Veit Helmer is one of the few German filmmakers who, as a wanderer between the genres, is able to cross what are regarded as the hermetically sealed boundaries between the cinematic feature film and the festival-fixated short. He has made a name for himself as the author, director and producer of the fiction films TUVALU (1998/99) and GATE TO HEAVEN (2003) as well as the documentary BEYOND THE COUCH – CASTING IN HOLLYWOOD (2005), films that with more (TUVALU) or less (GATE TO HEAVEN) success were shown at both the festivals and the German cinema. Helmer’s presence at short film festivals is no less constant, and possibly even more rewarding: since the late 1980s he has presented some 15 short films at festivals and the cinema, at times very successfully – with no end in sight. The latest edition of shortfilm.de would thus like to take a look at this passionate cineaste without boundaries.
The career of author, director and producer Veit Helmer apparently bears only minimal marks from his studies at the Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film (HFF) in Munich. He learned the craft there, celebrated a premiere in Venice as co-author of the feature film THE BROTHERS SKLADANOWSKY (directed by Wim Wenders) and attracted with his SURPRISE what was for a film student an amazingly high level of public attention (48 festival invitations and 26 awards). Nevertheless, already in his early years Helmer placed high importance on autonomous project development and production and took control of the sale of his films – an unusual route in light of the division of labour between director, producer and distributor taught at the HFF, as well as a difficult path to tread. In this way he has however preserved the power to alone determine the shape his films would take in both artistic and financial terms. This makes Helmer one of an important group of independent filmmakers who guarantee a high level of production continuity by bringing considerable professionalism to bear on their work. His special significance for the profile German short film enjoys abroad is based both on his consistent participation in international festivals for many years and on the strong representation of his works in distribution and sales.
A welcome aspect of Helmer’s oeuvre is the wide gamut his films cover – their production values, stylistic means and themes making them very difficult to classify. Audience hits like his gag films SURPRISE (1995) and THE WINDOW CLEANER (1994) are hard to reconcile with his black-and-white film poem TUVALU or an anarchic comedy suffused with erotic fantasies such as GEORGIAN SUMMER. Helmer has developed a style that is quite unusual in German film, consisting of a lyric touch that sometimes verges on the grotesque along with a prodigious brand of humour that finds its roots more in (South) Eastern European films than in the cool reserve of French cinema or the German made-for-TV movie. Scenes in Helmer’s films sometimes recall the visual language of Emir Kusturica, although, unlike the Serbian filmmaker, he largely omits any clear political references. They both share a sympathetic view of figures on the fringes of society, who for Helmer are anything but pathetic losers – here, he forms a striking counterpoint to the psychological realism of the so-called “Berlin School”. His films instead conflate the hard realities with fairytale worlds of wonder; they are brightly coloured and loud and usually thumb their nose at political correctness.
As producer and sales partner, he is by all means prepared to do what it takes to market his films. The best example of this is his short comedy THE WINDOW CLEANER. Senator purchased the cinema rights in the late 1990s in order to show the film in accordance with the provisions of the Film Promotion Act (par. 20) as a warm-up film before HIGH CRUSADE – FRIKASSEE IM WELTRAUM. However, the fact that the Film Promotion Act prescribes coupling a feature film up to 120 minutes produced with German promotional funding with a short film does not by a long shot mean that in practice this short film will actually be delivered to the cinemas or screened there. Helmer signed the distribution contract, but put one over on Senator by sparking a buzz with the press headline “Finally – A Short Film as Warm-Up Film Again!”. He also self-confidently talked up his film to cinema operators, making sure it would be shown. Contrary to usual industry practice, the distributor as a result had to make 120 prints of his film and couple it with HIGH CRUSADE as originally proposed by Senator.
This example demonstrates that Helmer knows his way around the exploitation conditions for short film and understands the eligibility requirements for FFA reference funding, the Murnau Award and the role of the Filmbewertungsstelle. With production costs of around 120,000 EUR for TOUR EIFFEL (1994), he can also probably boast of making one of the most expensive German short films of all time. But Helmer has always been fond of smaller projects as well, which he produces using “guerrilla” tactics and finances with funds from the reference film promotion fund or possibly through an advance rights sale to the ARTE or 3sat television stations. Some of his recent short films were made with the help of film students at workshops Helmer hosted in association with the Goethe Institute. The aim of the workshops was to produce 35mm films whose screenplays were written and filmed by the young filmmakers themselves. Helmer did the final editing and the festival presentations and worked as artistic director during the shooting. Seven films have been produced in this manner since 2001, primarily in former Soviet republics such as Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, all of which were shown at festivals and bought by TV stations. Even though he supervised the films artistically, Helmer always gives the up-and-coming filmmakers the credit as authors of these works. In his workshops, as well as in his recent role as co-producer of SECURITY (directed by Lars Henning, D 2006), Helmer displays a refreshing lack of vanity and has proven his mettle as a mediator of knowledge able to break down barriers.
From an economic point of view, making a short film is not exactly a worthwhile pursuit for Veit Helmer – as many others have also found out, making a short film is ultimately “a self-organized 1-EUR job: you work for six months and then find yourself paying for it out of your own pocket in the end.” The fact that under these conditions stories can still be told that are virtually without parallel in German cinema shows that the possibilities of short film to work as an engine driving cinematic renewal are far from being exhausted.