In his recently published memoirs, the director of “Heimat” Edgar Reitz writes something significant about his student days in the 1950s: “We young artists despised the German films of that time profoundly. No argument would have persuaded me to visit one of these German cinema films. Those of any standing refused to acknowledge these products… at all.”
That hasn't changed much in six decades. Certainly, there was the New German Film in the 1970s, which found recognition above all abroad; within the republic, seven million ran into the "Schoolgirl Report" and a few hundred thousand into the Herzogs and Schlöndorffs and Wenders'. Of course, the Tykwers and Akins and Petzolds have been around since the 1990s, but their impulses have also dwindled over time.
In 2023, the situation of German film has deepened into a veritable crisis. There is still the self-hatred of one's own productions, which has changed little since the end of the war. There is the longing to be on the hip side, and hip has always been more Hollywood than Babelsberg and more Netflix than ZDF. There is an inflation of almost 300 German feature films per year, which take away each other's budget and attention. There are the low budgets of an average of two to three million euros, which – compared to 50 or 100 million expensive Hollywood products – are almost always noticeable.
There's the intricacy of the conveyor system that makes making a film a marathon -- in a time that's moving faster than ever. There is the radical upheaval of production and distribution by the streamers, which has shifted the decision-making power over projects away from Germany and towards America and threatens to degrade the German production structure to pure service providers. And there is the ever-increasing pressure to replace more sophisticated food with something that is easy to consume.
It is a toxic storm in which German film finds itself caught. A particular hate object of the critics is "German film funding", which will soon distribute 600 million euros a year and bring in nothing useful in return. On the one hand, it must be noted that there is practically no Hollywood film that does not make extensive use of subsidies, in Europe national subsidies, in the USA those of the federal states; four-fifths of US states now have generous film subsidies from tax revenues. And on the other hand, that “German film funding” is now investing tens of millions in streamer films, including series where the rights remain one hundred percent with US corporations.
All that had to be said to understand how Herculean the task of funding reform is (nor that simply abolishing it would be the answer). For years, industry and politics have avoided tackling a reform of the head and limbs. Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth has now submitted one – that is, a proposal that still has to go through committees and the Bundestag, effective date: perhaps January 1, 2025. Even after that, film funding would still be complicated enough. Let's simplify them to their core points, in addition to many detailed measures.
1. There will continue to be funding from the federal states (around 200 million in total) and from the federal government (almost 400 million). Roth's proposals relate only to federal funding.
2. In the future, a clearer distinction should be made between cultural and economic support. In the former, juries evaluate the artistic content, in the latter only formal criteria have to be met, after which funding is granted automatically. This is the kind of help that Hollywood and the streamers are happy to enlist, and it's called location promotion because productions spend a lot of money on location; all studies agree that for every euro of funding between five and seven euros are spent by local production (which the local economy would lose if production went abroad).
3. Cultural funding is to be concentrated in the Film Funding Agency (FFA), which is still looking for a new name (as jokes, "Roth Agency" and PFA for "Preussian Film Institute" are in circulation). There will continue to be various programs and juries, but they should work in coordination and much faster.
4. Location promotion (the funds are called DFFF and GMPF) should become more predictable. So far, productions that are only due to come in two or three years have had no planning security; the funds can only be committed once the Bundestag has approved the funds, and that happens annually. Whether you can find a way around it remains to be seen.
5. The streamers benefit massively from the German film infrastructure without making a significant contribution to it - apart from modest taxes to the FFA. Roth would like to introduce an investment obligation for infrastructure, as already exists in France and Italy. Part of the added value should remain in Germany.
6. It remains to be seen whether all of this will lead to "better" films. The argument that “Nothing New in the West” made it to nine Oscar nominations without funding proves little. “Schtonk!”, “Beyond the Silence”, “Downfall”, “The White Ribbon”, “Toni Erdmann”, “The Lives of Others” – all were nominated or won, and all of them would never have been made without film funding.