As the 60th Berlinale gets underway, we meet festival director Dieter Kosslick.
11 Feb 2010 - 5:06 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

If anyone tries to tell you film festivals are an anachronism, a dying breed in an era of proliferating windows (DVDs, pay TV, downloads, etc), point them in the direction of Dieter Kosslick.

The man who took over the Berlinale (Berlin Film Festival) in 2001 doesn't waste time in detailing the festival's expanding popularity in its home city. Berlin is of course, one of the global film industry's biggest annual events, just behind Cannes in prestige. Like the French Riviera festival it has a major film competition, a commercial film market and various screening sections (which in Berlin's case include Panorama and Forum), with well-established identities that can prove a little perplexing to newcomers.

At the same time a newcomer is guaranteed to be surprised by the size of the public crowds queuing patiently to buy tickets and take their cinema seats, at the way the event takes over the cultural life of the city for 10 days in February despite frequent sub-zero temperatures. Where only a decade ago the festival was selling around 100,000 tickets to the public, in 2009 it logged a mighty 275,000 paid attendances – and that's not counting the thousands of admissions for its hundreds of industry screenings. To put this in perspective, Berlin has a population of 3.4 million – considerably smaller than both Sydney's 4.3 and Melbourne's 3.9 million.

“That's a huge change,” says an amiable and energetic Kosslick, proudly addressing the audience growth. He adds that “normally film festivals are not so audience-driven because they are professional,” perhaps thinking of Cannes and Sundance. “But Berlin is very audience driven. This shows us that we are not just another window of the (exhibition) chain.”

Many industry people are telling Kosslick that film festivals have become more important than ever. “I think this is because the diversity of the program you can only do in a film festival,” he says. “People are going to the Berlinale because they want a common adventure with other people and to discuss the films they have seen. If you look at the program, it's a tough cookie program and even the competition isn't all sugar films, it's an insight into the world and the world is not in good shape. For a lot of people they want to see different things than they usually see in the official media.”

Kosslick visited Australia in September last year with New Zealand-born programmer Maryanne Redpath. It would be nice to think that their motivation was the recent upsurge in strength and diversity in our cinema. Indeed, Kosslick he had wanted to program Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah last year but was beaten to the punch by Cannes (where it won the Camera d'Or for best first-time director).

Kosslick came to make and strengthen his contacts; Redpath is in charge of selecting the festival's Australian films, and comes every year to check out the latest crop. Her picks for 2010 are Rachel Perkins' Bran Nue Dae, and debut writer/director Patrick Hughes' revenge thriller Red Hill, which will screen out of competition in the Panorama section.

Redpath also heads the young person's section Generation, in which Bran Nue Dae is screening, and where Elissa Down's The Black Balloon won the top prize in 2008. When I visited Redpath in Berlin in July I asked her if she felt an Australian renaissance had begun and she replied “not yet”. Interviewed again with Kosslick in Sydney she said our recent films had tended to be too inward-looking for global appeal – though that view seemed to jibe with Kosslick's view that Germany's internationally acclaimed cinema revival this decade is based heavily on its exploration of German society and history – suggesting that a strong inward-focus is precisely what he's looking for in national cinema.

When Kosslick claims a personal role in this revival of German cinema's fortunes, which began with 1998's Run Lola Run (before his Berlinale tenure), it's no shallow boast. New German cinema gained a significant boost when Turkish-German director Fatih Akin's Head On won the festival's top prize, the Golden Bear, in 2004, vindicating Kosslick's then new policy of boosting the number of German films in competition to between two and four every year. Since then German films, filmmakers and actors have regularly won major awards from the Berlinale's intenational juries, proving “after all, that German cinema is competitive,” he says.

Kosslick may emphasise his festival's popularity with Berliners but his introduction of strategic industry initiatives has been crucial to maintaining its position against competition from Cannes. After heading the North Rhine-Westphalia and before that Hamburg regional film funds, Kosslick arrived with ambitious plans to expand the festival's relevance to both the German and global industry. His unusually concentrated executive powers – he's not only artistic director, but also overall executive director and chairman of the board – helped him seriously renovate the event. He strengthened the market (called the European Film Market) and introduced initiatives such as the Co-Production Market, the World Cinema Fund (a production fund for features from developing countries) and Talent Campus (which has helped tutor more than 42 Australians alone).

But if Kosslick is known for anything, it's his unapologetic enthusiasm for stars. “When I came in there was the criticism that there aren't enough celebrities on the red carpet,” he says, adding that after teething problems in the first three years, he had 100 percent success in the turn-up rate. “Then we had people saying 'Dieter is focusing on the celebrities and not the films' – and this is a stupid point. Because on the red carpet are the people who make these films.

“We have 4200 journalists in Berlin,” he continues. “Can you tell me what these journalists would do without the red carpet? The red carpet is very important.” When Kosslick invites a film into a competition or gala screening spot, there's an explicit understanding the stars and director will appear in person. So has he ever withdrawn an offer to screen in competition when it panned out later the stars couldn't make it? “Yes, but it's happened only twice in eight years, he says. “You can't make a rule out of it.”

He remains deeply convinced that without the celebrities, “we would have a very nice festival but we wouldn't have the splash of marketing and publicity. Another very important point is the sponsors. One of our biggest sponsors is L'Oreal. Where would L'Oreal be without all these beautiful faces?”