The ghost director: the Berlin Film Festival is missing Roman Polanski

One of the hottest tickets at the Berlin Film Festival is the premiere of Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer. Ironically, the veteran filmmaker is under house arrest in Switzerland.

The ice is still packed hard on the pavements of Berlin as Europe's largest film festival rolls out its red carpet today. Over the next 10 days, the German capital will stage dozens of glitzy world premieres as Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, Ewan McGregor, Shah Rukh Khan, Jessica Alba, Gérard Depardieu, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore and hundreds more filmmakers from all over the globe fly in to celebrate the 60th Berlinale in snowy, subzero style.

Already one of the most hotly debated premieres at the Berlinale is Roman Polanski's new thriller, The Ghost Writer. It stars McGregor as a hack biographer hired by Pierce Brosnan's former British prime minister, a suave but secretive Tony Blair type struggling to finish his memoirs in US exile while facing possible extradition back to Europe on war crimes charges. This timely theme was given an unexpected publicity boost last week when the real Blair made his defiant appearance at the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war in London.

The film was adapted by the best-selling author Robert Harris from his own 2007 novel. Harris is a former political journalist and one-time passionate Blair fan who fell out bitterly with the former British leader, mainly over his support for US and Israeli military action. There is a real danger that The Ghost Writer will be overshadowed by its own offstage drama in Berlin, where Polanski will, of course, be conspicuous by his absence. In an ironic echo of his film, the 76-year-old Franco-Polish director is currently under house arrest in Switzerland fighting extradition to the US over an unresolved sex case dating back 32 years.

Harris, Scorsese and Dieter Kosslick, the festival's director, have all lobbied publicly for Polanski's release. They join a celebrity throng including Woody Allen, Whoopi Goldberg, Tilda Swinton, Chris Rock, Pedro Almodóvar and Monica Bellucci. Even the victim in the case, Samantha Geimer, publicly forgave the veteran director after he came to a private financial settlement with her in 1993.

However, after decades of apparent uninterest, it seems the California justice system has finally decided to go after Polanski with a vengeance. "Of course what happened cannot be excused, either legally or ethically," Harris argued in The New York Times soon after the director's arrest last year. "But Ms Geimer wants it dropped, to shield her family from distress, and Mr Polanski's own young children, to whom he is a doting father, want him home. He is no threat to the public."

Ironically, the veteran director's sleazy reputation has undergone a marked improvement in recent years, following his triumphant 2002 Oscar-winner The Pianist, which reminded the world of his own traumatic childhood as a Holocaust survivor whose mother died in Auschwitz. The Ghost Writer needs to be sensational - in the best sense - if it is to have a similarly positive effect on his public image. After all, if fate goes against him, this could conceivably prove to be Polanski's final film.

The other big world premiere promising A-list glamour in Berlin is Scorsese's Shutter Island, a period thriller starring DiCaprio as a detective searching for a killer in a remote island asylum. Ominously, the film's release has been delayed for months, which generally spells trouble. But early reports suggest Scorsese's fourth collaboration with DiCaprio, their first since the boisterous Oscar-winner The Departed, is a highly atmospheric and polished thrill ride. Fingers crossed.

Bigger than Cannes, Venice or Sundance in admissions terms, Berlin has grown almost without fanfare into a major commercial operation. Boasting a budget of ?16 million (Dh80m), it includes a busy sales market and prestigious corporate sponsors including BMW. A decade ago, the festival moved east to its new permanent home in the hi-tech citadel of hotels, skyscrapers and shopping malls huddled around the former route of the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz.

Last year it attracted almost 4,000 journalists and 15,000 film professionals from around the world, as well as selling 274,000 screening tickets to the public. But for all its slick presentation and commercial glitz, the Berlinale still retains a dash of anti-establishment attitude in a city famed for its political radicalism and rowdy public demonstrations. Which perhaps makes Berlin the ideal platform for the subversive British "street artist" known as Banksy to stage the European premiere of his directing debut, a documentary on graffiti called Exit Through the Gift Shop. But nobody seems clear whether the famously elusive, secretive, media-shy Banksy will turn up at the festival himself.

More than any other major European film festival, Berlin has always highlighted serious-minded cinema with a political edge. In past years the jury has awarded its biggest prize, the Golden Bear, to gritty true stories and spiky topical dramas including In the Name of the Father, Bloody Sunday, Gegen die Wand and In this World. So it is hardly surprising that the war in Iraq, terrorism and global culture-clash themes continue to inform the festival programme from top to bottom. The Ghost Writer is haunted by the war on terror, just as the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan's role in Karan Johar's My Name Is Khan shows him as a Muslim immigrant facing prejudice in America in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The film had its world premiere in Abu Dhabi last night. Imagenation Abu Dhabi is in partnership with Fox Star Studios to distribute the film worldwide.

Screening in the festival's Forum section, The Oath is an intriguing documentary by Laura Poitras about two former al Qa'eda members and servants of Osama bin Laden, Abu Jindal and Salim Hamdan. Meanwhile, Nicolas Wadimoff's Aisheen (Still Alive in Gaza) looks at life in the Gaza Strip just weeks after the Israeli attacks a year ago, and Nader Davoodi's Red, White & the Green offers an insider's account of last year's election protests in Iran.

The UAE will also be represented in the main festival programme. Son of Babylon, a thoughtful drama by the UK-based Iraqi director Mohamed al Daradji, was completed with the help of a post-production grant from the Middle East International Film Festival and had its world premiere at the Abu Dhabi event last October. Pyramedia, which is based in the UAE, was also part of the international co-production team.

The film is about a grandmother travelling the length of Iraq with her young grandson just weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The woman is looking for traces of her missing son, the boy's father, who disappeared during the first Gulf war 12 years earlier. Fresh from earning acclaim at the Sundance festival in Utah, Son of Babylon is a moving piece of docudrama realism. Shot in Iraq, the story was inspired by several tragic true cases, including that of the director's aunt. The film's non-professional star, Shezan Hussen, is a Kurd, and was the only woman to testify during Saddam's trial for war crimes.

The film's gala screening in Berlin tomorrow will also be the launch pad for Iraq's Missing, a charity campaign designed to encourage governments and the media to support the unearthing and DNA identification of the thousands of mass graves left behind by Saddam's regime. Iraq's culture and human rights ministers will attend the premiere. "It's an important step for me personally," the director Mohamed al Daradji says, "but it's also an important step for Iraqi cinema because we've never been in Berlin before - this is the first Iraqi film in Berlin. Iraqi cinema started in 1947 but we've never been in a major film festival. That's great for me and all the co-producers with my country: UK, France, United Arab Emirates, Holland, Egypt and Palestine."

Although Oscar voters and big Hollywood studios have fallen out of love with American indie movies in recent years, they remain a staple of film festivals. The Berlinale is certainly playing host to several offbeat American directors with strong pedigrees. Showing in the main competition are Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, in which Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt play a couple wrestling with the ethics of their materialistic lifestyle, and Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller as a troubled New Yorker who moves to LA. Advance word on both films is positive.

With its low rents, graffiti-covered buildings and grungy street style, Berlin sometimes likes to portray itself as Europe's answer to New York in its arty, punky, glory days. Intriguingly, there is a sprinkling of nostalgic films about Manhattan's bohemian heyday at the festival. Howl, by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, dramatises the obscenity trial that followed publication in the 1950s of the beat poet Allen Ginsberg's most famous poem.

Meanwhile, in the festival's Panorama documentary section, James Rasin's Beautiful Darling promises a candid portrait of Andy Warhol's scandalous muse and self-styled "superstar" Candy Darling. And Celine Danhier's Blank City revisits Manhattan's underground music, cinema and art scene in the late 1970s. Of course, with more than 400 films screening in just 10 days, not to mention parties, press conferences and countless other distractions, anyone attending the Berlinale will only ever get to see the tip of the iceberg. And judging by the weather in Berlin this week, that feels like a pretty large iceberg.

Sign up to:

* Please select one