Berlin film festival strikes balance between glitz, politics

— This year's Berlin Film Festival had a pointed political message, with disturbing themes such as genocide and refugees that reflected the influence of global tensions since Sept. 11 and the threat of a new war on Iraq.

The 10-day festival, which closed Sunday, is considered among Europe's most important alongside Cannes and Venice, and it managed to combine obligatory glitter and glamour with a demonstration of cinema's power to address serious topics.

Hollywood celebrities including George Clooney, Dustin Hoffman, Edward Norton, Spike Lee and Oliver Stone attended this year -- and all took the opportunity to voice their opposition to a U.S.-led assault on Iraq.

Even when the films were not overtly political, themes such as death and illness tended to dominate. "The films were characterized by a certain sadness, perhaps even a certain pessimism," German film critic Margret Koehler said.

Others said that after Sept. 11, filmmakers felt able to take on somber or confrontational topics that previously might not have made it to a major festival -- a trend British film critic Derek Malcolm called "a general move to new realism."

One example of this trend, the British film "In this World," won the top prize, the Golden Bear, on Saturday.

Directed by Michael Winterbottom, it uses a semi-documentary style in following two Afghan refugees attempting to reach a haven in England.

No happy ending here: One makes it, but the other dies on a container ship to Italy.

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AP Photo

Actor Dustin Hoffman speaks at the UNICEF benefit gala "Cinema for Peace" during the Berlin film festival. The festival used movies' power to address serious topics.

The film peered behind the wall of anonymity that separates most Europeans from the desperation of those seeking refugee in European nations.

It was one of three competition entries with the theme of immigration and refugees, and two films that premiered in Berlin dealt with genocide.

"Babi Yar," a German production directed by U.S. filmmaker Jeff Kanew, tells of two families trying to escape a 1941 Nazi massacre of more than 33,000 people in the former Soviet Union.

"A Birch Tree Meadow" stars French film icon Anouk Aimee as a Holocaust survivor who returns to Auschwitz, where she befriends a German photographer whose grandfather was in the Nazi SS.

"It is a film about memory fading," said director Marceline Loridan-Ivens, herself a Holocaust survivor. "There are not so many of us still alive. It was necessary to do this for the future."

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