Unlike many films on the era, "Barbara" by German director Christian Petzold presents a nuanced picture of East Germany. It's leading the way for a new type of German film in US cinemas - even without an Oscar.
In the title role of "Barbara," Nina Hoss is Hollywood beautiful. But her complex character represents the latest German antidote to Hollywood films to hit the US market.
The muted mystery timepiece has swept the international film festival circuit, praised for its nuanced take on life in communist East Germany (the GDR). As Germany's Oscar submission for best foreign-language film, "Barbara" didn't make the short list, but experts say its US distribution deal may prove more meaningful in bringing the Berlin School's alternative style to an American audience.
"Barbara" is set in a rural East German coastal town where a talented doctor has been transferred from the renowned East Berlin Charité Hospital to a small clinic as punishment for applying for an exit visa. The film's earnest look at a frequently misunderstood era is a case study in modern German filmmaking and the global movie market.
GDR in color
The refreshingly colorful and complex take on life in the German Democratic Republic, which existed from 1949 to1990, was healthily rewarded, winning a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, a Capri European Actress Award, a silver German Film Award, the New Faces Award and the US's National Board of Review Top Five Foreign Language Films.
Most East German films that make it across the Atlantic tend toward a simpler message. While "Good Bye Lenin!" and "Sonnenallee" showed a more lighthearted slice of East German life, Oscar-winning "The Lives of Others" depicted only the dourest, most corrupt aspects of the former communist regime.
"Barbara" lies somewhere in a more intriguing middle field.
Director Christian Petzold, who has made four films about life in the former East after the fall of the Berlin Wall, wanted to unlock a past that sometimes seems to have ended with its regime. "When a country is far, far away," Petzold told the New York Times at the New York Film Festival screening of his film, "I think then cinema has to come and tell those stories."
He has said that, while he "thinks like a Westerner," he has an understanding of the East because of his parents who fled from East Germany and also from his studies in Berlin in the 1980s and early 90s.
Frida Reschke, 40, grew up in what was then East Germany and moved to the US in 2002. She's thrilled to see more German films make it to the US - both through mainstream theaters and online platforms such as Netflix - especially films that take place in her native country. "A lot of people don't know about that time," Reschke told DW. "Americans think of East Germany as evil, just as 'communism.' But people still lived there; that was not all evil."
Whether focusing on the Nazis or the Stasi, other films about 20th-century Germany that are popular with American audiences have been politically and emotionally monotone. But the Berlin School brings a more realistic feel and less conservative representation of major historic events, letting the audience struggle through tough historical questions instead of repeating stereotypical mantras.
Even if you don't support a political system, Reschke says, it's important for film to explore how people live in other countries, especially ones as historically significant as East Germany.
Distribution, distribution, distribution
German film's "German-ness" can be both a curse and blessing. While American fans of German film relish the indie quality and often heavy topics German films take on, those same qualities make it hard for German films to flourish on the American market. Though platforms such as Netflix and international film festivals continue to bring more German films to the US, Hollywood aesthetics often win when it comes to distribution.
Sophoan Sorn is the director of San Francisco's Berlin & Beyond Film Festival, which has shown every film Petzold has put out and was the second festival in the US to show "Barbara." He says German films have notorious difficulty on an international scale. Of the award-winning films they screen, only about 65 percent get picked up for limited US distribution, Sorn says.
But Sorn and his festivals are out to change that.
Though winning an Oscar helps bring US recognition to otherwise unknown foreign films, it's a murky process with no guarantee for success.
"There's never any way to tell what will or won't get nominated, or when nominated, win," said screenwriter and director David Mickey Evans ("The Sandlot"). "Generally it's big films with big stars by big directors" - though not always, he added.
And an Oscar doesn't promise a larger audience. The only thing that can do that is a US distribution deal.
Adopt Films distribution brought "Barbara" to mainstream US theaters earlier this month in 14 major cities and will show in a total of 43 cities in the US over the next few months.
"When I see films like 'Barbara' being picked up by a US distributor on such a scale, it's really significant," said Sorn.
A domestic theatrical distribution deal gives the film an opportunity to make more money and helps when negotiating a deal for other rights, including DVD, TV, cable, and others. It also boost the odds for "Barbara" when it comes to reaching other foreign markets.
In Germany, "Barbara" was one of the top 100 grossing films of 2012, making $2.74 million since opening there in March. At press time, the numbers for its US opening weekend were unavailable.
"It's hard for German filmmakers to compete on the global scale," said Sorn, "but I think 'Barbara' is a world-class film."
The Berlin School
The Berlin School is getting some world-class attention, too. Known for its long takes, off-screen sound and use of untrained actors, the style is driving a renaissance in German film. Petzold is often regarded as its leader, and "Barbara"is the latest example of the style's international appeal.
Petzold has said the Berlin School as a whole will be featured in a fall 2013 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
The style's strength seems to be its realistic, no-frills portrayal of universal themes:romance, immigration, political strife, interpersonal struggle.
"Film should be a tool to promote human expression and to tell a story that's beyond words and beyond language," according to Sorn, adding that Petzold is a "leading light" for German cinema right now.