The German documentary Daily life, dying and departure

The director of “Breathing Earth“, Thomas Riedelsheimer
The director of “Breathing Earth“, Thomas Riedelsheimer | Photo (detail): © Piffl Medien

A closer look at the latest German-language documentaries reveals a vast range of subject matter, from biographical works and pieces on time pressure in the modern era to death and the need to “let go”. Yet the conditions for filmmakers are getting worse.

German-language documentaries are in a quandary. They have never been so present and powerful as they are right now, but have rarely been so weak and withdrawn. The reasons are manifold, but it is possible to pinpoint a common denominator. On the one side, the creativity of the typically underpaid filmmakers is unswerving and there is massive diversity in the documentaries that have been distinguished on both domestic and international levels. The German film Musik als Waffe (Tristan Chytroschek) won a coveted Emmy in 2012, for example. On the other hand, however, conditions are increasingly bad for effectively bringing this creative input to moviegoers and television viewers.

The disappearance of relevant forums and platforms

The number of cinemas in the film industry that feature documentaries in their programming is decreasing. These films often land in late-evening slots, are shown only once a day and are only carried by smaller theaters, art-house cinemas or film museums. Most theaters, which increasingly consist of multiplexes with a dozen screens, only show the mainstream stuff. Buddying up to James Bond 007 – Skyfall and Breaking Dawn is a tall order for a German-language documentary filmmaker. At the best of times their films are seen as niche programming in German cinemas.

More or less the same applies to German television. Despite having always had an established position in public television programming, the documentary feature, the 45-minute piece and the full-length documentary no longer get the prominent slots with significant advertising and viewer relevance. Those have long been otherwise allocated. The so-called “prime time” no longer features documentaries and if it does they typically focus on the ever-popular subject of Europe's royal families and nobility. The socially critical, biographical and historical documentary film with a running time of 60 to 90 minutes has been banished to the slots after ARD's Tagesthemen and ZDF's Heute Journal, both news programs. Indeed, it is against this backdrop – the conspicuous disappearance of a relevant platform – that we must view the current state of the German documentary.

Great diversity

With regard to subject matter, the spectrum of current documentaries is broad, including politics and grievances in countries where dictatorships still rule instead of democracy; biographies such as München in Indien by Walter Steffens (release on January 3, 2013) or Thomas Riedelsheimer's Breathing Earth – Susumu Shingus Traum (release on December 27, 2012), a film about the Japanese sculptor Shingus.

And humans managing life in our fast-paced modern world, a world of incessant media input and 24/7 reachability. The speed and means of communication are constantly on the rise, but are in direct opposition to the dramatic decreases in the amount of time we seem to have these days. Director Florian Opitz (1973) explores this only seemingly contradictory phenomenon in his quasi autobiographical film Speed – Auf der Suche nach der verlorenen Zeit (lit. Speed – In search of lost time).

Two seasoned directors of German feature films, Werner Herzog and Michael Verhoeven, both explore the death penalty in the United States in their most recent documentary efforts: Herzog with Tod in Texas (original US title Into the Abyss) and Verhoeven with Die zweite Hinrichtung (lit. The second execution), both haunting and well worth seeing. In Germany the two films didn't even make it into the cinemas and went straight to late-night television programming slots in 2012.

Death – a taboo subject

It is worth noting in this context that, in addition to other subjects, many of the taboo topics have been addressed in documentaries. One of them is death, mortality, the momentary nature of human life, and the process of letting go. A beautiful example of this is the film Vergiss mein nicht (lit. Don't forget mine, release January 31, 2013) by David Sieveking. After a number of short films, Sieveking (1977) then created two documentaries, Sénégallemand (2007) and David Wants to Fly (2010). Now he is on the way to directly exploring his own life: his mother, Gretel Sieveking, suffers from dementia, is gradually losing her memory and increasingly living in a world all her own. Life in the Sieveking family is of course changing with Gretel's illness. They are pulling together. Son David, who tells his story primarily from the first-person perspective, like Florian Opitz in Speed, experiences things about his parents, Gretel and Malte, that he had never known. They are growing closer after all those years.

In addition to the mental deterioration of his mother, the 35-year-old director also shows the physical breakdown all the way until she is bedridden at home. In the credits we finally see that his mother died in February 2012. Vergiss mein nicht – awarded the Hessian State Film Prize and distinguished at the Locarno Film Festival – is a very personal film that carefully selects the boundaries in crosses. It could even be said that precisely because of its subject matter and format it represents the paradigm of current German documentary filmmaking.