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.
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.
'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.