Mannheim-Heidelberg ramps up 60th edition

BERLIN — The Mannheim-Heidelberg Film Festival turns 60 this year, and while it looks back on a rich history, it also continues to move forward with a streamlined co-production initiative and a continued focus on international arthouse fare and up-and-coming talent.

Running Nov. 10-20, Germany’s second-oldest fest after the Berlinale has screened first works of helmers such as Francois Truffaut, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier and Bryan Singer, to name a few.

The showcase launched in Mannheim just seven years after the end of World War II, at a time when much of the city was still rubble.

“It’s really amazing that in 1952, in this completely bombed-out (city), a festival was established,” says fest director Michael Koetz. “It’s puzzling: you look at an aerial photograph from 1952 and you see destroyed buildings everywhere … and they suddenly think they should have a film festival. ”

The Mannheim Culture and Documentary Film Week (as it was then called) was founded by Kurt Joachim Fischer. A former journalist and Nazi propaganda officer, Fischer was arrested towards the end of the war and sentenced to a six-year prison term and for participating in a rescue operation between 1942 and 1944 that transported Jews from Berlin to Sweden and supplied them with forged identification and travel documents.

Following the war, he wrote several screenplays before establishing the Film Week, which began as a showcase for short films and documentaries from Germany, Western Europe and the U.S. on such dry topics as culture, nature, industry and labor.

“You can say, ‘My God, that was boring,’ but for Germans, it was something new,” says Koetz. “They only knew entertainment films or propaganda films.”

It wasn’t until the arrival of the French New Wave in the late 1960s that the Mannheim fest began showing feature films, evolving into a premiere event for arthouse cinema.

“They began screening the first feature films by former documentary filmmakers. That became the transition, and they could finally start showing New Wave,” Koetz says. “Mannheim became the forum for filmmakers like Truffaut, Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda, who presented their first films there.”

The tradition of screening debut films has remained intact over the six decades. “It’s unofficially become a festival for young directors,” Koetz says.

Koetz notes that a number of influential fest directors and programmers, including Ulrich Gregor, who headed the Berlinale’s Forum; Hubert Bals, creator of the Rotterdam fest; Manfred Salzgeber, the first director of Berlin’s Panorama sidebar; and even former Berlinale topper Moritz de Hadeln all sat at one time or another on Mannheim’s film selection committees in the 1960s and 1970s, and the philosophy behind the fest could be seen in their later work at the other fests.

“The Mannheim festival was an incredible training ground,” Koetz says. “As the big festivals like Berlin and Cannes were still showing lots of nonsense — lots of entertainment fare and stars and hype — and very few arthouse films, Mannheim was a special place.”

Mannheim’s significance began to wane as more and more fests sprang up in the 1970s and 1980s. Koetz became festival director in 1992 and four years later, the first Project Market was launched. Known as the Mannheim Meetings, it became the first co-production market in Germany — and just one of three in the world, a trio that also included Rotterdam’s CineMart and IFP’s No Borders Intl. Co-Production Market in New York.

The Mannheim Meetings quickly grew in international scope to the point where the market was hosting up to 1,000 one-to-one meetings, Koetz says.

After similar events were introduced in Berlin and Cannes, however, Mannheim again saw its relevance threatened.

“Although we were one of the first to create such a market, it was time to start over with something new again.”

Last year, the fest revamped the co-production market, re-naming it the Mannheim Meeting Place — co-ordinated by Julek Kedzierski — streamlining the event and reducing the number of participants from more than 300 to just 100, with a focus on new producers.

A relatively small fest, Mannheim-Heidelberg presents 64 feature films in five sections this year. Opening the Intl. Competition, which features 15 films, is Reynir Lyngdal’s “Our Own Oslo.” The Intl. Discoveries sidebar, with 18 titles, offers two world premieres from the U.K.: Martin Wallace’s debut feature “Small Creatures” and Zam Salim’s “Up There.” Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” Jarmusch’s “Permanent Vacation” and Wenders’ “Summer in the City” screen as part of a Journey Through Time, a look back at films that have unspooled at the fest over the past six decades.

Among Mannheim’s honorees is producer Karl Baumgartner, who will be feted with the Film Culture Award for his contribution to world cinema. One of Germany’s leading international co-producers since the early 1990s, Baumgartner has helped such recent pics as Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre,” Eran Kolirin’s “The Exchange,” Aktan Arym Kubat’s “The Light Thief” and Haile Gerima’s “Teza.”

The fest is also honoring director Andreas Dresen with the Master of Cinema Award and a screening of his 2009 comedy-drama “Whisky With Vodka,” 1992 drama “Stilles Land” and his 1990 short “Zug in die Ferne,” which won three prizes when it screened in Mannheim the first time around.

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