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Topper rounds up talent and media posse

Ever-growing fest dealing with capacity issues

LONDON — Three weeks out from the start of the Berlin Film Festival, head honcho Dieter Kosslick was sounding pretty darn satisfied.

“I feel good. Everything is in place. After four years in the job, I think I’ve found the mixture I always wanted to have in the Official Selection. The Market has a record number of film submissions and accreditations. And the big hotels are all booked solid.”

Indeed, with more than 8,000 accredited press and market participants, not to mention the ever-growing size of Kosslick’s personal invention, the Berlinale Talent Campus (Feb.12-17), the fest looks full to bursting. It now completely dominates the twin hearts of the German capital, from its longtime digs in the west’s Zoo district to its home of the past five years in the glass-fronted, geometrical constructs of the Potsdamer-Platz in the east.

“We’re on the edge” of capacity, admits Kosslick. “But I want to keep up the energy and spirit of wheeler-dealing here. And with ZDF on board as a new sponsor, we also have a potential TV audience of 80 million.”

As the 21 films in competition — 16 of them world preems — slug it out in the Berlinale Palast for gold or silver Bears, that TV audience will be treated nightly to a tasty red-carpet celeb-a-thon. The guest list looks set to include Will Smith, Glenn Close, Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Dennis Quaid, Liam Neeson, Anjelica Huston, Kristin Scott Thomas, Keanu Reeves, Sergi Lopez, Joseph Fiennes and Don Cheadle.

Kosslick’s competition jury is also hardly light on glamor, with thesps Franka Potente, Bai Ling and Ingeborga Dapkunaite among those serving under chairman Roland Emmerich.

For the first time in four years, the fest opens with a wholly European pic, the world preem of French-U.K. co-prod “Man to Man,” helmed by Regis Wargnier (“Indochine”). Centered on a group of anthropologists on a research trip to Africa in the 1870s, the Joseph Fiennes-Kristin Scott Thomas starrer is in competition. Closing film, the U.S.-German financed “Kinsey,” is non-competing.

“Man to Man” headlines one major theme of this year’s Official Selection, Africa, with three other titles also set on the continent. South African production “Carmen in Khayelitsha” looks set to be an audience-pleaser with its restaging of the Bizet opera, sung in Xhosa, in a black township; Canadian co-prod “Hotel Rwanda” and HBO coprod “Sometimes in April” look from various angles at the 1994 tribal genocide in Rwanda.

The Africa theme came about “partly by chance,” says Kosslick, “and through the co-production treaty Germany signed with South Africa last year. The Berlinale also had a focus on Nigeria in 2004.”

Even more so than last year, Kosslick has managed to lasso a bunch of directors more accustomed to Cannes’ balmy Croisette than Berlin’s wintry Potsdamer-Platz. The vet contingent includes such Gauls as Alain Corneau, Andre Techine and Robert Guediguian, plus Italy’s Ermanno Olmi, Blighty’s Ken Loach and Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, the latter three grouped in the portmanteau “Tickets,” a trio of stories set aboard the same train.

Also competing are Russian arthouse darling Alexander Sokurov with the last seg of his trilogy on absolute power, “The Sun,” centered on Emperor Hirohito, and younger Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang with “The Wayward Cloud,” a mix of “sex, watermelons and cabaret” (per Kosslick) with only one line of spoken dialogue.

Sokurov and Tsai are Berlin discoveries returning to the fest. But the competition also includes five first-time features — the highest ever, per Kosslick — including Palestinian Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now,” centered on the final 28 hours of two suicide bombers. This, along with Tsai’s reportedly explicit pic, looks like becoming a major talking-point.

With five French helmers in competition and three Germans (including the much underrated Christian Petzold), the competition is heavily weighted toward West Europe, with 60% of the programming originating from the region.

Kosslick is unrepentant: “I’m happy with the festival having a substantial European face. It’s what I like and it’s what people expect of me, after all my years being involved (as a bureaucrat) in European production.”

Overall, he describes the selection, with its typical Berlin mix of socially and politically engaged pics, as an easier fit than last year’s. “I wouldn’t call the program lighter, but it’s more upbeat, with films you can leave the theater in a happy frame of mind. I was criticized last year for having too many depressing movies.”

In his Yank selection, Kosslick seems to have moved the Official Selection away from being a pre-Oscar platform, a result of the Academy’s now earlier dates as much as personal choice.

Big-studio razzle-dazzle will be served up by Col TriStar’s Will Smith starrer, romantic comedy “Hitch,” Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” which Kosslick dubs “XXL Anderson,” and U’s ad-sales world comedy-drama “In Good Company,” with Quaid and Scarlett Johansson.

The U.S. contingent is also repped by two Sundance titles — teen drug drama “Thumbsucker,” with Reeves, and Gotham relationships pic “Heights,” with Close.

Contrary to expectations, Sundance’s decision to make its World Cinema section competitive this year had no impact on Berlin, says Kosslick. “I was a bit anxious early on, but in the end we didn’t have one fight about a movie,” he says.

Over in the Panorama section, whose 50-plus titles traditionally make up the fest’s local heart and soul, section head Wieland Speck also attests to there being no shortage of available product this year.

“Asia, Latin America and the Third World were thinner for us, but otherwise I could have programmed two Panoramas from what was offered.”

Referring to the fest’s other main section, the Intl. Forum of New Cinema — now morphed into a hipper, more focused event under head Christoph Terhechte — Speck notes, “I even gave them several movies.”

Panorama’s main shopfront, the Specials section, notably includes several directors of competition lineage or caliber, such as Germany’s Andreas Dresen (with his ironic, east German-set drama “Willenbrock”), Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan (the feature-length version of black comedy “Dumplings”) and Greece’s Constantinos Giannaris (busjack drama “Hostage”).

The section kicks off with Radu Mihaileanu’s “Live and Become,” which follows a (gentile) Ethiopian boy who ends up in Israel following the evacuation of Ethiopian Jews — a story that highlights one of Panorama’s themes this year, the brutalization of kids in world conflicts such as in Chechnya and Israel.

Aside from the usual collection of edgy fare, and gay/sexuality-themed material, Speck singles out Sundance titles “The Dying Gaul” and “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” plus the opener of his main program, the “colorful and energetic” “Redeemer” from Brazil, as among the more accessible movies.

With a celeb list that includes Kevin Spacey (“Beyond the Sea”), Daniel Day-Lewis (“Jack and Rose”), Jennifer Jason Leigh (“Childstar”), Campbell Scott (“Dying Gaul”) and vet Rip Torn (Sundance competer “Forty Shades of Blue”), Panorama’s red carpet at the Zoo-Palast looks set to give the Official Selection’s Berlinale-Palast a run for its money.

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