Blockbuster Blockbusters Made in Germany

Stellan Skarsgård (left) and Tom Payne in the historical adventure epic “The Physician”
Stellan Skarsgård (left) and Tom Payne in the historical adventure epic “The Physician” | Photo (detail): © Universal Pictures International

Blockbusters from Germany? Not only the big American studios can produce attractive films with box office potential. On a smaller scale this also succeeds in Germany.

A “blockbuster”, according to the German Federal Film Board (FFA), is a film that reaches at least one million viewers. If therefore you study German cinema statistics, you will note that Germans love comedies. The genre has dominated the top 10 of the German movie charts since 1968, ranging from Otto slapstick, parodies and romantic comedies to the political satire of Good Bye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003).

The uncrowned king of the German blockbuster is Michael “Bully” Herbig. The parody specialist has shot some of the most successful German films: Der Schuh des Manitu (i.e., Manitou’s Shoe) (2001) und (T)Raumschiff Surprise (i.e., Dreamship Surprise) (2004) drew 11.7 million and 9.2 million viewers. Expectations are great for his opus which was launched on Christmas 2013: in Buddy he turns for the first time to romantic comedy, a genre in which Til Schweiger, the second biggest German blockbuster maker of the last decade, has regularly scored. Like Schweiger, the creator of romantic comedies such as Keinohrhasen (i.e., No Ear Rabbit) (2007), Bully is simultaneously actor, screenwriter, director and producer, holding the reins in his hand.

Comedies or literature adaptations: a safe bet

In 2013 too comedies dominated the German charts. Successful ones included romances with Til Schweiger (Kokowääh 2, i.e., Coq au Vin 2) and Matthias Schweighöfer (Schlussmacher, i.e., Break-Up Man), children’s films based on book classics (Fünf Freunde 2 [i.e., Famous Five 2], Hanni & Nanni 3 [i.e., St. Claire’s 3]) and literature adaptations (Feuchtgebiete, i.e., Wetlands).

Since 1999, when Wim Wenders released Buena Vista Social Club, the first documentary film to have one-million viewers, this genre has proven itself from time to time to possess mass appeal. Sönke Wortmann’s football film Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen (i.e., Germany. A Summer’s Tale) reached an audience of nearly four million, making it by far the most successful documentary of the last twenty-five years.

Contrary to expectations, book adaptations have not shown themselves to be a strong audience magnet. In a study of 198 feature-length films with German participation that between 1997 and 2006 had revenues of more than one million, the Umbrella Organization of the German Film Industry (SPIO) found that films with historical sources grossed an average of 17.6 million euros – far more than book adaptations with 8.1 million euros. And this although the proportion of films based on historical events or persons such as Untergang (The Downfall) (2004) and Luther (2003) make up only 2.5 per cent of the total. The author of the study, Wilfried Berauer, sees a common denominator in “subjects that have as a basis a high degree of recognition among almost the entire population and all age groups”.

Proven ingredients

Anyone planning a box-office biggie is well-advised to rely on proven ingredients: a popular original, stars, a major director. A prime example is the historical adventure epic The Physician based on Noah Gordon’s eponymous novel, which in Germany alone sold more than six million copies. For the 26.5 million euro costume drama, which started over Christmas 2013, the director Philipp Stölzl fetched international stars like Ben Kingsley, Stellan Skarsgård and Olivier Martinez in front of his camera.

Big projects such as The Physician are filmed in English for the world market. This was also the case with Cloud Atlas (2012), the star-studded filming of David Mitchell’s novel by Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski. With a budget of 100 million dollars, the fantastic adventure film, which was seen by 1.1 million viewers in Germany, is regarded as the most expensive ever German co-production.

The racing driver drama Rush (2013) by Ron Howard, which cost 40 million euros and describes the legendary race of Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda und James Hunt, was also shot in English. The leading roles were played by the Hollywood stars Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Daniel Brühl, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.

Unpredictable viewer popularity

That a well-known brand, stars and clever marketing cannot guarantee success may be seen from the musical adaptation Im Weißen Rössl – Wehe du singst! (i.e., The White Horse Inn): it disappeared after two weeks from the cinemas. The unpredictability of the movie business is also demonstrated by the striking success of the school comedy Fack Ju Göhte by Boran Dagtekin, which with over 5 million viewers in 2013 became the most successful film in German movie theatres, leaving the Hollywood blockbusters behind in the dust.

The arthouse sector has now established its own charts. Although such films do not attract an audience of millions, they do, unlike most German comedies, catch on abroad. The latest example: Hannah Arendt. The 6.5 million euro film biography by Margarethe von Trotta interested almost half a million moviegoers in Germany. In France, 350,000 viewers went to see the film about the German philosopher. Even in the United States the co-production with Luxembourg and France grossed a box office of over 500,000 euros – quite a success for an historical film “made in Germany”.