‘It would be nice to see more of Berlin than Potsdamer Platz and fucking Vapiano.’
So said a member of the press and publicity posses attached to most films at the Berlinale. I was sitting with a pair of them at a small table at the back of the Gropius Mirror Restaurant, waiting for the director’s Q&A session to begin. These two had given up their own tickets to unplanned special guests, so they were not taking part in the meal. We had a few drinks and talked loosely. They mentioned arrangements for the morning, cars to organise, timing. They had been surprised by the amount of interest around their client – they had never heard of him beforehand. As 1 a.m. approached, the Q&A, scheduled for 10:30 p.m., still hadn’t started.
One of the ever-attentive programme coordinators approached our table and excused herself for interrupting: ‘Are you David?’ Yes. She introduced herself with the name I had hitherto only known as the first half of an official @culinarycinema email address (the one fielding my many requests for press tickets, interviews and information throughout the week). She said she had seen me there on other nights, and at several screenings, so she thought it must have been me. She must have taken pity on us for waiting, for she said something in the ear of a waitress and three plates of dessert were brought to us.
Michael Pollan emerged as the closest thing to a celebrity around the Culinary Cinema programme. Kind of the George Clooney of the culinary section. Kind of. Maybe it’s because he’s so distinctive – tall, a head so bald it shines, and a nearly constant smile stretched so far across his face it looks strenuous. I had been at his 5pm ‘Teatime Talk’ earlier, but I had missed the book signing afterwards because I stupidly thought I had time to run and pick up the disposable-camera photos for this diary, then make it back before the long line in front of Pollan’s signing table had subsided. Of course I didn’t. This short-sighted idea also made me miss the screening of Pollan’s Cooked at 7pm, as I made it to IMAX at about 7:12pm but they could not allow late entry. Not the most successful evening.
My frustration was compounded by the realisation that it seems impossible to get out of that IMAX if you don’t actually enter the cinema. There was an up escalator, the one I had taken, but no down one. Nor any stairs. I politely asked the staff if I was being stupid, or if there really was no way down. They explained that I would have to go over there, past the snack counter, behind that tiny red velvet rope blocking off nothing in particular, to the elevator. I did, making it past the rope just as the elevator doors were closing, though somebody inside must have seen me because the doors opened again. Thanks, I said, and shuffled in, a bit puffed. It was Michael Pollan who had held the elevator, probably fresh from his pre-film introduction.
We had exchanged the statutory nod and smiles and were standing in polite silence, adhering to unwritten rules of elevator etiquette. But I broke protocol by saying, not so eloquently, that I had just missed his book signing after the talk (because I ‘had’ to get some photos developed) and asked whether he would mind signing my copies of Cooked and In Defense of Food. Of course not, but quickly. He asked if I was going to the screening and I said something unconvincing like ‘I couldn’t get in’ or ‘I’ve already seen it.’ He nodded, a little confused, then he handed the books back to me just as the elevator opened, with a smile and the instructions to ‘Cook!’ and ‘Eat food!’ inscribed in them.
During the week I managed to go to seven or eight films, landed some great interviews, and I even enjoyed several dishes prepared by star chefs. So in the end it was a surprise that having lunch with a group of high school students was probably the highlight of my week.
The Youth Food Cinema day started with the screening of a new film detailing the perils of the ‘Western Diet,’ industrially produced ‘edible food-like substances’ and the alarming spike in rates of type-2 diabetes and obesity in children. Appropriately, the audience was a group of 10th- and 11th-grade students from Berlin’s John F. Kennedy School.
After the film, the group crossed the street to the Gropius Mirror Restaurant to eat a lunch prepared by acclaimed chef Alexander Dressel (of Friedrich Wilhelm restaurant in Potsdam). Not quite sure of protocol for tag-along journalists, I took a seat at a table three-quarters filled with tenth-grade girls. They shyly smiled and insisted I was welcome.
During a casual, open-floor discussion hosted by Culinary Cinema programme director Thomas Struck, the students were invited to talk about food. They were asked about lunches. The first hand that shot up was attached to a girl clearly used to being the first to speak, keen to impress: ‘I usually bring something I’ve made at home. Like bread, salad, lots of fruit. And vegetables.’
The next girl was more honest: ‘There is a Lidl next to our school. Most people who get lunch from outside school go there. And for snacks, too.’
Added a tall, man-ish boy from another table: ‘or a döner.’
The girl beside me spoke quickly, telling me how smoothies are not as good for you as you might think. She devoured her meal and dessert in a few minutes. The girl opposite me was abstaining for Lent, so she begrudgingly offered up her exquisite dessert to anybody still hungry. She said she usually just gives up eating sweets, but this year she was mixing it up: giving up sweets for a few weeks, then social media, and then television, ‘which is going to be the hardest,’ she says. ‘Because it’s just me and my mom at home, and we don’t really sit down to eat together, usually just in front of TV. So it’ll be weird.’
Another girl had yet to touch her dessert bowl; mine had been scraped clean. She was on a diet, she said. I happily took it off her hands. Driven by gluttony and selfishness, I withheld from divulging that as you get older you come to realise that free lunches actually are rare. Not to mention free lunches from Michelin-starred chefs.
A third girl – out of seven at the table – also didn’t acknowledge the presence of her dessert. In fact her main course was still almost entirely in tact, just one ravioli cut in half, with one half of that half still on the fork, some halfhearted bite marks on it. I asked why she wasn’t eating – Lent, or diet, perhaps? No. Because they had been given the day off school and would have the afternoon free in the city, she had already been looking forward to being able to get some fast food. A burger, she thought, probably a chicken burger and fries. She had been excited about it all day, and she didn’t want to ruin her appetite.
By the end of the week the Berlinale seemed to me like a beast far too big for anybody to get a feel for, or experience anything other than little slices of. The handful of glamorous, star-studded events seen on TV cannot even be called the stalk on the cherry on top. Even the thousand-or-so film screenings are just the cherry atop a cake that takes a lot of effort to bake. I got a glimpse of the hundreds of decisions and hours of work behind every choreographed aspect of the festival – from ensuring refrigeration for the street food stalls, to translating press conferences, to queuing at ticket booths from 6 a.m. to be near the front when they open at 10, to engineering Channing Tatum’s stop-start, round-the-block ride from the hotel to the red carpet. I never before contemplated how much is behind it all. But the most lasting impression I have come away with is a realisation that I must have reached an age where I can say, with complete conviction after my Youth Food Cinema lunch: I really don’t get kids these days.