Golden Bears in the snow at the Berlinale

It is since I moved away from Berlin that I have become a real fan of the Berlinale, Berlin’s International Film Festival, held every year in February. The queuing for and collection of tickets, plus the criss-crossing of the city from dawn until well into the night to see films – although fun – are time consuming and not really compatible with a full time job. It’s much more fun to spend a few days at the Berlinale on holiday. Here are my top tips for Berlinale fun:

The whole city really is a cinema!

1. A little planning goes a long way!

Kino International

The Berlinale programme is split into several categories, such as Competition (those films up for a Golden Bear prize), Panorama (arthouse films shown in Berlin for the first time and available to buyers), Forum (featuring avant garde and experimental feature films and documentaries), Generation (films of interest to – but not only to – children) and special categories, such as this year’s Babelsberg Studios’ centenary. There are generally a few clear themes (this year’s were the Arab Spring and the nuclear disaster in Japan). The full programme only becomes available at the end of January, so there isn’t much time to select the films you want to see, but it’s essential to carefully plan your viewing to a) avoid trying to be in two places at once and b) ensure you have a Plan B if the tickets for your favourite film aren’t available. Tickets generally go on sale 3 days in advance of the first screening of that film – two per person – and a (very) limited number are available online. Otherwise, you’ll have to join the sometimes enormous queues in the Potsdamer Platz shopping centre. That’s all part of the fun, but you only want to do it once or twice, so make sure you have a plan B for when your favourite film turns red (sold out) on the screens! The queues for internet ticket collection are generally much shorter. Top tip: premiers are popular. If you want to see the film but are less bothered about being the first, it is much easier to book early on for later showings. Directors often show up for Q&A after the showing, even if it’s not the premier.

2. Getting there and getting around

Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt aka the pregnant oyster building - a key Berlinale venue

Berlin is a public transport dream. Despite the high likelihood of snow in February, the buses, trams, underground and suburban rail are frequent, clean, punctual, integrated and run well into the night. Info (in English or German) at: The 100 bus is a good West-East shuttle which passes a lot of the main sights and stations as well as key cinemas. Taxis are numerous and much cheaper than many British cities. Berlin is a huge city and films are shown in dozens of cinemas, so plan your travel time into your schedule. Later in 2012, all air transport will be centred on Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, in the former East, following the closure of the two former West Berlin airports. Top tip: You won’t avoid exposure to the elements all together, so wear layers and wrap up warm – this year’s Berlinale opened to serious subzero temperatures!

3. Celeb-spotting

Juliette Binoche illuminated by flashbulbs at the premiere of Elles

As well as seeing some seriously good cinema, one of the pleasures of the Berlinale is promi-spotting (from the German, Prominenten, ie VIP). The opening gala at the Berlinale Palast on Potsdamer Platz offers good opportunities for wannabe paparazzi, as do the nearby 4 and 5 star hotels. Each year there are a couple of stars due in town who folks will literally camp out for (this year’s were Shah Rukh Khan and Meryl Streep). Stars and directors often turn up to screenings (spot the giveaway red carpet for the Competition films) but the best photo and autograph opportunities are the ones you least expect, eg in the street and in bars and restaurants. Each year a different set of hot spots rise and fall on the fashion scales, so watch local press for clues and keep your eyes peeled. Top tip: The majority of celebs in Berlin for the Berlinale are German, so you might want to pick up a copy of German Hello Magazine to help you spot them!

4. Eating and drinking

Vegetarian brunch at Tomasa with a delicious rhubarb juice and soda

As well as for spotting celebs, you’ll need to pop into the odd bar or restaurant for recuperation and sustenance. It is a lot cheaper to eat out in Berlin than other European capitals, and the food is good (although Berlin doesn’t have the number of Michelin stars of other capitals). Berlin waiters are known for their grumpiness, but I made a couple of great discoveries this year. Tomasa has three branches city-wide and we visited their large villa restaurant in Viktoria Park (on Kreuzbergstrasse) in an area where pre-Wall Fall hippies have been replaced by students in flat shares and the professional chattering classes. Tomasa is good value and is great for brunch with friends or family. It features a broad menu of fresh German and European dishes including set breakfasts and a tapas menu, has a kids’ play room and is situated in a spacious park for postprandial walks. The Kreuzberg 61 neighbourhood has a great range of boutiques (on Bergmannstrasse – not open on Sundays) but retains a bit of shabby chic in its secondhand shops.

pan-Asian food and sushi at Kuchi

Kuchi, in the back streets of Mitte (the new city centre), is a pan-Asian/sushi restaurant which was packed to the gills on a Saturday night. Seating is on Wagamama-style benches and the place is decorated with beautiful washi (Japanese paper) lanterns and collages of kimono fabrics. The menu is extensive and authentic and the staff attentive and friendly. We received recommendations which were spot on. If it’s full, there are plenty of options in Mitte, which has become one of Berlin’s main fashion and nightlife districts. Top tip: To avoid queues in the cold and disappointment, book in advance.

5. Sightseeing

Not a golden bear, but a snowy one!

Despite the freezing temperatures and the huge cinematic offer, it’s worth checking out some of the historical and cultural sights of Berlin. I have listed some of my favourites here, but the beaten track is also well worth treading!

And if you are interested in my reviews of the films I saw in the Berlinale 2012, they are here.

© Lynn Sheppard

This entry was posted in Europe, Germany, travel, world cinema and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Golden Bears in the snow at the Berlinale

  1. Hey go to our blog 2/14, we gave you a shout out! 🙂

  2. Alison says:

    From a fellow Berlinale fan, excellent piece Lynn! The festival really is one of the best of so many good things to do in Berlin.

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