As far as arthouse cinema goes, Germany has a good reputation. The Stasi thriller The Lives of Others won an Oscar in 2007, The White Ribbon clinched the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2009 and Downfall was the hit that launched a thousand spoofs.
But despite critical plaudits, German productions have rarely managed to infiltrate commercial multiplexes outside their own borders. That might just change with the announcement of what is being heralded in the German media as “the first attempt at a German blockbuster” and “the most expensive German film of all time” – a $100m (£62m) adaptation of David Mitchell’s labyrinthine novel Cloud Atlas, which will be filmed on location in Berlin this autumn.
The film is being produced by Munich-born Stefan Arndt (Good Bye Lenin!, The White Ribbon) and directed by his compatriot Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the American Wachowski brothers, who made The Matrix series. Arndt’s X-Filme – in conjunction with Warner Brothers in the US – fought off competition from Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks powerhouse, among others, to buy the rights to the award-winning book.
Though Arndt insists the production will be a “pure German film – and the most expensive ever”, he has decided to keep the dialogue in Mitchell’s native English. Halle Berry and Tom Hanks have been lined up as the leads, supported by Susan Sarandon and Jim Broadbent.
Mitchell told the Guardian on Wednesday he had read the “deeply impressive” script nine months ago. “They aren’t attempting merely to film the book, which is why many adaptations come to grief – the novel’s already there, so why spend all that effort on an audiobook with visuals?” he said via email.
“Rather, the three directors have assembled Cloud Atlas and reassembled it in a form which – fingers crossed – will be a glorious, epic thing. The reincarnation motif in the book is just a hinted-at linking device, but the script gives it centre stage to link the six worlds with characters, causes and effects. A novel can’t do multi-role acting: a film can. The directors are playing to the strengths of their medium, just like I try to.”
He said he was determined to be on set when filming starts. “Watch a line I wrote come out of the amazing Jim Broadbent’s mouth? Wild horses couldn’t keep me away.”
Asked what he thought about his creation being touted as the most expensive German film of all time, Mitchell said: “I’d be dishonest if I didn’t confess to a tinge of pride. Plus a bit of ‘blimey’ and gratitude that it’s not my job to handle the budget.”
Cloud Atlas is the latest in a long line of films to be made recently in and around Berlin, where over 300 movies are now produced every year, according to the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg.
Arndt said he chose to work in Germany because the country now had world class production facilities. “Cloud Atlas was initiated in Germany and was pushed forward in Germany; it will be made and produced in Germany too. That’s not because there are tax advantages or grants on offer. A project like this is possible here now because the German film industry has become professional,” he told Die Welt.
Parts of Cloud Atlas are scheduled to be filmed at the Babelsberg studios just outside Berlin, where Quentin Tarantino shot much of Inglourious Basterds and where Marlene Dietrich made some of her most famous films during the Weimar Republic.
Berlin is becoming ever more popular with international film-makers, said Eike Wolf, the studio’s spokesman.
“It’s versatile as a location – Berlin has so many different faces. It can stand in as Moscow or eastern Europe because it retains a lot of Soviet architecture, and it can play big metropoles like Paris or London too. It also has a lot of very modern architecture which is very popular with sci-fi directors, and then you have districts like Kreuzberg which have a very multicultural feel,” said Wolf.
“Plus,” he said, “it’s still cheap to locate a film here. As far as accommodation and transport is concerned, it’s a lot cheaper here than in Los Angeles or London to put up a cast and crew. And then Berlin itself is of course one of the hottest cities in the world right now, with its nightlife and from a creative point of view. It’s a place directors like living for nine months.”
Hollywood is passé, said Arndt. “I’ve got the feeling that the world is slowly getting sick of Hollywood,” he told Die Welt. “Previously only Hollywood had the money [to make big films]. After the financial crisis, it doesn’t have that much money any more. What it still has is power. Now the world is opening up enormously. China is building 4,000 new cinema screens every year – that’s as many as are in the whole of Germany. That’s why we had a look around to see if there were independent financial backers outside of Hollywood,” he said. He added that many of Cloud Atlas’s investors came from Asia and Europe, and that it was only when he had collected the money that Warner Brothers started to believe the film could be a success in the US.
With such hubris, Arndt will have to hope Cloud Atlas doesn’t suffer the fate of the last $100m film directed by a big shot German with great hopes on his shoulders: despite a mega budget and Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie as his leads, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Tourist, his follow up to The Lives of Others, received a critical mauling.
Cloud Atlas is scheduled for release in October 2012.
The stand-in city of choice
Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer was set in the UK and US, but for reasons well documented the director could not travel to either country. Instead, he chose to film the whole picture in Germany. For one sequence set in London Charlottenstrasse in central Berlin was transformed into modern day Oxford Street.
When Jackie Chan decided to remake Around the World in 80 Days in 2004 he felt it would be too expensive to film on location in London and upped sticks to Berlin instead. The city’s elegant Gendarmenmarkt doubled for the UK capital in many scenes.
Much of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was set in France, but he filmed it almost all in Berlin. Auguststrasse, now home to many of Berlin’s trendiest galleries, stood in for Paris, and Clärchen’s Ballhaus, in the former east, also had a bit part.
Remember that scene in The Bourne Supremacy where Jason Bourne (played by Matt Damon, below) is being chased through the streets of Moscow? He was in fact being pursued in a tunnel underneath Berlin’s Tiergarten park. Berlin stood in for the Russian capital again in the opening segment of The Bourne Ultimatum, this time in the Platz der Vereinten Nationen.
Berlin can also play the future. The glittering Hauptbahnhof (main station) was the key location for the 2009 sci-fi film Mr. Nobody, starring Jared Leto.