Foreign Affairs

What a difference a year -- and several imported American stars -- can make.
The 1995 Berlin International Film Festival boasted only a handful of U.S. films in its premiere program, and offered a mere smattering of U.S. stars for the paparazzi to devour.
Indeed, the most talked-about star was the most conspicuous no-show -- Robert Redford, who failed to appear with his Quiz Show. All of which goes a long way toward explaining why the 1995 Berlinale was written off as a flop.

Festival director Moritz de Hadeln wasn't about to make the same mistake again. So for this year's Berlinale, which unspooled in late February, de Hadeln brought in a cavalcade of Hollywood heavyweights: Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Jodie Foster, Danny DeVito, Susan Sarandon, Sally Field, Oliver Stone, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Lemmon. The latter was on hand to collect the festival's prestigious lifetime achievement award. The others visited Berlin to promote the European premieres of such eagerly anticipated films as Dead Man Walking, Get Shorty and 12 Monkeys.

Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson, though not real Hollywood glam types, were treated as such by a fawning local press as they appeared in support of, respectively, Richard III and Sense and Sensibility. And Julia Roberts showed up to dazzle the multitudes with a megawatt smile that, in at least one unfortunate front-page photo, made her look like the lead in Jaws 5. That Roberts' film, Mary Reilly, received only a tepid response at festival screenings, and was pronounced a U.S. box-office flop even before the Berlinale ended, did nothing to diminish the impact of her presence.

Not surprisingly, all this emphasis on things Hollywood eventually ignited a backlash. When the American-produced and financed Sense and Sensibility was announced as winner of the festival's grand prize, the prestigious Golden Bear, more than a few boos echoed throughout the press conference. These discordant sounds were softened only slightly after the festival jury chairman, Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, gave the hecklers a glare that appeared capable of demolishing reinforced concrete. Later, a few critics were heard to complain that the prize would have been more helpful to a smaller, less star-powered -- and, presumably, more European -- film.

If Moritz de Hadeln had any second thoughts about encouraging the U.S. invasion of his festival, he kept them to himself. Considering the drastic budget cuts that are being proposed throughout Germany in this post-reunification era, it's little wonder that de Hadeln is so eager to maintain the Berlinale's high profile. And if maintaining that high profile necessitates an occasional overload of glitz and glamour, so be it.

You could say that de Hadeln simply gave his audience what it so wants. According to the trade paper Screen International, Germany shot past Japan last year to become the world's second largest theatrical market in terms of tickets sold (the U.S. is number one). And the overwhelming majority of those German tickets -- an estimated 80 percent -- were sold for U.S. films. According to Variety, during the week before the '96 Berlinale, no fewer than eight of the ten top-grossing movies in Germany were American-made. (There was one encouraging sign for the local film industry: Mannerpension, a comedy about a furloughed convict, was number one in Germany in its first week of release.)

The situation is pretty much the same all over Europe. So much so, in fact, that even while the Berlin Festival was in progress, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to tighten TV quotas, severely restricting how many American-produced movies and TV dramas can be aired or cablecast in the European Community.

Meanwhile, the American market for German films -- and for all other foreign-made, English-subtitled productions -- continues its sad, steady decline. During this year's European Film Market, a sales exposition held each year in conjunction with the Berlinale, you could hear the bad news from independent distributors. Trea Hoving, executive vice-president of acquisitions for Miramax Films, told the trade paper Moving Pictures, "It's increasingly difficult to get from foreign language films the kind of exposure that makes sense for us." (Translation: It's hard to get U.S. papers and TV talk shows to cover foreign-language films. After all, when was the last time Pedro Almodovar appeared on The Tonight Show?) Bob Aaronson of Fox Searchlight, the company that brought us The Brothers McMullen and Spike Lee's Girl 6, implied that Fox Searchlight may never handle anything but U.S. indie product. And even Marcie Bloom of Sony Pictures Classics indicated that her company, too, may be placing greater emphasis on acquiring English-language films. "There's been a tremendous shift since 1992-93," Bloom said, "where we were still doing a majority of foreign-language films."

Mindful of this, Michael Verhoeven (The Nasty Girl), one of Germany's most esteemed filmmakers, decided to produce both English- and German-language versions of his latest film. The English-language version, known as My Mother's Courage, had its world premiere last September at the Toronto International Film Festival; the German-language version, Mutters Courage, was shown out of competition in the '96 Berlinale's premiere showcase.

In either language, this is a gripping and sometimes shockingly funny drama based on a grimly ironic event in the life of Elsa Tabori, the mother of European theater great George Tabori. One morning in German-occupied Budapest, Elsa Tabori was arrested by the Hungarian secret police, herded into a train station along with hundreds of other Jews and shoved into a boxcar bound for a Nazi death camp. During a stop along the way, however, Tabori miraculously managed to talk her way out of her dire situation, thanks to the intercession of a Nazi officer who -- almost whimsically -- decided to bring her back to Budapest in his private railway car.

From these facts, Verhoeven has fashioned a film that is at once audaciously stylized and scrupulously realistic, informed by a sardonic wit and suffused with a respectful appreciation of fate's capriciousness. The Berlin Film Festival did its part by showcasing Mutters Courage. And Verhoeven did his part by making sure there would be no need for off-putting subtitles. Now it's up to some U.S. distributor to do a little bit toward remedying the cinematic imbalance of trade. -- Joe Leydon

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