Head of Berlinale on the film festival's most unforgettable moments

In 2019, Dieter Kosslick is hanging up his hat as director of the Berlin Film Festival after 18 years. He spoke to DW in an exclusive interview in which he reflects on the highlights and bitter moments of his tenure.

For 18 years Dieter Kosslick has led the Berlin Film Festival, strengthening the festival in many ways and helping the German film industry regain its reputation. Bringing numerous stars from Hollywood, Asia and European cinema to the red carpet in Berlin, he was likewise involved in numerous social projects as is reflected in both the film selections and the festival itself. After the end of the 69th Berlinale, which runs through February 17, 2019, he will be handing over the baton to Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek so DW's cinema expert, Hans Christoph Bock sat down with him to get a rundown of his accomplishments during his time at the festival's helm.

DW: Looking back at 20 years at the helm of the Berlinale begs the question, what remains? What was your most memorable encounter?

Dieter Kosslick: Meeting the Rolling Stones in the Berlinale Palast on the occasion of the world premiere of their film Shine a Light (2008) by director Martin Scorsese was certainly the most exciting encounter. It was a highlight for me, as the former guitarist in the rock band The Meters.

What was your most difficult moment?

The moment when I walked down the steps in the Hyatt Hotel with Patrice Chereau to watch Son Frere (Silver Bear for Best Director 2003), a story about HIV/Aids and death, was tough. Daniel Toscan du Plantier, a representative from France's film industry, had just died of a heart attack in front of the restaurant at the Hyatt. That was a really sad moment.

Do you remember a moment that gave you great happiness?

I was opening the section Generation (youth films) at the Zoo Palast cinema with my son Fridolin, who was almost one year old, in my arms, and he had fallen asleep. I had him with me on stage, and as I started to speak into the mic, he woke up and saw 1,000 children staring at him, cheering. Seeing all those kids and having one of my own in my arms was a happy moment.

Film festivals and circuses are arguably similar. Are you the circus director holding the whip, or the animal trainer?

I'd say I'm a democratic animal trainer. I work with a lot of people and I let them work on their own. But of course someone has to stick out his nose, head and ears and take on responsibility, make decisions and keep the forward momentum. Often, that is me.

The big festivals in Berlin, Cannes and Venice are always in a competition with one another. Who was tops while you were in office?

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Of course, that was always Cannes. But sometimes it changed from one year to the next. Venice really caught up and we always came in on a very, very good fourth place. Chancellor Angela Merkel once asked me at a meeting with French President Francois Hollande, but who came in third? And I answered, "Well, nobody." (laughs)

Children got showings of their own during Kosslick's tenure

For you as festival director, what makes a good film?

There are various criteria but there are differences of opinion about what is in the program, of course that is discussed a lot. Some films like Asghar Farhadi's A Separation (Golden Bear 2011) and Taxi by Jafar Panahi (Golden Bear 2015) need no discussion — you simply know, that's a good film. But you can't sit in a movie theater with a ruler to measure a film.

What people like or don't like is very subjective. You can tell by people's reaction. At first, I always felt committed to the general public — though of course not with all the movies we show — but as we have been an audience festival since 1951, it was of the utmost importance to me to present films people would enjoy and that would resonate in their hearts and heads.

You travel around the world to watch movies. How is German film perceived internationally? Is there still talk about Fassbinder and Herzog or has that changed?

Yes, Fassbinder is definitely still being discussed and Herzog as well, as he's still making films. He's a big star in America. The Berlinale has also contributed to making German cinema better known, because every year we include German films in the competition. In total, more than 50 German films have been screened in the competition and they have often won Silver and Golden Bears. This is also a signal that the international jury considers German films to be competitive.

The Berlinale was already established and world-famous when you took over in 2001. Looking back, how has the festival changed?

It has seen tremendous growth; the audience has nearly tripled. Around 340,000 people bought a movie ticket this year. Then there are the economic components such as the film market, co-productions and the cooperation with the Book Fair. Target group-oriented programs like the Forum Expanded section or our Culinary Cinema, in which we opened ourselves to food and ecology, were made. Programs such as the Berlinale Talents or the World Cinema Fund, with which we support films worldwide with great success, have been developed. These are not only shown at our festival, but also in Cannes and at other film festivals.

Historically, the Berlinale has always seen itself as a political festival. What were the greatest social and political challenges in your time?

In the past, this was the East-West conflict — from when the Berlin Wall rose right through the time when it fell. Eastern European and Asian films were shown here. That was the early days and our challenges were somewhat different.

A moving and memorable moment came when the niece of Iranian director Jafar Panahi took the bear for his film, "Taxi"

Then we were faced right away with the war in Iraq, with the American invasion of Iraq. A film that premiered at the festival — In This World by Michael Winterbottom — took the Golden Bear in 2003. It's about a refugee from Afghanistan who made it to a coffee shop in London.

There were many challenges. During this time, globalization has completely gone off the rails. We have repeatedly pointed this out with films: That one cannot on the one hand advertise the free movement of goods worldwide but then, when people want to move freely across borders, call it "asylum tourism."

These were topics during my time and then there was the increasing radicalization of the far-right scene, the right-wing radicals who are increasing in strength; here, too, we tried to point out these stubborn, eternal yesterdays in film.

What does the future of film look like in the era of Netflix and home cinema? Where do you think the great power of cinema still lies?

There will be enormous changes. Our guidelines for the Berlinale, at least for the competition, are clear. It says: Cinema showings must be planned, otherwise we won't be able to play this film. In other words, companies like Amazon, which produce similarly to Netflix, need an advanced run in the cinema planned or else we cannot show these films in competition.

Something will change in the future, but cinema won't die. I've been here too long for that, and the cinema as well, as it has been around for nearly 120 years. The only question is who runs the show and whether Netflix will one day be the biggest supplier of arthouse films and of major films. That's a big question, how film festivals that depend on these films will react. At the moment, we are in a transition period.

On February 7, 2019, the last Berlinale under your direction begins. What are your plans for once all the hype has died down and the last Berlinale guest has left?

Then I'll drive into the Bavarian mountains and go on a fast. After that I will be free not only in my stomach but also in my head so that I can start a new life. I'm looking forward to that.

A photo history of the Berlinale

Selfies, stars and fans on the red carpet

Berlin's film festival has upped the glitz and glamor in recent years, as attested by the timeline of fascinating images on show at a new exhibition, "Between the Films — A Photo History of the Berlinale." Here in 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio thrilled fans on the red carpet by stopping to take a few snapshots. In today's smartphone era, the camera he's holding already feels old school.

A photo history of the Berlinale

Berlin invites the world

In 1955, the Berlinale was held for the fifth time. Great sums were investing in publicity and marketing. Ten years after the end of World War II, the German Federal Republic wanted to show it was culturally anchored in the West. Posters promoting the festival were also widely present in communist East Berlin. World stars such as Peter Ustinov (pictured) contributed to the hype of the event.

A photo history of the Berlinale

Smiling despite the Cold War

In 1961, the Berlinale was still held at the end of June. While the instability of world politics was most directly felt in Berlin, Willy Brandt, then the city's mayor and later West German chancellor, was still beaming as he shook hands with Hollywood icon Jayne Mansfield (accompanied by her husband, Mickey Hargitay). Five months later, construction of the Berlin Wall would start.

A photo history of the Berlinale

Freezing in the summer?

The Berlinale was also held in 1962, despite the recently constructed Berlin Wall newly dividing the city. Photographer Heinz Köster took this shot of Hollywood star James Stewart in front of the Telefunken-Haus on Ernst-Reuter Square, a skyscraper completed in 1960. Berlin can still be chilly in the summer — at least that's the impression given by the way the actor is shivering.

A photo history of the Berlinale

Stars in a divided city

The Cold War was part of the picture at the Berlinale. Stars coming to the city, such as Italian diva Claudia Cardinale, would often pose in front of the Berlin Wall. A bizarre juxtaposition emerges from these shots, with the grinning glamour of Hollywood set against the backdrop of a divide that caused suffering for many people, not only in Berlin, but on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

A photo history of the Berlinale

A fresh wind

In the wake of the revolutionary movements of 1968, the Berlin film festival would also be transformed by a leftward shift that celebrated daring, auteur filmmaking. Ten years later, film critic Wolf Donner (pictured center), who took on the direction of the Berlinale in 1976, moved the film festival from June to February, giving it an edge over Cannes, which is held in May.

A photo history of the Berlinale

Preempting a new era

In 1988, the atmosphere of political change could again be felt in Berlin as Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika policies took hold, with Aleksandr Askoldov’s "The Commissar" screening after a long ban in the Soviet Union. Also that year, filmmaker Agnes Varda premiered two films starring Jane Birkin (pictured), the drama "Kung Fu Master" and the docudrama "Jane B. par Agnès V."

A photo history of the Berlinale

Back in reunified Berlin

After filming "One Two Three" in West Berlin in 1961 while the Wall was being built, director Billy Wilder returned to the German capital and its film festival over three decades later. He is shown here with Horst Buchholz, the lead actor of his Cold War film, the two standing in the slush in front of the Brandenburg Gate in February, 1993.

A photo history of the Berlinale

A new millennium on the red carpet

Dieter Kosslick became the festival director in 2001, giving a new impetus to the venerated celebration of film. A promoter of German cinema, he also boosted the level of glamour on the red carpet and brought more color to the festival. He personally accompanies guest stars to their film premieres, and often wears his trademark black hat — as he is pictured here alongside Judi Dench in 2007.

A photo history of the Berlinale

The festival's photographers

The "Between the Films – A Photo History of the Berlinale" exhibition — on show at the German Cinematheque in Berlin from September 28, 2018 through May 5, 2019 — is also a tribute to the work of the festival's press photographers. Erika Rabau, shown here taking a well-earned nap at the 1995 festival, was the Berlinale's official photographer from 1972 until shorty before her death in 2016.