The Unloved Film Mogul Germany's Most Famous Producer Gets Little Love at Home

Bernd Eichinger is Germany's most successful film producer. He has produced 70 films in more than 30 years, often taking considerable financial risks and boldly tackling difficult material. His films have received several Oscar nominations and he is well-known in Hollywood. So why is there so little love for him at home?


Bernd Eichinger won't be needing a chauffeur today. He's decided to walk home from his office in Munich's Schwabing district to his apartment on Leopoldstrasse. It isn't far, perhaps 500 meters (1,600 feet), but for Eichinger, who is well known in Schwabing, even a short walk can take a while.

Eichinger is wearing a blue woolen coat, a white scarf and gleaming white tennis shoes -- his standard getup. Film producer Eichinger has been wearing tennis shoes for years. He's the kind of man who takes big steps and makes a big impression in the process. And now, as he hurries home to Leopoldstrasse, he talks about his experiences filming Michael Endes' bestseller "The Neverending Story". He talks himself into a rage, quickly turning the discussion into a monologue.

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Photo Gallery: Germany's Most Successful Film Producer

That was more than 25 years ago. Eichinger had raised about $30 million for the production, one of the biggest film budgets worldwide at the time. But Ende didn't like what Eichinger wanted to do with his book and took him to court.

Eichinger stops walking for a moment. "I can't understand it," he says loudly over the din of rush hour on Leopoldstrasse, as if the world around him didn't exist. He throws up his arms, whirling his briefcase through the air, as he recounts the dispute and what he eventually said to the author: "You come to the studio, where 500 people are working around the clock, building sets, and you see the world you imagined being created before your eyes, and you're not happy?" Passersby slow down to look at him.

A Global Reputation

Eichinger clutches his briefcase more tightly and continues on his way. "A big film is like a giant ball," he says. "You have to keep it moving at all times, or you'll never get rid of it."

He keeps walking, saying that he kept it going, that giant ball, "The Neverending Story," and in the end it was a triumph, making more than $100 million in box-office revenues worldwide. Suddenly he comes to a standstill again. "Now we've gone too far," he says. "We should have crossed at the light over there."

Eichinger can probably be called the most successful film producer in German postwar history. He is the only German producer who can claim a global reputation. He has produced almost 70 films since 1979, both in Germany and in Hollywood, including "The Name of the Rose," "The House of the Spirits," "The Downfall," "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," and "Christiane F." More than 100 million people have seen the German films alone. Eichinger has received several Oscar nominations, most recently for "The Baader Meinhof Complex," a film about the infamous German terrorist group.

His latest film, "Zeiten ändern Dich" ("The Times Change You") opened in German theaters this week. Directed by Uli Edel, it tells the life story of Berlin rapper Bushido, who plays himself. It is a duo of alpha dogs, Eichinger and Bushido -- the mainstream producer and the unruly rapper, whose aggressive lyrics have alarmed parents and prompted radio stations to boycott his songs.

Eichinger calls the film "a pop fairytale." "It isn't about life and death in a concrete sense, the way it is with 'Christiane F.' or 'The Baader Meinhof Complex.' It's about people who grow up in Berlin back courtyards, who already make up a quarter of our society and yet are practically invisible in our political structures." It's the first film about contemporary life he has made in a long time.

The Unloved Mogul of German Film

To commemorate Eichinger's 60th birthday last April, industry publications were filled with paeans to "Bernd," written by colleagues and friends -- a standing ovation from the film industry. But when the same industry hands out its annual film awards, known as "Lolas" for some years, it consistently ignores Eichinger's productions. He is the unloved mogul of German film.

"I almost didn't make it through the preliminary selection process with 'The Downfall,'" he says. "That's absurd. It makes me laugh." Eichinger likes to laugh, and he laughs a great deal, but he isn't laughing now. He says: "The film was nominated for an Oscar! But that wasn't even acknowledged. People come up to me in restaurants and say: 'That's unbelievable.' Naturally, I have to ask myself: Who exactly voted against the film?" Now he is laughing -- loudly.

Nevertheless, he still seems perplexed. Indeed, there is one thing Eichinger will never be able to understand: That anyone, be it an author, a director or a journalist, doesn't share the passion he feels for his films. "I breathe film," he says. "Without film, I would cease to exist."

Over the years, Eichinger has turned the Munich production and distribution company Constantin Film into something of a global corporation. His office there is bright, with daylight coming from two sides, lighting up the trophies lined up on a sideboard along the wall. Framed pictures stand on the floor next to the door: Eichinger at the premier of "The Neverending Story," holding the two stars, both of them child actors, in his arms as they press their lips to his two cheeks. His eyes are closed in the photo, and he looks extremely happy. A silver thermos imprinted with the words "Bernd Eichinger" stands on the conference table.

"This is Ayurvedic tea," he says. "Would you like some? It's good. It doesn't make you quite as wired." Eichinger pours the tea, his hands trembling a little, as they have been for many years. The trembling makes him seem both feverish and vulnerable.

He talks about his beginnings, about how he made film to accompany his application to the Munich Academy for Television and Film in the late 1960s, in the Catholic boarding school where his parents had sent him. While the priests prayed upstairs, Eichinger was filming a naked woman downstairs. The academy accepted him.

Eichinger was in the film academy's third graduating class. The first class, which graduated in 1967/68, included renowned German director Wim Wenders. After completing his degree, Eichinger worked as a production manager for Wenders, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and Alexander Kluge, the heroes of the New German Cinema. "I had no creative input," he says. "My job was to get the best conditions possible for the director, with a small budget, and to clean up his accounts. As far as content goes, those films often seemed strange to me."

Rebelling against Papa's Cinema

To understand why Eichinger is such a major film producer and such a controversial figure, one has to look back at the time when he was defining himself -- as a counter-revolutionary. Eichinger didn't want to be one of those young directors who were rebelling against "Papa's cinema," the "tearjerker cartel" and a genre known as the Heimatfilm, immensely popular sentimental films of the 1950s that idealized Germany. He was like a son who, following in his father's footsteps, wanted to be a success with audiences at all costs, except that he went about it in completely different ways.

He made one Heimatfilm, but it was probably the harshest one Germany had ever seen. Eichinger's first production, "Christiane F.," based on a story in the magazine Stern and directed by Eichinger's fellow student in Munich, Uli Edel, delves into the suppressed side of Germany, the drug world of West Berlin.

The film depicts addicts dying in their own vomit in public bathrooms, and 13-year-old female junkies who prostitute themselves to grown men in cars to make enough money for their next fix. Almost 5 million Germans saw the film in theaters.

Few German films made before or after "Christiane F." are as realistic and romantic. Eichinger and Edel depicted the attitudes towards life of young people who were searching for euphoria and found death instead.

"I love the neo-realist cinema," says Eichinger. He is talking about films like Federico Fellini's classic "La Strada" (1954), with Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina, Luchino Visconti's "Rocco and his Brothers" (1960), "because they are very minimalist and yet are filled with sublime pathos." For Eichinger, an admirer of Maria Callas, cinema is ultimately a great opera that can develop anywhere, even -- or perhaps precisely -- in the filthiest of gutters.

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