Next week Border Crossings goes to the 58th Berlin International Film Festival (Feb. 7-17), better known as the Berlinale, to check out the films, parties, news, gossip… and that crashing sound of the dollar falling against the Euro. How bad is it? Well, let’s just say I’ll be hitting as many sponsored buffets and dinner parties as possible. I’ll tote along a tripod and Handycam to capture the festivities with a crew of one (yours truly), or maybe an unpaid friend/lacky to hold the camera once in a while. Production values will be in keeping with our budget, which is about as minimal as the dress code in a German sauna.
But Berlin is a hoot even on a few bucks a day. The truth is, even the most idiosyncratic and gloriously perverse Berlinale films (and I’m thinking here of the daringly programmed Panorama section) can usually be one-upped by the city itself. The new Berlin flaunts its exhibitionist ways everywhere, whether by excavating Stasi tunnels and Gestapo prisons and exposing the shameful results to the world; or by littering the once-noble Unter den Linden with all those Cartier boutiques and megabanks; or by unveiling a queer-themed museum offering, among many wonders, mural paintings of gay orgies from Isherwood’s era. (When I visited some years back, the museum was filled with as many middle-class familes and baby-toting nannies as it was the local Schwulen. It takes a lot to raise a Berliner’s eyebrow when it comes to sex.)
Of my dozen or so visits to the city and the festival, my favorite ones were right after the Wall fell, between 1990-1994. That’s when the whole of East Berlin was still a great terra incognita waiting to be discovered. The streets were strewn with artist ghettos and noisy cafes and smoky underground music clubs huddled in abandoned warehouses. My favorite hangout was the Chamelion Club, a cabaret-cum-biergarten for artists and intellectuals that sported a grab bag of saucy and innovative cabaret acts, mostly from Russia and eastern Europe. For a few marks you’d trudge up two flights of creeky stairs in some deadly-dark and probably haunted building to watch– if I remember this right after all the Heinekens — a Romanian stripper on a fire engine cruising three Russian unicyclists, and a German hausfrau bellowing an operatic ode to her vacuum cleaner. Sound like fun? You had to be there.
These days, a spiffed-up Chameleon Club caters more to the casual tourist than the adventurous East-bound pioneer, situated as it is in the trendy Hackescher Markt. (Which, in the 19th century, was itself situated on muddy swamp outside the city gates. Talk about delayed gentrification.) Still, like the new Berlin, you can enjoy plenty of off-beat and determinedly un-slick items on its menu, though at about four times the old ticket price.
It’s these kinds of intriguing gems I’m hoping to run across in the films and filmmakers of this year’s Berlinale. So join me online February 7 and watch our first series of Cinema Without Borders festival web casts. It may not be as wacky as a Berlin cabaret, but then again, the ticket’s on the house.