Glamour and Politics Take Center Stage as Berlin Film Festival Returns to Scale

Anne Hathaway and Kristen Stewart delivered a dose of major glamour on the red carpet on Thursday as the Berlin Film Festival returned to full-scale, in-person operation for the first time since 2020. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky revived Berlin’s role as a political platform.  

The Hollywood stars were greeted by packed crowds outside the Berlinale Palast and by festival co-heads Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian.

In addition to unseasonably mild weather, the onlookers were treated to glimpses of the cast and crew of Rebecca Miller’s opening night film “She Came to Me” including stars Peter Dinklage, Marisa Tomei, Joanna Kulig and Evan Ellison. Hathaway, sporting a see-through tangle of a dress and arm-length gloves, is the film’s producer and star.

Stewart is the main competition’s jury president. Earlier in the day, at a curtain-raising press conference, she touted the durability of the movie industry in the face of change. “We have never stopped telling each other stories,” she said.

A block away from the ceremony, two sets of protestors were out in force. Berlin taxi drivers upset by the festival’s partnership with Uber — a new sponsor for the 2023 fest — distributed leaflets encouraging the fest to add more taxi ranks and work with the local taxi associations and trade unions.

Fleets of white Tesla cars and black BMWs, some emblazoned with the Uber logo, delivered the stars to the red carpet.

Meanwhile, cinema workers from Yorck Kino, a big player in the art house sector, held banners demanding an end to temporary contracts for the bulk of the chain’s workforce. 

Any signs of strife were all but absent at the Berlinale Palast, where the disco ball spun above throngs of guests and delegates — a remarkably different scene from the eerily quiet 2022 edition of the fest, where even most German delegates stayed home due to strict COVID restrictions.

This time, leading lights of the local film industry included Maren Ade, Detlev Buck, Christian Petzold, Volker Schloendorff, Matthias Schweighöfer, Katja von Garnier, Veronica Ferres, Tom Tykwer, and Heike Makatsch.

Once under way, the opening ceremony amped up the political messaging. There were calls for solidarity with the filmmakers of Iran, the earthquake-struck Turkey and Syria and war-torn Ukraine.

Sean Penn took the stage to describe how he came to make his documentary film “Superpower” about the war in Ukraine, and then to cue up a live video link with Zelensky.

Calling on his skills as a former actor and those of a smart script writer, Zelensky earned his standing ovation. He referenced the history of once-divided Berlin, cited from Wim Wenders’ 1987 film “Wings of Desire” and called the festival “the showcase of the free world.”

The German political class was out in force to hear his message. Four federal ministers – Robert Habeck, Nancy Faeser, Cem Özdemir and Lisa Paus – the mayor of Berlin, Franziska Giffey, and Culture Commissioner, Claudia Roth were all present

Earlier in the day, Roth outlined her vision for a full-scale overhaul of Germany’s $640 million per year film support system, which she said needed to be modernized. She used the Berlinale stage to recap key points.

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