Whenever I would visit my extended family in Germany during (pre-COVID) summers and winters, it was not uncommon for many of the initial conversations we had to turn to film. It was an opportunity to exchange ideas and impressions about that which we were all collectively seeing and experiencing, even at 4,000 miles apart. Since it was and is my field of study and career, it also served as an effective icebreaker for sharing details about our professional, social, and personal lives. After months of not seeing each other, living in different countries, leading very different lives, we could come together and speak about that which we had unintentionally all shared. Films became a common language and common ground. Living and going to school in the United States for most of the year, I made it a conscious effort of mine to keep up with the release of German films that didn’t get attention or distribution in the U.S. (which is most of them). It was the summer before last where during a conversation I mentioned the name of, what I perceived as, a significant German film that had come out earlier that year; I was met with silence. None of my family members had heard of or seen the film which had received considerable attention from various art house film outlets. It was then that I realized that, up until that point, we had been speaking exclusively about American films.
In the United States, it has truly become an anomaly for a “foreign,” let alone German, film to receive the attention or wide-spread distribution comparable to a Hollywood production. When films are categorized into genres by cinemas or streaming platforms in the U.S., the list generally reads as follows: Action, Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi, Romance, Thriller, Horror, Animated, Documentary, International/Foreign. International/Foreign becomes the one category to condense all of world cinema, regardless of genre, into a niche. American production companies and distributors understand that Hollywood generates enough competitive content to satiate American viewers’ appetite, even the entire world’s. Almost all countries in the world watch Hollywood films, yet the large majority of U.S. audiences don’t receive the same stream of content from across the globe. Hollywood films are, and have been, the lingua franca of entertainment. Comparatively, you will find an identical listing of genres when perusing similar German platforms, with one differentiation. Instead of “International/Foreign,” it is not uncommon to find “German” listed alongside the other categories. Granted there are German films often listed in the other genres, but those are often crowded with flashier offerings from countries with larger budgets for realizing spaceships, period set pieces, stunts, and special effects. German film receives a distinction in most instances where categories apply. This is partly because it is generally recognized that German film productions will not be able to garner the attention of major global, or even local, audiences the way a Marvel, Mission Impossible, or even standard Hollywood comedy film can. This is consequently due to their smaller budgets and lack of interest by major markets in distributing and advertising a German product that might not look or sound like a profitable Hollywood film. Even if it does, subtitles and dubbing will remain considerable barriers for markets not accustomed to them. To be clear, this is not unique to German film but applies to most international fare.
German film receives a distinction and special recognition domestically as a means to draw attention to the products of a national film industry that relies almost exclusively on the support of its domestic audience. Without specific interest and preference for German art-house cinema, which continues to be daring and significant in domestic and international festival and art-house circuits, it is not surprising for many German theater-goers to recall the extravagant imported American productions over the comparatively modest German efforts by years end. My family members had of course seen German films that year, but not nearly as many as they had American. Younger members of my family even lamented that mainstream German films simply do not hold up to the equivalent American productions. A cousin of mine went as far as to say that many of them can often be shrugged off as “just another German film.” This comment is, unfortunately, somewhat justified. Many “popular” German films are usually comedies that feature redundant casts, scenarios, jokes, and directorial and editing styles. Many try to replicate successful French or American films with the added German cultural specificity (Fack ju Göhte 3, 2017, dir. Bora Dagtekin. Der Vorname, 2018, Sönke Wortmann); the rest are typically sentimental, understated comedies that feature a big-name German actor (Honig im Kopf, 2014, dir. Til Schweiger & Lars Gmehling. Der Junge Muss an Die Frische Luft, 2018, dir. Caroline Link).
All of this, however, is best evidenced by the box office statistics for German film in comparison to international competition in its domestic market. In the past decade (2011-2020), thirteen German productions (13%) were able to break into the top ten highest-grossing films domestically (FFA). All of these were comedies. The rest were American, with the exception of two French films. Comparatively, France had twenty-two (22%) French films break into the top ten over the same time-span–all other films were American, no exception (Box Office Mojo). Not since the period of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) has German film been considered stiff, or even moderate, competition overseas and within Europe. Not since the Third Reich (1933-1945) set strict limits on entertainment imports has German film held the dominant market share domestically. During the occupation of Germany by the allies after World War II, almost all German entertainment was replaced by the dubbed and subtitled content of the respective occupying countries as part of a re-education program. Independent and artistically daring German cinema was slow to gain some footing under the new content restrictions, but eventually made some major international waves with the films belonging to “The New German Cinema.” Most of these films, however, were not necessarily of mainstream appeal beyond the festival and art-house circles, but provided cultural identity and artistic ingenuity that seemed consistent with, yet not as successful as, the achievements made during the Weimar Republic. Germany, regardless of its artistic pre-and post-war achievements and influence in cinema, simply could not and cannot keep up with the voracious contemporary demands for high-budget, action-packed, and plot-driven content a la DC, Marvel, and Pixar, or the appeal of a well-constructed comedy of the French tradition.
All of this is not to say that contemporary Germany does not produce important, provocative, progressive, and intelligent films. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In 2019 alone, Germany produced 683 films domestically– not including co-productions of which there were a further 428 (FFA). You may be wondering how there are so many German films produced annually if they don’t seem to be economically profitable. The answer is government subsidies. Surely a very odd concept for the American film industry, these subsidies aren’t contingent on a return on investment. The “return” is their cultural contribution. Because of this, many socially engaged and artistically inclined filmmakers and documentarians can continue to produce work with artistic integrity without having to completely undermine their efforts for commercial viability. These films often find substantial success at festivals, artistic venues, and EU-supported art-house theaters. Germany’s output of artistic and engaged films far outweighs the few comedies that are intended to be and become box office successes. These films, unfortunately, do not receive the attention or distribution they might deserve due to factors conflicting with international commercial viability: lack of interest for subtitled or dubbed content, missing cultural context, alternative narrative approaches, or simply oversaturation of markets. Germany has a rich and valuable cinematic history and tradition in both technical and artistic achievements exemplified by the films of the Weimar Republic and The New German Cinema and which is continued until today. Although contemporary German cinema isn’t as viewed or talked about domestically or internationally as the films of its past, I believe it to be nevertheless of considerable merit and value to a national and international audience. German cinema, if not under totalitarian control, is known for its societal engagement and critique, artistic reflection on the nation’s state, technical and intellectual innovation, and rebellious form. These descriptors still apply to the German cinema of today and recent decades. German cinema is unique in its clarity of vision and communication of uncompromised realities often made possible by lower pressure from financiers to make a film marketable. German cinema is, even now, once again in the midst of a new renaissance of national filmmaking that has been coined “The Berlin School.”
With German cinema once again redefining its national identity through modern, thoughtful, and progressive films, the opportunity for German film to enter an international discussion arises. I hope to contribute to that discussion in the following months as I attempt to bridge the gap between more obscure German films that define its unique cinema and an international audience by communicating to the readers of the Shenandoah blog. I will aim to analyze and question what makes a film “international,” “foreign,” “German,” or “American,” explore the complex interconnected cinematic and political histories of Germany and the United States, give insight into uniquely German issues and how they translate to cinema, answer the questions that might have been raised by this brief introduction, and maybe, just maybe, convince you to give German films a shot if you haven’t already.
Stephen Brockmann, A Critical History of German Film. Camden House, 2020.
John Sanford, The New German Cinema. Da Capo Press, 1985.
Christine Ogan, The Audience for Foreign Film in the United States. Journal of Communication, 1990.
FFA, Zahlen aus Der Filmwitschaft. FFA, 2019