Berlin: where culture lovers scramble for tickets

James Woodall

For ten nights in February, the chilly German capital plays host to one of Europe’s most popular film festivals with 300,000 tickets sold in 2012. Away from the big screens, however, film-lovers may be surprised to find themselves at the centre of one of Europe’s most thriving cultural hotspots.

The Palme d’Or at Cannes makes news. In one of the world’s most fabled cities, the Golden Lion goes to Best Film screened in Venice. The Golden Bear in Berlin is perhaps not quite such a headline-maker, but some great cinematic moments have nonetheless emerged from the Berlinale, the German capital’s annual film festival.

In the last decade and a half, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia are just two of the better-known English-language laureates. Something’s always happening at the Berlinale, even though it takes place at such a low-key time of year. Berlin in February is very cold, and so it has been since the festival, founded in 1951 in what was a very different place to what it has become, moved its dates forward from mid-summer in 1978. Like the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Berlin International Film Festival – BIFF as it was once known – was created as a cultural response to the calamity of the Second World War. Opening the first festival was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

In Cold War times, especially when the Wall was up, Berlin would always struggle for the limelight against Cannes and Venice (founded in 1946 and 1932 respectively). After the Wall fell, the Berlinale, which is funded by central government (the Bund), thrived comfortably for another ten years in the city’s west but underwent a massive transformation when it moved in 2000 eastwards to Potsdamer Platz: a stylish makeover for a new millennium and a significant relocation for a festival then turning 50.

Potsdamer Platz is the agglomeration of high-rises and swanky architectural enterprise designed by the likes of Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Helmut Jahn and Hans Kollhoff. Many Berliners say they don’t like it, but it’s certainly better than the death strip between east and west (which is what the Cold War platz had been). Now the geographical hub of the Berlinale, the area abounds in super-comfortable cinemas with, at its heart, the flagship Berlinale Palast screening premieres over ten nights every February.

The Berlinale’s director since 2001, Dieter Kosslick, is a moustachioed, loquacious Swabian. Even he admits that given a choice between eating lobster al fresco by the Mediterranean and tramping through ice and slush and warding off flu, most sane people would opt for Cannes in May over Berlin. But as the joke-cracking chief of such a prestigious event, Kosslick can, rather charmingly, get away with this. In fact, he’s managed since he took over to turn this wintry jamboree into one of the most variegated film parties on the planet.

The competition is always chock-full of stars. Recent red-carpet crowd-pullers have included Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Clive Owen and Angelia Jolie: mid-winter Berlin laps up glamour. Through the festival, and over ten sections, around 400 films can be seen by what is reputed to be one of the world’s savviest and, certainly in festival terms, most ticket-hungry, cinema publics.

Kosslick has a lightness of touch and a genuine catholicity of taste, having introduced, for example, a mini-film school lasting the duration of the festival, called the Talent Campus, and an unlikely but popular section dedicated to the culinary arts in film. He’s been unapologetic about waving the flag for new German cinema. He’s also been shameless in inviting super-celebrity to Berlin, including during one festival alone – in 2008 – Madonna, for her directorial debut Filth and Wisdom, and the Rolling Stones, for Martin Scorsese’s Shine A Light.

Berlinale 2013 promises to be as upbeat as any in the last ten years, bringing as always festival glitter to the doldrums of February. But does it end there? Berlin’s film festival is undoubtedly the biggest annual arts event in Germany: there is, however, much else besides in this increasingly confident capital to draw in the culturally curious.

Seasonal change in Berlin is sudden, and before you know it, two major theatre events each year have Berliners scrambling for tickets. In early spring, at one of Europe’s most exciting theatres, the Schaubühne – on the great shopping boulevard of the old west, the Kurfürstendamm – puts on FIND (Festival for International New Drama), which gathers together young writers and directors from all over the world. Then in early May follows, at the headquarters of Berlin’s leading publicly funded cultural organisation, the Festspiele, the Theatertreffen (translating loosely as ‘theatre meeting’). This is a fortnight showcasing the best of German-speaking theatre (including, therefore, from Austria and Switzerland) and of which, like the Berlinale, Berlin and Berliners are historically proud: the Theatertreffen turns 50 this year. Both festivals present productions with English subtitles.

Berlin is a true cultural capital, and doesn’t need official European labelling (or any other kind) to underline this. Twenty-eight years of physical division meant that many arts institutions were duplicated; today, for the west’s Schaubühne, the east has the funky, left-field Volksbühne (and the really famous historic houses, the Deutsches Theater, the Maxim Gorki Theater and Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, were also behind the Wall). The situation with opera was and is more implausible.

The west’s fiercely modernist Deutsche Oper was opened in 1961, with the Wall already up, to make a big statement about west German self-assurance. Behind the Wall lay the old Staatsoper (State Opera) and the Komische Oper (for, traditionally, a slightly different audience). The result is that Berlin is now the only capital with three mainstream opera houses, though perhaps only one of them, the Staatsoper, rings round the world with A-grade reputation: its music director is Daniel Barenboim.

The great museums, on what’s known as the Museum Island in the River Spree, were similarly at the heart of the Prussian capital, locked in to the Soviet zone and more or less left to moulder (the complex is still under renovation). West Berlin’s response was to erect in 1968 the remarkable, temple-like Mies van der Rohe New National Gallery, provocatively close to the Wall, as was Hans Scharoun’s sparkling, early 1960s Philharmonie concert hall, home to the renowned Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan for 35 years. Right next to the Wall was the neo-Renaissance Martin-Gropius Bau, today hosting a repertoire of exhibitions of old and new art combining the range of the Pompidou Centre with the ambition of Tate Modern – look out for a spectacular show of the great American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, on until 14 April.

Put these municipal landmarks together with a thriving gallery scene and thousands of young artists attracted by Berlin’s cheap rent, and you have a city easily as buzzy as New York or London, and half the price of either. Look carefully at any number of new German films at the Berlinale and you’ll see the city playing more than a bit part. Whether as film set, art centre or theatre laboratory, 21st-century Berlin knows how to celebrate creativity.

About the author:

James Woodall is a writer and editor who lived in Berlin for 13 years and wrote on culture for the Financial Times and The Economist


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