Film: The Real Deal

Covering an international film festival opens a worldview

Anthony Minghella's Civil War behemoth Cold Mountain, starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, opened the 54th Berlin Film Festival.

When Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" segued into Led Zeppelin's infamous ode to the afterlife on my flimsy airline headphones during take off, I knew we were all going to die. What a way to go — a death pulled straight from the dusty urban legends file. I could hear it now: "... and when they found Morehart's body in the twisted plane wreckage, 'Stairway to Heaven' was still playing through the headphones burned into his skull."

I was a bit edgy during my flight to Berlin for the 54th Annual Berlinale, one of Europe's preeminent film festivals. The showcase for the best in contemporary world cinema draws major directors, stars and industry professionals from around the world. I was one of 3,500 journalists attending.

This was the real deal — my first job covering an international film festival and my first overseas flight. I was sweating.

To clear my head, I chose the obvious methods: a Heineken and the in-flight film, Russell Crowe's over-hyped sea battle extravaganza Master and Commander. The maritime nonsense sucked me in, numbing the anxieties borne from being thrown across the Atlantic strapped inside a large metal tube.

After a quick layover in Amsterdam, I was in Berlin, eager to hit a news conference for the opening film, the Civil War behemoth Cold Mountain. Unfortunately, my jetlagged body saw the cloud that passed for a bed in my quaint hotel room.

I passed out, awakening hours later. I cursed myself and the inventors of the time zone for making me miss a face-to-face encounter with Nicole Kidman. (I heard later she didn't show.)

Foregoing food for glamour, I raced to the Postsdamer Platz for the opening night festivities. A marvelous example of architectural renovation, the once desolate wasteland that surrounded a portion of the Berlin Wall has grown into a lively and modern complex of movie theatres, museums, restaurants and bars hearkening back to the area's pre-war days as a hub of Berlin life. The new centerpiece is the Berlinale Palast, a marvelous theater whose facade rivaled the glitterati lined up along its red carpet for the opening film.

The power of celebrity was alive at the Palast. Hordes of fans and camera flashes elevating the festivities to a surreal level. A mega-screen television broadcast images of Claudia Schiffer, Faye Dunaway, Anthony Minghella and Philip Seymour Hoffman entering the theater.

The moment boiled into insanity when a group of students protesting university funding cuts rushed the Palast, met by an equal number of Berlin police. Screams of protest competed with screams of adoration, and I was in the center. It was time to leave. I took one last look at the melee that only cinema can provoke.

Day two began at 8:30 a.m., shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of journalists waiting to enter a screening for the first film in the Competition Program, Swedish director Bjorn Runge's darkly comic family drama Daybreak. I wasn't prepared for the onslaught of bodies, but I was surprised at how polite everyone was, considering the sardine conditions.

A common curiosity and eagerness to discover more about the person seated next to you replaced the rude crowds I experience at American theaters. I met writers, filmmakers and fans from Germany, France and Brazil and, regardless of minor language barriers, the understood appreciation of film brought us all together.

Speaking with an older German writer about Jack Nicholson, who was at the festival promoting Something's Gotta Give, I was struck by her pleasant surprise when I mentioned that I'd seen and liked About Schmidt. I took for granted the fact that the film, which played every multiplex across America, was a foreign gem to her, much like many of her favorite German films probably are to me. My belief in film as a means of cultural interaction and understanding was reaffirmed.

In my four days at the Berlinale, my worldview was shot wide open by powerful films addressing the human condition. Vinko Bresan's excellent Witnesses, a compelling crime drama told against the backdrop of the Serbian-Croatian conflict, and Hans Peter Molland's Beautiful Country, an epic following a young Vietnamese man's journey to find his American G.I. father in the U.S., impressed me with their insistence that personal differences are irrelevant, even when faced with the abject realities of war, racism and hatred.

Even John Boorman's relatively disappointing film, Country of My Skull, proved noteworthy for its honest depiction of South Africa's emotional healing during the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, which involved scores of mostly black victims of police brutality confronting and forgiving their attackers.

Unfortunately, these films probably won't be seen in Cincinnati or any city without a major film festival, dedicated art-house theater, film society or independent video store. It's hard to swallow. With the social problems plaguing much of the world, the universal truths that shine through these films could prove both enlightening and therapeutic.

The flight back to the United States was a breeze. The festival's films, conversations and sights invigorated me with a newfound appreciation for both cinema and the world. I knew my Berlinale experience would last long after I left Germany.

As the plane leveled into its cruising altitude, the lights dimmed to signal the start of the final film of my journey. The School of Rock was the perfect capper to the week. The well-crafted Hollywood film was a welcome departure from the serious fare at the Berlinale, reminding me of cinema's equally important value as entertainment and escapism. I ordered a drink and let Jack Black's power chords of hilarity take me home. ©

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