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    From Filmverlag der Autoren to New German Cinema

    By Ron Holloway | August 24, 2008

    When Dominik Wessely’s documentary Gegenschuss – Aufbruch der Filmemacher (Germany, 2008), a Kinowelt film production, was screened in the middle of the 58th Berlin International Film Festival (7-17 February 2008) as a “Berlinale Special,” it prompted lengthy essays in the press and talkshows on television. Indeed, Reverse Angle – Rebellion of the Filmmakers scored as a viewing pleasure for all those in the Berlinale audience who remembered, for better or worse, the student revolt of 1968 and the founding of the Filmverlag der Autoren.

    Forty years later, a gathering of greying German filmmakers recalled in the Kinowelt documentary how that student revolt had, in turn, sparked the rebellion of young German filmmakers and spurred the founding of the Filmverlag der Autoren, sometimes known by its English derivative “Film Authors Distribution Cooperative.” Later, this hurriedly thrown-together, mostly Munich-based Filmverlag der Autoren was to play a key role in the launching of what was to be known far and wide in the world art houses as the “New German Cinema” (NGC) movement. Headed principally by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders, along with a few others, NGC was to spread like wildfire in the festivals, universities, and art cinemas of Europe and America.

    Several reasons are given in the Kinowelt documentary for the founding of the Filmverlag der Autoren by a group of 13 Munich filmmakers on 18 April 1971. Like the generation conflict following the Second World War. Or The Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962, declaring that “Papa’s cinema is dead!” Or the Kuratorium Junger Deutscher Film, a cultural entity chartered in 1965 to assist young German filmmakers with funding for their first productions. Or the founding of new film and television academies in Berlin (1966) and Munich (1967) to foster young filmmaking talent. Or the advent of the Filmförderungsanstalt, aka German Federal Film Board, established in 1968 to rehaul the economic structure and breathe life again into German film production. Or the appointment of Günter Rohrbach in 1965 to head WDR-Fernsehspiel, the Westdeutscher Rundfunk’s Telefeature Department, based in Cologne and eventually to become an innovative leader in the field. Or the world-wide support of culturally motivated Goethe Institutes under its governmental Inter Nationes umbrella.

    Certainly, all these institutions did play a part in the founding of the Filmverlag der Autoren. But Laurens Straub, one of Filmverlag’s founding fathers, once told me that, at the time, the upcoming Cannes film festival had as much to do with the Filmverlag’s founding as anything else. To be more specific: the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (aka Directors Fortnight), founded in 1969, and already in its third year recognized as an effective alternative to the Cannes competition. For just as the newly constituted Filmverlag der Autoren was debating its legal and economic portfolio in Munich, Pierre-Henri Deleau at the Quinzaine had seen fit to book four German auteur productions for the Quinzaine.

    Taken as a group, the films made history – Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana (Germany, 1971), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Pioniere in Ingolstadt (Germany, 1971), Reinhard Hauff’s Mathias Kneissl (Germany, 1970), and George Moorse’s Lenz (Germany, 1971). All four films were immediately booked by the Goethe Institute for tours aboard. And, as it turned out, the North American Goethe Institutes were to benefit the most from this film package. Although none of these Quinzaine filmmakers belonged at that time to the Filmverlag, one of its founding members – Peter Lilienthal – had nonetheless competed in the International Competition at the 1970 Cannes competition with Malatesta (Germany, 1970).

    So the times augured well for the New German Cinema (NGC) movement, if not the Filmverlag der Autoren. And, indeed, a NGC breakthrough did occur in 1971, when Richard Roud, the programming director for both the London and New York film festivals, walked into the Quinzaine venue, the Cinéma Le Français on the Rue d’Antibes, to see Fassbinder’s Pioniere in Ingolstadt. He booked it on the spot for the New York Film Festival that coming September. “The audience found Fassbinder interesting,” Roud told me in an interview. “It took a while. They weren’t too certain, but they came back for more. Why? I don’t know why. They just did.” Throughout the 1970s, the New York Film Festival would screen at least one, often two, of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films, whose Antitheater and Tango productions were released at that time through Filmverlag der Autoren. And the reviews by Vincent Canby in the New York Times were quite supportive from a cineaste point of view.

    Then, in 1974, when his Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eats the Soul) (Germany, 1974) was invited to compete at Cannes, the international reputation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder as an authentic German auteur was made. For although the film had been overlooked for an award by the International Jury, it proved to be a hit with the critics and was voted the International Critics (FIPRESCI) Prize. In retrospect, the film ranks as arguably the best of RWF’s homages to the melodramas of Hollywood cult director Douglas Sirk. Also, one of the Fassbinder stars in Angst essen Seele auf happened to be Helga Ballhaus in the role of Yolanda. A year later, Helga’s husband, Michael Ballhaus, was to become Fassbinder’s regular cinematographer.

    In 1976, when Dan Talbot of New Yorker Films purchased eleven RWF films from the Filmverlag der Autoren, he did so to have their releases coincide with the heavily publicized “Berlin Now” arts exhibition in New York City. A Goethe House sponsored insert in the Sunday New York Times assured a flowing audience for back-to-back screenings throughout March and April of 1977. As far as the Goethe Institute was concerned, the “Rainer Werner Fassbinder Film Festival” was a welcomed windfall. The films ran for months at Dan Talbot’s New Yorker Theater on the Upper West Side. Furthermore, other Manhattan cultural institutions got the bug. Shortly, “New German Cinema” (coined by a Variety critic) was to become a byword at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the Film Forum, and the Anthology Film Archives in Greenwich Village.

    Meanwhile, back in Munich, the Filmverlag der Autoren was about to go under as a money-losing enterprise. An irony, to say the least, when one considers that in 1977 New German Cinema was already a distinctly successful American phenomenon. Once, when I asked Dan Talbot in an interview why American audiences took a liking for New German Cinema, he pinned it down to an historic article in the Sunday New York Times. “Vincent Canby wrote a huge article about Fassbinder. He didn’t talk about other German directors, but he awakened the interest of audiences to German cinema as a whole. Canby was very good when writing on Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders.” Two years later, in 1979, when Talbot released Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (Germany, 1979) in his Cinema Studio duplex across the street from Lincoln Center, it ran nonstop for 54 weeks. And when his New Yorker Films distribution company booked Maria Braun into major arthouses across the United States, he could count on hefty boxoffice returns from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Denver, and Washington D.C. Add to these the circa 200 American universities booking RWF films for their German and Film Studies departments, and you have a cornucopia spilling forth a bountiful financial return for more than a decade. One Manhattan critic even quipped that Talbot’s Cinema Studio should be renamed Maria Braun!

    Similarly, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders were championed on the West Coast by Tom Luddy, an entrepreneur with an unerring eye for what American arthouse audiences liked. As programmer for both the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley (across the bay from San Francisco) and the Telluride Film Festival in the Colorado mountains, Luddy could rely on Francis Ford Coppola and millionaire film buff George Gund III for funding support by simply picking up the phone. Telluride, a festival famous for its German presence, was only two years old in 1975 when Werner Herzog was honored there with a retrospective tribute. The retrospective recommendation came from Tom Luddy, who had seen Herzog’s Aguirre (Germany, 1972) in the Quinzaine at the 1973 Cannes festival and had invited him to Berkeley to show the film at the Pacific Film Archive. Because, he told me, “it had been turned down by the New York Film Festival.”

    Fortunately, the Werner Herzog retrospective at Telluride corresponded with the first American screening of his Kaspar Hauser (Germany, 1974)  just three months after the film had been awarded the runnerup Special Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. In the audience at Telluride were Milos Forman and Jack Nicholson on a break from their One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (USA, 1975) project. Luddy remembers that they all drove back together to Berkeley after the Telluride screenings. Later, back in San Francisco, Tom Luddy persuaded Francis Ford Coppola to screen Aguirre and Kaspar Hauser in Coppola’s home. And when Herzog acknowledged that Kaspar Hauser, despite its win in Cannes, might suffer the same fate as Aguirre and not find an American distributor, Coppola phoned Don Rugoff in New York to pledge his backing for a release of the film through Rugoff’s Cinema 5 company.

    As verified by Tom Luddy in the Filmverlag der Autoren documentary, this Telluride anecdote – along with many others – served well to make Werner Herzog a legend in his own time. For, unless Herzog was shooting a film in some far corner of the world, he would return annually to Telluride, the mecca of American cineastes, to test a faithful audience with his latest film. And with good reason. Telluride, scheduled over the Labor Day weekend in early September, had successfully challenged the New York Film Festival as the official springboard to the autumn arthouse season.

    Wim Wenders was the last to join the NGC triumvirate of acclaimed German auteur directors. His star rose in NCG circles in 1976, when his Im Lauf der Zeit (In the Course of Time, aka Kings of the Road) (Germany, 1976)  was invited to compete at Cannes. Awarded the FIPRESCI Critics Prize, and photographed in stunning black-and white by the incomparable Robby Müller, Kings of the Road ranks as one of the finest of NGC productions and an affirmation of the lingering spirit of the fading Filmverlag der Autoren. For those cineastes who can’t remember, or desire to know, what the border between the two Germanys looked like in the mid-1970s, they are highly recommended to purchase a DVD of Kings of the Road. Ironically, Kings of the Road marked the end of WW’s fruitful German period just when New German Cinema was internationally recognized as a movement comparable to the French nouvelle vague. Some critics, however, rightly viewed it as the apogee of the entire New German Cinema movement, although Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders obviously believed that their best was yet to come.

    Looking back, there’s much to be said about the impact Wim Wenders had made upon the American film scene. Particularly on his “American friends” in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Telluride, Wim’s favorite stateside stamping grounds. Shortly after Wim Wenders had won the Golden Palm at the 1984 Cannes festival for Paris, Texas (Germany, 1984), I remember interviewing Tom Luddy in Los Angeles. He spoke with a note of pride in his voice. “Wenders was the first New German Cinema director I really got to know,” Luddy said. “In 1973, we showed Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick) (Germany, 1972) and Alice in den Städten (Alice in the Cities) (Germany, 1974) at the Pacific Film Archive. Wim spent several days with me in Berkeley. He liked Berkeley, and the Berkeley audience liked him.”

    The New German Cinema romance on the West Coast was to last until 1982, when Wenders ventured into the Hollywood production system. Backed by Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studio, with Tom Luddy at his side, Wim Wenders directed Hammett (USA, 1971), a biopic on hardboiled detective writer Dashiell Hammett. It flopped.

    – Ron Holloway

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