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by Peter Knegt
February 5, 2009 11:33 AM
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Berlin Round Up: 59th Fest Commences, Honors Eastern Bloc Film, and Premieres "The International"

The scene at the Berlin Film Festival. Photo by Brian Brooks.

The 59th Berlin International Film Festival began today with the World Premiere of Tom Tykwer's "The International," a high finance conspiracy thriller starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. Variety reported from the event, noting that "while the film’s Naomi Watts was absent (having given birth to a baby boy in December), co-star Clive Owen generated plenty of glamour, remaining on the red carpet to greet fans for so long that fest director Dieter Kosslick quipped, 'Clive broke George Clooney’s red-carpet record.'" The film is noted as "touching on the fest’s many themes -- the financial crisis, globalization, terrorism, immigration and sinking food supplies -- Kosslick joked, 'We don’t have a film about the pope.'"

But the festival will also take some time to look to less contemporary themes, most notably as it helps mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin War, and both Variety and The Guardian made note of the Berlinale's programme dedicated to East German and other former communist bloc countries' films made between 1977 and 1989. The Guardian notes, "titled 'After Winter Comes Spring – Films Presaging the Fall of the Wall,' the strand will begin on Saturday with Helke Misselwitz's 1988 documentary about the final year of East Germany's existence, 'Winter Adé.'" Brought together by the Deutsche Kinemathek and the German Federal Cultural Foundation, the programme includes films from Bulgaria, Germany, Poland, Romania, Russia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The series will tour Germany following the fest.

On the business side, the fest's first few hours were expectedly slow. In the European Film Market, Cinemavault acquired the international sales and Canadian distribution rights to Nik Fackler’s “Lovely, Still,” while Stockholm-based NonStop nabbed the Nordic and Baltic distribution rights for Fredrik Wenzel and Henrik Hellstroem’s “Burrowing,” screening the festival's Forum section. The only U.S. sale was Strand Releasing's acquisition of Max Faerberboeck’s “A Woman In Berlin” from Beta Cinema.

As for thoughts on "The International," notices were generally quite negative. indieWIRE's own Shane Danielsen found that the film "plays as if someone described an espionage thriller to the director—its conventions, its structure—and he ran with it, never mind the mounting implausibilities (of which by far the most outlandish was the appearance of an honest Italian politician)."

His core problems with the film were returned to throughout most of the reviews that hit the web this evening, from Variety's Todd McCarthy who said that though "graced with well-chosen location eye candy, Tom Tykwer's biggest production to date is proficient but lacks the added tension and characterization to put it anywhere near the top tier of contempo action suspensers." The Telegraph's Sheila Johnson felt Tykwer was "trying hard to spin 'The International' into a bang-up-to-the-minute yarn about globalisation and corporate villainy. But it feels like a tale torn from yesterday's headlines. And topicality is, in any case, a dubious blessing."

Some consolation was found in The Hollywood Reporter's generally positive review by Sura Wood: "Punctuated with bursts of explosive energy, this is a contained, cerebral film. Rapture is reserved for dramatic modern architecture, which is equated with power and control, a reflection of how master manipulators view themselves." Though she did go on to note the partnership between Owen and Watts' characters, the expository dialogue and, "in particular, a prolonged, far–fetched shootout at the Guggenheim Museum are weaknesses in an otherwise intricately plotted script by Eric Warren Singer."

Danielsen went on to wonder what this film means for the rest of festival. He asks: "Last year’s event was widely considered a disappointment—but who could have known, in February, that it was merely the opening salvo in what would be a string of desultory major fests, followed by equally sub-par outings at Cannes, Venice, Locarno and Toronto?"

Specifically he asks why the fest overstocks its competition with 26 features (quipping that "the jurors, whose press conference apparently focused largely on the perils of globalization, could be forgiven for feeling as if they’re toiling in some Third World sweatshop.") and why one of those features is Stephen Daldry's "The Reader," which has already opened in North America, the UK, and a number of other European territories.

"That rules are made to be bent, is a not terribly German sentiment," Danielsen said. "How this all plays out shall, at the very least, be interesting to watch." Indeed.

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