History’s dark era fuels fiction surge

Germans find films have worldwide appeal

BERLIN — Germany’s turbulent history is turning out to be a treasure-trove for Teutonic filmmakers born long after World War II. Now, a new gold rush to exploit the improbable commercial success of dramas set during the country’s Nazi and Communist regimes is spreading across the Atlantic to Hollywood.

Liberated by the success of Constantin’s 2004 Adolf Hitler drama “Downfall” — which got an Oscar nomination, sold to 150 territories and had worldwide admissions of 12 million — Teutons have been tripping over themselves to crank out such period pics.

They’ve won over cinema and TV audiences, as well as critics, with quality pics defying the long-standing postwar taboo on any sort of fictional treatment of its dark past. Before “Downfall” — with its controversial portrayal of Hitler’s human side — Germans who had been weaned for half a century on guilt and shame dared not veer away from the dry documentary-style treatment.

The trend toward popular fiction gained momentum from the box office success of “Downfall” and reached a further milestone recently with “The Lives of Others,” a fictional story about the notorious East German Stasi. Security-police pic was not only a global box office success but also won the foreign-language Oscar, Germany’s second Academy Award for a historical pic within five years.

“I think ‘Downfall’ marked a big change,” says Martin Moszkowicz, a board member at Constantin in charge of production. “There were German films before that dealt with the Nazi past, but the combination of German history and commercial success is definitely a new development. I can’t tell you exactly why. I think it just strikes a chord with audiences.

“Younger Germans want a fresh, fictionalized look at their past and not just documentaries. In other countries there is always an interest in German history. The common denominator is the high quality of these films.”

The trend has not gone unnoticed in Hollywood. Tom Cruise will be starring in Bryan Singer’s World War II thriller “Valkyrie” as German army colonel Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, famous for leading the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. ARD drama “Stauffenberg” got a 26% market share for its 2004 interpretation of one of Germany’s most revered historical figures.

Stefan Arndt, topper at X-Filme Creative Pool, says he believes the relative modest costs and probability of handsome returns are the key reasons German history films are popular at the moment with filmmakers.

“They’re simply cheaper to make,” Arndt tells Variety. “It’s hard to put together enough of a budget for genres like thrillers or sci-fi films. I hope the day will come when that happens.”

X-Filme’s Hitler farce “My Fuhrer: The Absolutely Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler” by helmer Dani Levy earlier this year had nearly 900,000 admissions and sold to 20 territories. It cost E4.4 million.

Initial steps

Understandably, German filmmakers had until recently long made a detour around the collective trauma of their painful and shameful past.

They watched from the sidelines while foreigners filmed the stories out of its past, from “Schindler’s List” to “Life Is Beautiful” and before all that. But six decades after the war, Eichinger broke tradition with “Downfall” shortly after helmer Caroline Link won the foreign-language Oscar in 2002 for “Nowhere in Africa,” about a German Jewish refugee family.

In 2005, another pic, “Sophie Scholl,” about Munich students executed for their opposition to the Nazis, was a surprise hit at the Berlin Film Festival and also got a foreign-language Oscar nom.

German webs were also quick to latch on. Pubcaster ZDF got superb ratings in 2006 for a $13 million two-part TV drama, “Dresden” set against the city’s 1945 firebombing. In February, ARD had its highest rating for a film in 10 years (11.2 million viewers) for “Die Flucht” (March of Millions), a fictional story starring Maria Furtwaengler about the expulsion of German civilians from what was then East Germany.

“History is written by the victors,” says Jan Mojto, topper at Beta Film/EOS. “There’s been all this shame because Germans felt guilty about starting the war and they were the losers.”

‘Tunnel’ vision

Mojto, a former Kirch executive, is one of the pioneers of the German cinematic reflection on its past. He recalls fierce battles with German Sat 1 execs in 1999 over “The Tunnel,” a drama about the Berlin Wall that ended up with 7 million viewers and sold to 80 territories.

Mojto remembers arguments about whether German auds had interest in historical pics.

“Maybe as a foreigner I was less inhibited,” he says. “My sense was the time was ripe for this, that Germans were ready and had enough distance to take another look at their history.” Since then Mojto has also co-produced “Dresden” and “Sturmflut,” set against a devastating 1962 flood for RTL (11.6 million viewers), and was a partner with Eichinger for “Downfall.”

“As a non-German, I feel safe in saying that nowhere in the world can you find as much historical drama as in Germany,” he says. “Two totalitarian systems, a divided country, a madman Hitler, 12 million refugees forced out of the East. There’s so much drama here. The Americans recognized that a long time ago.”

“For good reason, it was long taboo to use fiction to deal with the Nazis, but the times have changed,” says Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky. His well-received drama “The Counterfeiters” — based on a true Nazi plot to disrupt Britain’s economy by flooding it with counterfeit bank notes made by Jews in a concentration camp — was shown at this year’s Berlinale.

“It’s time to move on beyond the documentaries,” Ruzowitzky continues. “Young directors aren’t prisoners of the past. It’s important to put the material into interesting and engaging stories. It’s not a history lesson, just an incredible story.”

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