His critics contend the festival has lost its focus, but festival director Dieter Kosslick is proud of the Berlinale’s massive popular engagement.
Interviewed a few days before the Berlinale begins, festival director Dieter Kosslick is in his usual irrepressible form. “I can’t wait,” he exclaims, likening himself to an athlete ready to charge but still listening for the starting gun. “I want to run but I can’t because I’m too early.”
Due to the Bafta film awards and Oscars shifting their dates and because of the added distraction of the Winter Olympics, the Berlinale (February 15-25) is taking place later than usual this year and Kosslick cannot wait to be in his familiar hat and red scarf, welcoming guests to Wes Anderson’s animated feature, Isle Of Dogs, which will open the festival.
Kosslick acknowledges he was startled by the group of 79 filmmakers who published a letter in late November, suggesting the festival needs a “new start” after his contract ends in May 2019. After all, under his leadership over the last 17 years, the Berlinale has grown and grown. It is now one of the biggest public events of its kind around the world. Admissions in 2017 were at 496,471 - a huge figure.
“Of course, I was astonished by this letter,” says Kosslick, whose predecessor as festival director, Moritz de Hadeln, will be at the festival to launch his book about his time at the Berlinale. Towards the end of his time as director, de Hadeln was also the target of criticism. “If you are 17 years in the job, there are just some people who don’t like you. These people are the same that Moritz had on his back,” Kosslick notes.
He is not remotely apologetic about the size to which the festival has grown or the fact its programming is as much for the benefit of the public as for that of the critics. “The Berlinale will disappear if you get rid of the audience. This is quite clear.
“The big difference between a lot of festivals and the Berlinale is that we are an audience-driven festival,” he adds of an event that was launched in 1951. The main Competition may be the flagship, but more than 66,000 cinemagoers will attend its youth-targeted Generation; arthouse cinema is foregrounded in Panorama and the Forum; and there is culinary cinema too.
“There are different target groups with an interest in different types of film,” Kosslick continues. “The Berlinale is a very democratic kind of festival. It is easy going.” In other words, everyone is welcome. “We are not an elite film club. We are much more integrated in the city of Berlin.”
The perennial debate about film as art and entertainment is again being held in German film culture following the decision by the German Federal Film Board (FFA) to focus on audience numbers. Only films expected to attract at least 250,000 spectators to the cinemas will be eligible for FFA funding in the future.
What does Kosslick think about this? “I don’t know what effect it [the FFA decision] will have but just now, we have a very good situation in our cinema,” he reflects on the upswing in box office last year, driven partly by local successes, among them Suck Me Shakespeer 3. “We [also] have fantastic arthouse cinema. And you will see at the Berlinale that we have four great German films in Competition.”
As ever, Kosslick is continuing to refine and expand the programme. For example, this year the Berlinale Series programme — now in its third edition — will move to the Zoo Palast (the festival’s old home in the west) and will showcase “seven series”.
Kosslick expects the Berlinale to be in the “middle” of the debates about #MeToo and diversity. “This [diversity] is one of the main subjects of the Berlinale in its whole history,” he says. “It’s in our DNA. We had the first queer festival in history and it grew to be the biggest one. We have a section specially about native cinema.”
In Cannes last summer, some audiences booed the Netflix film Okja and the festival now requires all films in its Competition to have a theatrical release in France. The Berlinale was already following a similar strategy. “We always have had clear rules,” he says. “Films that are going into Competition have to have a theatrical release. These are our guidelines.” Not that the festival is turning its back on the new players. Netflix series will be welcome in the Series strand. Gus Van Sant’s Amazon-backed Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot will be in the main Competition, but will also be seen in cinemas.
Ask Kosslick what he most enjoys about being festival head and he says: “There are two fantastic moments I really enjoy. This is the moment when I go to the red carpet on the opening night and I am ready with my coat and hat and red scarf to say hello to the film world… And then at the closing night, when I give the Golden and Silver Bears to the artists who deserve them. These are very happy moments and are the two moments I will miss if I am not there any more.”
The “if” here is intriguing. Is it possible Kosslick could remain at the helm after May 2019 when his current contract expires? “This is a question like Brexit. You have Brexit or you don’t have Brexit. Let’s see!” he smiles, ending the interview on a typically playful and enigmatic note.