Berlin(ale) Notes: Views on Potsdamer Platz
‘Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ Transpose Kipling’s Asian Ballad to Mitteleuropa and imagine the climate in Berlin before 1989. But, in November of that year, with one swell foop (Berlin said IamONE?), the wall came tumbling down and we now have ‘… neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth’.
Berlin was a divided city. Its geographical and cultural isolation was both its tragedy and its claim to fame. It was this originality that lured the radically creative and politically marginal to feel the uniqueness of its city limits. With the fall of a wall, it has morphed into a convivially cool crossroads for enquiring minds, where harsh memories of the recent past are a social insurance for a near future bathed in a more harmonious light.
In any case, most world citizens seeking a cosmopolitan city scene agree that Berlin is easier than London, Paris or New York. The ceilings are higher, the windows bigger and the rents cheaper. Goodbye Camden Town, Bastille and the Lower East Side. Hello Kreuzberg, Neuköln and Mitte.
Glass and steel have now filled the open spaces created by bombs and political chill; new structures emphasise the renewed strategic importance of Berlin at the centre of Europe. Community green shoots and alternative attitudes also abound as cultural and artistic endeavours find fertile ground. Newcomers no longer notice which side of the wall their patch used to be on, as alternative tribes and ethnic communities migrate or emerge and find their place in a new Berlin at the centre of the European continent.
The Berlin International Film Festival (or Berlinale), too, was originally a cultural outpost, a child of the Cold War, and in its 60 years it has lived through the three chapters of modern mutation, going from Cold War-without Wall to Cold War-with Wall and now to Reunification with no more wall. The Berlinale began its life back in 1951 living out its prime in the wonderful Zoo Palast cinema, off the Ku’damm in the centre of old West Berlin and across from the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm church (now a sculptural monument affectionately called ‘the Hole in the Tooth’). In 2000 the festival moved to a newly renovated Potsdamer Platz, a former principal crossroads of Europe and a location situated on the wasteland that surrounded the Wall. Over time, the Berlinale has established itself as one of the big three ‘A-list’ European festivals, along with Cannes and Venice. Berlinale is unique in that it resides in a big city, and is reputed to be the largest publicly attended film festival.
Berlin sometimes comes in for stick for pandering too much to the Hollywood Studios’ European distribution schedules by including,
in the competition, American movies that are already well into their careers stateside.
But the Berlinale, like the city itself, does increasingly cater to film practitioners and fans alike. At one end of the industry spectrum the European Film Market is a trade fair where films and territories are exchanged; at the other end is the Talent Campus which creates a one-week university of cinema where budding practitioners and aspirants from all over the world come to interact with teachers drawn from a dream-list of celluloid celebrity. Berlinale is geared for all genres and audiences, maintaining its cred among film buffs by nurturing the more adventurous art-house, alternative, minority and exotic fare through parallel programmes such as the Panorama and Forum selections.
Panorama has also created the Teddy Awards, for queer cinema. This event provides a slightly bawdier celebration than the official gold and silver Bears. Kings and queens of all persuasions can be found strutting the stage. This year, John Hurt was given a Special Teddy for his portrayal of the legendary Quentin Crisp in Richard Laxton’s An Englishman in New York, a new film that continues the story of how this obstinate and flamboyant hero set about tearing down other time-worn walls of prejudice, armed only with chiffon and sharp wits. Englishman completes a Quentin Crisp trilogy at Panorama this year, for it is the sequel to a film made a mere 33 years previously, also starring Hurt. That was Jack Gold’s The Naked Civil Servant, the film adaptation of Crisp’s 1968 autobiography chronicling how tough it was being an ‘effeminate homosexual’ in early 20th century Britain. Hurt, a hardened veteran of roles that brought him through South American jungles, Australian deserts and Turkish prisons was as disarmed and bashful as a blushing debutant as he acknowledged the accolade, saying how this prize was more special than any other for him.
Laxton’s new film recounts the amusing tale of Quentin Crisp’s later career in the US after he had tired of the small-minded prejudices of England. His legendary wit gained him the instant celebrity America offers. His spontaneous sharp repartee also found him being shunned by some of his own emerging community when he referred, perhaps a little too frivolously, to the AIDS epidemic as being a ‘fad’. This is the dramatic crux of a sweet film where Quentin’s congenial obstinacy gives him new outsider insights. The middle part of the Panorama Quentin Crisp trilogy was Jonathan Nossiter’s Resident Alien (1990), a documentary that follows Crisp’s wanderings and encounters with streetlife and hoi-polloi alike, including a meeting with John Hurt’s portrayal of him in The Naked Civil Servant which changed both their lives — and continues to inspire in others the courage to come out and face the music.
A new face? Very Berlin…