German films depend on TV

Does funding reliance compromise artistry, edge?

As with most European countries, financing from television nets plays a dominant role in German cinema. The partnership is a simple economic reality. But does it tamp down ambition? And does it allow for an abundance of family films and screwball comedies at the cost of edgier, riskier works?

For a country with so many TV broadcasters, it’s no surprise that cinema here is in part defined by the needs of television.

“Like nearly everywhere in the world, there is no feature film industry without television,” says Constantin Film’s Martin Moszkowicz, head of film and television, worldwide theatrical and television production, distribution, marketing and international sales. “In Germany, the importance and influence (of television) is stronger than in most other countries because the German landscape is heavily dominated by broadcasters.”

Moszkowicz adds that “economic parameters” dictate the types of films produced here, plus he notes local comedies and family films are doable for a “local budget,” unlike pricier action, sci-fi and vfx-laden pics, which would have a tough time competing with Hollywood productions.

Likewise, says Moszkowicz, edgy and risky films are “very difficult — but not because of the influence of television, but because German films need to recoup mostly in their home territory, and that is just hard for edgy, risky films, period.”

Some point to Matteo Garrone’s much-lauded “Gomorrah” as the kind of ballsy cinema lacking in Germany, but Moszkowicz says the pic, about organized crime in Naples, was not that risky of a film for Italy.

“This was a movie based on a huge bestseller, about a subject that is heavily rooted in Italian cinema and with a very international appeal.”

In Germany, comedy and bestseller adaptations rule the box office. Mainstream films, from Michael Herbig’s smash-hit tyke adventure “Vicky the Viking” and Soenke Wortmann’s bestseller adaptation “Pope Joan” (both Constantin productions) to Til Schweiger’s romantic comedy “Zweiohrkueken” (Rabbit Without Ears 2), captivated auds and helped domestic pics achieve a 26% share in 2009.

While there is a common assumption that TV broadcasters are eager to back safe family-friendly fare, forcing most filmmakers to stay away from not-ready-for-primetime pics, some industry observers argue there are in fact sympathetic TV execs and plenty of edgy local movies, plus there are directors ready and willing to take risks.

Alfred Holighaus, the outgoing head of the Berlinale’s Perspektive Deutsche Kino sidebar dedicated to German films, says that while broadcasters are eager for classic mainstream fare easily compatible with TV, it’s not their sole aim: “TV is involved in all major film productions, including films like ‘The White Ribbon.’ ”

Holighaus adds that TV reps who sit on funding boards “are sometimes more independent than you’d expect” and that many TV producers work creatively with filmmakers.

Having too many cooks in the kitchen can often complicate matters, however.

“Germany does not have a film industry in the same way that France and the U.S. have film industries,” says Lars-Olav Beier, an editor and film critic for Spiegel magazine and a screenwriter in his own right. “In Germany we have a subsidy-based system, and that means a lot more people involved in the making of a film, a lot more discussion, and that makes it difficult.”

Beier, who wrote the 2004 crime thriller/love story “Soundless,” directed by Mennan Yapo, says, “TV shouldn’t be blamed for everything,” adding that German film has been enjoying a renaissance since Tom Tykwer’s 1998 breakthrough thriller “Run Lola Run.” A slew of cutting-edge films and other original works followed, from Wolfgang Becker’s “Good Bye Lenin!” to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others” and more recently Andreas Dresen’s “Cloud 9” and Philipp Stoelzl’s Nazi-era mountain-climbing drama “North Face.”

Beier says there was little confidence in “Cloud 9,” a film that explores sexuality among aging seniors, but it became an unexpected hit due to its brave subject matter. Likewise, Beier describes “North Face” as “an extremely radical film.” While “edgy” and “risky” may be terms often associated with young filmmakers, in Germany it’s often the well-established ones that take on heavy and intense subjects.

Uli Edel and Bernd Eichinger went from their Oscar-nominated terrorist drama “The Baader Meinhof Complex” to “Zeiten aendern dich,” a gritty drama that traces the rag-to-riches story of a Berlin rapper, loosely based on the life of hip-hop artist Bushido, who also toplines the pic.

Eichinger says he and Edel wanted “to make a film like Bushido’s music: authentic, provocative and radical,” shooting the pic in a docu/hyperrealist style reminiscent of his and Edel’s first collaboration, 1981’s “Christiane F.”

Likewise, Oliver Hirschbiegel, who helmed 2004’s “Downfall” and last year’s Northern Ireland drama “Five Minutes of Heaven,” with Liam Neeson, is taking on the Mafia in his next pic, “Angel Face,” set to star Moritz Bleibtreu as a real-life mob hitman-turned-government informer.

And Michael Haneke, one of Europe’s most celebrated filmmakers, created one of the darkest and most unnerving dramas of recent years with his Palme d’Or-winning “The White Ribbon.”

While Constantin’s Moszkowicz agrees that some established filmmakers are bolder than newcomers, he stresses that “none of the movies by Haneke, Edel or Hirschbiegel would have come to life without heavy television participation.”

As for the younger generation, many appear less interested in experimentation than they are in working within established genres.

Claudia Tronnier, head of pubcaster ZDF’s Das kleine Fernsehspiel, a co-production arm and showcase for new talent and especially aimed at new and experimental works, sees plenty of opportunities for young filmmakers compared with other countries, but she adds that competition is tough in view of the high number of film schools in Germany.

The influence of TV coupled with increasing competition may be prompting some filmmakers to think more about marketing categories rather than the wild experimentation associated with tyro helmers.

“We don’t look for genre, we look for originality and encourage experimentation,” Tronnier says. “But in recent years we have seen more genre works coming from young filmmakers than in the past.”

Nevertheless, a number of strong original works have recently come out of ZDF’s young talent showcase, including Carsten Ludwig and Jan-Christoph Glaser’s soccer hooligan drama “66/67 — Fairplay Is Over,” which Tronnier describes as reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s early works; pic nabbed the German-language award at the Zurich Film Festival last year.

Two other Das kleine Fernsehspiel productions are running in competition at this year’s Berlinale, “The Robber,” by Benjamin Heisenberg, whose 2005 drama “Sleeper,” preemed in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, and “Na Putu” (On the Path), from Bosnian helmer Jasmila Zbanic, director of 2006 Golden Bear winner “Grbavica.”

Adds Berlinale topper Die-ter Kosslick: “We have film support that is more or less independent. One can always argue about this, one can always argue about the involvement of television. But let’s not forget that we have a lot of public money to finance film. You can’t finance them 100% but in part.

“And (even though) there’s money from television, you cannot generalize and say, ‘If TV is involved, then everything is lost.’ If that were the case, ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ would never have been made, ‘Letter to Brezhnev’ would never have been made, ‘Caravaggio,’ ‘Wetherby,’ which won the Golden Bear in 1985, none of them would have been made because that was all television money that was used to co-finance films in Britain.”

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