German Cinema Part 2: Modern movies

In our last article, we had a close look at the history of German movie-making, with all its ups and downs and its historical landmarks. Now is the time to value contemporary German filmmaking. Much like pop music, cinema has seen a revival in the country over the last two decades, with a constant flow of quite successful movies that pushed the market share of domestic movies to nearly 30 per cent. An impressive result, given the power and funding of Hollywood productions flooding the market year after year.

In 2020, this share raised even further to 35 per cent – which is, of course, not really representative in the middle of a pandemic. Only 38.1 million visitors were counted in 2020, as compared to 118.6 million in 2019, and the turnover reduced by 700 million Euro to a mere 318 million. Big American studios that launched their movies online were able to maintain more of their income, but altogether the pandemic was a bad time for filmmaking.

The struggle is real for European countries and their production companies. The main challenge is language – movies made in the US or Britain can fall back on a global audience of nearly 1.3 billion, even if only a fraction of these speak English as their native language. Making money is easier, not just for successful blockbusters.

All European countries – and that includes English-speaking Britain – offer massive state funding to their film industry. France spends a whooping 800 million Euro per year on this venture, the UK invests close to 270 million, Germany still puts 200 million out in the market. And that’s not all: Interest free loans, additional EU funding and private investors add to the mix.

From Germany to the world: International success

Only few German movies make it successfully to the international stage – among them legendary masterpieces like Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot”, the tale of a submarine crew in World War 2, the famous movie “Downfall”, telling the last days of Adolf Hitler hidden away in his bunker, or “The Life of Others”, taking a deep look into the reality of the East German republic during Cold War times.

A common denominator is often the recent German history, which is understandable, but does not fairly represent the depth of storytelling in modern Germany nor the quality of German film production. A high level of craftmanship, ranging from editing to colouring and the quality of actors, is matched by a variety of narratives and creative ideas which only rarely reaches the international markets.

Movie aficionados who want to know more can set their views on film festivals to find out more. German cinema is well represented in Cannes, of course at the Vienna film festival and at the famous Berlinale, the most prestigious festival in Germany, held every February in Berlin.

Many movies that are celebrated at these festivals also make it into the mainstream. Many of them do not cover the stereotypical topics of history and war. The tragicomedy “Toni Erdmann” tells a father/daughter story and addresses questions of modern lifestyles. “All is Good” from 2018 is a merciless tale about surviving sexual assault. The drama “Herbert” from 2015 follows a former boxing champion who falls on hard times, working as a bouncer and debt collector, until a fatal disease forces him to stop and reflect on his life. A few years back in 2008, the “Baader Meinhof-Komplex” took a deep dive into terrorism and where it comes from, looking at the roots of the terror group “Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF)” that haunted Germany during the 1970s and beyond.

Comedy, romance, history and modern life

All this might sound as if German cinema is generally heavily obsessed with deep questions of life and filled with deep thoughts and essential topics. In reality, the most successful movie in Germany ever was a daft comedy called “Der Schuh des Manitu” – a film that split Germany right through the middle: Funny or just plain stupid? The jury is out on this question. The Western is a parody making fun of stereotypes introduced by famous German writer Karl May in the 19th century, and as such only interesting to a German audience that understand its clever references.

The most successful German movie of 2020 also was a comedy, although much less silly. “Nightlife” follows a bartender in Berlin who lives a happy, if superficial lifestyle but finally find the woman of his dreams. Now that might sound like the main plot, but it isn’t. Instead, the love story turns into a turbulent chase all through the capital when a friend asks for shelter. Half of Berlin’s underworld is trying to get a hold of him, and that is a serious threat: Gang crime in Berlin is a serious issue discussed a lot in press and media.

Comedy is one of the big drivers of German filmmaking. Even more so when it is coupled with romance. To get a glimpse what that means, there is no movie better suited than “KeinOhrHasen” (Rabbit without ears – but the title losing its pun in the English translation already doesn’t bode well for any translation). Actor and director Til Schweiger, who usually prefers to play action roles but was often booked for rather chavvy characters, changed his reputation with this cute movie about love in the big city. The sequel “ZweiOhrKüken” (which roughly translates to Chick with Two Ears) was similarly successful with the German audiences, and similarly unsuccessful with my girlfriend who really didn’t see the appeal of Schweiger at all.

One more example of German comedy gold? Try “Fack ju Göhte” (intentional misspelling of "Fuck you, Goethe") from 2013, in which a recently released criminal applies for the role of a janitor in a secondary school and by mistake ends up as a substitute teacher.

Leaving the realm of laughter and ridicule, director Fatih Akin needs mentioning. The Berlin-born film maker came into fame with his 2004 movie “Gegen die Wand” (Head-On) which won the “Golden Bear” at the Berlinale and the “Best Film Award” at the European Film Festival. His movies are reality-driven dramas, covering topics on the bleeding edge of society – like “In the fade” (Aus dem Nichts) in 2017, telling the story of a German woman who loses her Muslim husband and her son in a terrorist attacks and seeks revenge. The movie won, among other awards, the Golden Globes.

Where to find more…

Of course, as always, we can’t cover the whole realm of German movies or even mention anyone who would deserve to be mentioned. But there are good sources for further exploration. One of them is, surprisingly, Netflix. There are plenty of German movies on the platform, and the great news for language learners: They are not dubbed.

A great place to find out more is the Berlinale – the yearly Berlin Film Festival. Glamour, gossip and good movies come together in this event, and the “Golden Bear” might not be as prestigious as the US “Oscar”, but it has a huge advantage: It comes from Berlin. A little bit less glamourous are the German Movie Awards (Deutscher Filmpreis), but nevertheless it still features a golden statue. Resembling the Oscar, the German Lola is definitely more female, and only German made movies can receive the award.

Last not least… back to Manchester

In our last article, we mentioned academy award winning Hans Zimmer – the German musician and composer who dominated Hollywood soundtracks for decades. While researching this article, I came across this candelight special in the very heart of Manchester. Surely a special event for movie fans after months of lockdown.

Further reading: - The German Movie Awards - The Berlin Film Festival

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