Young German Cinema
Changing Germany’s image
A young generation of directors is taking German cinema in a new direction with intercultural perspectives, unusual narratives, and novel aesthetic approaches.
By Andreas Busche
Something extraordinary happened after Toni Erdmann received standing ovations at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Although German film has always been revered all over the world for its storied history, Weimar cinema and names like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders, it has rarely experienced true adoration. That is until a wave of enthusiasm carried Toni Erdmann from the world premiere in Cannes to over a million viewers in German cinemas, then on to the Oscars in Los Angeles. Maren Ade’s film was a stroke of luck for German cinema in many respects, as clearly proved the claim that Berlin school filmmakers like Ade only made films for a niche audience of cinephiles wrong.
Even if attempting to divide recent German film history into “before Toni Erdmann” and “after Toni Erdmann” phases seems a little arbitrary, there have been a striking number of excellent directing debuts in recent years. To borrow a term from cinema history, the Young German Film of the Present has evolved into many forms. In 2018, Eva Trobisch won the prize for best debut film at the Locarno Festival with her rape drama Alles ist gut, (All Is Well) and at the 2019 Berlinale Nora Fingscheidt received a Silver Bear for the youth drama Systemsprenger (System Crasher). The fact that Trobisch and Fingscheidt, both born in 1983, had their feature film debuts relatively late is due in part to how the German film industry is structured and the complicated funding bureaucracy between the federal states and the television broadcasters. Still, they are part of new generation of filmmakers enriching German cinema with unusual perspectives, narratives and aesthetic approaches.
The First Steps Awards for the best final projects from students graduating from German film schools highlights this development. First presented in 1999, the award has overcome its reputation as a prize for young filmmakers. This year it went to Austrian director Sandra Wollner for her dystopian science-fiction film The Trouble with Being Born, which looks at the role of artificial intelligence in mourning. In 2019, director Faraz Shariat was the first First Steps Award winner who made his debut outside a film school with his queer, post-migrant coming-of-age film Futur Drei (Future Three). Stylistically, the two films could hardly be more different. While Wollner narrates in carefully composed, cool images, Shariat, born in 1994, makes use of queer feminist and postcolonial theory as well as the iconography of music videos.
Eva Trobisch is considered one of the new German directing talents. In 2018 she won the Promotion of New German Cinema award for “Alles ist gut” (All Is Well).
Nora Fingscheidt is also an award-winning director. Her youth drama “Systemsprenger” (System Crasher) won a Silver Bear
A different cinematic view of Germany: Faraz Shariat’s debut film “Futur Drei” deals with the relationship of the Germany-born main character to his parents who fled Iran. The film received the First Steps Award 2019.
Director Uisenma Borchu also played the main character in her film “Schwarze Milch” (Black Milk).
Director Sandra Wollner won the 2020 First Steps Award with her intimate, dystopian piece “The Trouble with Being Born”, which explores the role of artificial intelligence in mourning.
New topics, new styles
The cinematic view of Germany is also changing thanks to directors such as Faraz Shariat, Uisenma Borchu, Soleen Yusef and Burhan Qurbani, born in 1980. While Shariat’s Futur Drei deals with the relationship of his main character, born in the backwoods of Lower Saxony, to his parents who fled Iran, Borchu and Yusef’s films are a return to their parents’ homelands. In the 2016 tragicomic road movie Haus ohne Dach (House without a Roof), Yusef tells the story of three estranged siblings who fulfil their deceased mother’s final wish to be buried next to her husband in Kurdistan. Borchu also plays the protagonist in her second feature-length film Schwarze Milch (Black Milk, 2020), who visits her sister in Mongolia for the first time after many years and struggles come to terms with traditional role models there. And in Berlin Alexanderplatz (2020), Qurbani tells the story of an illegal African migrant trying to gain a foothold in Germany. All these films depict a polyphony of cultural experiences, moving beyond exaggerated stereotypes to question what it means to be born in Germany – and have thus thematically expanded German film.
German film has also opened up stylistically. Filmmakers like Julian Radlmaier with Selbstkritik eines bürgerlichen Hundes (Self-criticism of a Bourgeoisie Dog, 2017), Max Linz with Ich will mich nicht künstlich aufregen (Asta Upset, 2014) and Susanne Heinrich with her debut Das melancholische Mädchen (The Melancholy Girl, 2019) have all been instrumental in this shift. The three directors use a stylized, essay-like form that falls somewhere between cultural theory and pop-song lyrics. Like the pioneers of the New German Cinema in the 1970s, they position themselves on the left end of the spectrum and at the same time imbue the contradictions inherent in their criticism of capitalism with laconic humour. Sophie Kluge’s debut film Golden Twenties (2019) also harkens back to the era of New German Film. It is the story of a young woman who wanders aimlessly through life through a theatre internship, parental conflicts, and fears of commitment told in an enraptured, everyday poetic tone. In Mein Ende. Dein Anfang (Relativity, also 2019), Mariko Minoguchi, another new voice, entangles her two main characters in a fateful bond following a tragic death that seems to obey the laws of quantum physics.
Like Shariat, Minoguchi is also self-taught and her film debut was nominated for the German Film Award this year. German cinema has not only opened up thematically and stylistically; it now offers more opportunities for a career change.