Berlin Is Waiting for Clooney

The 56th annual Berlin Film Festival kicks off tonight, and while Berlin has its red carpet ready, there are still worries about whether Hollywood celebrities will show up or cancel at the last moment.

But even if they do, there is likely to be something interesting for everyone. There are 360 movies from 56 countries being shown at cinemas across the city of Berlin.

The Berlinale, as the festival is called, is one of the Top 3 European film festivals alongside Cannes and Venice, but unlike Cannes, it allows the public into the festival screenings. About 120,000 tickets were sold last year.

"Snow Cake," a British-Canadian co-production starring Sigourney Weaver as an autistic woman, opens the festival, and Weaver is expected to show up on the red carpet with her co-star, Alan Rickman.

The festival's highlight is going to be the announcement of the awards: golden and silver bear statuettes weighing about 8 pounds each for the winners among the 19 movies competing, 17 of them world premieres. The bear is the symbol of the city of Berlin.

"Syriana," a thriller about the state of the oil industry with George Clooney playing a CIA agent, is a strong contender in the competition at the 10-day Berlinale. Clooney is coming to Berlin, along with a sprinkling of Hollywood stars, including Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman.

British director Michael Winterbottom's film, "The Road to Guantanamo," which tells the story of three Britons captured in Afghanistan and detained there for two years, also is expected to do well. The Tipton Three, as the film's characters are named, accuse U.S. soldiers of abusing them physically and mentally while they were being held. Tipton is the name of their hometown in England.

Winterbottom's "In This World" won Berlinale's top award, the golden bear, in 2003.

The festival will also be showing a rather unusual movie, which has become an unexpected hit in European cinemas. "Into Great Silence" is a three-hour documentary about the everyday life of a silent order of monks living in a monastery in the French Alps. The documentary, shot by a young filmmaker who was allowed to live with the monks for six months, contains virtually no dialogue.

The international film festival is expected to present a true revival in German filmmaking, There will be 55 German movies this year, more than ever before.

"Sophie Scholl, The Final Days" -- nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film -- is expected to be very interesting. The film is about a student who resists the Nazis. It is likely to become as successful as "Downfall," the film about Adolf Hitler's last days.

One intriguing film shown at the Berlinale will be a thriller about the Stasi, East Germany's secret police, called "The Life of Others." It is about a secret Stasi agent, ordered to spy on a couple of artists in Communist East Berlin, who loses faith in the system and respect for himself the longer he eavesdrops on them. Not exactly a breathtaking topic, but a familiar one from the past that virtually all Berliners know too well.

Two bear winners have already been announced, even before the festival opens its doors.

British actor Ian McKellen, who played Gandalf in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and Polish film director Andrzej Wajda will receive lifetime achievement awards in the form of honorary golden bears.

A record 18,000 people from the movie industry, about 3,800 journalists, and 520 young filmmakers are expected to attend the Berlinale. And then, of course, there will be a handful of Hollywood celebrities to give the festival the icing on the cake.