New Year's Day, 2013. Half of Berlin is still drunk or asleep; the other half slowly creeps through the streets in search of a late breakfast to wolf down before going to the movies.
It's also the day of the "American Indie" here with Unknown Pleasures, Germany's 10-day marathon film festival dedicated to independent films. Unknown Pleasures is an odd little gem: German film culture is thoroughly "Americanized" and has been for a long time, so why create such a festival?
German audiences have grown up with American movies: Our grandparents laughed at Charlie Chaplin, worshipped Cary Grant and mimicked Humphrey Bogart. Our parents saw John Wayne ride into the sunset and Dennis Hopper emerge at dawn on his motorcycle, claiming a new American dream. We German members of Generation X and Y have been fully spoon-fed with American films, from the classics of the studio system to New Hollywood, from blockbusters to supposed "independent" films, those that are mainstream and backed by big companies like Fox Searchlight Pictures or The Weinstein Company but are marketed as independent. Although bearing the "indie" label, these films are not exactly what Germans think of when they hear the term.
"For Germans, 'American independent films' are movies that share a certain way of production — meaning they are mostly written, directed and produced outside of the big studios," explained Andrew Grant, co-curator of Unknown Pleasures. "It is the auteur approach, similar to the French Nouvelle Vague, that they appreciate. And with that comes a certain spirit which the films portray, a spirit of freedom and independence."
This spirit is the second biggest American film export after typical blockbuster-style entertainment. Audiences highly appreciate both attitudes and expect them when going to see an American film. However, the distribution system only grants easy access to more mainstream, star-driven productions like "Bachelorette" or "Ruby Sparks," while smaller and more truly independent productions are often left behind. They only find their way into cinemas if they cause a tremendous buzz at one of the important U.S. film festivals such as Sundance, or were picked up by one of the big European film fests like Cannes or the Berlinale. The latter is now trying to slowly change the market and help American indie films gain recognition by making space in its program for some of the bigger and better Sundance films. But as Hannes Brühwiler, founder of Unknown Pleasures points out, "there is this dichotomy of bigger and smaller indie films. While the bigger ones screen in the competition sections, the small ones, that really need the buzz, are selected for smaller sections and get lost in the overall mass of films and the ghettoization that comes along with curation sections."
But even with the buzz and the exposure through other festivals, smaller films need to clear another hurdle, one that usually breaks their necks right before the finish line: German distributors have a hard time fitting smaller indie films into their marketing strategies, which often leads to bad decision making, limited distribution and eventually failure. Take last year's release of Mike Cahill’s Sundance-acclaimed "Another Earth," for example. The film could have done great, had the distributor believed in the quality of its quirky and stunning visuals, philosophical narrative style and overall melancholic mood — a condition very familiar to us gloomy Germans. But it was sold as a sci-fi film, which caused it to fail and disappear quickly.
Lastly, another big problem is posed by the German obsession with dubbing foreign films, which usually causes a severe disadvantage for American indies in regards to content and aesthetics, as most thrive on their sophisticated use of intricate language games that simply cannot be successfully translated.
So despite Germany's having an audience that is not only accustomed to American filmmaking but also eager to see it, the Unknown Pleasures film festival is the only provider of a close-up and elaborate look at contemporary American independent film as one body of work. It fills that gap by screening original versions and using the flaws of the distribution system to its advantage: The intricately curated program features some bigger productions like Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" and crowd-pleaser "Django Unchained," while filling the other slots with smaller, high-quality productions such as Nathan Silver's "Exit Elena," Amy Seimetz's "Sun Don't Shine" and Dan Sallitt's "The Unspeakable Act." The latter group would not manage to finance the festival alone, but its makers use the money they make off the more mainstream films to counterfinance the screenings of their more offbeat choices. It's a system that has been working terrifically for the past five editions and has allowed its audience to indulge in the pleasures of real independent film art made in the America.
Unknown Pleasures runs through January 16 at the Babylon in Berlin. The schedule and other information can be found here in German.