Germany holds virtual Berlinale film festival

With theatres shuttered due to the coronavirus outbreak, Europe’s first major cinema showcase of the year begins in Berlin on Monday.

Germany holds virtual Berlinale film festival
German actress Paula Beer poses with the trophy "Silver Bear for Best Actress" during the awarding ceremony of the 70th Berlinale film festival in Berlin on February 29, 2020. Photo: Tobias Schwarz / AFP

Due to the pandemic The Berlinale has been pushed back by a month, put online and divided into two parts as the movie industry struggles to find its feet. Now in its 71st year, The Berlinale will hold the competition virtually for critics, reporters and rights buyers from 1st-5th March. 

For the second stage, organisers hope to invite stars and screen the films for the general public in June, mainly at open-air cinemas. Last year’s event, one of the last before the pandemic, sold more than 330,000 tickets.

The festival has also gone “gender neutral” with its acting awards — best actress and best actor prizes are history, replaced with best lead and supporting performance.

Industry watchers say that despite severe restrictions on making and screening movies, the Berlinale has managed to pull together an exciting lineup.

“I’m pleasantly surprised that they were able to get what looks like a pretty impressive collection of solid movies together for this festival,” Scott Roxborough, European bureau chief for The Hollywood Reporter, told AFP.

The world premiere of a documentary about music legend Tina Turner and an “impressive” pack of pandemic-era movies will take the spotlight at an all-virtual Berlin film festival starting on March 1, 2021. Photo: by Lionel Bonaventure/AFP

‘Uncertain times’

One of the hottest titles is “Tina”, a star-studded HBO documentary about the queen of rock’n’roll by Oscar winners Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin (“Undefeated”) to be released on March 27.

The film features never-before-seen concert footage, interviews with the 81-year-old superstar and recollections from the likes of Angela Bassett and Oprah Winfrey.

Directors including Emmy winner Maria Schrader (“Unorthodox”), German-Spanish actor Daniel Bruehl (“Rush”) and France’s Celine Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) will be premiering new work in competition.

All 15 contenders for the top prizes to be awarded on Friday are films that were made or in post-production during the pandemic.

Berlinale artistic director Carlo Chatrian said the selection captures “the uncertain times we are experiencing”.

Bruehl, who starred in the bittersweet German comedy “Good Bye, Lenin” and is now part of the Captain America franchise, will make his directorial debut with “Next Door”, a black comedy about gentrification.

Schrader will unveil “I’m Your Man”, a sci-fi comedy about a woman falling for a custom-made Mr Right, played by British actor Dan Stevens (“Beauty and the Beast”) while Sciamma offers up “Petite Maman”, a magical realist look at girlhood.

One of Romania’s top filmmakers, Radu Jude, is back with the intriguingly titled “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” about a teacher whose sex tape winds up on the internet.

Hong Sang-soo of South Korea, who won best director in Berlin last year for “The Woman Who Ran”, will show “Introduction”, vying against titles from Japan, Mexico and Lebanon.

Bear trophies for the upcoming 71st Berlinale film festival are displayed during a media tour at the Noack foundry in Berlin. Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/AFP)

Watching under house arrest

The Berlinale comes at a complicated time for the industry.

With the glamour of the red carpet and the magic of the big-screen experience sorely lacking, Roxborough said festivals were still “experimenting” with formats as the pandemic drags on.

“A danger of these virtual festivals is that even critics can’t get super excited about watching films at home,” he said.

“They have to have some kind of communal experience to go crazy for the movie that nobody’s heard about but that now everybody just has to see.”

Cannes hopes to hold its festival in July after being cancelled last year.

Venice managed to benefit from a break in high infection levels to take place last September with a range of special precautions.

But this winter, with the second wave raging, Sundance was held online.

The Berlinale jury will be made up of six previous Golden Bear winners including last year’s laureate, dissident Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof, who claimed the prize for “There Is No Evil” about capital punishment.

Five of the members will all stay at the same hotel and sit, physically distanced, in a Berlin cinema made specially available under lockdown, while Rasoulof will watch from Tehran under house arrest.

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‘Three Wishes for Cinderella’: How a 50-year-old German film became a Christmas classic

During the festive season, Germans of all ages go wild for a 50-year-old film that retells the story of Cinderella in a unique way. As a new exhibition opens, we explore how a children's film produced in the GDR become such a cultural phenomenon.

‘Three Wishes for Cinderella’: How a 50-year-old German film became a Christmas classic

For many viewers in Germany, it’s a film that is just as integral to Christmas as the trees and Lebkuchen. With its snowy landscapes and fairytale castles, the adaptation of ‘Three Wishes for Cinderella’ – or Drei Hasselnüsse für Ashenbrödel in German – has been enchanting audiences since its release in 1973. 

In Germany, most people know the story of Cinderella (played by Czech actress Libuse Safrankova), who with courage and deception, cleverly wins over the heart of the handsome, but somewhat naïve, prince (Pavel Travnicek). 

The onscreen fairytale turns 50 in November but its popularity shows no signs of wavering – both in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.  

In fact, an exhibition based on the cult classic will soon be on display at Moritzburg Castle – a gothic castle in Saxony that was one of the shooting locations for the film. 

It begins on Wednesday November 22nd and will include original costumes, memorabilia, props and more. Fans can also visit other filming locations from the outdoor shooting at the gothic Svihov Castle in the west of the Czech Republic and the snowy slopes of the Bohemian Forest on the German-Czech border.  

Why does the film remain so popular?

Over the years, Three Wishes for Cinderella has become the classic Christmas film in Germany, as well as in the Czech Republic and Norway. Diana Heuschkel, editor of Desired magazine, summed up this German obsession when she wrote in a recent article: “Christmas is only half as nice without this film.”

In a testament to its popularity, Three Wishes for Cinderalla was shown a whopping 15 times between December 1st and New Year last year on German and Norwegian TV. 

In many ways, you could think of it as the Christmas version of “Dinner for One” – the British sketch that has become a New Year’s Eve institution in German households. 

READ ALSO: 50 years of a New Year’s dinner for one

In the case of Cinderella, audiences love its romantic cinematography and festive wintry scenery, but it also stands out as a uniquely inter-cultural creation. 

Three Wishes for Cinderella castle

Saxony’s Schloss Moritzburg in Saxony, where part of Three Wishes for Cinderella was filmed. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Kahnert

With a cast of both German and Czech actors, the film was shot in multiple languages, with these characters then dubbed in each country to match the primary language.

Surprisingly though, this festive film was never intended to be a Christmas classic. In fact, the original plan was to shoot it in summer. 

The first version of the script planned to have Cinderella running across the ‘blooming meadows’ and washing her laundry in a ‘sun-drenched creak’. It was a fortunate coincidence that the East-German film studio DEFA, the German co-production partner of the Barrandov Studio in Prague, had the means to produce the film in the winter of 1972/73. 

DEFA also brought German acting legends to the table, including Rolf Hoppe who plays the king.

The script was quickly adapted to this change of season in just a few days.  

‘Autonomy and energy’

While November 1st, 1973 is traditionally cited as the official premiere date for today’s Christmas classic, investigations conducted by the National Film Archives in Prague revealed that the film began airing in Czechoslovakian cinemas on November 16th 1973. Interestingly, a gala premier for the socialist youth federation, SYU, had already taken place on October 26th.

READ ALSO: 10 must-see films and series to help you improve your German

Despite this early screening, the GDR-premiere was confirmed to have taken place on March 8th 1974. Unfortunately, some of the stars aren’t around to see the anniversary celebrations; the main actress, Libuse Safrankova, sadly passed away in June 2021 at the age of 68.  

One of the most memorable scenes of the film is the first meeting between Cinderella and the prince. When the heir to the throne is trying to hunt down a deer with his crossbow, he is suddenly struck by a snowball. It was thrown by the defiant Cinderella, who quickly runs away.

Three Wishes for Cinderella

The prince (Pavel Travnicek) embraces Cinderella (Libuse Safrankova) – a scene from the classic “Three Wishes for Cinderella”. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/WDR/DRA/ARD | –

”This is not the kind of girl who waits passively to be rescued by a prince,” says Michael Bregant – the head of the National Film Archives in Prague – in an interview with DPA. 

“In this version, Cinderella acts with more autonomy and energy – that’s what makes the film so interesting.” 

Behind the scenes however, the young girl wasn’t the culprit behind the snowball attack: it was director Vaclav Vorlicek who threw the snowball with perfect precision from his spot next to the camera. 

“Vorlicek was a director who had the ambition of producing successful and popular films,” says Bregant about the filmmaker, who passed away in 2019. “He was no great philosopher, rather a pragmatist.”

Vorlicek’s sense of humour is also unmistakable. In an interview, he once said: “I walk through life with a smile, even when I am faced with obstacles, because deep down I am an optimist in nature.”

READ ALSO: Why ‘made in Germany’ TV has captured the imagination of the world

Political turbulence 

These obstacles were prominent back in 1973 when filming coincided with a time of political oppression and intensified censorship in Czechoslovakia. In August 1968, the Warsaw Pact states had crushed the Prague Spring reform movement with tanks. 

Many artists fell from grace. “The incredible playwright and screenwriter Frantisek Pavlicek wrote the script hidden behind a pseudonym,” explains the film expert Pavel Skopal – even though the fairytale has no political subtext.  

Pavlicek completely contorted the traditional role of a scriptwriter and skilfully weaved in three fairy tale stories by the Czech national writer Bozena Nemcova (1820-1862). That’s why Cinderella opens some magic nuts herself instead of shouting for the “little tree, little tree, shake [its branches and release the nuts] over me” like in the Brothers Grimm edition.

The DEFA co-producers were worried that German children wouldn’t be able to recognise the fairytale, but this has obviously turned out to be untrue over time. 

Pavel Travnicek, the actor who played the prince, was recently asked in an interview on Czech radio what first comes to his mind when he thinks back to the filming. “The winter… the winter, it was horrifically cold,” the 72-year-old immediately spurted out. The cast was young and endured temperatures of minus 17 degrees. 

When he is shown photos from the time, he is almost moved to tears: “Damn, what a time.” 

With reporting by Tom Ashton-Davies