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It’s all about the looks

December 16, 2009

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall
by Tina Friedrich

Besides a huge commercial center, Potsdamer Platz has by 2009 also become Berlin’s center of moving images – and an icon of the versatile image of Berlin. A symbol of the rise of Berlin around 1900, the square had completely lost its significance during the Cold War – there was literally nothing there. Ever since the new millennium, the city has successfully striven to revive some of the old square’s glamour and importance: by bringing the film industry to the best developed and busiest place in town.

Berlin, 1961. In the middle of the night the borders dividing the Soviet sector from the other – western – part of the city were closed. In some areas the security zone was broad enough to cover a whole square. At Potsdamer Platz, that night sealed its fate for the coming 30 years. What had once been the lively center of a rising city became the dead end of two halves of Berlin, trapped in history.

Berlin, 2009. Potsdamer Platz is anything but dead. Coming up the escalator, one feels displaced to New York, where skyscrapers, blinding lights and people rushing by are perfectly normal. “The Potsdamer Platz is one of the two most important joints in the city,” says Volker Hassemer, cultural senator of Berlin from 1983-1989 and senator for urban development from 1991-1996. “I wouldn’t say it is the center, but it definitely is a link where energies are bundled. This has been the tradition of the Potsdamer Platz and that is what it is finally getting back to. It was our task as politicians to achieve this after 1989.” The Bahntower – a high office building occupied by the national German railway company – welcomes the late visitor fully illuminated. In front of the Price Waterhouse Building, yet another glistening tower, an Austrian Christmas market constitutes a strange contrast to the highly modernized area. Following the lights and stream of people strolling along the tree-lined Potsdamer Straße, a gigantic roof construction appears in the distance: the Sony Center, today the most impressive symbol of the modern urban development.

After the Fall of the Wall, Hassemer was instrumental in rebuilding and reviving Potsdamer Platz. “For us in the senate, it was clear that it must not be a political area, as the governmental institutions were located elsewhere. No ministry, no  administration department, that was essential, also from the urban planning perspective.” Besides office towers and the Sony Center, he arranged for a cultural element in the new urban planning. “Film and cinema proved to be a wonderful resource, because it is such an integrative form of art and the Berliners like it very much. A broad spectrum of movies attracts a wide range of people. That is why it proved to be the best idea for a square which needs to and is able to deal with a large audience.”

The Filmhaus, integrated into one side of the Sony Center, hosts an arthouse cinema, a filmmuseum, a film library and the Berlin School of Film and Television (dffb). From the outside it looks spectacular, while inside it is an peaceful oasis amidst the bustling daily business of the Center. The large glass front and backside of the entrance area enables visitors to take a look inside without entering the building. At the same time, people sitting in the Sony Center’s courtyard get a glimpse of the outside world, which makes the Filmhaus a gigantic window to and from the Sony Center. Its glamour seems unintended, as if it had just happened to be a symbol for visual culture.

The founding history goes a long way. Volker Hassemer and Wieland Speck, head of the Panorama section of the Berlinale, the prestigious Berlin international filmfestival, have both been closely connected to the history of origins of the Filmhaus. “It has always been an idea to build a house for film but to find the right location was difficult,” recalls Hassemer. “When I became cultural senator in 1983, I discovered the ruins of the old hotel Esplanade and was immediately drawn to it. It was a cold, foggy day and I took the project’s partners to the place. They were freezing and didn’t like it as it was so close to the Wall. But I immediately felt that this was the right spot to install the new filmhouse.” Speck remembers the significance of the project: “It was an initiative of several artists, who wanted to create a similar institution as the filmhouse in Hamburg. Berlin might have a big movie scene but it does not have a vibrant film community. Therefore it was remarkable that those filmmakers actually gathered around a table. Soon, the ambitious Freunde der deutschen Kinemathek joined the circle.” Due to financial problems, the project got delayed. In 1988 the final draft of Herman Hertzberger, a Dutch architect, was approved – and never built.

The fall of the Wall changed the circumstances. Potsdamer Platz should become the commercial and social center of the new Berlin. “At the time I wasn’t part of the government, so I when I heard that the place should be sold to Sony, I decided to negotiate with them as a regular parlamentarian. The film house had to be built, and we managed to make this a condition in the sales contract.” says Hassemer. Not only did Kinemathek and dffb secure themselves a place within the new building but also the Cinema Arsenal. “This little cinema in the basement of the Filmhaus has become a wonderful underground, art-house cinema and is very valuable for the Berlinale,” says Speck. The international filmfestival has been founded in 1951 and has always tried to react to social and political developments. One of these reactions was the establishment of the Panorama section, dedicated to independent, less known and experimental films and directors. An art-house cinema like the Arsenal suits that concept. “It is a place where you can experience the whole multi-dimensional power of film.” adds Hassemer.

Berlin has always been susceptible to the potential of film. In the 1920s, it was Germany’s cinematic hotspot with the most important production companies settled in Berlin. Back then, glamour was happening in the bustling streets around Kurfürstendamm and Tiergarten, while the area around Potsdamer Platz was best known to be the largest traffic zone in Europe. While cut off from the West during the Cold War (see box), attractive events returned with the moving of the Berlinale into offices on the square in the beginning of 2000. The prestigious film festival brought back the glamour the city so urgently wished for.

“Modern life was centered around Potsdamer Straße and Leipziger Platz, the first European traffic light was installed on location, the quarter was bursting with activity. During the Cold War, all one could see at Potsdamer Platz was the Wall and nothing but. Berlin used this to create yet another possibility to take a look – this time spectators did not watch a movie but the other side of the Wall: the city had built a viewing platform for citizens and tourists. Where the Sony Center is today, one could buy souvenirs three decades ago. For the time being, that was the only attraction. When the Wall fell in 1989, Potsdamer Platz moved from the periphery to the center of a re-united Berlin. The area was divided into four parts and sold to different companies. Huge construction works started shortly after that. Everything was done to erase the remnants of a shameful past and to make Potsdamer Platz look like the new, modern, rising star that the city wanted it to be.”

“When the Berlinale took place for the first time in 1951, a revival of the glamour of the 1920s began. During times of political unrest in the 1970s, the focus was more on political and social developments than on having the most famous guests. Glamour was not the most important issue. This finally changed after 1989. Today, we have 70% international audience at the Berlinale’s opening nights,” says Wieland Speck. He admits that the location adds to the attraction of the festival. “Nevertheless, it is pragmatism that led us here. The area isn’t necessarily one of creative energy and ambient Berlin city life, but it offers the most attractive infrastructure. We are here to fill the artless halls and streets with Berlin life.” Two weeks every year the Potsdamer Platz is crowded with cineastes, visitors and journalists.

The Berlinale’s move is seen controversial according to Speck and Hassemer and clearly shows the significance of the place when it comes to creating an image of Berlin. “It was an ad-hoc decision of the politicians,” says Speck bitterly, “They were fathomlessly afraid of accidentally having built a ghost town. So they decided to place the Berlinale there to get the glamour and media attention they needed. We wasted two years on negotiations.” Hassemer of course has a different point of view. “It was not only important for the area but also for the Berlinale to be situated in an international environment. For the festival it worked out from the start. The infrastructure was much better there, too.”

Successful urban planning has a lot to do with accessability. Hassemer was “strongly convinced that cinema and film were best placed at Potsdamer Platz.” Even if the commercial character of the area might not appeal to all members of the Berlinale team, it has definitely contributed to its international, glamourous appearance. After one decade, Berliners and movie stars alike know where to find the cinematic hot spot of Berlin.


Lars Henrik Gass essay in new ROUGE

April 30, 2009

An important and provocative recent intervention into ongoing debates about the role of film festivals has been offered by Lars Henrik Gass, Director of the esteemed Oberhausen Film Festival. The essay, titled “Trade Market or Trademark? The Future of Film Festivals” has so far appeared in German in Schnitt magazine (for which Gass has also edited an invaluable dossier on the topic), and in Spanish in Cahiers du cinema Espana.  Now a revised version of the English translation done for Schnitt is available in the current issue 13 of Rouge, at

On with the Adventure!

April 25, 2009

Adrian here:

Phase 1 of this collective blog project – the ‘residencies’ of four Monash University students at two Film Festivals since mid-May – is coming to a close, although more posts related to these events will appear soon. But this is only the beginning of the WORLD FILM FESTIVALS grand project! This site will remain up indefinitely, and other contributors (not only from Monash itself) will enter the dialogue. Many Festival events will eventually be covered – not from the usual journalistic perspective, but in the analytical ways explored here. Soon, for instance, I will be posting reports and materials from the Jeonju Film Festival in Korea.

I would like to congratulate my four students for their sterling work. I would also like to acknowledge not only the writing, but also the ‘invisible’ editorial work carried out by the students for each other, in the revision of their texts: Lesley Chow performed this role for Farah Azalea, and Alida Tomaszewski did the same for Nienke Huitenga. It is good to see such student-to-student mentoring in action.

I would also like to thank the supportive and interested individuals who took the time to add comments on the site, or helped promote this project on their own websites. Your comments will be followed up on very soon.

Finally, a big thank-you to Prof. Dina Iordanova of St Andrews in Scotland, who encouraged this project from its inception, and included it within the structure of her exciting DYNAMICS OF WORLD CINEMA site. Like me, Dina is keen to keep the ball rolling, and the dialogue growing in a global fashion … so please check back here soon!

Philippe Grandrieux’s Acceptance Speech at Las Palmas Film Festival

April 22, 2009

At the Las Palmas International Film Festival in Spain last month (March 6-14), I had the honour and pleasure of accepting two awards (one for innovation, another for cinematography) on behalf of the great director Philippe Grandrieux and his new film Un Lac (A Lake, 2008) – and of reading the following speech (translation mine) which he sent to me via SMS! – Adrian Martin

“I thank the Grand Jury of the Las Palmas Film Festival for having awarded two prizes to Un Lac. And I am happy they will be delivered into Adrian’s good hands. I am also very happy that these awards come from a country that I especially love. Light and innovation: what a beautiful definition of cinema, of its vitality and greatest energy. I am unable to attend the Festival, because my film is being released in France in a few days – but, despite the distance that sadly separates me from you this evening, I joyfully accept these prizes at the very same instant that you give them to me, because they are coming from Las Palmas to Paris carried at the speed of light: the light of cinema, which is the light that illuminates all our lives. Thank you again, Philippe Grandrieux.”


April 8, 2009

This Monash University 2009 Unit aims to give an understanding of the contemporary phenomenon of the International Film Festival as an event within global circuits of film culture. It is not a Unit devoted to film analysis per se; but rather to the socio-cultural institutions of the Festival circuit – taking in issues of audience, economics, promotion, programming and curation, cultural and ideological agendas, etc, and the relationship to other circuits of film culture such as mainstream exhibition/distribution, cinémathèques and museums, etc.

Monash is proud to be associated, in this fledgling venture, with the “Dynamics of World Cinema” project based at St Andrews University in Scotland (led by Profs Dina Iordanova and Stuart Cunningham), and with our Festival hosts at Melbourne’s German Film Festival (via the Goethe Institut) and the SIngapore Film Festival. During these events in mid-April, our four students will be blogging daily, and all these reports will appear on this site.

The exploration and analysis of Film Festivals is a quite new area in Cinema Studies worldwide; substantial work on this topic has really only started to appear since 2005. There is, as yet, no single textbook that can introduce us to this area and guide us through it, although significant book publications are beginning to appear from Wallflower Press, Amsterdam University Press, and other publishers.

To give an initial idea of the span of issues, consider these passages from recent survey articles:

“Film festivals have been the blank spot of cinema scholarship throughout most of the twentieth century. Although individual festival histories and anniversary books have been published for many years and the topic of film festivals has occasionally been addressed in academic studies – focusing for example on art or national cinemas – the phenomenon of film festivals was, until recently, rarely the main focus of study. In the last few years, academics have turned to study the broad range of film festival constituencies. These works aim to explain, theorize, and historicise film festivals and, in doing so, point to the emergence of a new field of academic study, film festival research, in which knowledge of festivals is considered essential for our understanding of cinema cultures.” (Marijke de Valck & Skadi Loist)

“What is the impact of the worldwide festival network on the other elements of the global film industry? How does the festivals’ hierarchical system impact on the complex dynamics of global cultural production and distribution? What is the place of festivals in the structure of international film distribution (and, increasingly, production)? What historical and technological conditions led to the current powerful positioning of festivals as fundamentally influential cinematic institutions? What is the role of festivals in the system of national, regional and worldwide cinematic culture? Can the international festival operation be economically rationalised? Are festivals indeed crucial yet underestimated links in the context of the global film industry?” (Dina Iordanova)

“In an increasingly ‘event-driven’ cultural environment, film festivals are now regarded as indispensable. Yet are festivals such as Cannes, Sundance and Toronto being sabotaged by their own success? Do they truly serve the needs of cinephiles, as well as the larger public? We must examine the ongoing tension between market-oriented ‘business festivals’ and festivals devoted to the needs of local audiences … assess the shifting fortunes of Asian film festivals (Hong Kong, Pusan), exemplary, cinephilic festivals (Vienna, Kino Otok in Slovenia, Trieste) and the fate of catastrophically mismanaged festivals (such as Bangkok). And look at those filmmakers whose careers have been nurtured by participation in a variety of international film festivals.” (adapted from Wallflower Press release)