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February 10, 2006 Print | Send this article | Feedback


The German New Wave

With the opening of the internationally renowned Berlin International Film Festival, increased attention is being cast on the re-emergence of German cinema. But does success justify hundreds of millions in industry subsidies?

Franka Potente stars in "Elementary Particles," a German film adaptation of a novel by French author Michel Houellebecq.
Franka Potente stars in "Elementary Particles," a German film adaptation of a novel by French author Michel Houellebecq.
The Berlin International Film Festival -- know to Germans as the Berlinale --  opened on Thursday with Hollywood stars Sigourney Weaver and George Clooney greeting crowds as they walked the red carpet. The event is always a major draw for famous actors from around the world. This year, however, much of the focus is on homegrown talent and the reenergized German film scene. After years of stagnancy, German film has staged a comeback, with Oscar-winning films and domestic box office blockbusters. Of the foreign films nominated for Oscars this year, three have some form of German involvement. "Sophie Scholl" is a German production, "Paradise Now" was German funded, and German actors Benno Fürmann and Daniel Brühl starred in the pan-European production "Merry Christmas" about a holiday gathering of French, German and British soldiers during World War I.

Unlike Hollywood, much of this success stems from the fact that, like France, the German government subsidizes and offers tax incentives to film producers. The aim has been to elevate Germany's film industry. Neighboring France, where 37 percent of all films viewed are domestic productions, has long been the envy of Germany, where homemade movies make up only 17.1 percent of the market.

One program -- the so-called Media and Film Funds -- gave major tax breaks to wealthy Germans who invested in film production. The money was intended to finance German films, but much of it flowed to Hollywood productions like "Lord of the Rings," "Terminator 3," and "Chicago." So much so, in fact, that money-grubbing LA film moguls took to calling it "stupid German money." German filmmakers didn't like it, since given the choice between funding an uncertain commodity like "Goodbye Lenin," most investors would probably rather take their chances on the next Arnold Schwarzennegger vehicle. At the end of 2005, the government ended the program,  saying it would offer an alternative by summer.

But debates over subsidies shouldn't obscure a more important development: Back in the 1990s, German filmmakers had trouble getting work in Germany much less abroad -- now they have become export success stories. Hollywood routinely looks to German directors for fresh ideas. Jody Foster chose Robert Schwentke of Stuttgart to direct "Flight Plan," which was also shot in Berlin. Sandra Bullock tapped Berlin's Mennan Yapo to direct "Premonition." And Nicole Kidman chose Hamburg filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel ("The Downfall") to direct "The Visiting." The German film "Bella Martha," an Oscar nominee, is now being remade with Catherine Zeta-Jones.

This restoration of the German film industry's restored glory, along with the debate over subsidies, is a major issue in national papers on Friday.

"For the first time in human memory," the conservative Die Welt writes, "people aren't focusing on the guest list of Hollywood stars -- instead they are looking at an abundance of German productions." This year, 56 German productions are being screened at the festival, including four in the main competition of 19 films. "They are not only numerous, but also mostly quite good," the paper comments. The festival marks the end of a dismal period in German film, which has only began recovering its international stature in recent years. Last year, Hans Weingartner's film "The Edukators" became the first German film to be screened at Cannes in 11 years. Fatih Akin's "Head On," which won the Golden Bear in Berlin two years ago, went on to chalk up success in other parts of Europe and in the United States. Carolina Link's "Nowhere in Africa" won the best foreign film Oscar in 2003. And Oliver Hirschbiegel's "The Downfall" played in cinemas around the world. In addition, Germany has had some major non-Hollywood commercial success, led by Bully Herbig's "The Shoe of the Manitu," which drew 11 million people.

All of this, of course, was made possible by government film subsidies, Die Welt reminds us. "The debate comes up time and time again over whether government support of the German film industry to the tune of €200 million a year should be eliminated." But the paper, which normally faithfully toes the fiscally liberal line, argues: "It's getting clearer and clearer that this money is delivering a tremendous return on investment." All of the filmmakers who have scored hits, with the exception of Herbig, were students of German art or film schools. Each also got their start with projects that wouldn't have been possible without government funding. "One could view the subsidy system of the past 10 years as a giant talent machine," the paper argues. Countries where film funding has been cut -- Great Britain and Italy -- have had a dearth of great films during the past decade. "Now, when sun-baked Hollywood comes to Europe to look for people with new ideas, it goes to France, to Denmark and, in the meantime, also to Germany."

The business daily Financial Times Deutschland argues that some government intervention is okay, but it should be done in ways that encourage greater private investment in domestic film production. "With the nomination of the film 'Sophie Scholl' for the highest US film trophy, the German film industry has felt as though its new self-confidence has been confirmed," the paper writes. At the Berlin International Film Festival, they managed to get four domestic films into the international competition. "But that feat alone raises an important question: why is the German government planning new tax incentives for investment in German films when the industry is capable of making movies without them?" The reality is that German producers desperately need new financing options. As before, the industry is still lacking an economic backbone. Promising ideas are either ignored or badly implemented because the capital needed for their development and adequate budgets is missing. But far more than the government, what the film industry needs is increased private investment. "Film production is always a risk. That's why the German industry needs risk capital in order to continue its upswing. If the government succeeds in finding a tax plan that will help attract risk capital for films, it might still look like subsidies, but it would be sensible. In the long term, that kind of investment model would be better than direct subsidies. Of course, the paper notes, investors have to be willing to take a risk. "But an investment in German film is currently worth the risk. At the end of the day, much indicates that it will pay off in the end."

-- Daryl Lindsey
2:30 p.m. CET

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