Spielberg feted at Berlinale — where he’s never won

Director Steven Spielberg’s films have never won a prize at the Berlinale, but on Tuesday he was like one of the awe-struck characters in his movies as he became this year’s recipient of the festival’s Honorary Golden Bear award for lifetime achievement.

“Right now I’m very happy, I must have done a couple of things right,” Spielberg, 76, in a light-hearted mood, said at a news conference before the gala event. “To be honoured in Berlin, which is one of the most august festivals in history, is a tremendous high point in my life.”

With hit films starting in 1974 with “Jaws”, followed by “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, the original Indiana Jones trilogy and the first Jurassic Park movies, Spielberg is often ranked as the most commercially successful director of all times.

It is not the kind of fare the art-house focused Berlinale usually awards top prizes to, but this year the festival programmed a retrospective of many of Spielberg’s most popular films, and for the gala it is showing his latest, and semi-autobiographical film, “The Fabelmans”.

Spielberg said a consequence of getting a lifetime achievement award was that it had made him reflect on his career. But that process, which resulted in him filming “The Fabelmans” was more directly sparked by the Covid epidemic.

“The fear I felt about the pandemic gave me the courage to tell my personal story,” he said.

Spielberg said his mother, who died six years ago on the day of the gala, had been bugging him for years to make a film based on his family.

“She would always say, ‘When are you going to tell our story?…I’ve given you so much good material, when are you going to use that material?’”

The story he tells in “The Fabelmans” very closely aligns with what happened in Spielberg’s own childhood, including a move from New Jersey to Phoenix, Arizona, where the Spielbergs would be the only Jews in the neighbourhood, being bullied in school, and the eventual divorce of his artistic, classical-piano-playing mother from his engineer father.

But he said the scene in the movie that is closest to reality is the one in which the aspiring young filmmaker Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), who is Spielberg’s alter-ego, gets a spur-of-the-moment meeting at a film studio with the legendary director John Ford, played by David Lynch.

In the movie, Ford tells Fabelman that the most important thing is the proper placement of the horizon in the frame — after which he tells Fabelman to get the fuck out.

Asked to say what advice he gives young filmmakers, Spielberg said, “Well, I’m not going to say get the fuck out of my office. That’s a big difference between me and John Ford but every other difference stops after that.”

“I think that may be the most accurate scene in the movie,” he added. “I was really scared by what he’d said and embarrassed by what he’d said and ashamed by what he’d said and 20 years later I realised what he had actually done was given me a tremendous gift….I was like 16 years old…. but that advice he gave me about the horizon was a gift.

“He might have done it in a really gruff way, like a really tough headmaster of an all-boys school, but it was something I’ve always been grateful for.”

Spielberg revealed that he is filming a seven-part HBO series about Napoleon based on a script by the late director Stanley Kubrick, who died in 1999.

By Michael Roddy

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