German Mumblecore Making Films, Just Like That

“Love Steaks” by Jakob Lass
“Love Steaks” by Jakob Lass | © Daredo Media

German Mumblecore focuses the spotlight on a variety of German cinema which relies on a great deal of improvisation. But what are the inherent characteristics of a mumblecore film – and what does this movement have to offer the world of German cinema?

If we look beyond the mainstream, there are three principle trends in contemporary German cinema: the so-called Berlin School, the still fledgling New German Genre Film and the recently-coined German Mumblecore (also known as Berlin Mumblecore). Particularly since the resounding festival success of Love Steaks (2013) by Jakob Lass, the latter has increasingly attracted the attention of German film buffs. But what does German Mumblecore actually mean?

German Mumblecore – an explanation of the term

The term “mumblecore” is an import from the US independent film scene and describes films made on a small budget which rely heavily on improvisation in both acting and production. Closely associated with this genre is modern digital recording technology which allows this kind of independent filmmaking on a grand scale and makes it socially acceptable. The word “mumble” alludes to the often poor sound quality of the improvised dialogues in the early US mumblecore films. Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, USA 2002) is probably the leading exponent of this genre. Despite the obvious links between the two, there is good reason to question whether it is apt to borrow from the US mumblecore scene and to label contemporary digital cinema from Germany in the same way.
“Silvi” by Nico Sommer, Trailer (Youtube.com)

German films made in the mumblecore style have already been around for a number of years. Examples include In with the New (Oskar Roehler, 1997) and White Noise (Hans Weingartner/ Tobias Amann, 2002) – not to mention Berlin für Helden (Klaus Lemke, 2012) and Grill Point (Andreas Dresen, 2002). The increased awareness of mumblecore among cinema fans and film critics at present can be explained by the fact that ever more films of this type are making their debut in German cinemas. German examples of mumblecore include not only Love Steaks (Jakob Lass, 2013) and Kaptn Oskar (Tom Lass, 2013), but above all Reuber (Axel Ranisch, 2013), Silvi (Nico Sommer, 2013) and Dust on Our Hearts (Hanna Doose, 2013).

Spontaneous filmmaking

“I love it when something occurs during a shoot that was not discussed and agreed on in advance. When you suddenly realize that the characters you have invented are becoming human because they have to act entirely authentically in a particular moment, and something new happens. It’s really cool.” (Axel Ranisch)

The main characteristic of mumblecore films is the use of improvisation in terms of style and production – this is a recurrent theme of all the different aspects of the filmmaking process. It is not only the actors who improvise; the directors and camera crew do too. There tends not to be any screenplay at all, with only the rough outlines of a plot serving as a guideline. The resulting stylized authenticity is, as it were, the exact polar opposite to the stringently regulated productions of the Berlin School.

This approach is reflected in aesthetic terms in documentary-style camera work, jump cuts and technical imperfections. To capture the improvisations of the actors, a handheld camera is used which can react flexibly to what is happening. Floor markings and scene sequences that are painstakingly rehearsed simply do not feature, nor is endless time spent on meticulous light settings. Improvised films are reconstructed during montage to a greater extent than films shot in the conventional manner, the spontaneous dialogues and situations being used to create an overall dramaturgical effect. In view of their semi-documentary style, it is obvious that highly expressive facial expressions are an advantage here. What is more, mumblecore filmmakers – just like their US counterparts – like to cast amateurs in more minor roles who act within their usual everyday or working environment.

German Mumblecore – quo vadis?

“Dicke Mädchen” by Axel Ranisch, Trailer (Youtube.com)

Thanks to the increased attention it is attracting in film journalism and at festivals, German mumblecore today is stronger than ever. In a display of self-exploitation, Axel Ranisch made his first feature-length film Heavy Girls (2012) for an “unbelievable 517.32 euros” – as the trailer proclaims – and then had the comparatively princely sum of 500,000 euros at his disposal for I Feel Like Disco (2013). While Ranisch looks set to remain faithful to the improvisation approach with his “film family”, the question is to what extent higher budgets will alter other mumblecore films. In his intelligent cinema debut Kohlhaas oder die Verhältnismäßigkeit der Mittel (2012), Aron Lehmann for example reflects on filmmaking without money. At the same time, he falls back on a prepared screenplay to a greater extent than his colleagues, and will probably jettison the improvisation style just as soon as bigger budgets allow him to minimize the imponderabilities of a shoot.

Syntheses between German mumblecore, New German Genre Film and the Berlin School constitute a more exciting direction for German cinema. One key advantage of the young film scene is that modern digital technology allows no-budget films to look more like cinema releases rather than simply amateur videos. Digital video technology is also shaking up the German film landscape, enabling it to emancipate itself from the dictates of film funding institutions: “You can make a film. Just like that. And you don’t have to follow anything but your own intuition,” reads Axel Ranisch’s Very Good Films manifesto. This is precisely why German no-budget films are springing up like mushrooms – and out of this mass of films we are ever more regularly developing our own attitude towards cinema.