“ONE could think I am already no longer there. But I am still here—for the next two Berlinales!” So said Dieter Kosslick, the director of Germany’s most prestigious film festival, a fortnight before the festival opened. In November he had confessed to being “pissed off” by an open letter to Germany’s cultural minister, published by Spiegel Online, in which 79 German directors demanded a “new start” for the Berlinale when Mr Kosslick’s contract expires in May 2019. “The goal must be to find an outstanding curatorial personality who is passionate about cinema, well-connected internationally and capable of leading the festival into the future on an equal footing with Cannes and Venice,” the letter stated.

While Cannes has strengthened its position as the most important film festival for international auteurs and Venice has become the launchpad for Academy Award nominees, the Berlinale has not cornered a particular bit of the market. Big names still premiere their work there—this year “Isle of Dogs”, Wes Anderson’s stop-motion film, was the opening gala—but there is also ample space devoted to debut films by German film-makers, small-budget projects from developing countries and avant-garde works. The German Film Critics Association (GFCA) complains that, in terms of the number of high-quality films on offer, the Berlinale is of “declining international relevance”. 

So the debate about the festival’s future, who might be a suitable successor to Mr Kosslick and who should have a say in his or her nomination has occupied those interested in Berlin’s big February event. Unsurprisingly, it was visible at the festival itself. When Mr Kosslick, known for his charm and good humour, welcomed film stars on the red carpet he looked more serious than in previous years. With his black scarf (a red one has become his trademark) he looked even a bit sad, despite clarifying that he wore it as a sign of solidarity with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and not as a response to “a few fun-killers”. 

It is not hard to see why there has been a call for more curation at the Berlinale. For critics as well as film-industry professionals, the ambitious programme is indeed hard to navigate. With nearly 400 films in eleven sections, thousands of screenings and additional events, it can be hard to pick out the truly good films. It is impossible to see everything of interest.

But festival fans and ordinary cinemagoers love the Berlinale precisely for its democracy and enormous diversity. Tom Tykwer, a German film director and the head of this year’s competition jury, argued that “when half a million people watch the craziest films which they wouldn’t dream of during the rest of the year, then that’s an achievement offered by no other festival in the world.” As in previous years there were enormous queues at the box office at Potsdamer Platz. Josée Michaud came from Quebec for the festival. She adores its films “by people who are not backed by big industries like Hollywood”; since she would not be able to see most of the films and documentaries elsewhere, she is against a “slimmer” Berlinale. Vangelis Panagiotarokis, a Greek student who has been living in Berlin for three years, makes for the “Panorama” section. It champions films with “the courage to be different, a desire for the unfamiliar”. Mr Panagiotarokis says it offers “little gems—diamonds you won’t see anywhere else”.

How might the Berlinale reconcile the demands of the directors and critics with the preferences of the audience and the welcoming tone that the festival has set? Proposals for a way forward were deliberated in a discussion set up by the GFCA. Suggestions included the founding of a new, parallel, independent Berlin film festival dedicated to arthouse films; others wanted more transparency in the selection of festival entries and an open call for the next festival director. Some wanted to cut the Berlinale down to focus only on the 20 or so films in competition. But the new director will have to take business as well as artistic interests into consideration: absent from this discussion has been the importance of the Berlinale as a trading hub for film producers, buyers and distributors. 

For their part, more than half the signatories of the letter have since distanced themselves from it, believing their intentions misinterpreted. They did not want to disparage Mr Kosslick’s work, but demand a voice in the appointment of his successor to avoid political wrangling. That whoever is appointed will bring some change is inevitable, but it would be a shame if the Berlinale lost its political outlook and embrace of world cinema, and the affection of its attendees.