Berlinollywood? New Polanski Thriller Backed by German Government
The Berlin International Film Festival -- or “Berlinale” -- came to a close on Sunday with the "Golden Bear" for best film going to the Turkish film Bal [Honey] and the “Silver Bear” for best director going to none other than Roman Polanski for his new political thriller The Ghost Writer.
Writing in the German newspaper Die Welt, the film critic Hanns-Georg Rodek commented on the lack of “bears” for German films. But Rodek found some consolation in the fact that, as he put it, “there is more German [involvement] in some of the prizewinners than might appear at first glance.” Well, Rodek can say that again -- and, to be more precise, he might add: more German money. The fact might not be so noteworthy if we were talking about private investment. But the money in question is in fact German public financing -- otherwise known as government subsidies.
Among other entrants, Rodek had Polanski’s The Ghost Writer in mind. As he mentions, the film was largely shot at the fabled Babelsberg studios, outside Berlin, and at other German locations. What he does not mention is the more than €3.5 million in financing that the German Film Fund (DFFF) contributed to the making of the film. The exact figure is €3,540,944 (see DFFF spreadsheet here). The DFFF is directly attached to the German government’s Department of Culture and Media.
The Ghost Writer also received another €500,000 in financing from the Film Board (FFA), Germany’s other federal source of public support for cinema. The FFA is funded by a “fee” leveled on the ticket sales of German cinemas.
And that is not all. The Ghost Writer also received yet another €500,000 in public support from the joint “Media-Board” of the German states of Berlin and Brandenburg (source: Studio Babelsberg). Plus €200,000 from the Film Fund of Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein. Plus another €200,000 from the modest Film Fund of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the poorest of Germany’s sixteen states. That makes for nearly €5 million in German public support in all -- or nearly $7 million at current exchange rates. Plus, in January of this year the Media-Board Berlin-Brandenburg kicked in another €80,000 in subsidies to aid in the distribution of the film. (See Media-Board spreadsheet here.)
Incidentally, The Ghost Writer also received public subsidies from the European Union, via the latter’s “Media” film fund. (See here; the exact level of support is not given.)
The German financial support makes The Ghost Writer just the latest in an increasingly long line of English-language cinema blockbusters that have received substantial funding from the German federal government and other German public agencies. I have written about two earlier examples, the historically revisionist WWII thriller Valkyrie and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, on Pajamas Media here and here. As discussed in my review of Inglorious Basterds, while the latter has been commonly described as a “Jewish revenge fantasy,” it might be more accurately called a “German fantasy of Jewish vengefulness.”
The “erotic” Holocaust drama The Reader, starring Kate Winslet as a former concentration camp guard … and love object, can be added to the list. The Reader, which is based on a novel by the German author Bernhard Schlink, received nearly €3.7 million in financing from the German Film Fund (DFFF spreadsheet here) plus millions more in public subsidies from the Film Board, the Media-Board Berlin-Brandenburg, the Middle German Media Fund, and the North-Rhine Westphalia Film Foundation. Based on published data, the total German public funding for the production of The Reader tops out at nearly €6.3 million -- or over $8.5 million at current exchange rates. The distribution of the film was also subsidized by German public agencies.
It is notable that the previous three examples each deal in one way or another with Nazi Germany and the Second World War. German authorities and other German commentators often respond to criticisms of the public funding by protesting -- one might say, too much -- that the purpose of the subsidies is strictly economic. But consideration of the subjects of the financed projects -- and, above all, of the treatment of those subjects -- clearly suggests otherwise.
The “anti-bank” thriller The International (€5.8 million from the German Film Fund) is yet another example.
German public agencies have also, incidentally, subsidized the making of two highly publicized “art films” on the Middle East conflict: Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman’s cartoon-account of the Sabra and Shatila massacre and Paradise Now, Hany Abu-Assad’s sympathetic portrait of a Palestinian suicide bomber. (On German and European funding of Waltz with Bashir, see my Pajamas Media report here; on German and European funding of Paradise Now, see here.)
The propaganda value of Polanski’s The Ghost Writer is obvious at first glance. One need only consider the film’s official synopsis:
When a successful British ghost writer, The Ghost, agrees to complete the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang, his agent assures him it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. But the project seems doomed from the start -- not least because his predecessor on the project, Lang’s long-term aide, died in an unfortunate accident. The Ghost flies out to work on the project, in the middle of winter, to an oceanfront house on an island off the U.S. Eastern seaboard. But the day after he arrives, a former British cabinet minister accuses Lang of authorizing the illegal seizure of suspected terrorists and handing them over for torture by the CIA – a war crime. ... As The Ghost works, he begins to uncover clues suggesting his predecessor may have stumbled on a dark secret linking Lang to the CIA -- and that somehow this information is hidden in the manuscript he left behind. Was Lang in the service of the American intelligence agency while he was prime minister? And was The Ghost’s predecessor murdered because of the appalling truth he uncovered?
The Ghost Writer is presently opening in cinemas all across Europe. It has thus far had only a limited release in the USA. As virtually all the advance publicity for the film in the European media makes clear, any apparent resemblances between Pierce Brosnan’s “Adam Lang” and a certain living former British prime minister are entirely intended.
Contrary to a popular misconception, Germany was not merely part of the self-styled “axis of peace” that opposed the Iraq War. Under then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Germany -- not France -- led the opposition to the war. (On this subject, see my discussion on World Politics Review here.)
In the meantime, the righteousness of this opposition has, of course, become European chapter-and-verse, and Tony Blair’s support for the war is widely regarded in Europe as his cardinal sin. What better way to explain this otherwise “inexplicable” betrayal of the European cause than to suggest that the former prime minister and notorious Bush “poodle” was in the pay of the perfidious Americans all along?
Even under the overtly more “Atlantist” leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany has in recent years continued to engage in a veritable war against America’s war on terror. Numerous episodes -- from the incessant German lobbying for the closure of the Guantánamo Bay prison camp to Germany’s protection of al-Qaeda financier Mamoun Darkazanli to the virtually united German opposition that killed the SWIFT agreement -- attest to this fact. It would appear that Germany’s “Culture Minister” Bernd Neumann has now purchased a new weapon to aid in the pursuit of this war: Roman Polanski.