Nature documentation
Bird’s Eye View of Germany

“Die Ostsee von oben” (i.e., The Baltic Sea from Above): the village Graswarder
“Die Ostsee von oben” (i.e., The Baltic Sea from Above): the village Graswarder | Photo (detail): © vidicom

“Die Ostsee von oben” (i.e., The Baltic Sea from Above) or “Das grüne Wunder – unser Wald” (The Green Universe) - an impressive wealth of nature documentation views Germany between the Elbe and the Alps from above.

The beginnings were international: the BBC series Planet Earth was regarded from the start as the technical and aesthetic point of reference for new documentary films. But the motion picture based on it, Earth by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (2007), a German-British co-production, already delighted above all the German public with its spectacular aerial photographs: a third of the film’s global revenues of 108.7 million dollars was grossed in Germany. That the most successful nature documentary in German history would find imitators was to be expected.

With helicopter across the country

In Die Nordsee von oben (i.e., The North Sea from Above) (2011), chance was still in play. Through the television series Deutschlands Küsten (i.e., Germany’s Coasts), the film-makers Silke Schranz and Christian Wüstenberg came upon archive footage that had been shot with the new high-resolution Cineflex helicopter camera. Out of the 40 hours of footage emerged a film with exciting images of tidal mud-flats, islands and islets from East Frisia to Schleswig-Holstein. No fewer than 214,000 people viewed the film nationwide; in some North German cinemas it ran for months.

No later than Deutschland von oben (i.e., Germany from Above) (Petra Höfer, Freddie Röckenhaus, 2012) the format was firmly established. The film embeds a scenic flight over Germany’s flora and fauna in the course of the seasons. It moves back and forth between the Bavarian Alps and the Hamburg harbour, with specific regional features receding behind a vast, quite patriotic narrative of a common environment. Also new are the shots of German cities such as Cologne, Munich, Hamburg and of the Ruhr region as the industrial powerhouses of the country. More surprises are of course offered by the historical centres of smaller cities like Nördlingen, Calw, Lüneburg and Bautzen, whose medieval structure is easily recognizable from the air. Before, the commentary informs the viewer, all German cities looked like this, and supplements these images with aerial photographs of the area bombing in the Second World War. All in all, the film succeeds in striking a difficult balance between an admonishing sense of responsibility and plaintive wistfulness for the past beauty of German cities.

Grey seals off Heligoland

Seemingly untouched nature remains the subject of specifically regional films, which since the success of the nature documentaries have been romping in German movie theatres like grey seals off Heligoland – the favourite motif not only of Die Nordsee – Unser Meer (i.e., The North Sea – Our Sea) (2013). Gulls, godwits, stints, crabs – the amazing biodiversity of the Wadden Sea from Borkum to Sylt is here presented in the close-ups of the classic animal film. The popular actor Axel Prahl delivers the corresponding commentary in cosy dialect. In Die Ostsee von oben (i.e., The Baltic Sea from Above) (2013), Schranz and Wüstenberg produced the logical sequel to their pioneering Nordsee film.

Finger-wrestling in Bavaria

The veteran Bavarian director Joseph Vilsmaier climbed himself into a helicopter to make a declaration of love to his homeland in Bavaria – Traumreise durch Bayern (i.e., Bavaria – A Dream Journey) (2012). He has often captured the scenic beauty of the Bavarian mountains and lakes in his films; in this documentary he also sets his sights on the Baroque splendour of the countless palaces, castles and monasteries. Between architectural wonders such as St. Emmeram’s Abbey and Neuschwanstein Castle, there also pop up those customs that the entire world regards as typically German: Corpus Christi processions, finger-wrestling and the Munich Oktoberfest. As with his northern counterpart Axel Prahl, so too Vilsmaier: true, unadulterated love of country can be expressed only in dialect. The justifiable pride of the commentator in the Bavarian landscape does not seem out of touch with reality – even from an altitude of 600 metres.

As inscrutable as the German forest

In Das grüne Wunder – unser Wald (The Green Universe) (2013) the nature film returns to earth; the viewer sees Germany from below. The cameraman Jan Haft, co-director of  Die Nordsee – Unser Meer, completes the picture: in revolutionary super slow-motion and time-lapse shots of spruce, violets, stag beetles and butterfly caterpillars, the forest sprouts in all its forms and colours. The majestic view of the aerial filmers gives way to the mystery of life sustained in the German forest, with its moistly shimmering mosses and sparse light, its dark romantic secrecy. Sometimes we see more from below.

To explain the phenomenon of the nature film from above is easy – the obvious interest in it and its commercial success. But the deeper reasons seem to be as inscrutable as the German forest. The German love of nature, of technical perfection and the general touristic curiosity of the Germans certainly play a part. But perhaps new awareness has also grown up in recent years. The films, which make no secret of their touristy perspective, have impressed foreign viewers. It may only now have dawned on the astonished Germans, however, how beautiful their country really is.