Berlinale Retrospective Curator David Thomson ‘Film Is Built Upon Its Own History’

Renowned film critic David Thomson was faced with the daunting task of curating the Berlin Film Festival’s 60th anniversary Retrospective section. He tells SPIEGEL ONLINE how he made the almost impossible selection, why watching movies on the big screen is so important and reveals why he had never visited Berlin before.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Berlin International Film Festival is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2010. You were given the task of curating this year’s Retrospective section, which is intended to highlight the most notable films from the festival’s history. But how do you go about choosing almost 40 films from 60 years of the Berlinale?

David Thomson: It seems impossible and absurd to pick 35 or 40 films out of so many. But then you say to yourself: Well, let’s make it fun. I wanted to show what a lively, active festival this had been over a long period. And I wanted to use the span of this festival to show some tendencies in film history, the changes there have been. The emergence of Japanese film, Chinese film, the French New Wave — you have a lot of the big things that happened.SPIEGEL ONLINE: How important is it to have a retrospective section in a film festival?

Thomson: Granted, young people coming to festivals go to see the big new films but, as we all know, sometimes those films are a bit of a letdown. Then there is the retrospective off to one side. These films have stood the test of time. It’s like a film class where most of the people who are coming are seeing something they have never seen before and may never have heard of. So it opens their eyes and it teaches them that film, like everything worthwhile, is built upon its own history.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did you try and focus on particular regions?

Thomson: I tried to be international. The only guidelines were only one film per director and that I would try to cover as wide a range of countries as I could. There are some things I regretted: I regretted that here was not a Luis Bunuel film in the season because I adore him but equally late in the day I realized I could show “Away From Her,” the 2006 Sarah Polley film from Canada.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was so special about her film?

Thomson: She is one of those people I think the future of film depends on. She is very talented: She’s an actress, she’s a writer, she’s a director. And she is so young — she just turned 31. I think she’s got a fantastic future ahead of her. And she is so serious and earnest and I love everything I’ve seen that she has done.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Were there any films you would have liked to have shown but that you couldn’t because there wasn’t a print available or it just wasn’t possible to get the film?

Thomson: Yes we had to pass on a couple, for example, Satyajit Ray’s 1973 film “Ashani Sanket” (“Distant Thunder”) because there was not a decent print available. I would love to have shown Jacques Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating” from 1974 but couldn’t because he didn’t show it here. It is probably my favorite film.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did you try to place an emphasis on showing films that had caused controversy at the Berlinale itself?

Thomson: Yes, when I got the commission I had a chat with (festival director) Dieter Kosslick and I aked him to highlight for me certain films that had a huge impact, in ways I might not know because I wasn’t here. So I’m sure old-time Berliners remember “The Deer Hunter” because of the furor it caused at the 1979 festival — it caused a furor all over the world, but maybe as much here as anywhere. There are a handful of films in the festival for that reason but not only that reason. There was Nagisa Oshima’s “Ai No Corrida” (Editor’s note: The film, also known as “In the Realm of the Senses,” was seized as pornography by the police during the festival in 1976.) Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” (“A Bout de Souffle”), was an amazing phenomenon all over the world when it came out. Every kid knows “Breathless” now but they don’t remember that their parents were jolted out of their life by it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Godard’s first film, which came out in 1960, was really the French Nouvelle Vague’s big breakthrough film.

Thomson: Yes. A very important thing about the New Wave or Nouvelle Vague is that there was this group of kids in France who had been writing the most personal, opinionated, aggressive criticism in which they attacked a lot of sacred cows and praised a lot of directors who were not being praised. They did that in Cahiers du Cinema which became an outrageous magazine because of them. And then within a couple of years, all of those kids started directing their own films and became: Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, a pretty solid bunch of talent.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Berlinale is putting a lot of emphasis on German film and you have Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog in your retrospective. What do you feel about the state of German cinema now?

Thomson: From my historian’s point of view, I think that in the 1920s German cinema was perhaps the most innovative in the world and the most influential. In the 1970s and the 1980s, I think Fassbinder was a genius of a rare order. I personally place Fassbinder considerably above his colleagues. I don’t see a new wave of German film coming but I don’t know enough about it and if anybody here says the young German film you have to go see is such-and-such, I will be there. I would love to see some new great German films.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are there films that you are seeing during the retrospective that you have never seen on the big screen, or that you haven’t seen for a long time on the big screen?

Thomson: A long time, certainly. But I think I have seen everything on a big screen. But for instance, I can’t wait to see Terrence Malick’s 1998 film “The Thin Red Line” on a big screen again. Because I didn’t totally get it the first time I saw it. It’s silly to see “The Thin Red Line” on a small screen. It’s about space, light, foliage, texture, distance. It’s about qualities that need the big screen. Like most film experts, I see a fantastic amount of stuff on a small screen, because it’s so easy and convenient. But I regret it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think that the ease of access to movies provided by DVDs and technology is a positive development?

Thomson: The ease with which one nowadays can see nearly anything ever made is fantastic. The disappointment that you are seeing it that size is also fantastic. You know there are people who write PhD theses on films that they hardly ever see on a big screen. It used to be a big-screen art. It’s become a small-screen art and I think that has had an affect on the degree of excitement people feel. So I love to see great prints played in beautiful huge theaters — another reason for coming to a festival.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is there a reason why you haven’t been to Berlin before, never mind the Berlinale?

Thomson: Yes. I’m not proud of it and you may find it ridiculous — I do myself in a way. I was born in 1941 in London and my house was hit three times by bombs. And more particularly, I was raised after 1945 in the most intense period of anti-German propaganda. Now I think I have lived to be wise enough and smart enough to know that that anti-German propaganda was ridiculous, but I had bred in me a fear of Germany and I know that it’s why I have not been before.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you view the Berlinale compared to the other festivals like Cannes or Venice?

Thomson: To go to Venice to see films is stupid, I think, because man’s beauty in Venice is so great that you shouldn’t waste your time seeing the films. If you go to Cannes, you are indulging Cannes’s self-importance. I like the idea of a film festival in Berlin, because it seems to me that Berlin is a true city in history. It is a city of extraordinary museums and extraordinary music. It is a city that for as long as it has existed has believed in culture in the wider sense. At times it has believed in terrible things too. But I think that Berlin is more relaxed about film and it is a more relaxing place to see film than those other places.

Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International:,1518,677966,00.html

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