Berlinale honors Steven Spielberg for lifetime achievement

23 Feb

The 2023 Berlinale film festival paid tribute to Steven Spielberg with the Honorary Golden Bear, an award recognizing his lifetime achievement.  


The Hollywood director's filmmaking career has spanned more than half a century and includes hits such as "Jaws," the Indiana Jones trilogy and, more recently, a cinema version of the classic American musical "West Side Story."

A lifetime achievement award "sends you back to the past, whether you want to go there or not. It makes you very reflective," Spielberg said at a press conference on Tuesday, ahead of the award ceremony. "To be honored in Berlin, which is one of the most august festivals in history, is a tremendous high point in my life," he added.

His most recent film, the semi-autobiographical drama "The Fabelmans," will also be screened at the ceremony on February 21, and a retrospective of other landmark works such as "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" is also part of the festival's program.

"The Fabelmans," which is up for seven Oscars, including best picture, is Spielberg's most personal work to date. The filmmaker knew that he would one day deal with the story of his parents' divorce and how it affected his early life, but he admitted that it took time before it felt like the right moment to do so. As he recalled at the Berlin press conference, before his mother passed away — exactly six years ago — she would always say: "When are you going to tell our story? I've given you so much material! 

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It was during the early stages of the COVID pandemic that Spielberg finally "started thinking about mortality and aging," which added to the urgency of tackling "The Fabelmans." He described it as his emotionally most difficult work since "Schindler's List." "In a way, the fear I felt about the pandemic gave me the courage to tell my personal story," he said.

Spielberg's big-screen life story

Born on December 18, 1946, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Steven Allan Spielberg moved several times while growing up, spending part of his youth in Arizona and most of his working life in the mecca of moviemaking, California. 

Given his Orthodox Jewish heritage, he grew up listening to stories of how some of his ancestors had perished in the Holocaust. A victim of antisemitic attacks at school, the bullying made him "feel ashamed of being Jewish," he later admitted. Decades later, his catharsis came in directing the harrowing Holocaust film "Schindler's List," which would earn him his first Academy Award for best director. 

Joining the Boy Scouts at the age of 12, and wanting to obtain a photography merit badge, Spielberg used his father's 8 mm movie camera and submitted a 9-minute film titled "The Last Gunfight." From that point onwards, there was no stopping the amateur filmmaker, who has cited 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia" as "the film that set me on my journey."

That journey began with him becoming one of the youngest television directors for Universal in the late 1960s, with his first made-for-TV film, "Duel" (1971), receiving generally positive reviews. In 1974, Spielberg made his debut with a theatrical film, "The Sugarland Express," based on a true story about a married couple on the run that is desperate to regain custody of their baby from state-mandated foster parents.

It would also mark the start of a decades-long collaboration with prolific composer John Williams, who has composed the scores for practically all of Spielberg's films.

Evoking various emotions

A mechanical shark that sometimes failed to function would seal his reputation as a filmmaker who could draw the crowds and rake in the dollars — breaking box office records at the time. "Jaws" (1975) is now considered the first-ever summer blockbuster. The sight of that dorsal fin swiftly slicing through the waters accompanied by Williams' ominous two-note "shark theme," signaling impending danger, remains spine-tingling to this day.

There was no stopping Spielberg thereafter. His films — often featuring children or adults from fractured middle-class families or ordinary people doing extraordinary things — evoke a gamut of emotions.

He stoked our primal fears with "Jaws" and "War of the Worlds" (2005); brought out our inner child through "E.T." (1982) and "The Adventures of Tintin" (2011); made us consider worlds beyond our own in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977); kept us riveted by the derring-do of his famed archaeologist Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981); and rooting for journalists unearthing uncomfortable truths in "The Post" (2017). We watched agog as long-extinct predators were resurrected and roamed the earth again in " Jurassic Park" (1993), and in horror at the violence of war in "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), which earned him his second Academy Award for best director.

And most recently, he offered a fictionalized version of his youth and first years as a filmmaker in "The Fabelmans" (2022).

One of Hollywood's top producers

These are but a selection of the films he has directed. The mind boggles at everything else he's produced or written, giving the impression he's covered every genre in the filmmaking book. Through his production house Amblin Entertainment, which he founded in 1981, he produced hits like "Gremlins," the "Back to the Future" trilogy, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," the "Men in Black" series or "Flags of Our Fathers."

Then with Dreamworks SKG, which he formed in 1994 with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, we were treated to groundbreaking animated films such as "Antz" (1998) and the wildly successful "Shrek" franchise. They sold their company to Viacom in 2005 for $1.6 billion.

A fifth Indiana Jones film, "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny," is slated to be released in June 2023. It is, however, the first film in the series that wasn't directed by Spielberg, who served as an executive producer on the project alongside George Lucas. Spielberg has also entered the realm of streaming services; in June 2021, his company Amblin Partners signed a deal with Netflix to produce multiple films a year for the streaming giant.

All options open, except retirement

What will be his next project as a filmmaker? "I don't know what I'm going to do next. I have no idea," admitted Spielberg at the press conference in Berlin, explaining that after having dedicated so much energy directing "West Side Story" and "The Fabelmans" back-to-back, he is now searching for his next film idea.

"And it's kind of a nice feeling, and it's also a horrible feeling," he said of the open future ahead, while adding that he was happy to have time to "actually have control" of his life again. But that doesn't mean the 76-year-old director is planning to retire. As he said, he is definitely going to come up with the next project over the course of the year: "I need to work, and I love to work."


Author - Brenda Haas

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier and Cristina Burack

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Grenier

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