Berlinale opens with Zelenskyy address 2
Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the audience via video link during the opening gala. Image: Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS

Berlinale opens with message from Ukraine’s Zelenskyy: “Culture cannot be neutral”

The Berlinale film festival kicked off with a video address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy before a screening of the romantic comedy "She Came to Me."
Elizabeth Grenier, Deutsche Welle | Feb 18 2023

The Berlin International Film Festival showed its support for Ukraine on Thursday, with a live video address by Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the opening gala event.

The Ukrainian president was given a standing ovation as he appeared on screen.

"Cinema is able to overcome borders and walls, whether real or ideological," said Zelenskyy, referring to the Berlin Wall that used to stand at the very location of the Berlinale on Potsdamer Platz.

"It seems to me very symbolic," he said, as that wall was not only a physical division, but one that marked an ideological divide, he explained. "Today, Russia wants to build the same wall ... between civilization and tyranny." 

The festival falls around the one-year anniversary of Russia's full-scale war of aggression. Facing a policy of total war, "culture cannot be neutral," Zelenskyy said. "Cinema cannot change the world, but it can influence and inspire people who can change the world." 

The audience at the opening ceremony giving a standing ovation to the Ukrainian leader
The audience at the opening ceremony giving a standing ovation to the Ukrainian leader. Image: Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS

The Ukrainian leader also referred to history of the Berlinale, itself founded in 1951 as a "showcase of the free world." Ukraine similarly acts as "the fortress of the free world," which is why it "cannot fall, will stand and will win," he concluded. 


Sean Penn on Ukrainians' 'superpower'

US actor-director Sean Penn was also on stage at the gala to introduce Zelenskyy's speech.

"Nothing has changed concerning the will of the Ukrainians," said Penn, who recently returned from Ukraine. "If anything, it has just gotten stronger."

Penn is in Berlin to present "Superpower," a highly anticipated documentary that he co-directed with Aaron Kaufman. The filmmakers were already in Ukraine when Russia invaded the country one year ago. The film follows the Ukrainian president, a former comedian, as he is suddenly called upon to become a wartime leader.

"Zelenskyy was two completely different creatures from one day to the next," Penn told entertainment industry magazine Variety ahead of the festival, referring to how the invasion transformed the Ukrainian leader. "He was a spirit in waiting."

"Superpower" celebrates its world premiere on Friday. 

Sean Penn was on stage to present Zelenskyy's speech
Sean Penn was on stage to present Zelenskyy's speech. Image: Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS

The Berlinale "condemns Russia's war of aggression," said the festival's managing director, Mariette Rissenbeek. The festival stands with "the suffering population, the millions who left Ukraine and the artists who have remained defending the country and continue filming the war," added artistic director Carlo Chatrian at the gala.

"If I could award a prize today, it would be to all the people of Ukraine," who are "resisting the Russian onslaught," said the German government's Commissioner for Culture and the Media, Claudia Roth, in her speech.


'Emotionally whiplashed time'

The festival's international jury was also introduced on opening night. 

US actress Kristen Stewart, who heads this year's jury, said at a press conference ahead of the gala opening on Thursday that she believes the role of artists is "to take a disgusting and ugly thing and sort of transmute it and put it through your body and pump out something more beautiful and more helpful" — a task that becomes particularly meaningful in today's "emotionally whiplashed time."

From acting in the "Twilight Saga" series to independent cinema alongside directors such as Olivier Assayas and Pablo Larrain ("Spencer," 2021), the 32-year-old star is the youngest person ever to preside over the festival's international jury. 

Stewart's six co-jurors are Iranian-French actress Golshifteh Farahani, German director and writer Valeska Grisebach, US producer Francine Maisler, Hong Kong director and producer Johnnie To, and two recent Golden Bear winners, Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude ("Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn," 2021) and Spanish director Carla Simon ("Alcarras," 2022).

They will be selecting the winners of the Golden and Silver Bears, the festival's top awards, among 19 competing films. The awards ceremony will be held on February 25.

Jury president Kristen Stewart, right, with one of her co-jurors, Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani
Jury president Kristen Stewart, right, with one of her co-jurors, Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. Image: Soeren Stache/dpa/picture alliance

Solidarity with Iran's protesters

Alongside Cannes and Venice, the Berlinale is one Europe's most important film festivals, with a reputation for being the most political of the big three.

This year, Iran is also a focus of the Berlinale. Different events and screenings have been organized in support of the protesters fighting for their democratic rights.

"Our hearts go out to women of Iran," who are risking their lives in the "Woman Life Freedom" protests, culture minister Roth said in her speech.

Iranian juror Golshifteh Farahani also addressed the demonstrations in her home country during a press conference on Thursday. "In a country like Iran, which is a dictatorship, art is not only an intellectual or philosophical thing, it's essential, it's like oxygen," she said.

The Iranian regime has been persecuting dissident artists and filmmakers for years. Farahani has been living in France since 2012.

Directors, production companies and journalists with direct ties to the Russian or Iranian governments are barred from taking part in the festival, including its European Film Market, a major platform for film distribution deals. 


Romantic comedy opens festival

In contrast to the heavyweight political themes dominating the Berlinale, the festival opened with the crowd-pleasing romantic comedy "She Came to Me" starring Peter Dinklage, Marisa Tomei and Anne Hathaway.

Peter Dinklage in 'She Came to Me'
Peter Dinklage in 'She Came to Me'. Image: Protagonist Pictures

Dinklage ("Game of Thrones") plays the role of an opera composer who faces creative block until he meets a seductive tugboat captain who becomes his muse. 

At a press conference ahead of the ceremony, the film's director Rebecca Miller said she saw it as "a great honor" to be associated with Zelenskyy, "because he's obviously a hero at this point."

"I want to express my gratitude to the film festival for including a hero of our times and for giving us all the opportunity to amplify the message of Ukraine, which is the almost universal desire for peace," actress Anne Hathaway added.

Miller also said that she hopes her film can serve as an "ambassador of good will across many nations," and expressed the hope that "one of the ways we can perhaps have a more peaceful world is by having our art talk to each other across the nations."

The movie is the first of nearly 300 new works from around the world to screen during the event, which runs from February 16-26. 

Edited by: Helen Whittle