German Cinema Never Had It So Good – Worse Off Than Ever

Director Klaus Lemke with 'Berlin For Heroes' actress
Director Klaus Lemke with 'Berlin For Heroes' actress | Photo (detail): © Klaus Lemke Privatarchiv

About the current state of German cinema, opinions differ greatly. Healthier today than ever, say some; on the verge of the abyss, say others. Oliver Baumgarten slips into the two perspectives.

If you wanted to discuss the situation of current German cinema eight, nine years ago, you could describe with some enthusiasm a new realism, detect the emergence of various genres and, in general, note a developing breadth of styles and themes. All this has now been around for several years and we have to say that broad new trends in style and theme cannot really be made out at present. If today people talk about German film, they talk rather about the established structures, about supporting and maintaining them. Let’s therefore join the conversation and cast a glance, or better two glances, at the structures of German cinema, the circumstances that enable its development.

Right now, with the 50th anniversary in 2012 of the Obenhausen Manifesto and the renewal of German cinema in the 1960s, there is a great deal to read in the press about these structures. To put it simply, two stances have crystallized in the evaluation of the present situation. “German cinema has never had it so good” and “German cinema is worse off than ever”. By consecutively taking up each perspective, we can convey both stances very clearly.

German cinema never had it so good

Arguing from the euphoric perspective, we must begin by noting that the German film industry is currently blessed by a greater variety and richness than it has had for decades. Take the most recent figures of the Federal Film Board (FFA) for 2011: a total of 212 German films were shown in cinemas, including international co-productions. This figure breaks down into 132 feature films and 80 documentary films. The German market share was 21.8 percent – a good average of the last six to seven years.

But above all we can recognize a tremendous diversity of genres and styles, which surely permits an inference about the healthy state of German film. Dividing the offerings of German cinema in 2011 into five broad categories provides an overview of this variety.

Mainstream film

From the euphoric point of view, the best indication of a healthy film industry is a functioning mainstream. And at present in Germany there are in fact both stars and themes capable of supporting a successful mainstream. There are, for example, Til Schweiger and Matthias Schweighöfer, who can be called popular stars with good reason: among the top ten German films of 2011 there are four Schweiger / Schweighöfer movies. The top ten are led by Til Schweiger’s Kokowäh (4.3 million viewers), followed by Schweighöfer’s What a Man (1.8 million viewers). The following places are taken by Men in the City 2 (with Til Schweiger) und Women in Love (Rubbeldiekatz, with Matthias Schweighöfer), each with more than a million viewers.

All these films are comedies about the traditional gender roles and their increasing dissolution. They deal with the remains of time-honored male attributes and generate their humor from how these attributes now go against the grain of the modern world. In this way they stand in stark contrast to the romantic comedies that were still successful in the 1990s. The latter treated the coming together of the seemingly incompatible elements, man and woman. They were above all a reaction to the unification of East and West Germany. The successful comedies of today are no longer about the difficulties of living together, but rather about the difficulties of living with oneself.

Further evidence of a functioning mainstream may be found in the very successful German children’s films. In 2011 they included Laura’s Star, Lilly the Witch, Princess Lillifee, Tom Sawyer and When Santa Fell to Earth, all of which did very well at the box office.

Arthouse films of established directors

The arthouse film represents, not least thanks to its international reception, the heart of German cinema. It can today look back on a wide range of prize-winning, internationally recognized film-makers whose personal and continually produced films have become the flagship of the industry. Directors such as Andreas Dresen, Wim Wenders, Tom Tykwer, Hans-Christian Schmid, Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, Oskar Roehler, Matthias Glasner and Fatih Akin have all found their individual form and language, developed them, are shown at the most important film festivals in the world and been awarded the major prizes.

Young film talent is another strength of the German cinema. Germany has excellent film schools – and in addition to the big six (University of Television and Film in Munich, University of Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg, German Film and Television Academy in Berlin, Baden-Württemberg Film Academy, Academy of Media Arts in Cologne and the Cologne International Film School) there have long been many other specialized opportunities for training spread across the entire Federal Republic. Moreover, there are also numerous promotion programs, ranging from the First Step Awards and the Studio Hamburg Award for Young Talent to the Six Pack Program of the West German Radio and Film and Media Foundation of North Rhine-Westphalia, which are committed in various ways to supporting young creative film-makers and producers – with the result that a remarkable number of debut directors are able to realize their innovative ideas.

On this basis more debut films are made annually than perhaps ever before. In 2011 these included outstanding films such as The Day I was Born (Das Lied in mir; director: Florian Cossen), An Island Named Udo (Eine Insel namens Udo; director: Markus Sehr) and Above Us Only Sky (Über uns das All; director: Jan Schomburg) – all very different works, whose common characteristic consists in their main characters’ search for their identity and own place in society. The audience favorite among the debut films in 2011 was Almanya – Welcome to Germany (Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland) with 1.4 million viewers.

International co-productions

A further indication that German cinema has never had it so good is the high number of current international co-productions, which ideally offer the German film industry several advantages. International co-productions made in Germany enable film-makers to gain international experience and make contacts; moreover, they provide strong benefits for the local infrastructure.

Many American mainstream movies, such as recently The Three Musketeers, Unknown Identity and Anonymous, have been made thanks not least to the German Federal Film Fund (DFFF). An increasing number of successful arthouse films are also co-produced in Germany, and they then leave the calling card of the German film industry at the most important international film festivals. In 2011 these included new films by Aki Kaurismäki (Le Havre), Lars von Trier (Melancholia) and Roman Polanski (Carnage).

Documentary films

A final important field in the wide range of German cinema is the documentary film. It has never been stronger: in 2011 eighty German documentary films were shown in German cinemas. One reason for this impressive figure is that documentary films have simultaneously been having a difficult time on television. Their timeslots have been cancelled or they have been replaced by other, purportedly “documentary” formats, primarily docu-soaps. And so the true documentary film, aided by funding programs, has increasingly found its way into the cinema.

In 2011, most talked about of course was Wim Wenders’ 3D dance film Pina, which thanks not least to an Oscar nomination had 500,000 viewers. Other favorites were above all nature films: The North Sea from Above (Die Nordsee von oben) had an amazing 180,000 viewers and 160,000 watched Serengeti. Even political documentaries such as Taste the Waste had a huge reach. Valentin Thurn’s film about global food wasting was seen by over 100,000 people. Other documentaries such as Joschka and Herr Fischer (director: Pepe Danquart) and Klitschko (director: Sebastian Dehnhardt) had 50,000 and 80,000 viewers respectively.

Preliminary conclusion

German cinema has never had it so good, perhaps not since the 1960s. There is great variety and breadth of offerings, and the films are very successful: movie-goers have a strong desire to see German films, and the festivals and prizes that are so important for the reputation of films value German film-makers and regularly honor them with awards. We may say, in sum, that the mechanisms and measures set up in recent years have had a sustained effect.

Not least the financial resources with which the public sector has promoted the German film industry is likely to have been one of the causes of this success. German film is currently subsidized annually with over € 350 million, administered in various ways by four national and almost two dozen regional film funds. So much has been got right, and the curve of German film is pointing steeply upwards for the future.

Worse Off Than Ever

Not everyone familiar with the industry comes to the preliminary conclusion that German film has never had it so good. In the current discussion there are more and more people that see the situation very differently. If we slip into the point of view of those that find German film has never been worse off, the previously cited figures take on a different aspect.

In 2011, then, 132 German (feature) films were premiered, the market share was 21.8 percent, and there was a total of 129 million viewers. Even if it may not be quite fair to compare these figures with those from the heyday of German cinema, it remains true that in 1955, at the height of the German post-war film industry, though only 122 German (feature) films were premiered, the market share was 47 percent – and the total number of viewers was 766 million!

Assuming annual funding of 350 million euros for German films, this means that every viewer of a German film is subsidized at € 12. Compared with subsidies for theater and opera, that may be a negligibly small sum. But in view of those who rave about the great success of German film, it still seems more than dubious.

Quantitative wealth – qualitative poverty

That today there are more German films in cinemas than at a time when they had six times more viewers means above all one thing: the quantitative wealth of German films conceals its qualitative poverty. The flood of German films (two to four new films every week) brings with it almost only drawbacks: for example, that there are far too many merely average quality films to see. The majority of German films are, in form and content, not worth the effort of distributing.

The result: the brand “German film” is watered down more and more with every week, the trust of the audience dwindles. Week after week viewers are faced with the problem of sifting the worthwhile films from the less worthwhile. The numbers from 2011 show the result: award-winning festival successes, indisputably good films, do not reach the audience: Sleeping Sickness (Schlafkrankheit) by Ulrich Köhler had 21,000 viewers, The City Below (Unter Dir die Stadt) by Christoph Hochhäusler only 14,000. And Andreas Dresen’s unanimously acclaimed Stopped on Track (Halt auf freier Strecke), with 50,000 viewers, managed only with great difficulties to qualify for funding from the Federal Film Board.

Film as an industry

That so many films reach the movie theater has to do with the distribution requirement sometimes bound up with funding. To qualify for a grant from the German Federal Film Fund, for example, the producers of a film must show that already prior to the production of a film, a distribution company has guaranteed the film’s distribution with a pre-defined number of copies. And even if all the parties were later to agree that the completed film had no prospects with the public, it would still have to be released, and so stand in the way of promising films.

Basically, we can say that the promotion of film in Germany has a clear tendency to develop into economic promotion. For the sake of the industry, sponsors are fundamentally interested in economic success. Film today is seen above all as an industry and not as art or a cultural possession – this has been fostered by the policy decisions of recent years. “Film” is linked to location factors, and on these in turn depend jobs and complex economic and social structures.

The work of film promotion has more than ever become an economic act, with the result that even the various federal states have entered into stiff competition with each other. This is actually a political and economic competition among locations. It is about jobs more than it is about cultural issues. In this self-made situation it is not surprising that there should be a trend to funding proven forms, stories and names. The air on which artistic risk lives is getting thinner and thinner, because the public image of funding institutions is also at stake and uncertain ventures may endanger it.

The often mentioned lack of courage to take risks, of which some critics like to accuse film-makers, may also be found in institutions and hampers the development of German cinema. The abundance of available money, the closeness to TV and the attempted industrialization of film has led to a dangerous comfortableness. The previously mentioned diversity of German cinema is deceptive: the films being made resemble one another more and more in form and presentation, so that it is only a question of time before the audience again turns away entirely from German film.

Off the beaten path

In order to do things differently, to realize different forms of presentation and fill them with different content, film-makers are therefore simply working more and more without subsidies – that is, independently in the true sense of independent films. In 2002, for instance, completely independently and with considerable courage, Andreas Dresen together with the producer Peter Rommel tried out a new narrative style made possible by digitalization. For sponsors, the project would have been too risky, since Grill Point (Halbe Treppe) was shot without a script and was therefore practically uncontrollable. Today Grill Point is one of the major milestones in the dramatic development of recent German cinema.

And then there is Klaus Lemke, who in the guise of an enfant terrible has denounced “state cinema” and rather drastically called for abolishing film subsidies. For decades Lemke has shot a film every year which, with the exception of one television cooperation, have been entirely self-financed. His method of working is also unusual: he casts his main characters using people in the street and lets the story develop out of them during the shooting. The results are certainly not films for a mass audience, but thanks to the relatively low budget that is not necessary: Lemke’s form of artistic expression has always found its viewers. His new film, Berlin for Heroes (Berlin für Helden), was released nationally in 2012.

RP Kahl has also worked independently in this sense for years. With 99 Euro Films (2002) he and Torsten Neumann initiated a widely acclaimed project beyond television and subsidies. He has also self-financed his most recent feature film Bedways, since its theme (the presentation of explicit sexuality in the media) would have made public funding impossible. And Kahl has been successful: he has been able to market the film with a profit.

One final example: Axel Ranisch and his film Fat Girls (Dicke Mädchen). To realize this film he too completely freed himself from the constraints, structures and requirements of external subsidies and, entirely without sponsors, improvised a little story about quirky and loveable characters.

These are only a few examples of films that could not have been made within the subsidy system. That the German funding system seldom rewards such courage is one of the reasons that a faction in the industry certifies German cinema to be in a bad state. A popular demand from this perspective is to strengthen cultural film funding, perhaps even to separate cultural from economic funding. Some would like to see funding bodies abolished, or at least have film-makers themselves decide on the awarding of grants and so establish clear substantive criteria.

Outlook

The discussion about the future of German cinema will move between these two pointedly presented poles. There will be suggestions that will be recognized across party lines and can be relatively swiftly implemented. For example, in the course of the discussion about the fifth amendment of the Film Promotion Act, which is to go into effect in 2014, the industry has itself broached the question of the distribution requirement and already put forth constructive proposals.

There remain, however, other, fundamental problems, about which agreement will not be reached so swiftly. The gap between the cultural and the economic understanding of film, for instance, is now so wide that it will not be easy to bridge. Nor is this discrepancy a new one. Since the day of its invention, film has moved between the marketplace and the avant-garde – and each has always been beneficial to the other in developing the medium.

The point at which art ceases and commerce begins will never be definitively defined, and it is not really so important that it be. Decisive seems rather that films can be made within a system that avoids hampering the development of cinema and instead promotes it in the truest sense of the word. From whichever perspective we join in the discussion, we should together examine the existing system with respect to this key question.