Berlin film fest looks back at 60 years of scandal

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The Independent Culture

The Berlin Film Festival, now in its 60th year, was a child of the Cold War, a propaganda tool of the Allies, and a frequent political battleground that reached far beyond the cinema doors.

The anniversary has given the Berlinale, as the event is known, a chance to look back at the scandals and controversy that established the event as Europe's most politically charged cinema showcase.

"The festival was founded as the Cold War was raging," the current chief of the festival, Dieter Kosslick, said this month.

"Berlin had been reduced to rubble and ashes but was a powerful symbol for the West."

When the Berlinale was first held in 1951, some two million West Germans were unemployed and tens of thousands of homeless Berliners still lived in makeshift camps, according to the new book "The Berlinale - The Festival" by British film historian Peter Cowie.

US officials saw an international film festival as an opportunity to indoctrinate Germans, with still-fresh memories of the Nazis and their powerful propaganda machine, and create a "showcase for the free world".

The aim was also to establish a cultural beachhead in then West Berlin while the divided city marked the front line of the conflict with the Soviets.

In the early years, 500 festival posters were hung in West Berlin so they could be seen in the East, Cowie said.

The first film was Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca", which had already come out in 1940 but Germans had been deprived of it until after the war.

With an influx of glamourous Hollywood fare, it only took five years for the Berlinale to acquire "A" status from the International Federation of Film Producers' Associations, putting it in the same class as Cannes and Venice.

The first several festivals saw US and British films take home the top prizes.

"It was not until 1958 that a jury accorded top honours to a European film - and one destined to become an all-time classic - Ingmar Bergman's 'Wild Strawberries'," Cowie writes.

The German hosts eventually dared to assert their independence from their American patrons, often with explosive results.

In 1970, German director Michael Verhoeven unveiled "O.K." about a Vietnamese girl who is raped and shot by four US soldiers.

Festival director Alfred Bauer told the jury days before the screening that they would see a "fantastic new German film".

When he finally watched the picture, jury president George Stevens, the Hollywood legend behind "Woman of the Year" and "A Place in the Sun", threatened to quit unless it was excluded from the competition.

Stevens had served in the US Army Signal Corps and had filmed not only the Normandy landings but also the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. He found it shameless of the Germans to accuse GIs of war crimes.

The entire jury eventually resigned without bestowing any prizes.

In 1979, the harrowing US drama "The Deer Hunter" sparked an even deeper rift.

The Soviet delegation, including representatives from across Eastern Europe and two members of the jury, walked out of the festival over what they called an insulting depiction of the Vietnamese in the picture.

Cowie said world powers used the Berlinale to score diplomatic points over events happening half a world away.

"China had invaded part of Vietnam and Hanoi was desperate for help, for arms, and for troops from the Socialist countries," he said.

"(Those countries) had to find a way to show solidarity without getting militarily involved."

They, like so many before and after, chose the Berlinale to make their point.

"The Deer Hunter" will be screened as part of an anniversary retrospective this year.

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