40th Berlin International Film Festival

February 9 – 20, 1990

“All in all I think this undertaking was worth it. It was even fun for us, and we think it is worth building upon – certainly in the coming year, taking into account the unpredictability and tremendous speed of external developments.” – Wolfgang Klaue, director of the East German state film archive, in a letter to Moritz de Hadeln after the first Berlinale to take place in both parts of Berlin

Wall Peckers: Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic

History in the making

On November 9, 1989, Moritz de Hadeln wrote a letter to Horst Pehnert, chairman of the East German Film Bureau, that began with the following words: “During a private conversation with you at the 1989 Berlin International Film Festival, I […] suggested showing the official programme of the festival in East Berlin concurrently – practically simultaneously – with the screenings in West Berlin. Your reaction gave me the impression that you were very taken with the idea, but you answered that you seriously doubted either of us would ever experience such a thing.”

Even that afternoon there would have been no reason for de Hadeln to take up the matter again. But that night, everything was different: Berlin, Germany, the whole world – and in the midst of it the Berlinale – found themselves in an entirely new situation. Günther Schabowski’s declaration that East Germans were “as of immediately” permitted to travel without visas, meant nothing other than the fall of the wall and with it the end of the GDR.

Of course Moritz de Hadeln could not see this far into the future on November 9, 1989. His long-term goal was a citywide festival and a conceptual collaboration with the East German film authorities. His more concrete offer to Pehnert this time included an East Berlin screening of “the entire official programme” of the Berlinale, with the festival carrying the costs and taking care of the arrangements with producers and rights holders. The Berlinale director requested that the East Germans ensure the availability of an appropriately large cinema. Furthermore, in a veiled reference to border crossing regulations, there had to be assurances that Berlinale employees and “persons connected with the various films” would be able to attend the screenings in an uncomplicated manner.

Rising to the occasion: The first Berlinale to be held in both parts of the city

As early as the end of November, de Hadeln and Pehnert were able to meet during the "Leipziger Dokumentarfilmwoche" and discuss future plans. The festival director came away from the meeting with the sense that a positive decision from the East German authorities would be forthcoming, and preparations for financing the events began. Moritz de Hadeln’s audacious venture found favour with everyone. All could see the enormous political symbolism of having the Berlinale take place in both parts of the divided city. Nevertheless, many letters and phone calls were necessary before a suitably augmented budget was approved.

Even more painstaking effort was required to work out the special conditions that would make it possible to manoeuvre people and materials as smoothly as possible across the border and past the legal requirements and travel restrictions still in place. Arrangements were made allowing the films, advertising material and printed matter to be transported duty-free across the border, as well as allowing Berlinale guests to use the “diplomat’s lane” at the Invalidenstraße border crossing.

The directors of the other Berlinale sections were involved in the project as well, so that besides the complete Competition programme and a selection of Panorama films, the entire Kinderfilmfest line-up and a large part of the Forum programme were also shown in East Berlin. The Berlinale was given use of the Kosmos, Colosseum and Kino International cinemas free of charge. In return, the income from the ticket sales remained with the East Berlin local film authority, which also took over the advertising in the Eastern part of the city.

The director of The War Of The Roses among his cast: Marianne Sägebrecht, Danny DeVito, Michael Douglas

Historically most significant, but cineastically modes

In his catalogue forward, Moritz de Hadeln wrote that he “look[ed] forward to the reactions of the East German audiences, who can complete and correct our view of cinema”. No one could continue thinking of himself “as an islander”, he continued, everything was changing and needed to be rethought. “The Festival is taking on a pioneering role” in this process “and indicating possible new directions”.

Many, however, considered this pioneering role to be limited to the symbolic fact that the festival was being held in both parts of the reunited city. As far as the films themselves were concerned, the historical events of the day seemed to have taken the festival by surprise. Films that, taken on their own, were explosive, now seemed harmless, while those that under other circumstances would have at least offered good entertainment value seemed tasteless. One of the historically most significant Berlinale years ended up coming across as rather average in cinematic terms.

Once again, and more vociferously than ever before, Moritz de Hadeln was castigated for the strong presence of Hollywood films in the Competition. Following the festival, the daily "taz" even demanded his resignation. The director Helma Sanders-Brahms had already set off the debate before the festival began when she quit the selection committee in protest and referred in an interview to the “stale compromises” being made there. Indeed, the Hollywood productions shown in the Competition proved to be average fare: films by Herbert Ross, Danny DeVito, Woody Allen, Roland Joffé, Oliver Stone and others did not spark much enthusiasm. Even Oliver Stone’s politically ambitious Born on the 4th of July came across as strangely unspectacular against the backdrop of the political excitement of the day.

Matthias Freihof in Coming Out

Always too much and never enough...

But to use the failure of the American majors against the Berlinale as a whole seemed to repeat the same mistake the critics were accusing the festival of in the first place, namely overrating the importance of Hollywood due to its effective hegemony. There was actually plenty of cinematic and thematic counterweight spread out over the whole festival (including the Competition), such as Kira Muratova’s unscrupulous and sarcastic look at contemporary Soviet society in Astenicheskiy sindrom | The Weakness Syndrome, or Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s Karaul, which denounced the deplorable conditions in the Soviet army. And with Heiner Carow’s Coming Out, East Germany also made a strong and contemporary showing in the Competition.

But the discontent of many commentators was also provoked by the weakness of several European Competition films. Pedro Almodovar’s Atame! | Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Jacques Doillon’s La vengeance d’une femme | A Woman's Revenge were positively received, but also served as reproaches – more films of this quality would have been nice.

With Roger And Me in the Forum: Michael Moore

Section programmes offer significant counterweight

There was more, in fact: Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial Blue Steel in the Panorama for instance, or in the Kinderfilmfest the debut film by Austrian director Erhard Riedlsperger, Tunnelkind | Tunnel Child about the secret friendship between a Czech border guard and a fatherless Austrian girl, set during the time of the Prague Spring. The Forum presented a showcase of East German “shelf films”, forbidden works from the last twenty-five years; other exciting films worth seeing were Sergei Ovcharov’s Ono | It, Gus van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and two films by Aki Kaurismäki - Tulitikkutehtaan Tyttö | The Match Factory Girl and Leningrad Cowboys Go America, the latter now bearing a kind of zany relevance to current events.

In a hopeful positioning of the Berlinale at the pulse of its time, Moritz de Hadeln quoted Lenin in the festival catalogue foreword: “Film is the most important of all the arts”. But perhaps this year, with the future out in the streets, other things, other places and art forms were more important, at least for the time being.