Steven Spielberg was presented with the Berlin Film Festival’s Honorary Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement by U2 frontman Bono, who made a surprise appearance at the rousing special ceremony on Tuesday evening.
The director, whose 1994 Oscar winner Schindler’s List is one of the defining cinematic explorations of the Holocaust, emphasized the significance of a Jewish director like him receiving such an award in the German capital of Berlin.
“The honor has particular meaning for me because I’m a Jewish director. I like to believe that this is a small moment and a much larger, ongoing effort of healing the broken places of history, what Jews called Tikkun Olam, the repairing and restoring of the world,” he said.
“The German people have shown themselves willing to read their country’s history, to confront its lessons regarding antisemitism, bigotry, and xenophobia, harbingers of the Holocaust,” he continued. “Other countries, including my own, can learn a lot from the courageous determination of the German people to act to prevent fascists from seizing power
Read and watch further extracts from his speech here.
On a lighter note, Spielberg said he was not sure if he were ready for a Lifetime Achievement award.
“I feel a little alarmed to be told I’ve lived a lifetime because I’m not finished. I want to keep working. I want to keep learning and discovering and scaring the shit out of myself and sometimes the shit out of you,” Spielberg said on receiving the award.
“I gotta get back to some of those earlier scary movies but that’s another story for later on. As long as there’s joy in it for me and as long as my audience can find joy and other human values in my films, I’m reluctant to ever say that’s a wrap.”
“I’ve been directing a long time, six decades, but it feels to me like I directed Duel and Jaws last year,” he said referring to his 1972 debut feature and 1975 blockbuster Jaws.
“At 76, I know a lot more about moviemaking than I did when I was 25 and directed my first feature. But the anxieties, the uncertainties and the fears that tormented me as I began shooting Duel have stayed vivid for 50 years as if no time has passed.”
In a thoughtful, tribute speech, Bono name-checked many of Spielberg’s award-winning titles but highlighted his 1974 crime drama Sugarland Express as a film that had a special place in his cinema-going memory.
“Tonight you’re giving the Golden Bear to Steven Spielberg for the right reasons. But his lifetime achievement is not just his work. It is his actual life, his actual family. What a great honor to welcome to the stage the vision that is Steven Spielberg,” said the rock star who was in Berlin for the premiere of Siege of Sarajevo documentary Kiss The Future.
Spielberg was greeted by crowds on the red carpet and then a long ovation as he entered the main auditorium, accompanied by wife Kate Capshaw.
Prior to entering the auditorium, Spielberg was asked to sign an official Berlinale portrait.
“How come I look like George Lucas,” he quipped on seeing the photo.
The presentation of the award was followed by a Berlinale Special gala screening of his latest film The Fabelmans.
Past recipients of the honorary Berlinale Golden Lion include Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Stone, Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve, Kim Novak, Shirley MacLaine, Kirk Douglas, Robert Altman, Jack Lemmon and Meryl Streep.
Earlier in the day, journalists queued around the block an hour in advance for a place in the pre-ceremony press conference, which was one of the buzziest of the entire festival.
Spielberg appeared unfazed by the clamor and engaged warmly with the journalists, even suggesting the question time be extended.
Many of those in the room appeared to be fans who had grown up with the director’s hits.
Spielberg revealed a connection with a German journalist who recalled how he had sneaked out of his home as a child in his pajamas and secretly tailed his parents to a cinema where they had gone to watch E.T. without him.
The director said he had a similar experience as a nine-year-old after his parents left him behind when they went to see John Ford’s The Searchers at their local cinema in Haddon Heights, New Jersey.
“They said it was too violent. They came back and they wouldn’t stop talking about it. I went into the heavy change vase, and took out two quarters. I walked a mile and a half, like you, and I saw The Searchers unaccompanied.”
The director spoke at length about the genesis of the semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans ahead of the gala screening.
He said the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020 had given him the time to reflect on the story and write the screenplay with long-time collaborator Tony Kushner.
“We weren’t going anywhere. All I could really do was be with my grown kids… my wife and my dog. That gave me the time to breathe… and to determine if there was one movie I haven’t made yet that I would now have the time to make,” he said.
“I’ve always wanted to tell the story of my mother, my father and my sisters, and this kind of amazing struggle between art and family. It has been on my mind all my life and it’s come out in all my films. I mean, all my films really are personal, and many of them are about family. But nothing that is so specific to my own experiences as The Fabelmans.
He noted that the disintegration of his parents’ marriage captured in The Fabelmans had made it into many of his other films.
“When something rings a bell, often the subconscious bell that’s being rung are traumatic things that have happened when we’re young people,” he said.
“All of that comes out… Obviously, as a child I was very traumatized by the breakup of my family, and I’d be attracted to subjects like Empire Of The Sun [in which] a war separates a boy from his parents and he spends the entire time in a Japanese internment camp in China,” he said.
“I’m sure had my parents not gotten a divorce. I would not have chosen Empire Of The Sun as a film to direct. All of that is part of what motivates all of us to make those key decisions about commitment. When I commit to a movie I’m committing to something, in a sense, for the rest of my life.”
The festival has also been screening a selection of Spielberg’s previous films including the 1972 first feature Duel, Jaws (1975), Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), Schindler’s List (1993), Munich (2005), Berlin-set Cold War thriller Bridge Of Spies, which he shot in the city’s Studio Babelsberg in 2014.
Spielberg said it was impossible for him to choose a favorite film out of his filmography.
“I know it’s a bit cliché to say this. It’s not very newsworthy, but my films are like my children. I do not have a favorite,” he said.
“At the same time, I can tell you that the hardest film I ever made was Jaws. That was the hardest film I ever made physically. The most emotional movie I ever made for a long time was Schindler’s List. But now the most emotional film I was ever involved in was The Fabelmans.
“It was very difficult for me because I was telling a story with a lot of funny parts, but with a lot of parts that were very traumatizing. Even in recreating those scenes, it was very, very hard to relive. That became, maybe emotionally, the most involved I was thus far, making a film.”
The director also shared that Tuesday’s ceremony coincided with the sixth anniversary of the death of his mother, who Michelle Williams portrays in The Fabelmans.
“In a sense what a Lifetime Achievement Award does is it sets you back into the past, whether you want to go there or not,” he said. “It makes you very reflective. To be honored in Berlin, which is one of the most august festivals in history, is a tremendous high point in my life.”
Spielberg also gave an update on the previously announced HBO limited series about Napoleon Bonaparte based on a screenplay by Stanley Kubrick.
“We’re mounting a large production for HBO based on Stanley’s original script Napoleon, working on Napoleon as a seven-part limited series,” he said.
However, he could not give an update on his next feature project, saying he had “no idea” as yet what it would be, having not had time to pin it down, due to shooting West Side Story and The Fabelmans back-to-back.
Berlin’s Honorary Golden Bear is the latest accolade Spielberg has picked up across his over his decades-long career.
The filmmaker has been nominated for an Academy Award 19 times and has taken three statuettes home over years for Best Director for Saving Private Ryan in 1999 and Best Director and Best Picture for Schindler’s List in 1994.
The Fabelmans is in the running in seven Oscar categories this year, including Best Film and Best Director.
Must Read Stories
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.