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It's Not Over Until the Credits Roll
by Becky Tan

Filmfest Hamburg Director Albert Wiederspiel. (Drawing by Nancy Tilitz, copyright © 2004)The 12th Hamburg film festival is on its way to becoming a major event. Festival director Albert Wiederspiel offered a unique opportunity to see excellent international films and Hamburgers participated enthusiastically; tickets sales were up 30% according to the Hamburger Abendblatt. For one week actors, directors, critics and ticket holders trod the red carpets in front of Cinemaxx and Grindel. Black cars with "Filmfest Hamburg" discretely painted on the side parked in front of all five participating cinemas (including Metropolis, 3001, and Abaton), an indication that the festival was in full swing and somebody important was inside.

The festival opened with the premiere of the Danish Oh Happy Day. Wiederspiel told local radio that he wanted a "warm and fuzzy" opening film, and warm and fuzzy is what he got, which doesn't guarantee a memorable film. "Which one of us is Danish?" he asked, standing beside the film's director, Hella Joof. Tough decision, since Joof is a tall, stately black woman and Wiederspiel is just the opposite. In fact, both are Danes. Premiere guests crowded into the cinema and saved seats for invited friends. "Just like a lecture at the university," said one frustrated man, trying to find an empty seat not reserved by someone's coat. The top floor restaurant of the Alsterhaus department store was opened to 1200 guests for the post-premiere party. This year the celebrities were democratically thrown together with the lowly film critics, all mingling in a heady atmosphere of glittery excitement with camera crews scanning the crowds for familiar faces.

In the evenings filmmakers were on hand to field questions. Producer Nina Yang (Mail Order Wife) said, "I was happy to hear this audience laugh. In the U.S. people thought our film about exploitation of Asian women was real and not funny. They were very angry with us." Director Kamal Tabrizi (The Lizard) confirmed that his film was based on Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and that he "voluntarily" withdrew his film in Iran.

For the second year the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung and CineGraph e.V. selected an old silent movie to be shown at the festival. This his time around it was Ernst Lubitsch's Die Bergkatze (mountain lion) from 1921 starring Pola Negri. Marie-Luise Bolte composed new musical accompaniment. It was quite an experience to sit back and imagine the days before talking movies and television and 10-second films on phone displays. Film historians restore films and keep memories of our culture alive. Both Lubitsch and Negri went to Hollywood. Negri returned to Europe at the advent of talking movies because she had a strong Polish accent, which was less discernible in European languages. This former femme fatale of silent movies later retired to Texas as a business woman.

Dr. Eva Schaefer and Dirk Fritsch offered workshops on how to show films to school children. Together with 50 local teachers and one class of 17-year-olds, I watched the children's film Station 4. During the break, one of the girls told me that she "liked the film and had never heard of the festival before." The kids left so that the teachers could discuss the topic. The German teachers couldn't decide where films should appear in the curriculum; they could not agree on the appropriate age for Station 4 (definitely 11-13 and not 17-18, as was suggested). At least Schaefer and Fritsch are tackling the topic and they will help more young people appreciate cinema.

In the Levante Haus, next to the New York Deli, 200 old movie posters and film equipment were displayed by the Film and Fernsehmuseum Hamburg e.V. This was interesting to an "old" Hamburger who remembers when there were small cinemas in every Hamburg district, e.g., Schnelsen and Eidelstedt, including one which would start the film as soon as five paying guests arrived. This was the time when parents sent their children down the block to the matinee in order to have private time at home.

The Hyatt Talks were popular in spite of the late night hours. Improvements are still possible. For example, why make Nina Yang (Mail Order Wife) and Lotte Svendsen (What's Wrong With This Picture) sit on a stage for 40 minutes to listen to Wim Wenders (Land of Plenty) discuss his film in a language they could not understand and nobody translated? This was not a talk show, but a one-man Interview – albeit Wenders is an important man in Germany.

An item of interest did come to light: young, beautiful German Katja von Garnier first learned about American women's fight for the vote during the process of directing Iron Jawed Angels. Each talk was televised the following day, which might explain why the audience was not encouraged to ask questions. Talkmaster Phillip Bergson claims that "experience has shown that there are no questions."

It was a wise decision to move the festival headquarters/office to Cinemaxx, since press information was readily accessible. However, Adele claimed that, "We will all be deaf before the thing is over because Cinemaxx is so loud." Hamburg PUR was a good official festival publication with information in English and German; but needed an alphabetized index.

The final night I heard two boys excitedly saying, "That was the worst film we ever saw." An American critic from the Czech Republic said, "Which film was it?" "A DVD film." "Oh, don't go to those. They were released straight into DVD because they weren't that good." "Yes, but it was in German and we don't know if we can read English subtitles." This conversation took place in excellent English; the boys should give it a try. This surge of English is perhaps a hurdle for the general population, but a real boon to us.

The organizers were always friendly. Even though you know that behind the scenes there was panic about reels still at the airport, directors seeking asylum (well, almost), and divas tripping on the treacherously teeny steps in front of Cinemaxx, they always kept their composure. This festival can easily become an addiction: just one more film and then I'll go home. The 13th Hamburg film festival will be here sooner than you think: September 22-29, 2005. Don't miss it.