Why German politics struggles to translate to screen | Film | DW | 19.09.2017
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Why German politics struggles to translate to screen

As the German election approaches, how are film and TV portraying the political times? Unlike in the US, where the political series "House of Cards" is a household name, Germany is slow to dramatize political life.

German cinema and television has intensively engaged in processing the nation's historical and social past for half a century. From the Nazi era to leftist terrorism or GDR history, countless films and TV series (from "Downfall" in 2004 to "Generation War" in 2013) have turned to these themes, especially during the new millennium.

Read more:
How a normal World War II soldier became a war criminal

But why are German producers and directors shying away from the latest political developments? It might be understandable that the distant past is more certain, is less clouded by the heated election debates of today. Unlike in America, where the powerful and influential big studios are not afraid to explore the political present, German filmmakers tend to remain on relatively safe ground.

Political dramas and jokes

"Das schaffen wir schon" (which translates as "We can do it all right," a reference to Angela Merkel's famous saying in reaction to her 2015 refugee policy) is a political comedy by director Andreas Arnstedt, which was released in cinemas on September 7, almost three weeks before the German federal election.

The film sees Chancellor Angela Merkel and Green Party leader Cem Özdemir taken hostage during a live election debate by a sacked cleaning lady – who is determined to vent her frustration about her job loss on the politicians. However, while Arnstedt's satire is a political grotesque, it is achieved with often tired jokes.

Still from the political satire Das schaffen wir schon (Filmverleih drei-freunde)

The political satire "Das schaffen wir schon" sees the Chancellor face the wrath of a sacked cleaner

Thirty-seven years ago, in 1980, this theme was approached more seriously by the four directors Volker Schlöndorff, Alexander Kluge, Stefan Aust and Alexander von Eschwege.

When the politician and then-minister-president of Bavaria, Franz-Josef Strauss, was nominated as the candidate for chancellor for the conservative CDU and CSU sister parties, the filmmakers decided to take part in the campaign with great commitment and strong opinions. Their film "The Candidate" had a successful theatrical run, contributing to broader political debate.

By contrast, imagine contemporary directors like Tom Tykwer, Fatih Akin and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck getting together in 2017 to make a political film about Martin Schulz or Angela Merkel? It's unthinkable – and probably also a sign of the changing times.

In the late 1970s there was an explosive political atmosphere: Red Army Faction terrorism was reaching its bloody climax; a German Nobel Prize laureate, Heinrich Böll, was denounced as a terror sympathizer. Writers, artists, but also film directors and journalists, saw it as their duty to take a political position and to implement it artistically

Read more: The legacy of the 1977 German Autumn of left-wing terror

The chancellor on the small screen

In recent years, German political intrigues have been dramatized almost exclusively on television.

In 2014, Veronica Ferres played Angela Merkel in "Staatsaffäre" (State Affair), a TV series in which the chancellor falls in love with the French president.

Film still from Die Eisläuferin | Iris Berben (picture-alliance/dpa/NDR/real film/S. Rabold)

In "Die Eisläuferin," Iris Berben plays a German chancellor who has lost her mind

Actress Iris Berben also gave her face to the German chancellor in "Die Eisläuferin" (The Ice Skater), a satire in which the chancellor loses her memory after a wooden sign falls on her head and, upon waking up, urgently demands that "The wall needs to go!"

While German TV makers have been willing to poke fun at their politicians, there has been recent attempts to imitate more earnest international political series such as the Danish hit "Borgen," and of course "House of Cards."  

The six-part miniseries "Die Stadt und die Macht" (The City and the Power) by Emmy-award winning director Friedemann Fromm, convinces with its verve, gripping dramaturgy and an original depiction of the theater behind the political scenes. More specifically, the series follows a lawyer who is a mayoral candidate for the German capital before becoming embroiled in the Berlin political swamp.

Emmy Nominierungen 2014 House of Cards (picture-alliance/dpa)

In the US, multi-Emmy winning "House of Cards" is a household name

Meanwhile, it might be a while before the reign of Chancellor Angela Merkel will be immortalized in a big film or TV project.

Three years ago, a major film based on Merkel was announced but did not materialize.

Nonetheless, the British director Stephen Frears, whose film on Queen Elizabeth, "The Queen," came to cinemas in 2006, once said in an interview that "Angela Merkel is also a good movie subject." Perhaps Frears is still thinking about it.


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