An incredibly well organised festival that’s much closer to the audience-friendly events we’re used to seeing in Australia.
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20 Aug 2009 - 3:59 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

While the Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale) focuses on being an international big cheese, Germany's second biggest film festival in the southern city of Munich has been quietly putting on an event that's much closer to the audience-friendly events we're used to seeing in Australia. As festival director Andreas Stoehl puts it, the Berlinale is in a different league. It's one of the three or four most important film festivals in the world (with) funding more than 10 times ours, so there's no way of competing and no need.

“There's 100 million native German speakers in Europe, the German language market is one of the biggest in the world, and so there's space for two big festivals.” Not to mention that Berlin is in February and Munich is in July – “there's so much time between the two festivals that there's another huge body of films to choose from.”

With its venues all concentrated in the Bavarian capital's elegant city centre within easy walking distance of each other, Filmfest Muenchen (to use its official title) invites inevitable comparisons with Melbourne International Film Festival, although the hot summer weather this year brings some of the flavor of Brisbane's annual film bash, held in usually balmy mid-winter temperatures more akin to a European summer.

Clearly the heat, which follows a week of rain, has not put off Munich's film lovers from heading indoors. When I meet Stroehl at an industry networking function, he's looking remarkably cool and relaxed for a man in the middle of his big event. He confesses to being initially worried when the sun came out – in the past a bad omen – but when sessions began to sell out at a higher than usual rate he calmed down. By the time the festival ended it had recorded a 17% increase in sales over the previous year to hit a record 74,500 tickets sold (the city's population is 1.3 million, slightly bigger than Adelaide and smaller than Perth).

Three things immediately strike this outsider. Firstly FFM is incredibly well organised. Booking tickets is a breeze; despite the crowds there's never a wait of more than five minutes at the box office, even at peak periods. Secondly, a large number of guests means filmmakers are usually on hand to discuss their films. Finally, where many other international filmfest last anywhere from 10 days up to almost three weeks, Munich packs its program of 200-250 features and documentaries (no shorts – there's a second festival later in the year for those) into a mere seven days. That means a huge, almost bewildering, array of choices, with up to 13 films screening in any one time slot.

As for the types of cinema represented, there's the standard programming choices found the world over – a healthy wedge of new local cinema productions, sections devoted to French, US independents, Asian, Latin and children's cinema, plus the usual all-purpose “international” section. In addition are premieres of prestige Hollywood productions such as Michael Mann's Public Enemies and Terry Gilliam's Heath Ledger vehicle The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and a retrospective devoted to British director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, My Beautiful Laundrette, et al).

The festival's most intriguingly novel programming initiative is a strand dedicated to German telemovies, which at their finest can be very impressive. “When I took over the festival six years ago there were a lot of German TV movies in the festival and not all of them were good,” says Stroehl. “But on the other hand, from what I see of other festivals, there are not so many countries that produce TV movies on such a high level. Every year you have about 10-20, sometimes 30, TV movies (made) here. If you show them all, that's bad, but if you focus on the maybe dozen wonderful films, that's very good.”
When I ask about his attitude toward inviting stars to tread FFM's red carpets – something many film festivals now bend over backwards to achieve - Stroehl interestingly cites directors as this year's biggest three star names. Frears and Gilliam are joined this year by Michael Haneke, the Austrian-based (and Munich-born) director who bagged this year's Cannes Palme d'Or with the German WW1-era The White Ribbon (pictured).

Any one of this trio would be an impressive addition to the guest line up at any of Australia's major film festivals. All three represent considerable heft and their attendance reflects something of the event's drawing power. Stroehl's reasoning on the celebrity question is admirable. “We don't mind having stars here if they are good artists, but we're not interested in stars, we're interested in artists, and if they're stars, that's perfect,” he says. “But that's not a requirement…For a while we thought Johnny Depp would be coming (for Public Enemies) but he cancelled. “He's someone who's a wonderful artist and a star, and it would be good for us to have him - not so much because he's a star but because we admire his work as an actor.

“When I started working here,” he muses, “the media sometimes complained there are no stars, but the funny thing is that's only the media, the audience doesn't really care. We do very well without thinking of it. There are always some stars; we have all the German actors here, internationally there are not so many. If they are here, OK. Last year Kevin Kline was here and Christina Ricci and a lot of other important people, but even those stars are 'art house stars'; they're intelligent, interesting.

“We are not a festival of glamour, I think that can really damage your festival, because once you start going after glamour and stars you tend to make other decisions when it comes to films. I don't want to invite a film because there's a star in it that could create media attention. It's the wrong reason.”

Lynden Barber travelled to Germany courtesy of Goethe-Institut Australia