Germany hopes for more homegrown hits

BERLIN — Hollywood films may have suffered a serious flogging at the German box office this year, but Teutonic viewers have turned out in droves for local productions, and it looks like the trend will continue next year.

Constantin Film’s African love story “The White Masai” is doing boffo biz here — pic has so far grossed $13 million. Recent homemade films like German Oscar candidate “Sophie Scholl — The Final Days,” about a young German dissident during the Nazi era; Til Schweiger’s romantic comedy “Barefoot” (“Barfuss”); and “NVA,” a humorous look at life in the East German military also have given the box office a much-needed boost.

While Germany’s overall B.O. was down 20% in the first nine months of the year, the market share of Teutonic pics has been up, reaching nearly 20% in the first six months — its highest mid-year level in the last five years. Fall figures have yet to be compiled, but thanks to recent hits like “The White Masai,” it’s going to be another strong year for local pics, which achieved an impressive 24% share in 2004. Until 2004, local films never repped more than 20% of the B.O.

“German films are having more success appealing to local audiences,” says Jan Oesterlin, a marketing exec at German exhib Cinestar. “The subject matter of films like ‘Sophie Scholl,’ ‘NVA’ or ‘Go for Zucker!’ is inherently German. They are stories that can best be told by local filmmakers, and audiences are drawn to them.”

Teutonic themes usually mean WWII, the Holocaust, the 40-year division of the country and the legacy of East Germany. While they remain hot topics for both young filmmakers and veterans, upcoming films, which appear likely to do well on the festival circuit as well as with mainstream auds at home, also tackle more pertinent issues, like the dangers of nuclear power and the psychological damage caused by parental abandonment. Beloved children’s stories, always a sure bet at the box office, also remain hot material. The most-awaited titles include:

  • Joseph Vilsmaier’s “The Last Train” (Der Letzte Zug), which recounts the harrowing story of the deportation of Berlin Jews to Auschwitz. Making the film has become a personal mission for 87-year-old Berlin producer Artur Brauner. The film had been delayed several times and had four different directors attached, including Armin Mueller-Stahl, but finally went into production in May, only to be postponed again after Vilsmaier was injured in a crane accident while shooting. Pic stars Sibel Kekilli (“Head-On”), Lale Yavas and Gedeon Burkard.

  • Also set during the World War II, “Ghetto,” from Lithuanian filmmaker Audrius Juzenas, is a European coproduction based on Joshua Sobol’s play that recounts the true story of a Jewish theater in the Vilna Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Lithuania during 1941 and 1944. Heino Ferch and Erika Marozsan star.

  • Germany’s Cold War division, meanwhile, continues to fascinate filmmakers. X Filme is releasing Dominik Graf’s “The Red Cockatoo” (“Der rote Kakadu”) Feb. 16. Set in the East German city of Dresden in 1961, the year the Wall went up in Berlin, pic features hot young stars Max Riemelt (“Napola”) and Jessica Schwarz in a tale of romance, rebellious youth and a burgeoning music scene set against a backdrop of growing totalitarian oppression.

In a country with strong literary traditions, it’s not surprising book adaptations do well at the box office. “The White Masai” was based on Corinne Hofmann’s bestseller and benefited from the book’s legions of fans.

After bringing such complex literary works as Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” Isabelle Allende’s “The House of the Spirits” and Stan Lee’s “The Fantastic Four” to the bigscreen, Germany’s leading producer Bernd Eichinger is launching Patrick Suskind’s best-selling novel “Perfume — The Story of a Murderer,” without a doubt the most anticipated German film of next year. Constantin is releasing the Tom Tykwer-directed pic domestically Sept. 14.

“It’s going to be huge,” predicts one Berlin-based exhib.

Eichinger also is producing Oskar Roehler’s “Elementary Particles,” based on French author Michel Houellebecq’s controversial 1998 best-selling novel (described by the New York Times as “a deeply repugnant read”) and bound to be one of next year’s most talked-about films.

Moritz Bleibtreu (“Agnes and His Brothers”) and Christian Ulmen (“Berlin Blues”) star as psychosexually-scarred step brothers who, as children, were abandoned by their hedonistic hippie mother. Franka Potente, Martina Gedeck (“Mostly Martha”) and Nina Hoss (“The White Masai”) costar.

Ulmen also appears in Doris Doerrie’s relationship drama “The Fisherman and His Wife” with Alexandra Maria Lara (“Downfall”). Tipped as a strong box office contender, the Constantin pic opens locally Oct. 27.

Gregor Schnitzler’s apocalyptic tale “The Cloud” (Die Wolke), based on Gudrun Pausewang’s 1987 novel (published in English as “Fall-Out”), could strike a chord with environmentally minded viewers, especially since nuclear power remains a hot-button issue in Germany.

Adapted by Marco Kreuzpaintner (“The Girls Next Door”), pic follows a group of survivors after a Chernobyl-like nuclear catastrophe leaves Germany largely uninhabitable. Tele Munchen-owned distrib Concorde Film is releasing “The Cloud” March 16, a month before the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. Concorde managing director Marcus Zimmer is producing for Clasart, also a subsidiary of Tele Munchen.

Exhibs also are expecting knockout performances from two upcoming tyke pics from Constantin based on classic children’s books, “The Robber Hotzenplotz” and “Hui Buh: The Castle Ghost,” which stars box office fave Michael Herbig.

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