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Bulging with films from Asia and Latin America, this year’s festival in the middle of Europe also has one special attraction for Nick Roddick: 92-year-old Alain Resnais’ last (?) film, Aimer, boire et chanter (Life of Riley).

Whatever reason there is for going to Berlin in February, the weather isn’t one of them. Capable of going from zero to -17ºC overnight, it is not exactly conducive to that essential feature of a film festival: the red carpet.

Not that that is likely to stop George Clooney, practically a Berlin regular. Or, according to rumours, Patricia Arquette, Léa Seydoux, Catherine Deneuve, Forest Whitaker, Pierce Brosnan, Kevin Spacey and maybe even Robert Redford.

There have been starrier line-ups: the Rolling Stones (all of them) and Martin Scorsese braved the swirling snow for the 2008 premiere of Scorsese’s damp squib of a concert movie, Shine a Light. But the date –not just the weather – has always been a problem for Berlin. The local audience doesn’t care: Berlin is the world’s biggest public audience film festival and, in 2014, spreads its screenings to more parts of the city than ever before. But for the great travelling circus of filmmakers and critics, sales agents and celebrity profilers who can make or break the reputation of an international film festival, the February pickings are not always what they might be.

"The international competition has always been more problematic"

Launched in 1951 as a heavily-subsidised way of holding up a cultural V sign to the eastern bloc, the Berlinale initially had a summer slot. That became a problem in the late 1970s, when the current cycle of ‘A’ festivals began to emerge: with Cannes in May and Venice in August, Berlin in late June-early-July made no sense. So, in 1978, the Berlinale moved to February. That worked well for the studios, who got what was in effect a free junket for any Oscar contenders it passed Berlins way – and there were lots. But then the Oscars moved their announcement to January and the studios no longer saw Berlin as a launch pad. Finally, in 1989, along came Sundance which may have been just as cold but was a hell of a lot nearer Los Angeles.

Since then, Berlin may have grown its local audience base and attracted the indie industry with its revamped European Film Market. But the international competition has always been a little more problematic, and by such things is a festival judged.

This year is no different so, with all due respect for the sod’s law of pre-festival round-ups – that the films that prove really worthwhile (like last year’s Kazakh film Harmony Lessons) are the ones you knew nothing about in advance – here is what you might be missing out on if you’re not in Berlin later this week.

Not much in the way of American movies, that’s for sure. The opener, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is the latest from Wes Anderson – making this the third major festival in the past five years to open with one of his films: audiences may prove resistant, but festivals love his films. You’re in safe hands, opening with Wes. Is this a new genre: a film to open a festival with?

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Then there is The Monuments Men which opens wide in the US the same day it screens in Berlin. Directed by and starring George Clooney, it is about the group of art specialists tasked with tracking down and rescuing art treasures looted by the Nazis before and during WWII. Shot in Germany, it makes the perfect Berlinale entry, albeit out of competition – luckily, perhaps, since advance word is lukewarm. Still, we have a hundred Nespresso ads to prove it: Clooney is catnip to a room full of women.

Also screening is Richard Linklater’s autobiographical Boyhood, already seen at Sundance; American Hustle, already seen everywhere except, it seems, Germany; and a special free screening of three episodes of the brilliant Kevin Spacey-starring Netflix mini, House of Cards. If you can’t beat the VOD guys, at least cosy up to them would appear to be the message.

"Germany's best-kept secret"

Among the non-US mainstream attractions are Beauty and the Beast, starring Vincent Cassel and Léa Seydoux from French director Christophe Gans, who has previously proved a dab hand at grown-up fantasy/horror with Silent Hill and Brotherhood of the Wolf; costume drama Beloved Sisters from director Dominik Graf, Germany’s best-kept secret (maybe this will be his international breakthrough); and Mexican director/actor Diego Luna’s biopic, César Chavez, starring Michael Peña as the labour militant who unionised California’s exploited Latino farm labourers.

Australia is sparsely represented, with one film in experimental sidebar the Forum – Warwick Thornton’s The Darkside, which deals with the ‘personal ghost stories’ of Australians white and Aboriginal – and two films in the ‘young adults’ programme, Generation 14plus: Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays, about a 16-year-old boy coming to terms with his mother’s gender reassignment surgery; and Rhys Graham’s youth drama Galore.

The newly fashionable sources of festival fare – Asia and Latin America – are well represented in the Berlin line-up, including four films from China, one from Japan, two from Argentina and one from Brazil. Most promising of the non-European fare looks to be Two Men in Town, from Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb (Days of Glory), starring Forest Whitaker and Harvey Keitel in a story about an ex-con trying to go straight transposed from France to Texas; and Aloft, the new one from Peruvian director Claudia Llosa (whose previous film, The Milk of Sorrow, won the Golden Bear in 2009), starring Jennifer Connelly and Cillian Murphy.

Plus, in the Specials Section, there is a rare chance to see Volker Schlöndorff’s 1969 version of Baal, Brecht’s first play about a flamboyant anarchist which boasts an intriguing cast: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Margarethe von Trotta and Hanna Schygulla.

"A small pleasure, maybe, but a real one"

One film above all I look forward to, though: Aimer, boire et chanter, the latest from the 92-year-old Alain Resnais, whose every film is rumoured to be his last but who just keeps on coming at us with elegant, theatrical, actor-driven jeux d’esprit. A small pleasure, maybe, but a real one, in a cinematic world peopled with teenage vampires and post-modern superheroes.

Published February 6, 2014

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Nick Roddick

Berlin International Film Festival
February 6 – 16, 2014

Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter)

Alain Resnais on set

The Monuments Men

George Clooney - 'catnip to a room full of women'

Beauty and the Beast

The Darkside

Two Men in Town

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