At the end of August Georg Maas’s film Zwei Leben was chosen as the German entry to this year’s Oscars and will now be put forward for consideration as part of the Best Foreign Language Film award. It was a move that surprised many as, although the film was released in Norway last year, a country where the majority of the film’s narrative plays out despite being in the German language, it was only released in Germany in mid-September, a full three weeks after it was chosen as the German Oscar entry. Furthermore, it beat critics favourite Oh Boy (Jan Ole Gerster, 2012) to the nomination, a film which had proved a surprise domestic indie hit and was named best film at this year’s Lolas (German Film Awards) .
If Oh Boy was judged to have been the best German film of the last 12 months at the Lolas, the question has to be why this did not transfer into being the German entry for the Oscars? Of course it may be that the 4 month gap between the Lolas in April and the decision on the Oscar entry, along with the later release for Zwei Leben, simply gave a chance for a better film to be come along. However, a look at the two films different narratives hints at another reason.
Zwei Leben tells the story of the breakdown in a mother’s relationship with her daughter as secrets from her past begin to emerge, a troubling history inescapably linked to Germany’s own past since the end of the Second World War, from the Nazis through to the East German Stasi. In comparison, Oh Boy is an understated contemporary film which tells the story of Niko, a young man trying to find his place in modern-day Berlin.
It is this difference in the time frame within which the films are set which highlights the problem at the core of the decision to select Zwei Leben. Not many German films manage to secure an international release and an Oscar nomination is one way to achieve this. Yet, in the last 10 years only 2 films chosen to be the German entry to the Oscars had contemporary narratives. As a result, this year’s decision to select another film with a nostalgic story is simply a continuation of this limited and historically biased situation; a situation which is creating problems for cultural concepts of Germany internationally.
Politically, the Euro crisis may have seen Germany begin to reassert a new confidence as a leading world power once more, yet culturally the country seems stuck in the past. This is particularly the case for its cinema globally as, whereas the New German Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s gained plaudits around the world for their tales of life in contemporary West Germany, German films released abroad today are still trading on the country’s infamous history.
Domestically, the German film production landscape is a diverse one, with a raft of films in different genres and styles being made by a growing number of directors, yet the international image of the country’s cinema is one firmly rooted in a bygone era. The problem is that, whilst German film at home may have moved beyond the process of coming to terms with the past and started to reflect more contemporary issues, international perceptions of the country are still based on Germany being the land of Fascists and Secret Policeman. It may be a more successful strategy both commercially and critically to play to these stereotypes, but in order to begin to change perceptions of the country and allow the rest of the world to get to get to know present-day Germany better, the agencies responsible for selecting which films to promote abroad need to change tack and begin to take a risk on these more contemporary stories.