German Cinema Reaches Out to the World

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As well as providing a showcase for international films, the Berlinale is also a platform for German cinema. There are more than 130 German films and co-productions screening across the festival and the European Film Market.

Pre-pandemic, in 2019, 237 German films were produced a year, but only 10 to 20 a year perform well internationally, according to Simone Baumann, managing director of German Films, which promotes Teutonic movies abroad. Of the total worldwide admissions for European films in 2019, 6% were German films, compared with 18% for French films, according to the European Audiovisual Observatory.

To up the performance of local films, German Films is seeking to begin its promotional work earlier in the life of a project, such as at works-in-progress sessions at festivals like Les Arcs. The objective is to catch the eye of festival programmers, distributors and sales agents at an early stage.

Thorsten Ritter, executive VP acquisitions, sales and marketing at Beta Cinema, says that while there may not be many German-language films in the major sections of the A-list festivals, the filmmakers display great versatility, with a wide variety of voices. Beta’s films include Germany’s Oscar contender “I’m Your Man,” a sci-fi romantic comedy, which won the Berlinale Silver Bear last year, and “The Forger,” about a Jewish man living under an assumed identity in Berlin in the 1940s, which plays in Berlinale Special Gala this year.

Louis Hofmann stars in “The Forger,” which plays in Berlinale Special Gala
Courtesy of Dreifilm

There has been a shift in perception of what German cinema is, Ritter says, which can be traced back to the success of Oscar-nominated 2016 comedy “Toni Erdmann.” “It pushed the envelope of what was regarded as German cinema,” he says. “I’m Your Man” follows in its footsteps with an approach that is closer to Hollywood screwball comedies than the “hard-hitting angst-ridden German films” that many expect from the country’s filmmakers, Ritter says. “It is very entertaining, smart and quite commercial.”

Ritter points out that the support for the foreign distribution of local films offered by German Films “has been a very important tool in the promotion and positioning of German films abroad.” Within Europe, this can be supplemented by distribution support from the European Union’s Media Program.

Thanks to a generous public funding system in Germany – with Euros 380 million ($434 million) a year channelled into production alone – and producers who have proven themselves masters at working with production partners from around the world, the country is “almost a co-production champion,” Baumann observes. Komplizen Film is a good example, whose slate includes Berlin competition title “A E I O U – A Quick Alphabet of Love,” a co-production with France, Hungarian co-production “Gentle,” which competed at Sundance, and Venice competition film “Spencer,” which had a U.K. co-producer, a Chilean director, Pablo Larraín, and a U.S. star, Kristen Stewart.

Julien Razafindranaly, head of sales at Films Boutique, says: “Germany has become one of the go-to places for international filmmakers, when they are trying to finance a film.” As well as the nation funds provided by the German Federal Film Board (FFA), and the Culture Ministry (BKM), each region in Germany has its own film fund, such as Berlin-Brandenburg Medienboard. Added to that the public broadcasters, ZDF and ARD, also fund German films, and there are niche funding sources, such as the Berlinale’s World Cinema Fund.

Films Boutique has both majority German films, such as Berlinale Panorama title “Talking About the Weather,” and German co-productions, like “Gentle,” on its slate. In terms of its home-grown talent, Germany benefits from a host of world-class film schools, such as the German Film and Television Academy (DFFB) in Berlin, which “Talking About the Weather’s” director Annika Pinske attended, Razafindranaly says. Pinske, who is making her feature debut with the film, worked at Komplizen Film as Maren Ade’s assistant on “Toni Erdmann,” and is an example of the next generation of German filmmakers, influenced and encouraged by the achievements of their predecessors.

Razafindranaly adds that the fact that the Berlinale brings the world’s film industry and press to Germany helps advertise the diversity of German cinema, and allows them to meet local industry players, who they may end up working with.

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Annika Pinske’s “Talking About the Weather” plays in Berlinale’s Panorama
Courtesy of New Matter Films

Although the amount of public funding available for German films is a strength, the way it is administered hampers the creative potential of the country’s broad base of talent, says Andreas Rothbauer, who is co-managing director at Picture Tree Intl., alongside Yuan Rothbauer. He describes the system as “fragmented,” in comparison with France’s centralized system.

Rothbauer also questions whether enough public funding is targeted at the promotion of German cinema abroad. Only 1.8% of the €450 million ($514 million) in total state funding for the German movie business – including distribution and exhibition – is allocated for international measures, including German Films.

A reform of the current German Film Law (FFG) is underway, which may lead to a simplification of the funding system when it comes before German lawmakers later this year, he says.

Picture Tree is launching international sales on Anika Decker’s “Love Thing,” a romantic comedy with German star Elyas M’Barek, at the EFM. Picture Tree had great success abroad with M’Barek’s comedy “Fack ju Göhte.”

Moritz Hemminger, deputy head of sales and acquisitions at The Playmaker Munich, says that Germany’s family entertainment movies – such as the company’s “Young Winnetou and the Lost Buffalos,” which has its market premiere at the EFM – do well internationally, but comedies less well.

The company is looking increasingly at acquiring German-language thrillers, horror and sci-fi movies – they are selling German horror comedy “Holy Shit!” and an Austrian science-fiction disaster film “Rubikon” at EFM – as “we see international distribution potential for those kinds of genres,” he says. He’s also noticed a rising standard of creativity among local filmmakers in making genre films.

But there is a fly in the ointment. “Speaking of the classic financing structure of finding a local distributor, then applying for film funds in Germany, those kinds of movies – thriller, horror, sci-fi – have problems getting financing together [in Germany].”

Meanwhile, German filmmakers who are exploring the genre space are being met with open arms by the streamers. Vampire film “Blood Red Sky,” for example, was one of the most successful German movies ever on Netflix, and yet the producer was trying to get the financing together for years and couldn’t find a local distributor.

The life of film producers in Germany has been made more difficult because of the competition for talent from the streamers, and comes as traditional television has cut back its support for local films. But, on the flipside, streaming series like “Dark” have increased the international marketability of German actors like Louis Hofmann, who stars in “The Forger.”

Since the pandemic started, local distributors have become even more cautious. “They prefer a safe bet and not to take any risks. They want family movies; they prefer betting on brands, with some kind of IP – something based on a book, TV series and so on – to make sure you reach the audience, so that makes it more difficult for original content,” Hemminger says.

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“The Amazing Maurice” is being sold at the EFM by Global Screen
Courtesy of Ulysses Films/Cantilever Media

It has become a lot tougher to sell arthouse films, says Hemminger, who has “Axiom” premiering in the Berlinale’s cutting-edge section Encounters. “International distributors are cherry picking more and more. You have to make sure that your film not only gets invited to one of the A-festivals, but ideally gets invited by the biggest A-festivals, and in competition.” The director’s track record has also become more important, making it harder for new talent to break out.

As the worldwide demand for series rises, ideas for content that in former times would have become German movies are now being repurposed as shows, which means that sales companies must invest at an early stage in a film project’s development, says Julia Weber, head of international sales and acquisitions at Global Screen. Ideally, they look to work with producers on a slate of projects, not a one-off.

Fifty percent of the foreign revenue for German films comes from animated films, Baumann says. The success of these German animations, which are often co-produced with European partners, is based in part on the fact that the budget is used efficiently, and this means getting the script right. “[The producers of German animated films] are extremely disciplined in preparing a film,” Weber says. Animated features on the Global Screen EFM slate include “My Fairy Troublemaker” and “The Amazing Maurice.”

When competing in the multiplexes against the likes of Disney, provenance is important for these German animated films, both in terms of the intellectual property it is based on and the creative team behind the project. “The Amazing Maurice,” for example, is based on a novel by Terry Pratchett, and the screenplay is by Terry Rossio, who was Oscar nominated for “Shrek,” and was a writer on “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Carter Goodrich, who worked on “Ratatouille,” “Despicable Me” and “The Croods,” headed up the character design. Germany’s Ulysses Films, who are producing the film alongside the U.K.-Ireland’s Cantilever Media, previously teamed with Global Screen on international sales successes “Ooops! Noah is Gone…,” “Niko & the Way to the Stars” and “Luis and the Aliens.”

At EFM, Global Screen is also selling fantasy adventure “School of Magical Animals,” which was the most successful German film at the local box office last year. The film, which combined live-action children with animated animals, is based on the international hit novel by Margit Auer. A sequel is in the works.

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Courtesy of Constantin Film Verleih/Violetta Grimm

German Films Creating a Buzz in Berlin
A selection of German films in the Berlin Film Festival and the European Film Market.

“A E I O U – A Quick Alphabet of Love” (Berlinale section: Competition)
Writer-Director: Nicolette Krebitz
Cast: Sophie Rois, Udo Kier, Milan Herms, Nicolas Bridet
Producers: Janine Jackowski, Jonas Dornbach, Maren Ade (Komplizen Film)
Sales: The Match Factory
An actress is mugged by a young man. A short while later, they meet again. Slowly they grow closer.

“The Amazing Maurice” (Animation, EFM)
Director: Toby Genkel
Writers: Terry Rossio, based on the novel by Terry Pratchett
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Hugh Laurie, Himesh Patel
Producers: Emely Christians, Andrew Baker, Robert Chandler (Ulysses Filmproduktion, Cantilever Media)
Sales: Global Screen
A streetwise cat and a young pipe player lead a band of rats from town to town faking rat invasions.

“Axiom” (Berlinale section: Encounters)
Writer-director: Jöns Jönsson
Cast: Moritz von Treuenfels
Producer: Amir Hamz, Bon Voyage Films
Sales: The Playmaker Munich
Julius, universally liked, invites his colleagues at the museum on a trip on his aristocratic family’s boat. But he is not who he seems to be.

“The Forger” (Berlinale section: Special Gala)
Director-writer: Maggie Peren
Cast: Louis Hofmann, Jonathan Berlin, Luna Wedler
Producers: Alexander Fritzemeyer, Martin Kosok (Dreifilm)
Sales: Beta Cinema
A young Jewish man living in 1940s Berlin poses as a naval officer. At night he throws himself into the city’s nightlife; in the day he forges IDs, saving the lives of many.

“Hui Buh and the Witch’s Castle” (Animation, EFM)
Director: Sebastian Niemann
Writers: Niemann, Dirk Ahner
Cast: Michael “Bully” Herbig, Christoph Maria Herbst, Rick Kavanian
Producer: Christian Becker (Rat Pack Filmproduktion)
Sales: Beta Cinema
Hui Buh, a ghost at Castle Burgeck, embarks on a dangerous adventure to save his family.

“Love Thing” (EFM)
Writer-director: Anika Decker
Cast: Elyas M’Barek, Lucie Heinze, Peri Baumeister, Linda Pöppel
Producers: Rüdiger Böss and Philipp Reuter, Constantin Film, Decker Bros.
Sales: Picture Tree Intl.
A movie star falls in love while on the run from the media and his own past.

“Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush” (Berlinale section: Competition)
Director: Andreas Dresen
Writer: Laila Stieler
Cast: Meltem Kaptan, Alexander Scheer
Producer: Claudia Steffen and Christoph Friedel (Pandora Film Produktion)
Sales: The Match Factory
A tenacious mother fights to free her son, who is incarcerated in Guantanamo, with the help of a human rights lawyer.

“The Path” (EFM)
Director: Tobias Wiemann
Writers: Rüdiger Bertram, Jytte-Merle Böhrnsen
Cast: Julius Weckauf, Volker Bruch, Nonna Cardoner
Producer: Daniel Ehrenberg (Eyrie Entertainment)
Sales: Global Screen
A German journalist and his son, fleeing the Nazis, travel to France. A Spanish girl offers to guide them across the Pyrenees.

“Talking About the Weather” (Berlinale section: Panorama)
Writer-Director: Annika Pinske
Cast: Anne Schäfer, Anne-Kathrin Gummich, Judith Hofmann, Marcel Kohler, Max Riemelt
Producers: Luise Hauschild and Mariam Shatberashvili, New Matter Films
Sales: Films Boutique
Clara has escaped from her native provincial East Germany, and is now living a bohemian life in Berlin. But when she visits her mother, she is forced to question her choices.

“Young Winnetou and the Lost Buffalos” (EFM)
Director: Mike Marzuk
Writers: Mike Marzuk, Gesa Scheibner
Cast: Mika Ullritz, Milo Haaf, Lola Linnéa Padotzke
Producer: Andreas Ulmke-Smeaton, Ewa Karlström (Samfilm)
Sales: The Playmaker Munich
Winnetou, the son of an Apache chief, his sister Nscho-Tschi and the young orphan Tom set off on a dangerous adventure to save their tribe.

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“Axiom” plays in Berlinale’s Encounters section
Courtesy of Bon Voyage Films/Martin Val

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