Film Scene

Never Had It So Good – Two Perspectives on Current German Cinema

Director Wim Wenders during the shooting for “Pina” | Copyright: © Neue Road Movies GmbH; Photo: Donata Wenders
Director Wim Wenders during the shooting for “Pina” | Copyright: © Neue Road Movies GmbH; photo: Donata Wenders

About the current state of German cinema, opinions differ greatly. Healthier today than ever, say some; on the verge of the abyss, say others. Oliver Baumgarten slips into the two perspectives. Part One: German film has never had it so good.

If you wanted to discuss the situation of current German cinema eight, nine years ago, you could describe with some enthusiasm a new realism, detect the emergence of various genres and, in general, note a developing breadth of styles and themes. All this has now been around for several years and we have to say that broad new trends in style and theme cannot really be made out at present. If today people talk about German film, they talk rather about the established structures, about supporting and maintaining them. Let’s therefore join the conversation and cast a glance, or better two glances, at the structures of German cinema, the circumstances that enable its development.

Right now, with the 50th anniversary in 2012 of the Obenhausen Manifesto and the renewal of German cinema in the 1960s, there is a great deal to read in the press about these structures. To put it simply, two stances have crystallized in the evaluation of the present situation. “German cinema has never had it so good” and “German cinema is worse off than ever”. By consecutively taking up each perspective, we can convey both stances very clearly.

German cinema never had it so good

Arguing from the euphoric perspective, we must begin by noting that the German film industry is currently blessed by a greater variety and richness than it has had for decades. Take the most recent figures of the Federal Film Board (FFA) for 2011: a total of 212 German films were shown in cinemas, including international co-productions. This figure breaks down into 132 feature films and 80 documentary films. The German market share was 21.8 percent – a good average of the last six to seven years.

But above all we can recognize a tremendous diversity of genres and styles, which surely permits an inference about the healthy state of German film. Dividing the offerings of German cinema in 2011 into five broad categories provides an overview of this variety.

Mainstream film

From the euphoric point of view, the best indication of a healthy film industry is a functioning mainstream. And at present in Germany there are in fact both stars and themes capable of supporting a successful mainstream. There are, for example, Til Schweiger and Matthias Schweighöfer, who can be called popular stars with good reason: among the top ten German films of 2011 there are four Schweiger / Schweighöfer movies. The top ten are led by Til Schweiger’s Kokowäh (4.3 million viewers), followed by Schweighöfer’s What a Man (1.8 million viewers). The following places are taken by Men in the City 2 (with Til Schweiger) und Women in Love (Rubbeldiekatz, with Matthias Schweighöfer), each with more than a million viewers.

All these films are comedies about the traditional gender roles and their increasing dissolution. They deal with the remains of time-honored male attributes and generate their humor from how these attributes now go against the grain of the modern world. In this way they stand in stark contrast to the romantic comedies that were still successful in the 1990s. The latter treated the coming together of the seemingly incompatible elements, man and woman. They were above all a reaction to the unification of East and West Germany. The successful comedies of today are no longer about the difficulties of living together, but rather about the difficulties of living with oneself.

Further evidence of a functioning mainstream may be found in the very successful German children’s films. In 2011 they included Laura’s Star, Lilly the Witch, Princess Lillifee, Tom Sawyer and When Santa Fell to Earth, all of which did very well at the box office.

Arthouse films of established directors

The arthouse film represents, not least thanks to its international reception, the heart of German cinema. It can today look back on a wide range of prize-winning, internationally recognized film-makers whose personal and continually produced films have become the flagship of the industry. Directors such as Andreas Dresen, Wim Wenders, Tom Tykwer, Hans-Christian Schmid, Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, Oskar Roehler, Matthias Glasner and Fatih Akin have all found their individual form and language, developed them, are shown at the most important film festivals in the world and been awarded the major prizes.

Young film-makers

Young film talent is another strength of the German cinema. Germany has excellent film schools – and in addition to the big six (University of Television and Film in Munich, University of Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg, German Film and Television Academy in Berlin, Baden-Württemberg Film Academy, Academy of Media Arts in Cologne and the Cologne International Film School) there have long been many other specialized opportunities for training spread across the entire Federal Republic. Moreover, there are also numerous promotion programs, ranging from the First Step Awards and the Studio Hamburg Award for Young Talent to the Six Pack Program of the West German Radio and Film and Media Foundation of North Rhine-Westphalia, which are committed in various ways to supporting young creative film-makers and producers – with the result that a remarkable number of debut directors are able to realize their innovative ideas.

On this basis more debut films are made annually than perhaps ever before. In 2011 these included outstanding films such as The Day I was Born (Das Lied in mir; director: Florian Cossen), An Island Named Udo (Eine Insel namens Udo; director: Markus Sehr) and Above Us Only Sky (Über uns das All; director: Jan Schomburg) – all very different works, whose common characteristic consists in their main characters’ search for their identity and own place in society. The audience favorite among the debut films in 2011 was Almanya – Welcome to Germany (Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland) with 1.4 million viewers.

International co-productions

A further indication that German cinema has never had it so good is the high number of current international co-productions, which ideally offer the German film industry several advantages. International co-productions made in Germany enable film-makers to gain international experience and make contacts; moreover, they provide strong benefits for the local infrastructure.

Many American mainstream movies, such as recently The Three Musketeers, Unknown Identity and Anonymous, have been made thanks not least to the German Federal Film Fund (DFFF). An increasing number of successful arthouse films are also co-produced in Germany, and they then leave the calling card of the German film industry at the most important international film festivals. In 2011 these included new films by Aki Kaurismäki (Le Havre), Lars von Trier (Melancholia) and Roman Polanski (Carnage).

Documentary films

A final important field in the wide range of German cinema is the documentary film. It has never been stronger: in 2011 eighty German documentary films were shown in German cinemas. One reason for this impressive figure is that documentary films have simultaneously been having a difficult time on television. Their timeslots have been cancelled or they have been replaced by other, purportedly “documentary” formats, primarily docu-soaps. And so the true documentary film, aided by funding programs, has increasingly found its way into the cinema.

In 2011, most talked about of course was Wim Wenders’ 3D dance film Pina, which thanks not least to an Oscar nomination had 500,000 viewers. Other favorites were above all nature films: The North Sea from Above (Die Nordsee von oben) had an amazing 180,000 viewers and 160,000 watched Serengeti. Even political documentaries such as Taste the Waste had a huge reach. Valentin Thurn’s film about global food wasting was seen by over 100,000 people. Other documentaries such as Joschka and Herr Fischer (director: Pepe Danquart) and Klitschko (director: Sebastian Dehnhardt) had 50,000 and 80,000 viewers respectively.

Preliminary conclusion

German cinema has never had it so good, perhaps not since the 1960s. There is great variety and breadth of offerings, and the films are very successful: movie-goers have a strong desire to see German films, and the festivals and prizes that are so important for the reputation of films value German film-makers and regularly honor them with awards. We may say, in sum, that the mechanisms and measures set up in recent years have had a sustained effect.

Not least the financial resources with which the public sector has promoted the German film industry is likely to have been one of the causes of this success. German film is currently subsidized annually with over € 350 million, administered in various ways by four national and almost two dozen regional film funds. So much has been got right, and the curve of German film is pointing steeply upwards for the future.

To Part 2: Worse Off Than Ever

Oliver Baumgarten
is a film scholar and works as a journalist, curator and lecturer, based in Cologne. This article is adapted from a lecture he gave at the 2012 Berlinale.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
May 2012

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