In the mid 1990s movie pundits predicted the end of theatrical cinema. The Hollywood juggernaut, it was claimed, would eclipse national cinemas. In Germany particularly commentators observed the decline of their once vibrant industry as audiences rebuffed local films.
Some claimed the death of the country's cinematic prodigy, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in 1982 was symbolic of the industry's fortunes. Others attributed the US-bound exodus in the 80s for the depletion of the local talent base. The country's other wunderkind, Wim Wenders, as he describes it in Eye to Eye, a documentary about the state of German cinema showing at this year's German Film Festival, “ran away to America to escape his German-ness”. There he made the masterpiece road movie, Paris Texas. Others like Wolfgang Peterson and Roland Emmerlich, departed Germany and established careers in Hollywood.
A revival worth waiting for
The Wall's collapse fuelled a wave of inspiration for artists, writers and documentary filmmakers, and it was hoped the euphoria of would also generate a feature film revival. But that failed to materialise, for at least a decade. The scant and mediocre German selection at the Berlin Film Festival and lack of competition entries invited into Cannes, perpetuated the talk of industry crisis.
Local filmmakers despaired at the lack of innovation and sensuality in their cinema, and scepticism about future prospects. Tom Twyker, whose thriller Run Lola, Run was to explode on the cinema radar in 1998 with exciting new content and form, described the film climate during most of the 80s and 90s as stifling, predictable and narrow.
Fast forward 15 years. Amidst popularity of DVD and home entertainment, global box office trends have bucked down-turn predictions. Nowhere is the reversal more evident than in Germany, which has over the last decade morphed into one of the world's most vibrant industries. In the first three months of 2009, local films took a healthy 30 percent share of total box office (compared with Australia's annual average of 5.1 percent).
A recently revamped funding model now pours in excess of 300million Euros annually into production and co-productions, like the recent Academy Award contender, The Reader. In 2008 Germany recorded a slate of 174 films. German subjects are proving popular with international audiences and the German Film Fund offers lucrative incentives to high-end movies.
In recent years, German features have received eight Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations, and won two (Caroline Link's Nowhere in Africa and Florian Henckle von Donnersmarck's debut The Lives of Others). The 2009 Academy Award winning short film, Toyland (left), was German.
German film schools are turning out record numbers of market-savvy graduates, including more female directors. The 2009 German Film Festival program reveals the vibrancy of their contributions. And as Klaus Eder, Secretary General of the International Film Critics (FIPRESCI) Association points out on the phone from Munich, the next new wave is driven by young filmmakers, eager to explore the minefield of German history.
Eder says that undoubtedly, one of the key factors to this successful turnaround is the close synergy between film and television networks.
“From the late 80s/early 90s the stigma of 'boring' attached to German cinema began to change, “ Eder says. “Not only is there a mandate for public and private/cable television to finance feature films, but the cross-fertilisation simultaneously creates a local star system that spans both industries, offering obvious l advantages and a ready fan base.”
Eder cites the impact of the changing of the guard of festival directors at the Berlinale, as a key factor in raising German film's domestic and international profile; Swiss Mortiz de Hadeln exited, replaced by local Dieter Kosslick, an ardent champion of home-grown product. “Suddenly there were German films in competition, in the German series, everywhere,” he says. “It was too much – but it gave German cinema a prominent showcase and visibility.”
You can mention the war, now
Like a fine wine, cinema's lengthy development process and costs require time to ferment a vintage crop. It took Hollywood decades to produce strong Vietnam War films. Now younger generations of Germans are ready for the entertainment and introspection that a vibrant cinema can offer, and the stand-out films of the past decade, for instance, Goodbye Lenin and The Lives of Others, are driven by East German history.
“There is both an urge and a need to tell these stories, to come to terms with the past,” says Klaus Krischok, the Australian director of the Goethe Institute, Germany's cultural arm, and chief selector for the festival.
“It's cathartic but it's also a part of the German psyche that we are concerned about our history and its repercussions on contemporary life. But dealing with a communist past, for instance, is still relatively quite new and raw. We need to keep in mind that unification – as far as it has progressed – is still an on-going work in progress.”
Younger Germans do not belong to the guilt-ridden generation; they are sufficiently distant from the Holocaust or the post-war rise of communism/division of the country into East and West to want to explore their roots.
“So much of it is a question of timing”, says Melbourne film critic, German cinema expert and festival consultant Peter Krausz. “It's about revisiting aspects of history, trying to reconcile these and move forward.”
“It's cyclical,” he says. “Germany is now at a point to be able to tackle subject matter that would have been too difficult to deal with in the past”. Films like Downfall (above), about Hitler's last days, required a certain distance.
A number of films in the program can be viewed from a richer sub-textual perspective, Krauss claims. “Caroline Link's A Year Ago in Winter, for instance, which deals with the suicide in the family and a mother's attempt to have her deceased son painted into a commissioned family portrait, can also be interpreted symbolically as Germany's attempt to deal with its own past.”
The convergence of the above political, social, psychological, cultural and artistic, and economic, and promotional industry factors has translated into an appetite and readiness for German audiences to embrace/engage with their own cinema. The homogenisation of Hollywood has sharpened their taste for watching their own narratives on screen.
“American and foreign films are still popular but the fact that a potential domestic market of 82 million people has re-discovered its own cinematic language and its own stories certainly gives our filmmakers huge leverage,” Kischok says. “The international appeal is an extra bonus.”
Eye on the East
“Australian audiences have certain expectations from a German film festival,” Krischok says. “They expect to be entertained, excited and to see stories with a political edge.”
This year, the commemoration celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, provides an added boost with the GDR Retro showcase of six films made between the 1960s and the late 80s previously unreleased in Australia, and three more recent films that deal with East German subjects.
“These were made under a very repressive regime and because of that they weren't seen outside of the East,” explains Krauss. “But they're an important part of the cannon of German cinema that tended to get lost in the shuffle. Now they've been rediscovered, they're being treated like treasures.”
They represent just a small sample of the 900 films made at the UFA studios between end of World War II and 1989; musicals, romantic comedies, dramas that explored the Stasi agenda or those that in a veiled manner, attempted to criticise the regime.
It takes a lot to get FIPRESCI's Klaus Eder to gush. But mention the East German films showcase and his reaction is euphoric. “These are just great,” he enthuses.” German cinema is in quite a good place now but you may prefer these old films to the new ones. My God, I'm coming over,” he threatened wryly.
At the top of Eder's GDR 'must see' list, are The Legend of Paul and Paula and Traces of Stone. For pure entertainment he recommends Billy Wilder's (best known for his Hollywood comedies such as Some Like it Hot hilarious 1961 East Berlin venture One, Two, Three, starring James Cagney, Horst Buchholz and Pamela Tiffin.
Heiner Carow's The Legend of Paul and Paula, (73), the GDR's most successful film, is a groundbreaking romantic melodrama that challenges traditional views on marriage and relationship.
Made just prior to the Wall's collapse, Carow's other film Coming Out (89) features homosexuality as a central theme, a revolutionary subject for a regime which did not encourage sexuality in mainstream films.
Three films are made by key filmmaker of the era, Frank Beyer. Jacob the Liar (74), East Germany's first nomination for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, depicts attempts by a Jewish prisoner in the Warsaw Ghetto to evade accusations of collaboration with the Nazis and to engender hope in fellow prisoners by spinning tales about the Russians' imminent invasion and liberation.
Traces of Stone (66) is a metaphoric tale set on building site where traditional order is upset by petty rivalries generated by the arrival of Party secretary from the Politburo. Highly regarded internationally, the film was deemed subversive by the regime and allegedly, was banned for three days.
The more recent GDR-related films focus on time, memory, forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption – or revenge. Very interesting is 12 Means I Love You, tackles the past through a belated reunion between a Stasi prisoner and her interrogator. “It depicts the unlikely phenomenon of the Stockholm Syndrome – like the Patty Hearst story – where a prisoner falls in love with their captor,” says Krischok.
Apart from World War II and the GDR themes, the Sydney, Melbourne and Perth event kicks off with a bang – literally – with premiere screenings of the controversial The Baader Meinhof Complex, one of the most expensive films ever to be made in Germany. Technically flawless and action-packed, the film chronicles the fear and terror campaign waged by the leftist group, the Baader Meinhof Gang in the 1970s. It has polarised critics, particularly in its emotional detachment and lack of political exploration.
A new Wim Wenders release is always anticipated. Germany's best known auteur – though not necessarily its most consistent – returns with a hip psychological travelogue thriller, Palermo Shooting, centred on a fashion photographer (played by German rocker Campino of Die Toten Hosen) whose globe-trotting life suddenly spins out of control.
In a search for life's meaning he travels to Sicily's Palermo, on a redemptive photo shoot with real-life actress Milla Jovovich, driven by a vibrant soundtrack of 28 songs including Nick Cave and Lou Reed.
It was panned by the film trade press reviewers at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, but Klaus Eder is one of its defenders. “Ok, so it's not his best but it's a typical Wenders film,” he comments. “But even if it has some dramaturgical problems, the acting's fine and visually it's very strong. He uses his typical slow motion camera and whilst young people may prefer something faster, it's still a very good film which has been quite popular on its recent German release.”
Those yearning for edgy and hip entertainment driven by a pulsating soundtrack will find Hannes Stöhr's Berlin Calling compelling viewing. It focuses on the roller coaster lifestyle of prominent German electro DJ and composer Michael aka Ickarus. Non-actor and real-life DJ, Paul Kalkbrenner, makes a power-house acting debut as the troubled hedonistic muso of the Berlin hot-house rave scene.
As pressures and visceral and hallucinatory distractions take their toll on his anticipated new album, his heavy use of party drugs sends him into a psychotic episode necessitating experimental treatment in a psychiatric clinic.
Writer/director Stohr, adroitly modulates the tension in his downward spiral (will he deliver or self-destruct?), using the DJ's soundtracks as narrative locomotive and undercurrent.
A personal standout is Jerichow (left), the most recent film from Christian Petzold (a German critics' – and Eder – favourite), a steamy thriller love triangle that echoes James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Classical music lovers may appreciate Helma Saunders-Brahms' period biopic, Clara, with acclaimed actress, Martina Geddeck, as the pianist wife of troubled, ailing composer Robert Schumann.
Cloud Nine (Andreas Dresen) focuses on a wildly passionate affair between two septuagenarians, and Effi Briest (Hermine Huntgeburth) is a compelling story of a young woman who pays the price for an adulterous love affair in her love-less marriage to an older aristocrat in Northern Germany.
Krabat is a dark fantasy based on a popular 1971 children's classic novel stars a young David Kross, the teen star of The Reader. Set in the 17th century following the Thirty Years' War, he plays an orphan who finds sanctuary at a mill run by a mysterious figure called the Master, linked to dark forces.
A highlight in the short film section is 2009 Oscar winner, Joseph Alexander Freydank's Toyland, about a little boy's persistent inquires and search for a friend whose family has been sent to the war camps during World War II.
If there is an omission in this richly layered program, it's Deutschland 09, Twyker's brainchild, which is modelled on a previous (1978) collection, a compilation of films by thirteen seminal new wave filmmakers attempting to shine a light on the new Germany.
At its Berlinale press conference, many foreign press commented on Deutschland 09\'s interesting insights from the new generation of filmmakers in a country whose recent transformation and industry boom have intrigued the world. However, Krischok says that he was already stretched for slots, and had reservations about the 150-minute film's varied quality and its ability to resonate with Australian audiences.
***With thanks to the Goethe Institute, SBS Film has complimentary passes to the Audi Festival of German Cinema to give away. To be in the running to win a double pass to the session of your choice, simply email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and mailing address details, and the correct answer to this question: How many films are screening in the 2009 festival? Winners wil be notified.***