X-PORT HITS : X-Filme Abroad
Since 1945, German films have remained relatively modest in their success abroad: To be sure, there have been some over the last decades which have aroused international acclaim, such as, for example, the New German Cinema of the 1960s, the West German melodramas of Fassbinder, as well as such highly awarded productions as "Die Blechtrommel" ("The Tin Drum", 1979), "Der Himmel über Berlin" ("Wings of Desire", 1987) and "Nirgendwo in Afrika" ("Nowhere in Africa", 2001). Yet, generally speaking, German cinema has had to remain satisfied with festival successes. The joy was therefore all the bigger, when "Lola rennt" ("Run Lola Run", 1998) was not only acclaimed by foreign critics, but also overwhelmingly well received by international audiences: "Everything is breathless in the hyperkinetic new German film "Run Lola Run", an audacious, invigorating novelty," wrote Peter Stack in the "San Francisco Chronicle" on the 25th of June, 1999, which was followed by further breathless superlatives from US critics.
The New Fräulein Wonder
For at this time Tom Tykwer's "enjoyable glib and refreshingly terse exercise in big beat and constant motion" (J. Hoberman: "So Long a Go-Go". In: The Village Voice, 16.06.1999) had already been screened at the Toronto and Sundance festivals to wide acclaim and also had found Sony Pictures Classic as an American distributor, which very cleverly marketed Lola, the post-modern Fräulein Wonder, by targeting young urban audiences. X-Filme provided a new image of Germany especially in the USA, away from the Brau-Haus and Dirndl towards a red-haired protagonist now in “radical chic,” reflecting the upheavals waiting to be discovered in today's new German Republic. Yet, even when the dynamic joining of Nouvelle Vague, Euro-Techno and Franka Potente's continual running found an undreamed of resonance among audiences, it is not the first time foreign critics sat up and took notice of X-Filme productions, making them wonder about the possibility of a new renaissance in German cinema.
Already in 1998, Wolfgang Becker's "Das Leben ist eine Baustelle" ("Life Is All You Get", 1997) instigated the following review: "The first of the current resurgence of German films to make it into distribution in the UK, "Life" has to measure up against recent British hits in Europe. It may lack "Trainspotting's" modishness, and Becker's theme of future angst precludes a consistent feelgood factor (in fact, "Life" leaves us none the wiser about its characters' futures, ending with them skating on what we take to be thin ice). But as a wholly engaging European comedy romance with a serious core, it's the full monty" (Richard Falcon, Sight & Sound, August 1998, p. 48). When Falcon presents a positive critique of this film by drawing a parallel with the international successes of British cinema, one is lead to the following consideration: Which qualities make Becker's film interesting to foreign audiences? And are these the very same qualities which may open the way for German cinema to obtain success internationally?
Exportable thanks to Realism
In Falcon's view "Life Is All You Get" does indeed mark a turning point in German cinema: "When Becker was awarded the Federal German film prize for "Life", his film was seen as a return to the German Autorenfilm of the 70's and predictably, he was mentioned in the same breath as Fassbinder. But despite the film's underlying critical melancholy, this seems wide of the mark. Becker's own reference points are Loach and Mike Leigh, both British film-makers whose films increasingly serve as the benchmarks for those hoping to put "real life" on the screen. This is especially true in Germany, where recent non-exportable hits such as "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" have been pastiches of US genres" (Richard Falcon, Sight & Sound, August 1998, p. 48). With his reference to "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" – at any rate an immense domestic success – as being non-exportable, Falcon puts into question a production strategy that has been followed in Germany since the 1960s: namely, the attempt to break Hollywood's dominance by copying its subjects and story lines.
"G" for Germany
This strategy is dramatically refuted by such films as "Life Is All You Get" and "Run, Lola, Run." For they use the whole artistic spectrum ranging from Autorenfilm to Genre cinema for their own original stories, which are played out in a decidedly “German” background. What finally unites Becker's poetic Social Realism and Tykwer's Hyper-Realism despite all their differences is the specific feel for location: a location which is unmistakeningly Germany. Here, action takes place in a setting which lends the characters and their conflicts nuances, which no local unspecified genre surrogate can provide. This is precisely what attracts international audiences: having a universal story which you can follow, with characteristic features that enable you to discover another world.
Spreewald Pickles for the World
Of course, Wolfgang Becker's film "Good Bye, Lenin!" is rich in such features, with its effective restaging of the GDR collapse. In her essay "East of Eden," Dana Iordanova links this film with Becker's and Tykwer's other "Berlin films": "Then came the films set in the Berlin, such as Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run" (1998) or Wolfgang Becker's local hit, co written by Tykwer, "Life Is All You Get" (1997). East Berlin had changed. The once run-down Prenzlauer Berg (location of DEFA's 1979 cult classic "Solo Sunny"), now became the center of cool, with GDR nostalgia spawning renovated retro premises where – as seen in "Good Bye, Lenin!" – young girls wear Russian nurse uniforms as a fashion statement. But "Good Bye, Lenin!" has a unique place in this Berlin series because of the film's radical revision of the Wall's narrative standing: in most other Berlin films the Wall is the problem; here it is its absence that causes complications" (Dana Iordanova, "East of Eden", Sight & Sound, August 2003, p. 27).
Despite widespread enthusiasm, criticisms concerning the a-political concept of "Ostalgie" are mixed up with the interest shown by international critics towards the East Berlin settings - mostly perceived as rather curious – with their unique supply of products: "What "Goodbye, Levin!" never quite deals with is the wrong-headedness of its heroine. Imagine a film named "Goodbye, Hitler!" in which a loving son tries to protect his cherished mother from news of the fall of the Third Reich" (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 26.03.2004). Mark Jenkins of the "Washington Post" refutes this assessment, claiming that the film is quite capable of ideological criticism: "Yet beneath the family saga and easy digs at the tackiness of Western consumer culture, Becker presents a serious critique of authoritarianism and propaganda. Alex and Denis essentially create a new regime for Christiane, using nothing but lies and videotape. This aspect of the film recalls Jerzy Skolimowksi's similarly themed (if more trenchant) "Moonlighting", a masterly 1982 tale of Polish workers in London, secluded by their boss from any knowledge of the crackdown on Solidarity occurring at home" (Mark Jenkins, "Hello, Good Bye", Washington Post, 19.03.2004).
Speaking the Universal Language of Film
This is similarly seen by J. Hoberman: ""Good Bye, Lenin!" is overlong and a bit tiresome but it's actually about something – not so much ostalgie as the conditions that create it. That Communism itself was a fake facade makes Alex's imaginary motherland the simulation of a simulation. There's a haunting quality to his bittersweet realization that "the DDR I created for her became the one I would have wished for"" (J. Hoberman, Village Voice, 25.02. – 02.03.2004). In his review, Richard Falcon attests to the exportability of this X-Film: ""Good Bye, Lenin!" could have remained at the level of farce and contented itself with riding the current wave of partly fetishistic "ostalgie" among an audience who may have been children in the GDR and grown to maturity in post-unification Germany. Instead it becomes increasingly emotionally intricate without sacrificing humour or accessibility to non-German audiences" (Richard Falcon, Sight & Sound, September 2003, p. 52). In this way, X-Filme Creative Pool with their three rather different films in terms of form and content - interestingly, all three playing in Berlin – have perhaps actually opened up a new and promising path to international audiences: using the universal language of film to emphasize that which is specifically your own.