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A scene from "The Hobbit"
Image: Warner Bros./AP

The Hobbit and co.

Bernd Sobolla / hw
December 13, 2012

The silver screen adaptation of JRR Tolkien's "The Hobbit" will have fantasy fans flocking to movie theaters across Germany. The fantasy genre is booming in the country, both in film and literature.


We might think of movies like "Batman" as superhero films. But the masked comic book character and his superhero buddies all incorporate elements of fantasy tales as well. The story told exists solely in the imaginary realm and is unimaginable in the real world.

"Avatar," "Lord of the Rings," "Star Wars," "Harry Potter," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Batman" are just a handful of the most successful fantasy films of all time.

Between good and evil

For purists, the fantasy genre is restricted to ancient and medieval worlds in which magic and sorcery, dragons, goblins and elves rein. Such fantasy worlds are always divided between the forces of good and evil.

Film expert and fantasy genre specialist Rolf Giesen believes this type of classification is inadequate. "Eighty percent of all science fiction films are nothing more than fantasy films in historical garb. A term like 'science fantasy' fits films like 'Star Wars' much better," he told DW.

Like fantasy literature - authors like ETA Hoffmann, Ludwig Tieck and William Hauff come to mind -, fantasy films have a long tradition in Germany. In cinema, directors like Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau ("Nosferatu" and "Faust") and Fritz Lang ("Die Nibelungen," "Metropolis" and "Destiny") produced groundbreaking fantasy works which are now regarded as milestones of the genre.

Film poster for Fritz Lang's
Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927) was groundbreaking in the history of the fantasy genreImage: Belville-Verlag

The world-famous films produced in the Weimar Republic (1918-1933), like those by Lang and Murnau, were born out the darker elements of modern history, created as they were in the shadow of the First World War and against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism.

Nazi makeover

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the aesthetics of fantasy films began to change. Instead of producing dark fantasy worlds, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his team of filmmakers prized pure entertainment and a cast of victorious heroes.

Even the fairytale world was given a makeover: Fairytales became less gruesome and more "family-friendly."

After 1945, the fantasy film genre had a particularly hard time in Germany. Even though attempts were made to recover the Weimar filmmaking tradition, it proved to be nearly impossible in the shadow of Auschwitz.

For a long time, the fantasy genre was reduced to fairytale adaptations in both East and West Germany. There was a proliferation of seemingly innocuous tales such as "The Story of Little Muck," "The Golden Goose," "The Valiant Little Tailor" and "Robber Hotzenplotz."

In 1970s West Germany, author Michael Ende made his breakthrough with novels like "Momo" and "The Neverending Story." The film industry was inspired and screen adaptations were made of both books.

Author Michael Ende
Michael Ende's novels "The Neverending Story" and "Momo" were both made into filmsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The Neverending Story" proved to be especially popular in Germany, where it sparked a renaissance in the fantasy genre. It told the story of a boy who, ostracized by his classmates, found solace in the imaginary world of books.

Two years later, "Momo" appeared in movie theaters telling the story of orphaned girl and her fight against evil "time thieves." It also centered on the classic fantasy conflict of rationality and reason versus imagination and love.

Then the genre of fantasy film went quiet in Germany.

It all costs money

The major problem in Germany is that it's almost impossible to cover the budget required to produce fantasy films with elaborate special effects.

A scene from
"We are the Night" tapped into the current trend for all things vampire-relatedImage: 20th Fox-Filmverleih

"It's a mistake for the German film board to finance 100 films every year. It would be better if they concentrated on just 20 films, from which at least half would then meet international standards," Rolf Giesen said.

More recently, an emerging generation of moviemakers has returned the dark roots of the fantasy genre.

Four years ago, director Marco Kreuzpaintner realized the fantastical folk saga "Krabat" based on the novel by Ottfried Preussler. The story of a young orphaned boy, Krabat, who learns black magic from an evil sorcerer and is subsequently caught in a 30-year war, was well received by audiences.

Two years ago, Dennis Gansel tapped into the current vampire trend with "We are the Night." Most recently, "Cloud Atlas" from German director Tom Tykwer is a truly bombastic fantasy film in which the destinies of six people are charted through five centuries.

Reality bites

Scene from
"Cloud Atlas" is a unique fantasy tale that spans five centuriesImage: X-Verleih AG

Rolf Giesen believes the current interest in fantasy films will continue to grow. "People tend to be drawn to dark material in times of crisis. We're living through the turning of an era; our society is radically changing," he said.

Giesen believes that the less secure people feel, the more attractive virtual worlds become: "Fantasy films are best at dramatizing uncertain times."

Following in the footsteps of "Lord of the Rings," the latest fantasy release, "The Hobbit," looks set to be a massive hit. It was filmed in 3-D with the aid of revolutionary technology allowing for even more realistic, graphic imagery.

Fantasy, it seems, is becoming ever more "real."

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