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Berlinale City Break

A visit to the Berlin Film Festival is a must. What better way to lift the spirits in the bleak mid-winter. Online tickets go on sale at the beginning of February, but there are always some available a couple of days in advance at the box offices. On the last Sunday of the Festival, after the prizes have been awarded, all the films are shown again. This is the ‘Publikumstag’ when tickets are cheaper and a good opportunity to catch something you might not have chosen to see in the first place. All films have English sub-titles, whatever the original language, and the cinemas are easily accessible on public transport.

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Berlinale red carpet at Potsdamer Platz

This year I could only get to Berlin for the last three days of the Festival and had organised tickets for two films. On Sunday I aimed to take pot luck. This was more of a city break than a ‘film fest’ – and a chance to catch up with friends. I flew into Berlin on the Thursday afternoon and was greeted with wall to wall sunshine and an upbeat atmosphere. Posters for the ‘Berlinale’ brightened the scene and there was no sign of snow or slush to dampen the fun. This is pretty unusual for Berlin in mid-February when one year I can even remember blizzards and making an igloo which lasted for weeks.

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The first evening was at Fräulein Fiona. The name sounds a bit risqué, but in fact this is a neat little restaurant (described as ‘klein aber fein’ in German) just off Kantstrasse in Charlottenburg. The food is billed as modern German and the menu choices are inventive but not expensive, with a good choice of wines by the glass. The eponymous owner of Fräulein Fiona is half-Scottish, so an interesting conversation ensued after the meal. This place is definitely an insider tip, off the tourist trail.


Fräulein Fiona – ‘Klein aber fein’

Breakfast on Friday was at a tried and tested favourite haunt – the Literaturhaus in Fasanenstrasse. This building has great a fin de siècle feel, a grand ‘villa’ set in its own gardens. It is both café and restaurant and hosts literary events. In winter you can choose to eat in the conservatory or in one of the wood-panelled, high-ceilinged main rooms. Downstairs is a bookshop and the wonderful Kaethe Kollwitz gallery is just next door.


Inside the Literaturhaus

Our first film was showing at midday at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, one of the main Berlinale venues and only a five minute walk from the Literaturhaus. ‘Elser’ tells the true story of a failed assassination attempt on Hitler in Munich in 1939 and is directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel of ‘Downfall’ fame. This wasn’t the first screening so there was no razzmatazz or presentation. But it was definitely worth seeing and will be on general release in April.

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The rest of the day was spent making the most of the sunshine. We checked out the Bikini Berlin shopping complex (see blog 5 May 2014) and went up to the Monkey Bar on the 10th Floor of the hotel for great city views and a drink on the terrace.

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Ice-skating rink at Bikini Berlin

Then we headed towards Zoo station and walked along the perimeter of the Berlin Zoo, past several animal enclosures and over the canal into the Tiergarten. It was a perfect afternoon for a stroll through Berlin’s central park and photo opportunities at the Brandenburg Gate were at their best. But this wasn’t a sightseeing weekend – more of a café and culture trip – and as the sun was going down, our next stop was the amazing Dussmann Culture Department Store (‘Kulturhaus’).


The iconic Dussmann building in Friedrichstrasse

We started with a coffee in their relaxing basement café, ‘Ursprung’ (‘Source’) where you can ‘eat, drink and dream’. Then it was shopping time and a couple of hours later we hadn’t even scratched the surface of the 7,000 square metres of DVDs, CDs and books in this Aladdin’s cave of culture. It even has a separate English Bookshop.

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Back to nature in Café Ursprung

Dinner on Friday night was at Crackers. This on-trend restaurant opened last November in the legendary ‘Cookies’ club and attracted a great deal of hype. In true Berlin shabby chic style, the entrance is well-hidden, through an iron door and a narrow passageway behind the Friedrichstrasse arcades. Once inside, you are in a huge space and the atmosphere is city slick Manhatten, with relaxed seating and an impressive bar. DJ nights are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 9pm until 3am. Food and drink are quite pricey, but worth it for the surroundings and every meal comes with a huge German brioche to share and gold cutlery. ‘Crackers’ is a cool Berlin experience.


Inside ‘Crackers’

It was a late start on Saturday and brunch at ‘Anna Blume’ in Prenzlauer Berg was as good as ever (see blog 19 May, ‘Eating out all day’). The Saturday market around Kollwitzplatz was sunny and buzzing – plenty to see and taste here. I needed to get to Karlshorst in the afternoon and took the M2 tram back down to Alexanderplatz and then the S-Bahn out towards Ostkreuz and on to Karlshorst. This whole area of East Berlin is undergoing quite a facelift. The stations along the line are all gradually being renovated and modernised and there is a lot of new development.


Ostkreuz – the biggest East Berlin railway junction

Karlshorst itself is a garden suburb best known for the building where the unconditional surrender of the German Army took place on 8 May 1945. It now houses the German-Russian Museum (see Cool Collections in Berlin Unwrapped for all details) and is well worth a visit. It reopened in 2013 after an extended renovation which also included translating the exhibition into English. If you decide to go there some time, don’t miss Café Paulines, the social hub of Karlhorst. It’s a lovely building with local history and excellent cakes, salads and soups.


Café Paulines, Karlhorst

Saturday night at the movies had to be at the Friedrichstadtpalast, the showiest of all the Berlinale venues. The late evening film here was a Berlinale Special Gala showing of ‘Life’ – but sadly no red carpet appearances. To catch the stars and get the real buzz of the competition you have to arrive in Berlin for the start of the film festival.


Friedrichstadt-Palast – the biggest show palace in Europe

It was back to West Berlin on Sunday morning to the Café Bleibtreu in Charlottenburg for one of their great- value buffet brunches. You don’t need to eat anything for the rest of the day.

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Sunday Brunch at Café Bleibtreu

From there it was a short walk to the Zoo Palast, the cinema which hosted the very first Berlinale in 1951. We managed to get two tickets for ‘Die Widerständigen’, a German documentary about students involved in the ‘White Rose’ resistance movement. This time we had a live introduction, given in shaky English (by a German) to a cinema audience mainly consisting of locals!

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For our final Berlinale fling it had to be Potsdamer Platz – the big meeting place for the festival. There were still some tickets to be had, but not for anything we wanted to see. Long queues snaked around Marlene Dietrich Platz where the red carpets and the Audi lounge had been set up and giant television screens were beaming out the presentation ceremonies from the previous evening. It was a party atmosphere, despite the wintry temperatures. The illuminations sparkled in the darkness and the cafes and bars were all full. But it was too cold to stay outside for long and Billy Wilders bar beckoned from across the street. Next year’s resolution: spend a whole week at the Berlinale, book more tickets online and see some red carpet action.

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Mixing the cocktails at Billy Wilders


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