BERLIN — The only films that work abroad are those that are distinctly German,” says Alfred Holighaus, head of the Berlin fest’s Perspective on German Cinema sidebar. “And what does not work at all abroad are films that are … distinctly German.”
Pinpointing specific qualities that may catapult a film to the top of charts in international markets is a tricky science at best; where German cinema is concerned it is more like voodoo.
But whatever the cause, German cinema is in the midst of a mini renaissance at the moment, with a steady stream of titles from foreign-language Oscar winner “Nowhere in Africa” and European Film Award winner “Good Bye Lenin!” through to “Downfall,” a Oscar nominee this year, being snapped up by foreign distribs in recent years.
Apart from good storytelling, one element in common to many of the successes is their preoccupation with traumatic periods in German history, World War II in particular. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Downfall,” for example, focuses on the last days of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
German humor, such as that of slapstick sci-fi hit “Spaceship Surprise” and fairytale spoof “Seven Dwarfs,” doesn’t cut it in major foreign markets, Holighaus says.
“It’s an exciting time for German cinema,” says Sam Nichols, senior VP at U.K. distrib Momentum Pictures, which is releasing “Downfall” April 1. “Films like ‘Downfall’ attract enormous interest across the world. It’s a fascinating subject and a great film. The film has a unique selling point as a German take on the subject.”
Nichols also points to Fatih Akin’s “Head-On,” which won best European and German pic last year, as another Teutonic success.
“There’s a momentum building around German films being accessible. It only takes two high-profile films to start the ball rolling. We’ve always looked at German films and know there’s now a slightly more accessible market in the U.K.”
Dirk Schuerhoff, head of sales at EOS Distribution, which is handling “Downfall” worldwide, agrees. “Sales have definitely improved. Distributors are taking more chances with German films.” EOS has sold “Downfall” in more than 50 countries, including North America.
The light-hearted bittersweet comedy-drama “Good Bye Lenin!” similarly grabbed international auds despite a Cold War political angle that threatened to make the pic too local.
“It was the one which broke through due to originality and strength of acting,” says Will Clarke, managing director of U.K. distrib Optimum Releasing.
“Good Bye Lenin!,” which was released by UGC Films U.K., grossed around $2 million in the U.K.
“Good Bye Lenin!” producer Stefan Arndt points out that at heart, the film is about a young man’s love for his mother, and that is something that translates internationally.
Thorsten Schaumann, head of sales at Bavaria Film Intl., which handled “Good Bye Lenin!” and “Nowhere in Africa,” says it’s those kinds of human themes that help movies cross borders.
“There are universal motifs that can interest audiences in different territories and different cultures, whether it’s a story about a mother and son, or a family drama told from the perspective of a child, like ‘Nowhere in Africa,’ ” observes Schaumann.
Other films, like “Run Lola Run,” can be hugely successful due to their originality and timeliness. ” ‘Run Lola Run,’ ” notes Schaumann, “combined visual intensity — camera and editing — animation, and music in a way no one had seen before and it went off like fireworks.”
Clarke says it was 1998’s “Run Lola Run” that triggered the renaissance for German film abroad. “There is an audience. I wouldn’t have said that five years ago. Now the quality is high and the themes are pertinent.”
U.K. auds don’t go for nationality but story, Clarke adds. “If viewers didn’t get an experience they wouldn’t bother.”
Thomas Friedl, head of distribution and marketing at Constantin Film, which produced “Downfall” and “Nowhere in Africa,” says: “We are long since out of the arthouse ghetto. Germans films can find an audience. Very early on we decide if a film has foreign possibilities and approach it that way. “German films are generating great interest after Asian and French films,” adds Friedl. “French films have had a specific audience for many years. Now the audience for German films is growing.”
In view of the huge success of such films as “Hero” and “The Passion of the Christ,” Friedl says there is greater courage among distribs to go after subtitled films, especially in the U.S.
For director Roland Suso Richter, having a feel for American-style filmmaking helps make German pics more palatable to foreign auds.
Richter helmed 2000’s “The Tunnel,” an international hit about a group of East Germans who escape to the West by digging a tunnel underneath the Berlin Wall, and is directing the upcoming “Dresden,” about the Allied bombing of the German city during World War II. Reared on U.S. cinema, Richter says American-style filmmaking and story-driven narratives travel well in most countries.
For producer Nico Hofmann of Berlin-based Teamworx, which produced both “The Tunnel” and “Dresden,” the international market is playing an increasingly vital role for German films and it is having an impact on the way his films are being made from the outset.
“Dresden,” for example, focuses on a wounded British airman and will include about a dozen British thesps whose dialogue will be in English. “I am absolutely focusing on sales and casting to sell internationally.”
Hofmann says a film’s success abroad “depends very much on the topic, like ‘Dresden,’ which deals with transatlantic dialogue and an emotional background, which works in the U.S.”