Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Filmmaking in Germany

 From Germany Info...German Missions in the United States    Written by journalist and author Sabine Pahlke-Grygier.   Translated by Jonathan Uhlaner

Germany is a country of film legends.
In the 1920s, Berlin's famed Babelsberg studios was one of Hollywood's top competitors. It was also a laboratory for a new form of high art where Fritz Lang crafted the vivid dystopia of Metropolis and Marlene Dietrich melted hearts with a bat of her lashes in The Blue Angel.
 A scene from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (© Courtesy of Kino International)
Today, a new generation of filmmakers is winning international acclaim with smart takes on tough topics. In 2007, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's spy thriller The Lives of Others snagged an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and showed the world that German films can keep international audiences gripping their popcorn.

Films “Made in Germany” achieve international recognition and win some of the top prizes. It has, however, been a long and winding road. The fact that the film industry had such a difficult time for quite a few decades can also be put down to Germany’s history.

Films “Made in Germany” achieve international recognition and win some of the top prizes. It has, however, been a long and winding road. The fact that the film industry had such a difficult time for quite a few decades can also be put down to Germany’s history.

When moving pictures started to take their first steps around 1900 and filmmaking pioneers were in a neck-and-neck race to exploit the best technical and aesthetic assets of this new medium, German producers led the field. At the legendary Babelsberg Studios, Europe’s first large-scale film studios set up in 1912, directors like Fritz Lang and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau made film history.

Then the Nazis came to power. Many creative film people had to flee the country, the war broke out and the division of Germany was the final blow – the result was a harsh void which took the German filmmaking scene decades to recover from. Film production did in fact continue after 1945, but German films did not stand a chance on the international film-making scene that in the meantime had been taken over by the major Hollywood studios. The only people to gain any attention at all were the West German “auteur” directors of the 1960s and 1970s like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders or Volker Schlöndorff.

A new awakening after reunification

After reunification a jolt went through the sector. This was evident both in the content of the films as well as in the industry’s structures. Contemporary subject matter like the new political situation and the culture clash between East and West drew people into the cinemas in their droves and aroused international interest, too. In 2003 the German Film Academy was founded. At the same time attention was focused on new talent. A new prize came into being for new, young filmmakers called the “First Steps Award” and at the Berlinale film festival the newcomers were also assigned their own section called “Perspective Deutsches Kino” (Prospects for German Cinema). The number of film-goers watching German films and co-productions increased continuously. In 2009 there was rejoicing in the sector – over 212 new German film releases, 14 of which attracted audiences of over a million.

International prizes were won like Canne’s Golden Palm for The White Ribbon, the Golden Globe for Waltz with Bashir, Venice’s Golden Lion for Lebanon, and at the Berlinale the special jury prize for Soul Kitchen and a Silver Bear for Everyone Else. Over the last few years German productions have been nominated four times for an Oscar in the “Best Foreign Language Film” category. Victory was theirs twice with Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters) in 2008 and Das Leben der anderen (The Lives of Others) in 2007.
Ulrich Mühe portrays Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler in "The Lives of Others." (© picture alliance / Mary Evans Pi)

Cinema, television and film funding

The 2010 film year with its 180 releases of German productions and co-productions did not go quite so well. This may well have been due to natural fluctuations within the industry, but this development immediately triggered the old, ever recurrent discussion on the dependency between film and TV. For over 40 years now hardly any film has been made in Germany without the financial involvement of TV channels. The debate on whether television has too much influence on the dramatic or the aesthetic quality is equally as old – inferring that films are produced that are too small for the big screen. TV editors who know that big productions like Das Boot (The Boat) would never have been made without their involvement reject this. Even successful producers like Stefan Arndt (Good bye, Lenin!) express their doubts that television is bad for the cinema film and the cause of box-office flops. “What I mean to say is that maybe some German films are simply just not good enough,” he says in a discussion at the German Film Academy. “The films are not unique enough, they are not exciting enough, they are simply not mind-boggling enough.”

If “larger than life” cinema, as the head of the German Film Academy, Alfred Holighaus, calls it, is to be made in Germany at all, it is going to take more than just the funding by the television stations. Even successful producers like Bernd Eichinger (Perfume, The Downfall), Regina Ziegler (Henry of Navarre), Detlef Buck (Wir können auch anders, Same Same but different) or the longstanding director of the Bavaria Studios, Günter Rohrbach (Stalingrad, Anonyma – A Woman in Berlin) were and still are dependent on public funding. This means that every project is accompanied by a battle for the funding, which is granted annually by the federal government and the regional governments of the individual states. Even the biggest and the oldest studios, Babelsberg in Berlin and Bavaria in Munich, would not be able to survive without these subsidies.

Young and up-and coming talent – “Welcome back to reality”
The struggle for the funds that are available for the various phases of film-making, be it screenwriting or marketing, is often long and drawn out, because their allocation, depending on the institution, is often linked with certain conditions. This makes calculating the films’ budgets quite difficult. New, young filmmakers often get lost in this “jungle.” And despite the fact that the training of young filmmakers in Germany, with its five film schools and all the post-graduate and specialist courses available at various universities and colleges, has “improved immensely,” as Andrea Hohnen, the organizer of the First Steps Award, puts it, there really are not that many who manage to really make it in the film business on a long-term basis.

Every year about 60 young directors, armed with their degrees from the film schools and universities, pour onto the market. According to Alfred Holighaus it easier for them to make their first film than their second. “When you make your first film in Germany you are allowed to enjoy the privilege of being a bit crazy. These people are hot and as filmmakers they can exploit themselves to the hilt. Even the actors, the whole production team, are modest in their demands and tolerant, yet highly ambitious.

The first thing the filmmakers usually have to do is pay off the debts incurred making their debut film, often with the help of the prize money they won in the First Steps Award competition. Then, however, they have to face the tribulations of everyday life. Not everybody is able to stand the pressure of having to be creative, of having to win over funding bodies and TV stations and the ever-present insecurity. It really is often like that, as was the case with Axel Melzener, a screenwriting graduate of the Baden-Württemberg Film Academy in Ludwigsburg. Of the ten young people who graduated with him, only three managed to continue working in the film sector, “The others either gave up, went on to study psychology or even became nurses,” he says. “Welcome back to reality.”

Written by journalist and author Sabine Pahlke-Grygier.

(20 German films are listed alphabetically.)

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