Is the once-edgy Berlinale showing its age?

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Is the Berlinale getting old?

Berlin has its 58th film fest this year, making it the baby of the big three film fests. (Cannes will have its 61st this time around, and Venice is the eldest, celebrating its 65th iteration in 2008.) But the Croisette and Lido events have gotten face-lifts of late: In 2007, Cannes had edgy buzz films, including IFC Film's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," Sony Pictures Classics' "Persepolis" and the Weinstein Co.'s "Control," while Venice had the likes of Focus Features' "Lust, Caution" and "Atonement" as well as the Weinstein Co.'s "I'm Not There."

In contrast, the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival opens Feb. 7 with Martin Scorsese's documentary on the Rolling Stones, Paramount Vantage's "Shine a Light" -- a 65-year-old director recording a band that first started touring in the Johnson era. The Berlinale's competition lineup includes new films from Amos Kollek (61), Mike Leigh (65 on Feb. 20), Yoji Yamada (76) and Andrzej Wajda (81). All under the tutelage of this year's jury president, filmmaker Constantin Costa-Gavras, who turns 75 on Feb. 12.

So is Berlin in danger of becoming a fest for "best agers"?

Writing in German national daily the FAZ, critic Verena Lueken bemoaned the fact that having Costa-Gavras as president sends the message that the Berlinale is more about cinema nostalgia than cinema's future.

"Getting Costa-Gavras seems less a coup than an act of reverence, reverence of a kind that filmgoers under 40 can't really appreciate," Lueken wrote. "There was a time for the kind of cinema that Costa-Gavras stands for, but that time is past."

Comparing Berlin with Cannes, which secured Sean Penn as its jury president hot off the success of Paramount Vantage's "Into the Wild," Lueken added that when "Cannes chooses for the same post a man who talks about discovering the new trends and young directors from around the world ... it makes Berlin look pretty old in comparison."

The contrast between "young" Cannes and "old" Berlin came into sharp focus last November when freshman director Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," which had already taken the Palme d'Or, won the European Film Award for best film.

"I would just like to thank the Cannes Film Festival for giving so many first-time directors like myself a chance," Mungiu told the European Film Academy crowd at the ceremony in Berlin. "It has really made all the difference."

"In the past few years, we've seen very few young or first-time directors (in competition in Berlin); it has been mostly established, safe filmmakers," adds Kristina Nord, chief film critic at Berlin's left-leaning daily the Taz. "To be fair, it was tough to compete with Cannes last year. It was their 60th anniversary, so it wasn't too hard to get directors to come. There have been years when Cannes hasn't looked so good."

Vincent Maraval, head of sales at France's Wild Bunch, has been a particularly vocal critic of the Berlinale's supposed aging process.

"Berlin still functions like a festival of 15 years ago," Maraval moans. "For the past few years, there's been no collaboration between the Berlin festival and producers, sellers or talent. They don't talk to anyone to see what's going on, so they end up only taking films from older filmmakers. As a sales agent, I can't work with them. I can't risk exposing my films at the risk of them being badly received."

Berlin used to pride itself on being the edgiest of the big three festivals. Plenty of small, controversial films have won the Golden Bear -- from Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Veronika Voss" (1982) to Paul Greengrass' "Bloody Sunday" (2002) to Fatih Akin's "Head-On" (2004).

But "Head-On" producer Klaus Maeck of Corazon International, which took Akin's follow-up, Strand Releasing's "The Edge of Heaven," to Cannes, admits that things have changed.

"We were very surprised when Berlin accepted 'Head-On,' since we thought it was this small, dirty punk film," Maeck recalls. "I don't think the Berlinale selection committee was too crazy about it. The jury really loved it though, and it won. But I don't know if a 'Head-On' would make it into competition in Berlin now."

There might not be a "Head-On" in this year's lineup, but the 2008 Berlinale won't just be a showcase for established masters such as Wajda, Yamada or Leigh. Hot young Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke has made the cut with his latest, "Lake Tahoe"; visual effects artist Lance Hammer will bring his directorial debut, the comic-book adaptation "Ballast" to Berlin straight from Sundance; and young Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha is in competition with the Weinstein Co.'s cops-and-gangs drama "The Elite Squad," a film already being hyped as the next "City of God" (2002).

"The problem with filmmakers, film critics and film festival directors is that every year we get a year older," jokes Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick when asked to respond to accusations of running a graying film festival. "But I think you will see this year's competition is a colorful mix of both established directors and new faces."

"Berlin's main problem, I think, is that the Forum and Panorama sidebars have become bigger and bigger and more important," adds Fritz Goettler, film editor at Munich's Suddeutsche Zeitung. "They are almost parallel festivals, competing with the main lineup both for films and also for stars and press coverage."

Kosslick dismisses any talk of competition between the 20-odd films in Berlin's main showcase and the more than 150 titles in its various sidebars.

"Let's make this clear: There is one Berlinale," he insists. "The Panorama, the Forum, the Special screenings, (kids' film showcase) Generations and Perspektive Deutsches Kino are all part of the Berlinale, and believe it or not, we work together to decide the program."

Berlin's main competition, of course, is with Venice and Cannes. Since taking over the Berlinale reigns in 2001, Kosslick has re-established the German festival's position in the top three and, with the expansion of the European Film Market, made Berlin a must-go for the industry.

But, just as you're only as good as your last film, a festival is only as good as its last lineup.

Last year was a hardly a disaster. Any fest would count itself lucky to have the world premieres of films such as Oliver Dahan's "La Vie en Rose," Joseph Cedar's "Beaufort" and Stefan Ruzowitzky's "The Counterfeiters," all Berlinale 2007 competition titles.

The biz is in the buzz, however, and that was something lacking last year. For this round, Kosslick is counting on names like Paul Thomas Anderson, Isabel Coixet and Johnnie To -- and maybe even Marty and Mick -- to help Berlin get its mojo back.
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