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Does German film have a future?

When was the last time you saw a great German indie film? The Berlinale's one German Competition entry, 24 Wochen, failed to win any awards and drew sharp criticism. And it's just the latest in a long line of failures. Is there any hope?

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Illustration by Agata Sasiuk
It’s not that nobody’s watching German movies: last year’s biggest hit, raucous classroom comedy Fack ju Göhte 2, sold over 7.5 million tickets. But while the industry raves over its flourishing business, indie efforts pale in comparison to the glory days of Herzog and Wenders. 24 Wochen, the sole German Competition entry in this year’s Berlinale, failed to win any awards and even drew sharp criticism. Why is German arthouse doing so badly? When’s the last time you saw a cracking good German movie? Sure, Victoria proved an arthouse hit last year and swept up film prizes on its home turf, but in terms of international acclaim or cross-cultural impact, Sebastian Schipper’s one-take wonder failed to live up to The Lives of Others or Goodbye Lenin!, both more than a decade old. And Victoria, the tale of a young Spanish woman’s involvement with a group of Berlin petty criminals over one night, was the exception of 2015. A look at last year’s competition lineups of the three top European film festivals outside Germany – Cannes, Venice and Locarno – yields embarrassing results: whereas countries from Venezuela to Iran to Hungary to South Africa were all represented, not a single German film showed up. In fact, can cinephiles today even name a great living German director besides Herzog or Wenders? Where are the Fassbinders of today’s Deutsches Kino? Or the East German DEFA pioneers? Long gone are the golden years of Weimar, when Berlin-Babelsberg was home to some of the world’s most innovative filmmaking, from the expressionist masterpieces of Fritz Lang (Metropolis) to F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu), a time when Hollywood was poaching Babelsberg’s UFA studios’ best talents – the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder. With Leni Riefenstahl, even the Nazi period produced its share of masterpieces (while attracting audiences the tenfold of today’s). “With maybe the exception of Christian Petzold, it would be hard for anyone outside of Germany to come up with the name of a single German filmmaker under 55. Of course you have the ‘one-hit’ directors, like Jan Ole Gerster [Oh Boy] or Sebastian Schipper, but they’re very much on their own,” diagnoses Frédéric Jaeger, editor-in-chief and founder of online film platform Critic.de and a board member of the German film critics’ association. “What’s more, I don’t think there’s too much to rally around. I mean, those films work on a specific level, but I don’t think they’re representative of anything groundbreaking or can pave the way for anything new in the future.” Jaeger’s pessimism is reflected in the panel discussion (“Cinema is Made by Others – Why German Films Party on Their Own”) he coorganised to kick off the second edition of the Berlin Critics’ Week during the Berlinale: four eminent guests including The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody reflected upon the sorry state of German art-house cinema, with the director of Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique Charles Tesson and Locarno’s Sergio Fant present explained why they almost never have any German films in their selections. Symptomatically, “We couldn’t find a German film to show at Critics’ Week until the last minute,” says Jaeger. “We really thought we should have one German film, be it for discussion’s sake; but to be honest it was hard to find something that met the standards of the other films.” They finally opted to premiere Tatjana Turanskyj and Marita Neher’s Disorientation Isn’t a Crime. So what does Jaeger think the problem is with German movies today? “What we call cinema – call it auteur cinema, or arthouse – as an emotional and physical experience isn’t really happening in Germany. They’re more interested in old formulas and topic-driven films. It all comes down to cinematic language. German cinema is currently very literal – it’s very much about explaining and very little about experiencing. Victoria was a success because it tried something different – it was about experience.”
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Fack ju Göhte 2
Where the money goes Germany certainly doesn’t fall short when it comes to the resources to make films. A well stocked subsidy system, including funding bodies on the regional (Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, for instance) and federal (the German Federal Film Board (FFA) and German Federal Film Fund (DFFF)) levels doles out hundreds of millions of euros every year in the form of grants or interest-free loans to local productions. But how much of that went to, say, Tom Sommerlatte’s terrific debut feature Im Sommer wohnt er unten, which took top honours at Achtung Berlin and was nominated by the European Film Academy as one of the five “Discoveries” of 2015? Zero.“ We did get some money after the film was finished, for its distribution. But prior to that – nothing,” says Sommerlatte. “We tried everything, but in the end, the fear was too great for them to put money somewhere without the guarantee of ever getting it back.” Eventually it was a subsidy from France that saved the picture – which they got on the very first try, too. Where do the German millions go, then? Somewhat counter-intuitively, it turns out, many of the biggest commercial hits and glitzy Hollywood co-productions are also the recipients of the most generous financial aid. Not only domestic box office juggernauts like teen hit Fack ju Göhte and Til Schweiger weepie Honig im Kopf, but also imports like The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Monuments Men, are regularly subsidised with sums way larger than German auteur flicks like Petzold’s Phoenix or Dietrich Brüggemann’s 2014 Berlinale winner Kreuzweg. When asked about the financing of his formally radical film, Brüggemann recalls: “It wasn’t a walk in the park. We got turned down in several instances and survived by an extremely close vote in the last round.” Even then, the director had to abandon his initial plan of a 3D shoot because of monetary constraints.“ There’s a tendency in Germany to see films not so much as an art form but as a commercial activity. So if you look at film funding, they mostly try to give money to those who already have money,” says Jaeger. The Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, for instance, is “more interested in having Homeland. Mostly they want to have a lot of money going into Berlin. However many euros they put into funding, they’d like it to quadruple and more – something you obviously cannot expect from small projects.” The film subsidy system’s fixation on financial returns manifests itself in numerous advantageous funding schemes based on box office performance or the successful repayment of loans. Basically, projects more likely to sell tickets, make their budget back, or even create jobs are inherently favoured. The small screen over the big one What complicates matters further is that, even before the scrutiny of film commissions, nowadays producers are more or less compelled to have at least one TV station on board in order to fulfil the requirement of co-payment (usually 50 percent of the total German financing) and qualify for a film subsidy. Says Jaeger: “TV stations’ approval is often decisive. Because there’s not so much a real cinema market for German films, with a few exceptions, most of what we call ‘commercial’ and ‘market’ is actually the TV market. So you get money from the state to do your film if a TV station – or more than one – has already agreed to give you money and is acting as a co-producer.” And TV broadcasters – including all the regional channels – give out the cash according to a certain set of criteria, the biggest one being that a movie has to be TV-friendly. This tends to rule out edgy, boundary-pushing projects, which in turn might never become eligible for public funding. “The expectations of TV stations are pretty low. Most of the time they’re trying to get a broad audience, and that mostly means the lowest common denominator,” says Jaeger. “There are also the films that won’t give them a broad audience, but will give them legitimacy – mostly films that deal with ‘serious topics’ or ‘important issues’.” According to the film critic, the mortal sin of German cinema remains its obsession with what he calls ‘psychological realism’. “That’s the worst thing. They always try to have protagonists who are understandable, whom you can empathise with, because everything is explained about them. But life, and what fascinates us about movies, is often something that goes beyond psychological understanding.” Outside the TV box Psychological realism is definitely missing from Nikias Chryssos’ debut feature Der Bunker, and sure enough, when the Heidelberg-born director tried to get funding for his bizarre tale of a secluded family and their grown-up ‘eight-year old’ son, he was turned down. “There are similar people on the channels’ committees, and they have certain tastes. They said the script was too fairytale-like, not rooted in reality enough, too strange – that came from all the broadcasters,” he says. “We decided to get this film made without the broadcasters, one way or another.” In the end, Chryssos received a small but decisive sum from ageing TV producer Hans W. Geissendörfer, creator of legendary Bavarian soap Lindenstraße and a film patron on occasion. The rest of the tiny budget came via sponsorship from companies donating equipment or catering. Some people worked for free. “My editor sat with me for months out of absolute idealism,” Chryssos remembers. His crew’s faith was rewarded: the film was an unexpected hit in the Perspektive Deutsches Kino section at last year’s Berlinale and was released to rave reviews last month. This isn’t to say that channels never take risks. “It does happen, in the limits of their understanding of what cinema can be. So it’s not going to be something that works without an explicit story or psychological motivation. But you can have something that’s a little bit more on the aesthetic side,” says Jaeger. “Most of those experiments and brackets go towards filmmakers who already have recognition, though.” Running in the Forum section of the Berlinale, Philip Scheffner’s micro budget docufiction achievement And-Ek-Ghes… couldn’t have been made without the support of RBB. “They were very generous, actually,” says Scheffner. “We had little to show and no time to look for more funding, and they just trusted the project.” But then again, Scheffner is no newbie on the scene. With five features under his directorial belt, a production company (Pong), and regular invitations to international film festivals, the Berliner is a household name in the arthouse documentary scene, no matter how limited his audience and noncommercial his films. Arte and ZDF were on board for his other Berlinale film, Havarie. Unconventional features by recognised actors also stand a greater chance at getting funded, especially if they cast themselves in them. Lola winning German actor Florian David Fitz, for example, didn’t have much trouble financing his sophomore directorial effort Der geilste Tag, which stars himself and fellow superstar Matthias Schweighöfer as a pair of terminally ill patients out to have the most awesome day of their lives. “We were generously supported by the FilmFernsehFonds Bayern. They welcomed the fact that I was doing something more sophisticated than just a run-of-the-mill comedy, but of course it helped that Matthias and I were in the cast,” says Fitz.
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Ich will mich nicht künstlich aufregen
School pets The name factor might explain why so many standout films by unknown directors keep originating from Berlin’s prestigious film schools – mostly as graduation projects. Arthouse festivals and critics’ darlings such as Julian Radlmaier’s Ein proletarisches Wintermärchen (2014) and Ramon Zürcher’s Das merkwürdige Kätzchen (2013) were babies of Berlin’s DFFB school. So was Limbo, the coming-of-age debut by Danish student Anna Sofie Hartmann that won the critics’ award at Achtung Film Festival last year. Seven film features competing for the Max Opüls Prize last year were from the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf. In both cases, school financing has been dwindling over the years. This was at the core of what’s known as Berlin’s “mumblecore movement”: young filmmakers sick of waiting for money that they’d probably never get anyway, shooting super-low-budget projects with mostly non-professional actors (or more established ones looking for a challenge) and barely-paid crews. From Axel Ranisch’s Dicke Mädchen (2011), made on “an unbelievable €517.32” to the 2013 hit Love Steaks by fellow Konrad Wolf student Jakob Lass, a new generation of improvised, lo-fi films have rocked the German film landscape, ripping festival selections and collecting accolades abroad on their way. But sometimes diploma films do get some cash from TV channels. A good example is Max Linz’ standout Asta Upset, ich will mich nicht künstlich aufregen, a DFFB diploma film which opened at the Berlinale two years ago. It was co-produced by RBB as part of the regional broadcaster’s Leuchtstoff programme which, in cooperation with Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, aims to support diploma and debut films “that offer a special perspective on our region”. But interestingly, says Jaeger, “Because he made something a little bit more experimental, Linz only got half the sum that films usually receive as part of the programme. So, there’s a system in place to support original first projects, but even then, if you try to use it in too original a way, they won’t give you all the money!” Jaeger points to a perverse system in which filmmakers end up “conforming to please. They try to make whatever will help them fit into the system and make a living. That explains why the most interesting productions often come out of film schools.” For those who want to stick to the non-mainstream, the industry might just end up being a cul-de-sac. “Many filmmakers end up crossing over into art and theatre, to expand their aesthetic possibilities, but also because that’s where there’s money for more adventurous work,” says Natalie Gravenor of Berlin-based indie film streaming site realeyz.tv. And what about crowdfunding? Often presented as the digital saving grace of the new millennium, it might again work in favour of the ‘haves’ rather than the ‘havenots’. Recent successes to have emerged from the ‘digital crowd’, like the film incarnation of the cult TV series Stromberg (a German copy of Ricky Gervais’ The Office), obviously benefited from the huge fanbase of the series, enabling its makers to gather as much as €1 million in one week. So can you successfully crowdfund out of nowhere? “I don’t think so. You have to either have a very strong subject, or you have to be famous yourself as a filmmaker, or you have to have fans around the subject or the actors,” comments Jaeger. Back to square one!
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Honig im Kopf
The market rule Arguably, there’s nothing wrong with taking care of the business side of cinema. Film is also an industry after all, and without a healthy, functional market, there would be no product. And the crowd-pleasers that fuel that market aren’t all bad – the original Fack ju Göhte, for instance, offered a refreshingly cheeky take on today’s German school system. By the look of things, German cinema is doing quite well economically. Not only did overall box office returns hit an all-time high in 2015, local productions’ share of the gross remains impressive. According to Kirsten Niehuus, managing director of film funding at Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, 34 million tickets for German films were sold last year – a “sensational” figure. But she warns that those tickets were spread across a small number of blockbusters, meaning it’s still difficult out there for German arthouse films. Speaking with the shrewdness of a portfolio manager, Nihuus stresses that the Medienboard values both artistic and commercial success, citing Victoria (over 300,000 tickets sold) and Honig im Kopf (over 8 million) as exemplary cases of film subsidy. Both state-run film boards and public channels as well as private broadcasters often justify their unwillingness to take risks by arguing that the audience just isn’t there – but Jaeger says it’s a chicken-and-egg story. “You can’t build that audience when there’s no channel for it, when there are no venues for it, and when you get disappointed by German films over and over.” Ultimately, it’s up to the state, he says. “That private for-profit companies decide to put money into broad or mainstream cinema is one thing, but public funding is another.” Isn’t it time for the German government to support innovative cinema, not just as a business but as a highly exportable art form? A silver (screen) lining? As a matter of fact, there’s a lot of movement on the federal level right now. German lawmakers are currently working on reforming the Filmförderungsgesetz (film-funding law). Simultaneously, an extra envelope of €15 million – to go into ‘cultural’ film financing – has been introduced as part of the new federal budget. If all goes according to plan, the culture ministry could increase its participation in film production from €4 to €19 million. Will that make an impact? “Yes, if they find a smart system to distribute the money,” says Jaeger. “And I’m pretty optimistic that they’re interested in doing that. They’re trying to change the way that money is distributed at FFA. Right now the direction being taken is: they want to give more money to fewer films, and that they want them to be the best of the best. It remains mostly on the commercial side, but I do think they have this idea that they would want to fund some quality projects – made to ‘impress’!” Further hope could well come from the buzz created by TV series like Sense8 and Deutschland 83, which put Berlin back on the international map as a very ‘zeitgeist’ place. “There’s actually a lot more openness to German films right now,” says Jaeger. “Sometimes more than deserved. Take a film like [Giulio Ricciarelli’s Holocaust drama] Labyrinth of Lies. It showed at Toronto and was quite a success in the US. And it’s a very bad film, basically a TV-style movie. But abroad, whoa! The subject and the fact it’s from Germany were enough to make it work with audiences. So I think that means the visibility is actually not that bad… As for film festivals, my experience is that they’d love to show German films – the demand is there!” As for films like Victoria, they might be one-offs, but Jaeger believes they could end up emboldening the whole industry. “They might get rid of some of the pressure to stick to for mulaic cinema, and get the film boards and the industry as a whole to be more open to trying something out, and trusting authors to be more innovative.” So, yes, perhaps these successes can help everyone… although as this year’s Berlinale proved, that may still be far-off on the horizon. Thanks to Natalie Gravenor of realeyz.tv and Elisa Rosi of Lichtblick Kino for their valuable insight while researching this article.