Eichinger’s big dreams transformed German cinema

Variety's Steven Gaydos remembers the late filmmaker

The passing of German multihyphenate Bernd Eichinger removes not only a vital filmmaking voice from European cinema, but also silences one of those once-in-a-generation leaders who inspire others to greatness — once their followers have gotten over the shock of their leader’s audacious dreams, lofty goals and big-time gambles.

As his attorney friend George Hayum said to me at the remembrance party held in Hollywood a few days after his death in January, “Bernd brought a big Hollywood approach to filmmaking, and I’m not sure there’s anyone else in Germany, or many places for that matter, with that old-school, bigger-than-life approach to the movie business.”

Comicbook legend Stan Lee spoke at that event and talked about how Eichinger “was the first one to see what comicbooks could be on the bigscreen.”

I’m sure Eichinger’s enthusiasm for comicbooks was a tough sell in the seriously cerebral salons of the Munich cinematic set.

But decades later, it’s hard to imagine that the combination of Marvel and Eichinger was ever going to be stopped.

While still in his mid-20s, Eichinger began his work with Constantin. He soon launched international hits including “The NeverEnding Story” (1984) and “The Name of the Rose” (1986), creating one of the most important and stable firms in European entertainment industry.

But Germany in those days was hardly the place for tinsel and glamour. What could be less cool than American blockbusters? And who’d dare to try to make them in Europe? Yet Eichinger dared and he won.

Just like the dare he took when he kept putting more and more time and money into Michael Herbig’s wonderfully deranged Western spoof “Manitou’s Shoe.”

It became the biggest film in Germany history. Eichinger’s career was full of triumphs like that.

Not that it was all hits.

Director Uli Edel was also at that remembrance party (Eichinger’s family and friends wisely deemed it must be a party, in his spirit, not a wake, which he’d detest) and he remembered a night with Eichinger in Brooklyn where he was directing the art film “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” which Eichinger was producing.

“It just got bigger and bigger. Finally, Bernd had upped the budget to $15 million,” Edel recalled. It was a staggering bet for an artfully stylized and grittily downbeat film about junkies and hookers, then and now.

Edel said Oliver Stone dropped by the set and said to him, “?’I would make it for $10 million.’ Which was not a good sign,” said Edel with a laugh.

Edel recalled a moment on that shoot when “it was just Bernd and me standing in the middle of this deserted street one night as the crew was breaking down the set. And we were saying nothing, but both thinking the same thing: ‘This was one big gamble.’

And Bernd turned to me and said, ‘Well, maybe, this time, I have gone too far.’ And smiled.”

While Eichinger never seemed to be really going too far, he knew when it was time to move on to a new challenge, one that was borne of his dreams and worthy of his talents.

Eichinger was about 50 by the time he had built Constantin into a strong and steady entertainment enterprise, and was determined to do what he loved best: write.

Not surprisingly for Eichinger, films such as “Downfall” and Edel’s “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” won him acclaim and commercial success in his new incarnation.

Longtime family friend, painter Judith Liebe, said that the secret of Eichinger’s enormous intellectual energy and fearlessness could be found in a moment in “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” when the trollop, Tralala, is being comforted by a friend after a horrifically violent attack.

“The Bernd Eichinger I knew is represented in that scene. He always talked about the pressures of all the work,” said Liebe, remembering Eichinger lamenting “how the difficulties, setbacks, attacks and even the drudgery of it had almost no relief. But when there was relief, it was that moment of magic, of kindness or love, some break from all of the trouble, that made it all worthwhile.”

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