Film Director Training in Germany “Congratulations, you were rejected”

Young filmmakers

Shooting films everyone talks about, working with well-known actors, being feted at festivals around the world – film directing is a dream job. Places at German film academies are accordingly coveted.

In 2011, David Wnendt, who was studying film directing at the Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen (HFF) in Potsdam-Babelsberg, submitted his final dissertation entitled Auf und Davon (i.e. Up and Away). In it, he asks one simple question: what chances does one really have of working long-term as a director and of being able to earn a living in this profession? Wnendt researched ten cohorts of final year students and gathered details about the jobs the graduates were doing. He writes that he was surprised by what he found, which was that no fewer than 60 percent of them were actively working as directors after graduation – far more than he had presumed when he began his research.

Meanwhile, David Wnendt himself is among these 60 percent, though he is one of the few who has achieved really great success. In 2012, the young director won virtually all of the industry's major awards for his graduate film Combat Girls. His film adaptation of the best-selling novel Wetlands (2013) was seen by a million people. His degree in film directing, as he explains in an interview with the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, certainly played a major part in this. “The course is extremely practical. Every week we went out and made films. That teaches you not only the craft of directing itself but also how to handle criticism from the professors, rivalry between students and problems during shooting.”

No career guarantee

Places on the course at the former HFF Potsdam, which in July 2014 was raised to university status, are coveted. “It is always a challenge to pick eight to ten students out of a pool of more than 200 applicants”, says director Marie Wilke, who worked for ten years as a research associate at the HFF's degree course in film directing. “It is important to understand that we are looking for an applicant's artistic and creative potential rather than basing our choice on the criteria of a so-called market.”

A great deal is expected from students of film directing right from the start. Creativity, assertiveness and empathy are key requirements. At the same time, directors have to learn how to deal with what can often be harsh criticism. That said, as Wilke stresses, there is no kind of guarantee that the talented students who receive a place will ultimately enjoy a successful career in the film industry. “The degree course is merely a stepping stone towards a possible career as a director.”

State, private or member-run

The University of Television and Film Munich and the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Ludwigsburg enjoy similar renown and popularity as the Film University Babelsberg. The three of them are regarded as the institutions of choice for budding directors. Depending on the university, different aspects will be focused on during the degree programme itself: whereas the film academies in Potsdam and Munich attach particular importance to creativity and experimental filmmaking, the Ludwigsburg academy places greater emphasis on practical and market orientation.

All students of film directing will find that their timetables include topics such as direction, art work, production theory, dramaturgy and content development. It is also common at all universities for external lecturers from the film industry to teach certain courses and give lectures.

Good alternatives to Babelsberg, Munich and Ludwigsburg are the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb), Hamburg Media School (HMS) and the Internationale Filmschule Köln (ifs Köln). In addition, there are many private film academies which focus on different aspects of filmmaking. One interesting option is the Film Arche in Berlin, a member-run film school which combines teaching and learning on an autodidactic basis. It is funded solely from the contributions of the members of this non-profit organization. Here too, well-known directors are regularly engaged as lecturers, like Andreas Dresen for example.

High international reputation

The high standards of the renowned institutions and the variety of alternatives mean that Germany offers some of the highest-quality film director training in the world. “By international standards there is no doubt that the quality of film director training at universities is very high, with considerable importance attached to artistic freedom”, explains Marie Wilke. Nonetheless, a trend is evident that could see Germany jeopardizing its unique edge. “More and more academies are trying to provide training that conforms to market requirements so as to help students gain a foothold in the industry later on.” She goes on to say that students are increasingly worried about the future and attempting to adapt as early as possible to the needs of the marketplace. “All of this comes at the expense of their willingness to experiment.”

Ultimately, the question of which role training plays when it comes to talent being discovered and developed remains difficult to answer. Until 2005, applicants who were rejected from Babelsberg would sometimes receive a letter of congratulation in addition to their notification of rejection. In it, they were told that they could count themselves lucky that they had been rejected – after all, the letter explained, the best directors achieved their success without ever attending film school. The letter was signed by Rosa von Praunheim, a professor of film directing at Babelsberg until 2005. He should know, being one of Germany's most famous avant-garde directors – though he never went to film school.