By Sarah Marsh and Michael Roddy
BERLIN (Reuters) - George Clooney whistled a tune and sang the praises of Belgian beer at the Berlin film festival for the international premiere on Saturday of his World War Two art caper "The Monuments Men", but reality had already given him publicity money can't buy.
The premiere of the film which has been released in the United States to mixed reviews was one of the most anticipated events of the festival, where four German films are among 20 seeking the top prize.
Earlier in the day, the festival saw the press premiere of director Dominik Graf's sumptuous historic film "Beloved Sisters" based on a love triangle involving the 18th-century German poet Friedrich Schiller.
But it was Clooney's presence that created a huge queue of press to attend his news conference, where he also acknowledged that reality had caught up with his film right here in Germany.
The discovery last year of a huge trove of artwork in a Munich apartment has created a flurry of news about paintings and other treasures stolen or expropriated by the Nazis and still awaiting restitution to their rightful owners.
"We've had a long three-year conversation with the guys here at Fox (the film's distributors) to get the news to hold the story," Clooney joked, before turning serious.
"It's a story that's going to keep coming up because there's still an awful lot of art still missing and will be found in lots of people's basements. It just happened to be one rather amazing find, one and a half billion dollars....It's an amazing conversation to have, the responsibility of getting back the art to people," he said.
Clooney, who enjoys clowning at festival events, was goaded by a questioner to whistle the theme to the movie, which she said was a quote of the cat theme from Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf". But in Clooney's rendition, joined by co-start Matt Damon, it only seemed to have the first three notes in common.
A questioner from Belgian media asked why the film, partly set there, was not filmed there. Clooney said this was for cost reasons but he said he had visited Belgium in preparation for the film and had enjoyed the beer.
Asked repeatedly why he'd chosen this story for one of his biggest budget movies, Clooney said the historical events had grabbed him, much like the war action stories of his youth. This one, he said, had an interesting twist.
"Hollywood does like a good World War Two story but this seemed like a story I didn't know. It wasn't a megapatriotic film but a chance to talk about a unique group of people who did something for the first time in the history of war, which is the victor didn't keep the spoils, they gave it back."
STUDY IN CONTRASTS
Striking a contrast with the festival's first German entry "Jack", a gritty contemporary family drama, director Graf's "Beloved Sisters" depicts the 18th-century national hero and two beautiful sisters from the penniless aristocracy attempting to establish a loving "ménage a trois" over more than a decade.
Schiller marries the younger of the two sisters, who have made a pact to share everything - including him - in an attempt to protect their idyll under the guise of convention.
But the elder sister, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage of convenience, increasingly realises their naivety, and the equilibrium of their love triangle starts to become undone when the younger one becomes pregnant.
"The core of the movie is incredible tenderness," Graf told a news conference, noting that he wanted to focus on their love rather than on Schiller as a famed writer and protagonist of the "Sturm und Drang" literary movement, together with Goethe.
Graf, who has of late directed more television than film, said he let his film sprawl out over more than two hours in order to capture the slower pace of that era.
"We wanted to avoid the impression that people were racing through the streets back then," Graf said. "We would force an artificial speed, it would have falsified the whole thing."
Producer Uschi Reich, who came up with the idea, said she was fascinated by the way people were challenging the norms of relationships around the time of the French revolution in 1789.
"At that time people were really thinking about utopias, like we were in the '70s, utopias of love, living together, shared accommodations," she said. "Before and after the revolution, people tried and tested new forms of coexistence."
The film is punctuated by the characters reading out the letters sent between Schiller and the elder sister, Caroline von Beulwitz, who went on herself to become an author of note.
Graf said he reconstructed those letters himself, as von Beulwitz became ashamed of them towards the end of her life, "piled everything onto one huge pyre and burnt them all".
"Beloved Sisters" is one of 20 movies competing for the "Golden Bear", the festival's top prize which will be awarded next week. More than 400 films are screening at the Berlinale.
(Writing by Michael Roddy and Sarah Marsh; Editing by Stephen Powell)