Georg Diez (g), in an article called "Be Popular!" endorses a version of the doughnut-hole theory in the literature section of this week’s Die Zeit. It’s not online, so you’ll just have to trust my summary and translated excerpts. Diez begins by noting that Clemens Meyer just won the German Book Prize at the Leipzig book fair. "German literature," Diez begins sarcastically, "how nice! How wonderful!" Everyone’s praising each other after the book fair, but, Diez observes, nobody seems to have noticed "how small, how narrow, how provincial is the country that they’re talking about — and, unfortunately, often also the stories that are told here."
Nobody seems to want to film these boring German books. Things are different in the U.S. Diez points to No Country for Old Men (based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy) and There Will Be Blood (Upton Sinclair) as examples. (I’d add to his list Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s fine film of a 1996 book by Jon Krakauer). On the surface, these movies might deal with life in the provinces or suburbs, but they also contain fierce and uncomfortable truths — "the whole cosmos," in Diez’s words.
Why, he asks, "doesn’t one find in German books this power, this reality, these depths, this consistency and toughness and truth, that could tempt filmmakers — and, conversely, why don’t German filmmakers search for these epic worlds[?]" He continues:
Something’s missing, still today. Something that’s only approximately described by the word ‘reality.’ On the one hand, there’s the will toward popular success, to telling stories, to being understood; and on the other hand the energy that’s released when differing realities collide with one another, twist each other, when injuries result, comfortable truths are torn apart, and the way down to the bottom of the abyss is laid bare, the bottom that, if you follow McCarthy, is dark and heavy — the stuff of myths. There has to be an end to the constant ‘small-small’* in our heads.
Instead of filming epic stories, Diez complains, Germans are "seriously discussing Clemens Meyer’s new hairstyle."
I’m with Diez on this one. You don’t have to like all these movies, or admire everything about Hollywood (note that none of the movies Diez praises was a straight Hollywood production), to notice the difference in ambition Diez is talking about here. I’ve seen plenty of recent German movies and reviewed quite a few in these pages. Some of them were just plain dull, some of them were reasonably interesting, but none really stuck with me, except for The Lives of Others and On the Other Side.
I think there’s something else at work here, besides the lack of exciting novels. Note that the category Diez accuses Germany of underperforming in is movies that are both artsy and exciting. Germany produces plenty of mass-market comedies and dramas for just plain folks. The problem is that movies that are supposed to tackle ‘ambitious’ themes often turn out so dreary.
People in the German film industry tell me there’s a norming process that controls access to German film subsidies. Directors have to convince committees of tastemakers to fund their projects. The filmmakers themselves, and the tastemakers, have strong preferences and prejudices. They consider themselves proudly allergic to "Hollywood" — which they associate with Ken and Barbie actors, canned happy endings, staged dramatic confrontations, stereotyped confrontations between good and evil, unnecessary explosions, action-movie cliches, etc. They’re looking for interpersonal drama, for social commentary, for moral ambiguity — "anti-Hollywood" qualities. In fact, I’ve personally seen film scripts that have come back to aspiring directors with passages marked "too Hollywood."
The problem, according to my sources, is that a lot of these tastemakers and directors eventually come to stamp the dreaded "Hollywood" label on any enhanced storytelling technique — such as suspense, or a happy ending, or a voice-over. Endings in which everything turns out basically OK will be choppped and replaced with ambiguous fade-outs. Pleasant, likable characters who we’re supposed to identify with will be criticized as too "one-sided" or "subjective." Humor that’s considered too broad (by stuffy Bildungsbuerger) will be squelched. The end result of this process is films that end up bland and wishy-washy even when they’re supposed to be provocative.
And which play in art-house theatres for 5 weeks, get polite and respectful reviews, and disappear forever.
* The original is "Es geht um ein Ende des ewigen Klein-Klein in den Koepfen." I’ve translated it pretty much literally, but I get the idea I’m missing some allusion here. Little help?