Toronto: Does the ‘Berlin School’ of Filmmakers Really Exist?

One of the most keenly anticipated German films to world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival is Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix,” which plays in the Special Presentations section. Petzold, who won best director at Berlin with his last film “Barbara,” is closely associated with the “Berlin School” of filmmakers, but does it really exist?

Phoenix,” which was produced by Florian Koerner von Gustorf and Michael Weber, stars Nina Hoss as a woman who returns to Berlin from Auschwitz in 1945. She sets out to find her husband and discover whether he betrayed her. But there is a twist: due to a horrific injury, her face has undergone radical surgery, and he does not recognize her.

The “Berlin School” is a loosely defined group whose films center on personal relationships set within a clearly defined socio-political context. The characters’ world is portrayed with a light touch, and the story-telling style has been described as “reserved.”

Koerner says: “The idea of the Berlin School was to become personal and realistic without being pushy. (Petzold) always picks up the social and cultural background. In ‘The State I Am In’ it was the political background of (German terrorist group) the RAF, and in ‘Phoenix’ it is the Holocaust. But he is always telling the story in a very personal context. That is what the Berlin School really means: they always stick with the people, but the general story is also about the social background.”

Martin Moszkowicz, who is executive board chairman at Constantin Film and chairman of the supervisory board of German Films, which promotes Teutonic pics abroad, does not think there is a city-based approach to filmmaking in Germany.

He says: “I personally do not think that the ‘Berliner Schule’ really existed (and some that have been attributed to it would heavily object) – but I think that there is a rather prominent group of German middle-class filmmakers that have made a strong point having a bleak, non-emotional, non-dramatic approach to filmmaking.”

He adds: “All those movies are different and I would strongly object to classifying them in one group.”

But Kirsten Niehuus, the managing director of film funding at Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, believes it is possible to talk about a “Berlin School.”

“We can! But the Berliner Schule filmmakers never really did themselves. It is not a programmatic label as such. It emerged in the 90s in particular with discussions about the films of Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan, Angela Schanalec, or later Maren Ade, and it meant everything new and different from the romantic comedies that had dominated German filmmaking until then,” she says.

“In the meantime, we could say that the Berliner Schule has graduated. The films we are seeing today have become more accessible and are reaching out for more public. Jan-Ole Gerster with his black-and-white film ‘Oh Boy,’ for example, could be counted among the new generation of Berliner Schule filmmakers. Also, Ester Amrami with ‘Anderswo’ (Anywhere Else) or Pola Beck with ‘Am Himmel der Tag.’”

But Niehuus says Petzold is also distinct from other Berlin-based filmmakers. “He is a master in externalizing internal emotions, but less through a psychologizing process and more through an atmospheric closeness,” she says. “He has a very concentrated way of making what may seem impossible or invisible actually palpable on screen and always without being clichéd. His films are in fact thrillers, with enigmatic and surprising plots. Historically set or not, they always look completely modern. And all of them center around strong female characters.”

Moszkowicz says: “Christian Petzold has many abilities – a very thorough eye on situations and characters, a unique style and narrative pace.”

He adds: “He might be the most German of his generation — he definitely does not have any closeness to either humor, entertainment or a twinkle in the eye. His movies are serious stuff and meant to be like that.”

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