LONDON — On Saturday, German helmer Marc Rothemund delivered the Variety Militans Lecture at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht.
The lecture, which looks at “the position and viability of cinema in the present age,” is inspired by Dutch critic-writer Menno ter Braak’s 1926 essay “Cinema Militans.”
Variety has sponsored the event for past seven years. Previous speakers have included Marion Hansel, Istvan Szabo and Agnieszka Holland.
Rothemund, who is best known for Berlinale Silver Bear winner and Oscar nominee “Sophie Scholl — The Final Days,” was interviewed by Variety journalist Katja Hofmann.
The following is an edited transcript of that interview.
Katja Hofmann: Welcome to the Variety Militans Lecture and thank you all for coming.
Once again we will attempt to gaze into the crystal ball and try to see what the future of cinema holds in store for us.
In order to do so, I am very excited to introduce you to Marc Rothemund, director of “Sophie Scholl.”
He is a member of the new generation of German filmmakers who are behind the creative and commercial boom that German cinema is currently experiencing.
Just as a reminder: Germany has had four Oscar nominations in five years. One of them was for “Sophie Scholl.” Two out of those four nominations won the Oscar and the audience share of German films in Germany was 25% last year.
German films are winning awards left, right and center on the international festival circuit and it looks like the best is yet to come.
It seems, at least from the outside, like a massive boom and emergence of German cinema is going on.
To find out more about that, I would like to ask Marc to tell us more about himself and how he got started and what his approach to filmmaking is.
Marc Rothemund: My father was and is a director of TV movies and my parents split up very early on and the only chance to see my father was to spend time on the set when he was shooting.
So I grew up with these movies and I learned how great it could be to create a film working as part of a passionate team.
This is how I got in touch with the movies.
I never had the goal of becoming a director because I never think in such long terms.
I didn’t like school very much so I didn’t go to film school. I said I want go on location to learn about it, about conflicts, about how to come up with ideas to make a movies. So I started as a driver, then I was making coffee, thousands of litres, then I became a script girl — or I should say script boy, then location manager, unit manager, third assistant, second assistant director, first assistant. And as a first assistant it took me some years. First I started assisting on TV films, then features like “Farinelli,” German film “Rossini,” for people like Helmut Dietl, Bernd Eichinger… And then a director got ill and someone asked me if I felt confident enough to direct two TV serials. And I said OK, let’s try. So I started again as a director for TV serials, TV films and feature films.
So it took some time but I am very glad. And it is a lucky accident that I grew up in the seventies and eighties.
It is good that you say “From the outside it looks like…,” because I never forget that after the Second World War Germany was completely destroyed and the filmmakers emigrated, Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang, or they were murdered. So in 1945 there were no artists anymore and no film industry anymore. So in Germany we grew up with American movies.
I think we are the only country that is so used to dubbed movies. In Germany, Robert De Niro for 25 years has got the same German voice.
So we grew up with these movies and our chancellor Adenauer said: no experiments, so in the fifties and sixties there were, I would not say dumb movies but, very boring movies. They were not political… very nice movies. It was in the seventies that Werner Herzog and Fassbinder started their arthouse movies that were very successful abroad and won many awards but in Germany they were not very commercially successful.
But in this time they set up new film schools. In 1967, they started the first film school in Munich. Nowadays we have a lot of film schools. We have one in Hamburg, and in Cologne we have two. So it takes generations to replace the generation of artistic filmmakers that were killed by the Nazis.
I think there is a reason for all those Oscar nominations. My grandparents were Nazis. They didn’t talk about it to their children, and my father and my grandfather never talked about the war at all. Now the grandchildren generation in Germany are asking their parents about that time. And the grandparents and other survivors are still alive.
When we were making “Sophie Scholl” we met her sister and the son of the interrogation officer. So there are still eye witnesses and this grandchildren generation is very interested in their story.
Because our parents can’t tell us much about it either we really researched the documentation we found on Sophie Scholl and her interrogation.
Carolyn Link, who directed “Nowhere in Africa” and won the Oscar, said that for the American Academy it is an advantage if the film is about civil courage or the Nazi time. About people like in “Beyond Silence” (Jenseits der Stille), where the parents are deaf. I think you get a bit of an advantage because the Academy prefers films like that. It is an advantage in this that the grandchildren generation is coming to terms with the past.
Also, at the same time, there are the children of emigrants, like Fatih Akin. His parents moved to Germany in the sixties. They now also shoot movies like “Head On” or “On the Other Side,” which won best script in Cannes and is now the German film choice for the Oscars.
If you look at Germany, you see it takes two generations to rebuild a country, and an effort by the state to finance filmmakers and support films.
Katja Hofmann: You said Adenauer said: make nice films, films that have a common denominator, that don’t rock the boat in any sense. You have made comedies that were very politically incorrect. In “Harter Jungs” a teenage boy communicates with his dick. You have no difficulty with political incorrectness. Is that something that marks out the new German directors: that they are not so concerned with political correctness as were the directors of the seventies?
Marc Rothemund: I think so. My parents raised me in a very liberal way to make sure the mystique of the Nazis didn’t return. So my parents raised me as much as a left-wing democratic hippie as was possible. So I don’t even know what political correctness is, especially in a comedy. In Germany we now grow up with European and American movies. And in Germany you have courtroom dramas, biopics; a whole diversity of genres that come from Germany. When I go to the cinema, I love going to comedies to laugh and I love going to dramas to cry. Not that I am such a Buddhist but for me life is always laugh and cry, love and pain, light and shadow, a bit yin and yang. This is my life so I also try and make my movies that way. If I would only be allowed to shoot comedies, I would change profession immediately. Or if I could only do dramas, like “Sophie Scholl,” talking about death and so, I will also quit.
I always try to change the genres. If I make a commercial films, I try to make it as commercial as possible. I get a wide audience and as many people laugh, of course, you can put some emotion, some truth in it, but a commercial comedy should have a huge audience. And then I make “Sophie Scholl,” which was a more or less a low-budget movie and I also produced it with some people. We tried to collect not one big amount but small amounts of money. So there is not one boss who can tell us how to do the movie. So we were totally free and there were no high expectations to make money with it so it is a very idealistic movie. I can only encourage people to not be afraid to change genres because it belongs together anyway.
Katja Hofmann: That is an important element for independent filmmaking: to get as many sources of financing as possible to maintain creative independence.
Marc Rothemund: In Germany, there is a very interesting system. The federal states give money to film productions and the national fund do too. For “Sophie Scholl,” for example, Bavaria gave us money. And now they have set up a new fund, called Der Deutsche-Filmfund so and so and they put 180 million into this new fund. That is the reason so many American companies now shoot in, for example, Berlin, like Tom Cruise. They all come to Germany. Until two years ago, there was the silly German money. They gave money to prevent paying taxes, and some people are still sitting in prison and now they change the policy and now the Americans come to Germany. But it is a credit so if the movie makes money, they are the first to get money back.
Katja Hofmann: The subsidy system is very well padded in Germany. It seems to me there is no other country where it is as easy to make or finance a film as it is in Germany. Would you agree with that?
Marc Rothemund: Not really. I think the state feels the obligation to replace the filmmaking community that was destroyed. But I am very glad that this panel is called Cinema Militans. Because “militant” is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who won the Academy Award this year for “The Lives of Others.” He was writing the script for four or five years, while he was babysitting his two children while his wife was working as a lawyer. Even when they were on holiday, on the plane; he was writing the script. Then he tried to sell the script and nobody in Germany wanted to buy the script. By accident, he met the oldest agency lady in Germany, she is 90 years old. She was the only one who liked the script and she said: It is a fantastic script and if you take an actress from my agency I will help you finance this movie. She took it to the Bayerischer Rundfunk/Bavarian TV station and they liked it but all the film funds and subsidies didn’t like it. So this Bavarian TV station and this 90 year old agency lady, they gave 1.6 million euros. There were tough working conditions, 18 hour days, but they made it with passion. And after he completed the movie, exactly in the form he screened it at the Oscars, he showed it to all the distributors. The final cut, with the final music and everything. All the German distributors said it is not a good movie, it is television. There was not one German distributor who wanted it. So again they rejected it. So it was released by Buena Vista in Munich, an American distributor, and it was such a huge success that all the bosses of the distributors asked: who exactly was it that rejected it? This is a very good system. I know people who have had great difficulty financing their movie. I think if you are militant enough, you believe in your story. Okay, you have to be open to advice but if you fight for it you can do it.
Katja Hofmann: You have to keep fighting the boards and such?
Marc Rothemund: Yes, you have to keep doing that, because after “Sophie Scholl,” after all the photo calls and Oscar ceremonies, I gave the film fund my new script of the commercial comedy and they gave us not one Euro. Even though my last three movies had been a commercial success and now “Sophie Scholl.” So come on! And then I say: This is my new script, I believe in it, please give me some money. Maybe because the title is “Pornorama”… It’s about young people. In the sixties in Germany many cinemas were closing. Everybody feared the death of cinema. The only success were the sex education films. They were the lowest level of filmmaking. There is one shot of a guy, a bad actor – if he even is an actor – in a white costume and a naked woman next to him. And then he points and says: this is the left breast. So very stupid, but there was a naked woman. But the funny thing was that even the female minister of health won the award for achieving six million admissions. So the people were lining up and this kept the German cinemas alive, these really strange movies. So in our movie, these young guys think: if they have such a success with such a bad film, we can do it easily. Let’s do it fast! So they focus on the lowest level of filmmaking, which is what I like about it, where you only need someone to take their clothes off in front of the camera, you need sound and you need light. And they go through hell trying to make this movie. And once they have finished their movie it is too late. Already the hardcore films from Scandinavia have reached Germany. The only naked women you see in my movie are from footage from the seventies. If you read the script it maybe seems strange but if you see it you understand. Maybe that’s why they didn’t give us the money. At the end they gave us one third of the money we needed. And then we brought in a private investor, which is also a new thing in Germany, that you have private investors. The guy who helped us is now the producer and he is the boss of one of the most famous and successful supermarket chains in Germany. He gave us one million Euro and we made the movie. That is a interesting way to do it if you don’t get the fund stuff.
Katja Hofmann: Until recently German films were not seen as a business, only as a tax saving opportunity. What is interesting about “The Lives of Others” is that distributors are very careful as far as German films are concerned. For example, “Yella” by Christian Petzold won the Berlinale Award, great film, a lot of coverage, very positive reviews, but in the first week it only attracted 15,000 admissions. Which is nothing, that is tragic. There seems to be a lack of film culture in the German audience. How do you perceive this?
Marc Rothemund: If you say that there is a 25% share of German films in German cinemas last year, then there are two comedies that had 11 million admissions. If you take those out it is no longer 25% but only of 12%. It is a very difficult thing in Germany. Even if a film wins the Berlinale, people don’t go to films that maybe have a message or don’t make you laugh. The only way to make money with German films is with comedies or when you break a taboo. Like “Der Untergang” or now “Baader-Meinhof,” where you say: is it okay to show Hitler as a human being. Or to give him the main part of the movie. Of course, it is important to show him as a human being but so was Sophie Scholl. Both were babies and then what influenced them so that one became Hitler and the other became Sophie? But if you have “Yella” or the current films from Petzold or the Berliner Schule, they are all much more famous in France and abroad than in Germany. This has something to do with the development since the world war. The filmmakers of the future have to care about audiences and fight for the audience and not to give up. But if you have a comedy with 11 million admissions, it also brings in the money to make smaller movies.
Katja Hofmann: I don’t understand why there seems to be some hostility between the Berliner Schule and the rest. It seems to me there is a fear to make a film that finds an audience. As if you think about an audience a lot of people in Germany think you will lose your artistic credibility or integrity as a filmmaker. What do you think of that?
Marc Rothemund: It is a thin red line. If you want to do a very commercial movie, you will have to make compromises in the message. But these great directors of the Berliner Schule — two years ago they founded the German film academy — and they all refused to become a member for different reasons. They don’t want to be part of a huge group, they want to stay independent and they criticize how the German Academy votes for movies. Because everybody gets a box with DVDs at home and they sit watching with friends and then you vote. And they prefer a smaller jury like at a festival. Petzold quoted Heiner Muller: 10 Germans are more stupid than five Germans. If a thousand members vote, then smaller films will never have a chance. And I don’t know which side is better. It is a very interesting thing to think about.
Katja Hofmann: So is the old commercial versus art discussion still going on?
Marc Rothemund: Yes, they are afraid to lose their independence. They don’t want to make compromises. The budget of their films is not so high and they get so much feedback from the festivals and other countries. I think competition is always good for the business. These two sides is a good thing: to have the academy and to have independent films. There are very talented people and if they do some other movie maybe they will find their audience, even in Germany. But for all German filmmakers it is a nightmare to get Germans into the cinemas. They are not used to subtitles, and all the American or French films are almost lip-synched, so the German audience can’t tell where the movies come from. If it is an action film, it is probably an American film because they have the most money. You will never make a successful German action film. I would say don’t dub the movies, put subtitle on them!
Katja Hofmann: I have heard that in Germany it is the women who decide what films people go to see?
Marc Rothemund: Not my woman. We take turns.
Katja Hofmann: The problem with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is he moved to LA…
Marc Rothemund: Of course! After his experience. He was rejected for so many years. If I were to stand there with an Oscar, I would say: Fuck you all!
And he wants to keep final cut but he will have a problem getting final cut in the States. But, better not to get final cut in the States than not get final cut in Germany.
Katja Hofmann: But all these great film schools in Germany, they all build up the talent and then they all go to L.A. You have an agent in L.A. but instead of making a movie there you came back after “Sophie Scholl” and made a film in Germany. Why?
Marc Rothemund: First of all, it was the money. “Sophie Scholl” was a low-budget movie. I traveled with “Sophie Scholl” around the world for more than a year because I found out nobody knew anything about German resistance. That there were at least a few people who even gave their lives. I think it was not even known in Austria — maybe in Italy because they also had resistance fighters. But in the schools all over the world they teach only the Nazi business, but the few people who resisted were very important for rebuilding Germany. Winston Churchill said: these few people were the foundation on which to rebuild Germany and giving them their responsibility back. So after one year of explaining about Sophie Scholl and German Vergangenheitsbewaltigung (“coming to terms with the past”) and not getting paid, I was broke. And in Germany, there was a very good offer. The scripts I got from America were even worse than the German scripts. In America, as soon as I said we could improve the script here or there, then I was out of the game. Read the script, do it or not. If you come up with a good idea you see them look at each other and think: he is not the right guy. I think Florin writes himself, and other filmmakers who go to the States like Roland Emmerich. I think that is a better way to maybe do a film in the States. So I start to develop my own story for the States. But I don’t want to live there. I just want to make one film there as a experience.
L.A. is nice. It’s a warm country. But you are not allowed to smoke, you get no alcohol after 11 o’clock. And they are all so nice to you; the world champions of small talk. I thought I was on a planet of aliens. Everybody asks you: How are you doing? and then they turn away. If you tell them that it is not so good with you, they all avoid you. It is bad vibrations. Everybody feels great and has lots of great work. It drives me crazy.
Katja Hofmann: In general, are you optimistic about German films?
Marc Rothemund: Absolutely, because young filmmakers like Dennis Gansel and Fatih Akin have so much passion and know so many movies, not just the ones from the forties and fifties. They are so open-minded. They watch Asian movies and so much more. They have so much energy they will convince the audience to come back to German movies. But it could take some more decades.
If people in other countries keep saying: Germany is producing more and more good movies, then eventually German audiences will understand and watch German movies. So I am very confident.
Katja Hofmann: What is next for you?
Marc Rothemund: At the moment, I am producing a documentary. It doesn’t have a title yet. It is about a pilgrimage from Jerusalem to Tripoli. In Berlin, there is an Israeli peace organization and they had the idea and invited 11 different characters to do this 6,000 kilometer trip through four countries to plant an olive tree in Tripoli as a sign of peace. They travel in two trucks, an old German fire truck and another truck.
One is a firefighter from New York who worked on Ground Zero, a guy from Afghanistan, a young Ukrainian soldier who is fighting in Iraq, a Palestinian student, an Israeli woman who lost her whole family through a suicide bomb, an Israeli bomber pilot, a Vietnam veteran from the States and the former body double of Saddam Hussein’s son from Iraq.
He wrote a famous book about his job there. When they told him to hold a speech for the people to encourage them just before the war he said ‘no,’ so then they tortured him. He escaped to Austria where the Austrian secret service tortured him. Then he escaped to America and he was tortured by the CIA.
Then there is a Tibetan monk sent by the Dalai Lama.
They arrived at Jerusalem airport and they were very friendly so everyone was very optimistic. And after three days in the desert they look different, they behave different toward each other and they still have another 5,000 kilometers to go to Tripoli!
At the border there was a press conference and Shimon Perez wished them luck and said: The political situation is improving. But then they reach the Libyan border and the border patrol says the Israelis are not allowed to enter Libya.
Then there is a discussion in the group and then the border guy says in five minutes the whole group is under arrest and then they decide not to go to Tripoli but plant the olive tree at Mount Moses, back in Sinai.
Then, they go back to that and there they see the mountain, full of tourists, and everywhere dry sand around it. The tree looks worse than at the beginning of the trip and they put it in the sand. I doubt the tree survived. But they do it, they shake hands and leave as friends. The end of the film is this poor olive tree on the mountain full of tourists.
I was not there as I was still editing “Pornorama.” We hired a first-time director to go there to make sure he doesn’t give up. He didn’t give up but he was emotionally so involved in this thing he didn’t want to cut it down from five to two hours. But this is what I am helping him with now.
And at the same time, I am trying to develop a script for the United States about Rosa Parks, an American Sophie Scholl. It will be a great movie and I hope the Americans will see that too. The start is 1943 and a 30 year old black woman gets on the bus, pays for her ticket and at the next stop more and more white people come in and they tell her to leave the bus and she has to go home five miles through the rain.
Then it is 1955, again she comes from the office and goes to the bus and there are still separate seats for colored people. As more white people come in the driver moves the sign and says it is now a part for white people.
Rosa is now 43 and she sees it is the same bus driver and she gets up but just to take the seat at the window and she says: I’m staying here. I can’t take it any longer. The driver argues, a lot of arguments between the black people on the bus, between the white people on the bus. The driver calls the police. The people get off the bus, stand around, discuss, discuss. The police takes her out, and fingerprints her. There is a trial and she has to pay money.
And this brings about the so-called Montgomery bus boycott, which means all the colored people refuse to use this bus line. This results in the first mass demonstration with millions of people against these laws and then they got rid of these laws.
The end of the movie will be, after the footage of this demonstrations and quotations by Martin Luther King, about Rosa Parks. She died aged 95 years old in 2005 and the titles will be over the original footage of her funeral. Millions of people were there. In Washington, Clinton gives a speech and Bush is next to him. It is very emotional.
I told them in America: I only need one apartment, a bus station and a police department. We will make a low budget movie, very emotional. And I was very surprised how few people in the States know the story. I tried to convince them that it is a good story and that they let me shoot it there.
Katja Hofmann: How is the pitching in the States. Do you enjoy that process in Hollywood?
Marc Rothemund: I don’t like it, because there are very few people that are open-minded to European film directors like Paul Verhoeven. Everybody is so nice and nobody criticizes you. I am sure that as soon as you leave the room they say: Get him out!
I think you need a lot of passion and also a lot of energy to fight for your movie. That is why I think the title Variety Militant is very appropriate.