The German Animated Film Scene
Rare Birds, Big Dreams

The revolutionist Wladimir Majakowski in “1917 – Der wahre Oktober” by Katrin Rothe
The revolutionist Wladimir Majakowski in “1917 – Der wahre Oktober” by Katrin Rothe | Photo (detail): © Katrin Rothe Filmproduktion

The animated film has a hard time of it in Germany – despite all the outstanding training programs that are available. For a long time the genre was regarded as a playground for the more exotically inclined. Now there are encouraging signs that that may be changing.

Richard has got nothing going for him, but he is still going to go for it. He simply cannot come to terms with being a sparrow. Since he was adopted by a stork family, he believes he is, in fact, a migratory bird. Nothing is going to prevent him from flying to Africa with his stork family in the autumn. In this German coproduction, Überflieger – Kleine Vögel, großes Geklapper (A Stork’s Journey), director Toby Genkel and Reza Memari, screenplay writer and co-director, use wit and empathy to tell the story of an outsider who spreads his wings and overrides the laws of nature.

International renown

It is not difficult to see this little hero as a metaphor for the German animated film industry, which valiantly tries to stand up to the all-powerful competition from the USA. People who make animated films are optimists. Their medium relies on the changeability of reality – everything is possible, nothing has to remain as it was. However, they also have to be realists.

“Global distributors tell us that the German animated film enjoys a good reputation internationally. In Germany, however, it is different,” says Genkel. It is true that the great export hits of the past few years have, in fact, been animated movies. Ooops! Die Arche ist weg (Ooops! Noah is Gone … 2015), the previous film by Genkel, was sold in 51 countries and made over 23 million euros in 2016. The number one of the previous year, Die Biene Maja (Maja the Bee, Alexs Stadermann, 2014) was shown in 49 countries and brought in approximately 20 million.

The pacemaker of the German animated film scene

In Germany, however, the genre was regarded for a long time as a playground for the more exotically inclined. Writer-director, Jochen Kuhn remained a lone warrior for years, even though he won many prizes with his evocative, pictorial depictions of dreams, such as Sonntag 3 (Sunday 3, 2012). The situation changed slightly when Gerhard Hahn and Michael Schaack developed a business model in the early 1990s that was used for the production of films for an adult audience (the adaptation of the Werner comics) and TV series for children (Benjamin Blümchen, Bibi Blocksberg). Another pioneer, Thilo Graf Rothkirch (Lauras Stern / Laura’s Star, 2004), set the pace when he realised his vision of making children's films on budgets that are only one-tenth that of comparable Hollywood productions, but are still competitive.

Excellent training of world renown

The German animated film no longer has to be afraid of being compared to European standards, which have been significantly influenced by England, France, Ireland and Luxembourg. Moreover, the training programs available in Germany for animated filmmakers enjoy an excellent reputation. The Kunsthochschule Kassel had already set up its own major field of study in 1979. This was where the Lauenstein brothers, Christoph and Wolfgang, studied; their puppet animation Balance (1989) brought home the first Oscar honours for Germany as the best animated short film. The Filmuniversität Konrad Wolf in Babelsberg introduced its courses in 1984; the two academies of art in Darmstadt and Cologne include it in their courses as a form of interdisciplinary exchange. Since its founding in 1991, the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg has had an animation department that is very much internationally oriented.

The university films are excellent calling cards, but in a country that produces only two or three animated feature films annually, they do not guarantee a golden future. In the USA and France, on the other hand, German talent is very much in demand, especially as they are adept in a variety of techniques; the spectrum ranges from computer animation to silhouette films to cut-out and sand animation. The Brick film – made with Lego bricks – even has its own festival.

A relative monoculture

Anyone who wants to make animated films in Germany not only needs a vivid imagination, but also stamina and reliable partners. Television only has a few slots for animated productions. Even on the public children's channel, KiKA, the percentage of German films and series is low. A quota, as is the case in France, to determine the proportion of German animated films on television would help to gain and retain local talents and create a stronger infrastructure. The professional association, “AG Animationsfilm”, has to do a lot of difficult lobbying. One of the central functions of television a few years ago was to create products that would then make it onto the big screen.

A legacy of this system is a relative monoculture. “Making an animated film for adults in Germany is probably still the best road to rack and ruin,” says film critic, Lars Penning. “The classic pattern runs as follows: a successful children's book, TV series or clips, feature film, sequel.” This has worked for many Rothkirch films, for example, Ritter Trenk (Trenk the Knight, Anthony Power, 2015) and Der kleine Rabe Socke (Socke, the Little Raven, Ute von Münchow Pohl, 2012). The scepticism expressed by funding bodies and production companies when it comes to original material is great, especially as films like A Stork’s Journey demand a lot from the children. They not only celebrate virtues such as friendship and tolerance, but also confront them with the hardships of life. “When we were developing the material for the film,” says director Reza Memari, “everybody looked at us as if we were insane. Many of those who rejected us advised us first of all to make a children's book out of the material.”

Internationalisation as an opportunity

From the long-term point of view the future of the German animated film cannot lie in a stereotypical approach. One opportunity that presents itself is internationalisation. Over the last few years the German animated film has absorbed important artistic impulses by immigrants like Ali Samadi Ahadi, whose The Green Wave (2011) merges silhouette images with documentary footage of the Green Revolution in Iran. Tehran Taboo by Ali Soozandeh, an Iranian living in Berlin, has just scored a huge hit at the International Film Festival in Cannes. His film could never have been shot in the original locations, because in its representation of sex, corruption and prostitution it violates the Islamic ban on the depiction of images. The future will also lie in the promotion of individual styles. 1917 – Der wahre Oktober (1917 - The Real October) by Katrin Rothe could be a turning point. Using old-fashioned techniques that are related to the art of the epoch, she focuses on five artists who became chroniclers of the October Revolution. She overcomes the imagery difficulties of the documentary film and tells history in an entirely new way. Is not that the essence of this art form – to show us the world in a different and subjective way?