Genres and Film Topics in Germany

Filming the unfilmable – German funding helps literary works get into movie houses

Scene from “The Congress”  Photo: © Pandora FilmScene from “The Congress”  Photo: © Pandora FilmWeightier novels also manage to find their way into cinemas. In 2012 and 2013, German film production companies took on some rather daring subject matter, but was it worth the risk?

In their worst form, German films are tedious status quo pieces, respectable and well intentioned but without much grit and always featuring the same friendly faces. In short, easily forgotten. In the early 2000s, American film industry insiders even called funding from Germany for international productions “stupid German money” because it was often just tax write-offs invested into low-quality celluloid creations.

Yet German films and co-productions are becoming bolder and money is being more cleverly invested, a fact that reveals itself most poignantly in films based on works of literature such as Cloud Atlas, The Congress, Wetlands, Kolhaas oder die Verhältnismäßkeit der Mittel, Measuring the World and The Wall. As far as style, themes and production resources they couldn't be more different, but they all have one thing in common: challenging literary subject matter that critics invariably label unfilmable.

Blockbuster and art-house works based on literature

Scene from “The Wall”  Photo: © Studio canalCloud Atlas, a film based on the novel of the same name by David Mitchell, garnered the loudest reception in 2012. It features the likes of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving in a web of stories directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International) and the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix movies, Speed). Interestingly, from the 100 million euro budget for the film, 20 million came from German funding sources and despite the film's rather modest success at the box office it received critical acclaim on the international circuit. X-Verleih, the Cloud Atlas distributor, was still positive at the beginning of 2013 that German productions will be able to help finance more major productions in the future.

The film adaptation of Daniel Kehlmann's bestselling novel Measuring the World had a smaller but still regal budget of 10 million euro and was directed by Detlev Buck (Männerpension, Same Same but Different). Still, with its exotic locations and 3D technology, the reception was moderate. His subsequent novel Ruhm had to get by with a paltry four million for the celluloid version, while eight million were all it took to put Ari Folman's story The Congress on the big screen in the fall of 2013. German production company Pandora Film was involved with that Israeli project. Big expectations also awaited David Wnendt's adaptation of Charlotte Roche's risqué novel Wetlands. From the art-house milieu came film versions of The Wall by Austrian author Julian Pölsler and Kohlhaas oder die Verhältnismäßigkeit der Mittel, Aron Lehmann's first film. The Wall is being sent in as an official nominee for an Austrian Oscar 2014.

Telling the story

Scene from “Cloud Atlas”  Photo: © Warner Bros PicturesDue to their linguistic sophistication, none of these works are easy to adapt for film. Cloud Atlas is a journey through time based on six short stories that are stylistically and idiomatically specific to the period in which they are set. In Futurological Congress, the basis for The Congress, Stanisław Lem uses a seemingly endless supply playful language to tell the story of drug-induced insanity. Wetlands indulgently describes bodily secretions that you may not necessarily want to actually see. The Wall by Marlen Haushofer is an apocalyptic diary and Heinrich von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas is still a very readable novella that just happens to be 200 years old.

Scene from “Wetlands”  Photo: © Majestic FilmverleihThe good thing all of these film adaptations do is attempt to follow the basic concept of the original story. They only made changes when absolutely necessary. Cloud Atlas uses the same actors in multiple roles to tackle the novel's basic idea of dealing with problems that recur throughout human history. In The Wall, Martina Gedeck's voice narrates sections of the character's diary. The Congress is a crazy vision of the future of the media industry and Wetlands mostly just alludes to the racy explorations of the human body that are so explicitly described in the book. Measuring the World focuses on the impossibility of communicating true genius and Kohlhaas is at once a pseudo-documentation of the failed attempt to film the novella and a declaration of love for the power a storytelling.

Martin Haldenmair
works in the Munich area, writing on the themes of culture and knowledge. Known as the “journalist in a hat”, he is particularly fascinated by films.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
October 2013

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