Sometimes you work the festival, sometimes the festival works you: my entire day is predicated on the fact that I have to, want to, see a documentary about an old friend, French film critic Michel Ciment, called Michel Ciment, Le Cinema en Partage. It’s only scheduled to show once, at an inconvenient time – 4 p.m. – in an inconvenient part of town – the Cinema Paris, on the tony part of Kurfurstendamm, near Hermes and Chanel (I guess appropriately). Working around it means I’ll only see one film before it and another after.
The morning includes the required trip to Potsdamer Platz to get tickets for tomorrow. I have a ticket to see Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg at noon in the Friedrichstadtpalast, so I fill the time by swinging by the Deutsche Kinemathek in the Film Haus to visit the “Romy Schneider: Wien--Berlin--Paris” exhibit. I’ve long been fascinated with her particular brand of radiance on and off-screen, as well as the tragic particulars of her too-brief life.
The exhibit is densely populated with film clips, stills, posters, letters, contracts, scripts, costumes; I only manage to work my way through about half of it before I have to jump on the S train to Friedrichstrasse. (If I could read German, I would barely have been able to cruise through a third of it, because the letters and telegrams looked fascinating. The Hitchcock exhibit that was on during last year’s Berlinale was thick with such fascinating ephemera as explicit instructions to location scouts to trace the habits of a homosexual diplomat in Paris for Topaz.)
One of my friends told me his basic strategy during the Berlin film festival is never to leave Potsdamer Platz, which simplifies decision-making. Conversely, I feel cheated if I don’t dash around from neighborhood to neighborhood. And there’s a certain frisson in visiting the Friedrichstadpalast, which was home to Marlene Dietrich in the 20s, Josephine Baker in the 30s, was a People’s Palace in the GDR days (reflected in its stern and unforgiving rows of wooden seats), and now is home to splashy, trashy Las Vegas-style revues featuring acrobats, ice skating, and half-dressed dancers. It seats about 2000, and seeing a tiny, hermetic arthouse feature like Greenberg on its truly enormous screen feels excitingly perverse.
More excitingly perverse than the movie, which does have its moments – it’s kinda 70s-surprising to be able to make a movie in 2010 about a cranky failed slacker’s midlife crisis, with a self-destructive Ben Stiller glancingly evoking thoughts of Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger. It’s not quite Forster’s “only connect,” but there is a glimmer of hope allowed at its end.
Afterwards I take another S train to West Berlin and spend an entrancing hour not only window-shopping but actually buying a couple of tscotchkes. The Cinema Berlin is a snug Art Nouveau room with especially deep and comfy gray velvet seats and a gold lame curtain. I sit next to Margarethe von Trotta, and we bond over jewelry – she’s wearing a large and striking ring of opals and garnets from Paris which she assures me is “not expensive,” and sketches me a map to her favorite vintage jewelry store near Savignyplatz. Her cordial ex-husband Volker Schlondorff is also in the house.
The documentary, by artist-cineaste Simone Laine, suits me right down to the ground: interviews with Ciment, testimony by everybody from Bertrand Tavernier and Arnaud Desplechin to Quentin Tarantino and Joel Coen. It’s the kind of thing that I could watch for a very long time, but it only lasts a scant 52 minutes. Afterwards I get Michel to sign my copy of Peter Cowie's brief Berlinale 60th anniversary history with a foreword by him – he corrects a page where a line was inadvertently dropped – and I’m invited to share a glass of champagne with a few others in an attached gallery. Suddenly the temperature of the room changes – official types are bustling about, the always-charming Dieter Kosslick arrives, followed by Frederic Mitterand, the French minister of Culture and Communication (and nephew of Francois Mitterand, ex-President of France). He’s here to introduce Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach, along with Ciment, at 6 p.m.
I hang around to hear their remarks – an emotional, if restrained, Mitterand speaks of Rohmer’s energy, youthfulness, and experimental qualities. Ciment points out that the expert storyteller was, as in a French proverb, the financier as well as the shoemaker, making sure to film his movies economically and retaining the rights to them. But I don’t stay to see the movie, because I have a ticket to see Banksy’s turn-the-tables documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, at 8 p.m., about an obsessed videographer who shot street art all over the world, and wanted to make a movie about Banksy. The famously elusive and unphotographed artist has put together a movie with as many twists and turns as “F for Fake.” The very young audience loves it. In one of those odd echoes that occurs at film festivals, Rhys Ivans, seen at the beginning of the day as Ben Stiller's long-suffering ex-band mate, narrates the Banksy film in his characteristic Welsh drawl -- heard but not seen.
I see it almost pressed up against the screen, after an interminable wait crammed onto the staircase of the Urania, waiting for the previous screening to get out, a newly-restored version of Fassbinder’s science-fiction Welt am Draht, listed at 185 minutes in the program but running a good twenty minutes longer. I’m sad to have missed the Fassbinder – this is its second and last showing, and I was at the one-time-only opening of the Kulinarisches Kinema during its first – but cheered to learn that it’s coming out on German DVD this very week (I hope with the same English subtitles on the Festival’s print – not clear on Amazon’s German website).
Afterwards I plan to trudge back through the snow, a 15-minute walk to where I’m staying, re-tracing the steps taken just a couple of hours before, but somehow I take a wrong turn and end up threading my way through a gaggle of high-heeled, scantily-dressed drag queens on their way to a nightclub. I admire their fortitude, chests and long muscular gams exposed to the frigid night air, fragile high heels inadequate in the snow, but I’m suddenly tired and a taxi seems imperative.