Israeli films at the Berlinale, their legacy and future

The 69th Berlinale, which begins on February 7, will be Kosslick’s final one as director, after 18 years at the helm.

SKIN by Guy Nattiv
‘There is a long and important tradition of Israeli films at the Berlinale,” said Dieter Kosslick, the director of the Berlin Film Festival, known as the Berlinale.
The 69th Berlinale, which begins on February 7, will be Kosslick’s final one as director, after 18 years at the helm. The Berlinale is one of the largest and most prestigious festivals in the world, with almost 400 films taking part, and to which about 18,000 guests are invited.
In the midst of the final preparations – “We’re in the middle of the hurricane right now, but there is calm at the eye of the storm” – Kosslick took a few moments to reflect on the legacy of Israeli films at this festival.
“There are 11 films from Israel this year in our lineup,” said Kosslick.
These include two in the Main Competition, Synonymes by Nadav Lapid (Policeman, The Kindergarten Teacher), which is about an Israeli man who goes to France to shake off his identity, and The Operative by Yuval Adler (Bethlehem), which stars Diane Kruger as a woman recruited to work for the Mossad in Tehran (which is being shown out of competition but is included in the main list).
There are also three movies by Israeli directors in the Panorama Section: The Day After I’m Gone by Nimrod Eldar, a debut film about a father’s troubled relationship with his daughter, starring Menashe Noy and Zohar Meidan; Chained by Yaron Shani, the second part of his Love Trilogy, which stars Eran Naim and Stav Almagor; and Guy Nattiv’s Skin, the story of a skinhead who leaves his right-wing past behind and stars Jamie Bell and Vera Farmiga. A short version of this film just received an Oscar nomination for Best Live-Action Short. Kosslick noted that Nattiv took part in the Berlinale several times in the past, with such films as Strangers and The Flood (Mabul).
Many Israeli directors can boast that their first international recognition came at the Berlinale. Joseph Cedar, who won the Silver Bear, the Best Director award, in 2007 for Beaufort, the movie about Israeli troops in Lebanon, saw his film go on to get nominated for an Oscar. But it was his second film, Campfire, that first won him international recognition, and it received the Don Quixote Award-Special Mention at the 2004 Berlinale.
Eytan Fox is another director whose career has been shaped by the Berlinale. His first feature film, Song of the Siren, played at the Berlinale in 1995. His subsequent films, Yossi & Jagger, Walk on Water and The Bubble were all shown at the Berlinale. Walk on Water, which was set partly in Germany, was the first Israeli film ever to open the Panorama section.
But Kosslick traces the roots of the Israeli-Berlinale partnership back even further, to the impressionistic documentary about Israel, Description of a Struggle by Chris Marker, which is the only producing credit by Lia van Leer, the founder of the Jerusalem and Haifa cinematheques, and her husband, Wim van Leer.
“It was the first Israeli film to win the Golden Bear, in 1961,” he recalled. “It’s still quite a magical film.”
Kosslick had a long and very close relationship with Lia van Leer, and she invited him to be a guest of honor at the 2008 Jerusalem Film Festival.
Opening remarks at film festivals usually range from excruciatingly dull to tolerably predictable, but Kosslick broke the mold. Having rushed straight to the Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem from the airport, he referred to the elephant in the amphitheater in his opening line, saying: “I’m a German – but I was born in 1948!”
He then proceeded to win the audience over with comic remarks that could have landed him a late-night talk show, including boasting that he had written a book about bagels. He maintains a close relationship with the Jerusalem Cinematheque to this day, and spoke there at a memorial for van Leer after she passed away in 2015.
Kosslick stressed that the Berlinale does more than simply present Israeli films. For years, it has helped develop and produce them. “Behind the scenes, we have always had relationships with filmmakers and film schools.”
This year is a particularly strong example of that collaboration. The Berlinale is presenting a tribute to the Jerusalem Sam Spiegel Film School, to celebrate the school’s 30th anniversary. Renen Schorr, the founding director of the school, and a group of filmmakers who studied there will attend the festival, including Eldar and Lapid, who are Sam Spiegel graduates. Several films made as Sam Spiegel graduation projects will be shown at the festival in a special event.
Kosslick is proud that he won an award from the film school last summer, the first Force of Nature Filmmaking Award. “What can I say? It’s official – I am a force of nature,” he joked.
The Berlinale Talents is a crucial part of the festival that invites 250 emerging filmmakers and brings them together with professional mentors. This year, several participants are Israeli, a fact of which Kosslick is proud: Hadar Morag, Yona Rozenkier, Guy Nemesh, Naama Bunimovitz, Ilya Marcus, Alona Refua and Omri Louka. Lapid will be a speaker at the Talents.
Last year, the Berlinale Talents honored Israel Film Fund director Katriel Schory with an achievement award, and this year Schory is on the coproduction selection committee at the Berlinale Talents coproduction market. Three Israeli filmmakers’ projects have been selected for various branches of the coproduction market this year: Shira Geffen’s A Responsible Adult, Dana Modan’s The Property and Rotem Kaplinsky’s Kullu Men Allah.
In the Berlinale Series section, which is devoted to television, two episodes of the second season of the Israeli show False Flag will be shown.
Culinary Cinema is a section that is close to Kosslick’s heart, and the festival and the publishing house DK Verlag are hosting a TeaTime event in which Israeli-British chef and author Yotam Ottolenghi will present his latest book, Ottolenghi Simple, which teaches people to cook with just 10 ingredients.
Of course, Israel is just one of the hundreds of countries represented at the Berlinale, and there will be a great deal going on this year. The festival will open with a screening of Danish director Lone Scherfig’s latest film, The Kindness of Strangers, the story an abused wife in New York who is able to turn her situation around.
“The film makes entertainment out of this nasty situation,” he said, noting that a unifying theme of this year’s festival is the notion that “the personal is political... movies don’t have to be overtly political to make a point.”
Actress Charlotte Rampling, who has been doing some of her best work in recent years, will be awarded the festival’s Honorary Golden Bear, and there will be a retrospective of her work. Another retrospective will highlight the work of women filmmakers from the 1960s to 1990s.
Kosslick is poised for a new chapter in his life, but his 18th year at the Berlinale looks to be a lucky one, which is fitting since 18 equals hai (life) in Hebrew and is thought to signify good fortune in Jewish tradition.
“In a strange way, our countries are bound through bad history but a very strong present,” he said. “We have a lot to say to each other today.”