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June 8, 1998 2:00 AM
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Ich Bein Ein Filmmaker: "Silence" and Beyond for German Productions

by Anthony Kaufman




You wouldn't know it living in the United States or the rest of Europe,
but the German film industry is exploding with revitalized production
output and a high-powered box office. (Who wouldn't feel heartened, with
"Godzilla" helmer Roland Emmerich, who began in the Fatherland with
German sci-fi productions like "Moon 44," as inspiration.)


Last year, German films made up a substantial 17.3% of their own
marketshare, a large number considering that Canada, for
example, shows only 3% native films. With three titles in their own
Top Ten (fourth place "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and fifth
place "Rossini" beating out such high-profile American films as
"Ransom" and "Con Air"), the largest number of admissions since 1981, and
roughly $450 million invested in theaters and multiplexes, the German
industry is booming with a box office growth rate of 11.75%, nearly twice as
strong as in the U.S.


Cord Duppe, of the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, explains that
"unfortunately the films which established this renaissance are all
these strange comedies," further noting "and German comedies are not
that universal." Andreas Fuchs, U.S. Bureau Chief of "Film Echo," a
German trade magazine, claims the reason for the large marketshare is
"because they're going away from the whole auteur thing that initially
made German cinema important. I think German films are looking more at
the audience. The movie opening Friday is a typical example of this
audience-oriented material with its emotional qualities."


Fuchs is referring to last Friday's Miramax release of Caroline Link's
Oscar nominated debut "Beyond Silence," the sentimental story of a daughter
of deaf parents who discovers a love for music. In Germany, the small film
was ranked 27 last year, garnering nearly 1.7 million admissions and
out-surpassing such American product as "Dante's Peak" and "Scream."
Link also recently made a deal with Bavaria Studios to develop "Puenktchen
and Anton
," an adaptation of a popular German children's story.


But the potential for Link and her first sentimental journey "Beyond
Silence" to succeed with U.S. audiences is not so clear. According to
Duppe, the film might have "a tourist appeal" with its beautiful
cinematography, countrysides, and heartwarming story. But even so,
German works have a tough time of it in the States. Duppe notes the
subtle prejudice, "Americans have an idea about Germans." Whether it is
this vague "idea" linked to a certain historical rivalry or just an
indigenous filmmaking style unique to its nation, U.S. and international
markets still remain relatively empty of films from Deutschland. (Most
critics noted at this year's Cannes there was a conspicuous absence of
German films.)


Sony Pictures Classics' release last year of "Brother of Sleep" by
director-cinematographer, Goseph Vilsmaier, a 19th century
Cinemascope story about a musical genius in the German Alps. Dylan
Leiner, Vice President of Acquisitions at SPC, says "what finally made
it difficult for people, and why it didn't do as well in the marketplace,
was that it was a very dark story. It ended up really dividing
audiences." Leiner further explains, "If you don't have [foreign]
films that have a universal or heartwarming touch, it makes them very
difficult in the marketplace. I think one of the reasons that Miramax
went with 'Beyond Silence' is that it's a touching story about family
and overcoming the odds."


But Leiner also supports the notion that German production is going
strong. "The industry is in a period of growth right now. They haven't
had a fusion of money, of production companies, and talented directors,
as many as they have now." Sony, itself, has a Columbia/TriStar office
in Germany, "making a very bold statement by contributing money to
television and film projects," says Leiner. Deutsche Columbia TriStar
recently announced an infusion of nearly $60 million to produce German
films with international potential and according to an article in Moving
Pictures, the company plans to put out four productions a year by 1999
with budgets between $2 and $4.5 million.


Will all this activity trickle across the Atlantic with U.S. and
international pickups? Will foreign films regain some lost
ground in the U.S. market, stealing screens from the reported Amer-indie
influx? No one knows, but "in the long run," notes Duppe, "it could
only be a good influence on production. There's more government money
for film financing and right now, Germany is unique in the world for
financing first time filmmakers." "Now they realize they can make
money," Duppe adds, "They're growing up." But Duppe remains pessimistic
when asked about Germany's future in American theaters. "I doubt it
very much . . . Most of the films being made are distinctly very
German."


Fuchs is a little more optimistic. Although he mirrors Duppe's point
that the plethora of German comedies might "not necessarily translate to
American audiences," there are some interesting independent filmmakers
to take note of. Det Lev Buck, maker of quirky comedies, is
"somebody who should really be looked at," says Fuchs. Goseph Vilsmaier also
continues to impress. His "Comedian Harmonists," about an acapella
singing group from the 1920's through Nazi Germany, is the top German
release of 1998 and was picked up for US release by Miramax. "It's got
everything," Fuchs claims, "costumes, Nazis, songs -- it's going to be
next year's Oscar contender." But the question remains -- will anyone
in America go see it?

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