WORLD CINEMA REPORT: Where Did Lola Go?; German Filmmakers Raise Profile While Facing New Challenges
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE: 11.06.02) — Ever since “Run Lola Run” blazed across cinema screens three years ago, the hope of a German film renaissance has been building. With $7 million in U.S. box-office receipts, the creation of a new international star in Franke Potente, and director Tom Tykwer‘s launch into the world marketplace, you’d think the German industry had finally found its stride. But Teutonic movies still face a host of hurdles in the States. As one acquisitive executive notes, “You’ll often hear, ‘We’d never buy a German film.'” Add to that the collapse of Germany’s Neuer Markt and media empire Kirch, the bankruptcies of distributors and production companies across the board, and you have an industry that looks stunted, rather than sprinting.
Despite such sluggish corporate news, new German talent is on the rise and making films — at least for the moment. This weekend, programs of new German films will invade both New York and Los Angeles, as part of the Museum of Modern Art‘s Kino 2002: New German Films series (November 8-17) and the AFI Film Festival‘s Made in German sidebar (November 7-17). “The Germans sent me more work than ever before,” says MoMA senior curator Larry Kardish, who has overseen the museum’s German series for the past 24 years. “There might not be spectacles getting made, but in terms of modest, inventive productions, it appears as active as ever. Maybe next year it won’t be.”
Indeed, the impact of Germany’s economic crisis may be a couple of years away. According to the Export Union of German Cinema, statistics show a steady incline in German productions, leaping from 50 films in 1998 to 83 in 2001. Though Hollywood holds a firm grip on the country’s market share (grabbing roughly 80 percent of the box office), recent homemade comedic blockbusters like the Western genre spoof “Manitou’s Shoe” and the teen sex romp “More Ants in the Pants” have boosted local output in 2002.
But the country’s real claim to fame — and major box office success — isn’t a silly comedy, but Caroline Link‘s historical drama “Nowhere in Africa,” Germany’s official submission for Oscar consideration. (Link’s “Beyond Silence” was a 1997 Oscar contender.) The story of a secular German-Jewish couple and their daughter who wait out World War II in Kenya, the film’s mix of Hollywood high-budget veneer and heated family dynamics have already won over judges at the German Film Awards, audiences at the Hamptons Film Festival and critics at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, the biggest festival in Eastern Europe. Zeitgeist Films — which had some success releasing Nazi-era German tale “Aimee and Jaguar” in 2000 — will unveil “Nowhere in Africa” next year.
Both New York and L.A. programs will also showcase Andreas Dresen‘s much-praised “Halbe Treppe” (Grill Point) and Dominick Graf‘s “Map Of The Heart.” Along with Tom Tywker’s “Heaven,” currently in release, and Christopher Roth‘s “Baader,” a portrait of the ’70s terrorist, “Grill Point” and “Map” premiered at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival, where much of the buzz around the German film revival kicked off. Also notable in Berlin’s Panorama section was Ulrich Kohler‘s “Bungalow,” which Kardish highlights as one of this year’s discoveries. In addition to the healthy appearance of German films in the main competition, the Berlinale also launched an inaugural program “Perspectives of German Cinema,” which fest director Dieter Kosslick said could help “integrate the German film scene more strongly into the Berlinale.” In a prepared statement, he added, “There are great talents in our country that need to be shown.”
But you wouldn’t know it if you attended Cannes each year. Teutonic films are in such short supply on the Croisette that the German film industry rents out its own theater to showcase their latest titles. (In 2002, for example, not a single German director was represented in the official selection, while Directors Fortnight screened one: Matthias Muller‘s experimental “Phantom.”)
Festivals like Rotterdam and Locarno are far more kind to the latest German productions. Sven Taddicken‘s “My Brother the Vampire” (aka “Getting My Brother Laid)”, screening in both L.A. and New York and described by Variety as “an inventive comedy about the hormonal rampages of a dysfunctional family,” won a FIPRESCI critics prize at Rotterdam. And scoring a surprise victory at Locarno this year was German filmmaker Iain Dilthey‘s “The Longing,” whose hour-long “I’ll Wait on You Hand and Foot” will screen in the MoMA series. Rotterdam and Locarno also showcased up-and-coming auteur Maria Speth‘s “The Days Between,” also showing at MoMA, a rigorous portrait of urban ennui.
“One of the distinguishing aspects over the whole quarter century has been the tendency to the documentary impulse, either with fiction films that use verite technique or with just strong nonfiction films,” says Kardish, referring to newcomers like “Grill Point” and documentaries such as Gerd Conradt‘s “Starbuck-Holger Meins,” a glimpse into the life of a Baader-Meinhof gang-member and experimental filmmaker. If there are currents to be found in German cinema, the twin specters of Nazi Germany and ’70s terrorism continue to haunt this national cinema.
Other notable documentaries include Stanislaw Mucha‘s “Absolut Warhola,” which investigates Warhol’s quirky Eastern European heritage, and Robert Fischer‘s “Fassbinder in Hollywood,” made on the 20th anniversary of the German New Wave maverick’s death. Fassbinder will be resurrected when Wellspring Media launches a career-long retrospective next February and issues a new collection of Fassbinder works on DVD.
But declarations of another new wave of German cinema — following in the footsteps of Fassbinder, Wenders, et. al. — seem somewhat exaggerated. Some film pundits — particularly in an article in the L.A. Times called “Reunified, Revitalized” — declared that several new releases such as “Mostly Martha,” “Das Experiment,” and “Invincible” have given art-house audiences “their richest exposure to contemporary German cinema in decades.”
But “Invincible” was yanked from theaters after a few weeks in release. “Das Experiment” doesn’t appear to have much staying power either (and its director Oliver Hirschbiegel has gone the way of so many German talents before him: Hollywood, to direct “Blade 3.”) And “Mostly Martha,” the only real breakaway hit (with earnings near $4 million), is more Italian than German — with a marketing campaign that hides its Germanic origins as if shamed by them.
And this says nothing of the man who started the renaissance: Tom Tykwer. The director’s latest Euro-pudding oddity “Heaven” is set in Italy, with American and Australian actors speaking Italian and English, all in the service of bringing a Polish script to life by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Where are the actual German films?
“It’s really a wave that’s been developing for quite a while,” Tykwer told me in 1999 on the eve of the U.S. release for “Run Lola Run.” Talking about his company X-Filme Creative Pool, Tywker said, “We’re trying to make personal, radical, subjective films, for big screens and big audiences. And I absolutely believe in the combination of both.”
While X-Filme’s output has broken no new ground internationally in the past couple of years, a handful of productions have received considerable buzz more recently. Dani Levi‘s “I’m the Father” (“Vaeter”) received good word-of-mouth and a positive Variety review (“an engaging tragicomedy”) out of Toronto. Additionally, other productions like Wolfgang Becker‘s “Life Is All You Get” (“a smartly written and sharply observed comedy-drama”) and Hendrik Handloegten‘s “Paul Is Dead,” (“strongly assured feature debut”) appear to show an upswing in X-Filme’s slate.
According to the Export Union of German Cinema’s Oliver Mahrdt, U.S. distribs are also showing marked interest in new German productions, particularly Levy’s “I’m the Father,” and Rolf Schubel‘s “Blueprint,” a sci-fi pic starring none other than flame-haired Lola herself, Franke Potente. Run German Film Run.