Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy Delivers Impassioned Speech At Berlin Opening Night; Sean Penn Says Will Of The People Is “Just Getting Stronger”

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered an empowered live video message to attendees of the opening night of the 73rd edition of the Berlin International Film Festival, urging filmmakers and culture “not to remain silent” when it comes to global politics as his country approaches a year since the Russian invasion.

Zelenskyy, who has made video appearances at prominent film festivals like Cannes and Venice, received a standing ovation from delegates such as Anne Hathaway, Peter Dinklage, Sean Penn and Berlinale Jury President Kristen Stewart, when he appeared on screen at the Berlinale Palast on Thursday night. 

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The Ukraine President drew attention to the power cinema can have in times of political turmoil, citing Wim Wenders’ 1987 Wings of Desire as a project that “broke the Berlin Wall two years before its actual fall in the outstanding film that came in Berlin where the divided city is united by angels flying freely over the wall.”

He noted that while the city of Berlin once had “a wall and emptiness…now life is booming and the heart of the Berlinale beats.” He pointed out that the Potsdamer Platz, the hub of the Berlin Festival, once “divided the free world and the totalitarian.” 

“It is not only about state borders on the map,” he continued. “The wall divided different world views and different philosophies.”

“Today, Russia wants to build the same wall in Ukraine – the wall between us and Europe to separate Ukraine from its own choice and its own future, a wall between freedom and slavery.” 

The local reference resonated strongly with the local audience and the international film community alike, with not a dry eye in the house. Penn, who is in town with his feature documentary Superpower, looked on admirably from stage where he had introduced the Ukraine President. 

The actor-director’s documentary, which is screening as part of the Berlinale Specials program, chronicles Zelenskyy and the efforts on the ground in Ukraine at the beginning of Russia’s invasion nearly a year ago. 

Penn said Superpower was “originally the whimsical tale of a comic actor-turned-President” which “wrote itself into something very different.” Having spent much time in Ukraine and initially beginning filming on February 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, one thing Penn noted was that in the last year, “nothing has changed in terms of the will that the Ukrainian people have, that’s for sure – if anything, it’s just gotten stronger.” 

“Can art be outside of politics? Should cinema be out of politics? This is in an eternal question but today it is extremely relevant,” said Zelenskyy, adding that “cinema causes change.”

Politics and culture have long been intertwined at the Berlinale and this year is no exception with the opening ceremony offering up a big dose of political statements and celebrity glamour. German political figures such as Berlin’s mayor Franziska Giffey and Culture Commissioner Claudia Roth were in attendance, with the latter expressing Germany’s solidarity with the women in Iran and Afghanistan. 

“We stand beside you and with those men who support you and who support you in your struggle for freedom and liberty,” she said. “We stand with those women who want their lives back – a free, self-determined life, not a situation and existence that is controlled and subjugated by the morality police.” 

The festival kicks off tonight with the world premiere of U.S. title She Came to Me from director and screenwriter Rebecca Miller. The romantic comedy stars Dinklage, Tomei, Joanna Kulig, Brian d’Arcy James and Hathaway. The film sees composer Steven Lauddem (Dinklage), who is creatively blocked and unable to finish the score for his big comeback opera. At the behest of his wife (Hathaway), formerly his therapist, he sets out in search of inspiration. 

Before the ceremony, members of student climate activist group The Last Generation glued themselves to the red carpet but didn’t interrupt those in attendance.

The Berlin Film Festival runs February 16-26. 

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