It's a pretty easy equation, all things considered. "Opening Night film equals shite," muttered a British colleague, as we stood in the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel in Potsdamer Platz, about an hour before the first press screening at this year's Berlin Film Festival.
He then added, hastily, "That, er, analysis is copyright, by the way."
It's not -- it's too obvious for that -- but it should be pointed out that, in this respect, Berlin is hardly alone. For well over a decade, now, virtually every major European film festival has begun more with a whimper than a bang, whether out of a desire to appease sponsors and dignitaries (who are rarely cinephiles), the availability or otherwise of Talent, or the simple lack of anything else available. Many studios and producers, furthermore, are wary of accepting an opening night invitation -- reluctant, not only to incur the massive expense of a party, but to subject their film to the heightened expectations of a black-tie berth.
Even so, "The International" seems an especially unlikely choice for a Berlin opener. A glossy espionage thriller, complete with major stars -- Clive Owen and Naomi Watts -- it seems rather too frivolous and commercial for a festival that takes cinema as seriously as this one. But then you recall past Berlinale first nights, stinkers like "Enemy At The Gates" (with cockney-Russian Jude Law) or "Smilla's Sense of Snow", and it makes perfect sense. Plus it has pedigree, in the form of Berlin-resident Tom Tykwer, its director.
It even starts on home turf, with a messy roadside assassination at the city's massive Hauptbahnhof station that provides one of the film's only truly gripping sequences. By the time it stumbles to a close, 118 long minutes later, with a showdown on the roofs of Istanbul, "The International" has at least lived up to its title -- skipping across the globe from Manhattan to Milan, taking in such glamorous settings as Paris and the Amalfi coast and, er, Luxembourg. The kind of film where each new location is signposted by an onscreen caption, it seems to aspire to the dense narrative complexities of classics like "The Parallax View". Its aesthetic, meanwhile, self-consciously evokes recent studies of corporate corruption like "Michael Clayton", from its cool blue palette to its pulsing, sub-Cliff Martinez score. Sadly, it falls well short of both.
Yet if Tykwer's direction of sequences is occasionally heavy-handed, his treatment of actors is weirdly perfunctory. Watts, a normally magnetic screen presence, is wasted here, reduced to a cipher of concern and moral certitude, while Owen seems content to play the world's angriest man, a figure as grim and driven as Daniel Craig's Bond ... though considerably less proficient. By the time the big set-piece rolls around -- a tediously over-extended gunfight in the spiral of New York's Guggenheim Museum, which reduces large sections of Frank Lloyd Wright's late classic to splintered rubble -- the film has succumbed to a general idiocy. It 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).
The main problem, though, resides in a script that, when it's not expounding long stretches of expositionary dialogue, sounds uncomfortably like samples pulled at random from a bag of fortune-cookies. ("A man can meet his destiny on the very road he takes to avoid it." "Sometimes you have to know which bridge to cross ... and which to burn.") Meanwhile, every plot development is carefully foreshadowed, every new twist explained -- and then explained once again, in case we missed it the first time. There's no ambiguity here, no sense of threat or menace; nor is there the quality perhaps most important to any conspiracy thriller: the intimation of vast machinery operating just off-stage, a feeling of hopeless, insurmountable odds. Still, Europeans, deaf to its occasionally off-key English-language dialogue ("You're really a stand-up guy!"), will probably love it.
What it augurs for this year's Berlinale is hard to say. 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? 2008 will be remembered for many things: the financial meltdown, Obama's election, that godawful Kanye album. But probably not as a great year in international cinema -- or festival programming, for that matter.
Yet the Berlinale did uncover one of the finest films of 2008, in Gotz Speilmann's "Revanche" -- only to then bury this treasure in Panorama, instead of giving it the Competition berth it so clearly deserved. (And for what? To make room for the staggering genius of Eric Zonka's "Julia"?)
Some questions remain unanswered. Why, yet again, are there 26 features in competition? (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.) In fact the Berlinale, like any premiere festival, will be lucky to show 26 great films in its entire programme; to expect a competition to sustain a high standard over so many entries is patently ridiculous.
And why is one of them Stephen Daldry's "The Reader" - a film which has already opened in the US, the UK, parts of the Middle East, and a number of other European territories? So much for supposed World Premiere status.
That rules are made to be bent, is a not terribly German sentiment. How this all plays out shall, at the very least, be interesting to watch.