It’s not easy for fest directors to escape controversy, and this year promises plenty for the Berlinale’s Dieter Kosslick as “The Ghost Writer,” the latest film from Roman Polanski, unspools in the Palast as one of the centerpiece films of the fest’s 60th edition. With Polanski currently under house arrest at his Alpine chalet in Switzerland and awaiting the Swiss government’s decision on whether or not to extradite him to the U.S., the director’s fate, past transgressions and standing in the international film community will no doubt be hotly debated.
The Berlinale was among the many institutions, companies and personalities to offer their public support to Polanski following his Sept. 26 arrest in Zurich. The fest issued a statement protesting what it called “the arbitrary treatment of one of the world’s most outstanding film directors” and demanded his “immediate release.”
While Berlinale topper Kosslick is careful not to comment directly on the case, he does offer his assessment of the director’s arrest, which he says was the basis for the Berlinale’s original statement.
“It’s really bizarre when someone has had a house in the Swiss Alps for years and then, when he’s on his way to Zurich he’s suddenly told, ‘We’ve been looking for you for 20 years. Come with us!’
“For us the main issue surrounding Roman Polanski is that we have a very good film with great actors. A very explosive film, a very current film and a very big film.”
Kosslick adds that “the Berlinale has had a long relationship with Polanski — long before I was here.”
As part of the fest’s 60th anniversary celebration, the helmer’s psychosexual thriller “Repulsion,” which won a Silver Bear at the Berlinale in 1965, unspools in this year’s Retrospective sidebar.
Since taking the reins at the Berlinale in 2001, Kosslick has walked a fine line between Hollywood and the rest of the world. He has championed cinema from regions long ignored on the international stage and even helped to bolster film industries in new and emerging territories, from Latin America and the Middle East to Africa and Central and Southeast Asia.
Not surprisingly, Kosslick has never been able to please everyone and has often drawn the scorn of critics who complain that the fest has become too focused on commercially challenged world cinema at the expense of the high-profile films that once characterized Germany’s high-profile showcase. Kosslick admits that the Berlinale has broadened its scope under his watch — a move he defends by stressing that the Berlinale is “an international film festival.”
In selecting an international lineup, Kosslick says there is much from which to choose. “As an A-level film festival, we are committed to presenting world cinema. We have 20 slots for that, and in these 20 slots we have to represent filmmaking from as many countries as possible,” he says. “Last year the Berlinale was visited by people from 134 countries; there are only 194! That’s a lot of countries that are represented here in some way. The demands out there are huge, so I can’t just show four French, four Spanish, four Italian, four German and the rest American films. That’s impossible. Then we are no longer a world film festival.”
Regardless of the festival’s direction, there will always be discontent among some, Kosslick says. “This criticism has existed for ages, but it used to be exactly the contrary — that there were far too many Hollywood films and that world cinema was underrepresented here.”
“Everyone loves big films, also festival directors, otherwise we wouldn’t have ‘Shutter Island’ and ‘The Ghost Writer’ and other big films this year,” notes the fest topper.
At the same time, Kosslick makes it clear that international film festivals are not just marketing tools for Tinseltown.
“The Berlinale does not have to become part of the global film financing machinery; those things already exist.”
The size of the Berlinale has also come under fire. In addition to the main competition, the fest offers Forum, Panorama, Generations, Perspektive Deutsches Kino, Culinary Cinema and Generations, among other sidebars.
“We have 10 sections — that’s gigantic and diverse,” says Kosslick, who dismisses criticism that the festival has grown too large and unwieldy.
“There is only one indicator whether it’s too much or not, and that’s not the film critic. For critics, if they can’t see it all, then it’s too much. We can’t use them as indicators. The real indicator is the public. As long as we’re sold out, it’s difficult to say that we are doing too much.”
Indeed, the Berlinale’s success with the public remains unabated. Last year it sold nearly 275,000 admissions, making it the festival with the largest audience in the world.
“For a cultural event, that’s a real sensation. If that’s not a great promotional campaign for cinema, I don’t know what is. Promoting cinema is part of our mission, and all kinds of cinema, not just one.”