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Roland Emmerich from apocalypse to gay rights drama

Philipp Jedicke / kbm
September 25, 2015

From the "Independence Day" to "White House Down," Roland Emmerich is known for patriotic epics. But can he draw movie-goers with "Stonewall," his new drama about the gay movement in the 60s? Here are his hits and flops.

Roland Emmerich, Copyright: "picture-alliance/dpa/E. Laurent
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/E. Laurent

Roland Emmerich began his career at a time in the late 70s when German mainstream cinema was madly trying to mimic Hollywood. It wasn't great German filmmakers like Werner Herzog or Rainer Werner Fassbinder who impacted Emmerich the most: it was "Star Wars."

George Lucas' sci-fi epic fascinated him so much, that he switched his studies from set building to directing. His graduation film project "The Noah's Ark Principle" was record-breaking. With a budget of one million D-Mark, it was the most expensive German film ever made by a student and earned him his image as a director who likes to think big.

In "the Noah's Ark Principle," young actor Richy Müller plays one of the two leads in the movie that was shot in an abandoned washing machine factory in the small southern German village of Sindelfingen.

Emmerich chided for copying Spielberg

Over the next few years, Emmerich made "Making Contact," "Ghost Chase" and "Moon 44," which were all closely based on Hollywood models - walking a fine line between homage and plagiarism. In Germany, film critics jeeringly referred to him as "Spielbergle from Sindelfingen" - adding le in the southern German dialect can be cute and endearing, or in this case belittling.

Emmerich, however, wasn't deterred. And neither was Hollywood. He caught the eye of the big league and moved to California in 1990, where he made his debut with "Universal Soldier."

The action flick starring Jean-Claude van Damme was a box office hit. Emmerich had realized his dream of a US career. He followed up his success shortly thereafter with "Stargate," co-authored by Dean Devlin and starring Kurt Russell. The story was inspired by ancient Egypt - a theme that had fascinated Emmerich since his youth and that turns up again and again in his work.

By the mid-1990s, Emmerich had reached the zenith of his success. His action hit "Independence Day" featuring big shots Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman pulled out all the stops. In the first week after its release, it raked in $110 million at the box office, surpassing the record previously set by Steven Spielberg with "Jurassic Park."

Emmerich not as 'patriotic' as it seems

Many view the film, in which the US president saves the world, as a patriotic work. But Emmerich has repeatedly rejected this interpretation and in a 2010 interview with the "Süddeutsche Zeitung," he clearly expressed his discontent with George Bush's presidency. He even said he was considering leaving the US, should Bush be re-elected instead of Barack Obama.

International film critics admitted that "Independence Day" had achieved technical perfection, but his screenplays were largely deemed naive and even illogical. But with his dark climate thriller "The Day After Tomorrow" (2004), in which he developed a new and emancipated use of images, Emmerich regained the respect of his critics.

With films like "The Patriot," "10,000 BC" and "Anonymous," Emmerich proved over the years that he was also capable of telling stories that have nothing to do with catastrophes or apocalypses.

'Stonewall' premieres in Toronto

Since the turn of the millennium, Emmerich has been enjoying success while freeing himself from classical genres. Nevertheless, one of his biggest flops - "White House Down," starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx - came in 2013 and cast production giant Sony Pictures Entertainment into a financial crisis.

After the disappointment with "White House Down," Emmerich has entered new territory with his upcoming contribution, "Stonewall." It deals with a violent conflict between homosexuals and the New York police in 1969. The Stonewall Riots, which took place at the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay meeting place, went down in history and are remembered each year with Gay Pride events in various cities around the world.

Initial critics of the film haven't been kind, however, complaining that "Stonewall" features too few transsexual and African-American characters. But a bit of criticism certainly can't shake a filmmaker as established as Emmerich.

The film is released in the US on September 25, 2015.

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