Berlin Opening Gala Pays Tribute to Outgoing Director Dieter Kosslick

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Berlin International Film Festival director Dieter Kosslick (center) with the cast of 'The Kindness of Strangers'

The 69th edition of the film festival kicked off Thursday with a screening of Lone Scherfig's 'The Kindness of Strangers.'

The 69th Berlin International Film Festival kicked off Thursday with Lone Scherfig's The Kindness of Strangers, a New York City-set melodrama which stars Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Tahar Rahim Caleb Landry Jones and Bill Nighy, all of whom turned up on the chilly red carpet to celebrate the movie's world premiere.

Dieter Kosslick, the quirky genius who has run the festival for nearly two decades, is delivering his swan song with this year's Berlinale, marking his 18th and final turn as the head of the world's largest public film event.

And the fest decided to send him out in style, kicking off the opening ceremony with a playful, but heartfelt duet between German 1920s-style crooner Max Rabe and entertainer — and longtime Berlin gala hostess — Anke Engelke. “You're the reason we're here,” they crooned to Kosslick. “You're the only reason we're here.”

A visibly moved Kosslick waved from the side before strolling to the center of the stage to a standing ovation. Under his reign, Kosslick has greatly expanded the size and scope of the festival, which now screens some 400 films across its many selections. Many also credit him with turning Berlin's European Film Market from a sleepy afterthought within the international industry to the world's second-largest film mart. After this year's Berlinale, Kosslick will step down and will be replaced by the two-person team of artistic director Carlo Chatrian and managing director Mariette Rissenbeek.

Gender representation in the film industry — a hot-button topic since the explosion of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements — has taken center stage in Berlin. The festival's competition lineup of 17 films vying for Berlin's Gold and Silver Bear honors includes seven films directed by women (41 percent), by far the best record of any of Europe's A-list festivals.

This year's Berlinale also has a female head of its competition jury, with French actress Juliette Binoche overseeing the six-person group that will pick this year's winners, which will be unveiled Feb. 16 at an awards gala. Binoche joked she hoped the fest's honors were made of more precious stuff than the Oscar she won (in 1997 for best supporting actress in The English Patient). "After a few weeks, it started peeling and you could see it was gray underneath," she quipped.

There are no clear frontrunners for the Golden Bear in this year's competition, which, along with Kindness of Strangers features new entries from Berlin regulars including Spanish director Isabel Coixet (back with the black-and-white, Netflix-backed period drama Elisa & Marcela); Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland, whose politically charged Mr. Jones follows the true story of the Welsh journalist who told the Western world of the famine in the Soviet Union in the 1930s; and Francois Ozon, who this year offers the Catholic abuse drama By the Grace of God.

Given Berlin's reputation as the most political of the best festivals, social issues are certain to be the focus of discussion in the coming days. But, for the moment, at least, politics and debate took a back seat as the Berlinale said goodbye to Dieter Kosslick.