Studying film in Germany is no guarantee for long-term success in the industry. DW talked to three up-and-coming directors about their experiences at school and on the set.
In Germany you can study film at one of seven film academies and walk away with a degree. But long-term success and a viable career are not guaranteed.
Is it even possible to "learn" film? And is a film academy the right place to try? There are as yet no definitive answers to these questions. The list of legendary directors who never actually studied film is long. Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Tom Tykwer are two prominent examples. Fassbinder was rejected from the film school in Munich. Tykwer's school was the cinema where he worked for many years as a projectionist and Berlin's Moviemento movie theater where he was manager.
Fassbinder became one of the leading filmmakers of the New German Cinema movement. Today, Tom Tykwer works with Hollywood stars on multi-million dollar films.
On the other hand, a number of successful careers have been built on film degrees. Roland Emmerich studied at the University of Television and Film in Munich and is now one of the most commercially successful filmmakers in the world. Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck ("The Lives of Others") also studied in Munich. Names like Wim Wenders and Doris Dörrie are also examples of great careers in the industry following a film degree. The list goes on.
But what is the outlook for the current generation? DW talked to three young directors about their prospects for the future. Jessica Krummacher studied at the University of Television and Film in Munich, Jan Zabeil was a student at the Konrad-Wolf Universtiy for Film in Potsdam-Babelsberg and Christian Schwochow successfully completed his degree in film at the Film Academy Baden-Württemberg in Ludwigsburg.
Space to experiment
"Studying at the film academy was definitely the right way for me to begin," explained 34-year-old Schwochow. There he discovered a sheltered space, at least during the first two years of his degree. In those early stages many people don't think much about what comes after their degree: "It all felt relatively free back then."
Schwochow completed his studies in Ludwigsburg four years ago. His first long film, "November Child," was screened at festivals and won numerous awards. His new film, the intense, star-studded drama "The Invisibles" was shown at many festivals before its box-office release in cinemas across Germany in January. Schwochow is currently working on the cut for a major two-part television drama, "The Tower," based on the bestselling novel by Uwe Tellkamp.
Christian Schwochow is a poster child for film academies and institutions. "It was a kind of laboratory situation," remembered the director. "I could find out what really interested me and what really didn't." Above all, Schwochow learned how to work as part of a team and was able to build a network from which his later work could profit.
Apart from Ludwigsburg, there are six other film schools in Germany where students can learn directing, camera and production techniques. Graduates from the Talentschmiede in Baden-Württemberg have been particularly successful over the last few years, with some even earning Oscars for their work. Alongside the Hamburg Media School, the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne and the International Film School, also in Cologne, the Talentschmiede belongs to the younger generation of film academies in Germany. The University for Film in Munich and the Germany Academy of Film and Television in Berlin have been offering degrees in film directing since the mid-1960s.
In East Germany the Konrad Wolf Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg was and continues to be the first port of call for enthusiastic students of film. That's where Jan Zabeil studied. Born in 1981, his career has taken unusual turns since graduating. After completing his degree in camerawork, he achieved fame with his directorial debut, "The River Used to Be a Man." It tells the story of a young German man who loses his footing and orientation while traveling in Africa. It is a calm, meditative film that draws the audience into the story with fascinating imagery. In 2011, it won the coveted New Directors Awards in San Sebastian.
Practice beats theory
What does Zabeil view to be the biggest advantage of a film degree? "During my studies I had the possibility to gain lots of practical experience," said the Berlin-born camera man turned director. "I gained confidence not from learning the theory but through practice, the confidence to say, 'I'm going to go out now and make something.'" Zabeil filmed his movie on location in Africa, joined only by actor Alexander Fehling and two technical assistants. The process was quite an adventure, but paid off in the end: The film has won critical acclaim at festivals in Germany and abroad.
Jessica Krummacher's degree at the University of Television and Film in Munich did not follow a straight course either. Krummacher completed her degree in the field of television journalism and documentary filmmaking but then decided to make a feature film. "Totem" was the only German film to appear at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. Krummacher feels tied documentaries, but has high hopes for other genres: "I definitely want to make feature films and earn my living that way - hopefully without having to work too many jobs on the side."
"Totem" is a bleak study of a young girl employed as a house maid by a family who physically and psychologically exploit her. In the end, the girl commits suicide. Not the sort of material that box-office hits are made of - but Krummacher stands by her choice of subject matter and wants to continue in this direction. In the mid-term, she sees her career consisting of two major elements: complementing her own films with addition TV work. Her main aim is to become an established film director without the need to work extra jobs just to get by. She's currently in the process of applying for funding for her second film.
Schowchow, Zabeil, Krummacher have had successful directorial debuts, won awards and had their films shown at festivals around the globe. But despite the accolades, Zabeil's film has yet to find a distributor. Krummacher's debut will be released in cinemas in the middle of April. Christian Schwochow seems to have leaped over most of the industry's hurdles already. The three learned the nuts and bolts during their studies, but none was offered a guarantee - a fact they are well aware of.
Support without guarantee
With a lot of enthusiasm and the strong nerves of youth, students of film are able to survive the first few years following graduation. But a look at earlier graduates of film academies in Germany shows an uneven picture. Many of the talented graduates who were once earmarked for success find themselves directing crime stories for daytime television or similarly shallow commercial fare in order to make ends meet. These are not necessarily bad jobs, but a long way off from what many had dreamed of.
Jan Zabeil still knows that his degree provided him with the greatest opportunity of his life: "In which other country in the world does one receive financing to make films? With this type of support?"
Author: Jochen Kürten / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen