BERLIN - The world premiere of Wes Anderson's keenly awaited caper "The Grand Budapest Hotel" will open the 64th Berlin film festival Thursday as it joins the race for the Golden Bear top prize.
The high-profile opening movie with an all-star cast led by British actor Ralph Fiennes marks a coup for the Berlinale, Europe's first major cinema showcase of the year.
The 11-day festival will screen more than 400 productions from around the world before a jury led by US producer James Schamus ("Brokeback Mountain") hands out the main awards among 20 contenders.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is Anderson's eighth feature and follows his bittersweet first-love story "Moonrise Kingdom", which launched the Cannes film festival in 2012 to become a critical and box office hit.
It will be the third time in the Berlinale competition for Anderson, who has striven to maintain quirky indie sensibilities while filming with ever growing budgets, following "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and "The Royal Tenenbaums".
Anderson has lined up another stellar ensemble cast including Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Lea Seydoux, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton along with Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric and Owen Wilson to light up Berlin's red carpet.
Online buzz from industry types given a sneak preview of "Grand Budapest" indicated that the picture is one of the strongest by Anderson, a three-time Oscar nominee.
The Texas-born director, 44, said he took inspiration from film classics by Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder while tracking the escapades of an early 20th-century concierge of the old school, Gustave H, against the backdrop of a continent in turmoil.
"When the adventures of the main character begin, I decided to take some orientation from German and Austrian directors who emigrated to Hollywood in the '30s," he told Berlin magazine Tip ahead of the festival.
A lost world
The story revolves around the theft of a priceless Renaissance painting and the battle for an enormous family fortune left by dowager countess Madame D, played by Swinton who in a film trailer is seen aged with makeup beyond recognition.
Fiennes, who reportedly took the lead role when Johnny Depp bowed out, appears as Gustave, who is accused of Madame D's murder by her scheming son (Brody).
Murray, who has appeared in all of Anderson's feature films apart from his debut, plays a member of a secret order of concierges which comes to Gustave's rescue.
Although set in an imaginary Central European country called Zubrowka, the action in "Grand Budapest" traces a familiarly tragic historical arc from the Belle Epoque to fascism and then communist dictatorship.
Festival director Dieter Kosslick told reporters last week that apart from being a major new work from a popular director, the movie was the right choice in a year in which Europe marks the 100th anniversary of World War I as well as 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell.
"There is a lot of German history in this movie, and that goes for many of the films to be shown here, regardless of where they are from," he said.
Murray also stars in George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" about an elite unit of Allied soldiers fighting to rescue precious artworks from the Nazis, which will screen Saturday out of competition at the Berlinale.
Both pictures were shot in Germany with themes that resonate deeply in the country, Kosslick noted, pointing to the recent discovery of hundreds of priceless artworks stashed in a Munich flat, many of them believed to have been looted by the Germans during World War II.
Schamus, joined on the jury by two-time Oscar-winning Austrian actor Christoph Waltz and "James Bond" co-producer Barbara Broccoli among others, said that despite the panel's divergent backgrounds, movies pulled it together like a family.
"A family is a space where you get to really profoundly, at the molecular level, disagree with everybody you're having food with and wake up the next morning and still be in love," he told the opening news conference.
"And I do think that's the joy of festival juries when they work. And even when they don't work that well, just like families, you still have those bonds."
Following the sudden death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, organisers said the festival would screen "Capote", in which the 46-year-old starred, as a tribute. "He'll be here," Schamus said.
"It's places like Berlin that you have the opportunity in a sense to remember and to mourn and to celebrate."