Teutonic turnaround

The Berlin International Film Festival continues to play a key role in the resurgence of German cinema.

"One huge party" -- that's how German film executive David Groenewold of Odeon Pictures describes the Berlin International Film Festival. "For the German industry, Berlin is the fifth season of the year. It's like Oktoberfest."

But don't expect to hear much oompah music or see any lederhosen-wearing thigh-slappers at this year's Berlinale. Berlin is still proudly Prussian. But under festival director Dieter Kosslick, the gathering has become a one-of-a-kind celebration of German cinema.

Kosslick's term as Berlinale director has coincided with a kind of renaissance in German film not seen since the 1970s -- and arguably not even then.

Indeed, local directors such as Fatih Akin (2005's "Head-On") and Wolfgang Becker (2004's "Goodbye Lenin!") have gone from Berlinale success to international acclaim, and German movies are winning awards -- and selling -- around the world.

At home, Germans are rediscovering their own cineculture. When Kosslick took over the Berlinale in 2002, the market share for local films was a dismal 12%. In 2003, it jumped to 17.5% and last year hit a near-record 23% of total ticket sales.

Pushing German film back into the spotlight was one of Kosslick's prime missions when he took the reins in Berlin. In his first year, he had three German films in competition: Tom Tykwer's "Heaven," Andreas Dresen's "Grill Point" and "A Map of the Heart" from Dominik Graf. Under his reign, there have never been fewer than two local titles competing for the Golden Bear.

This year, the so-called Berlin 'school of cool' -- intellectual art house cinema -- is represented by Christian Petzold's "Yella," along with the more mainstream, audience-friendly "The Counterfeiter," from Stefan Ruzowitzky.

"The Berlinale has become the platform for presenting German cinema," says Johannes Klingsporn, managing director of German distributors association the VdF. "The entire industry -- all the newspapers, television and radio stations -- are focused on the festival. It has boosted the profile of German films enormously."

It also has upped the profile of the country's talent, with German actors sweeping the awards in Berlin last year. Sandra Huller won best actress honors for her harrowing performance as a girl possessed by demons, either real or psychological, in Hans-Christian Schmid's "Requiem," while Moritz Bleibtreu won a Silver Bear portraying a sex addict in Oskar Roehler's "The Elementary Particles," and the Berlin jury awarded Juergen Vogel a special Silver Bear for artistic contribution for co-producing, co-writing and starring in Matthias Glasner's "The Free Will."

"I think it is a sign that the international community, as well as the German audience, has begun to recognize that we have something special going on here," Huller said during a press conference following the ceremony. "I think that also has a lot to do with the Berlinale."

One look at this year's lineup shows to just what degree the international community has taken notice. German actors are increasingly being featured in Hollywood films such as Paul Schrader's upcoming drama "The Walker" (Moritz Bleibtreu), Robert De Niro's Universal-distributed drama "The Good Shepherd" (Martina Gedeck), now in theaters, and Billie August's upcoming bio pic "Goodbye Bafana" (Diane Kruger).

Julia Jentsch, whose career took off after she won a Silver Bear in Berlin in 2005 for "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days," returns to Berlin in Jiri Menzel's Czech period piece "I Served the King of England."

Even the Festival de Cannes -- notorious for snubbing German cinema -- broke a decadelong dry spell with Hans Weingartner's "The Edukators," a 2004 competition title that went on to become a crossover hit. Additionally, in 2005, Akin, whose "Head-On" won Gold in Berlin, sat on the Cannes jury.

"There's a change in attitude -- the international festivals are taking German film and German filmmakers more seriously," says Gerhard Meixner, co-managing director of Berlin-based Razor Film Produktion, which won Berlin's Dialogue en Perspective prize last year for Bulent Akinci's "Running on Empty." "The success of German films at the Berlinale has raised the profile of German cinema internationally. Selection committees are taking a closer look at new German movies that, a few years back, they might have passed over."

But while many hail Kosslick as the savior of German cinema, some industry executives grumble that Berlin and the German film industry are beginning to move in opposite directions.

"We have some very commercial product, and it sells well, but it is a given that it won't run in Berlin," says Justyna Muesch, a sales and acquisitions exec with Munich-based Telepool. "Berlin provides a platform for German films that might otherwise get missed, but it misses the films most audiences want to see."

Indeed, last year Berlin turned down one of the biggest German films of the year -- Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others" -- for its competition lineup, even as it welcomed titles such as Valeska Grisebach's "Longing" and Glasner's "Free Will," pure art house features with little obvious commercial appeal.

Although Henckel von Donnersmarck was offered the opening-night slot for Berlin's Panorama sidebar, he chose to release his Stasi drama without the festival's help.

"Lives of Others" went on to win seven German Film Awards and two European Film Awards and was recently nominated for an Oscar.

Beta Cinema, which pulled "Lives of Others" from its Berlin slate after the festival snub, sold the picture worldwide in Cannes to, among others, Sony Pictures Classics for the U.S., Lionsgate for the U.K. and Ocean Films in France.

"The films we've had that have had strong international crossover potential, be it (Oliver Hirschbiegel's) 'Downfall' or (Hermine Huntgeburth's) 'The White Masai' or 'The Lives of Others,' did very well without the Berlinale," Beta Cinema managing director of sales and acquisitions Dirk Schurhoff says.

Still, while Schurhoff doesn't see a direct connection between the German film boom and the Berlinale under Kosslick, he wouldn't want to go back to the pre-Kosslick days, when it was rare to have even one local film in competition.

"You can argue about the selection -- this film or that film -- but you can't deny that Kosslick has raised the profile of German films enormously," Schurhoff says. "Berlin is still our best market for German titles. Buyers come wanting to see German movies, wanting to engage with German culture. In a large part, that's thanks to Kosslick."