The film Min Far Toni Erdmann is a hilarious and delicate examination of the distance between a headstrong young businesswoman and her father, a socially inept and clownish retiree. It’s intelligent without being sterile, and heart-warming while avoiding sentimentality. Perhaps most surprising to some, it’s also German.
When it screened in competition at Cannes, the filmmakers returned home empty-handed, despite earning rave reviews all over Europe. As if to confirm the folly of the Cannes jury, this November its female director, Maren Ade, was awarded the prestigious LUX Film Prize.
“I’ve been travelling through this great and diverse place called Europe with my film a lot recently, and one of the most common questions I’m asked is, ‘how can it be, a German film has a such a sense of humour?’” she stated at her acceptance speech.
“And I came to find that most people think that their own country has, definitely, the best sense of humour. So even when many of us who believe that national borders should become a thing of the past, our thinking becomes national again when it comes to the really important things – like humour and football.”
I was among the journalists who were invited to cover the LUX Film Prize in Strasbourg, a two-day event in the European Parliament that some of us were previously aware of.
Herein lies the main problem facing LUX, an EU project dedicated to the promotion of European filmmaking with an annual budget of just €400,000. 70 European films are whittled down to 10 by a panel of industry professionals, filmmakers and critics. From those ten, three are finally selected to compete for the prize.
This year, alongside Min Far Toni Erdmann, was a Swiss/French animation for children, Ma Vie de Courgette, and the Tunisian/French drama As I Open My Eyes, which detailed the Tunisian revolution through the eyes of a teenage girl.
Now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, the LUX Film Prize is certainly gathering some momentum, while gaining a reputation for backing the right horse. Several winners have gone on to receive nominations at Cesar, BAFTA, and the Academy Awards – such as last year’s excellent Mustang. However, for an initiative whose mission status is to further the reach of ‘European films to European audiences’, it has some distance to go.
One issue is that, unlike the largely unified North American market, the film industry in Europe faces huge organisational and economic difficulties that are only worsened by its language barriers. American films account for nearly 70 percent of European box office takings, with European productions representing only 26 percent.
That’s why the most valuable aspect of the LUX prize, for the three finalists, is having their films subtitled into the EU’s 24 languages. Although, in some countries such as Hungary, Italy, Spain and Germany, dubbing is much more common than subtitling. But, speaking at a seminar on the role of cinema in European society, Doris Pack – a former German MEP and current President of the EPP Women (European People’s Party) – argued subtitling was preferable.
“The smaller countries always did subtitling, but in Germany [our efforts] are berated, not least by those whose livelihoods depend on the dubbing culture. This is understandable. Audiences too complain about having to look at the pictures and words at the same time. They find it difficult. And yet, for the smaller countries I visit, I find people speaking German and I ask, ‘where did you learn this?’ And many tell me that it is thanks to subtitling. How to address the problem? It is education. Arté are starting to do it now, and they want this. They are of course a large television network so perhaps the subtitles will come more and more. It is a matter of education. To educate people that to watch a film and hear it – in its original language, with subtitles – this is the best way to get to the soul of the culture, the soul of Europe.”
The Ultimate Ambassador
The LUX Film Prize is one of several projects to try and draw the continent closer together. In 2009, for example, former Danish MEP Morten Løkkegaard launched the initiative A New Narrative for Europe, which called upon artists and intellectuals to help define a European story centred on Europe’s culture. Similarly, the Lux Film Prize, hopes to start a pan-European discussion.
“The Parliament believes that cinema, a mass cultural medium, can be an ideal vehicle for debate and reflection on Europe and its future,” the European Parliament states on its website.
It’s certainly proven that film can bring together people from different countries and cultures. The UK, for example, has won hearts and minds with its world-class comedy, while Denmark has traded heavily on its cultural identity via a slew of Nordic noir films and TV series. Subsequently, barely a week passes in the UK without a newspaper espousing the virtues of woolly jumpers and ‘hygge’.
That’s not an entirely new phenomenon. Before the introduction of sound to cinema (and therefore language), Copenhagen-based studio Nordisk Film enjoyed a reach that extended throughout Europe and far beyond. The Danish silent film actor Valdemar Psilander was one of the most beloved faces in the world.
As for the mere ritual of cinema itself – of going into a screening theatre and sitting in the dark among a room full of strangers, all embarking on the same journey, the same adventure – it perfectly symbolises the notion of shared experience.
Pack says this unity is needed more than ever in the face of an increasing wave of isolationism sweeping global politics – with the likes of the ‘new nationalist’ populists such as Marie Le Pen in France, the Brexiteers in the UK and Poland’s President Andrzej Duda.
“Europeans are missing a sense of pride in their continental identity – it is a problem. It is not enough for governments to say ‘Look at me, I am big. I am independent. I will be fine’. No. We need each other, we need our neighbours. It is foolish to think that we can survive without one another.”
This is doubly true for cinema, as the vast majority of European films are co-productions between at least two countries. Thousands of films have also been funded by the European Commission’s MEDIA programme, which invests over €100 million in European cinema every year.
Helping, in part, to further foster these transcontinental collaborations is LUX again, with its 28 Times Cinema initiative, in which a young ‘LUX ambassador’ aged between 18 and 25 is appointed in each of the 28 member states. This collection of enthusiastic cinephiles start their journey at the Venice Film Festival where they soak up the latest European cinema and meet with critics and filmmakers, before returning to their home country to spread the word, organise screenings and generally raise awareness of the LUX Prize while continuing to liaise with one another, sharing their progress.
Denmark’s 2016/17 ambassador for LUX is Maj Rafferty, a filmmaker herself, currently living and studying in Aarhus.
“Film has great possibilities in its capability for reaching out to people. The EU has been shaken to its core by recent events, particularly by Brexit. I lived in England for many years and currently find myself questioning things that I thought were beyond question. Also in America with the election of Trump. I feel a certain homelessness with regard to values, community and ideals. Because obviously something has gone wrong in our democracies. Ultimately I think there is a big problem of communication between the EU and their citizens. If we can get EU citizens watching more of each other’s films, at least we would all have more shared points of reference to talk about. I think we need to be talking to each other more, that’s my point. We are living in a filtered reality these days, so maybe now, more than ever, shared experiences are important.”
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The Long Game
Swiss/French animation Ma Vie de Courgette (My Life as a Courgette) is the perfect embodiment of the values that LUX wants to promote. Adapted from an adult novel and tailored to a child audience, it concerns the lives of traumatised youngsters living together in a state funded orphanage. While the horrors they’ve endured (Courgette, the main character, inadvertently kills his abusive, alcoholic mother in the opening scene) are always just off-screen, nothing is explicit and director Claude Barras chooses to focus on the ways in which the children’s shared pain can unify them as a group and heal them individually – often with touching and genuinely hilarious consequences.
“All these children started with something difficult in their lives that they have to cope with,” says Barras.
“What I want to tell children is that if they can stick together, they can fight the things that are coming at them. They can make a better future together and not become aggressive. It’s also happening to kids who have been through war situations, who have been traumatised and have to find a way to cope. I have worked in a shelter and, of course, some things are idealised but it’s my choice to look at the more positive aspects and work with them. Of course it makes sense to speak directly to children about these values, rather than institutions, because they are, after all, our future.”
Adrià Guxens, Spain’s young LUX representative, has spent much of his ambassadorship arguing for film to be included on school curriculums, reasoning that access to European cinema is dictated by demand. How can one hope to reach suburban or rural teenagers – many of whom live miles from even a multiplex, let alone an arts cinema – and compete with more immediate forms of entertainment, such as social media or gaming, for their attentions?
LUX is exploring the possibility of launching a video on demand (VOD) service, but it is not a complete solution – not least because film is best experienced in a cinema. Also, VOD alone is unlikely to stimulate the wider demand required to justify such a service. Film studies in school then, could arguably create fertile ground for an appreciation of European cinema that would see the medium, the industry and the union prosper.
The Trojan Horse
In the meantime, this act of building bridges when others are threatening to erect walls, has a renewed sense of urgency. And the success of the three LUX Film Prize nominees offers some insight into how to progress on the battlefield. All share a common theme, in that they explore the dialogue between generations – the idea that while the old have something to teach the youth, our elders can learn something from the younger generation too.
This is most explicit in Leyla Bouzid’s As I Open My Eyes. The film presents us with the lead up to Tunisia’s 2011 revolution and the flight of dictator Ben Ali, but it does so by placing us in the shoes of a teenage girl who we meet in the throes of her first love, and while singing in a band. This provides a veneer of universal familiarity and acts as a vehicle for the cultural specifics, before the film reveals its more substantial and darker elements.
A similar device is employed in Ma Vie de Courgette that also lures viewers in with all the trappings of a children’s animation, before hitting us with the social agenda and emotional punch of a Ken Loach or Dardenne brother’s film – and it’s all the better for it.
Maren Ade hesitates to label her LUX winner, Min Far Toni Erdmann, a comedy, preferring to call it “a mixture, really”. This is certainly true, since the category of ‘comedy’ fails to encapsulate the measure of realism and insight that characterises the film’s many beautifully observed moments. At the time of writing, the film has surpassed all expectations at the Danish box office.
If these LUX winners have anything to teach future European filmmakers, it’s that what is familiar and universal can still prove a potent vehicle for the personal and political, without compromising artistic integrity. By following the example of these films, filmmakers can potentially reach a wider audience and persuade them to put aside preconceptions long enough to discover something surprising about their neighbours – and perhaps even concede that Germans are, indeed, funny. M