Grand Teutons

Thanks to a generous federal film fund, German helmers are opting to shoot at home -- and they're thinking big

For a country famous for producing some of the world's fastest, most luxurious cars, German movies can come as something of a surprise. Instead of the high-end gloss of a Porsche, Beemer or Mercedes, most German movies more closely resemble a low-end Fiat: cheap, charming and quirky.

But a look at the local titles premiering at the 2009 Berlin International Film Festival makes it clear that German cinema has received an upgrade.

The Berlinale Special Gala section includes three high-end, big budget epics: Florian Gallenberger's "John Rabe," Kai Wessel's "Hilde" and "Effi Briest" by Hermine Huntgeburth. They are very different films: "John Rabe" is a "Schindler's List" style, real-life story of the German business man who saved hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians from the Nanking Massacre; "Effi Briest" is an adaptation of Theodore Fontane's classic about a young woman caught between love and duty in 19th century Prussia; "Hilde," a biopic of actress, songstress and sex symbol Hildegard Knef.

What they have in common is that just a few years ago, none of them would have likely made it past the development stage. Financial constraints, conservative funding bodies and an under-developed market -- both national and international -- for German language films meant that ambitious projects were few. Wolfgang Petersen shot "Das Boot" and "The Neverending Story" in Germany, but he and German directors such as Roland Emmerich ("10,000 BC") or Robert Schwentke ("Flightplan") soon realized if they wanted to keep making big movies, they would have to move to Hollywood.

Things have changed. Uli Edel has spent the last two decades in L.A., but he returned to Munich to shoot his big budget, star-studded (and Oscar-nominated) political drama "The Baader Meinhof Complex." Marco Kreuzpaintner followed up his modest English-language debut "Trade" with "Krabat," a German-language fantasy epic. Til Schweiger has exchanged Hollywood casting hell for super-stardom at home as the director-writer-lead in big box office successes such as "Rabbit Without Ears" and "1 1/2 Knights."

Recent German epics also include Heinrich Breloer's "Buddenbrooks," "A Woman in Berlin" from Max Farberbock and Philipp Stolzl's "North Face" among others.

Five years ago, financing so many big productions out of Germany would have been inconceivable. But then, in 2006, came the German Federal Film Fund (DFFF). A $78 million annual tax fund, the DFFF has pumped money into U.S. films that shoot in Germany -- Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Stephen Daldry's "The Reader" are DFFF beneficiaries -- but the bulk of the cash has gone to German movies.

"I think a lot of these big epic ideas were lying around, waiting, and the DFFF made them possible," says Benjamin Herrmann, managing director of "John Rabe" producer-distributor Majestic. "Suddenly putting the financing together for more ambitious German movies became feasible."

It's also helped that, for the most part, the films have delivered. "The Baader Meinhof Complex," "Krabat" and "Buddenbrooks" all broke the 1 million admissions mark -- the standard measure of a blockbuster in Germany. Schweiger's "Rabbit Without Ears" sold an astounding 6.2 million tickets, raking in around $55 million and making it the number one film in the territory. As the number of German-language tentpoles has increased, so has their importance to the local market. German productions used to account for 15% of total theatrical revenue here. Now the figure is closer to 30%.

"There's a real audience in Germany for these big films now. They are not the kind of financial risk they used to be," argues Herrmann.

The studios have long recognized the potential of German-language films. The regional office of Warner Bros. now devotes a good chunk of its slate to homegrown product: "Buddenbrooks," "Krabat," "Rabbit Without Ears" and "1 1/2 Knights" were all Warner releases. Disney, Sony and Universal all have local development operations targeting the growing appetite for local lingo titles.

And as budgets and production values go up, so too does the international potential of German films.

"We have big expectations for these films," says Dirk Schuerhoff, managing director at Beta Cinema, which is selling "John Rabe," "Hilde" and "Effi Briest" at the European Film Market (EFM) in Berlin. "We've seen with films like 'Downfall,' 'The Counterfeiters' and 'The Lives Of Others' how well these kind of big German period dramas sell internationally."

Bavaria Film International, which booked solid pre-sales at the EFM last year on the back of its "Buddenbrooks" promo reel, is hoping to do the same this time around with "Henry of Navarre," a medieval war epic from director Jo Baier.

"These are really big films. They have a look and feel that is closer to Hollywood than traditional art house," says Bavaria Film International head Thorsten Ritter.

There is still no shortage of smaller art house titles coming out of Germany -- see Maren Ade's relationship drama "Everyone Else" (in competition in Berlin) or Oskar Roehler's quirky Sundance entry "Lulu and Jimi." But alongside the economy models, German directors can now live large. Filmmakers such as Baier, Wessel or Heinrich Breloer, who up until now have had to make do directing TV dramas and miniseries, can bring their visions to the big screen.

"We have a number of directors who want, and can deliver, the big cinema experience," Schuerhoff says. "Directors like Florian Gallenberger, Hermine Huntgeburth and Kai Wessel tell great stories with a grand historical sweep and a strong emotional core."

Despite this boom, the wave of German epics may have reached its peak. Most of those ambitious projects lying in wait before the DFFF made them possible are now either in prep or already shooting. While funding has gotten easier, no German company, with the exception of Constantin, has shown the capacity to deliver a steady stream of big budget features.

"If you look at the projects in development, there's a move away from the big epics to smaller-scale drama," says

Herrmann of Majestic. "I think this is normal. It would be impossible to keep up the pace that we've seen the last two years."

But while their numbers might go down, the German-made epic is here to stay.

German film companies can't match the assembly-line output of the country's automobile manufacturers, but so long as audiences -- German and international -- keep buying, these movie Mercedes will keep rolling off the line.