Berlin Film Festival: From Marie Antoinette to Bob Marley

This year the Festival has majored on big personalities, behind and in front of the camera. Geoffrey Macnab reports

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There is a shadow over the Berlin Film Festival (whose 62nd edition runs until the weekend) cast by its great rival on the French Riviera. This week, as increasingly frustrated film-goers have come out of Berlin competition screenings, they've been asking why so many of the films have been so mediocre. The conclusion has quickly become apparent. Most of the best movies are being kept for Cannes.

At least the Festival began well enough, with Benoit Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen. A dreamy, mournful costume-drama set in Versailles in 1789, just as the court realises its days are numbered, the film pleased many of the critics. Equally importantly, it provided what every festival needs – red-carpet glamour. The film's triumvirate of stars – Diane Kruger, Lea Seydoux and Virginie Ledoyen – posed and pouted in very striking dresses. And Kruger made it clear that she had a very strong affinity with the ill-fated Marie Antoinette.

"I don't really believe in destiny but I came to France at pretty much the same age as Marie Antoinette did. I didn't speak a word of French. Obviously, I didn't become queen but I started off as a model and I was totally lost in the world that I was all of a sudden part of," the actress explained. "My mother's name was Marie Therese. I was born on July 15th, which is when this movie took place. I am the same age as Marie Antoinette when she was taken from Versailles. I have lived through heartbreak. I have also [experienced] that sense of responsibility at a very young age."

Outside competition, one of the main treats in Berlin was Kevin Macdonald's massive (144-minute) feature documentary, Marley. This is as exhaustive an account as we are likely to have on film of the life and times of reggae superstar Bob Marley. Macdonald's previous foray into music docs didn't end well. His Mick Jagger film Being Mick: You Would If You Could (2001) came close to hagiography. The Marley film is much more rigorous.

This is a talking-heads film taking us through Marley's life in chronological fashion. What makes it inspiring is the music, the exhaustive research, and the personality of Marley. Almost as fascinating as Marley's own story is that of his (white) father, Norval Marley. As described by Macdonald, Norval comes across like one of those chancers found in Patrick Hamilton novels – a ne'er-do-well who lied about his background, travelled through Nigeria and Cuba, and fathered several illegitimate children. The film suggests that Norval's rejection of Bob was part of what gave the young musician his ferocious drive to succeed.

Elsewhere, the festival organisers must have realised that having a cynosure like Angelina Jolie in town would distract from every other film-maker. Jolie's directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey received a mixed response. Serbian critics were openly hostile about a film they felt caricatured them. Others bemoaned the clumsiness and naivety of Jolie's storytelling. However, it can safely be predicted that her film will receive far more attention than any other made about the Bosnian War.

Christian Bale was also in town, but not on Batman duty. He stars as John Miller, an American drifter caught up in the "Rape of Nanking" in 1937, in Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War. Bale's Miller is a bearded drunk who becomes an unlikely hero as the Japanese army murders and rapes Chinese civilians. Bale plays him as a mix of Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon and a youthful John Huston. It's not a subtle performance but it's full blooded and entertaining.

One film that had already inspired near-religious devotion in fans long before it was complete was Timo Vuorensola's Nazis-on-The-Moon saga, Iron Sky. This isn't the kind of fare that high-minded festivals usually programme but, when the film (which has been in gestation for many years) was finally unveiled as a "Berlin Panorama Special," the response on the web was frenzied. The film, partly financed by crowd-sourcing and marketed ingeniously, was a cult phenomenon long before it was actually made. It was reckoned just about to live up to the expectations of the fans who'd been awaiting it so eagerly.

For reasons no one could quite surmise, Spanish genre-picture Childish Games was in the competition. Directed by Antonio Chavarrias, it is the story of an affable, easy-going young schoolteacher with a very dark secret. When his wife adopts a girl, it triggers memories of the trauma that he has repressed for so long. Chavarrias cranks up the tension effectively and there are one or two very chilling momentsbut this is a by-the-numbers thriller that doesn't come close to transcending its genre origins.

Equally dispiriting was Hans-Christian Schmid's Home for the Weekend, a drama about the seething anxieties and unhappiness of a bourgeois German family. At first glance, they seem privileged and content. Soon, though, we learn the mother is a manic depressive, one son (a dentist) is going bust, the other is too scared to confess his marriage has broken up and the father is monumentally selfish. Watching Home for the Weekend, you realise why film-makers tend to steer away from making movies about the tribulations of middle-class families. It's the sheer banality of their lives and their self-obsession that make the characters here so unsympathetic.

The competition films improved as the week went on. Among the duds there were a few titles to be savoured. Christian Petzold's Stasi-themed Barbara was warmly received. Caesar Must Die was hailed as a return to form for those forgotten auteurs from Italy, the Taviani brothers. Billy Bob Thornton's Jayne Mansfield's Car (set in late 1960s Alabama) also had its admirers.

Throughout the festival, film-trade magazines have published the usual array of stories about exotic new projects. One which caught the eye was a biopic about Yvonne the runaway cow. This will tell the true story of the Bavarian cow who went AWOL en route to the abbatoir. The "real" Yvonne, who reportedly now lives a quiet life at Europe's largest animal sanctuary, is expected to star in a film that will be partly animated.