Film Archive Beyond Arthouse

Film role
Film role | Photo: Loredana LaRocca

In the 1970s the Goethe-Institut earned its stripes by promoting New German Cinema. Today, the work of the Goethe-Institut USA also includes new chapters.

It’s rare for a German film to find its way into North American cinemas, but on occasion it does happen. In recent years this has been the case with Wim Wenders’s documentary “Pina” (2011), followed by Christoph Petzold’s “Barbara” (2012) which had a modestly successful run. Now, in May 2013, another German film will be hitting the screen in select cinemas: Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” (2012) which premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival and was then shown at the Jewish Film Festival in New York. This film also stands out because Barbara Sukowa recently won the 2013 LOLA German Film Award (Deutscher Filmpreis) for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

The Goethe-Institut supports these types of premieres in various ways, for example by inviting the directors and/or actors to participate in open discussions with the audience. These were organized in Toronto and New York with Margarethe von Trotta, who for decades has enjoyed great support among friends and fans in North America. And if the those premieres are anything to go by, Hannah Arendt will certainly find its way to American audiences. The film has everything that people on this side of the Atlantic expect from a German film: it is serious, intelligent, even “deep” at times, and seeks to take on Germany’s heavy history. Plus, when the cast includes excellent actors and actresses like Barbara Sukowa, a film like Hannah Arendt can be expected to have a long life indeed in the United States.

Of course there are other films that might be just as good, but for whatever reason never find their way into American theaters. Director Jan-Ole Gerster’s debut film, Oh Boy,” cleaned up at the 2013 LOLA German Film Awards, winning Best Picture along with five other prizes. The Goethe-Institut recently featured it along with other German films at the MoMA in New York as part of the annual mini festival, “Kino!”. Other Goethe-Instituts in the country are also showing the film as part of their spring line-up along with other new films from Germany that might be off the radar in the US. The goal of these efforts is not merely to show the films but to also get people talking about them and make them accessible to American audiences. The large film festivals that the Goethe-Institut organizes most every year on the West Coast – “Berlin and Beyond” in San Francisco and “German Currents” in Los Angeles – are an especially good platform for making these goals a reality. They are perfect for anyone wanting to get an overview of current film production in Germany and learn more about select topics or directors.

It is important to note that the Goethe-Institut is never solely interested in currently German cinema nor the contemporary film genre often referred to as “art house.” In the 1970s the Goethe-Institut earned its stripes by promoting New German Cinema (Fassbinder, Herzog, Kluge, Schlöndorff, Reitz, Wenders, and others) and still feels responsible for the entire scope of German film history. And art house does in fact still play a role and will continue to do so, particularly in films that address historical perspectives. At the same time, the work of the Goethe-Institut also includes new chapters, most recently through an initiative of the Goethe-Institut Boston that organized a retrospective on the work of Werner Schröter, which garnered great attention at MoMA and among other American partners and the press.

Even though there is no need to worry about the future of art house films, it should still be emphasized that film – or video – is no longer limited to the cinema. On top of that, documentaries have been rapidly gaining on their former big brother, the feature film. The number of documentaries coming to the big screen is on the rise. At the same time, feature films now account for a smaller percentage of everything that people now like to refer to as video. Films are everywhere, especially on television and mainly in serial format (an area in which Germany still has a lot of catching up to do). A number of things suggest that the future of narrative film lies precisely in this area and not in Hollywood productions or European writer-director films (though the exception proves the rule). If you look beyond narrative film, there is video or media art. Visitors to the documenta in Kassel or any Biennale can nowadays expect at least a quarter of the work presented there to be films. And they aren’t just short films, film essays, or other experiments, but increasingly take the form of cinema-worthy, full-length films that are not produced and financed by the film industry, but quite possibly by galleries. Film has become a subgenre of visual arts. To put it another way: visual arts, the mightiest of contemporary artistic genres, has partially embraced film – for better or for worse. Even though highly acclaimed filmmakers might fail at the box office, given that nearly 800,000 people visited the “documenta” in 2012, it can be assumed that a film shown there reached an audience of at least the same magnitude.

While the Goethe-Institut can choose the films it wants to show, it can’t make a good vintage out of a bad year in film. Nevertheless, it does try to reflect the diversity found in the medium of contemporary film in its programs. Thanks in part to the Goethe-Institut’s own film archive, there’s certainly never a shortage of material.