German Film Celebrates Diversity

Report about the 42nd Film Festival Max Ophüls Preis. By Guido Convents

For more than forty years the film festival Max Ophüls Preis in the German city of Saarbrücken presents films produced by young talented filmmakers from those countries which are considered as German speaking (Germany, Austria, Switzerland). It wants to discover and to promote the “newest” films from this cultural area. There is more. The festival was founded in 1980 which means at a time when the German film industry received a new boost thanks to the Oberhausen Manifesto in 1962 of a group of young filmmakers such as Alexander Kluge, Wim Wenders, Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Edgar Reitz. In declaring that the “old way of making cinema was dead”, they wanted to finish the non-critical attitude to the Nazi-epoch and the politics of their “fathers” after the war.

A new culture built on a healthy critical democracy had to find its expression in film production. In the next twelve years the filmmakers had also to make clear to their government (and to the German parliament) that cinema was not television and that it was not acceptable that the public broadcasters received a lot of money to produce content, using their money also to bring the “old German” cinema back on the TV screen without giving a chance to the new German cinema. And this at a moment when cinema was slipping into a deep crisis since the cinemagoers of the 1950s stayed at home watching television which was more connected to the policy of the “parents”.

OCIC, which later became part of SIGNIS, and INTERFILM were aware of this wind of change in cinema and in German society. Their juries were at the forefront of these developments. The OCIC jury at the film festival in Venice 1966 had understood clearly what was going on in the culture of the younger film-makers who were striving to have a “new” Germany. It gave a commendation to Yesterday Girl (Abschied von gestern) by Kluge, saying that the film makes a statement that is historical and local but universal, that it poses in a direct and concise form the problems of individual and societal responsibility with a vision which, while it reflects the limits of the contemporary world, should engage all people.


Five years later Schlöndorff won the OCIC Prize in San Sebastian for the Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach (Der plötzliche Reichtum der armen Leute von Kombach). Although the story was situated in 1820, it was very relevant to contemporary political developments in Germany. The film denounced unjust restrictions and social pressures and was in favor of the oppressed. It warned against the threat represented by the advance of another domination from outside. INTERFILM juries awarded Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher about aggressions against migrants from Southern Europe in Mannheim 1969, Werner Herzog’s Land of Silence and Darkness (Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit) about the marginalization of deaf and blind people in Mannheim 1971, and Edgar Reitz’s and Ula Stöckl’s Stories of the Dumpster Kid (Geschichten vom Kübelkind), a celebration of subversion and anarchy, in Berlin 1971.

The initiators of the Oberhausen Manifesto aimed, one could say, at the new generation of young people who wanted to find in the cinema the new experiences or a “counterculture”. Their struggle and lobbying took some years before an agreement between the German Film Board and the German Television was made in 1974. Money from the Television was now available for films. They agreed as well that the new films would first have a cinema hall career before they were broadcast on TV. It did not mean that the world was ready for the new (experimental) cinema, which was very critical towards the mainstream politics in Germany. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which his socio-political films used the aesthetics of the “old German” cinema to bring his critical views on the German contemporary history. It was a way to connect the “old” cinema with the “new” on.


It was Fassbinder who introduced as one of the first German filmmakers the issue of “racism” towards the African migrants in Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul; Ecumenical Prize in Cannes 1974). A year later Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta won the OCIC prize in San Sebastian for the The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum) which was a clear warning that authoritarian tendencies were again present in German society. It was also the theme of von Trotta’s The Sisters (Die bleierne Zeit) which won the OCIC Prize in Venice (1981). Remarkable were the commendations of both the OCIC and the INTERFILM jury in 1979 in Berlin for Peter Lilienthal’s film David because it portrayed without sentimentality a Jewish family at the time of the Nazi-regime in Germany. In a subtle manner it transcended a particular case to make an appeal to reject racism, and it was also a mirror for Germany to look more than ever to its history recognizing the holocaust. It seemed that the German cinema and its filmmakers had finally found their own voice and artistic freedom to tackle the most diverse issues in German society. It was the moment that there was a need to bring these creations together and support its artistic development. In this atmosphere the film festival of Saarbrücken was created.

The festival is named after Max Ophüls, which underlined the awareness of the organizers for the views of the new German filmmakers. Ophüls, a Jewish German born in Saarbrücken, and today acknowledged as one of the great masters of cinema, had to flee the Nazis in 1933 and found refuge in the US. Taking such a stand in Germany was courageous, even in 1980. The festival developed a special attention to the productions of the students of the German speaking film schools which explains the wealth of new short films which can be discovered yearly at the festival. The program of the festival – and for the Max Ophüls Prize- is mainly composed by the first, second and third feature films of filmmakers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The very first Max Ophüls Prize went in 1980 to the tragicomedy Der Willi-Busch Report by Niklaus Schilling which in a way denounced populism and the “new journalist-methods” of a newspaper, which in these days was a hot topic with the populist Bildzeitung. It was built on “inventing news” or transforming almost non-events into news.

In 1985 the international Protestant organization INTERFILM was invited to have a jury at Saarbrücken and it made an award to the tragicomical Austrian film by Michael Dor, Malambo. Thirty years later the INTERFILM jury was transformed, in cooperation with SIGNIS, into an ecumenical jury. The aim of it is to award a film in the main competition of feature films which sensitizes the public to spiritual, human, or social questions and values. In 2015 its prize went to the Swiss-British Karim Patwa’s film The Drift. It’s a story about a drunken car driver who kills in an accident a child and the shock it meant for the driver, full of guilt, and the mother and her pain.

The edition of 2021 was a very special one not only because it took place without an audience, and the juries working online, but also because of the program, with films presenting another Germany and aspects of German culture which are absent in the mainstream media. A culture which is not only determined by the German language and traditions but also by other languages spoken by its citizens and their traditions. Almost all the films were woven around the “new Germans”, Germans with foreign origins, or Germans filming abroad. In short, a German culture open to the world and being sensitive to socio-cultural changes. The festival opened with the documentary A Black Jesus by the Italian born Luca Lucchesi living mostly in Berlin. A story about a Ghanaian refugee in Sicily who asks to carry with the local (white) villagers the statue of a black Jesus in the annual procession. The film presents the fear and the prejudices of the locals for the “other” one from Africa, who ironically has the same colour as the statue which they venerate. It was a remarkable way to open the festival not only with a documentary but also with a film about the issue of migration and racism in a Catholic context.

The competition included twelve features. Two films presented the caring role of “foreign” caretakers in Germany. In Die Vergesslichkeit der Eichhörnchen (The Forgetfulness of the Squirrels) by Nadine Heinze & Marc Dietschreit, a Ukrainian nurse arrives in a family where the children have little respect for their sick father suffering from dementia. Her presence revives the old man and at the end she can bring the family together. In Eline Gehring’s film Nico, a young girl with Iranian roots works as an ambulant nurse for elder Germans. She has time, respect, and empathy for them. One day she is confronted with a racist attack on her and she gets help from a girl illegal in the country. Thanks to her elderly patients she can overcome her sustained trauma.

The Swiss Karen Heberlein’s film Sami, Joe and ich (Sami, Joe, and I; awarded by the Prize of the Churches in Zurich, 2020) brings the story of three young girls with foreign roots at their graduation day. They are talented but due to the social situation of their families they cannot or only with a lot of difficulties realize their ambitions. A film seen from their perspective. They are part of the Swiss society, and they want to be part of it, but it is rather complex and to succeed they have to overcome a lot of social and racial problems. Arman T. Riahi’s Fuchs im Bau (Fox in the Burrow) is situated in an Austrian prison, where a new teacher named Fuchs arrives. He is first assistant of an elder female teacher who practises her own pedagogy which seems weird for the guards and even for Fuchs. They believe the underage prisoners need discipline. The teacher only wants to foster self-respect among the youngsters and the courage to express their creativity and, above all, their inner feelings through art. Fuchs understands her only after many mistakes due to his own trauma.

One of the most remarkable films, and the winner of the Ecumenical Prize, was Borga by York-Fabian Raabe about an illegal Ghanaian emigrant in the German city of Mannheim. The film was made in collaboration with a Ghanaian crew and coproduced by the Ghanaian main actor Eugene Boateng. Borga is a well-made film about the global effects of Western consumption at the expense of the African continent. The story aims further than only at the attraction of getting rich in Europe; and it is more than a story about a migrant and his family: it problematizes the capitalist actions, in which toxic waste is presented as a new form of exploitation of Africa. It questions as well the dream of illegal immigrants who are willing to become criminals for their supposed happiness. The protagonist cannot fulfil the ambivalent expectations of both worlds and finally experiences the family as his ultimate support. It offers the viewer a more respectful and sensitive look at stories of emigration and refuge and questions clichés. Borga gives refugees faces and promotes solidarity. It also won the Max Ophüls Prize for the best feature film.