All about Berlinale

Posted on February 14, 2015


Long queues, freezing air, bad palak paneer… here I am, pretending that covering Berlinale 2015 is cruel work.

The first couple of days about a film festival, you realise, aren’t about the film festival. At least, not entirely. They’re about being in a new city, about the relief that most people here speak English; about remembering which section of the part-paved-part-cobbled footpath is for walking and which one for the cyclists; about the names of the streets which are such fun to say inside the head, this-strasse and that-strasse, the s pronounced sh, making you feel so worldly and sophisticated; and about the cold air, which I’m getting huge lungfuls of, like a miser hoarding pennies, knowing I’ll never get to breathe anything this bracing, this pure once I’m back.

Note to self: So you exit the hotel. Take a right. Keep walking past the store that sells Berlin knickknacks. (But don’t buy any Berlin knickknacks. People back home have enough souvenirs. This is just one more thing that will be covered by a fine film of dust in a few weeks.) Reach the end of the road, past the stretch of the Wall (yes, that Wall), past the building with the gorgeous gold panels outside housing the European Film Market, take a right at the currywurst stand, pass the ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ poster (The Sun declares, ‘Mehr badass als Bond’), keep walking till you reach the clock, the one located at the top of a replica of the historic traffic lights once used in Berlin, cross over, and head to the Hyatt, presently home to the press.

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The Hyatt is so centrally located, it’s unbelievable. The Cinestar complex (which has the IMAX screen on which I saw Fifty Shades of Grey) is a five-minute walk. The Cinemaxx complex takes just two minutes. And the Berlinale Palast, with the giant screen outside telecasting the press conferences, is a hop across, if you are the hopping kind. You could have yourself a sweet little festival without ever stepping out of Potsdamer Platz, which is what this area is called. It helps. It really helps when, sometimes, there’s just a half-hour between screenings.

But these are just the logistics. There’s also the routine you get into. Never mind how late last night’s screening ended (or maybe you went drinking with friends? Bad idea!), you have to be up early, so you have some time to catch up on emails and what the papers back home are saying about the AAP’s astounding victory. There’s something about being away that makes you realise how much this bloody country means to you, how much it’s gotten into you, despite how much you whinge about it. After five days in Berlin, when a friend who’s settled here suggests we meet at an Indian restaurant named Amrit, I feel all sunshiney inside, as if the cold had abated by a couple of degrees. And the palak paneer wasn’t even very good.

Note to self: Maybe it was the palak? Because the cheeses here are mind-bogglingly amazing, so I assume the milk is mind-bogglingly amazing as well.

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The breakfast at the hotel is functional, which is a bit of a relief. I won’t waste time lingering over choices. I need to run to the Hyatt, so that I won’t be too far behind in the queue at the ticket counter that opens at 8:30. Somehow, there are always so many people already in line, no matter how early I am. When do they sleep? When you’re inside darkened movie halls for hours, the days blur into nights that blur into days. Few people here are qualified to answer the question: “What day is it?” That’s surely the daily schedules exist. These are ostensibly for us to decide which movies we want tickets for – these are films that aren’t being screened exclusively for the press, so we need tickets; and these tickets are given out only a day in advance, so you have to stand in line every morning if you want to make it to these movies on a regular basis. But looking at these schedules is how we realise it’s a Sunday or a Tuesday. I’m not trying to make all this sound like the most exhausting thing on earth. I’m not saying it’s not fun. I’m just saying it’s work.

Note to self: The next time you’re at one of these things, either come a couple of days early or plan to stay behind after the festival. Otherwise, the only sights you’ll see will be those on the screen.

The weather keeps changing. It’s cold outside, about zero, so you need the thermal innerwear, you need the layers of clothes. But once you’re inside the Hyatt or a theatre, it’s warm and you have to take off layers. That’s why you don’t just walk in and settle into the first available seat. You take off your coat and then you take off your sweater, and you put down your bags, the smaller one containing your money and pens and your phone, and the bigger one, the one given to the press, the jute bag with the image of the Berlinale bear that you use to carry around the festival brochure and the apple and the banana you’ve nicked from the breakfast buffet because that means you’ll spend a few euros less on food. It isn’t easy walking past people to get to a seat at the centre. It’s like clearing a minor obstacle course of clothes piles and bags. The people who do this keep saying bitte, bitte, bitte… That’s “please” or “pardon.”

And yet, despite all this standing in line and planning and getting tickets, there are films you miss out on and regret. My two big regrets are about two documentaries – Fassbinder – To Love Without Demands (“Danish film director and historian Christian Braad Thomsen’s illuminating, moving and intimate memories of his friend Rainer W Fassbinder, based on a long conversation held in a hotel room one late afternoon in the 1970s”) and What Happened, Miss Simone? (“[the director] Liz Garbus interweaves archive footage and interviews into a detailed and atmospheric portrait of a driven artist”).

Note to self: Do the glass-half-full thing. You were one of the first in the world to see the new Terrence Malick movie, weren’t you?

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