Munich rises out of Berlin’s shadow

Fest topper Andreas Stroehl focuses on quality

It’s never easy being a country’s No. 2 film festival, but Munich’s annual early summer event has managed to create a reputation quite apart from its big brother in Berlin.

That renown is one of quality and appreciation for the art of film. It parallels the reputation of the Bavarian capital itself as the most livable big city in Germany — a metropolis that has remained a mecca for German industryites even if Berlin has captured the headlines as a boomtown for creatives in the last two decades.

Now in its 27th year, the Munich event has stayed true to its roots as a gathering for an appreciative yet demanding audience. Fest director Andreas Stroehl, who came to the fest from the Goethe Institute’s film division in 2004, made some gentle tweaks to give the fest — largely backed by state funding — a new focus.

“I tried to make the festival a bit more compact but going in the same direction,” Stroehl tells Variety. “Rule No. 1 is to keep the emphasis on quality. We only want excellent films and wouldn’t take a film because we think it might be a commercial choice. I think we have to keep going that route.”

Munich boasts two unique aspects: First, many young directors who get their first break or taste of success at the Munich festival often go out of their way to come back for a dose of nostalgia later in their careers. Second, the often splendid weather that Munich enjoys at this time of year and the fest’s generally stress-free culture combine to facilitate an unusually open and relaxed atmosphere.

In Munich, ordinary moviegoers might have the chance to bump into and chat with directors or producers, buyers or sellers at any of the pubs or cafes lined up along the city’s so-called “movie mile.” And there is always a strong demand for tickets.

“Our program has films that are not made for commercial cinema, but most of our screenings are nevertheless sold out,” says Stroehl.

He also praises the linguistic proficiency of the fest’s auds: “I believe we’re the only big festival in German-speaking Europe that doesn’t need German subtitles,” he says. “Everything is either in English or with only-English subtitles.”

Stroehl wants Munich, which he says is held in high regard by industryites, to remain a festival with its focus on film as an art form — a strategy that will help preserve it during what he predicts will be an era that will see some fests disappear.

“There are far too many festivals out there, and I think there’s going to be a shakeout,” he says. “We’re going to remain a festival dedicated to the art of film and provide at the same time a gathering place for the industry. That’s where we are, and that’s where we want to stay. We won’t let anyone blind us with big-star names or let big international distributors try to influence us. We won’t compromise on our aim of screening the best films available.”

Munich was the undisputed center of the film industry in postwar West Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many of the creatives shifted to reunited Germany’s capital, but most of the important producers and distributors, such as Constantin Film, still sit in Munich.

“Munich is still an incredibly important film center in Germany,” says Stroehl. “That’s one of the reasons why there’s such a big interest in the festival from Italy, Scandinavia, France and across Europe — because they know they can do good business here.”