German helmers turn to the classics for inspiration

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COLOGNE, Germany -- German filmmakers are rediscovering the classics. As the market -- domestically and internationally -- for high-gloss period pieces continues to expand, German directors have started raiding their libraries for local literary masterpieces.

Recent examples include Heinrich Breloer's "Buddenbrooks," at 21⁄2-hour take on Thomas Mann's sprawling novel about the rise and fall of a 19th-century merchant family; Hermine Huntgeburth's "Effi Briest," based on Theodor Fontane's 1895 novel of duty, love and adultery and "Henri IV," a war epic adapted by Jo Baier from the 1935 opus by Heinrich Mann.

Berlin-based production house Senator is even taking on the grandmaster of German literature with its project "Goethe!" Philipp Stolzl ("North Face") will direct the project, which looks at the poet's salad years and is being done in the vein of "Shakespeare in Love."

These writers and their books are still household names in Germany, and while many of the stories have been filmed before, it's been awhile. Both "Buddenbrooks" and "Effi Briest" have gone through several adaptations, but you'd have to go back to the New German Cinema wave of the 1970s to find a production schedule as chock-a-block with German period drama.

"The question is why now, when there's been other very good filmed versions of these stories," asks 'Effi Briest' director Huntgeburth. "For me, I think they are very modern and up-to-date, despite being written 100 years ago. 'Effi Briest' is the story of a woman fighting for emancipation, to live the life she wants to life. That's as relevant today as it ever was."

Similarly, Heinrich Breloer draws a direct comparison between the financial speculation that brings down the Buddenbrooks dynasty and the current credit crisis.

But timeless as these classics might be, one of the main reasons behind the boom in German period drama is more prosaic and has to do with new financing models. The German Federal Film Fund, which provides €60 million ($82 million) annually for production that shoot locally, has raised the budget bar for German films. "Buddenbrooks," which cost about $20 million to make, would have been nearly impossible to bankroll out of Germany just a few years ago.

A growing appetite for German movies -- one in every three tickets sold in Germany last year was for a homegrown production -- also has made directors more ambitious. Instead of just being content with small-scale art house features, many filmmakers are going head-to-head with Hollywood with movies that boast near-studio level production values.

Warner Bros. in Germany made "Buddenbrooks" its big Christmas release and was rewarded with a solid boxoffice performance of nearly $12 million. Constantin had less luck with "Effi Briest," which despite the headline draw of stars Julia Jentsch and Sebastian Koch, underperformed with a take of about $2.7 million.

Internationally, the demand for German period drama varies according to the popularity of the source material. While the U.K. is a tough sell -- "they have their own classics" quipped one German seller -- many of the source novels for these titles are on the syllabus around the world.

Given their twin benefits of instant name-recognition and a convenient lack of copyright protection, expect German directors to keep raiding their classics for a long time to come.
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