One of the more obscure winners in recent years of the Berlin film festival’s Golden Bear was a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by the esteemed Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio. The film, called Caesar Must Die, consisted of prisoners staging the Roman drama in their own high-security jail in Italy. The most dedicated Shakespearean or, indeed, lover of Italian cinema will have found it quite hard to enjoy. It was a tough, depressing watch.
But that’s the Berlinale all over. It favours a certain toughness and prides itself on films that engage politically, that are nakedly ‘art’ rather than obviously mainstream. Often it goes out of its way to be controversial. Berlin itself has long been controversial. A rough diamond way out in eastern Europe, and broadly disliked by the groomed and prosperous denizens of Hamburg and Munich, its previous status as Germany’s capital had, before 1991, been under Hitler.
The Berlinale was founded in 1951 in part to counter the image the city had left the world after 12 years of Nazism. From the off there was always a latent political agenda. During the Cold War the festival explicitly cocked a snook at the Soviet apparatus that enclosed West Berlin. Freedom of speech, cinematically expressed, has remained its abiding principle.
Today, the Berlinale is a smooth-running mega-machine, more star-struck than politically on the nail perhaps, operating amid the glass façades, smart hotels and many cinemas of the reconstructed Potsdamer Platz. It maintains a democratic élan by opening all its sections to the public, who book online or wait in very slow-moving queues at various booths. Cinemas east and west of Potsdamer Platz, and the capital as a whole, effectively give way to Germany’s biggest cultural event for an intense ten days.
In a piquant echo of the Taviani’s film four years ago, Rome, Caesar and two brothers again kicked off this year’s festival, though there the similarity with the 2012 winner ends.