"Our films are dealing with reality, they are not escapism. But dealing with the reality doesn’t mean it’s not fun. The world is full of fun,” said Dieter Kosslick, the director of the Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival, which I will be covering for The Jerusalem Post from February 11-21. We spoke via telephone last week, as he was in the middle of preparations for the huge event, which features 400 films from almost every country in the world.
It will open with the world premiere of the Coen brothers’ latest film, Hail, Caesar!, a Hollywood farce set in the Fifties starring George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson.
The international jury, which awards prizes in the Competition, the main section of the festival, will be headed by Meryl Streep.
The participation of the Coen brothers and Streep ought to make it crystal clear: the Berlinale is a one of the most important festivals in the world, one that attracts both Hollywood’s biggest names, critically acclaimed filmmakers from all over the world and emerging talent.
Asked what makes the Berlinale unique, Kosslick replied, “I think the most important difference between the Berlinale and other festivals is that the Berlinale, which was founded 66 years ago, in 1951, has always been an audience-driven festival...
At the first festival, the audience decided who got the awards... The audience still decides on a few awards, and the festival is now bigger and better. We sell more than 330,000 tickets and have more than 500,000 admissions.”
Kosslick explained further about the history of the festival: “The festival was founded in 1951. Berlin was destroyed and the Americans came in and wanted to bring some culture to the Germans, who were desperately suffering from their own sh*t they had brought in from before... It was a huge thing to bring foreign culture back here.”
He said there is still a plaque up where the mayor spoke at the first festival “about Frieden und Verständigung, to understand the world and each other in peace and that’s been the philosophy of the festival for 66 years, always fighting for the poor and tortured.
And always remembering the Shoah, the darkest spot in our history... That is the DNA of the Berlinale, it’s a cultural event highly loaded with issues.”
Kosslick, who has been the director of the festival since 2001, has long had a special connection to the Jerusalem Film Festival and its founder, the late Lia van Leer, who was president of the Berlinale international jury in 1995. At a memorial service for her at the Jerusalem Cinematheque last summer, he joked that the two had had “a rock-and-roll marriage,” which is as good a description as any for the closeness and vision they shared. Van Leer and others from the Jerusalem Film Festival always visited the Berlinale to scout films for the Jerusalem festival. Kosslick was a guest at the Jerusalem Film Festival, where he handed out bear-shaped ceramic lapel pins, since the bear is the symbol of the Berlinale, the top awards of which are the Golden and Silver Bear.
Part of his connection to Jerusalem and van Leer is evident in the central place Israeli films have had at the Berlinale under his tenure. Several have won significant prizes, most notably Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort, which won the Silver Bear in 2007.
Eytan Fox’s 2004 film, Walk on Water, was the first Israeli film to open the Panorama Section and his 2006 movie, The Bubble, won two awards at the Berlinale.
“We have 10 films from your country [Israel]... This year, we don’t have an Israeli film in the main competition, but they are in all different sections. There is the television series The Writer by Sayed Kashua...
And there is Cafe Nagler [about a cafe run by a Jewish family in Berlin before World War II by Mor Kaplansky] in the Culinary Cinema section. It’s pretty funny, I must say.”
Other Israeli movies at the festival this year include Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?, a movie about a young Israeli coping with his family and an HIV diagnosis, by Tomer and Barak Heymann, whose most recent film was Mr. Gaga, the documentary about Ohad Naharin. Who’s Gonna Love Me Now will be shown in the Panorama Documentary section.
Elite Zexer’s Sand Storm, the story of a Beduin woman and her rebellious daughter, which just won the Grand Jury Prize World Cinema-Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival, will have its European premiere at the Panorama section of the Berlinale.
The latest film from Udi Aloni, Junction 48, about a Palestinian musician, will also be shown in the Panorama section.
Idan Haguel’s Inertia, starring Ilanit Ben-Yaakov and Mohammad Bakri, about a woman whose husband mysteriously disappears, will be shown in the Forum Section.
Avi Mograbi’s Between Fences, about the detention center for asylum seekers in Holot, will also be shown in the Forum Section and Mograbi will be a member of the Berlinale Shorts jury. One of the films competing in that section will be Winds Junction, Rotem Murat’s look at a couple on vacation in the Sinai. Aleeza Chanowitz’s short film, Mushkie, will be shown in the Generation 14plus section of films about young people.
Germany has been in the news lately for accepting a large number of migrants, and Kosslick said the Berlinale was planning many initiatives to include migrants in the festival, as well as showing movies about the migrant experience.
“We have a whole bouquet of things we want to do with or for them. For the first time in its history the Berlinale urges its guests and audiences to make a donation to the non-profit Behandlungszentrum für Folteropfer e.V. [Berlin Center for Torture Victims, www.bzfo.de/homeen.
html], which provides support for people traumatized by torture, war, migration and persecution. We also invited volunteers to accompany refugees in some screenings.
And this year there are welcome-classes – classes that are aimed at integrating displaced children – from local school projects.
Our section, Generation, is cooperating with this project.
“Our program kind of reflects this whole situation, too, because art reflects the world. There are many filmmakers discussing the causes of migration and consequences of war or violence in different ways and we chose the most remarkable films for our festival. In the competition we have a film by Gianfranco Rosi for example. The director lived on Lampedusa island for over two years. His film Fuocoammare [Fire at Sea] shows this huge gap between the suffering of refugees and the everyday life of the people – a shocking contrast.
“Also in the Competition is Danis Tanovic’ Death in Sarajevo, it’s set in a hotel which is a microcosm of what is going on in Europe. The movie Alone in Berlin is based on the famous novel Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. It’s directed by Vincent Perez and stars Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, and it’s set in one house during the Nazi time, where everyone spied on each other.”
This year’s festival will also mark the 30th anniversary of the Teddy Award, a section of the Berlinale that Kosslick called, “the first queer film festival.” Israeli director Dan Wolman’s 1980 film about a gay man, Hide and Seek, will be shown in a retrospective of films shown in the Panorama section.
The festival will also include tributes to a three important figures who died recently: David Bowie, who was known for his acting as well as his music, actor Alan Rickman and director Ettore Scola, whose film Le Bal, which will be shown in the Berlinale, was the opening movie of the first Jerusalem Film Festival in 1984.
Kosslick, who enjoys a good joke and who is the co-author of a book on bagels, emphasized that there is a great deal of humor among the film festival offerings.
“We also have some comedies like the French film, Saint Amour, with Gerard Depardieu. And there is Spike Lee’s Chi- Raq,” a modern-day retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, “a kind of musical where the women protest violence in the black community by boycotting sex.”
Kosslick, who is involved in virtually every aspect of the festival planning, said he was pleased with the new festival posters, six photos of a bear in locations all over Berlin, including the subway. “The bear is a big hit,” he said, then excused himself to get back to planning the festival.