Germany: Teutonic Triumph

Steady boxoffice and increasingly successful co-productions are driving a boom in the German film sector

COLOGNE, Germany -- By almost any measure, German film is booming.

Coming off of one of the best boxoffice results ever for domestic productions, German movies accounted for 34% of tickets sold here last year, a near-record level that looks likely to be made, or bettered, this year.

Budgets have gotten bigger -- evidenced by such epics as "Hilde," "John Rabe" or "Buddenbrooks" -- and co-productions have swelled. Although the bulk of production partnerships are between Germany and Hollywood -- see Stephen Daldry's Oscar-winner "The Reader" -- others, such as the Spain-Germany co-production "The Anarchist's Wife," the Danish-German hit "Flame & Citron" and Asian-German co-productions also are beginning to catch on.

German production and sales group Action Concept, which has successfully exported genre features including the car-racing drama "Fast Track" to mainland China, is planning a pair of Chinese-German co-productions. The kidnapping thriller "Mission Overseas" and actioner "Heart of the Sun" will be shot in Asia and Europe with financing coming from German and Chinese partners.

"I love working with the Chinese, they are a lot faster and more efficient than the Germans," says Action Concept's Wolfgang Wilke, who helped set up the co-productions. "It's the same thing with the Hong Kong market, those guys are just quicker to react to changing conditions. You see how they dropped prices to adjust to the downturn, while at the Berlin market, prices went up."

Another example of cross-border cooperation is Uberto Pasolini's comedy "Machan," which will screen at the Hong Kong Film International Festival alongside Filmart. The Sri Lankan/German/Italian co-production tells the story of a group of desperate slum dwellers who form a fake handball team and travel to a tournament in Bavaria as a ruse to try and sneak into the country.

But the true flagship of German-Asian co-production is Florian Gallenberger's "John Rabe." Recently nominated for seven German Film Awards, the country's top cinema honor, the big-budget epic tells the true story of a German businessman who saved 200,000 Chinese from the Nanking massacre in 1937. In addition to stars Ulrich Tukur, Steve Buscemi and Daniel Bruhl, "John Rabe" features a strong supporting cast of Asian talent including China's Jingchu Zhang and Teruyuki Kagawa of Japan.

"John Rabe" was shot almost entirely in Asia and co-produced by local production powerhouse Huayi Brothers, who will be releasing the film in China in April.

But for most German films, Asian sales can be hard to come by.

"It's a difficult market, for a lot of reasons," says Steffanie Zeitler, head of sales at Bavaria Film International. "One issue is the quotas for local films in territories such as China and South Korea, which make it harder to get in. Another is just a cultural one. A film like 'The Anarchist's Wife' can be a difficult sale because the subject matter -- the Spanish civil war -- isn't seen as being as relevant to Asian audiences as it is to Europeans."

The global economic crisis hasn't passed Asia by, either, meaning Filmart buyers have less to spend on a German pickup. Japan, long a problem child in the region, has been hardest hit.

"Japan's been difficult for years," Zeitler says. "It's almost slipped off our list of major territories to be honest. But we did do a nice deal with Japan in Berlin for (Swedish vampire movie) 'Let the Right One In,' which is hopeful."

"The prices have dropped, but that's a worldwide phenomenon," adds Ida Martins, head of Cologne-based sales group Media Luna. "The Asian market is so huge that the demand for product is there and it isn't going away. We expect to come out of Filmart with a few good sales."

Media Luna is screening Oliver Paulus' "Tandoori Love" at Filmart this year. The Swiss production is a loving tribute to Bollywood, set in the Alps and featuring a cross-cultural romance between an Indian cook (Bollywood star Vijay Raaz) and his boss' fiance, played by German actress Lavinia Wilson. Martins hopes the mix of familiar, Bollywood-style romance and dance numbers combined with the unusual setting and story will entice Asian buyers to take a look.

The sheer scope and variety of current German cinema is impressive and ensures distributors from Mumbai to Taipei will have plenty to chose from. The recent crop includes such diverse titles as Til Schweiger's romcom romp "Rabbit Without Ears"; Uli Edel's Oscar-nominated political drama "The Meinhof Complex"; Caroline Link's Hollywood-style melodrama "A Year Ago In Winter" and such finely tuned art house gems as Christian Petzold's "Jerichow" or Maren Ade's Silver Bear winner "Everyone Else."

"There's no one type of film that sells or doesn't sell in Asia, there are just so many distributors all looking for different things," says Steffanie Zeiler of Bavaria Film. "If you have a good German film, you can usually find a buyer for it."