German animation film
“When you think of animated films you always think of children’s films”

Animated films: The domestic animated film industry is at a certain disadvantage.
Animated films: The domestic animated film industry is at a certain disadvantage. | Photo (detail): © Trickfilm Festival Stuttgart

German animation films do not attract the attention they deserve. There are good film academies and the festivals are booming, but there are few takers and studios are closing down. In an interview, film critic Lars Meyer gives an insight into the world of cartoon films.

Herr Meyer, what are the latest developments and themes in the animated film genre?

As far as artistic animated film is concerned, all themes and all techniques. These are the films that are being made at the academies and they are usually also the ones you get to see at festivals, such as the Filmfest Dresden, DOK Leipzig, Interfilm Berlin or the Festival of Animated Film Stuttgart.

Filmkritiker Lars Meyer Foto: Bertram Bölkow They may be very personal films or animated documentaries such as Hendrik Niefeld’s Warmes Wasser aus der Wand (Warm Water Out of the Wall), another film about how it felt to live in East Germany before 1989. But you can’t say there is a particular dominant subject or technique. However, it has to be said that the main focus of animated film in Germany is on children’s film, or that is how it is perceived. Most of what is made for television is children’s film and most of it is computer generated, either as 2D or 3D animation. However, all the old techniques are still there. It is not as if nobody knew how to make a cartoon, a stop-motion film, a cut-out animation film or a sand animation anymore.

Is Animadoc a trend?

Animadoc is definitely a trend. It is not as new as it may sound, because there were films that could be called animated documentaries back in the eighties. But now people have become aware of this mixed form. The term Animadoc was coined and it is starting to attract academic attention. Many filmmakers are fascinated by it – a famous example is Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman. Animadoc can be used to present a narrative that could otherwise not be presented. For example, to show internal worlds. A classic animated documentary film would use an interview, a real document, but instead of presenting it visually, it would use a different visual level. Something animated that leads viewers into the protagonist’s world. But it may also be something quite different, like for example in the Irish film Irish Folk Furniture by Tony Donoghue, which is about restoring old furniture that roll through the countryside all the time.

Does German animation film need more funding?

Some really fantastic films are being made at the universities and training centres, which have state-of-the-art technical equipment - the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg and the University of Film and Television “Konrad Wolf” in Potsdam-Babelsberg, and the internationale filmschule köln in Cologne is catching up. The students there can experiment, and they make films of very high artistic quality, but when they leave university they have to face the market. And basically, there is nowhere for these young people to go from there. There are only a few takers for this kind of film and many graduates go on to eke out a living as freelance graphic designers or to work in advertising. But, logically, that is not what they want to do. Some emigrate to America. Disney Pixar is delighted to take on our young filmmakers. Or they go to France, where there is a comparatively large market.

I recently read some statistics that even Ireland and Luxembourg produce more animated films than Germany does. As I said, the market here focuses mainly on children’s films. Of course, there are also some sources of funding for film. But there is no quota in Germany, unlike in France, as to the proportion of the animated films on television that have to be German. There are strong links between funding and television – but television only plays a minor role as a sales market for animated film. At best, material is developed, but there is a question mark as to whether a film is completed. The proportion of German animated films shown on television is six per cent – most animated films are bought in from abroad. That means that the domestic animated film industry is at a certain disadvantage. The real problem, though, is that we do not know very much about animated films. When we think of animated films, we always think of children’s films. That is a great misunderstanding.

What is being done to counter that?

In the past, more and more studios have had to shut down. In order to prevent that continuing, a trade association for the German animation industry, the “AG Animationsfilm”, was set up last year, and it’s putting a concerted effort into promoting animated film. Currently, most animated films are only shown on KiKA, the children’s channel, of course.

Twelve years ago, the “Animation Exchange Forum” was initiated under the auspices of the Filmfest Dresden in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut. The “Exchange Forum - Perspectives for Animated Film” is intended to bring together young European filmmakers who are just entering this difficult market. They exchange views on trends, and on the different conditions in different countries and take part in joint workshops. In 2012, Latvia was the focal country, and there was a cooperation with the Goethe-Institut in Riga. In 2013, the Goethe-Institut in Tbilisi will be the co-partner. There is special appreciation of animated film in Dresden. The German Institute for Animated Film (DIAF), which maintains the collection the DEFA Studio for Animated Film, the state animated film production studio of the former GDR, is also based there.

You are also a member of DOK Leipzig’s selection committee. Which German animated film particularly appealed to you at the recent festival?

We viewed some 700 short films at the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film, including a lot of brilliant German films. There were so many of them that there were two extra New German Animation programmes One I liked very much was the computer-animated film Rising Hope by Milen Vitanov, an animated filmmaker from Bulgaria who studied in Germany and lives in Berlin. It tells the story of the racehorse Rising Hope who is initially very successful but who has fallen into a crisis. It’s a classic narrative with lots of dramatic highs and lows, it’s very witty and beautifully made.