Germany: Enough “politically correct” films!
11 May 2012
Reactions to the film Barbara show that 'feel-good' films worry German film producers. The director, Dominik Graf, implores filmmakers to dare to challenge the highbrow cinema strangehold. Excerpts.
It's always this way in the German film: at a high point, the film sinks to the next low blow. The joy over Christian Petzold's Barbara, the award-winning German entry at the Berlinale, got rained on shortly afterwards by a review – indeed a positive one – in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which set the film in a fatal context of other films dealing with the GDR.
It’s phenomenal how that sort of film criticism wishes to compel German cinema to stay on a mission. And in such a way that the reader gets the idea that Barbara was not primarily out to win audiences over purely on its strengths as a film, but had first to meet the criteria of a ‘relevance’ that backs the state. A ‘correct’ view of German history, please! It sounds like: ‘Thank you, Mr. Petzold – your suitability to instruct has been approved, with honours.’ Should German directors above all be good little chaps and fetch the little stick of ‘correctness’?
The dilemma of industry subsidy
Such poisoned praise can no longer touch Barbara, which has already been up on the screens everywhere and has been nominated for the German Film Prize. A look at the short-list is enough to reveal the dilemma of the subsidy-culture industry: the hollowing-out that comes from thematic overuse. Educated middle-class principles, the ‘issue-vultures’ hovering over German films, are becoming irritating.
If one were to lay the transparent blueprint of a semi-commercial, working film industry over our landscape, what’s most striking is that the economic heart of film production – let’s call it the mainstream – still makes up only a fraction of the state-supported films. That is precisely the area that should be best suited to attract an audience – and yet it’s getting leaner from season to season. Conspicuous in this sector is the relatively high proportion of self-taught directors.
This contrasts with a vast number of inexpensive films that thematically and formally fall into the so-called ‘arthouse’ drawer, almost all of them directed by film college graduates. What gets onto the Academy shortlist? Mental diseases, Alzheimer's, cancer – and then the usual current ‘issues’ of interest to the state: integration conflicts, neo-fascism, critiques of the financial industry, DDR-work-ups, et cetera. Are these films being made because their thematic ‘relevance’ gives them a greater chance of being promoted?
Despite its ever-growing technical proficiency, German films of today come across as a palette of discursive essays. The mise-en-scène is marked by a musical score that is as brief as possible and the dictate of (often grandiose) authenticity in the acting and the camera work. Too much art, too many good intentions? Mainstream filmmaking – films as fun, film as a gorgeous artificial gloss, film as straight-out seduction – has, in contrast, become almost a solitary enterprise. It used to be fun to rebel against commercial, flat-nosed, Teutonic filmmaking. Today, perhaps, one has to defend the more trivial forms of German cinema, as they seem to be endangered species.
German film lacks Pazazz
All the government subsidies in the industry mean well. Covered up bravely by the German Film Academy, the dispute is raging along the superficial front line of "commercial” versus "art film”.
The official German industry is clearly looking, in a worrying way, to sidle up even closer to the Berlin Republic – nearer, that is, to the unforgivable ‘correct’ understanding of German history and society. The German film industry is a balancing sculpture of a mutual appreciation society, grown tipsy on awards and laudations. The international successes of recent years have created a false sense of confidence. One could say it again, slowly: let the wounds gape open! Start to go at each other! The response to that is, at the moment, a big yawn. Welcome to the German future! But true passion looks different.
Where are the booming worldwide genres, such as fantasy, in the German film world? They don’t exist, despite a German tradition in fantasy and horror that waits, like the treasure of the Nibelung, to be lifted high. The self-imposed seriousness of contemporary German film goes against the desire for spectacle, for hoots of laughter, for the carnival fright – all basic traits of the cinema. It negates the angry, screaming part of the cinematic narrative, that creatively explosive suicidal drive that always leads to wonderfully bad movies as well.
The self-deception of 'big issues' films
Classic German entertainment cinema had always had a provocative light-heartedness. Since 1990, though, the German cinema has largely lost any innocence it once had. Deep down, in the collective unconscious in the industry, perhaps the all too thoroughly organised, guilty relationship to over-the-top fantasy has already been recognised as a real problem since the fall of the GDR. Too much structure, too little jungle life.
And on another page from this vintage year of the cinema, Ulrich Köhler's main character in Schlafkrankheit (Sleeping Sickness) roams the new Africa, where he rediscovers the original ‘horror’ of the mad Kurtz – yet a very different one. An implicit commentary on global political correctness, the film empties out into a deep alienation, a devastating solitude.
Perhaps it is precisely in this sense that all of our meaningful and ‘issue’ films are just another lie. It is a self-deception of a society – including their artists – that would like, at all costs, to bear along a country gentrified to death into the new global ‘goodness’, including quotas for women, no-smoking bans and the ‘cinema of relevance’. Germany’s Heimat films of the 1950s lied more candidly.