One of the first questions at the press conference last week preceding the 53rd Berlin International Film Festival was: "What happens if war breaks out?"
And in nearly every interview for the local press, Dieter Kosslick is asked that question again and again. What's a festival director to say? Well, first, personally, he shares the opinion of a vast majority of Germans: This looming war is unjustified and everything must be done to stop it. But as a festival director, all he can really add is that the motto of this year's Berlinale - "Towards Tolerance" - addresses the current situation in that sort of vague spirit all major film festivals embracing as many varied national cinemas do... but that's not much of an answer. What inquisitive journalists want to know, of course, is what, specifically, will happen if cruise missiles start pummeling Baghdad at some point between February 6 and 16?
Fortunately, it doesn't look at the moment like that's going to happen. But you never know. Should the US pull a surprise attack, all Kosslick will say is that the festival organization has talked through the possibilities and is prepared to react on a couple of different levels depending on the severity of situation. There would be discussion forums and copies of certain films which aren't on the schedule are being held on standby. Kosslick wouldn't say which films those might be.
But the journalists have another worry on their minds. If the war were to start, say, tomorrow, there would doubtlessly be several cancellations from the Hollywood stars scheduled to walk down that red carpet leading to the Berlinale Palast. Kosslick has assured everyone that no one - not Richard Gere, Renée Zegweller and Catherine Zeta-Jones, not Dustin Hoffman, not Martin Scorsese or Spike Jonze or, above all, George Clooney, nor any of the others - has canceled.
And therein lies the perpetual Berlinale dilemma. On the one hand, of all the major "A-level" film festivals, Berlin is supposed to be the serious one. Let the beach babes bare all in Cannes in the brash summer sun. This is a festival held in a northeastern German city in February. Before the 50th Berlinale, when new digs were unveiled, brand spanking new theaters all huddled together at the freshly rebuilt Potsdamer Platz, you had to be a hardcore cineaste to do the Berlinale. You had to trudge across town through the slush and snow and brave the icy winds as you made your way from theater to theater. And sure enough, a lot of people thought that was part of the charm.
The Berlinale is supposed to be the festival where you'll see films you may never, ever have the chance to see otherwise. Not so much in the Competition, maybe, but definitely in the International Forum and the Panorama programs. And indeed, because the Berlinale shows more films than any other festival in the world, that's still true. If there were a Galapagos cinema, you can pretty safely bet that if you could see any of its masterpieces at all, it'd be in Berlin.
But as terrific as all that dedication is, it doesn't pay the bills. It doesn't get you press, it doesn't buy you mindspace when the politicians pull out their red pencils and start marking up next year's budget. And that matters now more than ever. The city-state of Berlin is tens of billions of euros in debt. And it's still running a deficit every year. When the Wall was still up, both halves of the city were swimming in subsidies from their respective countries. Just as East Berlin was supposed to be a showcase for the glorious prosperity of the proletariat, so, too, was West Berlin supposed to jangle its capitalist baubles in easterners' faces.
When the Wall fell, the city suddenly found itself with three opera houses, literally hundreds of museums and that's just for starters. Never mind the scientific research centers, the transportation infrastructure, all that. The city government pretended Berlin could just chug along as before, only better, because the national government was relocating from Bonn and surely countless companies would follow. The "New Berlin" would be unstoppable, a natural crossroads between the newly liberated east and the triumphant west. Didn't happen. And the subsidies began drying up, too. The conservative mayor simply looked the other way.
The new mayor, a Social Democrat, and his coalition partners who are even to the left of him, the Democratic Socialists, are in an odd bind. The "red-red" government, as it's called, is going to have to be the one to start slicing away at that budget. But here's the thing: Most of all this is of "merely" symbolic import when it comes to financing the Berlinale, which depends primarily on federal, not city-state support. But in the world of film, and especially in the world of film festivals, there's a very thin line between the psychological impact of symbols and the cold, hard bottom line.
When the "New Berlin," so subconsciously tied to the booming global economy of the 90s, failed to take off and fly, that meant it was already on the ground when that bubble burst. With unemployment in the city at 18.5 percent and hovering above 10 percent nationwide, and with national deficits and individual taxes both on the rise, justifying cultural expenditures becomes a tricky enterprise. Change the particulars a bit, and this is a story that is bound to resonate a bit with anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area who lived through the dotcom boom and bust.
The Berlinale lost two major private sponsors, too, last year. Of its 10 million euro budget, 6.5 million comes from the government; the rest has to be met by companies betting that tying their names to a film festival whose star may be hooked to a city in trouble is a good idea. Amazingly, Kosslick has pulled this off, adding VW to its roster of major sponsors.
What's more, this is only Kosslick's second year at this. Last year, his first, was a nightmare. Between Berlinales, Moritz de Hadeln, who'd been director for eons, it seems, was, well, exited. Kosslick had half a year to throw together an "A-level" festival. He survived by cracking jokes. He's an immediately likable character with a whiplash sense of humor and that helped. A lot. For one thing, the Americans like him, but we'll get to that.
Kosslick did a very smart thing last year. He called on all the directors of all the festivals he could think of to come together for a talkathon in Berlin and hash out just what it is film festivals are for and how they might cooperate and turn them into what they ought to be in the future (do see our story on this remarkable meeting, too). One side effect he that was surely in his mind as he thought this thing up was that he made or reaffirmed a wide range of valuable contacts. Not only with other festival directors, but with a critic influential in Europe as well, Derek Malcolm, who moderated the session. Note how many kind words and preemptive arguments in Kosslick's favor Malcolm has come up with lately.
The charm offensive paid off on the American front as well. Yes, of the 22 films in the Competition, five are from the States and two more outside the Competition open and close the festival (Chicago and Gangs of New York). But if you don't show their films, the stars, actors and directors alike, won't come to Berlin. The TV lights won't shine and the sponsors' logos won't appear on living room screens. This is the delicate balance Kosslick is dealing with.
The Hollywood presence irks some, though. A few years ago, Volker Schlöndorff wrote a piece in Der Spiegel that was the talk of the Berlinale. He decried what he called "the globalization of cinema," though, a few paragraphs in, one could tell he really meant "the Americanization of cinema." Just ten or twenty years ago, he wrote, of the total number of films screened in Europe, about a third came from the US, another third was domestic product and the other third was comprised of films from neighboring European countries. By Schlöndorff's rough estimate, Hollywood's slice of the pie had expanded to three quarters by the late 90s, while in the US, where European films used to be standard fare in any major city or university town, films from anywhere in the world outside the US - not just Europe - comprised less than two percent of the product on US screens.
There's more at stake than padding the pockets of homegrown film producers. What we see on the screen shapes our "world view and our understanding of history," wrote Schlöndorff. "We no longer stroll at night with Jeanne Moreau along the Champs-Elysées, and we don't peer over the rocky cliffs anymore with Liv Ullmann. But we know every detail of every object in a police station in the Bronx, a casino in Atlantic City, a kitchen in Kansas and countless coffee shops with their lovelorn waitresses."
What Kosslick and his fellow programmers at the Forum and Panorama have sought to ensure is that the Champs-Elysées and the rocky cliffs get a fair shot. Kosslick, long a champion of German cinema, and all the more so since Cannes has consistently shut the Germans out, has not only introduced a series to the Berlinale highlighting domestic fare, he's also included three German films in the Competition - as many as there are French films. There's also a decent dose of Asian cinema and, along with retrospectives devoted to FW Murnau and Anouk Aimeé, there's a special program celebrating Yasujiro Ozu's 100th birthday. All in all, even though the Berlinale is one day shorter this year - "concentrated," Kosslick likes to call it - there's reason to hope that there'll be some great cinema to discover over the coming 11 days. In indieWIRE, Anthony Kaufman has rounded up the highlights nicely.
Over the next several days, as we pick and choose from 300 films and sample as broad a range of world cinema as humanly possible and then come back here to add pages to this Berlinale special, those clouds of war gathering not all that far east of Berlin will be growing thicker, darker and heavier. "Towards Tolerance." It may be vague and gushy, but we've fallen so far and so deep since the celebrations of 1989, we absolutely must start somewhere.