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Berlinale Opens with a Love Letter to Fassbinder

Elizabeth Grenier |
Held as a physical event thanks to strict hygiene measures, Berlin's famed film festival kicks off with Francois Ozon's "Peter von Kant," a tribute to the power of cinema.

With their selection of films, the Berlin International Film Festival organizers hope to share a bit of the love we've been deprived of during the pandemic: "Never before have we seen and welcomed so many love stories as this year: crazy, improbable, unexpected and intoxicating love — which is, after all, what all encounters are about, deep down," said the Berlinale's artistic director Carlo Chatrian as he introduced the competition's program ahead of the festival, which runs from February 10 to 20.

'Von Kant' as a Fassbinder self-portrait

The opening film, Francois Ozon's "Peter von Kant," offers not only one of those love stories on-screen, but is also a love letter to cinema, and more specifically to one of its towering figures: legendary German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

The film is loosely based on one of Fassbinder's most famous films, "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (1972). But instead of centering on a prominent female fashion designer, the main protagonist is a male filmmaker modeled along the traits of the prolific German director, who died at the age of 37 from an overdose of cocaine and barbiturates.

Denis Menochet and Isabelle Adjani in 'Peter Von Kant'

Denis Menochet and Isabelle Adjani in 'Peter Von Kant'

"I always suspected the story was a thinly veiled self-portrait, centered around one of Fassbinder's passionate love affairs," said Francois Ozon of his decision to change the gender of the three main characters in this story dealing with toxic homosexual relations. 

The French filmmaker, who has directed films of various genres, has among others created works that are deliberately theatrical, an approach that was also one of Fassbinder's trademarks. Ozon had also previously directed a film based on a play by the German director, "Water Drops on Burning Rocks" (2000).

Ozon said he wanted to inject more empathy into his tribute version of the film; the tears of Peter von Kant (Denis Menochet) are not quite as bitter as Margit Carstensen's in the original version.

Hanna Schygulla, who gained renown for her acting work with Fassbinder and who played Petra von Kant's object of desire, Karine, in the 1972 film, also appears in Ozon's tribute — this time around as Peter's appeasing mother.

Strict hygiene measures 

Even though the new film does not match the aesthetic brilliance of the cult original, which featured Michael Ballhaus' legendary cinematography, it remains a tribute to filmmaking's enduring power. When Amir (Khalil Gharbia) — the young man who becomes von Kant's lover and muse — first reveals himself before the director's rolling camera, his charisma unfolds on the big screen in a way that definitely wouldn't work on a laptop.

A few weeks ago, the Sundance Film Festival was held online for the second consecutive year, and the decision to hold the Berlinale as an in-person event only was criticized by some observers. However, cinephiles will be thankful for the series of hygiene measures set in place that allow them to once again access the film festival in its usual February setting.

Movie-goers must show proof of vaccination and wear a high-filtering FFP2 mask during the screenings; the theaters will only be filled at half capacity.

Even fans who gather outside along the red carpet before the premieres must follow these measures.

M. Night Shyamalan leads the Berlinale jury

On the morning before the opening film, the streets of the main festival area were still quiet. There seemed to be less autograph collectors than usual, but it is unclear whether it was the threat of the omicron virus that deterred them from greeting the jury or rather the fact that its members are not the biggest Hollywood stars.

The 2022 jury is helmed by Indian-American filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, most famous for the supernatural psychological thriller "The Sixth Sense" (1999).

His co-jurors are Zimbabwean filmmaker and Booker Prize-nominated author Tsitsi Dangarembga; Brazilian film director and visual artist Karim Ainouz, Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who just obtained four Oscar nominations for "Drive My Car," German filmmaker Anne Zohra Berrached, who was in the Berlinale competition in 2016 with "24 Weeks" and Danish actor Connie Nielsen, whose mainstream breakthrough came with her portrayal of Princess Lucilla in Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" (2000).

Together, they will be selecting the Golden Bear, the top award of the competition, as well as the Silver Bears, recognizing achievements in different categories.

Scaled down due to the pandemic, the competitive program of the Berlinale will be completed on February 16, with the Bears awarded on that evening, but public screenings of 256 different films will continue until February 20 — allowing a few more film fans to access the festival's atypical love stories.

Edited by: Manasi Gopalakrishnan

Courtesy: DW

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