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Highlights - 07/08/2006

 

Paris Cinema: The Berlin School and the fragile existence of its films in the cinemas

 

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The last Berlinale attracted the attention of international critics on the quality of current German film production. Since then, the main prize-winning films, Requiem and Atomised, have been distributed successfully in Germany and are now being released in the rest of Europe. Very recently, the Paris Cinema festival decided to honour the directors, also present in Berlin, who have subsequently joined together as the 'Berlin School'. These more fragile films which share the same desire to describe German society by seeing it through the eyes of teenagers, the family and couples, are being released in theatres, but in difficult economic situations. Thus, still as part of Paris Cinema, a workshop devoted to the subject of micro-releases has highlighted the fragility of the existence of these films in French cinemas, using as an example the two first films by Christoph Hochhäusler.

The last Berlinale granted a very special place to German films, not just in all its sections but also to winning films such as Requiem, the new film by Hans-Christian Schmid (best actress and FIPRESCI prize), which has since been distributed in German and Austrian cinemas and is to be released in France and the Netherlands in October. In Germany, nearly 100,000 filmgoers had seen the film by the end of May.

Even more impressive is the success of Oskar Roehler's Atomised, which won the prize for best actor in Berlin, and which was seen by nearly 800,000 filmgoers in German cinemas. The film was also distributed in Italy and the United Kingdom and is to be released in France at the end of August and in the Netherlands in October.

Two other German feature films won prizes in Berlin: The Free Will (by Matthias Glasner), perhaps the most appreciated by critics, and which will be released in Germany at the end of August, and Knallhart (by Detlev Buck), Europa Cinemas Label in the Panorama section, since then released in Germany, Austria and Italy. The film attracted 130,000 people in German cinemas.
The 4th Paris Cinema festival took place three weeks ago, particularly in some cinemas members of Europa Cinemas (L'Arlequin, L'Entrepôt, Le Latina, Le Reflet Médicis, Le Studio des Ursulines, Le Saint-Germain-Des-Prés, Le Saint-André-des-Arts, L'Ecran). In its international competition as well as in a programme schedule entitled 'Improvement in German films', this festival took another look at some of the filmmakers now grouped under the banner 'Berlin School'.

While it's not a 'new wave' - these filmmakers do not claim to be reviving cinematographic art - these films do share a desire to describe Germany of today through characters such as teenagers, young women and couples, in a realist manner but without, however, denying themselves a few poetic departures. Produced with limited financial resources and influenced by French, Iranian, Asian and documentary cinematographies, these films are, nevertheless, anything but inaccessible and do not allow their artistic pretensions to dominate their intentions.

Three recent films, all second films, shown during Paris Cinema were: Lucy, Sehnsucht and Montag Kommen die Fenster.
With Lucy, Henner Winckler is again interested, after the much commented School Trip (Klassenfahrt), in a teenage character who finds himself at odds with the group. But where in his first film the differences arose more from the personality of his central character, here they are caused by the weight brought by a baby to the teenage desires of his too young mother. Closely following the latter's indecision and her contradictory wishes - in particular, to set up as a couple with a young man in all appearances not ready to look after a baby - the filmmaker creates suspense reminiscent of the films of the Dardenne brothers. But here the tension is released many times over and the portrait of this adolescent, fragile both economically and psychologically speaking - does she just want something? - becomes that of youth at breaking point. The film was released in French cinemas on 19 July, a few days after its release in Germany.

Sehnsucht is the second film by Valeska Grisebach after Mein Stern, a portrait of Berlin teenagers. This maker of documentaries, who studied at the Filmakademie in Vienna, and is linked in particular with Jessica Hausner (Hotel), provides here a very gentle narrative of a destructive passion. In a village near Berlin, a young couple has lived in perfect harmony since, it seems, the beginning of time. The man, a voluntary fire fighter, goes to a neighbouring town to undergo training and wakes up one morning in the bed of the restaurant waitress without knowing what he is doing there. In his determination to find out what happened, he falls in love with this woman. And finds himself pinned between his two loves, eaten away by guilt.
With an almost documentary approach and taking care to depict her characters in an increasingly present ambience, the filmmaker manages, in a miraculous way, to make the filmgoer feel the links between the characters, played by amateur actors, with a minimum of effects and words.
At the time of its screening, the film had no French distributor. It is to be released in Germany at the end of the summer.

Finally, Montag Kommen die Fenster by Ulrich Köhler is another film shown at the Berlinale and then at the Paris Cinema festivals. This will be released in France in October and is also a second film. Nina has just moved to a small town with her husband and daughter. The windows are to arrive on Monday and then, at last, the house will be ready. But one evening Nina escapes, spends the night at her brother's home, and then wanders the corridors of a large mountain hotel. There she has an improbable meeting with a tennisman who's playing an exhibition match (played by Ilie Nastase), before returning to daily life. But this escape has affected her husband deeply and the couple's life can no longer be the same. Through him, the filmmaker invites us to challenge the markers of middle class.
These films, although welcomed by critics, have a hard existence when they are released in cinemas. A debate on the subject of micro-releases (on less than 10 prints) revealed the difficulties faced by small distributors, in the presence of Yann Kacou (ASC Distribution), Emmanuel Atlan (Zootrope Films) and Eric Lagesse (Pyramide).
The latter, who releases about fifteen films a year, rarely opts for a release with few prints, which is the result of a failure, proof of a lack of curiosity on the part of the press and cinema exhibitors towards a film he had purchased while aiming higher.

On the other hand, for the first two distributors, it is, rather, a strategy guided by the prevailing economy, even if the number of prints is ultimately dictated by the response of exhibitors during test screenings, as with Lucy, for which the French organisation GNCR had organised a screening. According to Yann Kacou, exhibitors responded well, inciting him to release the film with 6 prints on 19 July.

In terms of money, it seems impossible to a small distributor to see his investment reimbursed by a cinema release. For example, Yann Kacou quotes the case of This Very Moment (Milchwald), whose release (including all costs and low guaranteed minimum) cost him 60,000 euros. The release in cinemas would have been profitable with 30,000 admissions but, with 5 prints, the film attracted 12,000 people (a good result). From that point, a distributor's profitability can be assured only through sales to television channels. So, Emmanuel Atlan explains, a sale to a hertzian channel every two years would ensure his continued activity. But this is far from the case today.
The latter, bolstered by his experience with the recent release of Falscher Bekenner, the second film by Christoph Hochhäusler following This Very Moment, released with 9 prints and which will not achieve more than 6,000 admissions, believes there has been a recent, negative development since he had to battle to find cinemas, despite very good press. Yann Kacou supports this view, quoting the case of Guernsey, the second film by the Dutch filmmaker Nanouk Leopold, for whom critics predict a good future: exhibitors responded that today such a film could no longer survive.

All emphasised the importance of cinema involvement in the success of some of their films, Yann Kacou quoting in particular the importance of 7 Parnassiens and 3 Luxembourg cinemas, both members of Europa Cinemas, in the success of This Very Moment. These distributors also welcomed the involvement of the multiplex UGC Ciné Cité les Halles. Its director, Antoine Cabot, emphasised his willingness to retain difficult films on the programme schedule for longer. But today everything is moving on apace and in 3 weeks he will change all the films on the multiplex's programme.

Jean-Baptiste Selliez