BERLIN — Germans can be touchy about their history. Weaned on 60 years of guilt and shame for the Nazi crimes of their grandparents’ during WWII, Germans often equate history with pain, and filmmakers understandably made wide detours around the collective trauma.
But that era of guilt has finally ended with a run of historical TV melodramas drawing sensational ratings, plus recent theatrical hits including 2004’s Adolf Hitler drama “Downfall” and 2005’s “Sophie Scholl” — both Germany’s Oscar entries for foreign language film.
Once too sensitive for anything other than dry documentaries, Germany’s turbulent history is turning out to be a Teuton treasure trove.
ZDF’s two-part TV drama “Dresden” set against the 1945 firebombing of the city is the most expensive TV film ever made in Germany, at E11 million ($13 million). A theatrical version presold to eight territories at the European Film Market during the Berlin Film Festival before its March 5-6 screening at home.
“There is a new generation in Germany less burdened by their history,” says Beta Film/EOS topper Jan Mojto, who co-produced “Dresden” and other historical melodramas. “They didn’t have anything to do with the war. They’re curious to find out more about their past.”
Together with TeamWorx’s Nico Hofmann, Mojto also produced “Sturmflut,” which averaged 11.6 million viewers for commercial channel RTL and a thumping 39% rating in the 14-49 age group in February. Pic, a fictional love story set against a real flood that killed 315 in Hamburg in 1962, was sold to 40 territories.
“Stauffenberg,” a drama about a 1944 plot to kill Hitler, got a 26% market share for pubcaster ARD.
Now working on an even bigger drama for ARD, “Flucht und Vertreibung” (March of Millions) about the wartime expulsions of millions of Germans from what became Poland, Mojto also was a partner in helmer Bernd Eichinger’s path-breaking “Downfall.”
Pic sold in 150 territories and had worldwide admissions of 12 million.
The former Kirch exec, who has a long working relationship with producer Hofmann, says there is tremendous demand around the world for high-quality German-made films about the nation’s turbulent 20th-century history.
“Germans endured all the misfortune of the last century. First the Nazis, then the Communists. Two dictators and a divided country. Who could ask for more settings for drama?” Mojto says. “There are stories here that interest the whole world.”
Mojto, whose Slovakian roots are unmistakable in his accented German, is one of the fathers of the move into German historical dramas.
He pushed through TeamWorx’ s first foray “The Tunnel” in 1999 at web Sat-1, despite hefty resistance from board members who argued that viewers had zero interest in films about German history. The drama about a tunnel built under the Berlin Wall between East and West Germany drew seven million viewers. It later sold to 80 territories and was released theatrically in 20.
“I wasn’t afraid of the material,” Mojto says of the then-bold move. “Maybe as a foreigner I was a bit less inhibited. My sense was the time was ripe for this, that Germans were ready and had enough distance to take another look at their history.”
Before the recent surge in interest, there was the occasional made-in-Germany film about the Nazi era, such as Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 submarine epic “Das Boot,” a TV skein that morphed into a theatrical production. Artur Brauner, a German Jewish producer who survived the Holocaust, spent decades trying to find backers for a film on Oskar Schindler before Steven Spielberg stole his thunder in 1993 with “Schindler’s List.”
Hans-Christian Schmid, whose psychodrama “Requiem” just won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, says he hopes for a richer harvest of Germany’s past in the future
“We have to stop the Americans stealing our best stories,” he told Der Spiegel magazine recently. “We’ve always had a problem in Germany grasping the really explosive stories that happened here, even though we have so many great tales to tell.”
Some German critics scoff that the historical dramas follow the same formula: a beautiful woman trapped in difficult times is forced to choose between two men. Hofmann’s two-parter “Die Luftbruecke” (Airlift), which had a 30% market share for Sat-1 in November, was about a German war widow being romanced by an American general in West Berlin — until her German soldier husband unexpectedly returned.
But others say success breeds imitators.
“These new films looking back at Germany’s past are working, and if you have winners, others will follow,” says Juergen Schau, topper at Film Entertainment. “They have an American-style drive to them, with action and heroism. They’re richer films and not just about German guilt. They’re not focused on the ‘bad ugly Nazi’ thing, but looking at how individuals cope in stressful situations. It’s also important for international markets. Everyone’s seeing they can make money with this outside Germany. It’s a big new trend and I think this is just the beginning.”