There is a wonderful old photograph in the guide to this year's Berlin Film Festival. It shows Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in white tie and dinner jacket, clutching the Golden Bear he won for Veronika Voss in 1982, the year of his death. As usual, the ageing enfant terrible of German cinema looks the worse for wear. Unshaven, bleary-eyed, he holds a cigarette in his spare hand and leers at the camera. At his side, immaculate as always in tie and blazer, stands a wary-looking James Stewart.

Berlin is famous as the festival at which European art-house cinema and Hollywood commercialism clash head-on. Unfortunately, over the past fortnight, there have been all too few encounters as incongruous or as memorable as the one between Stewart and Fassbinder, because the stars have stayed away. Although Hollywood treats the festival as a launching pad for the German market, glamour has been in short supply. Daniel Day-Lewis (The Boxer) mysteriously developed back pains on the day he was due in town. Tarantino (Jackie Brown) didn't show. Robin Williams was nowhere to be seen. Matt Damon and Ben Afflek, Williams' co-stars in Good Will Hunting, sent apologies; they were too busy making new films. Robert De Niro, however, seems to have overcome his little local difficulty with a vice ring in Paris and is expected tomorrow.

"Berlin seems to be much less personality-driven and much more to do with a celebration of the craft of film-making than with the showbiz, glamour-driven side of our industry," observed the president of the jury, Ben Kingsley, on the opening day of the Berlinae. At that stage, before Tarantino and Co had cancelled their appearances, he seemed way off the mark, but circumstances have proved him right.

With the big guns absent, it has been left to the newcomers to add lustre to the festival. At a swanky reception in the smart Adlon hotel, 15 European actors and actresses were introduced to the international press as part of a Shooting Stars promotion. One by one, they were led on to the stage, looking like reluctant contestants in a beauty pageant.

Britain's representative, Rachel Weisz (who has two films in Berlin, Michael Winterbottom's competition entry, I Want You, and David Leland's wartime comedy, Land Girls), was enthusiastic about the idea of promoting European talent, if a little sceptical about the astronomy. "Aren't shooting stars things that flash for a very short while and then fizzle out?" she asked.

The German director Percy Adlon (Bagdad Cafe) regaled the unfortunate young actors with what appeared to be a poem - an immensely long piece of doggerel about how wearisome it can be sitting around on film sets. His grandfather, a shoemaker from the city of Mainz, built the Hotel Adlon at the turn of the century. In the 1920s and 1930s, royalty, politicians and film stars used it as a watering hole. At the end of the Second World War, in an act of cultural vandalism that even now makes Adlon bristle, the Russian army set fire to the cellars, destroying thousands of bottles of vintage wine. After the war, the hotel, in east Berlin, within spitting distance of the Brandenburg Gate, became a lodging house for apprentices. In a perverse way, then, it was the ideal setting in which to launch a gaggle of would-be stars.

It has been a good festival for child actors. The director Walter Salles reportedly searched high and low for a young Brazilian to play the street waif in Central do Brazil, his charming fable about a boy in search of his father. He auditioned 1,500 children and was close to despair when a shoeshine boy came up to him at Rio Airport and asked for the price of a hamburger. Vincius de Oliveira, the boy in question, was promptly awarded the part. At a Berlin press conference, young Vincius's ingenuous answers left most of the journalists looking like chumps.

Equally engaging was 13-year-old Eamonn Owen, star of Neil Jordan's invigorating if bloodthirsty The Butcher Boy. Quizzed about his casting of Sinead O'Connor as the Virgin Mary in that film, Jordan replied that he had originally wanted Marilyn Monroe. "But she was dead. Then I thought of Sinead."

The Women's Filmworkers Association has been handing out leaflets at the main venues, asking cinema-goers "Have You Seen A Film By A Woman Today?" The answer in most cases is a resounding no. Of the 30-odd films in the main competition, only one is directed by a woman: Joan Chen's debut feature, Xiu Xiu. Dubbed the "Elizabeth Taylor of China" as a teenager, Chen moved to the US to study film-making in 1981. Her directing career was put on hold after she was "discovered" by Dino De Laurentis in a Hollywood car-park and offered her first big break. She has gone on to star in everything from Twin Peaks to The Last Emperor, and has finally gotten round to making a film herself.

Although Chen now lives in San Fancisco, she spent her formative years in China. Xiu Xiu is set during the Cultural Revolution, an era during which her family suffered heavily. "My grandfather committed suicide, we lost our house - we suffered just the same as everybody else." Even so, she looks back with nostalgia. "Although there were many bad things that happened, that was my youth. At least my generation had a belief. That belief may have been shattered, but that's the process of growing up."