Are Germans Ready to Laugh at a Film About Nazis from Space?

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A Nazi fortress from the film Iron Sky

When the kitschy sci-fi comedy Iron Sky is released in German cinemas this spring, it will pose a couple of interesting questions: Is the Internet offering a viable, new alternative for funding and producing movies? And, perhaps more intriguingly, are Germans ready to laugh about their dark Nazi history?

Iron Sky is a spoof set in the not-too-distant future in which Nazis invade the earth from the moon, where they have been holed up since the end of World War II. The film, a Finnish-German-Australian co-production, portrays Nazis in their familiar comic role as fanatic bunglers, but the real bad guys turn out to be the Americans, who claim the moon for themselves and trigger a nuclear war. Finnish filmmaker Timo Vuorensola came up with the idea while drinking beer in a sauna with friends. "That's where all the best ideas are born in Finland," says his German co-producer, Oliver Damian.

Since the start of production in 2006, the buzz about the Nazis-from-outer-space B-movie has been building steadily online, particularly in Germany. More than 3 million people worldwide watched the Iron Sky teaser released on YouTube in May 2010, and within days of the movie's premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival this February, the official theatrical trailer had been watched by more than 6 million people online. The film now has 115,000 Likes on Facebook, nearly 7,000 followers on Twitter, plus about 2,400 supporters registered on Wreckamovie, Vuorensola's collaborative online-moviemaking platform.

Because of all this prerelease Internet hype — as well as the fact that five screenings at the Berlin Film Festival instantly sold out — many also tipped Iron Sky to walk away with the Audience Prize in the festival's Panorama section on Feb. 18. But, in a surprise turn, the prize went instead to a film about gay pride in Serbia called The Parade, and the critical response to Iron Sky was decidedly mixed. "The effects were great, but the jokes were bad," says Berlin-based director Jörg Buttgereit, maker of the movie Captain Berlin vs. Hitler, a low-budget horror film in which Hitler's preserved brain does battle with a comic-book-inspired hero.

Now that Iron Sky is nearing its general release, some believe it may have a bigger hurdle to overcome than just lame jokes. Even though the film's biggest online fan base outside the U.S. is in Germany, there are some concerns that everyday Germans may not respond well to a Nazi-themed comedy. "Even 66 years after the end of the war, I'm afraid you still can't make jokes about Nazis in Germany," says Lutz Göllner, media editor at Berlin's Zitty listings magazine. The film's release on April 5 also comes at an awkward time in Germany. Law-enforcement authorities have been widely accused of marginalizing the threat of right-wing extremists after it emerged late last year that a neo-Nazi cell was responsible for a string of 10 murders, mostly of immigrants from Turkey. Investigators failed to see a connection between the killings for 13 years, prompting a belated memorial ceremony for the victims attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel on Feb. 23 and a nationwide minute of silence.

History shows that Nazis can be a hard sell in German cinemas too. Especially if they're portrayed in a lighthearted manner. Mel Brooks' 1968 comedy The Producers was actually banned in Germany for years. And a goofy 2007 film about Hitler called My Führer, starring a popular comedian, was panned by critics for being too politically correct and bombed at the box office. Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, however, did connect with German audiences and critics, which could have paved the way for a film like Iron Sky.

Damian says he's convinced his film will be a hit, though he admits he was worried at first. "Basically, everybody in Germany turned us down," he says. "Everybody liked the idea, but when it came to investing, they all said, 'Um ... uh ...'" But now that it's finished and about 150 theaters have agreed to screen it, he's making plans to produce extra copies on short notice in case more cinemas want in on the action. "Germans are not only ready for this, they have actually been waiting for it," he says.

Iron Sky producer Tero Kaukomaa believes the film's box-office potential will be helped by the grassroots role that fans played in not only hyping the film online but also in contributing ideas, and especially money. He says the turning point came in the spring of 2010 when he tried using the same "crowd-funding" model that had been pioneered by British director Franny Armstrong's 2009 documentary about climate change, The Age of Stupid. At the time, Kaukomaa had a $2.7 million gap in his budget. "I was really very nervous," he says. "I felt it was my last chance because the film had been around for a long time and production was postponed twice. The risk the project could die was very present."

After consulting with lawyers, the producers started offering actual shares in the film to investors pitching in at least €1,000 ($1,330). "Then things just took off," Kaukomaa recalls. "Within days, we had hundreds of thousands of euros from crowd investing. And this then influenced our reception at traditional funders." Of the movie's $10 million budget, he estimates about $1.3 million came from crowd funding.

Iron Sky integrated social media in the actual production of the film as well. Using their Wreckamovie collaborative portal, the filmmakers were able to ask members their ideas about what the future would look like in 2018, the types of vehicles the Nazis would drive on the moon and even the kinds of slang words they'd use after being cut off from terrestrial civilization for more than 60 years. And when filming began in Frankfurt in November 2010, the producers were able to summon 200 unpaid extras to appear in a scene in which a Nazi spaceship crashes to earth.

For some fans, the social-media aspect of the film is as big a pull as the unlikely tale. "I'm going to see Iron Sky even if it's a turkey," says Michael Fischer, a lifestyle-marketing consultant and part-time DJ. "I think the crowd-funding thing is cool." Göllner, the Zitty editor, would like to see the film do well for another reason. "Nothing insults Nazis more than when you make jokes about their horrible ideology," he says.