The Berlinale film festival, which runs this week for the 65th year in the German capital, has the potential to be a comeback year for German filmmaking, which despite a string of domestic successes has gone almost a decade without an international hit.
A big reason for German optimism this year is the large volume and historic focus of many of the 96 German entries in the ten-day festival, which runs through Sunday at Potsdamer Platz in central Berlin.
Germany’s most internationally successful films in the post-War era have tended to be historical dramas focusing on the country’s troubled past, especially its Nazi era. This year offers new entries from some of the nation’s top directors, including Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Oliver Hirschbiegl, the director of “Downfall,” the 2004 Hitler bunker drama that was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar.
Mr. Herzog, who along with Mr. Wenders defined the New German Cinema wave in the 1970s, is back from a decade of documentaries with a feature film, “The Queen of the Desert,” a bio pic that focuses on the life of a British explorer, Gertrude Bell. Nicole Kidman plays Ms. Bell, with support from Robert Pattinson and James Franco in a star-studded cast for a German film.
Video: A clip from the film “Queen of the Desert”.
Like many German directors, Mr. Herzog is aiming for yet another international breakthrough, which would help him raise financing for his upcoming films. Both Mr. Herzog and Mr. Wenders began as art house directors, but went global after “Fitzcarraldo,” which won Mr. Herzog best director honors in 1982 in Cannes, and “Wings of Desire,” which earned Mr. Wenders the same award in Cannes in 1987.
“The holy grail is to get an international release in America,” said Paul Cooke, a professor of cinema at the University of Leeds. “Herzog only really became recognized internationally when he made it in America.”
That recognition helped Mr. Herzog put together a star-studded cast for his Berlinale entry. Mr. Herzog, also known for such international hits as “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” likes to tell unlikely stories of perseverance, and this time, he has pointed his camera at a group of stubborn characters facing adverse desert conditions, filming one scene during an actual sandstorm to give it greater authenticity.
Mr. Wenders, also known for critically acclaimed movies such as “Paris, Texas,” has an impressive cast with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Rachel McAdams in the psychodrama “Everything Will Be Fine.” The film marks Mr. Wenders’ return to feature filmmaking after focusing on documentary films for the past decade, including “Pina,” a 3D biopic of choreographer Pina Bausch, and “The Salt of the Earth,” an Oscar-nominated film on the photographer Sebastião Salgado.
In an unusual move for a production that is neither action nor fantasy, Mr. Wenders shot his latest film, like “Pina,” in 3D.
Mr. Wenders will be awarded an Honorary Golden Bear at the Berlinale this year for his lifetime achievements.
Among the younger generation of Germans presenting films in Berlin this year is Mr. Hirschbiegel, director of “Downfall,” which was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar in 2004. After an unsuccessful go at English-language filmmaking, Mr. Hirschbiegel returns to the Berlinale this year with another film about Germany’s difficult past, which tend to get more international attention.
“If as a German director you want to be successful abroad, you need to stick to Germany’s problematic history,” Mr. Cooke told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “If you want to win an Oscar, make films about the Nazis, the Stasi, or terrorists, like the Baader Meinhof group.”
In “Elser,” Mr. Hirschbiegel offers an account of the real-life 1939 attempt by Georg Elser to assassinate Hitler. It could be a winner.
It's a strong year for Germany, with 96 domestic films making it into the program.
Also zooming in on a challenging period in German history is upcoming German director, Andreas Dresen. In his film “As We Were Dreaming,” he depicts Leipzig shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
It’s a strong year for Germany, with 96 domestic films making it into the program. Which isn’t to say many will find their way into major cinemas.
For example, Sebastian Schipper’s “Victoria” plunges into Berlin’s dark scene in the Kreuzberg district. “The 140-minute film is uncut,” said Christiane Peitz, a film critic with the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel. “That’s interesting but definitely not for everyone.”
For some German directors, quirky, aesthetic often edgy films represent the real art of moviemaking, and they’re content reaching smaller audiences.
“Germany has a thriving art-house film community, inspired by director groups like the Berlin School with Christian Petzold,” said Barbara Kosta, a professor of German studies and film at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “These directors aren’t consciously saying they don’t want to make blockbusters and reach international audiences – they just want to tell stories the way they believe they need to be told.”
“Barbara,” the story of an East German physician under Stasi surveillance in a small Baltic Sea town, earned its director, Mr. Petzold, the Silver Bear award for best director at the Berlinale in 2012, but the film did not get an Oscar nomination.
In 2005, “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days” by German director Marc Rothemund, told the real-life story of the brother and sister who challenged the Nazi regime at their university in Munich — and paid with their lives. The film was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar, but did not win. But the next year in 2006, “The Lives of the Others” won the foreign film Oscar, the last German entry to take the prize.
The last German film to earn an Oscar nomination for best foreign film was “The Baader Meinhof Complex” in 2008, directed by Uli Edel. The historical drama lost out to a Japanese entry, “Departures.”
In 2009, the black-and-white German-language “The White Ribbon,” a haunting tale of turn-of-the-century child abuse directed by Austrian director Michael Haneke, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and a Golden Globe for best foreign film. The film was nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar but lost out to a Spanish film, “The Secret in their Eyes.”
Ms. Kosta also pointed to a growing number of German directors with an immigrant background, such as Fatih Akin, who are producing “hybrid, transnational” films.
Money to help produce these smaller films – as well as larger productions – comes from the German government via its film subsidy program, Deutsche Filmföderfonds, or DFFF. Although the yearly budget has have dropped from a high of €70 million, or $80 million, in 2013 to currently €50 million, the money remains a crucial lifeline for German filmmakers.
“The funds are a necessary and effective economic instrument – and an investment in an important cultural asset,” said culture minister Monika Grütters, in an interview with Handelsblatt.
But Martin Hagemann, a professor at the Babelsberg Film University Konrad Wolf, views the government subsidies as much more. “Without them, there wouldn’t be a German film industry,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
According to Hagemann, around 47 percent of the German film industry, which produces about 200 movies a year, is subsidized, and about 10 percent of these account for 80 percent of the revenue. He warns of the rapid decline of DVD sales in Germany and the steady growth of video-on-demand services like Netflix.
“DVDs are where film producers make money,” he said. “It’s not clear whether video-on-demand services will replace that.”
John Blau is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.