The Unloved Film Mogul Germany's Most Famous Producer Gets Little Love at Home
Part 2: 'I Don't Accept Accusations that I Lack Integrity'
But after "Christiane F.," he produced "The Neverending Story," worlds away from that gutter, a fantasy spectacle whose framework plot Eichinger moved to North America.
When he was producing the film, he was so beset with worries that he would drive through Munich all night long, getting only a few hours of sleep in the back seat of his car, in some parking lot. It was an attempt to bring the German film up to the level of Hollywood, and he still feels today that no one ever really appreciated his effort.
"Tell me," Eichinger asks, "how did this image that many people have of me develop? Why is there always so much tension in the air? I don't accept accusations that I lack integrity. A person lacks integrity when he can't be trusted, when he can be bought and when he takes bribes. And a person lacks integrity when he appropriates a subject merely to butcher it, sensationalize it and deprive it of its depth. That's an accusation I refuse to accept!"
He has been repeatedly accused of indiscriminately buying the rights to books, particularly bestsellers, and turning even the best source material into something for the mass market -- a Michael Ende here, an Umberto Eco there. He paid a record $10 million for the rights to Patrick Süskind's "Perfume." The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper described him as a "master of screen adaptations of literature." "I love literature," he counters defiantly, "but I don't make screen adaptations of literature. Each film is an independent work."
He likes to use major stars in his films, like Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Antonio Banderas and Winona Ryder in the adaptation of Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits." The cast of the German film version of Michel Houellebecq's cynical contemporary study "Les Particules Élémentaires" ("Elementarteilchen," or "The Elementary Particles") sounds like a who's who of the German acting world.
Putting His 'Social Future' on the Line
But Eichinger is no tycoon who merely invests a lot of money -- in books and stars -- to make even more money. He courted novelist Patrick Süskind for more than 15 years to acquire the rights to his bestseller, "Perfume."
Producers and directors worldwide agreed that the book was virtually unfilmable. There is little psychological depth, not much of a plot that lends itself to cinema, the protagonist is autistic and ugly, and the subject -- smells and aromas -- isn't exactly ideal for the cinema.
An entire film was made about Eichinger's courtship of Süskind: "Rossini," written by Süskind and directed by Helmut Dietl. Eichinger initially wanted Dietl to direct "The Neverending Story," but the two men couldn't agree on the film's vision.
Eichinger eventually talked Süskind into selling him the rights to "Perfume." "Perhaps I could have gotten the rights for less money, but I really wanted to have them," he says today. But even after Süskind had consented to the sale, the supervisory board of Eichinger's company refused to approve the selling price. "I had to pay for it out of my own pocket instead," he says. "And I had to take out a loan to do it."
Eichinger isn't the kind of producer who uses as much subsidy money as possible to finance his films. He says that he has often put his "social future" on the line for his productions.
'A Film that No One Sees Isn't a Film'
"His determination to make a film, come what may, is contagious," says "Perfume" director Tom Tykwer. "You have to be prepared to get into a creative boxing match with him, but when you do, you end up having a lot of fun. That's because you realize how passionate he is about his films." Many directors who have worked with Eichinger say similar things. But not all directors get on as well with him and are as willing to tolerate his efforts to put his stamp on his films as Tykwer. Doris Dörrie fought with him tooth and nail when she directed an adaptation of Alberto Moravia's novel "Ich und Er" ("Me and Him") in 1988.
"Doris thought that when a man talks with his dick in this film, it has some metaphysical meaning," he says succinctly today. "I said to her: 'No, Doris, men really do talk with their dicks.'" But for Dörrie, penises were not the problem.
"I told him that I didn't want him to be there all the time when we were filming," she says today. "I'm probably the only director who did that." She skipped the premier of "Me and Him," which was eventually seen by 3.5 million Germans.
But 10 years later, when Dörrie had to stop making "Bin ich schön?" ("Am I Pretty?") when her life partner, cameraman Helge Weindler, died during the filming, Eichinger jumped in and financed the rest of the filming.
"He didn't interfere at all anymore," she says. "He let me do as I pleased. Bernd has a big heart. And he respected the fact that I am in a different place than he is, and that I have to tell my stories and not his -- and that I also have smaller expectations for success."
"A film that no one sees isn't a film," he says. He mentions German directors like Christoph Hochhäusler and Christian Petzold, for whom he says he has a great deal of respect. "But they should try venturing out of the protected golden cage of the arts section!" Hochhäusler's and Petzold's films are rarely seen by more than 100,000 people, which is almost nothing for someone like Eichinger.
'I Don't Want to Wallow in Unbearable Things'
The interesting thing about Eichinger is that he is also attracted to subjects that make it almost impossible to reach a mass audience. In 1989, he filmed one of his dream projects, Hubert Selby's novel "Last Exit to Brooklyn," directed by Uli Edel. In the book, published in 1964, Selby writes page after page of raving prose, without commas or periods, filled with violence and sex, blood and sperm. Eichinger's film is harsh, but not pandemonium.
"The film isn't radical enough?," he asks uncomprehendingly. "When it was screened in the United States, half the people walked out! The film pushes the boundaries of appropriateness. I think it is pointless to make a film that provokes viewers to constantly turn away. I don't want to wallow in unbearable things."
This is Eichinger's worst nightmare: that people turn away from the images he has heaved onto the screen with so much money, effort and passion. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel says that when Eichinger was working on the screenplay for "The Downfall," he struggled for a long time over whether the film should show Magda Goebbels first anesthetizing and then poisoning each of her children. It became the most powerful sequence in the film, which depicts the Nazi regime in all its monstrosity.
The Taste of the Masses
But it happened to be one of those situations in which Eichinger wasn't sure how much he could expect his audience to take. For him, this translates into how much he can endure himself. Eichinger's formula for success is also his curse: He can afford to make films for himself, because he knows that his taste is identical with those of the masses.
The Bushido film is running in the adjacent screening room, for one last check before it is released. "Zeiten ändern Dich" is no contemporary version of "Christiane F." It is meant to be hard and soft at the same time, completely realistic and yet a completely mainstream film. But it does seem a little ridiculous when Bushido roams through Berlin like a lone wolf and says, in the off-screen voiceover, that he's "been fucked" once again, and when he complains about the "spastics" who are making his life so difficult.
And Hannelore Elsner may not be the ideal choice as the devoted rapper mother. Eichinger and Elsner were once a couple. He has almost always been together with actresses, including Corinna Harfouch and Katja Flint, and for the past three years he has been married to film journalist Katja Hofmann. There is something touching about watching the two holding hands and talking about the future of 3-D film.
At the end of "Zeiten ändern dich," Bushido stands on a stage at the Brandenburg Gate, in front of a cheering crowd, and sings a duet with Karel Gott, a song about getting old and staying young. Bushido, says Eichinger, is someone who is worshipped like a Messiah, a man everyone adores -- and that, he says, is the way it should be.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Germany's Most Famous Producer Gets Little Love at Home
- Part 2: 'I Don't Accept Accusations that I Lack Integrity'