Sunday, 11 March 2012

German Film Now

If the German Competition entries at the recently concluded Berlin Film Festival are anything to go by, German Cinema is in a sorry state. OK, sorry may perhaps be too strong a word, but compared to other countries - European and otherwise - Germany has little cause for celebration. Certainly, if the seventh art was a reflection of a country's economic might, Germany would be much closer to its nemesis, Greece. Having had lunch recently with a friend, a Berlin-based film producer, though one who's involved in international co-productions only, she seconded my assumption. However, she also demurred that those in Germany's film scene who see it this way are few and far between. In other words, you ask any German (film maker), and he'll tell you that German film is alive and well. But if you ask anybody outside Germany, they're bound to tell you that the last time they saw a German film was probably when Fatih Akin's On The Other Side received rave reviews the world over, but especially in France.

Now why is that, I wonder? How come that in spite of the relatively high annual output of home-grown fare, only a mere handful of films - if that - are actually doing well on their home turf. Equally pitiful is the number of those that receive a foreign release, to say nothing of the fact that year by year goes by with the Cannes and the Venice Film Festivals snubbing Germany yet again, choosing not to include any German entry for their Competitions. Countries like the UK, the US, Italy, Turkey, and of course, France, regularly have films in the Competition of both Cannes and Venice without fail. Not so Germany.

The problem, in my opinion, is three-fold, really. On the one hand, there's a quality problem. Then there's a box-office problem. And lastly, there's the problem of delusion, for as I said above, few in Germany are aware of the sad state that country's film industry is in, preferring to be in denial over it. Yet all I can say is: Just look at the three German entries at this year's Berlin Film Festival and look at the French, British, and American entries at Cannes and Venice in recent years and the problem becomes very evident indeed. While film makers such as Ken Loach, Andrea Arnold, Steve McQueen, Terrence Malick, Michael Hazanavicius, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and so on are taking a critical look at the world around us or are reinventing the cinematic language, the three German films at the last Berlin Film Fest (Gnade, Barbara, Was bleibt), were little more than self-gratifying, parochial dramas at the expense of Germany's tax-payers, for needless to say - those films were entirely made with subsidies. I'm inclined to add that these subsidies would be put to better use if invested in Greece rather than in films no one's ever going to see because their topics are of little concern to anyone but their film makers. I have no idea how exactly that country's subsidy system works, but its seems to me it is either as corrupt as, it appears, quite a few of that country's politicians or else, the people who make the decisions over who does and who doesn't get any money for his latest masturbation exercise - excuse my French! - are hopelessly incompetent.

Needless to say, all three films received rave reviews in Germany (and admittedly some decent ones by foreign reviewers), and one well known German film critic whose name need not be mentioned, even went so far as to predict that all three German Competition entries surely would end up garnering all major awards at the Fest, a view which was shared by few others, I might add. In the end, only one major award went to a German film, an obligatory Silver Bear for Petzold's Barbara. Every year, one single Silver Bear is habitually awarded to a German film - usually it's the one for Best Actress - so as if the International Jury felt obligated to stroke that country's battered ego. The last time, however, a German film was awarded the Grand Prix - the Golden Bear - was in 2004 when Fatih Akin won for Head On, and that was about the last time a German director submitted a film that was both visually stunning and at the same time had something to say - and to do - with the world which surrounds us.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the last German film that made it into the Competition at Venice, Tom Tykwer's Three, in 2010. Tykwer's film went more or less unnoticed, hence I was not a little surprised when it received excellent write-ups upon its German opening. And it was this fact which finally prompted me to go and watch it for following the film's negative international reception upon its Venice premiere, in addition to the film's hopelessly dated topic, I had no intentions of watching it at first. But once I'd seen it, I was seriously asking myself what prompted Tykwer to shoot this film, a film which showed a Berlin with no immigrants and whose protagonist exclaims at one point, "Islam and all that may just as well disappear!", and where the fact that a man has an ex-marital affair with another man is made such a fuss over. Back to the 1950s, is all I thought. Why this film of all films received this kind of a critical accolade on its home turf - including a string of German Film Academy Awards nods - is anybody's guess.

Most probably, the recent output of German film makers is a reflection of what's going on inside that country. And looking at the way the Greek Tragedy is being discussed in the German media, the positive reception of Mr. Sarrazin's highly questionable and controversial book, not to mention the way in which Germany's outgoing president was being chased out of office in a witch-hunt the likes of which had not been seen since McCarthy was US Senator, I can't help but thinking that yes, that country may well be looking backwards instead of forwards. Back to the 1950s! Which again reminded me of a recent Tagesspiegel article by Zafer Senocak in which he decries just that, the way in which the Germany of today is a lot less open-minded and forward looking than the (West-) Germany of the 1980s.

If the films churned out by Germany's film makers in recent years are anything to go by, Mr. Senocak does have a very valid point indeed. However, the question is - why? And more importantly, why are so few - if any - in Germany see it that way?