The Foreign Mainstream: Why Cinema’s Biggest Oxymoron Deserves More

When I was in Berlin, Germany for a few months last spring, I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to movies, despite my understanding that Berlin has always been, to varying degrees over time, a major European film hub. I was there for the Berlinale International Film Festival, and there were art house cinemas all over the city as well, showing everything you’d expect an art house movie theater to show regardless of location, really.

I saw a couple foreign films being shown at the festival, and they were good, don’t get me wrong, and I was expecting them to be good. But besides the art house, and the festival fair, and the American films dubbed into German (which played at every larger multiplex in the city), what did German audiences really watch, anyway? The question didn’t dawn on me until I was actually there and truly exposed to German films we’d never get to see here in America—at least not in theaters.

What I’m getting at is: Netflix is a great outlet for what I’m straightforwardly calling foreign mainstream cinema, but why should it be the only place? Maybe I’m generalizing, but picture your average art house cinema, again, regardless of location—a semi-rarity in itself by its very nature, implying higher quality cinematic works that you arguably can’t access otherwise. So, the marquee will probably list some independent films or documentaries, some foreign films that are acclaimed dramas (most likely) and maybe a little bit of repertory, usually organized into a series or category of some sort in terms of scheduling and programming. But isn’t this indicative enough of the common attitude that certain kinds of films are art and others are entertainment, that some cinematic works are of lower cultural value based on genre, budget or narrative?

When I was abroad, I saw a film called Schlussmacher, starring one of Germany’s most popular and promising young celebrities, Matthias Schweighöfer, who also directed and produced the film. It was a smash hit at the time, as far as I could tell based on my somewhat limited knowledge of the German language; but it didn’t take fluency to see the frequent television spots and magazine covers and other forms of advertising which highlighted and praised the film.

Schlussmacher, which translates roughly to “Break-up Man,” was a cheesy, predictable, but also incredibly fun and heartfelt romantic-comedy— silly, raunchy humor paired with incredible warmth and sincerity made this film the success that it was, in my opinion. It tells the story of a Paul, played by Schweighöfer, who works for a break-up agency of sorts, bonding with the newly-rejected significant other of a client—high jinx ensue as Paul learns about his own deeply repressed desires for love and companionship through various misadventures with this unlikely friend. I thought for sure that after I’d seen it once last February in a Berlin multiplex, I would never see it again, but then I remembered that Netflix does feature these kinds of foreign films, and recently, I was indeed able to watch the film again on this outlet.

While I do think this opportunity for streaming access is, without a doubt, a positive thing and a step in the right direction in terms of foreign film exposure, I do feel as though something more needs to happen to give us theatrical access to films from other countries that are more diverse than the films we are getting to screen from these international markets.

Maybe there are licensing and importation/exportation issues that exist on the strictly business side of the global film market that I have no knowledge of. But, I do know that back in 1998, Tom Tykwer’s massive German hit Run Lola Run made quite the impact here in America. Even in this case study, however, it is interesting to note that, while a popular success in Germany, it translated to a highly experimental art house hit here in the states, later becoming somewhat of a film school screening staple.

So then, perhaps we should not be asking ourselves what the film industry, internationally speaking, can do to rectify what I see as a problem; again, that problem being the unfortunate and unfair discrepancy between our high-art/art-house foreign cinema exposure in select theaters, and what aspects of foreign cinema are being ignored and relegated to the better-than-nothing streaming outlets like Netflix (due to their being more generically mainstream in their respective countries).

Instead, maybe we should ask ourselves what the implications of this discrepancy really are. As I mentioned, this kind of question didn’t dawn on me until I went abroad and came back to find that this discrepancy even existed, so it wouldn’t surprise me if others wanted to argue that there is no real issue here. But as someone who was taught to value omnivorous consumption—as one professor of mine once put it—I don’t see why our conception of foreign cinema here in America should remain so pretentious and narrow as to make the term “foreign cinema” automatically synonymous with high art or quality cinema. Because, in reality, every country has its own mainstream and this is a fact about cinema that cannot and should not be ignored.

While it is certainly true that not every country has the strict conventions that come with a “Hollywood” designation and the commercial practices and aims those films often have, it is still hard to argue that we in America are getting an adequate variety of foreign cinema, because we don’t seem to realize that such a variety even exists; but such untapped and entertaining variety does exist, and it is important for us here in America to break down the physical and conceptual borders that prevent us from seeing the cinematic proof of that.