THE LARGE NUMBER OF U.S. MOVIES CAUSED CONCERN AT THE BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL
Brian D. JohnsonFebruary261990
They crossed the border into East Berlin just before midnight. It was laughably easy, even faster than the frontier ritual between Canada and the United States. The soldier at the candy-striped security barrier let the mini-van through without even checking passports. Among the passengers, in town for the Berlin International Film Festival, was Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood. They were off to a special première of The Handmaid’s Tale, the film based on her best-selling novel. It is an Orwellian fantasy, set in a fascist America of the future. But, for the 950 spectators who filled East Berlin’s Kosmos Cinema last week, some of the references must have seemed brutally familiar.
Fire: The opening scene shows a family trying to cross a border with a wall identical to Berlin’s. Searchlights find them. Machine-guns open fire. The segment is followed by images of prisoners being herded into livestock pens, gates slashing shut, hands groping through the slats of cattle trucks. After the final credits, the film’s West German director, Volker Schlöndorff, addressed the audience, but emotion choked his words. There was a long silence— relieved by a rush of warm applause. Finally, Schlöndorff said, “When we made this movie, how could we ever have predicted that it would premiere in East and West Berlin?”
At the 40th anniversary of Berlin’s film festival, there was a sense of history in the making. The 12-day festival, showing more than 700 films from 34 countries between Feb. 9 and 20, has been the first major cultural event to unite East and West Berlin since the opening of the Wall last November. And for the first time since the festival began in West Berlin—at the height of the Cold War—it presented movies in the eastern sector as well. While in Ottawa, and elsewhere on the political stage, international negotiators announced major steps towards the reunification of Germany, three East Berlin cinemas offered unprecedented showings of some of the best of current international cinema. The films ranged from such Hollywood productions as Steel Magnolias—a centre of controversy after being picked to open the festival—to previously banned features from Eastern Europe.
Thaw: The so-called Berlinale, the world’s second-largest film festival after the Cannes International Film Festival, drew a record number of 2,200 journalists this year in the wake of the dramatic thaw in EastWest tensions. Because the Berlin festival tends to favor European films, it usually does not attract many Hollywood stars. But this year, they arrived in droves. Among them: Sally Field, Daryl Hannah and Olympia Dukakis (Steel Magnolias), Michael Douglas and Danny De Vito (The War of the Roses), and Jessica Lange (Music Box). They were there to promote their movies. But they were also there as tourists, to take home a piece of the Wall while there is still some left, and to give Eastern Europe its first real glimpse of Hollywood glitter.
As the stars and other festival-goers made their excursions into East Berlin, there was also heavy traffic in the other direction. Some 200 East German film-makers attended the festival—compared with just 30 last year. The festival unearthed seven East German movies that had been suppressed since they were made in the mid-1960s. And, among new productions, East Berlin provided an eye-opening competition entry titled Coming Out, the first movie from East Germany to deal openly with homosexuality. The film has packed East German cinemas since its release last December.
With the recent collapse of Communist governments, Western producers are moving into the Eastern Bloc. And many film-makers express concern that free-market forces could destroy the fragile ecology of Eastern Europe’s state film industries. East German director Frank Beyer, who made one of the suppressed films, Traces of the Stones (1966), said, “I don’t want to suddenly have to deal with the financiers, right when I’ve escaped the ideologues.”
Anxiety: Meanwhile, Hollywood’s strong presence became a source of considerable controversy at a festival with a European bias—six of the 22 films selected for official competition were American. Among them were U.S. hits that are just now being released in Europe, including Steel Magnolias and The War of the Roses. Two-thirds of the screen time throughout Western Europe is now consumed by American movies, and there is widespread anxiety about the survival of domestic film industries. Defending the U.S. presence, festival director Mortiz de Hadeln said, “We have to learn more from the Americans—why their films are getting our people to see them.” That is a familiar debate for Canadians, who had one movie accepted for competition and eight others showing at the Berlin festival— more than ever before. Two of them made a strong impression: Les Noces de papier (A Paper Wedding), a TV movie in competition directed by Michel Brault and starring Geneviève Bujold, about a Chilean refugee’s marriage of convenience: and Roadkill, a low-budget rock ’n’ roll comedy directed by Toronto’s Bruce McDonald (page 40). British critic Derek Malcolm of The Guardian said of Roadkill. “It’s better than half the films in competition. The next film by this director should be really good.”
Lustre: But the real Canadian star in Berlin was from the world of letters, not movies. Atwood was there to promote The Handmaid’s Tale, which opens across North America next month. It was also a chance for her to revisit the city where she lived for three months in 1984, when she began writing the novel (page 44). With both Atwood and the film’s British screenwriter, Harold Pinter, adding a lustre of literary glamor to its world première, The Handmaid’s Tale was one of the most hotly anticipated movies in official competition.
Although the movie clearly struck a chord of sympathy with the audience in East Berlin, reactions from international critics in West Berlin were largely negative. They heaped most of the blame on the director. In The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Natasha Richardson as the handmaid, with Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway, Schlöndorff strikes an awkward compromise between European and Hollywood styles. Respected American freelance critic Marcia Pally had high praise for the cast’s performances, but said that the movie failed to capture the political detail of Atwood’s novel. Added Paley: “The sex and the violence got beefed up, and what remains is something of a morbid soap.”
Ambush: While The Handmaid’s Tale got a chilly reception, some of the Hollywood fare drew savage responses from European critics. With this year’s festival coinciding with the historic transformation of Berlin, there was widespread criticism of the organizer’s decision to open the event with Steel Magnolias, a candy-floss confection set in small-town Louisiana. One member of the festival’s selection committee resigned in protest. And at the opening-day news conference, two of the stars of Steel Magnolias walked into a media ambush.
Sitting side by side at a table in front of several hundred journalists, Daryl Hannah was sheathed in a clinging gown of silver sequins, and Sally Field was a vision of gold-and-black glitter—conspicuous glamor at a festival that, in contrast to Cannes, tends to be stubbornly sombre in its dress. The first question came from a West German journalist, who asked why an unrealistic movie should mark such a momentous occasion. Field took up the defence. “It’s not meant to be a slice-of-life documentary,” she said. “It’s entertainment.” Another questioner called the movie superficial. Field shot back with “This is show business.”
Then, producer Ray Stark, a crusty Hollywood veteran, jumped into the fray with a novel idea. “This film is about camaraderie,” he said. “What could be more pertinent today now that East and West Berlin are joined together?” Steel Magnolias director Herbert Ross amplified the point. “This movie shows that people can support each other, and hopefully the breakdown of the Wall is an echo of that,” he said. Suddenly, Hollywood’s emissaries were discussing Steel Magnolias as if it were about the Berlin Wall, a development that only added fuel to the fire. Field then tried again, with an earnest confession. “I feel very respectful of this time,” she said. “I feel such awe. But I don’t think there’s a film that I could have done that would reflect the magnitude and importance of what’s going on here.”
Grip: The controversy reflects a growing resentment of Hollywood at a time when local movie production is slumping throughout Europe. Last year, Britain produced only 30 films, down from 50 in 1988. Meanwhile, American studios are moving to tighten their grip on the Western European marketplace. And at the Berlin festival, Europeans were sounding the alarm. Said West Berlin cultural official Anke Martiny: “By the time the European free market comes about in 1992, we must bury our differences to present a united European front against U.S. domination of our screens and airwaves. And this means extending the hand of collaboration to Eastern Europe.”
For their part, the major U.S. studios, including Paramount and Universal, have set up European branches and are planning to invest in more coproductions abroad. They are also opening up new markets in the Eastern Bloc for Hollywood fare. Warner Bros, has plans to build a chain of cinemas in the Soviet Union. And last year, American studios set up distribution deals in Hungary. Anthony Manne, the New York City-based executive vice-president of Columbia Tri-Star Film Distributors, said that there is still a lot of confusion about how to do business. “But we are hoping for a free-market situation,” he added, “where we can participate more than in the past.”
Open: In fact, deregulation is spreading through the Eastern Bloc’s film industries. In Poland and Czechoslovakia, joint-venture companies are planning productions with partners in the West. And in the Soviet Union, state-run Sovexport has surrendered its distribution monopoly. Six Soviet studios and a West German company have formed a new major studio called Primodessa. Said Sovexport director Igor Bulatow: “We set the ball rolling. Anyone can now produce in the Soviet Union, and we are fully open for joint ventures.”
Another telling sign of Hollywood’s Eastern Bloc ambitions is that the Oscars are hitting the road. Next month, segments of the Academy Awards will be broadcast by satellite from five cities other than Los Angeles—including Moscow. Still, such grand gestures are generating more excitement in the West than in the East. At a gala screening of Steel Magnolias, East German cultural affairs organizer Inez Walk expressed skepticism about the new Hollywood presence. “I’m wary of the big Western studios moving in and exploiting us as some kind of virgin territory,” she said.
‘Decadent’: But whatever happens, the Berlin festival has already taken on new commercial importance as an East-West corridor of moviemaking. At the same time, with the breakdown of the Wall and the prospect of German reunification, the character of Berlin is being dramatically transformed. The mass influx of East Berliners is turning the city into a consumer metropolis, with soaring housing prices. Penelope Buitenhuis, a 30-year-old Canadian film-maker who divides her time between Vancouver and West Berlin, greets the changes with mixed emotions. “Berlin is a decadent, eccentric city that has attracted artists from all over the world,” she said. “Now, it’s losing its special status.” She added, “I’m happy about the changing of the system, but a lot of artists can’t afford to live here any more.”
Buitenhuis directed a short film about the Berlin Wall that premiered at the festival. Titled Llaw (“wall” spelled backward), it is a fast-forward look at the tumultuous events of last November. A hectic diary of change that uses speeded-up photography, it describes how the film-maker returned from Vancouver one week before the Wall came down. In her narration, she describes first the euphoria, then “the marketing of freedom, of symbols of concrete—an American company offers $50 million to buy the entire Berlin Wall. Everyone is hammering, chipping, chiselling.”
The buying and selling of the Wall itself is an apt symbol for the changes sweeping Europe. And at the Berlin festival, that sense of upheaval was on everyone’s lips. There were other topics of discussion, of course. A new feature-length documentary, Superstar, about pop-art prince Andy Warhol, aroused interest. The Nasty Girl, a West German drama about a woman trying to investigate Nazi archives in her home town, was well received.
And Spain’s Pedro Almodovar, the director of 1987’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, created a stir with his new movie, Atame! (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! ), which has a bathtub scene that could open up an adult market for motorized toy frogmen. Atame!'s story—boy beats girl, boy ties up girl, girl falls for boy—provoked much debate about whether Almodóvar was an ironic genius or just a highfalutin misogynist. But the historic context of the festival itself often overshadowed esthetic debates. Films that bore directly on East Berlin generated a sense of immediacy. And in the all-night bars of West Berlin, the festival served as a forum for debating German reunification—and post-Wall politics.
‘Kiss’: At the 1979 Berlin festival, the Soviet delegation led a protest against the showing of The Deer Hunter, the American Vietnam War drama starring Robert DeNiro, calling it an insult to Vietnam. Delegates from Cuba and the Eastern Bloc countries stalked out in protest. Now, 11 years later, the capital of the Cold War is becoming a cabaret of cultural exchange between East and West. It all seems a little sudden. As Buitenhuis says in the narration of Haw. “We kiss and make up in order to forget—fast, fast, fast.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.