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Every year, just in time for the presentation of the German Film Prize, the complaint about the malaise of German film is heard. This time it is Christiane Peitz who bluntly asks the question for Zeit Online: "Why is German film so bad?"
But is that really he? And above all, compared to what? Which film industry - besides the American one - is doing better?
Despite astronomical funding sums, the French film industry is mainly stewing in its own juice. There is hardly a film that makes it across national borders or finds a noteworthy audience outside of France. “Pretty best friends” is just the exception that proves the rule.
Of course, there is François Ozon, the Dardenne brothers (who are Belgian), Mathieu Kassovitz or Patrice Leconte, who regularly win prizes, but we have Petzold, Dresen, Glasner, Schmid and Tykwer who also win prizes with great regularity . None of them achieve international success. Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Luc Besson, who were also able to reach a large audience outside of France, have not been heard from for a long time.
Even the English, to whom the global market is actually open due to their mother tongue, have little to offer apart from their aging arthouse plants Mike Leigh or Ken Loach and a few more nominally British Hollywood productions. And who was the last time to see an interesting film from Italy or from Spain? Or from Hong Kong, China, Japan?
Sure, they happen again and again, the great international successes from other film countries - but not really more often than from Germany. There are always only isolated cases. So the problem is not a German one. It's a problem more or less shared by all of the film industries except Hollywood.
Art house and comedies
The films that are produced outside of Hollywood follow the same pattern everywhere: on the one hand there is a certain form of arthouse films that tell authentic stories about the respective societies very close to local reality. And in the mainstream area in all countries it is almost exclusively comedies that reliably reach a large audience. Other genres have an extremely difficult time in all countries. But why is it like that?
On the one hand, both these art-house films and comedies serve a niche in the market that Hollywood cannot fill: both in this form of art-house film and in comedy, cultural idiosyncrasies are very important. Her attractiveness lies in the narrative close to the realities of life of the people. So they are films that are tailor-made for a small, national market and therefore do not work outside of these markets. On the other hand, this also makes them seem a bit provincial.
Another reason art house films and comedies predominate is, of course, that they usually don't cost much. But film is an expensive business. Despite their relatively small budgets, most films can only get refinancing in their small national markets in exceptional cases. That is why they are subsidized by the state.
Such state subsidies can only be justified as protection and promotion of one's own culture, because economic aid is outlawed internationally for reasons of competition - this is why European filmmakers are so vehemently in favor of maintaining the "culture exception“In the negotiations on the trade agreement between the US and the EU. As a result, the national - or provincial - orientation of these film industries is further cemented.
But that's not all: the only economically strong players in the film industry are the television broadcasters, and because of their state-regulated distribution area, they are also purely nationally oriented. Since one cannot finance a cinema film with subsidies alone and the distributors seldom make a significant contribution to the financing, the producers are so dependent on the television stations that, for example, the announcement by BR television director Bettina Reitz to limit the cinema co-production becomes one has led to a real outcry in the producer landscape. On the other hand, behind closed doors, the same producers complain about the dependence of film funding on television and the related aesthetic dictates.
For all of these partly historical reasons, the film industries outside of Hollywood are very structurally focused on their home market. The most striking difference in the structure of the American and all other film industries is that the American is the only one that has international distribution structures: all Hollywood studios have a global distribution network through which they ensure that their films are optimally exploited worldwide .
Of course, due to the historical development, this market is more open to the Americans than almost any other country: the audience's familiarity with the American film language and the increased acceptance of subtitling and dubbing in non-English-speaking cultures facilitate the global exploitation of American films immensely. The examples of Great Britain, Australia and Canada show that the language barrier is not the greatest obstacle to the international distribution of films. In these countries, too, there is a national film industry that, like in all other countries, predominantly produces films for its own national audience.
The aesthetic dilemma
But none of this can explain why it is so difficult for the national film industries outside of Hollywood to produce cinema films beyond the market niches of arthouse drama and mainstream comedy. They cannot compete with the wickedly expensive special effects battles in Hollywood. But genres such as thriller, horror, mystery or science fiction do not necessarily need huge budgets and should in principle also be able to be met by smaller film nations. And there are always attempts in this direction. Unfortunately, they fail with the audience with great regularity. But why?
It's not just - or at least not always - that these films are made worse than their Hollywood counterparts. But who can imagine Til Schweiger blowing up the top floor of a Frankfurt skyscraper and shouting “Yippie ya yei, pig cheek”? That would be just embarrassing. And that is not due to Til Schweiger, who reaches audiences with his comedies with which he regularly makes the most expensive Hollywood films look old. The problem is: somehow you just don't buy it from him.
This brings us to the core of the aesthetic dilemma of national film cultures. It is precisely the exploitation of their strengths, namely telling believable, authentic, local stories, which is the undoing of filmmakers when they try to make the films that cinema really stands for, at least in the mainstream area: big, fantastic, escapist stories that include Have precious little to do with reality, but are just plain fun as hell.
The film aesthetics of the national film cultures are almost without exception naturalistic-realistic, authentic, as close as possible to “real life”. This applies to television series as well as to most television films, but also to almost all cinema comedies and the predominant form of national art-house film. This uniform, naturalistic tonality of storytelling is the exact opposite of "bigger than life ". But genre films, with their pointed drama and their stylized narrative form, are practically by definition "bigger than life". The very name “genre film” indicates that this narrative form is not based on reality but on thematically similar, other films. The reference points of the genre film are not reality or authenticity, but other films.
It is not surprising that an audience that has been conditioned for a whole life to a naturalistic, authentic cinematic representation of their own living environment and stylized "Bigger Than Life“-He only got to know stories in the form of American films, reacted negatively when suddenly the same actors in the same setting“ make one in Hollywood ”.
On the other hand, it also explains why films about the Third Reich and the Second World War are the only “genre”, alongside comedies and art house dramas, that occasionally works in German cinema: through the monstrosity of war and the unimaginable atrocities of Nazi rule Authenticity and "bigger than life“Practically congruent. Due to the terrible historical exceptional setting of war and the Holocaust, stories with almost superhuman conflicts can be told, the dramatic impact of which is all the greater because they actually took place.
No way out, nowhere?
Does all this mean that German film - and every other national film - is forever bound to limit itself to the niches of art house and comedy? Not necessarily.
On the one hand, it should be possible to slowly and carefully introduce the audience to other narrative styles. That is why it would be so important to try more and not give up the genre film despite all the inevitable setbacks. That is why it is important that the few courageous attempts to make German genre films are not always mercilessly panned out. The critics make it too easy for themselves. Film criticism must also develop an awareness that genre films are a delicate plant that has to be cherished and nurtured, because a film language of its own, its own culture, has to emerge slowly.
On the other hand, it must be possible to look beyond the national film industry's own nose and to produce films for the international market from Germany.A film like “Cloud Atlas” may not be a hundred percent successful in some respects - it is definitely a laudable creative risk and an admirable Herculean act of production. To make fun of the fact that he gets German funding or to argue about whether he deserves the German Film Prize just because it was shot in English and with international stars is narrow-minded and unhelpful.
As long as such internationally released films are only ever made as fragile co-productions, as long as it is not possible to build up international production and sales structures, such projects will only remain daring individual projects for which a producer risks head and neck.
If European film is not to be forever overshadowed by Hollywood, there must be internationally oriented European production and distribution companies modeled on the American majors. The prerequisites for this are actually there. Multinational media empires such as Bertelsmann or Vivendi would have the means to build up an international distribution network, as PolyGram Filmed Entertainment successfully demonstrated in the 1990s before it was sold to Seagram by the parent company Phillips. It would be feasible. Alone, there is a lack of courage and vision.
It would of course also be helpful if the film subsidies gave more support to the formation of such international structures. Above all, the EU's media program would actually be predestined for this. Instead, the project-related funding of European co-productions is based on a business model from which viable structures will never develop - and thus a lot of money in the sand. ((Even at the national level, the project-related funding is more of a problem than a help, as it favors the widely feared majority film on committees. The FFA's reference film funding is a laudable exception.))
Anything better in Hollywood?
We all want more, better films. But just always ranting about German films and suggesting that everyone else is doing better doesn't do it justice. All countries except the USA have to struggle more or less with the same problems - the content and aesthetic restrictions of national films are ultimately all the result of nationally oriented production, exploitation and funding structures.
But the situation in the film industry in the USA is anything but rosy. Many American filmmakers envy Europe for its lavishly equipped funding system, through which even artistically demanding films have a chance to be made. The majors' specialty divisions, which produced more sophisticated films for the arthouse market, have long since been closed. Independent film is as good as dead in America right now.
It doesn't look much better in the mainstream space. The astronomical production costs have made the studios so risk averse that they almost only produce sequels and prequels of the same superhero characters. Many people longingly remember the wonderful time before the end of the dot-com bubble, when there was plenty of money and courage for new ideas and aloneannum mirabilis In 1999 such exciting films as "Matrix", "Fight Club", "Magnolia", "American Beauty", "Being John Malkovich", "The Sixth Sense" and "The Insider" were made.
Those days are long gone in Hollywood too. In times of tight budgets, people rely on security - and this is known to be poison for creativity.
Rather, it is currently finding fertile ground in television, especially in series. But here too, more than anything else, it is abundant money that opens up creative freedom. Whether in the cinema or on television - good films are ultimately always a successful symbiosis of art and commerce.
(The article is a guest post by Drama-Blog.de.)
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