Berlin Film Festival winners and highlights

Surprises galore at this year's Berlinale International Film Festival

With the festival at a close, Berlinale's Golden Bear award, will be spiriting its way to Italy in the hands of directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. Their film, 'Caesar Must Die', was a something of a surprise winner of the festival's top award, with Mike Leigh's jury, which included Jake Gyllenhaal, Anton Corbijn and Charlotte Gainsbourg, selecting it from a field of eighteen contenders.

As we pointed out at the start of the festival, last year's recipient was Iranian film 'A Seperation', now the front-runner for this year's Foreign Language Oscar. So expect the purveyors of precedent that are Oscar bloggers to start trumpeting 'Caesar Must Die''s chances for next year's gong.

Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Credit: REX)

The Taviani brothers were amongst the more high-profile names in this year's competition, and can claim a pair of Palme d'Or awards at Cannes for their earlier features 'The Night of the Shooting Stars' and 'Padre padrone'. Their new docu-drama tells the story of a group of high-security prison inmates attempting to stage a production of Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar'.

It received plenty of positive reviews from the festival's critical cabal, but home-field advantage had been tipped for Germany's Christian Petzold, whose period melodrama 'Barbara' told the tale of an East German doctor trying to escape to the West. In the end, Petzold went home with a Silver Bear award for Best Director.

Another favourite for the top prize was 'Sister' by Switzerland's Ursula Meier, about a 12-year-old boy's life on a luxury ski resort with his unemployed sister. So too 'Tabu', from Portugese director Miguel Gomes, which took the festival's Alfred Bauer prize for a work of particular innovation.

Probably the competition's most recognisable name, Billy Bob Thornton, came to Berlin to premiere his culture-clash comedy 'Jayne Mansfield's Car', which received rather mixed reviews from critics. Plenty stumbled in trying to reconcile with its odd tone and structure, but its unsettled approach found at least a few supporters.

You had to look outside the competition to find Berlinale's real star power. Angelina Jolie brought her Bosnian war romance 'In the Land of Blood and Honey' to much fanfare. Brad Pitt arrived back from the BAFTAs just in time to help her premiere the film, ensuring plenty of lenses were focussed on the festival's red carpet last weekend. The few that bothered to follow Jolie into the cinema seemed to find it sorely lacking.

But if that might have been expected, there was far greater disappointment in store for those who chanced 'Iron Sky'. On paper, its tale of Nazis hiding out in a secret moon base, waiting for another chance to conquer the world, seemed like a hoot. Sight & Sound's Nick James described it as “''Allo 'Allo' meets 'Star Trek'”, but said the film was sorely lacking any decent gags.

There were even fewer laughs to be had for audiences of the Robert Pattinson-starrer 'Bel Ami'. Much to the chagrin of the assembled crowd of Twihards, he traipsed the red carpet sporting a new buzz-cut hairdo, which is about the only thing worth reporting of the film's big night. 'Bel Ami' itself, which co-stars Christina Ricci, Uma Thurman and Kristen Scott Thomas, was a dead-on-arrival tale of social climbing in 19th Century Paris that brought to mind Stephen Frears's 2009 Berlinale hope 'Cheri', a film most would rather forget.

A mixed bag, then, at a European festival that continues to struggle for relevance in the months leading up to Cannes. With choice titles being held back to secure a Cannes berth in May, Berlinale's place as a public event might inspire healthy ticket sales, but its selection  doesn't seem to inspire the same gathering of acolytes as might be found in a good year on the Cote d'Azur.