What’s up, doc?

What’s up, doc?

Few countries take their documentaries as seriously as Germany does. It takes them so seriously, in fact, that Germans make a big distinction between ambitious, artistic docs and merely informative ones – so make sure you don’t get them mixed up.


Andres Veiel’s Black Box BRD (2001) is probably the most celebrated German documentary of the noughties. It won five national film prizes and caused the press to re-examine Germany’s leftist terrorist history. The film tells the twin stories of Red Army Faction member Wolfgang Grams, who was shot dead while being arrested, and the Deutsche Bank manager Alfred Herrhausen, who was killed by an RAF bomb.

Any film with this subject matter is bound to have a certain resonance in Germany, but when a foreign viewer sits down to watch it, they might initially be confused. In the first few reels, obscure, artistic images linger for a long time with ambiguous music in the background – a fleet of Mercedes on an empty Autobahn, a school band, a doll’s head filled with sand. The viewer might be tempted to fiddle with the DVD player’s sound options: where is the voiceover to tell you what all this is about in heavy, reassuringly well-trained tones? Black Box BRD is a film that assumes its audience will have quite a lot of contextual knowledge. The non-initiated viewer has to make do with a series of interviews, which slowly piece these two deep, powerful stories together.

It’s easy enough for an English speaker to confuse a Dokumentation with a Dokumentarfilm. It’s a genre distinction that isn’t necessarily made in the Anglophone world, but one that has a lot of significance in Germany. Put simply, the former is about mediating information, explaining a story, providing entertainment: it is essentially meant for TV. The other has a broader ambition – the creation of a political argument or the illustration of ambiguous connections. It has a strong authorial presence behind it, and is intended for the cinema. Essentially, a Dokumentarfilm aspires to be art.

Veiel, the director of Black Box BRD thinks that Germany’s historical traumas are behind this schism. “This happened because of the political situation in Germany in the 1960s and early 1970s. The generational fronts were just a lot harder here, because of the debates around Auschwitz,” says Veiel. “There was a very strong feeling here that you didn’t want to become like your parents. TV was something that your parents did, and it was clear that certain films would not happen there, so you had to work for the cinema. That led to certain documentary subjects being brought to the cinema very early on.”

The documentary surge

This audience helped to create a relatively healthy cinematic documentary industry; recently, it’s been booming. According to SPIO – the central organisation of the German film economy – the number of German documentaries released in cinemas more than tripled in the last decade, from 14 in 1999 to 60 in 2008. As many as 65 percent of documentaries released nationally are German productions. It is generally agreed that this boom was sparked by the worldwide success of Wim Wenders’ 1999 film Buena Vista Social Club – the first documentary to draw in a million national cinema-goers. This was dwarfed in 2006 by the wild success of Sönke Wortmann’s film about the football World Cup, Germany – A Summer Fairytale, which attracted four million viewers. These hits were obviously carried by the new global phenomenon of American blockbuster documentaries, from Michael Moore to Al Gore’s climate preaching in An Inconvenient Truth – films that consistently pull in well over a million Germans.

German documentary-makers are cautiously enthusiastic about the state of their native industry. The competition is becoming steadily stronger: more and more young hopefuls are graduating from film school, and the money that broadcasters and producers are prepared to spend on a documentary is being care- fully squeezed. But they still realise they have it pretty good. According to Veiel, “The infrastructure we have here through film foundations and grants, and through broadcasters like 3Sat, ARTE, ARD, ZDF – it’s not as much as it used to be, but it’s enough for us to be in a very good position compared to other countries. When I travel around the world to festivals, we are envied almost everywhere I go.”

Selling your soul for TV

But netting a cinema release is always going to be the tougher racket. Daniel Gerlach, an orientalist and the filmmaker responsible for Morgenland, a ZDF series charting 1300 years of Islam, is very clear about what side of the line he is on. “We don’t allow ourselves the label Dokumentarfilm,” he says. “A Dokumentarfilm does not have to be scared of the remote control. We do Dokumentation, and we have to make sure that every-thing stays exciting and spectacular enough for people stay with us.” Morgenland was one of the most-watched German documentaries ever and Gerlach’s success means he has commanded big budgets (at least in documentary terms – Morgenland cost around €1 million). This has given him the means to use feature-film devices; in fact, dramatic scores, CGI, purpose-built sets and actors for historical re-enactments are all now staples of expensive TV documentaries. The topics that Gerlach tackles are a challenge. “The art is in getting a huge audience – 3.5 million viewers for a first broadcast – to understand these extremely complex historical and abstract stories, and to clarify why these stories are important today.” But despite the popularity and the educational ambitions of these TV films, the world of German cinematic documentary remains snobbish. “Dokumentation is used as an insult,” laughs Andreas Gräfenstein, who has just completed an independent film about the football fans who built the new Eisern Union stadium in Köpenick. “Putting a voiceover on a film meant for the cinema is sort of banned in Germany. I can see why. I like to watch films where the people just speak for themselves. Voiceovers ruin the atmosphere. It’s much better to make your own voice-over in your head.”

Gräfenstein is not above making films for TV, where programmers set the formats – but when he does, he finds he quickly becomes frustrated. He made one half-hearted phone call to a local Berlin channel to pitch his Eisern Union idea. He was turned down. Since the film was a matter of personal passion, he decided to make it independently.

Cowardly executives

With the constant pressure to stay popular, television requires compromises and a few documentary filmmakers complain that German TV channels tend to play it a little too safe. Alexander Czogalla works for Spiegel TV, where he produces mainly journalistic Dokumentation films. “What I love about the Brits and the French is that they’re cheeky and dare to try things out,” he says. “And I think Germans still work within very tight formal restrictions. Other countries are a bit more daring.”

Antonia Coenen, who specialises in making nature films for state television channels, is also wary of executive intervention, but so far she has successfully guarded her freedom to tackle her subjects in a way that interests her. Coenen gets riled up when she sees nature documentaries where animals get personalities and plot arcs. As she sees it, that kind of fakery or narrative imposition spoils the whole point of documentaries. But Coenen thinks that the distinction between cinema and television documentaries – perpetuated by artistic snobbery and the timidity of TV executives – is ripe for destruction. “I think a lot of TV documentaries have cinematic potential, and frankly I think there are a lot of cinema ones that don’t. I think there’s a lot of ego involved. I’m sure there is a difference, but I don’t see it a lot of the time.”

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