Leading German directors lauded the diversity of their country’s cinema during a wide-ranging debate on Monday at Berlin’s Soho House, staged by Variety and German Films. Six helmers — Emily Atef, Burhan Qurbani, David Wnendt, Lars Kraume, Anca Miruna Lazarescu and Valeska Grisebach — spoke at the event, which was linked to the “Face To Face With German Films” initiative.
One objective of “Face To Face” is to raise the profile of German cinema internationally, but defining German cinema is troublesome. Atef, who was born in Berlin to French and Iranian parents, and subsequently lived in Paris, L.A. and London, before returned to Berlin to study at the DFFB film school, questioned whether she could be defined as a German filmmaker.
“I don’t feel German, but I learned my craft here,” she said. Her films, including Berlinale competition title “3 Days in Quiberon,” have often been shot outside Germany. “I love shooting in different places, especially getting stories of different cultures coming together.”
She added: “I don’t really, totally understand German film identity. [My films and those of my colleagues] are so diverse, and that is Germany today.”
The success of Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” has challenged the commonly held notion that German comedies don’t travel. Atef said that the film was part of a wave of recent films, including Grisebach’s “Western” and Fatih Akin’s “In the Fade,” that have demonstrated that “German cinema is very diverse.” Atef added that it has opened up opportunities for German filmmakers.
Qurbani said that Germans had a sense of humor, but were “bad at expressing [it],” and that it may be connected to their feeling of “guilt.” “This strange guilt thing has something to do with our past, the Holocaust and what we caused, and [the sense that] it is somehow shameful to laugh because we are Germans,” he said.
Wnendt, who had global success with Hitler satire “Look Who’s Back,” said that “comedy and entertainment are still looked down on a little bit [in Germany] when it comes to film.” There was a strict divide between “serious” films and comedies, and there was a feeling that humor and discussion of serious topics should not be combined. “We are missing this middle ground where a film can be entertaining and political at the same time. That is something that has to do with our cultural view of what film is and what [it] can do,” he said.
Kraume, whose 1950s-set drama “The Silent Revolution” screens in Berlinale Special Gala, added: “Germans are bad at attacking our authorities. It is very deep in our society. We obey the authorities, and that’s not good for comedies.”
Qurbani, whose parents came from Afghanistan as political refugees, is next directing Berlin-set “Alexanderplatz,” whose main character is a refugee from Africa. Qurbani said that the refugee issue is one of the most important facing Europeans.
“How do we work with the refugees who are coming to our place because we took away their resources? How are we going to relate to these people who are knocking on our door right now?”
He said that the idea of what it means to be European has to be questioned. “Berlin is a place where we have to renegotiate Europe; we have to renegotiate the context; and we have to renegotiate our humanity, in a certain way, and if film can do anything then it is exactly this.”
This issue was close to his heart. “My parents are refugees from Afghanistan, and for me growing up in Germany was like growing up in paradise because most of my family members grew up in f—king war. So how can I, who was saved [from this], give something back? It is by using film as a kind of mutual empathy space – a space where I can communicate emotions and stories about things that are current, and take part in the dialogue that is happening right now,” he said. “If there is a German New Wave we are going through it is a political wave, because we have realized that we have to do something [meaningful] with our work otherwise we are just wasting tax money.”
But Qurbani drew a distinction between the capital city and the rest of Germany. “Berlin is not Germany. It is a magnet for all kinds of stories, and all kinds of people come here from almost everywhere in the world,” he said.
Among other topics discussed were the need for a quota to ensure female filmmakers received 50% of public film financing, and the numbing effect on courageous filmmaking when German broadcasters funded movies.
The discussion was moderated by Variety critic Jessica Kiang.