Comic Relief for German Movies

By Ann Brocklehurst

Originally published in the International Herald Tribune, Wednesday, October 20, 1993

The filmmaker Detlev Buck is walking down the Kurfürstendamm discussing the subject now on most European filmmakers’ minds and lips: namely, why American films so dominate the European market. He stops in front of one of West Berlin’s biggest cinema houses, where eight movies are showing – six from the United States, one from France and one from Germany.
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It’s a perfect opportunity to launch into a tirade about cultural imperialism. But Buck is a comedian – a director, writer and actor – who dislikes what he calls the “pointing finger.” A lecture on how the GATT trade talks might deprive the European film industry of its subsidies would be distinctly out of character.
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Instead, Buck remarks that the lone German film is, in his opinion, a bad one and reflects on the lack of talented young European filmmakers. “There is no new François Truffaut in Europe today,” he says, referring to one of his favorite directors. “There isn’t one in France or in Germany or in England.”
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At 30, Buck is one of the few new stars in the gloomy world of German cinema, where the market share of domestically produced films has sunk to new lows. His film “Wir Können Auch Anders” (“There’s Another Way to Do It”) shared the Federal German Film Prize. The movie is a black comedy in the road movie genre. Two Western German brothers chart unknown territory as they head eastward to claim an inheritance. Buck, who co-wrote the film with the cartoonist Ernst Kahl, had his original inspiration in the pre-unification days and had intended to set the story in Western Germany. He later switched the locale to the “wild east” to take advantage of visual and narrative elements.
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As a comedian, Buck’s specialty is capturing quirks of character and the small absurdities of daily life. Eastern Germany provides plenty of fodder. German audiences, familiar with many of the situations and easily convinced of the veracity of others, have been rolling in the aisles. The critics have also been impressed. But so far, few foreign rights have been sold and it remains to be seen whether foreigners will find some of the more “in” German jokes anything to laugh about.
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Buck, the son of a north German farmer, studied agriculture before switching to film and had his first success in 1984 with a student project about a farm boy meeting a chic Hamburg girl. His first feature length movie was about a young country cop having trouble settling down in his job. Since those films appeared, Buck says, he keeps having to turn down offers to “make something funny set in the country.”
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Buck is hopeful that Germany’s current recession, its worst since the end of World War II, might bring about changes that will give a chance to new young filmmakers.
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“No one risks anything in Germany,” Buck says. “Germans aren’t anarchists. They’re anxious. They worry about security. They think about the status quo.”
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And when Germans go to the movies, it seems, they want to forget their anxiety and laugh. Although the image of German films abroad is a serious one, shaped by filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders in the ’70s and ’80s, almost the only movies Germans will now pay to see, apart from American blockbusters, are comedies.
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Some of the movies, like “Wir Können Auch Anders” and the more slapstick “Go Trabi Go,” make use of post-unification plots and motifs. Others, like Doris Dörrie’s late ’80s hit “Männer” (“Men”), are more universal in theme. Dörrie’s film, one of the few German comedies to play abroad, found a worthy successor this summer in 26-year-old Katja von Garnier’s charmingly funny “Abgeschminkt” (“Without Makeup”), all about the problems men and women continue to have figuring each other out in the ’90s.
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That this 55-minute-long student film project even reached cinemas in the first place makes it a very rare exception to the rule. Most films produced in Germany are made for television, a trend that Buck says has strengthened notably over the past few years.
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“The whole cinema setup in Germany has changed,” Buck said. “Small repertory cinemas have almost completely disappeared. They all went bankrupt.”
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