Fest director Dieter Kosslick is ready for his 10th Berlinale

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BERLIN -- Every February, Dieter Kosslick, director of the Berlin International Film Festival, is out on Marlene Dietrich Platz, hat askew, red scarf blazing, trotting up and down the red carpet. He greets the A-list with off-hand, first-name familiarity -- "George! Cate! Angelina!" -- as if welcoming them to a dinner party. He gives a quick, sotto voice aside to an assistant, spots a journalist who's a new dad and jokes: "Vee make a deal, yes? My son, in 20 years he marries your daughter, yes?"

It's freezing. The Berlin sky is its regular winter shake of slate. But everyone is having a good time. Especially Kosslick. His slightly crooked grin never leaves his face.

Some festival directors are petty tyrants. Some are industry insiders. Kosslick, at heart, is an entertainer. In nine years at the helm, he's transformed the Berlin International Film Festival from a sleepy, provincial event, largely ignored by the industry, into a can't-miss, three-ring cinema circus.

"The only difference is we don't have elephants on the red carpet," he quips. "(But) the festival director is the ringmaster."

Kosslick "runs one of the biggest film festivals in the world as if he is having a party in his living room," says director Paul Thomas Anderson. "I have no idea how he does it, but it is extraordinary."

"He's always been that way," adds Holger Steinle, a lifelong friend who used to jam with Kosslick in a Kinks-inspired high school rock band. "When I see him up there every year, with his crazy scarf and hat, that grin of his, all I can think is: "He hasn't changed. It's like he's still in school. Playing for the crowd."

Dieter Kosslick was born and went to school in the small southern German town of Pforzheim. He studied communications in Munich, worked a journalist and speechwriter before -- in 1983 -- he joined Hamburg's film subsidy board. In the next decade, he helped found the European Low Budget Film Forum and European Film Distribution Office. In 1992, he took over at the NRW Film Board, Germany's largest film subsidy body.
In 2001, Berlin called.

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The Berlin International Film Festival was looking for a man with Kosslick's industry contacts and they were looking for a showman. The festival had turned 50 a year earlier and was showing its age. Instead of a circus, the Berlinale resembled an opera: an acquired taste for an elitist clientele.

"I came at just the right time," Kosslick notes. "It was a really frustrating phase in Berlin. The boom following German reunification (in 1990) was over. Companies were leaving, the mood was horrible. The feeling was, nothing was working. Berlin wasn't IN."

The festival certainly wasn't working. A nest of competing interests, its sidebars -- Panorama, Forum, Kinderfilmfest -- all fought with the main competition and with one another for individual films. And old festival boss Moritz de Hadeln was much criticized: the German industry accused him of picking French, Asian and U.S. films over local fare while the Berlin press had a field day with his clunky German grammar.

Kosslick -- despite his, well, creative English -- had one big advantage over de Hadeln: he was funny. If de Hadeln seemed like a state official, Kosslick was more the animator at an apres-ski party.

"In my circles I was always the funniest guy around," he acknowledges, "but in Germany, that's not such a great achievement. It's like being the Dutch downhill ski champion."

Kosslick's humor saved the day at the closing-night ceremony for his first Berlinale in 2002, where everything went wrong. The host dropped her cue-cards; microphones malfunctioned; director Wim Wenders tripped on his way onstage. It was a near disaster. But somehow, Kosslick held it together.

"The 2002 Berlinale brought a new feeling of glitz and glamour to the city," Kosslick says. "In France, the headline of one article -- in German -- was 'Stimmung' (high spirits). There was a new 'Stimmung.' It was the new festival, the new director, the new Stimmung. And that's still here today."

It helped the 'Stimmung' that Kosslick pushed German cinema back into the spotlight. In his first year, he picked four German films for competition, more than any Berlin Fest since 1983. His timing was perfect. A new generation of German filmmakers were bursting on the scene. Directors such as Andreas Dresen, Wolfgang Becker and Fatih Akin used the Berlinale as a springboard to international success.

"Before, the German film industry had a problem with the Berlinale," Kosslick remarks. "Objectively speaking, there were just as many German films in Berlin then as afterwards. The difference was I put more of them in competition and they won more awards. It was always the question if is the glass half empty or half full. I was the new marketing boss and I said the glass is half full."

Having won over the press and the local industry, Kosslick set about healing the festival's internal divisions. He got the directors of all the Berlinale sections to sit around a table and hammer out the entire festival lineup. It was no mean achievement. The sidebars had been working alone, like mini-festivals running alongside the main show.

"Trying to get everyone to work together was about as difficult as making the festival smoke-free; it wasn't easy," he says. "But we have grown together. You can see it from the fact that, in my first festival, we had a different poster for each section. Now, for the 60th anniversary, we are all using the same poster."

Kosslick, however, has his critics.

"He's a clown," one prominent German director says," and Berlin deserves better than a clown."

But for the head of one of the world's largest film festivals, a man responsible for accepting or rejecting hundreds of titles every year, he has made surprisingly few enemies. Kosslick attributes his diplomatic success to lessons learned from his friend, and mentor, Manfred Bissinger, spokesman for Hamburg mayor Hans-Ulrich Klose when Kosslick was his speechwriter.

"He showed me how to be honest but smart," Kosslick says, "that is, don't lie to people but don't be naive either. ... You need a lot of friends in this job. I need a telephone book of contacts to get things down. You come in and start pounding on the table demanding things and you're going to destroy the relationship."

If there is any consistent criticism of Kosslick, it is that he is too diplomatic, too ready to put political concerns -- the obligatory French title in competition, a splashy red-carpet premiere for some U.S. studio release -- ahead of artistic merit. Some still point to 2006 when he turned down Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's soon-to-be-Oscar-winning "The Lives of Others" for competition, not because he didn't think the film was good, but because there were already four German films in competition and thought a fifth would send the wrong message: too much Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles.

Off-the-record, Kosslick admits to regretting some of his competition picks. On-the-record, he'll only quote his detractors to the effect that "the festival director, if you believe the film critics, has made some disastrous decisions."

Kosslick has, in some ways, been the victim of his own success. Cannes has begun to woo German directors, like recent Cannes attendees Fatih Akin and Andreas Dresen, and regularly snatches top German titles out from under Berlin. "My most disappointing moment is every year when someone says 'The film's not ready,' he says. That's code for: it's going to Cannes."

And new festivals and markets continue to crowd the calendar.

"New places keep coming. Everyone has a world premiere or two and the number of available films keeps going down," he adds. "But there is a positive side because it frees up spots for independents, for newcomers. Our 60th anniversary festival will also be a festival of newcomers."

One thing that will remain the same is the man in the center ring. Come Feb. 11, Dieter Kosslick will put on his had, tie on his Berlinale scarf and head to the red carpet for a 10-day, 10-night nonstop performance. The films might be the stars of the Berlin festival, but Kosslick remains its main attraction.

"There are very few people who get the chance to do what they can do best," says Kosslick's old friend Steinle. "But Dieter, all his talents -- for organizing, for bringing people together, for performing -- it all comes together in this job. That red carpet, once a year, it's his stage."