The ice is broken
1974 was a milestone in the history of the Berlinale: For the first time, a Soviet film was screened in the official programme of the festival. The title of Rodion Nakhapetov’s debut film, S toboy i bez tebya – With You and Without You, read like a retrospective commentary on the decades-long tug-of-war that had preceded this event. “The story of the socialist states’ absence from the Berlinale”, Wolfgang Jacobsen writes in "50 Years of Berlinale", “is a highly instructive tale of politics and culture; it is a substantial chapter in the history of East-West tension; a Cold War tragicomedy, a drama with shifting roles and changing protagonists.”
Stages of separation
The advisory board had already decided at the founding of the Berlin Film Festival not to invite any films from “Eastern bloc states”. Officially, this stance hardly changed until the end of the 60s. Unofficially, however, there were serious attempts at rapprochement. At times these were aimed at the DEFA, the state film company of the GDR; at times contact was sought with “Sovexport”, the body responsible for representing Soviet films abroad.
Meanwhile, the other side also had trouble expressing official interest in an event that primarily served the “imperialist ambitions of the United States”. The changing roles referred to by Jacobsen were variously filled by the Berlin Senate, the Foreign Ministry, the festival itself, or individuals with good connections. On the other side it was the Politburo, the ambassador, or Soviet film functionaries. In some years, Easter European films seemed like they were only a formality away from taking part in the Berlinale, but by the following year everything would look completely different. The diplomatic conditions were constantly changing and difficult to calculate for the festival.
Only occasionally would an Eastern European film show up at the film market, or a Czechoslovakian or Russian observer delegation would register for the Berlinale. Thaws did not last long during the Cold War and attempts at understanding and tolerance did not grow beyond delicate shoots. The most significant obstacle to a participation of the socialist states in the Berlinale, evoked again and again by both sides, was the “special diplomatic status of Berlin”. This status was charged with a symbolism that for a long time could be overcome neither by reason nor by political pragmatism. Besides the difficult political reality, the “diplomatic status” included all sorts of peculiarities. For instance, West Berlin did not appear on East German maps, and for a long time the official stance of West Germany was that the GDR did not exist either.
Freedom and necessity?
The decision as to whether the socialist states should take part in the Berlinale was based not on artistic but on (geo-) political factors. Alfred Bauer’s work here resembled that of a diplomat more than of an artistic director, and the interests of the festival were seldom identical with those of international politics. By the time Eastern European films started being shown at Cannes and the Karlovy Vary Festival was granted A-status, Berlin’s special role came to be seen as an obvious shortcoming. Great cinematic art was being created in the socialist states, but it could not be shown in the city whose destiny it could have been to bridge the gap between East and West.