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Made by which nation?

The starring actress is Australian. The script was written by a Pole. Hollywood money financed the production, and Italy provides the backdrop for a German director's newest film.

"Heaven," starring Cate Blanchett and produced by Miramax, opened this year's Berlinale international film festival on Wednesday with a multicultural stew that testifies to the cinematic world's globalization.

The blending of languages, ideas, settings, stars and money into a big-budget film aimed at the lucrative English-speaking market is being applauded by European producers and promoters as an embrace of diversity and the way of the future. But purists lament the accelerating trend toward multinational production as a threat to each domestic industry's national signature.

With so many foreign influences competing to leave their stamps, "film is at risk of becoming empty and faceless," Helkon Media producer Bernhard Koch says.

"The German language is what really keeps things together in German film," says Koch, whose Munich company mostly makes made-for-TV movies in German. "The problem is selling these abroad."

It is that quest for international box-office success that is driving European filmmakers to seek diverse partners to beef up budgets and attract known-quantity talent. But as "Heaven" suggests, with its uneven pace and unconvincing stab at being both thriller and love story, there can be too many cooks in the kitchen.

Director Tom Tykwer, whose 1998 hit "Run Lola Run" pulsed with Berlin's edgy cultural scene, spent lavishly on gorgeous settings and aerial camera work for "Heaven," but flirts with farce in his adaptation of the script by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Tykwer's film, like many other co-productions at this year's festival, also raises the question of what national passport a film should carry and whether the Berlinale can achieve its new director's stated aim of showcasing domestic talent.

Berlinale 2002 features four German films among 23 entries in competition for the Golden Bear, to be awarded at the Feb. 17 finale. That presence is in dramatic contrast with last year's festival, where this country's offerings were strikingly absent. With 400,000 tickets sold long before the films are screened, the Berlinale is Germany's biggest cultural event of the year. It also has risen in international esteem in recent years to be considered among Europe's top three film festivals, following Cannes and rivaling Venice.

Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick says he assigns a film's "certificate of origin" according to the nationality of the director.

"'Heaven' in the most important sense can be labeled 'made in Germany,' even though most of it wasn't in the physical sense," says Kosslick.

Gerhard Schmidt, head of Gemini Films in the city of Cologne, disagrees with Kosslick's formula for ascribing nationality.

"Is 'Independence Day' a German film?" he asks, referring to the apocalyptic 1996 movie about aliens' invasion of the United States that was directed by German-born Roland Emmerich.

Schmidt's colleague, H.W. Pausch, observes that films may be less nationally distinctive now because the lifestyles and cultures of the main producing countries have converged.

Some of the 35 feature films co-produced by Gemini during the last decade used German towns as American suburban backdrops with little revision. "The same faceless architecture invaded both countries in the 1970s, so one place looks much like the other now," Pausch says.

Some scenes in "Heaven" were filmed in Britain and Germany, although the setting is Italy throughout. After 22 years during which the festival was under the direction of Swiss impresario Moritz de Hadeln, German movie moguls are celebrating Kosslick's unabashed support for the national product and what they see as belated arrival at their rightful place in the film world.

Germany is the most important market for Hollywood after the United States, with more than 80 percent of the 178 million tickets sold here last year for U.S. productions.

That means proceeds flow out of the country, enriching outsized competitors across the Atlantic. But the German share rose from less than 14 percent in 2000 to 16 percent last year, and seven German films released in 2001 drew more than a million viewers each, hinting at an upswing for the national industry, notes Thilo Kleine, head of Bavaria Film, one of Germany's biggest producers.

France's generous government subsidies and restricted import of foreign films make it second in the world in raw ticket sales, with 184 million last year compared with 1.4 billion at U.S. cinemas. Britain ranks third for the international market and fourth in all ticket sales, with 156 million sold last year.

Having four films in competition at the Berlinale may suggest a step forward for German directors, but Kosslick insists that the stamp he wants to put on the festival is anything but nationalist.

Under the festival's overall rubric of "accept diversity," he has assembled 400 dramas, documentaries and comedies from around the world, many with the message that tolerance is the only cure for the violence and hatreds consuming the planet. One film in competition, the English-Irish co-production "Bloody Sunday," chronicles the start of Northern Ireland's armed conflicts 30 years ago from both sides' perspectives.

Kosslick concedes that he sees the Berlinale as an opportunity to promote young German creative talent, but he insists there has been no lowering of the quality bar for his compatriots.

Georgia Tornow, a Berlin journalist who a year ago founded the Film 20 lobby to push for government subsidies for the nation's filmmakers, says modern German cinema still has its own signature despite the cultural leveling of co-production.

"I don't know if it can have international impact, but there is still a distinction in German film," she says, rattling off a recent spate of small movies lampooning social frictions that persist between eastern and western Germans a dozen years after the Berlin Wall fell. "It's about urban life, everyday life, from the rebels of 1968 to squatter movements and the Red Army Faction."

The faction terrorized Germany throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and one of its founders, Andreas Baader, is the subject of an eponymous German entry this year.

Andreas Klein, head of Splendid Pictures, which distributed last year's Berlinale headliner, "Traffic," sees a uniquely German commitment to assimilation driving the globalization of film.

"When Germans move to the United States or Italy or Spain, they try immediately to blend in, and you can't tell them apart from Americans after a few years," Klein says, adding that a film's national identity is of little concern to viewers.

Some see "Heaven" as uniquely German, even if they can't put their finger on exactly what makes it so.

"It's a German idea realized with the support of American partners. But it is an original German project," Constantin Film marketing chief Thomas Friedl says of the film.

But like most filmmaking executives, Friedl defends the confluence of foreign interests as a means of bolstering a domestic industry that has suffered in recent years from expanding too quickly and investing almost exclusively in international productions.

Because of the limited prospects for commercial success in the all-important U.S. market, German companies dependent on television revenues to produce feature films can seldom drum up more than about $5 million for a project. That further constrains their ability to compete against big-budget Hollywood productions, although the occasional small film captures a global audience, such as "Run Lola Run," on which the then-unknown Tykwer spent only $1 million.

Small art-house films from Germany still find a market abroad among intellectual audiences that accept subtitles. But the German financing system makes it difficult for an independent filmmaker to dare to challenge Hollywood in epic presentations without the backing of a major U.S. studio.

"As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me" is a sweeping attempt by the fledgling Cascadeur Productions in Munich to tell the true story of a World War II German POW's escape across the breadth of Siberia. It was filmed on location during a grueling and expensive 124-day shoot.

But the film failed to sway Berlinale selection judges to include it even in the special German national sector, a 10-film festival within the overall festival, created this year.

Producer Jimmy C. Gerum attributes the omission to a residual taboo in presenting any German of that era as a victim, while others in the industry say the film, although successful at recent festivals, doesn't measure up to the quality and emotion of that Hollywood-dominated genre.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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