The Other Hollywood of the South: Movie-Making in Munich, Germany

Travel Journalism, Summer 2018

MUNICH– “We Have a Mission.” These four simple words embody the mindset of the students and professors at the University of Television and Film in Munich. This mission, defined by changing the way in which German citizens view German cinema, may finally have a chance to come to fruition in the coming years.

The Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film, or HFF, is located in the square named after Bernd Eichinger, the late Oscar-winning alumnus. The entire area is designated for the building, which is guarded by an ever-changing array of trailers, tables, and tents. All of the color is accompanied by a statue of the bottom half of a man bent over, one of the only constants among the breeding ground of change. It is not that you would guess that it is a film school; it is more that you would not be surprised by this fact.

Sanctioned into existence by the German government in 1966, the HFF has worked for 51 years to change the conversation surrounding German film and television.  The HFF is one of the most well-respected German film institutions, with notable alumni including Roland Emmerich, Doris Dörie, and Oscar-winner Caroline Link.

“Munich is a city with a long history in filmmaking,” said screen-writing alumnus and coordinator Bernd Blaschke. “I think we have a lot of a film industry here in our city and that makes the HFF interesting for students, because they have a network here and they can use it.”

Munich owes credit to the city’s rich history for its impactful presence in the movie-making world in Germany. Berlin once held the title of the epicenter of movie-making and movie culture in Germany, while Munich came onto the scene due to the lack of interference during the Cold War and the division of Germany.  

Located in former West Germany, Munich is the birthplace of ‘New German Cinema,’ the genre of German art-house films which set in motion the growth in Germany’s film industry. The country’s war-torn past has had an incredible impact on what is considered the acceptable German film genre.

“We used to have these genre and big topics in the twenties and after the Nazi regime and the Second World War, it [broke] down,” said Blaschke. “So after those horrible things, we couldn’t, or Germans couldn’t just go on with that easily. And so movies here changed ­– they changed to softer movies that didn’t hurt anybody. Comedies about little problems. So, comedy is our thing, but all the other genres, which include violence, like Noire, they’re pretty difficult for us.”

Since the reunification of Germany, the Academy has awarded nine Oscar nominations and two wins for Best Foreign Film to German films. All but one of these films depicted issues surrounding Nazism, World War I, or World War II. The two winners, The Lives of Others and Nowhere in Africa (directed by HFF alumnus Caroline Link), serve as prime examples of World War II drama films.

Professors and professionals are not the only ones who feel the difference in German filmmaking versus the style of an American blockbuster. Screenwriting student Anna-Lena Pietzner commented on how her training at the HFF focused specifically on writing for German productions.

“We kind of write for a different audience,” said Pietzner. “It’s like not that specific. It’s much more. It has to be for everyone.”

This is the way the German cinematic genre is defined currently, but Pietzner is hopeful for the future of German cinema.

“I think that’s developing and it’s like more young people writing for television and film,” said Pietzner. “And I think that’s the right direction.”

Like their predecessors, students studying at the HFF want to focus on creating German content that may see success not only in Germany but abroad.

“Personally, I would like to try to work here in Germany, and a dream would be to be allowed to make a film for theaters,” said screenwriting student Katharina Kiesl.

Kiesl gave her interview in German, so the specific word she used to describe the movie she wished to make was “Kinofilm,” or a theatrical film. The reason for her distinction of “Kinofilm” rather than a general movie is that Germany’s film production is heavily concentrated in smaller made-for-TV movies.

“It is harder to show a German film in theaters,” said Kiesl. “Comedies do okay, and dramas too, but we see also that there are no German horror films in theaters. On television, it is different, but theaters are not as kind to German productions.”

In surveying lists of showings in different movie theaters in Munich, I discovered that most only show one or two German movies at a time, and some do not even show German movies at all. Many of the “German” movies shown are actually just American films which have been dubbed. A special German movie night may show films such as Der Seidene Faden, aka The Phantom Thread, but dubbed.

“The people want German and European topics as well as they want the American cinema.”

Bernd Blaschke

Fortunately, The German film industry has combated this issue through newfound success on other platforms.

“We are now experiencing a boom of the nonlinear television,” said Blaschke. “We have a lot of other opportunities with Netflix and the non-linear television.”

The most recent German Netflix series, Dark, is especially hopeful for German film and television creators, as it a high-concept science fiction series. This is a genre specifically lacking in major German productions. Babylon Berlin, another Netflix series, is a historical drama focusing on a police inspector in Cologne during the Weimar Republic.  

“It gives us opportunities to work here and be more specific about European topics and German topics,” said Blaschke. “The people want German and European topics as well as they want the American cinema.”

Netflix and Amazon have renewed a sense of hope in the future of German cinema in the HFF students as well.

“The series Dark is currently running successfully in the U.S., so I’ve heard, as well as Babylon Berlin, so the conversation around TV series is already changing a bit,” said Kiesl. “Obviously, I hope that German films will get more attention abroad in the future, but as for right now, we just wait and see.”

Many, such as Blaschke, believe that this development will lead to a shift in the curriculum at the university, as it introduces different tactics necessary to engage this broader audience. This change may shift the way of thinking at the HFF, but those teaching and learning there are more than ready for the challenge.

“It’s a good place with a think tank can come together,” said Blaschke. “This will affect [the] whole [of] Germany, not only Munich.”

Up Next…German Senior Seminar