German cinema moves beyond Nazis and the Cold War to reinvent its image abroad | Film | DW | 30.06.2016
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German cinema moves beyond Nazis and the Cold War to reinvent its image abroad

With rave reviews for "Toni Erdmann" in Cannes and a wide selection of German films at the Munich Film Festival, DW explores the question: How is it going for German cinema around the world?

Toni Erdmann Film, Copyright: Komplizen Film

Opening doors for German cinema: "Toni Erdmann" by Maren Ade

Even without winning the Palme d'Or in Cannes last May, Maren Ade's competing film, "Toni Erdmann," came as a revelation for international critics.

This German film was telling a serious story - but in a really funny way, and in a perfectly balanced form. It toppled the preconceived notion that Germans can't do comedies.

Filmfest Munich 2016 Festival, Copyright: Filmfest München/Christian Rudnik

German films get the red carpet treatment in Munich

Germans can be funny

At the Munich Film Festival, which runs through July 2, the section New German Cinema features 19 world premieres. "Toni Erdmann" opened that section, as well as the whole film festival.

"German cinema has been struggling with a wall of international indifference, and now it is finally coming down. 'Toni Erdmann' is a very important milestone, but it's not the only one," says Christoph Gröner, director of the New German Cinema program at the Munich Film Festival.

If Gröner sees "Toni Erdmann" as an eye-opener, he's also convinced this trend started some years ago.

He mentions, for example, "Oh Boy," from 2012: "This movie made clear that serious, deep subjects could be approached in German films, all while working with humor and irony."

Still from film Oh Boy. Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/X-Verleih

"Oh Boy" (2012) marked a shift in Germany's cinema

Understated reputation

"I feel Germany doesn't have an eye for the success of its films abroad," says Mariette Rissenbeek, director of German Films. Through her marketing agency, she's been promoting German films in international festivals for many years. "For example, Germany was more present than ever last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, the most important film festival in North America - with nine German premieres."

Beyond festivals, other German films have recently had an exceptional international career abroad, too. "Christian Petzold's film 'Phoenix' raked in over $3 million at the US box office, making it the most successful art-house release of the year in the US," Rissenbeek points out.

Along with Gröner and Rissenbeek, many cinema experts have been observing this phenomenon: German cinema is better than its reputation - especially abroad. Yet this fact is often neglected in Germany. Why?

For one, it could be attributed to the influence of the world's most important film festival. Cannes has been disregarding German cinema for years. As that festival outshines everything else, it has harmed the reputation of German cinema. In such a context, the phenomenal success of the film "Toni Erdmann" was crucial.

Overshadowed by Austria?

Christoph Gröner has developed another surprising theory to explain Germany's weak reputation. "Over the years, Austrian cinema may have established its reputation as the better German-language cinema: With the country's smaller output, it might have been easier to create a distinct image," he says.

In contrast, Germany, with its some 250 productions per year, can hardly be "reduced to one common denominator," explains Gröner.

Still from film Fack Ju Göhte 2, Copyright: Constantin Film Verleih GmbH/C. Assmann

Egyptians found the film "Fack Ju Göhte" hilarious

Christiane Schulte, film consultant for the Goethe-Institut, can confirm that interest for German cinema is growing worldwide. Genres with the most success vary according to regional interests: "In Asia, for example, the classics and silent films with live music are a hit," she says.

The latest movies attract crowds as well. One of her colleagues told her that extra screenings of "Fack ju Göthe" were scheduled in Alexandria, Egypt, as the first presentations were all full. "The viewers were rolling on the floor laughing," she says. People abroad have already realized that Germans do have a sense of humor.

Not only Hitler and the Berlin Wall

Serious films also work well. According to Schulte, last year's five most popular films in the Goethe-Institut's program were completely different ones: "We Are Young. We Are Strong," a drama on the xenophobic riots that happened in Rostock in 1992; "Age of Cannibals," a parody on corruption in the business world; "Who Am I," a thriller on Berlin computer hackers; "Inbetween Worlds," a film set in Afghanistan's war, and "Victoria," a single-shot Berlin nightlife thriller.

These examples demonstrate that international success is not restricted to films based on Germany's tumultuous past - another widespread preconception. "The films that manage to tell a good and relevant story in a light way are obviously predestined to find a wide audience abroad and to earn positive reviews," says Rissenbeek.

Still from film Wild by Nicolette Krebitz, Copyright: NFP/Christian Hüller

"Wild" grabbed Sundance's attention

"Toni Erdmann" is currently a great example of how a film can balance between drama and comedy and combine criticism of globalization with a personal story.

"What has now started to work well is driven by a wild impulse for 'pure cinema,'" says Christoph Gröner. The festival programmer mentions other films that fall into this category: "Wild" by Nicolette Krebitz, recently furiously acclaimed at the Sundance Festival in the US, as well as Maria Schrader's "Farewell to Europe," on the famous writer Stefan Zweig.

Gröner believes that festival goers, journalists and distributors are interested in finding out "what makes Germans tick." The country's zeitgeist is definitely well represented by the 19 films shown in the New German Cinema section at the Munich Film Festival.

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