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February 1997

Right for the Part: New German Film is good for a Laugh....but will it last

The history and future of German film.

"Vergessen Sie Hollywood," proclaimed Munich billboard and bus stop ads earlier this winter. "Forget Hollywood. Watch German classics on SAT 1." Five or ten years ago, such an ad would have been inconceivable. In fact, for the last quarter century the German film industry has struggled for even a 10 percent share of its own domestic movie market, the world's second largest and dominated by the Americans since the 1920s. By late last year, though, the German market share had almost doubled, the work of a new generation of filmmakers who are film-school pedigreed, market savvy and guilt-free about their affection for Hollywood production values. Since 1994, these thirty-something directors have produced a string of romantic-comedy hits that marry Heimatfilme to the German yuppie. Instead of the idyllic Alpine vistas and family values of Germany's popular but unremarkable "homeland" films of the 1950s, you get the navel gazing of boho '89ers - a generation of post-Wall, city-dwelling singles - in talkies with implausibly happy endings. The German Publikum has voted in droves for their share of this narcissistic absolution. The success of these films, whether German critics like it or not - and most do not - flies in the face of Tin Drum director Volker Schlondorff's comment (and perhaps the world's unspoken conviction) that German film is "incredibly boring and sterile." But, if history is any indication, just when you think German film has made a comeback, it's gone again. If it's not Germany sabotaging its own success with an out-of-touch subsidy system, then it's critics reluctant to bless native offspring, a risk-averse film industry or audiences that prefer Hollywood's brand of escapism. So, is the latest wave of German films a comeback or just another come-on? COMIC RELIEF Before 1994, German films were lucky to manage more than 100,000 viewers. Then, Katja von Garnier's Making Up (Abgeschminkt) and Sonke Wortmann's Maybe... Maybe Not (Der bewegte Mann), both romantic comedies about singles in the big city, became the domestic blockbusters with audiences in the millions that inspired an army of imitations. The last two years have produced countless variations on their theme, with comedies about pratfalling German convicts of love (Mannerpension), love triangles with gay German garnishes (Stadtgesprach) and, even, comedy about undead German singles (Nur uber meine Leiche). Though German audiences have welcomed the light relief from their high-fiber film diets, critics think they know better; the country's international film festival, the Berlinale (February 13 through 24 this year), hasn't awarded its Golden Bear to a German film for ten years. And like post-Beatles Liverpudlians living down their greatest success, German producers are tired of talking about the German comedy craze. Wolfgang Brown, managing director of Buena Vista's German branch, which has invested heavily and well in German comedies, is keen to draw distinctions. "Keiner liebt mich, for example, is more than a comedy; it's a comedy with tragic elements," he says. "And Jenseits der Stille, the story of a girl with deaf parents, is a drama that's also funny." The trendsetting Maybe ... Maybe Not cost DM 7 million to make, but brought in ten times that in domestic box-office, making Wortmann Germany's favorite director and the film more popular in its German distribution than Schindler's List. It's a comedy of errors in Wortmann's signature style, warm-hearted yet quirky, with dry dialogue, a dash of farce and airtight narration. "Until recently, German films were reserved for an elite club of critics and directors," he says. "My approach is to entertain people. I try to learn about pacing from Scorcese, Coppola and Spielberg." Wortmann's follow-up Das Superweib (The Super Woman), the second in a three-picture deal with distributor Neue Constantin, is about a woman who gets divorced - by accident - and loves it. Though it was Germany's third biggest film last year, Wortmann seems ambivalent. The night before the film's premiere he looked uncomfortable in his Bayerischer Hof hotel room, wearing his publicity-shot Armani suit with basketball shoes (untied) and a Dodgers cap. The film's poster - blonde Superweib Veronica Ferres front and center - was lying on the coffee table. He asked what I thought of her, and I tried to be objective. "She's not really my type," he said, finally, backing away from the poster with a shrug. "But she's right for the part." Von Garnier's Making Up was a class project for Munich's film school - until 1.2 million Germans paid to see it; the film cost DM 85,000 to make but in proportion to its budget pulled in more revenue worldwide than Four Weddings and a Funeral. On opening night in Munich, von Garnier watched the German film industry's primal scene unfold in front of a local theater: a couple arguing over which film to see. The woman wanted to watch Making Up but the man said, Come on, it's German. Let's see the American movie. "Germans didn't want to see German films for so long because they were terrible," she says. She blames a shortage of good scripts for holding back German film. The average bad script in Hollywood is better than a good script in Europe, she says. "An American script is more formulaic, but the story is better despite the formula." German-American Hormann, a graduate of Munich's film school, won the Bavarian Film Prize in 1991 for her first feature, "Leise Shatten"("Silent Shadow"); "To Err is Masculine" pulled in 1.2million viewers last year after its late October opening. GENEALOGY Wortmann, von Garnier and their coconspirators - Rainer Kaufmann, Doris Dorrie, Detlev Buck - have thumbed their noses at the boring old Vaterland. But they've also inherited the self-doubts German filmmakers have wrestled with since the medium's origins: whether to make art or make money, to mimic America or embrace all things German, to take to Hollywood's hills or make good at home. Seems like the last generation of successful directors settled the matter by heading for Hollywood and passing for American: Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), for example, or Wolfgang Petersen (In the Line of Fire). The German film industry's failure to develop a robust life-support system was a standing invitation to exodus. Germans acquired a taste for American movies in 1921, when the lifting of a wartime film import ban glutted the German market with its first American fare; Hollywood domination and a manic-depressive economy brought German film production to a halt within a few years. Two escape valves emerged and have persisted: coproductions, mostly with the U.S., and the lure of foreign shores. Germany lost a generation of cinema giants to Hollywood during this period, including comic genius Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and a clutch of Weimar-era innovators (like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau). After World War II, occupying American and British forces dismembered what remained of the German film industry to prevent the resurrection of a Nazi propaganda machine. Big studios were downsized into a collection of Balkanized states that could either produce or promote, distribute film or provide services. This prohibition on vertical integration made financing films difficult and resulted in low budgets; even today, a German film is overfinanced at DM 10 million, while the typical Hollywood film costs DM 50 to 70 million. A turning point came in 1962, when a cadre of fledgling filmmakers (including Wim Wenders) announced the death of Papas Kino - largely Heimatfilme and porn flicks - and cooked up a native nouvelle vague: the New German Cinema. Like German film between the wars, though, the resulting art-house pics in the '60s and '70s earned critical kudos but little commercial success. By the time Fassbinder died in 1982, the movement itself was D.O.A.; but the subsidy system it gave birth to survived as an anti-market mechanism that churned out dry "worthwhile" films pleasing subsidy boards more than audiences. In 1994, Variety unceremoniously announced that "the country that brought moviegoers Das Boot most often nowadays delivers Der Flop." ART AND COMMERCE The current conversion of German film from art into commodity is part plan, part mutation. In 1994 - when Buena Vista, Warner and Columbia Tri-Star stepped up investments in German film - German distributors started adopting Hollywood-style marketing tactics. They doubled advertising budgets, farmed out promotions to ad agencies and tripled release copies to 150 (American imports are launched on 300 to 600). They even started using test audiences. Several state-owned universities created screenwriting programs. And '94 saw the first graduates of an aggressively market-oriented department at Munich's film school whose director, Manfred Heid, credits for the success of Making Up. Rainer Kaufmann's fifth feature (and first comedy), "Talk of the Town", was actually a made-for-tv film that happened to get picked up for theater distribution; it was a hit in 1995,with 1.5 million viewers The swing towards commercial production, however, started in 1984, when the privatization of German television created a shortage of ratings-oriented programming. For the first eight years, the need was mostly met by licensed American product. But by 1992, privatization had poured enough money into production company coffers to fund higher-quality natively produced programming. "We discovered that Germans would rather invite German actors into their living rooms, even though they might prefer Hollywood production values in the cinema," says Thilo Kleine, comanaging director of Bavaria Film. Germany's largest studio, Bavaria Film gutted its features budget three years ago to concentrate on television production and, this year, will coproduce just three feature films. Native programming, in turn, seems to have whet the nation's appetite for the new German comedy, with its stable of young German stars on German location. Complemented by a law requiring TV stations to invest in feature films - with the networks screening the results after the films exhaust their cinema potential - the privatized stations were not only the good public relations and secondary market German features needed, but their financial angel as well. In the end, television - the bogey of German cinemas in the '50s and '60s - helped save the German film industry. WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT GERMAN FILM Americans tend to expect German films to be Holocaust confessionals, soul-searching struggles with the past, or moody portraits of the Cold War. In fact, the New German Cinema did consist of such films and was more popular in America than at home. It's as if German film is Hollywood's shadow self, expected to be what Hollywood isn't: at once relevant and financially viable. "We carry this baggage about German history, about the Holocaust," von Garnier says. "So people believe we can't be funny or think we shouldn't be." Last fall, one L.A. reviewer of Maybe ... Maybe Not described Katja Riemann as the "classic blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nazi girlfriend" and baby-faced Til Schweiger as the "typical arrogant German fascist." History aside, the box-office failure of the subtitled version of Making Up in the U.S., earning only DM 50,000, begs the usual questions about German films in America. Is German humor translatable? Would dubbing succeed where subtitles fail? With slower pacing, is the grammar of German films too alien? Or are Hollywood movies just better? Although the subtitled version of Maybe ... Maybe Not did fairly well in U.S. distribution, the dubbed version cinemas overlooked is far and away funnier. Dubbed films in the U.S. acquire what Germans call a "Cain sign" - a sign of badness - on the basis of habit alone, says Dieter Menz of Atlas International, Maybe ... Maybe Not's foreign distributor. Too bad, says Menz, because subtitles are slow and timing is crucial, especially for comedy. Bypassing the "to dub or not to dub" question, Jurgen Schau, managing director of Columbia Tri-Star in Germany, thinks Germany should produce "more global" films in the industry's lingua franca, English. "There's a sense that a Hollywood film could happen anywhere, that if it's good for Kansas City, it's good for the world. Germany thinks too regionally. "Katja von Garnier and the cast of "Bandits", the young director's second feature; it will be released domestically this July IT AINT KANSAS CITY Near the end of Making Up, the camera pans across Katja Riemann's apartment walls, where graffiti scrawl reads "Amis go home." Maybe we're asking the wrong questions about German film. Maybe success on American shores does not translate into German as "comeback" - it didn't, after all, for either the New German Cinema or Weimar-era Expressionist films. In fact, the current boom in German films means something very different: Germany has stopped trying to beat Hollywood at its game and started applying Hollywood rules to its own game. The German industry's financial infrastructure is more solid and market-oriented than ever. American purchase into the German market has become more investment than exploitation. German films have star power of their own. And the German audience is watching. Most here agree that domestic and European not American - success is the cure for Germany's film culture. "The American market is not important for now," says Bavaria Film's Thilo Kleine. "Anyway, America doesn't need European films." Only six months ago, a New York Times headline breezily announced that German comedy was "an oxymoron no more." Though the American media caught on late, the new German comedy is already old news; the German media started souring on it last summer. Because after the laughter dies down and the lights come up, these films are, with few exceptions, forgettable - better at lampooning others than themselves. And that's what makes this generation of German comedies unexportable at any age: they're firmly grounded in the upper layers of young Germany's ego, its self-consciousness about its own Germanness. Rainer Kaufmann, director of last year's blockbuster comedy Talk of the Town (Stadtgesprach), lauds the comedy wave for knocking down another wall in the German psyche, but he's ready to move on: "Only since reunification have we felt whole enough to make films about normal people in normal situations, to look at ourselves and say I'm O.K. Now we can make other films, more serious and vital films." Even the genre's two touchstones are searching for new screen idioms. Von Garnier just finished her second feature, Bandits, a musical/road movie she describes as The Blues Brothers meets Thelma and Louise and that distributor Buena Vista hopes will earn broad European sales. She's looking for more than just laughs this time around. "Der bewegte Mann had more than 6 million viewers," she says. "You have to tip your hat to that, but personally... . Well, it's alright if that's what you like. I just don't want to get thrown into the same pot." For his part, Wortmann has stepped away from filmmaking and is in Dusseldorf directing a stage version of - fittingly - Woody Allen's Bullets over Broadway, the story of a director torn between his artistic and commercial aspirations. And the tug-of-war between Hollywood and home in the hearts of German filmmakers has landed a tentative new solution: both directors split time between L.A. and Munich.

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