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  • “Love the discoveries”: Stephan Holl on how Rapid Eye Movies unearth cinematic masterpieces


“Love the discoveries”: Stephan Holl on how Rapid Eye Movies unearth cinematic masterpieces

Stephan Holl, the cinematic mind behind innovative German film house Rapid Eye, reflects on restoring cult classics, screening forgotten gems and producing original films.

Photo: Stephan Holl

For over two decades, German film distributor Rapid Eye Movies has championed the edges of the film world, making movies that continuously spearhead vital and groundbreaking work, distributing Asian and world cinema, restoring unseen gems for new viewers and collaborating with filmmakers and artists on cinema-adjacent projects. They’ve promoted esoteric and eccentric cinema worldwide, taking chances on oddball and forgotten films.

They also produce their own films; in 2011 they made Underwater Love, a German-Japanese co-production that shined a light on the art of pink film – a Japanese genre of independent film that includes nudity or sexual content – with a musical twist. They’ve also been behind some of the most sought-after recent festival darlings like 2021’s Drive My Car and cult classics like Audition in 1999. The Berliner sat down with Rapid Eye’s co-founder and managing director Stephan Holl to find out what the multi-hyphenate film group will tackle next.

First, what was the motivation behind creating Rapid Eye?

We came into existence in the mid 1990s because we love Asian cinema and at the time there was not much happening outside of festivals in Germany. It started as a labour of love and still is. And we – my wife Antoinette Köster, myself and a small and very dedicated team – work together to bring many Asian films to Germany, but also everything in between that suits our universe, such as adjacent music-related projects, anything we have a soft spot for. It becomes difficult to explain the Rapid Eye profile. Of course there are the films we distributed by Yorgos Lanthimos, Takeshi Kitano or Park Chan-wook – we have a lot of first-time discoveries, I think that’s what we’re good at. We try to be as passionate today as in our early days of existence.

Christopher Doyle on set of Underwater Love (Dir. Shinji Imaoka, 2011). Photo: Stephan Hall

Your website highlights the films you produce and distribute, but there are also playlists, posters, objects displayed visually or for sale – it almost feels like an archive…

I think this is where the energy comes from, to share things we like. It’s a very fundamental thing for us, it’s not just empty words. You’ve got music labels you trust as a fan of music, and you see oh, they’re releasing something I’ve never heard of, but despite not having heard it, it’s probably going to be good. I’ll check it out based on that affiliation with a label I trust.

This kind of relationship is something we wanted to establish with what we’re doing – to create a space where we can share what we love with other people and build some kind of trust. And that goes beyond films. It combines music and also all the people and filmmakers and creative people we meet throughout this journey.

How do you balance that mindset with the business constraints of film as an industry?

We try to be as passionate today as in our early days of existence

There’s a usual structure: normally companies will think, okay, how many admissions will they get for this type of film – they’re thinking, we’re going to chase this one for distribution because demographically it’s going to play well. This kind of model, that’s not how we think when we go to Cannes, for example. Of course those thoughts are still a part of our brain – film is a business as well – but it can be sustainable and mean something more than just that. That we’re still around after 25-plus years, and we still have the business brain on but the emphasis is on the trust of the project – it’s good to be thinking admissions, money and viability, but that’s not in the centre of what we’re looking for.

You give as much weight to restoring classics like Typhoon Club, which just screened in Berlin in May, as you do producing new films…

For us the most important time of the year is Cannes. We have Cannes, Berlinale and Venice, the big festivals, where we go to scout new films that we can distribute to our German audiences, and sometimes wider regions. We love this – for example when we found Drive My Car or Return to Seoul. This is at the centre of our work, to choose new films and directors and get them exposure. The other cinema is stuff we love and know.

Tilda Swinton gave us the best words for it: “There is no such thing as an old film”. Because if you don’t know the film, it’s new to you. So that’s where re-issuing these ‘older’ works comes in, to shine a light on great cinema that can gain a new audience. This comes from a love of masterpieces. I would say Typhoon Club is a masterpiece. It was overlooked at the time. Never had a German release. And luckily there are cinemas, especially in Berlin, and audiences, especially in Berlin, who are like us, who think, okay, let’s check this out. The Berlin audience and Berlin cinema scene is outstanding in a way and it’s very important for us. We’re always so happy to know there are others.

Going back to your relationship to Asian film, can you talk about pink cinema’s role in Rapid Eye’s growth?

From the very beginning Japanese film was a big part of our foundations. Ghost in the Shell (D. Mamoru Oshii, 1995) was actually how Rapid Eye was born – that was the first film we released, just in cinemas. So Japanese films have always been there and been important for us. The interesting thing about film distribution is you meet interesting people, especially filmmakers; you see films and fall in love and then you meet the talent, the people behind the films, and that’s even more special.

Going through Japan I met a producer of the so-called pink films. She’s a true character, a 70-year old chain smoker, having produced around 400 films for cinema, but nobody knew her. I started talking to her because we distributed some of the films she produced – these outstanding, anarchistic, very beautiful films. And then the idea came up, why don’t we produce a film together. That was the first moment Rapid Eye began to think about producing films. And then we met Christopher Doyle, best known for being the regular cinematographer for Wong Kar-wai, alongside shooting works for Gus Van Sant and Jim Jarmusch.

I got him excited about this Japanese pink film project, and then Berlin-based pop duo Stereo Total – I approached them and told them about the projects we were working on and they loved the idea and were on board to soundtrack it. That was the first film we produced, in 2010, and since then we have learned and done more collaborations and co-productions.

Photo: Stephan Hall

Any particular film from the catalogue that best summarises Rapid Eye? Or is that too tough a question?

We have a pattern of being there for new discoveries and filmmakers

Yes, that’s tough! One answer would be the one that’s [just been] realised, which in this instance would be Typhoon Club. And I’d say to summarise the DNA of what we’re doing, probably Audition by Takashi Miike. That is where we come from, it’s always part of us. We’re very proud of it. Another answer would be Drive My Car or Searching for Sugar Man (2012) – films we realised before they blew up. To look at what we do from the perspective of getting behind these films early on and distributing them without the knowledge that they might blow up, but because we believe in them and love the discoveries – of course there are failures and not always happy endings, you have mistakes. But over the years, we have a pattern of being there for new discoveries and filmmakers.

Can you talk about the link between film and music in what Rapid Eye is doing?

We’re releasing music for a film that doesn’t exist.

We’re releasing music for a film that doesn’t exist. The filmmaker I work with a lot, Kevin (Khavn de La Cruz, whose filmmaker name is Khavn), is based in Manila, but also lived in Berlin for some time and will relocate to Berlin again this summer. He’s a filmmaker and composer and I love his compositions, so out of our film work together we produced some records, along with Brezel Göring, a Berlin-based musician who was a part of Stereo Total. It’s about the people – when I talk about the people it becomes easy. There’s Lilith Stangenberg, the Berlin-based actress who loved Kevin’s work and became a creative force of his films, and then suddenly there’s an album we made together, with Kevin composing and Lilith singing. It’s always the people.

What’s next for 2024? 

A new silent film with Kevin shot on film with Lilith Stangenberg in it – the music is outstanding and beautiful – premiering this summer. We’re hoping for a special Berlin screening. Music from the Kontra-Kino Orchestra. In-house restorations, finding underground, overlooked German films from the 1970s and 80s, gay filmmakers from the 80s – watch this space.