A handout still image shows actors Uma Thurman and Robert Pattinson (R) in a scene from the film 'Bel Ami'   showing in competition at the 62nd Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin. Picture: Reuters/Studiocanal GmbH/Handout
A handout still image shows actors Uma Thurman and Robert Pattinson (R) in a scene from the film 'Bel Ami' showing in competition at the 62nd Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin. Picture: Reuters/Studiocanal GmbH/Handout
A handout still image shows actors Kacey Mottet Klein and Lea Seydoux (R) in a scene from the film 'L'Enfant d'en haut' by director Ursula Meier, showing in competition at the 62nd Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin. Picture: Reuters/Roger Arpajou/Handout
A handout still image shows actors Kacey Mottet Klein and Lea Seydoux (R) in a scene from the film 'L'Enfant d'en haut' by director Ursula Meier, showing in competition at the 62nd Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin. Picture: Reuters/Roger Arpajou/Handout

Berlin - The curtain went up on the Berlin Film Festival Thursday with a lavish period drama telling the story of the French Revolution through the eyes of Maria Antoinette's servants, launching the 10-day Berlinale.

At the centre of veteran French director Benoit Jacquot's film, Les Adieux a la Reine (Farewell my Queen) is the relationship between Marie Antoinette and one of her ladies-in-waiting, which deteriorates as the Queen plots her escape while revolutionaries advance on her palace.

Starring German-born actress Diane Kruger, Jacquot's film is one of 18 - all world premieres - competing for Berlin's top honour, the coveted Golden Bear for the best film.

Kruger, 35, is among a slew of stars expected to walk Berlin's red carpet over the next days. These include Twilight lead man Robert Pattinson as well Hollywood's Angelina Jolie, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan and the hottest new star of the moment, Michael Fassbender.

Drawing surprising parallels with modern life, the upheaval gripping Marie Antoinette's court, as portrayed in Jacquot's film, highlights a key theme running through this year's festival - the sense of change under way in the world and in people's personal lives.

But then the Berlinale is known to be among the most political of the world's leading film festivals - never shying away from exploring social issues or dramatic global events.

This year is no exception, with festival organisers screening a selection of movies chronicling the events surrounding the Arab Spring which last year swept way governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

The screening of the films comes as the international community is increasing pressure on Syria, amid a violent crackdown on protesters by the authorities in Damascus.

“Screening these films is a natural path for us to take, not just because we are a political festival, but we are showing the films in order to create a bigger picture about upheaval and awakening,” Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick said.

Now in its 62nd year, the Berlinale will also present movies from Japanese directors exploring the aftermath of their nation's devastating earthquake and tsunami in March.

In the one of these films, director Iwai Shunji gathers together acquaintances to relive the events triggered by the earthquake in a documentary called Friends after 3.11 - referring to the date of the disaster.

The festival also digs deeper into recent history with movies looking at the violence surrounding the Group of Eight meeting in Genoa in 2001.

Leading German-born director Werner Herzog also returns to Berlin this year with a four-part documentary portraying prisoners waiting on death row in the US.

The Berlinale's self-proclaimed emphasis on movies with a political message has helped to sharpen its identity in what has become a fiercely competitive world of international film festivals.

Last year, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's family drama Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (Nader And Simin, A Separation) scooped up the top prizes at the Berlinale. The film has now been nominated for an Oscar at next month's Academy Awards.

The presentation of last year's Berlinale awards was held against the backdrop of the six-year jail sentence handed down to renowned Iranian director Jafar Panahi amid general concern about Tehran's treatment of filmmakers.

Among the festival's main competition films this year is Canadian director Kim Nguyen's Rebelle (War Witch), which follows the often traumatic life of a 14-year-old girl soldier in Africa who is carrying a child.

In a class struggle of a different kind, Swiss director Ursula Meier's L'enfant d'en haut is set in a luxury ski resort where 12-year-old Simon steals from rich tourists to sell in the nearby industrial valley.

US actor and director Billy Bob Thornton is also presenting his latest film, Jayne Mansfield's Car, in the main competition. Set in 1960's America, the movie delves into how memories of war have shaped generations of fathers and sons.

The race for the Berlinale's prestigious awards also includes two tales of kidnapping and the socio-psychological drama experienced by the victims.

French actress Isabelle Huppert stars in Filipino-director Brillante Mendoza's film Captive, which is based on the kidnapping of an American missionary by members of a militant Muslim group in the southern Philippines about a decade ago.

In a similar way, French director Frederic Videau focuses on a girl struggling to cope with her new-found freedom after being held captive for eight years, in his disturbing film A moi seule (Coming Home). - Sapa-dpa