Germany’s Improvisational ‘Mumblecore’ Cinema Poised for Breakout

Low-budget cinema gains followers among mainstream producers

A dynamic improvisational film movement in Germany has in the past few years grown from a niche genre to a near-mainstream phenomenon — just don’t call it mumblecore.

While generally described as a German version of the now-dated U.S. indie movement, filmmakers and actors here prefer “improvisational film.” There are some similarities: Initially led by young filmmakers, many of them graduates from the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf near Berlin, it’s characterized by low-budget production values, relationship stories and an eschewal of script, but also by collaboration with actors trained in improvisation and an emphasis on humor.

After generating a great deal of critical acclaim domestically and on the festival circuit, it has begun to infiltrate the mainstream, both in film and television.
Directors that have defined the movement include Axel Ranisch (“Alky Alky”), brothers Jakob and Tom Lass (“Love Steaks,” “Kaptn Oskar”), Isabell Suba (“Men Show Movies & Women Their Breasts”), Aron Lehmann (“Kohlhaas or the Proportionality of Means”), Hanna Doose (“Dust on Our Hearts”) and Nico Sommer (“Silvi”).

Constantin Film, Germany’s leading production and distribution company, was quick to recognize the potential of the movement and filmmaker Jakob Lass. Constantin is co-producing his next film, “Tiger Girl,” about a rocky friendship between two very different women. Constantin chairman Martin Moszkowicz says improvisational film “absolutely” has mainstream potential. “It is what audiences in Germany are looking for: Innovative, energetic, surprising, original filmmaking with strong characters.”

In partnering with Lass and his team, Moszkowicz says Constantin “protected their unique approach to filmmaking” while combining “it with Constantin’s approach to marketing and distribution.”

Despite a bigger budget and higher production standards, Lass says he remained true to his work, but with the added advantage of being able to “combine improvisation with choreographed fight scenes, which sounds contradictory but was great fun.”

Heiko Pinkowski, an actor and producer who runs Berlin-based Sehr gute Filme with Ranisch, says there is “great openness for improv film among decision makers.” Ranisch helped establish the improv film movement with his first feature, the gay relationship drama “Heavy Girls,” starring Pinkowski and Peter Trabner, which the director made for a mere €500 ($561) in 2011 and which went on to win a dozen international prizes. In addition to the three other features he has shot since, including last year’s “Alky, Alky,” a tale of addiction that also stars Pinkowski and Trabner, Ranisch is now bringing his improv style to pubcaster ARD’s weekly “Tatort” crime drama movie series.

Pinkowski says the filmmaking style offers a kind of authenticity not found in any other type of movie.

“In improvisation, the first take is sacred because it’s the first time everybody reacts to one another in a real way — no one knows what the other is going to say, and that creates an authenticity that we’re looking for. That’s why we never rehearse beforehand. Working on improv films, I have the feeling that I’m a filmmaker. As an actor I’m also shaping the film, and that is very rewarding.”

The passion among Germany’s improv film players is tangible, as is their common dislike of the “mumblecore” term. “Neither I nor the filmmakers that I know were influenced by the U.S. movement,” says Lass. “As far as I’m concerned it could have been called Berlin Flow or the New German Hope.”

Pictured: “Alky Alky,” from director Axel Ranisch

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