German Directors the New Toast of Hollywood | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 15.10.2007
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German Directors the New Toast of Hollywood

With a spate of new Hollywood movies boasting German directors, Tinseltown's latest love affair is with talent from Germany. But does the westwards exodus of film professionals mean the home-grown industry loses out?

Mennan Yapo and Sandra Bullock arrive at the L.A. premiere of Premonition

Mennan Yapo, rubbing shoulders with Sandra Bullock in LA

Hitting German cinema screens in October are "Premonition" by Mennan Yapo, "Trade" by Marco Kreuzpaintner and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s "The Invasion," a remake of the 1955 classic "The Body Snatchers," starring Nicole Kidman. US-backed projects by Christian Alvart, Sandra Nettelbeck, Florian Baxmeyer and Joseph Rusnak are still in the pipeline -- and the list goes on.

Still basking in the afterglow of Florian von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others" Oscar triumph in February, Germany couldn't be prouder of its young directors suddenly swarming the dream factory.

Young, gifted and cheap

They certainly look like they've started running with the big guys. But they're succeeding by going native and mainstream -- what they're not doing is adding any quintessentially German artistic vision to the Hollywood mix.

Instead, they've learnt how to beat the Americans at their own game. Taking their cues from Germany's only long-standing Hollywood heavyweights, Roland Emmerich and Wolfgang Petersen, the new crop of directors is making solid commercial fare expertly pitched at the US market.

The appeal of German directors in Hollywood isn't any unique artistic agenda, says Andrea Dittgen from the Association of German Film Critics. It's purely practical.

"They're hired because they're cheaper than their American peers," she said. Crucially, this latest generation --- with the exception of Hirschbiegel -- is also very young, and can still be "steered."

"They're willing to work for less, because Hollywood is where they want to be. And these directors are very open-minded about giving the studios what they want," she said.

Hollywood getting its money's worth

A scene from Premonition

"Premonition" is a classic psycho-thriller

"Premonition," a supernatural thriller made by Mennan Yapo for Sony, is a case in point. The Turkish-German director was snapped up by the entertainment capital on the strength of just one feature-length movie in Germany, which was released in the US as "Soundless."

Hollywood knew what it was doing. Garnering Sandra Bullock the highest-grossing opening weekend of her career, "Premonition" ticks all the right Hollywood boxes.

"When the studios hire Germans they know they're going to get more out of the budget, " said Yapo. "They're punctual and they're basically good workers who are very well trained."

"German directors come highly skilled," said German producer and visual effects supervisor Volker Engel, who won an Oscar in 1997 for his work on "Independence Day."

The movie, which still ranks among the top 10 all-time box-office smashes, was one of the first to prove that German directors -- in this case, Roland Emmerich -- were adept at delivering classic American blockbusters with maximum efficiency.

"They're used to shooting fast, because German films are done with smaller budgets and have less shooting days than US productions," he adds.

But Mennan Yapo feels a bit of European flair shouldn't be underestimated.

"Hollywood also knows it's going to get some edge from German directors," he says. "It's basically an industry, and it's aware that now and then, it needs fresh blood. A couple of years ago the Mexicans came along and brought in some new flavor. Now it's the Germans' turn. Especially when they're doing genre films, they deliver a different point of view on Americana."

Taking the rough with the smooth

A UFO hovering over New York in the movie Independence Day

Emmerich can make disaster movies with the best of them

Even so, old-school "auteur" filmmakers are less likely to find themselves clasped to the Tinseltown bosom.

Like Yapo, Volker Engel is aware that Hollywood is always on the lookout for the new "it" people, but that an invitation to the party does come with strings attached.

"It can be difficult for a German director to do his first project here, because on the one hand they make you feel like the 'king', but on the other hand you're spending their money. So they will say: "Hey, 'king,' you can do whatever you want, but only as long as we're happy with it."

But this isn't necessarily a problem for German directors, who have a natural affinity for US-style movie-making.

"Germany is very America-friendly," said film critic Andrea Dittgen. "Most young directors grew up with US movies and they're heavily influenced by them."

Germany's part in the history of cinema

In fact, the affinity is mutual.

A scene from Capote

The producer of "Capote" was born in Düsseldorf

"There has been a long-standing tradition of German emigres working [in Hollywood], from the classical era to the present day," explained German producer Michael Ohoven, whose movie "Capote" was nominated as Best Motion Picture of the Year in 2005. He points out that Germans have been instrumental in defining the Hollywood cinema since its early days.

"The most skilled and influential directors from the golden age of Hollywood were German, including Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, and Douglas Sirk," he said. "The stylistic tendencies of American film noir, which produced some of Hollywood’s greatest titles of all time, are largely indebted to the German expressionist films of the 1920s."

"Perhaps because Germany has a popular cinema with a strong genre sensibility, Germans are uniquely suited to succeed within the Hollywood system," he added.

As Mennan Yapo observed, their sudden prominence in Hollywood after decades of absence is basically an organic progression.

"Let's not forget that after the Second World War, well up to the '70s, there were not many German directors anywhere at all, not even in Germany," he explains. "No one who emigrated to the US during the Nazi regime came back. The years from '33 to '45 emptied Germany artistically, so the country took a while to get back on track."

But then it began gaining new artistic self-confidence.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a very European director

"In the 1970s, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff came along," said Yapo. "Initially, they leaned more towards the French directors and the New Wave. But then Schlöndorff, for example, started making films in English, and they started leaning towards Hollywood. We began to see the fruits of all the film schools that had started up in the 60s and 70s."

The next step, however, was to strike out for American shores. And it still is.

"Film still isn't an industry here," says Yapo.

"At some point, German directors have to make a decision about where they're going to work," said Andrea Dittgen. "If they stay in Germany, most of them will end up working for television, which ultimately spoils them for Hollywood because they become unable to adapt. Whereas if they head to Hollywood they'll broaden their horizons, which is always a good thing. And they don't necessarily have to stay -- they can always come back and use what they've learned in Germany."

Volker Engel is similarly optimistic that Germany doesn't need to worry about a brain drain.

"I see a future for more German directors making movies both in Hollywood and in Germany, and moving back and forth between two very different worlds," he said.

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