Long established as one of Europe's "big three" film festivals alongside Cannes and Venice, the Berlinale takes place in the middle of winter, in the middle of an historic city that lies at the middle of the European continent. Potsdamer Platz, an inescapably modern intersection of skyscrapers, glass, steel and concrete, is the bustling if relatively characterless heart of a festival whose venues are scattered all over the many vibrant, characterful districts - and even the suburbs - of Germany's capital. The local dialect for neighbourhood is "Kiez", and over the last few years the festival's initiative "Berlinale Goes Kiez" has brought a selection of films into regular, small cinemas dotted all over the city.
But for many of the professional attendees - film-makers, journalists, programmers and buyers - there is seldom much reason to venture far beyond Potsdamer Platz. Even the Martin Gropius Building, opulent home of the European Film Market, is only a few minutes' walk from the "PP" U-Bahn and S-Bahn tram and train stations. Running alongside the Gropius Building is one of the longest surviving remnants of the Wall which divided the city - and, in some ways, the world - from 1961 to 1989.
For most of its former length the wall's route is now marked by a simple line of bricks - so unobtrusive that many Berlinale-goers will crisscross it several times a day without even realising it is there. Perhaps they will be rushing to one of the screenings at the four venues to be found at Potsdamer Platz, the most eyecatching of which is the grandly bland edifice of the "Berlinale Palast" - a regular theatre for most of the year, but red-carpet-central for Competition screenings.
Berlinale is a bewildering behemoth of a festival with numerous sections and subsections, most notable of which are the Forum (a parallel event dedicated to "young" and adventurous works), the Panorama (a teeming grab-bag of genre material, LGBT films and eclectic documentaries) and Generation (films for children and young adults).
In terms of older films, each year presents a different Homage (dedicated to a particular cinema giant) and thematic Retrospective. 2015's Homage venerated that living legend of German film, Wim Wenders, who received an honorary Golden Bear - compensation for the tepid-to-hostile reception accorded to his out-of-competition drama somewhat optimistically entitled "Every Thing Will Be Fine". The Retrospective, following on from 2014's celebration of monochrome cinematography, presented a lavish selection of Technicolour movies, to mark the process's 100th anniversary, with Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" a particular favourite on vibrant 35mm.
Under the genial stewardship of Festival Director Dieter Kosslick, in post since the start of this century, and whose contract was renewed shortly before the most recent iteration, Berlinale prides itself on being very much a public festival. The totemic figure of 300,000 admissions was achieved with three days to spare, confirming the German jamboree in the top echelon of the planet's most popular cinema-related happenings alongside the likes of Toronto and Rotterdam.
But Berlinale also seeks to maintain its reputation for highlighting new work of genuine cinematic excellence, and many of those attending commented that the Competition section in particular was something of a vintage crop - probably the best of the "Kosslick era", opined several Berlinale diehards. And even if Werner Herzog's Gertrude Bell biopic "Queen of the Desert" attracted more catcalls than cheers, star Nicole Kidman provided a plentiful dose of the Hollywood glamour with which the Berlinale has always been associated - since its very earliest days as a studio-supported cultural extravaganza lighting up a WWII-traumatised West Berlin.
Jafar Panahi's "Taxi" was recognised by the FIPRESCI jury as the best film in Competition, and the state-persecuted director's bouncily provocative "road movie" also took the festival's most prestigious honour, the Golden Bear. The FIPRESCI jury also plumped for an Iranian selection in Panorama, recognising the achievement of Hamed Rajabi with "A Minor Leap Down", with Francesco Clerici's documentary "Hand Gestures" taking the International Critics' Prize in the Forum.
The festival's official jury, under president Darren Aronofsky, provided an especially memorable night for Chilean cinema, bestowing their (runner-up) Silver Bear trophy on Pablo Larraín's tale of sinful Catholic priests, "The Club". Best Screenplay award on veteran Patricio Guzmán for his ocean-centric documentary "The Pearl Button", a rare but welcome reminder that non-fiction films can be just as "scripted" as their fictional equivalents. (Neil Young)
The Critics Prizes - The Motivations
Taxi directed by Jafar Panahi (Competition). The award goes to a film "showing great personal and artistic bravery. It is a multilayered tale about everyday life, an original narrative exploration of both human choices and constrained existence. A humane and subtle portrait of a filmmaker and his country, a man and his surroundings and fellow citizens. Above all, this witty, sharp and devious take on freedom of speech encapsulates the struggle of all artists who seek to overcome the restrictions of reality and express their emotions and opinions regardless of censorship or state bans."
A Minor Leap Down by Hamed Rajabi (Panorama). The award "goes to a film that speaks in a very subtle and nuanced way about depression, rebellion and psychological diseases. Though set in a specific country, the film is able to present how social and family relationships work in general terms. Of special note is the complex cinematic language and especially how long takes are used in a very fine way to shape the subject."
Hand Gestures by Francesco Clerici (Forum). "We see, hear, follow and feel a symphony: editing and sound form a unique flow, imitating a unique work-process. Black and white images from long ago blend in and out with terracotta, among fifty shades of red and brown, all to end up immortalised as bronze. Taking us into the heart and soul of an historic foundry in Milan."
Festival: www.berlinale.de (Competition, Panorama);
In the framework of "Berlinale Talents", FIPRESCI co-organized the "Talent Press" workshop for eight young critics. Click on "Criticism Reloaded"