Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hooray for Bollywood!

Berlin, February 2011.

Potsdamer Platz lies in the very center of Berlin. Named for the town of Potsdam some 25 km away, it marks where the old road entered through the city wall into Berlin.  By the end of WWII, the square and much of the surrounding city had been flattened by bombing.

In 1961, the Berlin Wall completely bisected Potsdamer Platz, leaving it in a limbo wasteland until 1989.

Today, it is home to huge modern skyscrapers and stunning architecture....

...including this soaring atrium that connects several buildings.

There are still reminders of the past, though. For just a few euros, you can have your photo taken in front of remnants of the notorious wall...

...and on the back of the wall, photographs give a "before and after" reminder of that divisive time.

But we weren't here just to absorb Berlin's history. The middle of February is definitely not a time to choose to go to Berlin. The temperature hovers around zero during the day, icy winds blow in from the East, everyone walks around bundled in warm coats, hats, scarves, gloves, boots.  In spite of this, several thousand people arrive from all over the world at this time to attend the annual Berlin Film Festival, known as the Berlinale, based in and around Potsdamer Platz. At ticket offices throughout the city, Berliners line up to book their seats for the hundreds of screenings that take place all day long and late into the evening.

We were lucky enough to be there to attend the screening of a film Matthew wrote a year or so ago with a Bollywood director from Mumbai, Vishal Bhardwaj, which was showing in the Panorama Section of the Festival. Vishal and his team of 9 colleagues, including two of the actors, made the journey from India. We came in from Paris, and with our official badges in hand, or rather hanging round our necks, we spent three nights at the Grand Hyatt in the heart of Potsdamer Platz, absorbing all the razzle dazzle.

The premier theatre, next to our hotel, had a permanent "Red Carpet". No matter the time of day, there always seemed to be some actor, director, producer being applauded by eager fans, and happily waving back. Press conferences with Festival participants played on the big jumbotron above the entrance.

At our press conference, streamed live on the internet, and also simulcast in the main square, Vishal, Matthew and the two actors, answered questions about the film from the, mostly, Indian press. The movie, 7 Khoon Maat (in English 7 Sins Forgiven), follows the notorious life of Susanna, who marries seven husbands and becomes widowed each time under suspiciously murderous circumstance...

Meanwhile, outside in the middle of Potsdamer Platz, one of this year's sponsors, L'Oréal, had set up shop, where shapely beauties could be seen having their hair coiffed, their flawless complexions creamed and nails buffed...

...brown bears stood proudly everywhere, on the streets and in the shopping malls

...and even though this giraffe, made from lego, seemed a little out of place, it added a charming splash of color to the grey, cold days.

Thursday evening arrived and, in spite of the temperatures, the brave women from Mumbai emerged in their gorgeous silken finery. (I opted for a Kashmiri wool jacket!). A fleet of BMWs (another sponsor) brought us to the Friedrichestadtpalast theatre, where Vishal was greeted by many eager fans.

Wieland Speck, the director of the Panorama section welcomed us all warmly, and posed for a photo shoot with Vishal and the two actors who had come from India. The young man on the right, Vivaan Shah, plays the lead male role. He's 22 years old and this is his first movie! On the left is the veteran character actor, Annu Kapoor, who almost steals the movie with his role.

The film played to a packed house, receiving a big ovation at the end. Vishal, Matthew, the actors and the other members of the Mumbai team were each called to the stage to further applause. A great moment for them all.

Many in the audience lingered afterwards, seeking autographs or a chance to shake Vishal's hand. In India, he is quite a superstar.  Eventually we found our coats and were whisked off to a nearby Indian restaurant, where we feasted on course after course of delicious food, everyone just so happy at the film's reception. A truly memorable evening.

At dawn the next morning, our Mumbai friends flew back to India. We, however, had another two days to visit with niece Miranda and family, and other friends. And to dip into the extraordinary cultural richness of Berlin.

First up was a train ride from Potsdamer Platz Bahnhof (S-bahn line) out to the town of Wannsee, about 45 minutes away. Here, in a spacious mansion overlooking Lake Wannsee, The American Academy in Berlin sponsors residential fellowships to forge ties between the US and Germany in the arts, humanities and public affairs.

Our dear friend Pamela Rosenberg became Dean of Fellows at the Academy last fall. We enjoyed a lovely lunch with her, meeting several fellows, and imagining how beautiful it must all be when everything is in full leaf and flower!

Taking the train back to Berlin, we found our way to the Pergamon Museum of Antiquities, where an extraordinary show is currently being featured, Die Geretteten Götter. Roughly translated, this means The Saved Gods. The exhibition tells the story of Max von Oppenheim, who during the early part of the 20th century led several expeditions to the Upper Khabur region, now part of north-east Syria.

Here, he found a a royal palace from the lst millenneum BC, adorned with gigantic figures of gods and mythological creatures.

Bringing them back to Berlin, he eventually opened his own museum, the Tell Halaf Museum, in 1930.

Unhappily, in 1943 the museum took a direct hit from an aerial bomb, which gutted the exhibition building. Everything was shattered or destroyed.

Somehow, the rubble was gathered and moved to the Pergamon's vaults. There they remained until 2001 when a group of scholars and restorers began the challenging task of piecing together the shards.

Amazingly, many of the former glories have been recreated, sometimes with all the pieces miraculously fitting together. A great testament to the devotion and scholarship of the restorers.

A final outing on Saturday afternoon found us in the Science Museum, with its breathtaking entrance hall, sure to take the breath away of every four year old in sight -- and a few older visitors as well!

Matthew even found a familiar face -- Vermithrax, of Dragonslayer fame.  Hooray for Hollywood as well!

À bientôt!


  1. Every time I open one of your articles I wonder if it will be as interesting as the previous ones. It always comes up to scratch and I feel I have learned so much more about a faraway place. Mrs L

  2. Berlin in February is wicked. But your trip sounds fabulous. So glad you went, and are now back in Paris!

  3. Another great interesting blog - can't wait for the next one x

  4. Nice to see the dragon again. I remember fondly my visits to the Dragonslayer set at Pinewood and on location in Wales.
    Susanna sent me your blog and I have really enjoyed the two posts I have read, Berlin and the printing place in Paris - I wish I had a workshop as nice as that, and in central Paris! Hello to Matthew.