Booming film biz riles German critics

Tension between art and commerce is high

The German film business has seen plenty of recent hits, including “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” and “The Lives of Others.” The biz is having a renaissance, with better pics and a healthy 25% box office share for local fare.

But the tension between two schools of filmmaking — basically a battle of art vs. commerce — is reaching a fever pitch, and could potentially affect the kinds of films that get made.

After the German Film Awards, critics complained that prize money should be handed out by selective juries — possibly containing members of their own ranks — rather than by members of the Academy. The outcry has polarized the film biz, which is strongly dependent on local subsidy boards.

A new breed of filmmaker is embracing more commercial subjects. Helmers like Dani Levy (“My Fuhrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler”), Bully Herbig (“(T)Raumschiff Surprise”), Hermine Huntgeburth (“The White Massai”) and Marcus Rosenmueller (“Grave Decisions”) have their eye firmly on engaging the audience.

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But the local critics tend to either ignore or slaughter more aud-friendly pics, seeing any concession to the viewer as an artistic compromise.

The critics prefer what’s come to be called the Berlin School of filmmaking, which includes helmers such as Christian Petzold (“Yella”), Christoph Hochhausler (“Low Profile”) or Valeska Grisebach (“Longing”). Their pics are typified by a bleak starkness that keeps the audience at a safe distance.

In Germany, the tension between art and commerce is heightened, because many of the critics sit on subsidy boards, which determine what films get funding, or their reviews influence subsidy decisionmaking.

A change in the copyright law, which is producer- rather than auteur-driven, is just one of the reasons for the renewed success of more commercial titles. Growing film schools in Munich, Berlin, Cologne and Potsdam and new specialty distribs such as Neue Visionen or Jet Film also have helped pave the way for the renassiance of German film.

“A lot of producers feel like they don’t get enough support from the German critics,” says German indie producer Maria Koepf (“Good Bye, Lenin”). “Obviously, we’re not expecting blind support for any film that comes out of Germany, but what I would hope for is a certain openness among the critics for films that are ambitious but also try to hit a nerve with the audience.”

The German Film Awards bestow substantial prize monies, with prizes voted on by industry members. But critics would prefer the award winners be selected by a jury instead of members of the film industry, which they feel would ensure that the money goes to pics that meet their criteria for art.

The critics’ outcry became a tornado in a Teuton teacup, which Heiny Badewitz, topper of the prestigious Hof Fest, called “totally unnecessary. The Academy is an absolutely fair and democratic system. Ten years ago, everybody said German cinema was dead, and now we have this broad variety of films, which is wonderful.”

With Fatih Akin’s “The Edge of Heaven” in the Cannes competition, Jan Bonny’s “Counterparts” in Directors’ Fortnight, Chris Kraus’ “Four Minutes” winning the top gong at the Shanghai fest and Nina Hoss nabbing the Silver Bear in Berlin for her perf in “Yella,” Teuton films have a strong presence on the fest circuit.

Match Factory topper Michael Weber, who encountered “huge” interest from Cannes buyers in “The Edge of Heaven,” adds: “There’s no other country in Europe at the moment that produces such thematically and stylistically varied films. That’s probably the main reason why German filmmakers are at the center of attention.”

Diversity is what’s driving the re-birth of German cinema. For German film to flourish, one can only hope that the current adversity will make room for an all-inclusive plurality. Because, as the Danish example has shown, any kind of dogma is always short lived.