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Reunified, Revitalized

A third wave of German cinema, sparked by the fall of the Berlin Wall, is gaining notice in the U.S.

September 22, 2002|WADE MAJOR

Anyone paying attention to the recent foreign film scene has probably noticed a decidedly Teutonic streak in the offerings. Normally distributed sparingly in the U.S., German films are suddenly in vogue, with several current releases--"Mostly Martha," "Das Experiment" and the English-language "Invincible"--giving art-house audiences their richest exposure to contemporary German cinema in decades.

And that's only the beginning. Come November, 10 more new German films will receive U.S. premieres as part of AFI Fest's "Made in Germany" section. It will be highlighted by the award-winning opening-night presentation "Nowhere in Africa," set for theatrical release in March.

Are we seeing a nascent third wave of German cinema, which the filmmakers there say has been in the making for more than a decade? If the current trend lasts, it would mark a turnaround for an industry that has struggled for more than 50 years to recapture the glory of its pre-World War II golden era, when it earned a global reputation as Hollywood's only legitimate foreign rival.

"You could say it started in 1990 when the Berlin Wall came down," says "Das Experiment" star Moritz Bleibtreu. "TV channels started to produce movies, feature films were beginning to be made for the first time again. What you see now is a people trying to reinvent themselves."

"I think that people definitely are more confident about their films in Germany," says "Mostly Martha" writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck. "It's this feeling that we can make films people want to see, films people will pay to see."

Given the country's turbulent 20th century history, it's not surprising that an event as momentous as reunification would reinvigorate Germany's young filmmakers. Both previous German film movements--expressionistic Weimer Cinema in the '20s and the New German Cinema of the '60s and '70s--were outgrowths of wartime defeats, movements driven by the belief that a new and improved German identity could be forged through the power of cinema. Although neither movement was ultimately able to transform German society, their idealistic practitioners--Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau in the 1920s; Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Volker Schlondorff in the '60s and '70s--did transform global cinema. Their influence can be seen in the visually arresting work of present-day expressionists such as Tim Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Ridley Scott, as well as the boldly meditative films of existentialist-postmodernists like Britain's Mike Leigh, France's Francois Ozon and, in this country, Todd Solondz and Paul Thomas Anderson.

"We were the first genuine postwar generation," recalls "Invincible" director Herzog. "We had to invent cinema for ourselves. There was a void of a quarter of a century. And we were the first ones to articulate ourselves in trying to find our own language. Now, with reunification, the situation is new again."

For American audiences, the turning point came with the 1999 release of director Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run," starring Bleibtreu. In the end, American audiences rallied around "Lola" to the tune of $7 million, making it one of the most successful German films ever released in the U.S.

German Federal Film Board representative Corina Danckwerts, who established the Made in Germany series two years ago before allying with the AFI Fest this year, credits Tykwer and "Lola" with breaking long-held stereotypes, allowing other films and filmmakers to emerge on the world stage.

"The hallmark of this generation has been directors with fresh ideas," she says. "And 'Lola' was the German film that made people aware of that."

But Tykwer is quick to temper any unrealistic expectations. "All these developments people look for as pointing to a 'wave,' they're usually slower than everyone wants them to be. I totally believe that it's happening. But I don't believe it's happening in the way everyone would like, with dozens of brilliant films coming out of Germany every year. It has to slowly develop and get into the brains of our other filmmakers so we can make films that cross borders."

The apparent contradiction in Tykwer's suggestion--that a rediscovery of German identity through cinema should depend on less, rather than more parochialism--underscores the principle dilemma of German society, namely how to escape the residual shadow of Nazism and World War II without escaping Germany. It's no secret that while Germany has never struggled to produce cinematic talent, it has continually struggled to retain it, losing most of its best and brightest to Hollywood. Notable emigres of the '20s and '30s include both Lang and Murnau as well as Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg.

Key figures from later generations have also emigrated--Wenders and Herzog live in the U.S., as do such A-list action directors as Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day," "The Patriot") and Wolfgang Petersen ("The Perfect Storm," "Air Force One").

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