If you step into the office of film director Wolfgang Becker, the first thing you see are all the files of accounts.
They’re a reminder of the primary goal of any movie – not art; a film is a commodity, a very expensive product of the culture industry.
It cost just €4.8 million or $5.45 million to produce Mr. Becker’s 2003 hit, “Good Bye, Lenin!” which by November 2003 already had earned $55.69 million worldwide.
Though the film was a smash hit worldwide, it took Mr. Becker over a decade to make another film. He struggled to find financing too.
Back in 2003, Mr. Becker’s big hit, “Good Bye Lenin,” told a story about German reunification. The mother of a family in Berlin becomes unwell and after the doctor tells the children they should protect her from shocks, they try to recreate the world of the German Democratic Republic, where nothing has changed.
In Mr. Becker’s office, there is a brightly colored rocket from the film set in Mr. Becker’s office, right next to the accounting files. It’s the rocket that Alex – played by Daniel Brühl – wanted to fly into space like Sigmund Jähn, East Germany’s first pilot cosmonaut pilot.
“There's always the danger that you make a cut in just the wrong the place. I made a cut in the wrong place, and I already knew that while I was still writing the script.”
At the end of “Good Bye, Lenin!” the rocket takes off carrying the ashes of Alex’s mother. The audience realizes in this moment that this is a farewell to the German Democratic Republic, thirteen years after its death.
German film critics panned the film, but millions around the world understood and embraced the unexpected dignity the movie represented.
Mr. Becker took his time to make another movie – but he had also taken a six-year break between his 1997 comedy, “Life is All You Get” and “Good Bye, Lenin!”
This week, Mr. Becker’s new film “Me and Kaminski” opens in German theaters.
It is a different kind of story, a cynical tale told with cinematic absurdity, of a blind painter, Manuel Kaminski, a fictitious artist, and a journalist, Sebastian Zöllner, who wants to write the biography of the painter.
The journalist isn’t pursuing the painter’s life story because he’s interested in it but because he hopes the artist Kaminski will soon die and his book will become a best-seller.
In an interview in his office, where a cuckoo clock keeps time, Mr. Becker described the journalist character as a “real jerk;” someone who wouldn’t sell his soul to succeed but only because he wasn’t born with one. Nowadays, more and more people behave like that, he said. He looks as though he’s happy to be older and doesn’t have to live in a world full of people like Zöllner.
Daniel Brühl plays the journalist. Like Mr. Becker, Mr. Brühl also has aged since “Good Bye Lenin.” He was just 22 when “Good Bye, Lenin!” was filming. Now, in his mid-thirties, he’s famous worldwide.
The journalist he plays was created by author Daniel Kehlmann, who first met Mr. Becker in 2003 when both appeared on an Austrian television show.
“Kehlmann was there to introduce his new book and we to present our new film,” Mr. Becker said. He noted that their the meeting occurred before Mr. Kehlmann wrote his highly acclaimed comic novel “Measuring the World,” which was published in November 2006 – also before the director’s big hit, “Good Bye, Lenin!”
Talking after the show, the author gave the director a copy of “Me and Kaminski.” Mr. Becker was stunned and began to doubt that Mr. Kehlmann had really written the book, amazed at how well he described the characters’ beliefs and vulnerabilities. “What this guy knew about old age,” he said. “And such a young man.”
Even then, Mr. Becker wondered whether the novel could be made into a movie.
The answer was maybe, but it probably wouldn’t be him because the film rights already had been sold.
Next came the the huge success of “Good Bye, Lenin!” which carried the director round the world for more than a year. Distribution rights had been sold in more than 70 countries.
It was a great experience, Mr Becker said, standing on stage between Elton John and Al Pacino when “Good Bye, Lenin!” was nominated for a Golden Globe. Unfortunately at the gala, he managed to step on the dress of a famous actress, considered one of the sexiest women in the world. “I’m just not good at these events,” he said.
When the fame from “Good Bye, Lenin!” finally subsided, Mr. Becker realized with dismay that his partners at his production company, X-Filme, were involved in their own projects. Tom Tykwer and Dani Levy were writing their films themselves, Mr. Becker said, with admiration and resignation in his voice.
“For me, though, I really need a good script,” Mr. Becker said. He didn’t have one, though, nor did any come his way.
He had developed the script for “Good Bye, Lenin!” together with Mr. Tykwer, but now there were other issues. Senator Film had gone bankrupt, the company that owned shares in X-Filme and the creditors were closing in. His partners asked Mr. Becker to fend them off, since he had nothing in the works.
It felt a bit insulting, but Mr. Becker said yes, and instead of working on a new film, he took a crash course in insolvency law. He fought off the predators but it cost him time. Lots of time.
Suddenly, though, the film rights became available to “Me and Kaminski” and Mr. Becker took it as a sign.
Still, it can take years to write a script based on a novel. The main task is what to leave out and what to include – and that’s the hardest question when dealing with a script, Mr. Becker said. “There’s always the danger that you make a cut in just the wrong the place. I made a cut in the wrong place, and I already knew that while I was still writing the script.” He’s still bothered by the missing part.
It took even more time to line up the financing. Even though his last film had been so lucrative, most potential investors didn’t open up their wallets; those who first said yes later changed their minds.
At Canal +, the French media company, for example, Mr. Becker stood before a young editor who explained they wouldn’t extend the money promised as the film’s focus was on two unlovable leading characters.
It’s true the character of the artist isn’t much better than his biographer. Danish actor Jesper Christensen plays Kaminski as a living corpse, primarily kept in alive by his general distrust. The rest of the cast is a collection of geriatric artists who have made the mistake of outliving their work and their fame.
For the filmmakers, it was hard work: “Me and Kaminski” is the most expensive film Mr. Becker has ever made. The opening sequence alone, which establishes Kaminski’s place in art history between impressionism, expressionism, dadaism, symbolism and pop art, cost a fortune.
Now, those pictures painted for the film are living in Mr. Becker’s office, right next to the rocket and the cuckoo clock.
At openings showing paintings, as Mr. Becker knows, most visitors stand around drinking bad wine and ignoring the art. If they pay it any attention at all, it’s just to read the titles.
Last week, at an opening in Berlin presenting the paintings in a Kaminski retrospective, the works have names like “Self-portrait by the Light of a Match” or “Death on the Pale Sea” – they look how you might imagine.
The guests looked bewildered – who was this blind painter, a student of Matisse, friend of Andy Warhol and, according to Picasso, the only painter he didn’t influence?
In the middle of the gathering, the director stood, relieved, like someone unshackled from an immense burden.
He appears to want to say that what’s amazing isn’t that it took twelve years to make the film, but that it was made at all.
Video: Trailer for “Good Bye Lenin.”
This article first appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: email@example.com