Echoing throughout the concrete of the subway between Stadtmitte and Potsdamer Platz is a young man slamming out a guitar chord like it owes him money and singing out “I want to see the movies of my dreams.” His droning twang sounds more like it was unearthed from the soil of North Carolina, but the Euro coins in his case and the writing on the wall prove he’s in Berlin.
His sentiment is a powerful and timely one as the red signs everywhere shout out the presence of the Berlin International Film Festival. Just a dozen feet above that young man’s head is the shuffle of mud-covered feet swishing through snow as more of it falls on the ground. An ice cream parlor is inexplicably still open and doing good business nearby.
It’s 21 degrees outside, but it feels like 8, and that creates a kind of energy. People are moving quickly to both to keep up with the lazy first day rush and to keep their bits from freezing off. Maybe that will make getting into a darkened (and heated) theater all the sweeter. At least that’s the hope on the largely movie-less, paper work-heavy start to the Berlinale.
Beyond the scattered preparations and disparate schedules cluttering the mental nodes and notebooks, there’s the spirit of the place. As the night and the temperatures fall together, it breathes hard and heavy with the anticipation of the opening film – a period piece from Benoit Jacquot called Farewell, My Queen where Diane Kruger wants everyone to eat cake. Outside now, there’s a red carpet filled with women who haven’t even seen cake in years, all stuffed into dresses with sizes as low as the Celsius temperature. That they’re baring their arms and cleavage in such frigidity is a testament to the kind of noble stupidity that only keeping up appearances can inspire, and the bearded men they use for warmth waltz them from huddle to huddle of cameramen and forest to forest of black microphones. They’re waving and smiling as the odd mixture of black sludge that comes when dirt marries snow drops from their heels and clings to the carpet-covered ground. It collects there, turning the red more and brown, but the cameras don’t shift their gaze.
On a large screen, I’m watching celebrities I don’t recognize. It’s a jarring feeling. Everyone is clamoring for enough of their attention to get a good flash bulb broken, but I can’t place a face or a name.
I don’t know the people that everyone else knows.
There’s something both alarming and freeing about that. Alarming because I’m a stranger in a familiar land and freeing because it makes it just that much easier to find a darkened corner in a fancy hotel to contemplate and reflect on what I’ve just seen. My movie, the same movie, will start an hour after theirs a handful of subway stops away without any muddy red carpets or dancing bears. There will be no pomp or circumstance welcome, and that’s probably the way it should be. It will just be the movie, naked as it came, waiting to be loved, loathed, or something not as dramatic.
For me, it will be the first of many opportunities to see greatness. Like any film festival, Berlin is more casino than kino. In a hotel three blocks north of the Potsdamer Platz subway exit there are half a dozen movies playing every two hours hoping to get a distributor or an invitation to the next festival. An equal distance south, there’s an entire building of projects trying to secure the last bit of funding or impress a buyer. Tonight, I’ll take Marie Antoinette by the hand and walk into the next days where filmmakers trying to make a mark either grab audiences by the ears or fail to grab them at all.
Like any film festival, it’s the hope of the first day that will resonate like a foreign folk song off of underground German concrete walls. With any luck, the energy of Berlin will come from more than just the cold. There’s potential floating in the air, and just like that scruffy busker, I want to see the movies of my dreams.
Berlinale, let’s see what you’ve got.