Berlin's Red Car­pet

Glam­orous but down-to-earth, dar­ing but easy-go­ing. The Berlinale film festival brings the world's best movies to Berlin. Solveig Steinhardt dis­cov­ered the festival's in­trigu­ing his­tory.

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F ebru­ary is cin­ema month in the Ger­man cap­i­tal, and as the Berlin In­ter­na­tional Film Festival gets ready to roll out its red car­pet for the 67th time to wel­come movie stars and stel­lar pro­duc­ers, crowds are start­ing to gather at the festival's ticket coun­ters. The Berlinale, one of the world's "big three" film fes­ti­vals, counts many glam­orous guests each year but re­mains a very down-to-earth event, with screen­ings for ev­ery­one to en­joy in ap­prox­i­mately 20 movie the­aters around town.

What's re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing, how­ever, is the festival's un­con­ven­tional his­tory. Un­like other im­por­tant film fes­ti­vals around the world, the Berlinale was born out of politi­cal rea­sons. Back in 1951, when the di­vided city was cov­ered in rub­ble, a Ber­lin­sta­tioned US army film of­fi­cer named Os­car Mar­tay de­cided to bring some glam­our over to this side of the At­lantic with an in­ter­na­tional film festival that would also serve as a sym­bol of Western free­dom in Cold War Berlin. The first edi­tion of the Berlinale was a suc­cess, with Al­fred Hitch­cock's

Rebecca as the open­ing film, but the city's iso­lated po­si­tion meant that for the first few years the festival had to strug­gle to sur­vive. In 1958, how­ever, the event was granted the same sta­tus as other big Euro­pean fes­ti­vals, and its in­ter­na­tional fame be­gan to grow. But the Berlinale still main­tained its func­tion as a tool of pro­pa­ganda: When the Wall went up in 1961, the or­ga­niz­ers made sure to place at least 500 posters by the bar­rier, so East Ber­lin­ers could see them. Per­haps be­cause of this fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory, over the years the festival has de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for pre­sent­ing con­tro­ver­sial and dar­ing pro­duc­tions, of­ten po­lit­i­cally charged or prob­ing the bound­aries of art and cin­ema. While the year's spe­cial guests and pro­gram de­tails are not usu­ally an­nounced un­til a few days be­fore the festival be­gins, the list of cine­mas host­ing Berlinale screen­ings is al­ready avail­able on­line, so au­di­ences can al­ready pick their fa­vorite the­ater. Some of these are worth a visit just for their his­toric sig­nif­i­cance, such as the gi­gan­tic Friedrich­stadt-Palast, home to the largest stage in the world and the of­fi­cial "film palace" for the du­ra­tion of the festival; Zoo Palast, boast­ing an ex­cep­tional light­ing and sound sys­tem; the GDRstyle Kino In­ter­na­tional; the stately Filmthe­ater am Friedrichshain; and the Colos­seum, a 1920s ar­chi­tec­tural gem known for its pro­gram of in­de­pen­dent films. Visit www.berlinale.de for more in­for­ma­tion.

For­mer Berlinale panel judges, Ge­orge Clooney, Damian Lewis, and Meryl Streep.

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