Tuesday, July 7, 2015

German Film Today: Hollywood Uber Alles

IMAX Theater, Potsdamer Platz

The American premiere of Terminator Genisys was something of a bust over the Fourth of July weekend. But perhaps there’ll be more fireworks when the movie opens in major German cities on July 9.

I’m just back from a business-and-pleasure trip to Deutschland. Once upon a time, my knowledge of Germany came from movies, everything from 1961’s grim Town Without Pity  (filmed in bleak black-and-white in the charming Bavarian town of Bamberg) to 1972’s diabolically gaudy Cabaret. And then of course there were all those World War II epics. Many were not filmed on German soil. But Stanley Kramer made sure that his powerful 1961 Judgment at Nuremberg, which addresses the question of justice in the post-Nazi era, included footage of the city in which the famous war-crimes trials actually took place.

Germans love movies. And Germany has contributed hugely to the history of world cinema. The post-WWI movement known as German Expressionism, which spawned such stylistically bold films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, helped revolutionize movie aesthetics. It’s tremendously sad that brilliant artists like Fritz Lang  (whose Metropolis and M continue to influence the science fiction and horror genres) were chased out of Germany during the Nazi era, condemned as being “degenerate.” Of course, Germany’s loss was Hollywood’s gain. Lang and other Austrian and German filmmakers, many of them Jewish, found the welcome mat out for them in Beverly Hills. Some fared better than others, but screenwriter Billy Wilder, for one, soon became a master of filmmaking Hollywood-style. Some Like It Hot, anyone?

In the era when Roger Corman distributed major art films, I was well aware that the German motion picture industry was staging a comeback. Such artists as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff, and Werner Herzog were making names for themselves with uniquely German films like Aguirre, The Wrath of God and The Tin Drum. I also knew about the rise of  domestic German product, innocuous dramas and sex comedies as shlock-filled as anything low-budget Hollywood could muster.

Which brings us to today. Everywhere I went in Germany, I saw notices for film clubs and film museums. (In Frankfurt, Ben & Jerry’s – yes, the Vermont ice cream chain – hosts regular free movie nights, with American flicks like Crazy Stupid Love on the roster.) American TV is hardly excluded: you couldn’t miss all the German-language posters for the next season of  Masters of Sex and especially Orange is the New Black.

Though Munich has a vibrant film industry, the center of cinematic activity is clearly Berlin. Berlin’s glitzy Potsdamer Platz, transformed from the days when it was a drab GDR outpost, now rivals Times Square with its neon-lit movie palaces. In the glass-enclosed Sony Centre, the Museum Für Film und Fernsehen (that’s film and TV) hosts exhibits I wish I’d had a chance to study. One star of the collection is Marlene Dietrich, the German-born singer and actress who decisively turned her back on her home country during the Nazi era. There’s a café named for Billy Wilder too. And across the street from the Sony Centre you can buy advance tickets for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest Terminator incarnation. This is the locale where the prestigious Berlin Film Festival (aka the Berlinale) annually hands out its Golden Bear awards

But other parts of Germany get into the act in their own way. I’m told George Clooney’s Monuments Men was filmed at Neuschwanstein Castle and elsewhere in Deutschland. And it was the delightful walled medieval city of Nördlingen you saw from the top of the great glass elevator at the end of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. 

Nordlingen: Willie Wonka's eye view


  1. I have watched a lot of German movies - with a particular fondness for German Expressionism. I'd love to visit the country - and what a wonderful picture of the town seen from the Great Glass Elevator!

  2. I assume your fondness is for great classics like Metropolis, M, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Unforgettable!

  3. Yes those might well be my top 3 German films!