.» It was also the event where Katina Paxinou sat on the jury and where the young Aliki Vougiouklaki bowed before an admiring audience after her performance in «Astero.» Now, the new Berlinale Palast has been set down on the Marlene Dietrich Platz, in a completely a new district. I remember it as one without parallel anywhere in the world. It was a district 100 meters wide, without trees, without buildings, without sound, snaking its way through the very heart of the city. It was the former death strip that now has completely disappeared. I remember it as a wasteland bisected by the Berlin Wall. Currently, to complete the self-reflexive entertainment, a gigantic TV screen conjures up the images of the international stars who made the pilgrimage to the Berlinale in the past. In the Red Scare years, there were no Eastern stars whatsoever to be seen walking the carpet. The Soviet Union and its satellites had boycotted the festival. Nevertheless, this year, which marks the 20th anniversary of the peaceful revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, one of the central celebrations with which the Berlin Film Festival recalls the events of the past is a special series of screenings titled «After Winter Comes Spring – Films Presaging the Fall of the Wall.» In its 59th year, the Berlinale opened last week with a world premiere of the star-studded American action thriller «The International» by Tom Tykwer. It was a dazzling opening night, with more or less well-known film stars as well as cultural politicos completely unheard of outside the country, such as Minister of State and Commissioner for Cultural and Media Affairs Bernd Neumann. Was I present? No, I wasn’t there. This time, after many years of live-and-in-the-flesh-participation, I watched the event broadcast live on television by ZDF/3SAT. 400 films in 10 days With almost high spring temperatures in Greece, compared to degrees of 2 Celsius – cloudy and rainy – in Berlin, it was a pleasure not to mingle with the some 19,000 professionals from 120 countries who would be watching up to 400 films in 10 days. The festival runs until February 15. Once again, the Berlinale is glowing with international ambitions and keeps insisting on superlatives. «It is a huge event selling over 200,000 tickets a year, doubtless making it the biggest event on Berlin’s cultural calendar,» says local architect Dieter Goetze, adding pompously «and the largest film festival in the world – in terms of audience.» Since respectable Germans have few opportunities outside soccer to vaunt their patriotism, they love such big, pompous events. This year’s Berlinale is divided into seven different categories, each with its own particular focus. Six of these are competition categories, with three Greek productions scattered within the huge program. Theo Angelopoulos will present his latest «Dust of Time,» a long journey into the vast history and of the last half century, covering the events that left their mark on the 20th century. The tale unfolds in Italy, Germany, Russia, Kazakstan, Canada and the USA. The film will be shown in Greece on February 12. Costa-Gavras’s immigrant drama «Eden Is West,» about illegal emigres living in the EU, also looks certain to ruffle feathers. As for «Strella,» directed by the youngest of the three, Panos Koutras, it is a low-budget production with a transsexual as its leading character. German cinema is not entirely absent this year either. Sure enough, gone is the fanfare of the glorious times of Volker Schlondorff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Apart from a handful of Austrians and Swiss, whom few Germans regard as proper foreigners, new local talent is today an extreme rarity. All the same, Geduld (patience) – the festival is not over yet. Apart from films, one of the main highlights on the festival circuit is the «friend factor.» It is often said that Cannes is the place where anything can happen. I remember Daniel (Danny) Bourla – a sophisticated director and son of a Greek-Jewish woman nicknamed the «Queen of Erotic Films,» because of the first successful porn theaters she acquired on New York’s 8th Avenue – winning a lot of money at the casino. At the Cairo Film Festival, I remember Mary Ghadban, a Maronite local critic, introducing me to Elizabeth Taylor, who saluted the Egyptians with an unexpected «Shalom.» And in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary, I once interviewed Henry Fonda. I still have the words of the Bulgarian scriptwriter Angel Wagenstein – now in his 80s and always successful as an author in Sofia – in my ears, recounting tales of the Cold War during the Moscow Festival. Was it in The New York Times that I once read a piece on the festival circuit where one festival junkie was wondering whether «some of these people actually have homes?» I never joined the navy. Yet, with all the film festivals I have visited so far, I can say that I saw the world – in style.

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