Sometimes early success can be almost as damaging as no success at all. Take the case of German filmmaker Leander Haussmann. Originally a theatre director, he made his feature film debut in 1999, with Sun Alley (Sonnenallee), an affectionate comedy about a group of kids living on the street of that name in divided Berlin during the 1970s. Absurdist in tone, yet meticulously observed, it proved quietly momentous, one of the key German films of its decade – and cast a shadow from which the rest of his output has occasionally struggled to emerge.
“Even now,” says Haussmann, visiting Australia as a guest of this year's Audi German Film Festival, “I get people saying, 'Hey, Sun Alley was so great!' And it's nice to hear, but I do wonder, what about the other eight films I've made since then? Especially since I don't consider it my best movie. To me, that's the latest one [Hotel Lux]. Which is more innovative, structurally, and I think more fully realised. And a much more ambitious film, generally.”
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While Haussmann concedes the perils of having such a massive success so early in one's career, he also notes that, by the time Sun Alley was made, he was already 40 years old; he'd served a term as artistic director of the Bochum City Theatre (“Basically wasting my time,” he laughs), and acted and directed in a number of plays – and also a film, Detlev Buck's 1996 comedy Männerpension. (He returned the favour by casting Buck in Sun Alley, as well as a number of his subsequent movies.)
“Now I'm a little ashamed when I watch certain parts of it, like any filmmaker with their first film – though, I'm at least proud that it doesn't look like the work of,” he laughs again, “a washed-up 40-year-old theatre director. It at least has a genuine feeling for the way young people spoke and behaved then. Nothing is so depressing as old directors trying to make movies for and about young people, and getting it all wrong. But there was something in the air, then – something very clear and real – and it had to come out.”
This, perhaps, gets to the mystery of Sun Alley's enduring reputation: that it was the right film at precisely the right moment. Germany, just entering the turbulent period of its reunification, was looking for stories that would reassure its people about the divisions that had sprung up between West und Ost; Haussmann's film provided it – elegantly and adroitly – and so touched a chord with its audience. A massive box-office hit, it's still one of the best-loved German films of the past quarter-century.
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He followed it with two TV movies, and then a second theatrical feature, Herr Lehmann (2003, about a cloistered enclave in Berlin's Kreuzberg district), which premiered to strong reviews. But subsequent films – the 2007 marital comedy Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps, and Dionsaurier (2009) – proved less appealing to critics and viewers.
Haussmann is, at heart, a maker of comedies, and therein, you suspect, lies the problem. Comedy is rarely taken as seriously as drama – despite being arguably a more demanding discipline.
“By critics?" He considers this a moment. "Well, this is true. They want to see actors sweating, working hard, anguished. And you never get awards for comedy, which is sad,” that hearty laughs again, “because like any filmmaker, I love to get awards.
“But I actually think comedy is taken very seriously: it's just that no one wants to admit it. Remember, the first people to lose a country when things start going badly are always the comedians. The court jesters. Because they see life for what it is – with all its hypocrisies and lies – and they speak the truth.”
Certainly this is the theme of Hotel Lux, which begins in 1933, and follows two comedians at a Berlin cabaret whose act specialises in comic impersonations of Stalin and then-newly-minted Chancellor Adolf Hitler. The pair's passage through the following five years, both separately and together, takes them from Germany to Moscow – and in and out of various deadly situations – in a manner which occasionally recalls Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 classic To Be or Not to Be, even in its style. From its grandiose sets to its mock-symphonic, Max Steiner-like score, it's a big-budget, handsomely mounted studio production of a kind not often seen these days.
But it's a throwback in other senses as well, since Hussmann confesses to dismay at the historical amnesia that afflicts each later generation: “To me, the problem isn't with how you treat a historical subject; it's not a question of good taste, or bad taste. It's that people think that topic has been dealt with, it's over and done with. And historical topics, as a rule, are difficult – you have to look for the present, when you do them. The points of contemporary relevance. Because you want to engage the audience, and lead them to consider how they might have acted in those circumstances.
“Which is difficult, since young people – and I know I sound old, here – are incredibly uninformed about their own past. Many teenagers in Germany today know about the Wall only dimly, and the Second World War barely at all. So you have to educate as you go. I think the next film made on this topic will have it a little easier, because this one has cleared the ground, so to speak.”
Both Sun Alley and Hotel Lux are screening as part of the Audi Festival of German Films, touring the country in April and May. For programme details visit www.goethe.de/ozfilmfest