German Cinema in Australia Roses for the Audience

Full house at the festival opening in Sydney
Full house at the festival opening in Sydney | Photo: Wesley Nel

Auditorium over red carpet: The audience is the focus of the German film festival in Australia and appreciates it, too. The festival was also a great success for its organizer, the Goethe-Institut, even though Schiller nearly stole Goethe’s show. By Klaus-Peter Claus

“Walled in fast within the earth...” – Schiller’s Song of the Bell is heard in Melbourne. Ruth, assumedly in her upper eighties, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, recites the poem following the screening of Dominik Graf’s Schiller film Beloved Sisters. She is standing on the stairs to one of the cinemas in which the Goethe-Institut in Australia is holding the 14th Audi Festival of German Film. Showing fifty films at ten cinemas in eight cities on the continent, the inflow of viewers testifies to their enormous interest.

German films are not an everyday sight in Australian cinemas. Only one or two a year make it into regular distribution. Ruth stands for one part of the audience: Germans who came here, often for political reasons, during or after the Nazi dictatorship. She is driven by yearning for her homeland. The second chief group of audience members is represented by thirty-something Shawn. The IT technician learned German at the Goethe-Institut and now wants to find out more about the country, which he knows is one of the most economically stable in the world.

Shawn takes advantage of the festival to “get a feel of everyday life in Germany” from the films, he says, for the tangible reason, “I may go to Germany for a few years.” These are only two examples of the festival’s charisma. The fact that it is a hit is not surprising since cinema is one of the chief recreational activities in Australia. Also, Germany is one of the few countries that is discussed in detail in Australia, mainly due to its high standard of living and cultural diversity.

Sparks really fly at the many panels and discussions organized by the Goethe-Institut during the festival, particularly when they centre on questions of identity. When a German journalist deliberates that it is still hard for his generation to develop something akin to national pride, it leads to a lovely exchange between the generations, between Germans and Australians, between people from diverse social milieus.

The celebrity of the night: Florian Stetter with festival guests The celebrity of the night: Florian Stetter with festival guests | Photo: Wesley Nel People like Ruth admit, “Looking back, one glorifies the country of one’s childhood, of course.” Younger people like Shawn are bewildered to learn that Germans born after 1945 still feel the burden of history on their shoulders. The conversations become astonishingly deep and intense among the artists, business experts and journalists invited by the Goethe-Institut from German-speaking countries as well as from Australia.

One of the principle foundations of the festival’s success is that the audience truly plays the lead role. It is allowed and bidden to get involved and ask questions. Unlike many other festivals, this one does not focus on presenting the organizers, but on satisfying audience needs. So, the head of the Goethe-Institut Australia may well fetch a coffee for an elderly festival visitor, a staff member may make sure that the young fans of actor Florian Stetter not only get to venerate him from afar, but can talk with him and even have their picture taken with him.

Late at night the Goethe crew then also sends the eloquent leading man of a number of the films shown here, like Nanga Parbat and Beloved Sisters , off to bed so that he’ll be wide awake the next morning for the continuing festival carousel.

Naturally, the festival is plagued by a number of minor disasters and amusing fringe episodes. Hotel rooms are flooded, suits are forgotten at the airport, the Goethe-Institut becomes the post office for fan letters to the Schiller portrayer Stetter, etc. All of this and more are gotten under control on the sidelines.

On the opening night in Sydney, every visitor is handed a rose. Ruth puts the blossom on the lapel of her suit jacket, saying “A smile from Germany.” Ruth has experienced worse and tells the young people, like Shawn, about it.