Right now, the Berlinale film festival is taking place in Berlin. Half a million tickets have been sold and more than 400 films from many countries will be shown, some of them for the first time. As always, Hollywood stars will be walking the red carpet; Tilda Swinton, Meryl Streep and George Clooney among them.
When the first Berlinale was held in Berlin fifty-five years ago, in 1951, only six years had passed since Germany’s defeat in World War Two. The city was divided into four sectors and the fault line of the Cold War ran through the center of the former capital. Although reconstruction was under way, large sections of Berlin were still in ruins. Oscar Martay, a film officer in the US military who was stationed in West Berlin, had the idea for the festival just a couple of years after the Cannes Film Festival was inaugurated. Martay wanted to revive Berlin’s cultural tradition and bring a bit of international glamour to the city. In 1951, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca was the opening film and its star, Joan Fontaine, appeared in person and brought a whiff of Hollywood to the recovering city.
I attended the Berlinale in 1987, when the Wall still divided Berlin into East and West. Back then, the festival wasn’t the extravaganza it is today, but it was West Berlin’s toniest winter event:
I had procured my press pass weeks in advance. That year, the Berlinale was paying tribute to Gorbachev’s politics of transparency and reform by highlighting Soviet films. A ten day bash, the Filmfest required stamina, endurance and, above all, style. I would be mingling with celebrities and stars at screenings, press conferences and parties.
On opening night, I pulled soft boots over my skinny slacks, threw the requisite leather jacket over a snug sweater; a red ribbon in my hair the only pop in all black. That was the fashion color of the West Berlin Szene; and it always amazed me how infinitely it could be ruffled, pleated or cut away into breathtaking outfits. A fashionable crowd was gathered at the Zoo Palast cinema: impeccably made-up starlets displayed flawless shoulders, assistant directors sported rakish hats, famous stars disappeared in dense clusters of admirers. I wasn’t a player, of course, but I moved in the wake of players, air-kissing cheeks and joining sharp repartees in German and English. Champagne flowed, cigarette smoke curled, flashing cameras heated up the tumult. Everyone was making an enormous effort to be seen: talking loudly, gesturing grandly, always scanning the room for someone more important.
My friend Thomas, who was a screenwriter on the other side of the Wall, would have given his eyeteeth to be there, but with the wall standing as fortified as ever, he would have to rely on me to give him a blow-by-blow description of people and events. I had promised him I would recount everything. So, after three days of schmoozing and rushing, I crossed the border and stepped into the grainy black and white film that was East Berlin. My friend Thomas was waiting for me at his apartment. I handed him programs and brochures and his face lit up.
“Clandestine?” he asked, spreading them out on the table.
“Tucked under my sweater.”
For Thomas’ sake, I embellished the details of the Festival: the clothes, the frantic networking, the frenzied entourage trailing Oliver Stone and Werner Herzog. I reported that glasnost and perestroika were the most bandied about words. When I mentioned the evening’s special screening, a highly acclaimed Soviet documentary about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Thomas sighed.
“I read about it. Sergeyenko is a great director. Go see it, for me too.”
Thomas knew everything about film. He should have been there in my place.
Later that afternoon, I hugged my friend good bye at the exit building, nicknamed by Berliners the Palace of Tears. Inside the checkpoint, I opened my purse for the customs agent, squeezed through one of the narrow passageways to show my passport and visa at the control booth, rushed to the subway. When I exited the station in West Berlin, I took a deep breath. The cold air was invigorating.
I arrived at the Delphi Filmpalast just in time. When the lights went out and Kolokol Chernobylya started, I wondered what Thomas was doing – maybe reading those glossy pamphlets and press releases?