Berlinale: 79 Directors Call for Change

On May 1, 2001, Dieter Kosslick took over as director of the Berlin International Film Festival, following Moritz de Hadeln, who’d held the job for twenty years. On May 31, 2019, the day after his seventy-first birthday, Kosslick’s current contract will expire. This past Friday, Spiegel Online posted an open letter signed by seventy-nine German directors and, as Hannah Pilarczyk notes at the top of the page, while the letter runs a mere five sentences, its call for a new direction for the Berlinale will reverberate throughout the industry and community at large for a considerable while. The letter in full (my translation):

The Berlinale is one of the world’s three leading film festivals. The appointment of a new director offers the opportunity for a programmatic renewal and streamlining of the festival. We propose that an international search committee, comprised of equal numbers of men and women, be created to fundamentally rethink the focus of the festival. Its goal must be to find an outstanding curatorial personality with a burning passion for cinema, someone with excellent connections around the world who would be able to lead the festival to a future in which it’s on a par with Cannes and Venice. We call for a transparent process and a new beginning.

Among the directors who’ve signed are Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann), Fatih Akin (In the Fade), Thomas Arslan (Bright Nights), Dietrich Brüggemann (Stations of the Cross), Doris Dörrie (Cherry Blossoms), Andreas Dresen (Cloud 9), Stephan Geene (For Nothing), Dominik Graf (Beloved Sisters), Valeska Grisebach (Western), Thomas Heise (Material), Benjamin Heisenberg (The Robber), Christoph Hochhäusler (The City Below), Fred Kelemen (the director known for his work as a cinematographer for Béla Tarr), Ulrich Köhler (Sleeping Sickness), Nicolette Krebitz (Wild), Jakob Lass (Tiger Girl), Caroline Link (Nowhere in Africa), Pia Marais (Layla Fourie), Peter Nestler (Mülheim/Ruhr), Christian Petzold (Phoenix), Edgar Reitz (Heimat), Sebastian Schipper (Victoria), Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum), Hans-Christian Schmid (Requiem), Maria Schrader (Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe), Robert Schwentke (The Captain), Jan Soldat (Be Loved), Rosa von Praunheim (The Einstein of Sex), Margarethe von Trotta (Hannah Arendt), and Nicolas Wackerbarth (Casting).

Pilarczyk is quick to point out that Tom Tykwer, who’ll be presiding over the International Jury of the sixty-eighth Berlinale (February 15 through 25), has not signed, while the two other directors on his new series, Babylon Berlin, Achim von Borries and Henk Handloegten, have. Even so, scanning the range of signatures from “what feels like three quarters of the overall creative enterprise,” the old guard and fresh blood alike, Thomas Groh writes in die taz: “Such an impressively varied alliance has seldom been seen in German cinema.”

“The level of discontent must be high for all of these artists to come together to call for change,” writes Frédéric Jaeger. Also writing in the Berliner Zeitung,Harry Nutt finds that the letter reeks of “the fear of a soccer team on the verge of decline and worried that it’ll have to carry on playing with its luckless trainer.”

But like fellow signatory David Wnendt (Look Who’s Back), who insisted on Friday that the letter is not a call to depose Kosslick, Christoph Hochhäusler tells the Tagesspiegel’s Christiane Peitz that, while “it’s time to reinvent the Berlinale,” many of the directors who’ve signed that letter do appreciate much of what Dieter Kosslick’s done for the festival over the past sixteen years.

Peitz goes long on this in a separate piece. With his red scarves and twinkle-eyed one-liners, Kosslick’s brought personality to a festival with hurdles to leap, situated as it is on the calendar just after Sundance, right before the Oscars, and not quite far away enough from Cannes to keep filmmakers with new work from being tempted to hold out for the big one. Stars like Kosslick, and they’ll brave the German winter to meet him on the red carpet. Above all, Kosslick’s primary mission coming in was to shine an international spotlight on German cinema, and by his own count, he’s succeeded: 1,383 German films have screened at the Berlinale during his tenure, scoring three Golden Bears and thirty Silver Bears, among other awards.

Mileage varies, though, when it comes to his other accomplishments. Ticket sales are up year after year, and at least in part, that can be attributed to the rising number of films on offer in an array of newly launched strands. “If you present four hundred films, what does that even mean anymore?” asks Hochhäusler. “Great films disappear in the swamp of the mediocre.” As for the new programs, the Berlinale Talents platform for young filmmakers is a fine thing, of course, but like many, Hochhäusler has his problems with the Perspektive Deutsches Kino, “a ghetto” into which few international attendees will wander. Throw in the Berlinale Specials, Culinary Cinema, NATIVe, and so on, and the profile of this festival becomes increasingly difficult to discern.

For Lukas Foerster, writing at Perlentaucher, the “problem with Kosslick’s Berlinale is not the number of films, but the indifference with which they’re presented.” The healthy “antagonism” between the Competition and the Forum, for example, which helped define the Berlinale from the 1960s through the 1990s, “has all but disappeared.” It’s no longer clear, “aside from target group optimization,” what any of the sections are meant to stand for. And in a piece for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that’s not online but quoted in Perlentaucher today, Andreas Kilb notes that, even as the program expands, the Competition’s been shrinking. Whoever replaces Kosslick will have to reverse that trend, and that’ll require nerves of steel—trimming sections means trimming jobs.

“Talk of a ‘political’ festival is still part of the obligatory vocabulary of the Berlinale,” writes Matthias Dell in Freitag. “In 2017, all that meant, though, was to have something against Donald Trump. How original. How safe. How simple.” To be fair, Peitz reminds us that, even setting aside programming, Kosslick has insisted on solidarity with censored Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, fought for political asylum for Bosnian actor Nazif Mujić, and worked to obtain shelter in the city for refugees.

So what happens now? “I can understand that these directors want transparency when it comes to the process of reforming the Berlinale,” writes Kosslick in a statement in response to the letter. German minister for culture and media Monika Grütters, who chairs the festival’s supervisory board, “has asked me to submit a proposal for the potential restructuring of the Berlinale. I will do so—and this proposal will be totally independent of me personally.”

But as Peitz points out, Kosslick is not completely shutting the door on some sort of future involvement. The idea has been floated that a festival as large as the Berlinale needs a president to oversee the books and the social duties, while an artistic director would focus solely on programming. A set-up, then, not unlike Cannes’. Whether or not Kosslick would be considered for such a presidency, he has hinted at interest in playing a role in another idea winding its way through cultural circles, a “Filmhaus,” a sort of centralized location for cinematic happenings in the city, including the Berlinale if, for whatever reason, it can no longer be based on Potsdamer Platz.

Regarding the more immediate future, as Ed Meza notes in Variety, “Kirsten Niehuus, current managing director of regional film support office Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, is under consideration as a possible successor to Kosslick, who likewise headed a state funding board, North Rhine-Westphalia’s Filmstiftung NRW, before becoming director of the Berlinale.” But, as Daniel Kothenschulte argues in the Frankfurter Rundschau, anyone charged with deciding which projects will receive financial support has first and foremost the health of the industry overall in mind. Personal taste has nothing to do with it. And this impulse is precisely the opposite of what’s required of a curator. “They must recognize and defend what’s good, new, and radical.”

“This is an opportunity for Monika Grütters,” argues Dell. “To take advantage of it, though, the first thing she’ll have to do is free herself from the clutches of bureaucracy.” He offers two names for consideration, both Austrian: Christine Dollhofer, who, given modest resources, has turned the Linz Crossing Europe Film Festival into a “lively, fresh festival with an international profile,” and Alexander Horwath, who’s just completed a term as director of the Austrian Film Museum.

Whatever the final decision, and however it’s made, the criticism will keep coming. As it does—and should—for every festival. Sundance has been hearing that it’s betrayed its mission for at least twenty years, Cannes is accused of habitually dipping into the same pool of aging auteurs for its official selection, and Venice battles against being overshadowed by Toronto, which itself has begun to trim its bloated lineups. Critics know that to keep a festival on its toes is a form of tough love. And at least seventy-nine directors do, too.

Updates, 11/29: Tom Tykwer’s now commented on the letter, reports Martin Blaney for Screen: “I think that for the most part what is contained in this short text to be actually reasonable. But I think that the subsequent interpretation of this text in the press has been completely outrageous and very annoying.” At the same event on Monday, Kirsten Niehuus noted that “I have never submitted an application and Frau Grütters has never spoken to me.”

As Spiegel Online reports, Andreas Dresen (who signed the letter) agrees with Tykwer: “The whole debate is massively unfair.” Adds Dominik Graf: “If I knew our letter would be churned in the media as a confrontation with Kosslick, I never would have signed. This ‘off with his head!’ hysteria, this lack of considered thought or differentiation—instead, it’s just pounding away. With our petition, we wanted to look ahead, not throw a kick behind us.”

Update, 12/1: The debate’s “intensified,” reports Variety’s Ed Meza, “with a slew of high-profile industry players throwing their support behind longtime chief Dieter Kosslick in response to a call by dozens of German filmmakers for a new start when his contract expires in 2019. Germany’s Association of Film Distributors, Studio Babelsberg and the German Federal Film Board have all expressed support for Kosslick and praised his leadership of the Berlinale and contributions to the industry in what has become an extraordinary public dispute barely two months before the 2018 edition of the festival.”

Update, 12/9: Kosslick has handed his proposal for a restructuring of the leadership of the festival into the board and, as expected, it calls for a splitting of his current duties into two positions, a president and an artistic director. As Hanns-Georg Rodek reports for Die Welt, some may be surprised to learn that Kosslick has taken his own name off the list of candidates for either position.

Grütters, in the meantime, has set up the search committee called for in the open letter, albeit a smaller one that some may have had in mind. It’s comprised of three people, herself, Mariette Rissenbeek, managing director of German Films, and Björn Böhning, head of Berlin’s Senate Chancellery and known to tilt left within the Social Democratic Party. As Rodek notes, none of the three might be called a “specialist in the field.” Nonetheless, they’ll be submitting a list of candidates to the board in January.

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