In July 1990 the West's currency replaced the East's, and by early October performances in downtown Berlin of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and a massive fireworks display signaled the end to two Germanies. The shift back to Berlin as the sole capital heralded a shift in the political landscape, as the conservative government in power since 1982 gave way in 1998 to a center-left coalition of the Social Democrats and the Green Party, the most durable product of the dissenting generation of the 1960s. The Federal Republic subsequently joined the European common currency zone, and thus has continued its role as the pivotal state in an expanded European Union.
Established filmmakers—Beyer; Herzog; Wenders, going back and forth between Berlin and the United States; Schlöndorff; Kluge, with his social commentaries through private TV; and von Trotta—continue to make films. They have been joined by another generation: Tom Tykwer (b. 1965), Doris Dörrie, Christoph Schlingensief, Carolina Link, Romuald Karmakar, Andreas Dresen, Fatih Akin, Angela Schanelec, Jürgen Vogel, and Oskar Roehler. Some, like Tykwer, have had remarkable success in the mainstream, even internationally, whereas others operate domestically, not translating out of the natural German territories.
All depend in various ways on German cultural politics and government subsidy and financing measures. In 1997 several German films did well, managing over three million viewers, through sheer box office appeal: Rossini (1997), Helmut Dietl's satire on the vanity of Munich's film establishment; Knockin' on Heaven's Door (1997), by Thomas Jahn; and Kleines Arschloch ( The Little Bastard , 1997), by Michael Schaack and Veit Vollmer. The industry remained dependent on TV productions, with the attendant influence of producers on content and on exhibition rights. To address this issue, Michael Naumann, on becoming Minister for Culture and the Media, called a meeting of interested parties in an attempt to reform the subsidy system away from its commercial emphasis, a move not favored by TV interests. At the same time, large amounts of investment were actually leaving Germany to buy rights in foreign productions. As many deals would simply never see a return, this phenomenon became known in the United States as "stupid German money," and the bubble subsequently burst.
Four categories of subject matter have most closely reflected Germany's circumstances at the turn of the century: reworkings of late-twentieth-century history, especially that of East Germany; comedies of social manners and gender relationships among young West German urban professionals; depictions of immigrant and foreigner populations; and depictions of Berlin after the Wall. The wider historical past continues to circulate, more or less in the mainstream, and detective thrillers and road movies retain their appeal. Among the "reworkers," Andreas Kleinert (b. 1962) finished his training at DEFA just as it ceased to exist; yet he managed, in Neben der Zeit (Outside Time, 1995), to present an image of East Germany left behind by events and clinging to outdated habits. In 1999 he intensified that motif in a bleak picture of psychosis, Wege in die Nacht ( Paths in the Night ), which shows a former manager for the GDR leading an increasingly violent vigilante campaign against what he sees as the moral decay of the new Germany, until he himself becomes criminal and commits suicide. Stilles Land ( Silent Country , 1992) by Andreas Dresen (b. 1963) takes a very "art house" form to show a provincial theater-group in the East overtaken in the midst of their rehearsals by the opening of the border, which confronts them with the existential question about their function in an indeterminate future. Tackling East Germany from a Western viewpoint, Detlev Buck's (b. 1962) Wir können auch anders ( No More Mr. Niceguy , 1993) is a road movie about two country brothers who set off from the West to find their inheritance in the East; after hilarious adventures avoiding the law, they simply keep on heading east until they find an idyllic life in a Russian peasant community. Goodbye Lenin! (2003) by Wolfgang Becker (b. 1954) is an ironic tale of a young man who must pretend that East Germany still exists so as not to shock his fragile mother, who has just awakened from a coma that began before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The mainstream of German production in the first half of the 1990s was characterized by lightweight comedies such as Der bewegte Mann ( Maybe, Maybe Not , Sönke Wortmann, 1994), dealing with male gender identities and launching Til Schweiger (b. 1963) as the star of the time. Rainer Kaufmann's (b. 1959) Stadtgespräch ( Talk of the Town , 1995) starred his partner, Katja Riemann (b. 1963), in a comedy of marital complications. Detlev Buck's Männerpension ( Jailbirds , 1996), Sherry Horman's (b. 1960) Frauen sind was Wunderbares (Women Are Something Wonderful, 1994,) and Wortmann's Das Superweib ( The Superwife , 1996) are all examples of a highly successful subgenre that presented German society as a sort of well-heeled sitcom driven by neurotic wise-cracking. In the same general category of social comedy, Doris Dörrie has maintained her position, but her films, such as the episodic Bin ich Schön? ( Am I Beautiful? , 1998), have a harder satirical and critical edge, depicting a society—as well as personal relations—given to meaningless consumerism.
Helmut Dietl's (b. 1944) satire Schtonk! (1992) is a darker film that returns to one of postwar filmmaking's regular motifs, Nazism. The film mocked the gullibility of editors of the popular magazine Stern , who were duped by forgers purporting to have Hitler's wartime diaries for sale. In it Götz George (b. 1938), a TV and film tough-guy star since the late 1960s, makes an outrageous appearance in a monstrous corset and dressing gown purported to be that of Hitler's henchman Hermann Goering. In 2004 Der Untergang ( The Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich ) by Oliver Hirschbiegel (b. 1957), which presents the last days of Hitler and his inner circle in the bunker under central Berlin, became an international success. The film was also the subject of much public debate for what some see as its relatively sympathetic treatment of Hitler as a human rather than as a monster. The director Joseph Vilsmaier (b. 1939)—whose films include Stalingrad (1993), Comedian Harmonists (1997), and Marlene (2000), the last two ostensibly biopics on a famous singing group and on Marlene Dietrich—produces for the mainstream, with significant production values; his work filters historical perspectives through personalities.
With the onset of the "Berlin Republic"—a concept arising from the post–Cold War relocation of the German government to that city—Berlin itself has become the focus of many films. Andreas Dresen's Nachtgestalten ( Night Shapes , 1999) reveals the city's ugliness, its patient narrative the counterpart of the frenetic comedies of the early 1990s. By far the most widely acknowledged Berlin film has been Tom Tykwer's Lola rennt ( Run Lola Run , 1998). Using parallel narratives and other devices from computer games, Tykwer's story of lovers threatened with extinction by their existence on the fringes of the underworld cemented his reputation internationally as one of German cinema's representative directors and propelled the film's female lead, Franka Potente (b. 1974), toward Hollywood.
In the mainstream genres, the thriller continues to appear and is especially prevalent on German TV. Examples include Solo für Klarinette ( Solo for Clarinet , 1998), Schattenboxer (Shadow Boxer, 1992), Kurz und schmerzlos ( Short Sharp Shock , 1998), and Die Mutter des Killers (The Mother of the Killer, 1996), and parodies like Die Musterknaben (The Favorite Sons, 1997) and Zugvögel—…einmal nach Inari ( Train Birds , also known as Trains'n'Roses , 1998). Psychological thrillers include Der Totmacher ( Deathmaker , 1995) and Die Unberührbare ( No Place to Go , 2000), both German film prizewinners. Die innere Sicherheit ( The State I Am In , 2000), also a prizewinner, investigates the 1960s generation, whose revolutionary visions are reduced to the shiftless existence of a couple still sought for alleged terrorism, together with their daughter, who knows no other existence than the one "underground." In 2004 Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei ( over the Edukators ), the first
German film for eleven years in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, took up the topic of activism and opposition in present-day Germany. In a satisfyingly ambiguous conclusion, the possibility of partnership across the generations is left open.
The industry maintains its own Spitzenorganisation (SPIO) in Wiesbaden as an umbrella for the major professional organizations. SPIO also supervises patents and copyrights and the TV rights to films, and decides on the German industry's entries for local and international festivals. It can also enforce the rulings of the Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle, the industry's voluntary self-censorship organization, established in 1949 after the model of the American Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America. In 1951 a film evaluation office, the Filmbewertungsstelle Wiesbaden, was established, the assessments of which can promote a film's chances of subsidy or block any hope of distribution. Germany's constitution guarantees freedom of expression, forbids censorship, and declares the federal states' rights to administer local exhibition; given the system of self-censorship, coupled with the subsidy system, government at various levels has great, if indirect, influence on what can be made and shown.
The Spitzenorganisation also produces a yearly compilation of statistics on the industry. In 2004 figures for premiered films for 1993 to 2003 show a gradual increase to around eighty per year, with a relatively constant proportion of foreign co-productions. The fragmented nature of the industry is evident in the fact that scarcely any production company managed more than one premiere; and the crucial importance of support from the film industry's rival, TV, is evident in the almost 50 percent of co-productions with companies in this sector. Showings of film on TV have burgeoned since the mid-1980s and, together with video production, sales, and rentals, show the biggest returns. This contrasts with the film industry's employment structure, where the overwhelming numbers, about 25,000 out of 37,000 members, are in film and video production. Regarding average production budgets, the German film industry is a global second-rank industry. Internationally, the chief market for German films is, not surprisingly, Europe, with over three times the turnover of exports compared with the next biggest market, the United States. The cinema audience is overwhelmingly young: ages fourteen to twenty-nine, with a sharp decline from about thirty up. For cinema visits, Germany ranks under the EU average, with scarcely two per head in 2003, and far behind the United States, at 5.4. However, the bottom line for the German industry is the dominance of the US product over the German home market: over 40 percent of films exhibited in 2003, and almost 80 percent of the total turnover, were from the United States.
For the foreseeable future Filmkultur is likely to remain a secondary, "foreign-language" cinema, dominated at home and abroad by the English-speaking industry led by Hollywood. In 2003 the introduction of film study in the German school system added to the ongoing debate on what constitutes the German artistic canon. Thus questions about the role of German cinema—in terms of national identity, high versus low culture, social relevance, commercial status, and international significance—have achieved an unprecedented public prominence.
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