- Associated Press - Thursday, February 9, 2017

BERLIN (AP) - A French film about a jazz guitar virtuoso who struggled under the Nazis kicked off the Berlin International Film Festival on Thursday, the first of the year’s major European movie fests.

“Django,” from first-time director Etienne Comar, is the first of 18 movies competing for the festival’s top Golden Bear award.

The film, inspired by the story of guitarist Django Reinhardt, portrays the Gypsy musician’s life in France under Nazi occupation in 1943. Even as many Roma across Europe were being persecuted and killed in the Nazis’ death camps, Reinhardt initially believes that his fame will save him. He plays his guitar in sold-out concert halls in Paris, enjoying his popularity.

“The freedom which music gives you in complex times is the topic of this film,” Comar told reporters.

However, as the story progresses, the Nazis’ pressure on Reinhardt grows.

He refuses to go on a tour to Germany to serve the Nazis’ propaganda machine, but is later forced to play in front of German officers in France. The Gypsy village where he stays after leaving Paris gets burned down and in the end he runs for his life, leaving behind his pregnant wife and mother to escape across the Alps to Switzerland.

While the movie starts with joyous swing music and frisky dancing in Parisian underground night clubs, it ends with a requiem composed by Reinhardt and played for the first time after France’s liberation in 1945. He dedicated it to all the Gypsies who were slain by the Germans.

This year’s diverse program at the Berlin festival includes Oren Moverman’s drama “The Dinner,” starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney; a documentary on artist Joseph Beuys by German director Andres Veiel; and British director Sally Potter’s dark political comedy “The Party.”

A seven-member jury led by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven will announce the winners of the Golden Bear and other honors on Feb. 18.

Verhoeven said Thursday he hoped to see diverse and “hopefully controversial” movies so that “we as a jury would really have heated arguments.”

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