Monday, 2 February 2015

The Door (5 Stars)

Since I've been watching so many German films over the last few days, I thought it would be good to write a few thoughts about German cinema in general. Last month I began to host a monthly film evening at my house. Each month I intend to show two films on a related theme. My first evening featured two Chinese films telling stories about the 1930's. That was a very successful evening. My second film evening, planned for next Saturday, will feature two German films. So far only one of my friends has confirmed he will attend. The reaction from the others goes along the lines of, "German? Ugh!"

I belong to a film club, so most of my friends are what I would call serious film fans. So why do they dislike German films? The answer is simple: because they don't know them. They have misconceptions about what they expect German films to be like. They expect them to be plodding and serious. Germany has a reputation for bureaucracy and efficiency, which they expect to see reflected in the films. That certainly doesn't apply to what I call modern German cinema, films made since 1990. Let me give a brief overview of the history of German cinema, which I divide into five periods. I realise that I shall make many generalisations, so please don't leave comments like, "The film ... doesn't fit the pattern".

1. Early Days (1895-1918)

In the early days of cinema Germany didn't have a separate identity. Films began as short clips, up to 10 minutes long, which were shown in fairgrounds. Regardless of the country of origin, about half of the clips were of an erotic nature, while the other half were clips of nature or technology. It was unusual for a film to tell a story.

2. The Weimar Republic (1918-1933)

After the first world war and the development of real films the German film industry boomed. It was the era of silent films, so the language of the country of origin was irrelevant. Only the text cards had to be replaced. By the 1920's over 600 films a year were being made in Germany, compared with less than 200 in America. Germany made the first horror film ("The Golem", 1920) and the first science fiction film ("Metropolis", 1927). The majority of films made in this era were either crime films or horror films, both using stark black and white contrasts that was referred to as "German expressionism".

3. The Third Reich (1933-1945)

Hitler's rise to power destroyed the German film industry, because almost all of the leading German directors, producers and screenwriters were Jewish. Most fled to America, where they had a big influence on Hollywood. For instance, the Universal Horror films were created by German Jews, as is obvious when comparing the styles with the silent movies of the Weimar Republic. Dr. Joseph Goebbels took over the German film industry and rebuilt it single-handedly. During the Third Reich most of the films were historical films, about the "good old days" of Germany. It's easy to dismiss these films as propaganda films, but in actual fact they were very good.

4. West Germany (1945-1990)

After the second world war the West German film industry was in a state of crisis, because most of the film studios were in East Germany, and there wasn't much money to invest in new studios. It wasn't until the mid 1950's that film production began to increase. About half of the films were historical films, while a new typically German film genre was emerging: the "Heimatfilm". Literally translated "home film", it's very difficult to explain them to non-Germans. Although set in modern (1950's) Germany, they were very old-fashioned. The films were set in villages on the mountainside, farming communities with little or no modern technology. It was an idealised world, in which communities were intact: people worked hard and went to church on Sunday. If anyone did something bad like robbing a shop or getting the mayor's daughter pregnant he was always punished.

The Heimatfilm had a long life in Germany, but in the late 1960's it morphed into Bavarian sex comedies. It might seem absurd to people in other countries, but the Bavarian soft porn romps were the most popular films in Germany for more than ten years, shown in major cinemas in town centres. Like the Heimatfilm, the new sex comedies took place in mountainside villages, peaceful places where everyone works hard and goes to church, but the difference was that the mayor's daughter was probably having sex with every young farmer in the village.

At the same time there arose a great number of murder mysteries, usually set in better upper class families. It's as if the typical German worker needed escapism: he needed to see rich German socialites or horny Bavarian villagers, anything except for his own grimy little town.

A group of German directors teamed up to make a New German Cinema, better than the trashy sex comedies and low budget murder mysteries. Notable names were Rainer Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. They were critically acclaimed, especially outside of Germany, but in Germany their films were financial failures. Nobody wanted to see their films, because they were plodding and serious. They made films about the Nazi period, but they were very overbearing, like they were wagging their fingers at the viewers: "Look what you did". The films often had left-wing messages. They weren't what Germans wanted to see.

5. Modern Germany (1990-today)

After German reunification the film industry began to consolidate itself. There were still films made about the Nazi period, but they were more entertaining and less schoolmasterly. Many films were made about the time of German separation and other events in recent German history. But German cinema is returning to its roots. There are many horror and supernatural films being made. Surprisingly, about half of the films made in Germany today are murder mysteries. That seems to be something Germans like to watch, but now they're down to Earth, the murders take place in the familiar surroundings of the big cities. From a financial point of view it's good business, because films like these can be made on a relatively small budget.

Whatever the budget, all the German films made today dazzle with their first class cinematography and production quality. There are two reasons for this. First, the German government is highly interested in promoting the German film industry, so there are large subsidies to any film made in Germany. Second, German actors aren't as greedy as their American equivalents. American actors like Will Smith expect $40 million per film, whereas the top German actors are happy with $500,000 or less. It's still enough to live on, and it means that the film budget can be spent elsewhere. That's why German films look good, especially compared with the films made in other European countries.

The quality of German stories is also outstanding. If you look at the films made in America each year, some have good stories, some are average and some are poor. In Germany there is more quality control, and poor quality stories never make it into production. This is partly due to the high standards expected to qualify for government funding, but also because German directors set themselves high standards. They're aware that 90 years ago Germany was the world's leading film nation, and they feel the need to win that title back. Maybe they already have. In America about 500 films are made each year, and about 50 of them can be described as first class films. In Germany about 150 films are made each year, and 100 of them are first class.

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