Germans may be offering stiff resistance to President Bush's call for military action against Iraq, but at the Berlin Film Festival they seem to be pushovers for another kind of American invasion: the Hollywood stars.
Since Thursday's opening night, the famous have been pouring in, as jostling onlookers crowd the prestigious Berlinale Palast theater, their collective breath forming steamy clouds in the wintry air. George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Kevin Spacey, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Nicolas Cage are just some of the scores of stars red-carpeting and double-kissing their way through the 53rd annual Berlinale like a wave of elegant ground troops.
Their mission is to receive blustery salutations from eccentric festival director Dieter Kosslick, then establish the celebrity equivalent of a beachhead at the official photo call. After that it's time for the press conference, in which they must respond gracefully to all manner of questions, some of them intelligent, including the inevitable political ones about the American attitude toward war, not to mention cultural sensitivity. Others are just plain goofy, like this one posed by a Canadian journalist to the filmmakers of "The Life of David Gale," an American production slated for release this month.
"Do you find films are necessary?"
Director Alan Parker and actors Spacey and Laura Linney are momentarily stunned. Eventually Spacey answers with something about how the job of drama is to plant seeds and it's up to the viewers if they wish to water it.
Whatever. Of course the celebrities are not just here to take in the frigid February air and support their entries in the festival. The festival gives them and their fellow filmmakers one more opportunity to push their Oscar campaigns and European commercial runs for their films.
Kosslick, a colorful character with a goofy onstage manner, has been more than willing to accommodate them. He opened the festival with "Chicago," with Richard Gere, Zeta-Jones and other principals in attendance, and he'll close the 10-day affair with Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York."
In between, he has left no doubt that he's a fan of Hollywood's latest crop of movies. "Adaptation," "The Hours," "25th Hour," "The Life of David Gale," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "Solaris" have all been selected in the competitive forum. "Chicago," "Gangs" and "Moonlight Mile" are among the noncompetitive films. And of the seven-member jury panel headed by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, two are Americans: Kathryn Bigelow, director of "K-19: The Widowmaker," and Geoffrey Gilmore, founder of the Sundance Film Festival.
Kosslick, who weathered some criticism here for not opening the festival with a German film, insists the American movies have been selected for their artistic and cultural merit, not some three-ring-circus agenda.
"First of all, I have been fighting for European cinema for 20 years," he says. "And second, these [American] films are really good. They all explain different parts of American society, its lifestyle and its political system and where it comes from."
With Iraq on everyone's minds and antiwar demonstrations in the streets of Berlin, he adds, "America is the subject of the world now. Everybody is interested in what America is doing in the next days, in the next weeks and months. So it's good to have these movies here to give people a chance to have an inside look at your society."
Of the American entries, the ones attracting the most respect in the cafes and bars are "Adaptation" and "The Hours," both with unorthodox storytelling structures and sober revelations about existence -- catnip for Euro-esoteric sensibilities.
But public euphoria for the American entries may be only superficial. Whether the American films will impress the jury, which includes a German actor (Martina Gedeck of "Mostly Martha"), Italian actor (Anna Galiena of "The Hairdresser's Husband"), French producer (Humbert Balsan, whose Palestinian-made film "Divine Intervention" is playing at Visions Cinema in Washington) and Mauritanian director (Abderrahmane Sissako), remains to be seen.
They are up against worthy competition -- there are 22 competitive films in all -- in a festival that, notwithstanding Kosslick's bumper crop of American selections, has been known for its cultural embrace of European and Asian films. Chinese director Zhang Yimou, whose film "Ying Xiong" ("Hero") is in the competition, has called Berlin his "home" for the warm reception his previous films have received over the years. This visit proved no exception. "Hero," a breathtakingly visual film that features the same gravity-defying martial arts choreography as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," received a prolonged standing ovation at its screening.
Other films attracting buzz are French veteran Claude Chabrol's psychological thriller, "Flower of Evil"; "Good Bye, Lenin!" a crowd-charmer set around the breakup of the Berlin Wall by local filmmaker Wolfgang Becker; and Patrice Chereau's "Son Frere," a heartbreaker about a man caring for his dying brother.
Also winning praise is British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom's "In This World," a gritty documentary-like drama about refugees from the Afghan war trying to get to Great Britain.
Two other films address the plight of international refugees: Hans-Christian Schmid's "Lichter" ("Lights"), about people crossing the borders of Germany, Poland and Russia; and "Rezervni Deli" ("Spare Parts"), a Slovenian film about a diaspora of Kurds, Albanians and Macedonians leaving Slovenia for Italy.
"It becomes very important the jury evaluates every film on its own terms," says Egoyan. "Otherwise it becomes absurd to compare, let's say, the American scale of production with something smaller. You have to find standards of artistic quality and innovation within the respective languages that are being used."
Sundance's Gilmore, who has been attending the festival for decades, is mindful that it is tough for films that are not in English to succeed internationally. But he says that the Berlinale is important to showcase "the range of work here. . . . You see a much greater spectrum of what's available in Europe and internationally than what you would normally see in the [foreign film] market in the U.S."
In Berlin, where 300 films are being shown to more than 3,500 journalists and thousands of other attendees from around the world, people may love Hollywood hoopla but they're equally interested in content. "It's very much about the cultural and the aesthetic work of cinema," Gilliam says. "You get the sense that that's really appreciated by the audiences here. I don't have the sense of people walking out of a film and immediately assessing what its market possibilities are."