Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" opens in Berlin on Wednesday. German film and movie theater executives expect it to break Moore's own record for the most-shown documentary ever in the country.
George Bush reads "My Pet Goat" to school kids on Sept. 11
It has racked up more than $100 million in box office sales in the United States. It has broken records in Britain and France. And most expect Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" to fare the same in Germany when it premieres in Berlin this week.
A movie poster for Fahrenheit 9/11
"Germans likes the way he presents politics and his sense of humor, and people see his as the 'other voice of America,' a counterweight to US President George W. Bush, "said Andreas Fallscheer, managing director of Falcom Media Group, the company that is distributing the film in Germany. Falcom has distributed 220 prints for Wednesday's opening, the greatest number ever in Germany for a documentary film.
"We expect the film to have the same kind of success here that it has had in the US, France and England," he said.
The Moore phenomenon
Michael Moore has been setting off political bombs with his documentaries for two decades
In the past two years, Germans disenchanted with Bush and the current state of transatlantic relations have thronged to Moore's (photo) controversial body of work.
His first Bush diatribe, "Stupid White Men," sold nearly 1.1 million copies in German -- comprising an astonishing one-third of the book’s total global sales. And more than a million Germans turned out to see his Oscar-winning indictment against US gun laws, "Bowling for Columbine". During his most recent book tour, Germans gave him rock start treatment as he gave readings in standing room only concert halls.
"Moore's popularity in Germany is due to a combination of his anti-Bush position and the current problems in German-American relations," said Hans-Jürgen Schröder, professor of contemporary history at the University of Giessen.
"Bush doesn't have good standing here because many hold him responsible for straining the transatlantic alliance," Schröder said. "Germans aren't used to some elements of the American foreign policy of unilateralism. Though the military intervention in Afghanistan was accepted as a reaction to the events of Sept. 11, the Iraq war was seen here as a brutal adventure of American imperialism."
Schröder noted that Bush's popularity ratings in Germany have never risen above the 30 percent mark. Moore's attacks against Bush, Schröder explained, play into the deep-seated discomfort many Germans have for the American president.
In the eyes of many Germans, Schröder said, "the transatlantic relationship has deteriorated into a hopelessly one-sided institution. The White House expects everything and there is no bargaining." And most blame Bush for that atmosphere.
Against that backdrop, it's not surprising that the demand for "Fahrenheit 9/11" in Germany is outstripping the number of copies available to theaters.
In one Fahrenheit 9/11 scene, Moore tries to get members of the US Congress to sign their kids up to fight in the war in Iraq. In this still, Moore (left) is seen with Rep. John Tanner, a Tennessee Democrat.
"We could show this film in every one of our theaters," said Arne Schmidt, spokesman for the Hamburg-based Cinemaxx. "But we're only showing it in 20 to 25 theaters this week because of the lack of prints. The interest in this film is relatively large." The multiplex theater chain, with 34 theaters and 343 screens, is Germany's largest, according to the company. Cinemaxx expects well over a million viewers to see Fahrenheit.
True stories are the new addiction
In addition to Bush bashing, which has become a favorite national pastime here, "Fahrenheit" also arrives at a time when documentary films are enjoying growing popularity in Germany -- a trend that began with Wim Wender's "Buena Vista Social Club", a 1999 film that portrayed a group of legendary Cuban musicians who had fallen on hard times. Films that were once relegated to repertory cinemas and art house theaters are now the fodder of 3,000 seat megaplexes with stadium seating.
Four years old and 'lovin it." "Super Size Me" offered a critical view of the nutritional standards set by multinational fast food giant McDonalds.
"German audiences have discovered that 'true stories' can be both entertaining and educational," said Eva Matlock, executive manager of AG Kino, Germany's association of independent cinemas, explaining the explosive growth of documentary audiences here. Take for example Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me", a low-budget film that slyly makes mince-meat of fast food Goliath McDonalds and is currently the No. 7 film at the German Box Office.
Cinemaxx's Schmidt said that in times of economic malaise in Germany, moviegoers' tastes have changed. While demand for blockbuster entertainment flicks like "Spiderman II" or "Shrek II" is still huge, people are also looking for fare that tells them a little bit more about the world around them.
"People have been staying home because of the economic crisis," he said. "They haven't been going to restaurants and not very often to the movies. They're watching a lot of television and they're much more aware of what's going on around them. And this creates a new interest (in documentary films). They're starting to go back to the theater, but they've become addicted to a new kind of entertainment."
From the art house to the multiplex
Ironically, the newfound popularity of documentary films is making it harder for the independent cinemas --once the only outlets brave enough to take the financial risk of showing them -- to get copies.
"It's great that documentary films have become socially acceptable," explained Matlock, whose firm represents 304 member theaters with a total of 539 screens. But that also means that with a film like "Fahrenheit 9/11", multiplexes and other large city cinemas will often be given first dibs on prints. "It's becoming much harder for smaller theaters," she said.
The independents may get some relief next week. Falcon Media has said it will likely increase the number of "Fahrenheit 9/11" prints after the opening weekend, making it available on more screens.