New movies starring Cillian Murphy, Kristen Stewart, Gael Garcia Bernal and Adam Sandler will top the line-up of the Berlin film festival starting Thursday which risks getting upended by geopolitics.

Battered by the pandemic and last year's strikes in Hollywood, international cinema is enjoying a strong rebound and sending some of its leading lights to the wintry German capital for 11 days of premieres and parties.

But the war in Gaza, cultural repression in Iran and an increasingly emboldened far right in Germany risk spoiling the festival atmosphere at the 74th annual event known as the Berlinale, Europe's first major cinema showcase of the year.

"In the past the festival has allowed global politics to be in focus -- last year with the war in Ukraine for example," The Hollywood Reporter's European bureau chief Scott Roxborough told AFP.

"Gaza is a topic on the streets in Berlin this year and could be extremely polarising," with filmmakers asked to declare their stance on the war and protests expected under the Berlinale spotlight.

He noted a small number of directors had pulled their entries ahead of the event in protest against the German government's support for Israel.

The Berlinale however dodged another hot-button issue likely to have sparked demonstrations by rescinding an opening-night invitation to five representatives of the resurgent far-right Alternative for Germany party after a deluge of criticism.

The festival's outgoing director duo, Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian, said the officials were "not welcome at the Berlinale" in a stand against "anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim resentment (and) hate speech".

Fantasy and sci-fi

Meanwhile the event, which has long championed Iran's embattled directors, has urged Tehran to allow two filmmakers who have reportedly been slapped with a travel ban to attend.

Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha had been due to present their new movie "My Favourite Cake", about the strictures imposed on Iran's women, among 20 films in competition.

Murphy, who is nominated for a best actor Oscar for his turn in "Oppenheimer", will kick off the festival with the drama "Small Things Like This" about the systematic abuse of "fallen" women at Irish laundries run by the Catholic Church.

The Irish star reunited for the movie with Belgian film-maker Tim Mielants, who directed him in the hit series "Peaky Blinders".

Stewart, who led last year's Berlinale jury, will show "Love Lies Bleeding" about a violent liaison between a gym manager and a bisexual bodybuilder.

This year's festival boasts a strong line-up of fantasy and sci-fi flicks and new cinema from Africa.

Sandler will unveil his latest Netflix picture "Spaceman" about a lonely astronaut estranged from his wife, played by Carey Mulligan.

Mexico's Garcia Bernal appears in "Another End", which envisions a technology allowing the bereaved to reconnect with the dead. Cannes best actress winners Renate Reinsve ("The Worst Person in the World") and Berenice Bejo ("The Artist") co-star.    

French arthouse favourite Bruno Dumont will present "The Empire", billed as a Star Wars parody. 

Fraught restitution debate

Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, who won France's Cesar for his 2014 picture "Timbuktu", returns with "Black Tea", the story of an Ivorian woman who falls in love with an export merchant in China.

French-Senegalese director Mati Diop (Netflix hit "Atlantics") will screen "Dahomey", a documentary on the return of cultural artifacts to West Africa from Europe, while "The Empty Grave" will also address the fraught restitution debate.

The Berlinale's Golden Bear last year went to "On the Adamant", a French documentary about a floating day-care centre for the mentally ill.

This year Kenyan-Mexican actor Lupita Nyong'o will serve as the festival's first black jury president.

And Martin Scorsese, nominated for a record 10th time for a best director Oscar for "Killers of the Flower Moon", is due in Berlin to collect an Honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement.      

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