The 61st Berlin Film Festival has been a contradictory affair. The city has been buzzing. There has been plenty of star wattage. Madonna was in town to show international distributors footage from her directorial debut feature, W. E., at a private screening. The King's Speech bandwagon passed through. Bob Geldof and Sean Penn have been in Berlin, although it's not clear why. The paparazzi and publicists have been scurrying around in frantic fashion. Potsdamer Platz, the festival's futuristic headquarters, is a hive of activity. Parties abounded. The trade press has been full of announcements about new projects – among them a biopic of Marvin Gaye, yet more Scandinavian crime drama in the vein of Stieg Larsson and an odd-sounding film called Blind Bastards Club starring Mickey Rourke and the rock star Lenny Kravitz "as guys who live life on the edge despite being blind".
As they try to cope with the overload of information, only slowly have visitors realised how deeply disappointing the programme is. "Great festival, shame about the films," was the consensus among the critics and programmers exposed to a competition comprised largely of lacklustre fare by first- and second-time film-makers. Dieter Kosslick, the festival head, promised "a festival of discovery," but many of the movies unspooling in the vast Berlinale Palast would have been better left to languish in obscurity.
It was telling that by the middle of this week, with the competition screenings close to complete, the most favoured film on critics' polls was still J C Chandor's Wall Street thriller, Margin Call, starring Kevin Spacey. This wasn't a world premiere. It screened in Sundance a month before – so Berlin could not take credit for launching it.
"The problem of Kosslick is that the selection is not interesting for him. The films are not interesting. What is interesting him is to have [sponsors] Mercedes, Audi and the city all happy," one leading French producer grumbled. The part of the programme that seemed to most excite Kosslick, who once wrote a history of the bagel, was the "culinary cinema" sidebar. This threw up some very interesting movies about food. "Let's give food a chance to become the focal point of our lives again and not poisonous junk disguised as food," Kosslick declared at the start of the festival – a rousing mission statement, perhaps, but of precious little relevance to festivalgoers more interested in cinema than gastronomy.
On the food front, Britain's Nigel Slater was in Berlin for the festival screening of Toast, the film about his troubled childhood that screened on the BBC over Christmas.
The Berlin market also included several films about food, among them Gereon Wetzel's El Bulli – Cooking in Progress. This is a documentary about the Catalonian restaurant celebrated for creating dishes that provide taste sensations: seaweed-flavoured ricecrackers, mango leaf, freeze-dried bananas and the like. Wetzel's film is a corrective to anyone who expects films about restaurants to be brash affairs featuring egomaniacal chefs. As Wetzel tells us early in the film, the restaurant is only open for six months. For the rest of the year, the chefs are "researching" in the lab. We see men in white coats earnestly experiment with liquids and strange-looking solids. Overseeing their experiments is Ferran Adrià, El Bulli's owner and necromancer-in-chief. Wetzel's fascinating documentary depicts a world far removed from Hell's Kitchen clichés.
A few good movies about food weren't enough to make up for the gaping holes in the festival. The Golden Bear, the festival's main award, has become devalued in recent years because the films that win rarely go on to enjoy glittering international careers. Recent winners such as Grbavica, Tuya's Marriage, The Milk of Sorrow and Honey – all respectable movies – are fading from memory. The competition serves only to highlight the increasing divide between esoteric art-house fare and the mainstream.
One pleasant revelation offered in Berlin, however, is that 3D doesn't need to be a gimmick. It's very easy to be cynical about the 3D phenomenon. Cinemas love the format because they are able to add a surcharge on tickets of up to 40 per cent. Since Avatar, many second-rate studio movies have used 3D in tokenistic fashion. In Berlin, two magnificent movies, Wim Wenders' Pina (about the German choreographer Pina Bausch) and Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, both shot in 3D, have shown the possibilities that 3D offers when used in an inventive and artistic way.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes viewers inside the recently discovered Chauvet caves in the South of France, showcasing their extraordinary cave paintings. Herzog claimed that shooting in 3D was "imperative". "Since my film in the cave may be the only film ever to be permitted to be shot there, because the climate in there is so delicate, you had to bring the audience into the cave itself," the director said.
The director is using the most modern cinema technology to bring images more than 30,000 years old to life. The 3D gives us the illusion that we are walking in the cave beside him. "That's the funny thing. With almost all audiences I've met after a screening, nobody talks about having seen a movie," he reflects. "They all speak about having been in a cave. That is the perfect response for me. I am very proud of that."
The 3D in Pina is used in equally magical fashion. As Wenders films some of Bausch's most celebrated productions, mounted by the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch ensemble, he is able to give his images an extraordinary depth of focus. Dancers float in front of us, or race out of the shadows. A feature doc about an avant-garde German choreographer who died two years ago doesn't seem like a commercial proposition. However, fans of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan should relish Pina. Bausch's productions were characterised by the same intensity, violence and eroticism that made Aronofsky's film so startling.
Neither Pina nor Cave of Forgotten Dreams were competing for the Golden Bear. Toward the end of the week, the competition titles started to spark the interest of critics and distributors. Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus was a raw and very bloody reworking of the Shakespeare play. The new Béla Tarr film, The Turin Horse, lasted for more than two and a half hours and featured only 30 or so shots. Critics seemed to warm to its bleak, Beckettian humour.
An Iranian film, Asghar Farhadi's Nader and Simin, a Separation, gave the international art-house distributors something they wanted to buy. A drama set in contemporary Iran, dealing with divorce and family rupture, it received an ovation after the press screening.
Berlin 2011 won't be remembered as a vintage festival. Critics described the competition as one of the most threadbare in recent memory. Nonetheless, one of the glories of the festival is its size and carnivalesque energy. There were plenty of intriguing films to be discovered in the margins. For example, Michael R Roskam's Bullhead was a dark gangster thriller set against the backcloth of illegal hormone smuggling in the Belgian agricultural world. Its star Matthias Schoenaerts, a slender actor who plays a hulking Flemish farmer caught up in a smuggling ring, revealed to the press that he ate more than 3,000 tins of tuna and several hundred chickens in the space of a year. He pumped iron every day, too, as he beefed himself up for his role. This was method acting taken to extremes.
There is unlikely to be much fanfare when the winners are announced at the weekend. Golden Bears no longer count for much. However, even if its competition provokes indifference, the Berlinale as a whole remains as lively as ever.
FROM CAVES TO WALL STREET: four festival hits
Ralph Fiennes' debut feature as director is bloody and violent, but with great narrative drive and a stand-out performance from Vanessa Redgrave.
J C Chandor's drama about an investment firm in meltdown was favourably compared to Oliver Stone's 'Wall Street 2'. Many are calling this the definitive film about the financial crisis.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Werner Herzog's masterly 3D feature doc about ancient cave paintings is eerie and fascinating. The paintings themselves, done thousands of years ago, defy interpretation but are very beautiful.
Anne Sewitsky's small-scale Norwegian comedy-drama, set in a remote and snowbound suburb, is a funny and perceptive tale of infidelity and jealousy. As it looks at the lives of two very different couples living next door to one another, the laidback storytelling style recalls Lukas Moodysson's equally well-observed 'Together'.