Berlin's Departing Director on 18 Years at the Fest: "It's Not Just a Place to Take Selfies"

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Dieter Kosslick has transformed Berlin into the world's largest public film festival with the world's second-largest film market — the EFM.

On the eve of his last Berlinale, Dieter Kosslick looks back on his tenure, meeting his heroes and the unique cultural impact of the world's largest public film festival.

It's been a long, strange ride for Dieter Kosslick. In his 18 years as head of the Berlin International Film Festival, the quirky Kosslick has danced with Bollywood legend Shah Rukh Khan, jammed with the Rolling Stones and, by inviting Fidel Castro to attend one year, nearly caused an international incident. (Fidel, sadly, didn't make it.)

In that time, Kosslick has transformed Berlin into the world's largest public film festival with the world's second-largest film market — the EFM.

Meryl Streep, Wes Anderson, George Clooney and the Coen brothers are professed "Dieter" fans. "He runs a film festival as if he is having a party in his living room," says director Paul Thomas Anderson of Kosslick's management style. But Kosslick's critics say that by expanding the quantity of films in Berlin — nearly 400 this year across all sections — he has diluted the quality. They point to the counter-example of Venice, which has become an Oscar launchpad by focusing on fewer, higher-profile films.

Kosslick, 70, disagrees. "I have no regrets," he tells THR ahead of his final Berlin Festival. "In 18 years, I've achieved everything I wanted to at the Berlinale."

How does it feel to be going into your last Berlinale?

It's funny to look back at my first festival. Then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroder opened the festival. Everything went wrong. The microphones didn't work. I spoke for what felt like three hours in "English." It was crazy and funny, but it was a completely new feeling, a new atmosphere in Berlin.

What have been the biggest changes in the festival, and the industry, since you started?

The whole question of female representation has completely changed during my time here. The representation of women in all categories has gone up — particularly in sections headed by women. So it seems it does make a difference who is making the decisions. Berlin's red carpet has also completely changed. Richard Gere said: "The Berlin red carpet is the place where you can speak politics as if you're onstage in Hyde Park." It's not just a place to take selfies. It's become a place for celebrities to express themselves on politics, on culture, on censorship.

What about the European Film Market, which greatly expanded during your tenure?

We now have the world's second-largest film market. That's a major structural change. To grow the market was one of my targets when I started at the Berlinale. Without the market, we wouldn't be where we are today. Our audience has also exploded — no other festival in the world has so many paying customers as the Berlinale. When people complain that the Berlinale has gotten too big, they miss the fact that, yes, the Berlinale is the biggest public film festival in the world, but if you look closely, it is very niche, very targeted. We have the Retrospective, Native, Generation — we have a different festival for every audience segment. That is what has made the Berlinale such a successful festival. It's our depth.

Do you have a favorite moment from the past 18 years?

Many. Having two opening night films from Wes Anderson — The Grand Budapest Hotel [in 2014] and Isle of Dogs [in 2018] — were highlights. And of course having The Rolling Stones and Martin Scorsese's Shine a Light as the opening film [in 2008]. I brought my red Fender Stratocaster to the VIP room and struck up a conversation with Ron Wood. We ended up jamming together to "Time Is on My Side." I just regret not being at the press conference for the film, where Mick Jagger said, "Thank you, Dieter, for inviting us." Someone told me I need to make that clip my ringtone.

What was your biggest coup as festival director?

Inviting Fidel Castro to attend for the [Oliver Stone-directed] documentary Comandante [in 2003]. I wrote Castro a letter: "We always invite the lead actor to attend the premiere. Would you like to come?" He wrote back — I still have the letter — and said sure. It was all set up, but it was a few weeks before the U.S. was set to invade Iraq. Castro said he was prevented at the last minute from attending. Later, Joschka Fischer [then German foreign minister] said to me in passing: "Next time you want to start World War III, at least tell me beforehand. I canceled that." So it was him who took care of Castro.

What's the biggest film you "lost" to another festival?

I don't know how many films we “lost” to other festivals but the biggest critical hit I rejected was Park Chan-wook's Oldboy. Everyone else loved it but I thought the violence was horrible. In the first 5 minutes someone gets their teeth knocked out with a hammer. Maybe I just wasn't Berlinale hardened. Maybe now it wouldn't shock me so much. But back then it was too much. It went to Cannes and won the Grand Prix there.

Is Venice a model for Berlin?

Venice isn't a model. I think it's great — and it's been a great three-year run. But there are reasons for it — and it’s also because the Oscar contenders are screening in Telluride and Toronto and Venice. We are much more driven by the audience and the film market. And, just as an aside, Venice at midnight in August will always be more beautiful than midnight on Potsdamer Platz in February. When the Oscar dates change and the Oscar is being presented during the Berlinale, we'll see what Hollywood stars will stop by, as they do in Venice. But the Berlinale will continue, I think, as it has done. There will be different films and a different focus, of course, and I wish [Venice festival director Alberto Barbera] good luck, and I'm sure he will be successful. But I don't think any other festival is a model for us.

We are a cultural organization and we're a business — a very commercially successful business. We're not just a state-subsidized cultural event. We get government support, but our budget is 26 million euros ($29.7 million)  annually, and we get 8.2 million euros ($9.4 million) from the government. The other 17.8 million euros ($20.3 million) come from sponsors and ticket sales and marketing. We have a very distinctive business culture here. We have a very professional management that works very much on delegation. Each individual manager of individual sections has a lot of individual responsibility. Of course, like good managers, they need to report back and I have the final decision. But experience has shown that the historical tradition of having the same person being both managing director and culture director of the Berlinale is no longer possible. That's clear. And that will change. If it were up to me — the Berlinale would have been turned into its own company — it is so big it should be set up with its own management.

Looking back, how would sum up your time at the Berlinale?

I achieved everything I wanted to at the Berlinale. I don't have any regrets. I'm happy to go on to the next stage in my life. 18 years sounds like a long time but if you look at everything we did in those 18 years...I'm leaving as a happy man. I achieved my goals with a fantastic team that I think is one-of-a-kind.  There's not one equal to them in the entire world.

What advice do you have for your successors, artistic director Carlo Chatrian and managing director Mariette Rissenbeek?

Be lucky and happy. Luck is half of it. The rest is hard work. 

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.