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Berlin: Why Fest Shouldn’t Miss Dieter Kosslick’s Exit as an Opportunity to Evolve

In November, 79 of the most prominent German filmmakers and industryites published an open letter voicing their opinion about the next boss of the Berlin film festival.

Current director Dieter Kosslick has faced criticism — as has every festival director — since he took over the Berlinale’s reins in 2001, with his contract set to end in May 2019. The letter, published on German outlet Spiegel Online, gave the German film community an opportunity to be heard about the future of the country’s most important film festival.

The key takeaway of the letter, which was sent to the German minister of culture, Kosslick’s boss, six months earlier, was this statement: “The goal must be to find an outstanding curatorial personality who is passionate about cinema, well-connected internationally and capable of leading the festival into the future on an equal footing with Cannes and Venice,” the letter read. “We want a transparent procedure and a new start.”

In December, Kosslick announced that he wouldn’t ask for his contract to be renewed as he submitted proposals for the festival going forward. A committee has been formed to look at the structure of the festival and personnel, with State Minister for Culture and Media Monika Grütters calling for an open and constructive debate about what the festival will look like in the coming years.

So as the 68th edition of the Berlinale gets ready to unspool Feb. 15, what are these heavyweights — including Maren Ade (“Toni Erdmann”), Fatih Akin (“In the Fade”) and Robert Schwentke (“The Captain”) — talking about?

According to signatory Akin (whose career was born at Berlin, following a Golden Bear win for his 2004 debut, “Head-On”), that letter was not a personal attack on Kosslick and his legacy, but rather, a proactive demand for openness and responsibility in the process of trying to identify his successor.

“Without his support, we wouldn’t be talking now,” Akin says, even though Kosslick initially rejected “Head-On,” which was headed for the Panorama sidebar until another German film dropped out. (“I know Dieter and his jury didn’t like it because Dieter told me so,” Akin confides.)

As it happens, the German film community had good reason for taking such a stand: Just two years ago, when seeking a new director for Berlin’s world-famous Volksbühne theater, the city appointed a man with little to no experience in running a national stage organization, former Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, and as a result, activists fear that the cultural mission of the institution will shift into a more commercial vein.

The 79 directors don’t want to see the same thing happen to their beloved festival.

The Berlinale occupies rare air in the festival world — a huge and hugely important festival (and successful bazaar, the European Film Market) that takes places in a major world city. Only Toronto can boast that kind of impact on a major municipality. And yet, many in the world film community beyond the German critics feel that the festival has withered over the years, with too many sidebars, too many films, and not enough curation.

When Kosslick took over Berlin in 2001, his credentials were not one of a professional aesthete — as are many programmers at film festivals — but that of a working film business professional; his last job was as head of the Filmstiftung NRW, one of Germany’s most important cinema funds. But a main complaint that many have expressed over the years is the sheer size of the programs — last year, the selection encompassed no fewer than 365 films. And that size dilutes the aesthetic quality, according to critics.

Akin hopes that whoever follows Kosslick will shrink the overall lineup and fight to get better films. “There seems to be a certain lack of quality in competition,” observes the director, whose “In the Fade” played at Cannes last year, and whose other films have played either Venice or Cannes. “If you’re going to be in competition, you want to compete with quality films. It makes you look better to be surrounded by other strong artists.”

That said, Berlin is structured for the public — like Toronto. German co-productions are well-represented, and the festival attracted nearly half a million admissions last year, while industry guests numbered 17,333, and 3,716 accredited journalists attended, not far behind Cannes’ claim of 4,000-plus journos.

“Berlin is very unique, because it’s a heavy, huge machine, and at the same time, it is very relaxed, and very much open to the town,” says Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi, whose Golden Bear winner “On Body and Soul” was one of last year’s breakouts (and an Oscar nominee this year).

Kosslick deserves credit for introducing the Berlinale Talents summit, which has been a model for similar programs at Cannes, Sarajevo and elsewhere. His Culinary Cinema sidebar has inspired similar events at San Sebastian and Seattle. Likewise, his initiative-friendly instincts have made him among the most responsive to the current push for inclusivity, adapting his programming strategy to invite films from remote regions (including the recent NATIVe — A Journey Into Indigenous Cinema sidebar) and far more female filmmakers than other fests.

Making friends with the Sundance festival has also added to the lineup, with Berlin screening buzz titles straight from that other frozen fest.

Cannes and Venice may have pulled ahead as the year’s leading festivals, making it difficult for Berlin — or any other festival — to invite those auteurs and stars who would rather walk the red carpet along the Croisette or the Lido than bracing for the punishing early weeks of February in Berlin. That said, Berlin does gain its fair share of star filmmakers — George Clooney, the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Danny Boyle, Paul Thomas Anderson, as well as European and Asian star auteurs — despite its date. After the Oscars moved a month earlier, awards campaigners no longer took their late-December releases to Berlin since voting was closed by the time the festival unrolled. And of course, Kosslick, and all festival directors, are at the mercy of production schedules.

This year, the Berlin lineup includes works from Anderson, Gus Van Sant, Jose Padilha, Steven Soderbergh, Alexei A. German Jr., Benoit Jacquot, Cedric Kahn, Christian Petzold, Isabel Coixet, Malgorzata Szumowska, Emily Atef, Timur Bekmambetov, Idris Elba as well as the debut of digitally restored versions of seven classics including Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” and Sidney Lumet’s “Fail Safe.”

These days, Berlin still ranks high among the FIAPF-accredited A festivals, a rarefied group of international film showcases positioned to world premiere a significant number of major new works. Last year, the festival screened four of the nine movies short-listed for this year’s Oscar foreign-language prize: “A Fantastic Woman,” “Felicite,” “On Body and Soul” and “The Wound” (technically, the latter premiered at Sundance, but chose Berlin for its international launch pad).

Add to that the well-received Wolverine sequel “Logan,” nominated for an adapted screenplay Oscar, Sally Potter’s viciously funny “The Party” (in competition) and the masterful “In Syria” plus international premieres of such Sundance standouts as “Call Me by Your Name” and “God’s Own Country” (both invited to Panorama) among 2017 standouts.

Still, a festival is judged not only by what organizers invite, but also by what they turn down, and the current programming team has gotten away with rejecting films such as “Son of Saul” and “The Lives of Others” (also turned down by Cannes), whereas new leadership should be expected to recognize and include such masterpieces. Berlin critics urge a greater sense of curation above all else.

Regardless of who the festival finds to replace Kosslick, many say it can’t continue to operate without a tastemaker at the helm, and if the system requires another industry-savvy wheeler-dealer to keep the seats full and the red carpets sufficiently starry, it would do well to appoint an artistic director to complement the job and oversee the program going forward.

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