Wave of films tackle Nazi horrors

'Reader,' 'John Rabe' among Berlinale titles

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BERLIN -- Stephen Daldry will likely be holding his breath before Friday's Berlinale premiere of "The Reader."

The Oscar-nominated drama starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes already has drawn the slings and arrows of U.S. critics for its mixing of an erotic love story with the history of the Holocaust. Berlin will be the film's first screening in front of a German audience and Sturm und Drang from the local press seems inevitable.

But when it comes to the film's boxoffice prospects here, Daldry, "Reader" producers the Weinstein Co. and local distributor Senator Film can take heart. German audiences are still hungry for Holocaust drama.

"The Reader" is the latest in a seemingly unprecedented wave of films that deal, in some way, with the Nazi horror and its aftermath.

From Bryan Singer's "Valkyrie," to Paul Schrader's "Adam Resurrected," from Daniel Craig starrer "Defiance" to "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" to Quentin Tarantino's upcoming war epic "Inglourious Basterds," the darkest era of German history continues to prove an inexhaustible source of new material.

And that's just the U.S. films. Germany is in the midst of its own, homegrown World War II boom, with high-profile titles including Berlinale Special entry "John Rabe" from Florian Gallenbrerger, Max Farberbock's "A Woman in Berlin," "North Face" from Phillip Stolzl and Ole Christian Madsen's German-Danish production "Flame & Citron" to name only the most recent.

Despite fears of "Holocaust burnout," the films continue to perform. "Valkyrie" debuted at No. 1 in Germany and is on its way to crack the 1 million admissions mark -- a rule-of-thumb measure for a hit in the territory. "North Face," a mountain-climbing drama set in the 1930s, sold more than half a million tickets -- impressive for a local-language title. And Senator has high hopes for "The Reader."

"We expect it to be a very big film in Germany," Senator CEO Helge Sasse told The Hollywood Reporter. "It is an epic and universal love story and not really a 'Holocaust' film."

Actually, none of this new wave of movies is a typical Holocaust film. If, by that, you mean the drama focuses, as it does in "Schindler's List" or "Sophie's Choice," on the grim horrors of the Shoah.

"Valkyrie" is an action thriller whose heroes are German military officers and card-carrying Nazis. "Adam Resurrected" is set in the 1960s and is more surreal than historical. Even Mark Herman's "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas," which is set in a concentration camp, is billed as a story "of innocence lost and humanity found" not a story of the murder of millions of Jews.

"I don't think the world needs another Holocaust film, for me personally," Paul Schrader told THR ahead of the Berlinale premiere of "Adam" on Saturday. "And I don't see 'Adam' as a Holocaust film. For me, what pulled me in was the metaphor of the dog -- a man that used to be a dog meets a dog that used to be a boy. When I read that, I was hooked."

For some critics, that's the problem. A recent article in leading German newsweekly Der Spiegel chastised filmmakers such as Daldry, Singer and Schrader for having insufficient respect in dealing with the Holocaust. The story should serve the history, the argument goes, not the other way around.

"In films like 'Sophie's Choice,' the love story was just a part of the real story of the Holocaust," the Spiegel authors wrote. "In 'The Reader,' the Holocaust is just part of the love story."

"It's the old argument that you can't make art about the Holocaust, which is a valid point," Schrader said. "I don't agree with that argument, but I respect the position."

But whatever some critics say, the films continue to sell.

As the European Film Market kicked off, Strand Releasing picked up U.S. rights to Farberbock's "A Woman in Berlin" from Beta Cinema. The film, starring Nina Hoss, is set in 1945 Berlin, when the Russian Red Army began to enact brutal revenge on German civilians for the crimes of the Nazis.

"We've had a good experience with these kind of epic historical dramas, starting with 'Downfall' and including 'The Counterfeiters,' 'North Face' and so on," Beta Cinema managing director Dirk Schurhoff said. "There is a real demand for them internationally."

In fact, a good chunk of Beta's EFM slate is either Nazi-themed or Nazi-adjacent. In addition to "John Rabe," "A Woman in Berlin" and "North Face," Beta is shopping around Kaspar Heidelbach's buzz title "Berlin 1936," which is based on the true story of Jewish-German athlete Gretel Gergman, who was forced off the German Olympic team ahead of the Berlin Olympics. The upcoming title stars Karoline Herfurth, who, coincidentally, also has a small part in "The Reader."