Why German cinema today is more provoking than ever

Gegen die wand
In depth 25 May 2020
For its 47th programme, Film Fest Ghent is looking at the cinematographic lay of the land in neighbouring country Germany. Programme Director Wim De Witte and programmer Michiel Philippaerts delineate why the contemporary cinema of our neighbours is so extremely compelling. "It is certain that the diversity has never been so great."

The rebirth of German cinema

Four years ago, ‘Toni Erdmann’ by Maren Ade sent cinephile shockwaves through Cannes: critics wrote enthusiastically about the ‘revival of German cinema’, while film distributors got into a bidding war for the film rights. The fresh, German comedy was the front-runner of the Croisette and the fact that Maren Ade returned home empty-handed, was considered to be a disgrace. ‘Toni Erdmann’ is not just another comedy, but one that touches on father-daughter relations, just as much as it touches on neo-colonial dynamics in Europe. This being the first German film in competition since 2008 (the maligned ‘Palermo Shooting’ by Wim Wenders), strengthened the discourse of a 'German rebirth'.

German cinema has -of course- never been gone, which makes such a statement seem rather awkwardly simplifying. However, there is still some truth to it, as the heydays of German expressionism during the Weimar Republic and the Neuer Deutscher Film that was brought forth by Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz with the Oberhausen Manifesto in 1962, are well in the past. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta are only a few of the directors that made a name for themselves on the international circuit between the 1960s and the 1980s with their counter-cinema – “indies avant la lettre”, as film theorist Eric Rentschler aptly described them. The ‘Gegenbilder’ that this generation gave preference to, challenged the simplified imagery of their national cinema and dared to represent the country in all its complexities. The death of Fassbinder in 1982 heralded the symbolic ending of this period. Check out our website in the upcoming weeks for more extensive texts about this period.

Searching for an identity

However, film journalists often seem to forget that even post-Fassbinder, ‘Autorenkino’ lived on. There are many reasons for this collective amnesia, that in their turn explain the myth of ‘the rebirth of German cinema’ with ‘Toni Erdmann’. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification in 1989, Germany was confronted with an identity crisis; the social and cultural differences were significant. Out of the ruins of the Wall arose a new generation, that wanted to grasp the doubtful psyche of the German and did not feel much for yet another conventional war film. The films that these new filmmakers made, were resolutely substantiated in the present and instead took up a questioning and observing position.

Film historians and -academics baptized them as the Berliner Schule, because the three key figures (Christian Petzold, Angela Schanelec and Thomas Arslan) had all studied at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin. As they shared only a few thematic or stylistic commonalities and as the movement didn’t introduce itself with a political manifest like their forefathers of the Neuer Deutscher Film, the Berliner Schule was a lot less ‘marketable’. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why so little of their films made it to the Belgian cinemas and why screenings were often restricted to the festival circuit. Nonetheless, the slow pace and rigid formalism of Arslan and Schanelec probably weren’t a big help either. Only Petzold (‘Transit’, ‘Undine’) seemed to be able to ensure international distribution more easily with his somewhat romantic stamp; the fact that he chose the star actress Nina Hoss – and more recently Paula Beer – as the face of the disoriented Germany presumably helped him.

The new guard

In the meantime we are some years down the line and since then, the three filmmakers that profiled themselves at the turn of the millennium, have been accompanied by peers of their own age - and a younger generation, that is very clearly following in their footsteps. Maren Ade, Valeska Grisebach, Ulrich Köhler and Christoph Hochäusler: filmmakers who are not only inspired by the movement, but who also absorbed the criticism the Berliner Schule often received. One by one, they deconstructed the often uncompromising frameworks of their predecessors and allowed genre-elements (e.g. from the film noir, the western, the thriller) into their films. Moreover, the geo-political canvas was expanded – consider ‘Western’ by Grisebach that takes place in Bulgaria, or ‘Toni Erdmann’ by Ade, in Romania. The new movement is no longer restricting itself to the boundaries of its own country, but explores the unstable and asymmetrical power relations in Europe – or even wider, in the globalized world. Meanwhile, the Turkish-German director Fatih Akin made a case for minority groups in Germany at a young age. By winning the Golden Bear in 2004 with ‘Gegen die Wand’, he was immediately catapulted to international relevancy.


Germany has six important film schools (Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film München, Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen Potsdam-Babelsberg, Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin, Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln, Internationale Filmschule Köln) with a strong international reputation. Moreover, a lot of debuting filmmakers are offered the chance to produce a film and never before, more German films were made each year, even though this is not always translated into the best qualitative cinema. Nonetheless, it is certain that the diversity has never been so great. The welcome wake-up call of the Berliner Schule at the turn of the century triggered the German cinema to be provocative again: “Kino muss gefährlich sein!”, as they postulated it themselves in the film magazine Revolver. Looking at young talents suchlike Nora Fingscheidt, Burhan Qurbani, Eliza Petkova and Xaver Böhm, we can only remark that the future looks bright. Do we really have to wait for awards in Cannes before we are going to admit that?

Wim De Witte, Programme Director Film Fest Ghent.

Michiel Philippaerts, programmer Film Fest Ghent.