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Jeff Nichols’ new thriller Midnight Special leads the Berlinale’s main competition program, as Germany frets over its artistic standing.
Jeff Nichols’ new thriller Midnight Special leads the Berlinale’s main competition program, as Germany frets over its artistic standing.

As Berlinale kicks off, Germans frets over future of homegrown cinema Add to ...

The cover of the February’s edition of Exberliner – an English-language culture magazine aimed at expats living in Germany’s capital – boasts a tantalizing headline. So much so that when I spotted it in the window of a bookshop in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighbourhood on Tuesday evening, a few hours after having arrived in town, I said, “Oooh!” out loud, turned on my heel, and marched inside to drop three euros on a copy, total sucker that I am.

The headline, laid out in big block-letter font, screams: DOES GERMAN FILM HAVE A FUTURE? It seemed so alluringly goading and contrarian. Here, where one of the world’s largest film festivals is rolling out its red carpets and buffing its coveted Golden Bear statuettes, where the bus stops and U-Bahn stations and well-graffitied alleyways are plastered with glossy posters advertising the 66th Berlinale (aka the Berlin International Film Festival), a magazine was wondering if their national film culture even had a future.

In their cover story, Ruth Schneider and Zhuo-Ning Su lament the waning prestige of German cinema. “Can cinephiles today even name a great living German director besides Herzog or Wenders?” they ask. “Where are the Fassbinders of today’s Deutsches Kino?”

To be fair, whinging that no German cinema movement has proved as influential or productive as the New German Cinema movement circa 1962-1982ish is bit of a non-starter, as one could argue that no national cinema movement since has proved as influential or productive as the New German Cinema. And also, last year wielded two German films that made a major impact in international circuits: the adrenaline-jacked single-take film Victoria, and the Hitchcockian Second World War drama Phoenix, directed by Christian Petzold, who is perhaps the closest thing contemporary German cinema has to a household name. (The so-called “Berlin School” of filmmaking and thinking, emerging in the early 21st century, and from which Petzold graduated, proved popular among the festival-going cinephile set, but its impact was little felt outside such cloisters.)

Bracketing these as the sorts of exceptions that tend to prove the rule, Schneider and Su account for the dimming of Germany’s cinematic light: funding bodies shuffling money to Hollywood co-productions like The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Monuments Men (both of which screened at the Berlinale in 2014), the cultural ascendency of “premium TV,” a focus on generic money-makers over the more challenging stuff, and so on. In a way, it’s refreshing to see a national film culture suffer from this sort of acute existential crisis. Canadian cinephiles can surely relate.

But if there’s no worthwhile national film culture in Germany, if German films have no future, then why do Berliners seem to go ga-ga for their annual film fete?

The Berlinale is reminiscent of the Toronto International Film Festival, in the sense that it’s a festival geared toward the filmgoing public (as opposed to press and industry types) that tries to find a happy medium between Hollywood “indies” and artier, international cinema. And, as with TIFF, the public seems to care about the Berlinale not because of its function in promoting national cinema (though it does plenty of that), but in its capacity to attract Hollywood stars to red carpets. Which, I suppose, is fair. To quote The Office’s David Brent, “people like to see famous people.”

The festival’s opening ceremony – yes, it has an opening ceremony, like the Olympics – is pitched as a “star-studded” gala, that sees German bureaucrats (Mayor of Berlin Michael Müller! Minister of State and Federal Government Commissioner for Culture Monika Grütters!) awkwardly hobnobbing with Hollywood stars like George Clooney and Channing Tatum (both of whom appear in the festival’s opening film, Hail, Caesar!). It’s the sort of almost-otherworldly spectacle that typifies a festival like this: the eager, amusing, “Hey, us, too!” theatrics.

Like any worthwhile film festival, the Berlinale’s richer pleasures lay beyond such silliness. The festival’s Forum program has become, for many, reason enough to attend the festival. (It’s not uncommon to hear of festival-goers who only go to Forum screenings, much as a certain breed of cinephile congregates at TIFF exclusively for the carefully curated Wavelengths program.) Collecting experimental films, docu-fiction, and (per the programme’s brochure) “long-term observations,” this year’s Forum slate boasts work from a handful of Canadian talents, including Nicolás Pereda and Andrea Bussmann’s Tales of Two Who Dreamt and Kazik Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer.

Major Canadian talent has also muscled its way into the main competition program. French-Canadian auteur Denis Coté’s psychological thriller Boris sans Béatrice, starring the inimitably versatile Denis Lavant, squares off against films by the Coen brothers, Alex Gibney, Jeff Nichols, Mia Hansen-Løve, Lav Diaz and more than a dozen others for the Berlinale’s top prize – that shiny Golden Bear.

Elsewhere, in the Generation 14plus program, Québécois filmmaker Chloé Leriche captures the meandering rhythms of daily life and a personal search for identity in Avant les rues, a film made in collaboration with members of the Atikamekw First Nations community.

As for homegrown German stuff, well, there’s David Wnendt’s crowd-pleasing comedy Look Who’s Back, based on the improbably best-selling German novel that imagines Adolf Hitler suddenly waking up on the spot of his old bunker, 70 years after his death, and beginning a second career as a super-popular TV star. It’s the sort of pitch-black satire that seems like it would only fly in Germany.

And hey, if even Der Führer can make a comeback, maybe there’s hope yet for the presumed-dead canon of German cinema itself.

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