Saturday, February 18, 2006

How to Grin and "Bear" it in Berlin

The official symbol of the city of Berlin is a bear. Nobody seems to know why, but I've developed the following hypotheses: 1) Bear sounds like "Bar" and since the Berlin winter is so cold, there's just no place else to go., 2) Bears are big and strong and hairy. Kind of like most German men (and women!), or 3) Bears will eat anything, they don't care what it tastes like. See: German Cuisine. In any rate, for the past 56 years, the city of Berlin has chosen to cover its national carnivorous mammal in gold and give it to the winner of the best film at its annual Film Festival, the Berlinale. On February 11th, I too, covered myself in gold and headed to Berlin.

I arrived at my hotel, the Hotel Altberlin, which apparently hasn't noticed that the year is 2006 and not 1906. The hotel was built in the style of the ending 19th century and has kept its "nostalgic charm" (translation: no elevators, medieval plumbing, and receptionists who look like they just came from dinner with Kaiser William III). But very cute nonetheless, and not too far from the Potsdamer Platz, where all the festival action took place, or the Martin Gropius Bau, home of the EFM (European Film Market).

While the Martin Gropius Bau could otherwise be described as a "poor man's Palais du Festival," this year's marketplace was bustling every day. With a record number of companies registered, market activity was at its peak. I spent my first couple of days wandering to the various stands to introduce myself and tell company reps about advertising with Le Film Français, the Cannes Market News and the Marché du Film's Market Guide, Pocket Guide and website The rest of the week was spent in meetings with these companies. Just being at the center of the market was so exciting - throughout the week, I met film executives from all over the world and was exposed to the different sides of the international film industry. From American "indie" industry staples (Focus Features, Shoreline Entertainment, Bleiberg Entertainment, etc.) to Asian film giants (Shochiku, Toei, Cineclick Asia) to European distributors (Studiocanal, Capitol Films, Celluloid Dreams, Square One), I really got a feel for the wide world of cinema. The pace of the marketplace was much more calm than in Cannes, but still incredibly stressful.

I was able to see two films while I was there: Robert Altman's A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (starring Meryl Streep, Garrison Keillor, Woody Harrelson, Lindsay Lohan, Lily Tomlin, etc.) and Claude Chabrol's L'IVRESSE DU POUVOIR (starring Isabelle Huppert, François Berléand and Patrick Bruel). A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION was enjoyable, but hardly life-changing. It would have been impossible for Altman to fail with such a stellar cast, but I wasn't very impressed with the result. In fact, I enjoyed the press conference more: Woody Harrelson was hysterical, and Meryl Streep was classy as always. Lindsay Lohan even surprised me by not only forming complete sentences, but also providing witty responses to some of the idiotic questions posed by the international press. L'IVRESSE DU POUVOIR was an entertaining look at corporate power struggles in contemporary France, with Isabelle Huppert perfect in the lead role. Despite his 76 years, Chabrol proved himself once again to be a master of the French mystery genre.

And then there were the "feste" (parties) ...

Sunday night's Trust Film Sales party at a club around Alexanderplast was quite the scene, as Danish film execs sipped powerful vodka drinks with an eclectic crowd featuring familiar party circuit faces. On Monday night, I ventured to the swank Aldon Hotel for the Shooting Stars 2006 reception and party. Shooting Stars 2006 is a European Film Promotion initiative that
recognizes 21 up-and-coming actors from all over Europe. The program is financially supported by the European Union's MEDIA Programme. Appropriately explained to me beforehand by festival veterans as "an excellent waste of European money," this year's Shooting Stars reception felt like a romp through Disneyland's Epcot Center, only with young, beautiful actors and actresses representing each country. There was a presentation on stage featuring clips from the actors' recent on-screen ventures, meant to encourage the international film industry, media and public to acknowledge the incredible screen talent that lies within Europe. I think the program is actually a wonderful idea - when else would most of the media and public be exposed to most of these young talents whose film careers haven't yet received international recognition. When else would I have spent an evening eating tiny plates of unidentifiable hors d'oeuvres and cream-covered apple strudel with a Norwegian actress (Ane Dahl Torp), a Morroco-born Dutch actor (Mimoun Oaïssa) and one of France's most famous young French actresses (Fanny Valette, who, by the way, also shared my Paris-Berlin flight on the way to the fest) ? When we'd schmoozed our young hearts out, we hopped in the Shooting Stars 2006 official car, and the driver took us to the Icelandic Films party where the party continued until late in the evening in a crowded warehouse-like club featuring a 7-foot tall drag queen spinning tunes. Only in Berlin, my friends, only in Berlin.

Tuesday was Valentine's Day, otherwise known as ... Tuesday, in Germany. Thankfully, the gratuitous commercialism of the day of love that has swept the United States and recently Paris as well, did not make it to the city of the Reichstag. (Maybe it's because even the words "I love you" in German sound, to the foreign ear, like a military command? "ich liebe Dich!" "Ok, I surrender!") I ended up having a late meeting with a client, so we headed - per the recommendation of the Ritz Carlton Hotel's Concierge - to a German-Italian spot which promised "English menus." As it turns out, the "English Menu" was actually a French waiter from Limoges who also spoke a little English, German and Italian. I'm not sure where the food came from, but I think I would have preferred a large plate of candy hearts. After dinner, we headed to a party for the film Martin Barney: No Restraint sponsored by Agnès B. The party was on a deserted street in seemingly the middle of nowhere, but the place was packed when we arrived. After a struggle to convince the 400% German coat check man with a 3-foot mustache and no mastery whatsoever of the English language who looked like he'd just come from the WWII battlefield, we headed inside. The large space resembled a high-school prom in the 1950s, with a DJ on stage mixing modern beats with old-school hip hop and streamers and decorations lining the walls and ceilings. I thought I was in the twilight zone as I ventured from the downstairs room, as "Shake Dat Ass" played in the background, to an upstairs room where Waltz music was playing and couples were - I kid you not - doing the Waltz. Marilyn Manson was sitting on a chair, calmly observing the scene. I went back downstairs where a completely wasted Charlotte Rampling bumped into me. I then went on to tell her that I was her #1 American fan and she told me, her eyes glazed over, perhaps from a tough week running the Festival Jury, or perhaps from the ubiquity of drugs in the room, that I was indeed her #1 American. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in town promoting festival entry Capote, and I had a "moment" as our eyes met and he smiled and said "Good Night" (German translation: Let's be best friends, Rebecca).

On Wednesday night, after dinner in a very kitsch French bistro in the Ritz, I headed to TF1's party for Competition entry "Romanzo Criminale" and celebrated my last night in Berlin drinking Prosecco and overlooking the entire city from the 16th floor of a club not far from Potsdamer Platz.

Auf Weidersehen, Berlin!

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