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

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:

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.

Czech films had a similarly strong presence, led by ``Larks on a String,'' made in 1969 during the same brief period of relaxed censorship that produced such Soviet films (shown recently in American theaters) as ``Repentance'' and ``Commissar.'' Like them, it was locked in a vault for two decades, until drastically new conditions let it be publicly projected for the first time.

Unlike the East German offerings, ``Larks on a String'' was directed by a filmmaker well-known to American audiences: Jiri Menzel, whose ``Closely Watched Trains'' is an internationally respected classic of East European cinema, and whose ``My Sweet Little Village'' was an Academy Award nominee four years ago.

His new picture is a bittersweet comedy of love in unlikely circumstances, as men in a 1950s forced-labor camp (where they're incarcerated for being intellectuals out of favor with the Communist Party) woo the women in a nearby prison for would-be illegal emigrants. Filmed, written, and acted with a sense of wry, sometimes desperate absurdism, it proved one of the most talked-about films in the festival's official competition.

Czech filmmakers also contributed three films to the Panorama Series, another sidebar to the main festival. These included two documentaries - shot in 1968 and 1989, respectively - and Susan Klein's sparklingly filmed ``Dear Friends, Well ...'' a 1989 satire about a businessman with personal and professional problems. Additional movies shot by Czechs in the 1960s were shown in the festival's ``market'' for films seeking international distribution.

Not every film from every East European country was automatically praised at the festival, of course; and it appeared that change in this part of the world is not resulting in a new unification of filmmaking attitudes and practices, as some observers have speculated might happen. One festival official even said publicly that Hungarian and Polish filmmakers are now struggling uncertainly in a search for new styles and subjects that will reflect the new realities they now face - in contrast to Soviet filmmakers, who have more successfully adjusted to rapidly changing conditions.

Just one impressive new Hungarian film did make its way into the main competition: Janos Zsombolyai's dark ``Sentenced to Death,'' about a young man who recalls his private and political life while awaiting execution for being involved in a 1950s uprising; although flawed by uneven performances and a trite musical score, it has moments of startling visual power.

The question also remains open as to whether East European films will now take on a more Westernized flavor than they had before. Although documentaries from East Germany are clearly reveling in their new freedom, for example, East Germany's fiction features have long resisted the kind of ``pure entertainment'' approach that's common in Hollywood, despite the popularity of American films in that country. It is unclear whether this will now change.

In any case, a long list of other countries - from China and Finland to Brazil and Spain - also competed for attention at the festival. This demonstrated the continuing vitality of cinema on a global basis, although the strong presence of Eastern European films in the program as a whole tended to crowd out Asian and Latin American countries. In all, it was an imperfect program - few new masterpieces were proclaimed by the hordes of spectators - but a provocative and forward-looking one.

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