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Interview: Berlin Film Festival Director Dieter Kosslick Explains Why His Big Festival Isn’t Like the Others

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 17, 2014 at 9:0AM

Over the past 10 days, thousands of moviegoers and industry types converged in Berlin for the 64th edition of the Berlinale, a massive festival comprised of both its dense program and the equally chaotic European Film Market. But while Berlin’s cinematic events are widespread, one face looms above them all: Festival director Dieter Kosslick, who has presided over the festival since 2001.
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Eric Kohn Dieter Kosslick in Germany.

Over the past 10 days, thousands of moviegoers and industry types converged in Berlin for the 64th edition of the Berlinale, a massive festival comprised of both its dense program and the equally chaotic European Film Market. But while Berlin’s cinematic events are widespread, one face looms above them all: Festival director Dieter Kosslick, who has presided over the festival since 2001.

A former journalist and speechwriter, Kosslick has been a public figure scrutinized by the international press each year for the selections at the large gathering as well as the festival’s influence on world cinema. In a complex ecosystem sandwiched in between Sundance and Cannes, the Berlinale certainly attracts a lot of attention. But while the industry and the media each describe the Berlinale’s value in different ways, Kosslick himself has his own means of seeing things. Indiewire sat down with the 65-year-old festival director last week to how he envisions the Berlinale’s current identity in the context of its broader history.

At some festivals, it’s very easy to understand their purpose. But it’s trickier at this one. From your perspective, is there a way to characterize the identity of the Berlinale, or do you see it as many different components coming together?

Funnily enough, it’s both. We have very different components, but this is already because of our 10 different sections. We run the sections together, but I give the head of the section the freedom to program their own stuff because I know what they’re doing. On the other side, we are all in our selection group together. This is the trick for how we know the whole program, and this is how we get the identity. But what is the identity? I would say two or three things: It’s an audience-driven festival, first of all. There is no festival in the world that sells so many tickets to normal people, to fans. That’s the first thing, that was always in history, from when it started as a festival for the people in 1951. It became later in 1957 an A-rated film festival with the competition.

The scene in Berlin.

As it was founded in the Cold War, it always has acted as a kind of political cultural event. Through the Cold War, the Americans wanted to bring culture in to crack the isolation at the time. Then we served as a tool between East Germany and West Germany. That was for a long time the most important thing. You could go as an East German with East German money in one Berlinale in the West, and you could pay with East German money. That was the only location in all of Germany where you could do this. We had posters of the Berlinale facing the Eastern part of Berlin, which was really something.

And then the Wall came, and when the Wall came, the Berlinale became more important. Then we really tried to get the East German directors here, and on top of that, the Berlinale started to have all of the East European people here, which is a big part of its identity. The East European directors and the industry are as well, but the industry came a little bit later. And then we served the Asians. The first Chinese movie here got the Golden Bear, Zhang Yimou’s “Red Sorghum.” Then, when the wall was down, the identity was a little bit shaky. In the meantime, the Berlinale moved from summer to winter, because of the trap between Cannes and Venice. This, by the way, is the reason why we’re in February.

So, I would say that because of all this background, we have a complex identity. One is a political, one is an entertainment, for the audience. Also, we’re the biggest gay festival in the world. People don’t know this, but gay people know this because we have the Panorama, we have the Teddy Award, which is a big one which Almodóvar started, he got the first Teddy Award here. A lot of gay directors. We have so many target groups.

It’s very complex, but there is a profile in this complexity, and the profile is quite simple. We are taking care of big films at the red carpet, but we are also really a red carpet for independent movies, always. And when you see the 409 movies we have this year, the red carpet is just 10%, 5%. So this makes the special flavor. And people are going if it’s an entertainment film or a weird experimental film. They go. They sleep in front of the box office to get a ticket. So I think that’s Berlin.

So how do you characterize the relationship with the marketplace? I talk to a lot of the industry people who come here and they don’t go to the movies. They just take meetings. You wind up with two separate events happening at the same time.

The European Film Market in Berlin. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

One thing that’s interesting: our market came later, in the late '70s. It’s grown incredibly in the last years. These are two different events, but they are linked at a certain point, especially for art house films. That is the history of the market. Art house films have screened before in Panorama or Forum, and sold in the market. Not so much competition films, because they have been mostly sold at the festival. But the market is really important for us, as we are taking care of a lot of independent initiatives.

For example, this year, for the first time, we have a special thing for documentaries called Meet the Docs. We have now the people from the Talent Mart coming in from our co-production marts. These are all new initiatives we started in the last 10 years. This makes us a full-service festival. It’s an expression from agencies, but you can come here, and you can have anything: money for your script, money for your production. You can be a first-time filmmaker and go to the Talent Mart, or you can be a documentary guy, or you can buy movies, or you can buy television stuff. We showed, for the first time in history, [a new episode of] “House of Cards.” We have never done such a thing before. Heads were turning last night. Last year, we had “Top of the Lake” [in its entirety] so we are starting this new whole world. And we have this experimental world with art and cinema, New Digital Cinema in forum expanded.

What are some of the biggest misperceptions about the festival?

The biggest misperception is that we’re always competing with Cannes. We have a completely different festival. We have three times more films, but we’re not in competition with each other. We have a completely different structure. They are number one, number one, number one — and we are number three, maybe, but I don’t care. I don’t know. We are different. People are asking this question all the time, “What is the difference?” Normally, I say, “It’s much warmer in Cannes,” but I can’t say this now, because we’re sitting in the sun. But also, people are always very astonished if they go to our market to see big the thing is, and how many people are in it, and that we have 1,100 films in the market and more than 700 market premieres, which makes the quality of the market and market premieres. We made an effort to make more marketing for the market. It makes no sense in Berlin, I don’t know, it doesn’t work.

It runs itself.

Yeah. I don’t know, we made a lot of effort to make more marketing for the festival and the market, but it just doesn’t work for the Berlin Film Festival. You cannot sell things through a commercial agency to somebody. I think something we do is we are much more culture-driven on one side, but then we have Bradley Cooper with “American Hustle” and then we go to a 40-year-old Fassbinder discovery, and we restored “ Dr. Caligari” after 100 years. Then we have the culinary cinema section, and we have “Chavez.” So I think this is the way to sell it. It makes no sense to sell it differently.

Jack O'Connell in ''71.'

At Cannes, you rarely see many unknown quantities in competition. Yet the Berlinale frequently has first-time features alongside established filmmakers in the most prominent section of the festival.

I know the risks of putting first-time people in the competition, and we have to be very careful to do this. We find talents, for example, like the guy who made “71,” or the German guy who made “Jack.” We try to bring the big stuff in, partly out of competition, like Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” last night, or the Clooney film [“The Monuments Men”]. But then we have Wes Anderson in competition, and then we bring completely brand new people with first time films from all over the world.

It’s not a homogenized competition. It shows the whole diversity of film culture and the film industry in the world. You can find some lines, if you go content-wise — this year, we have sex. Aside from “Nymphomaniac,” there’s sex in terms of sex in restricted societies — the blind Chinese fighting like mad against the system in “Blind Massage.” Then we have a subject like history. Looking back, diplomacy is big this year, with “The Monuments Men” in a way, and other films about German history. Then we have family films with kids this year, like Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” “Aloft” from Georgia, and “Macondo” from Austia — which is about a Chechen 11-year-old who lives in asylum. So you can find lines which create a profile, but if you look from outside, it’s completely diverse.

While you’ve screened Linklater’s “Boyhood” in competition, I saw it last month at Sundance. 20 years ago, “Slacker” premiered there, and out of nowhere, it was a discovery. Now I wonder if the process of discovery for people like that is different, because I was asking about first-time filmmakers, and it seems like 10 or 20 years ago, there weren’t as many movies as there are now, so I assume it’s much harder for those kinds of people to not only be at a festival, but to be recognized as new talents.

That’s true, but it’s important to discover people in the same process. I remember when I was at the IFP, “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused” were coming out. And this was how I got to know Richard. And then he started his “Before” films, and he won a Silver Bear, and there was always this relationship. Everyone in the independent scene came out of the IFP. A former assistant to [IFP founder] Sandra Schulberg is working for us now in New York as a delegate, so there are all of these links. And it’s the same in Asia. And through all of our world cinema fans, we have a lot of contacts with first time filmmakers. For example, last year, we had this great surprise from Mongolia with “Salad Lessons.” But the discovery is still a physical thing. You cannot be at a computer and discover. 

This article is related to: Festivals, News, Dieter Kosslick, Berlin 2014, Berlin International Film Festival, Interviews, EFM (European Film Market