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Berlin Film Festival opens with Wes Anderson's 'Grand Budapest Hotel,' set in pre-WWII Europe

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BERLIN - Director Wes Anderson and a strong ensemble cast including Ralph Fiennes, Bill Murray and Edward Norton kicked off the annual Berlin International Film Festival on Thursday with "The Grand Budapest Hotel," a caper set in a fictional spa town in pre-World War II Europe. Here are some tidbits from opening day at the first of the year's major European film festivals.

WRITTEN FOR RALPH

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" stars British actor Fiennes as its central figure: Monsieur Gustave, a fastidious hotel concierge — and its director says no one else would do.

The part was "written with Ralph in mind," Anderson told reporters ahead of the movie's premiere. "This character is quite grand and theatrical and has to recite poetry and has paragraphs of text."

Still, Fiennes shares the limelight with Norton, Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Adrien Brody, Saoirse Ronan and others in roles large and small.

The movie is the first of 20 competing for the festival's main Golden Bear award.

HAPPY TOGETHER

So how does Anderson get stars to play not-so-big roles? Anderson regular Murray — who's playing a fellow concierge in this film — leapt in to answer that one.

"We are promised very long hours and low wages — and stale bread," he said. "That's pretty much it."

Still, he admits the life is pretty cool.

"You get to see the world and we're allowed to let Wes live this wonderful magical life he has where his dreamscape comes true," Murray said. "So we show up, he gets to have all the fun. I guess it's because we like him that we go along."

A LESSON IN GEOGRAPHY

Despite the movie's title, it isn't set in Hungary, although its makers did visit Budapest thinking it might be a possible location. In the end "we needed a spa town, not a grand city like Budapest," Anderson said.

A closed-down department store in Goerlitz, Germany's easternmost town on its border with Poland, served as the hotel. The film itself is set in the fictional republic of Zubrowka. Or, as Anderson put it, "I think our movie is an eastern Europe filtered through movies."

AGING TILDA

Anderson's film offers a glimpse at Tilda Swinton as you've never seen her before, playing an 84-year-old countess named Madame D. whose sudden death sets off a scramble to claim her fortune.

"Madame D. is what I look like when I don't put on all this makeup," Swinton said. "I am very, very, very, very old."

WHO GETS TO JUDGE?

An eight-member jury under "Brokeback Mountain" producer James Schamus will announce the winner of the Golden Bear and other prizes on Feb. 15, the festival's penultimate day. Berlinale winners are notoriously hard to predict but, over recent years, it's often been less-heralded productions rather than star-studded headliners that have triumphed — giving those films an audience they might not have otherwise reached.

"It's a very important festival and it's a very friendly place as well," said jury member Michel Gondry, the French director of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. "It's a little less about the looks than some other places."

Honouring HOFFMAN

The festival opens as the movie world mourns actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found dead of a suspected drug overdose Sunday. Organizers added a special screening next Tuesday of "Capote," which won him the Oscar for best actor in 2006.

"That news was pretty tough on all of us in the business," Schamus said, adding with the screening "he'll be here" in spirit.

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