German children’s and youth films Between mainstream and niche cinema

“Scherbenpark” (i.e., Broken Glass Park) by Bettina Blümner – sensible observation of an angry, rebellious girl
“Scherbenpark” (i.e., Broken Glass Park) by Bettina Blümner – sensible observation of an angry, rebellious girl | Photo (detail): © Neue Visionen Filmverleih

Especially in the area of children’s films, adaptations of popular books are in great demand. At the same time, beyond the mainstream, a cinema of challenging content is also emerging that orients itself more strongly to the real life of children and young people.

The story is pure adventure movie: one night two boys observe a murder in a cemetery. Later an innocent man will be framed for the crime. Whether right or wrong will be done lies in the hands of the children – one a smooth operator, the other an outsider if ever there was one. Mark Twain’s adventure story from the nineteenth century about Tom Sawyer and his friend Huckleberry Finn has recently been filmed twice: in 2011 by Hermine Huntgeburth and one year later by Norbert Lechner. These two adaptations are excellent examples of the poles between which children and youth films move in Germany.

One story, two variants

Hermine Huntgeburth made a lavish film from Twain’s book: Tom Sawyer was shot in Germany, made to look like the American South. In its treatment of the story, on the other hand, it was less daring. The dialogue and episodic structure follow the original pretty closely. Only a few months after this, the next adaptation appeared. In Tom and Hacke, Norbert Lechner tells the tale in outline once again. But now the steamy Mississippi Delta has become the Inn Valley. The action takes place no longer in the American South at the end of the nineteenth century but in 1948 in post-war Bavaria. The Indians have become smugglers; instead of the southern drawl, the accent of the original, we hear the thickest Bavarian dialect – without subtitles. Tom and Hacke is a very free adaptation, which refers to its original unassumingly and without great ado, but remains very faithful to its spirit.

Family feel-good cinema or the courage to occupy a niche

On the one hand, there is the longing for big entertainment cinema and the orientation to the popular, established brands and originals. Especially in the area of children’s films, adaptations of popular books are in great demand – ranging from Die Rote Zora (i.e., Red Zora) (2008) by Peter Kahane to Das kleine Gespenst (i.e., The Little Ghost) (2013) by Alain Gsponer. Film series like Fünf Freunde (i.e., Famous Five) (2012-2014) and Hanni und Nanni (St. Claire’s) (2010-2013) seek to set forth not only stories but also the box-office success, and so create a large fan base.

It cannot be ignored that especially the productions aimed at a large audience often have a rather conservative picture of what makes a good children’s film: adult figures often degenerate into bumbling clowns, the scenery is emphatically colourful, the concerns of the young characters, violence and other borderline areas are faded out. Predominant is an escapist ideal world: family feel-good cinema. A misapprehension if cinema is to be not only a realm of fantasy but also have reference to our everyday lives.

Stories from the house next door

On the other hand, beyond the mainstream and often because of low budgets and difficult production conditions, a cinema of challenging content is emerging that orients itself more strongly to the real life of children and young people. Kopfüber (Upside Down) by Bernd Sahling, which came to film theatres in 2013 after a ten year story development, is one such case. Sahling tells the story of a ten-year old boy with behavioural problems who is diagnosed with ADHD, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and does not make identification with the main figure easy for the audience. Almost like a documentary, the film follows the boy and draws its strength from the authentic presentation of his living environment. Sahling looks for his stories in the house next door. Kopfüber is unlikely ever to appear on the list of children’s favourite movies, but it will certainly challenge its young audience.

Films for here and now

The same applies to the area of youth films. The prestige production Rubinrot (i.e., Ruby Red) (2013) by Felix Fuchssteiner, an adaptation of the first volume of the popular novel series Liebe geht durch alle Zeiten (known as the “Gem Trilogy”) by Kerstin Gier, is also centred in a fantasy story, which despite an epic treatment remains very superficial and contains few surprises.

Scherbenpark (i.e., Broken Glass Park) (2013) by Bettina Blümner, on the other hand, does not seek after big effects, even if the starting-point of the film is quite spectacular: the 17 year-old Sascha lives in a social hotspot and plots revenge against her stepfather, whom she witnessed brutally murdering her mother. Yet then Alina Bronsky’s debut novel is developed not into a thriller but into a sensible observation of an angry, rebellious girl seeking a hold in life and who gradually frees herself from the prison of her own identity. The viewer enjoys following the plot because it is unpredictable in a good way – and because its main character has rough edges and Blümmer consistently tells her story on an equal footing with her.

Mainstream children’s and youth cinema often lacks the courage to enter into its figures and their everyday lives and to tell stories that do not have all the answers and reveal everything – but also do not conceal everything. For children’s films at least, there has existed since 2013 support funding in the form of the initiative Der besondere Kinderfilm (i.e., The Special Children’s Film), which deliberately aims at promoting films whose content is close to everyday life. Expressly desired are films about the present with depth and relevance that are not afraid to face difficult issues: films for here and now.