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Cultural Walls Fall in Berlin

For the first time in festival's 40-year history, entries - including East Bloc films shelved before glasnost - were screened in the East. BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 1990


NONE of us who attended last year's Berlin Film Festival dreamed of the massive political and social changes that would be sweeping Europe - and Germany in particular - when the 1990 edition rolled around. Since an average movie takes months to complete, only a few of the new films in this year's program, which concluded Tuesday, have direct evidence of the recent upheavals. Yet the atmosphere was palpably different in the many theaters where the festival's offerings were shown, and it was clear that programming had been affected by headline-making events in the off-screen world:

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For the first time in its 40-year history, the festival showed films on both sides of the rapidly crumbling Berlin Wall, repeating major selections (including those from the main competition) in three East Berlin theaters.

Festival programmers gained new access to archives in Eastern European countries, where they resurrected films that were once officially banned.

Eastern European films that were rushed into production as a response to recent events found their way onto the festival's program, especially in the respected International Forum of Young Films, ``sidebar'' series devoted to groundbreaking work.

This doesn't mean the Berlin festival has changed its stripes in every way. It still has commercial as well as political and artistic priorities. It proved that by hosting an unusually large group of Hollywood pictures seeking a highly visible launching pad for their European theatrical runs.

This didn't always work out happily: The festival opened with Herbert Ross's lachrymose ``Steel Magnolias,'' a maudlin comedy about the lives and loves of several Southern women, and it was not kindly received by press or public.

On the other hand, the political drama ``Music Box'' found more favor in Berlin than in some American cities, and such varied productions as ``The War of the Roses'' and ``Born on the Fourth of July'' were greeted with enthusiasm.

Berlin prides itself on being a prime location for cinematic contact between East and West, and in keeping with that tradition the Hollywood successes joined their newsmaking European counterparts to form an uncommonly diverse and unpredictable program.

Also on hand were a large number of American independent films, ranging from the popular ``Roger & Me'' and the bouncy ``Hollywood Mavericks'' to the ascetic ``Near Death'' and the avant-garde ``Water and Power.''

It is fitting that Berlin should be the first major festival to reflect Europe's recent changes, since the city and its wall have often been exploited by artists as a symbol for all kinds of postwar divisions, conflicts, and schizophrenias. Today, the ``divided city'' is decaying as a symbol, however, just as surely as its wall is being knocked to pieces by cheerful citizens with mallets and chisels.

East Germany has been among the countries most eager to take advantage of the new openness, contributing to the festival such just-completed films as ``10 Days in October'' and ``New Departure '89 - Dresden,'' documentaries on events that took place just a few months ago and could not have been depicted in East German movies as recently as last year. Other documentaries that traveled to the Forum series from east of the wall included ``Leipzig in Autumn'' and ``In Berlin, 16 October-4 November 1989,'' which also give eyewitness accounts of demonstrations and encounters.

Also on the Forum bill was an impressive list of formerly banned fiction films from East Germany, such as ``Berlin Around the Corner'' and ``Born in '45,'' both held back from completion in the mid-1960s, and ``Don't Think That I'm Crying,'' which was completed but withheld from exhibition in 1965. ``I'm the Rabbit'' was also banned in that year, as were such pictures as ``Spring Takes Time'' and ``Karla,'' all of which showed up on this month's program.