The opening of the 2015 edition of the Berlin film festival is set to herald a new mood of confidence in German cinema, as new films from the fabled 70s generation of auteurs such as Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog sit alongside offerings from prominent film-makers of more recent vintage, led by Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel.
It is Wenders’ return to scripted feature film-making, with the psychological drama Every Thing Will Be Fine, that is arguably the festival’s headline event.
Wenders, who acts almost as an eminence grise for the Berlinale, making regular appearances there whether or not he has a film in competition, has concentrated largely on documentary and essay films for the last decade, with only the little-seen and poorly-reviewed Palermo Shooting in 2008 breaking the pattern.
Highlights from this period includes the dance film Pina, a 3D study of the work of choreographer Pina Bausch, and The Salt of the Earth, an Oscar-nominated account of the career of famed photographer Sebastião Salgado, co-directed with Salgado’s son Juliano.
Now, however, Wenders will unveil his new English-language drama, for which he has secured an impressive cast, including James Franco, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Rachel McAdams. Franco plays a man who kills a child in a car accident, and is haunted for years afterwards; the Berlin festival says it “carefully and precisely tells a story of guilt and the search for forgiveness”.
Like Pina, and Cathedrals of Culture, the architecture film Wenders produced and contributed to, Every Thing Will Be Fine will be shot in 3D – a highly unusual move for a film that is not an action or fantasy movie.
Tim Slagman, film critic for Spiegel Online, is among those looking forward to Wenders’ return to drama. “It will be very interesting,” he says, “to see how a director, who has done great work investigating matters of architecture in Cathedrals of Culture and movement in Pina, has approached a film that is supposed to be a psychological drama. Let’s see how thoughts, feelings, words are rendered in three dimensions.” Wenders will be joined at Berlin by another prominent figure of German cinema’s establishment. Werner Herzog is bringing Queen of the Desert to Berlin, a biopic of English turn-of-the-century traveller and diplomat Gertrude Bell, who was instrumental in the creation of Iraq in the 1920s after the region gained independence from the Ottoman empire.
Like Wenders, Herzog has been able to assemble an impressive cast, including Nicole Kidman as Bell, Robert Pattinson as TE Lawrence, and Franco again as Bell’s lover Henry Cadogan.
In some ways, Wenders and Herzog’s careers have run in parallel: both leading lights of West Germany’s New Cinema movement in the 1970s, they both saw their fortunes founder in the 1990s and eventually found success in documentary-making.
However, Herzog persisted with feature film-making, largely in the US, and slowly re-established himself as a force, with films such as 2007’s Rescue Dawn (a remake of one of his own documentaries, Little Dieter Needs to Fly) and 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
A younger generation is represented by Oliver Hirschbiegel, who helped kickstart a revival in the country’s interest in its wartime history with his 2004 film Downfall. After an unhappy sojourn in English-language film-making, which culminated in the poorly received Princess Diana biopic, Diana, Hirschbiegel has re-emerged with a film on what may be considered safer territory: an account of the real-life 1939 attempt by carpenter Georg Elser to assassinate Hitler. In Slagman’s opinion, “what Hirschbiegel does really well is turn history into entertainment and – in the case of Downfall – into awe-inspiring art”.
Positive critics’ judgments on these three films will be key in establishing whether German cinema is experiencing a proper revival of its fortunes, although they may well be overshadowed by a film not even competing for Berlin’s Golden Bear. Wednesday 11 February sees the unveiling of the movie adaptation of EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, assured no doubt of massive commercial impact whatever the critical verdict after its trailer was named the most viewed of 2014.
The Berlin film festival runs until 15 February.