Making Films in Germany Still an Uphill Battle, Directors Say


The runaway success of Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck's film "The Lives of Others," has shed some light on the challenges German filmmakers face to make the films they want to make.

For the German film industry, the times, and the films, are looking better now than they have in a long time. Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck's film "The Lives of Others" has swept more than 32 German and international awards including the coveted Oscar for best foreign-language film.

But once a German filmmaker wins serious accolades, the next question is usually: "So when are you moving to Hollywood?"

According to a recent article in the German edition of the magazine Vanity Fair , von Donnersmarck already has made the jump across the pond and is now calling a suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles home.

He will be joining Turkish-German director Mennan Yapo, whose Hollywood debut "Premonition," starring Sandra Bullock, has raked in over $17 million (13 million euros) in box office receipts since its US release just two weeks ago.

This exodus of German directors may seem like the next logical step towards a successful career in an increasingly global film industry, but some directors argue that the hurdles directors face in their home country is what really entices many of them to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Filmmaking German style

"For directors in Germany it is very hard to make a living in film and many are forced to do other jobs like commercials to survive," said Steffen Schmidt-Hug, director of the German Film Directors Association, a group that works to promote and improve working conditions for directors. "Others look for work in other countries like France and America."

Under the rules governing the Germany film industry, directors are classified as technicians -- like set designers and gaffers -- and fall under strict limits regarding the amount a director can earn on each project, even if the film is a large commercial success.

Schmidt-Hug claims these rules frustrate many filmmakers by also limiting a director's artistic freedom by always granting a film's final cut to the producer.

"In France by law the director gets the final cut. In America the director gets the director's cut but not the final cut," said Schmidt-Hug. "In Germany the directors do not even have a directors cut."

Oliver Hirschbiegel, director of the critically-acclaimed film "The Downfall," has repeatedly lambasted the German film industry and famously said during a panel discussion last year that directors in Germany are "paid like shit." He promptly packed his bags for Hollywood.

New money, old problems

As in most European countries, the German film industry is built upon public financing. The federal government allocates over 260 million euros for film projects each year.

This includes an additional 60 million euros earmarked in the 2007 federal budget which is mean to act as an "incentive to boost film production in Germany."

"The model will have a swift and direct impact on German producers and studios," said Bernd Neumann, federal government commissioner for culture and media, in support of the new incentives, "and will make Germany a more attractive production location for major international productions as well."

But according to Schmidt-Hug, this system is structured in favor of established producers by setting strict criteria like requiring independent filmmakers to sign a distribution deal before allocating any funds, a difficult task for even the most experienced director.

Such a system puts enormous hurdles in the way of up-and-coming and inexperienced filmmakers, like von Donnersmarck, for example.

"In Germany we have the concept of the 'struggling poet'," said Schmidt-Hug, "and people say that the artist does not need to be paid. They get their film, their art."

A younger generation

"Finding film funding is Germany is almost impossible unless you want to make commercial films," said Andreas Feller, a Berlin-based film director, "and making commercial movies is not why most of us got into this business."

A trained director, Feller recently launched the Web site, an Internet platform to help young filmmakers throughout Germany come together and pool their resources.

Because German film producers are so fixated on commercial success, Feller believes that many great films that break traditional molds, like the Oscar-winning "The Lives of Others," never even get a chance to get made.

"The German film establishment needs to be more flexible in its support of more 'underground' films," said Feller.

California dreaming?

No one can be sure whether or not the restraints of the German film industry or the scent of fame lured von Donnersmarck to Hollywood, but Schmidt-Hug for one is optimistic of his chances for success.

"Von Donnersmarck is a globetrotter who has grown up all over the world. He is a brilliant director who will be very successful in the American system," he said.

But not every German director is looking for his day in the sun. Last year, director Wolfgang Becker ("Goodbye Lenin") was asked if he would ever trade making films in Germany for the sunny skies of Southern California.

Likely referring to the low cost of living in the German capital, where a little money goes a long way, he had a quick answer.

"No way," he said. "Berlin has much higher living standards."

Ole Tangen Jr.



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