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Roland Emmerich, Independence Day, and the Blockbuster Phenomenon
Heide Witthöft

In recent years, German director Roland Emmerich has gained a strong foothold in Hollywood. With Independence Day, he managed to produce that most American of films, the blockbuster, and this study will investigate how he accomplished this feat. By comparing the German and American film industries and providing a short summary of Emmerich's background, I will trace the evolution of his career and discuss why I think he was predisposed to succeed in Hollywood and beyond.

Peter Lev maintains that there is an "unequal partnership between large American film companies with global operations and European filmmakers and governments struggling to maintain national film industries."1 This inequality arises from different film histories, approaches to film, and special socio-geographical situations. Americans tend to perceive film as a form of entertainment that exists mainly to distract them from their everyday lives and to provide enjoyment and relaxation, while European and especially German audiences see film as a tool for education and enlightenment. Entertainment is an additional benefit rather than the intended effect of a film. The two industries appear to have diametrically opposed goals: in Europe, films should make people think by problematising the human experience; in America, the audience is given a break from thinking by letting the viewer escape to an alternative world. A majority of American directors make films for a movie-going public that prefers not to get intellectually involved in the events on the screen, while European film- makers believe that there should be a dynamic exchange between the work on the screen and the viewer, that one should have a spiritually and emotionally stimulating experience in the movie theater. German directors, in particular, see their role not as providers of a mere visual product for a consumer but as artists creating their work true to a unique vision and thus might reach only a small group of people.2 Their goal of creating the "new German feature film" is defined in the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962 which was signed by 26 filmmakers:

Wir erklären unseren Anspruch, den neuen deutschen Spielfilm zu schaffen. Dieser neue Film braucht neue Freiheiten. Freiheit von den branchenüblichen Konventionen. Freiheit von der Beeinflussung durch kommerzielle Partner. Freiheit von der Bevormundung durch Interessengruppen. Wir haben von der Produktion des neuen deutschen Films konkrete, geistige, formale und wirtschaftliche Vorstellungen. Wir sind gemeinsam bereit, wirschaftliche Risiken zu tragen. Der alte Film ist tot. Wir glauben an den neuen.3

This attitude is shared by the German government whose Filmförderungsanstalt (translated as "Film Subsidy Board" by Elsaesser, "Film Subsidies Board" by Franklin, and "Film Promotion Office" by Sandford)4, created in 1968, supports films that contribute to the cultural, political, and/or historical self-definition of Germany. Its task is, "die Qualität des deutschen Films auf breiter Grundlage zu steigern und die Struktur der Filmwirtschaft zu verbessern."5 This focus on a national cinema is understandable if one looks at Europe after WWII: many countries lay in ruins and had to rebuild and create a new image for themselves. This was especially true for Germany, which had to start from ground zero with regard to its political, national, and economic identity. Creating a film industry that was recognizably German, i.e., one that dealt with specifically German issues, could help discover and define this new national identity. Subsidy laws were put into place to ensure the flow of films to assist this effort. This guaranteed money to make a film, but the project still needed the approval of the Filmförderungsanstalt.6 German cinema is thus very nationally oriented, focusing on specifically German topics; for that reason it does not possess a universal appeal. This is true for other European countries as well since each nation tends to concentrate on itself, and it is not surprising that there is no European cinema in the sense of a unified film production and distribution system, let alone a European film market that would be comparable to the one in the US. Le Duc's prediction that the prosperity of the Common Market in Europe will not translate into the movie business has, so far, proven accurate:

Film remains a nationally oriented, nationally marketed commodity during an era when fundamental laws and economic policies of the Common Market are designed to encourage, if not compel, mass production and distribution across the entire European Economic Community. Despite the fact that nine nations of Western Europe have now combined economically to form a single market of 260 million people, filmmakers and distributors within these nations continue to operate as if the national trade barriers of the past remained firmly in place.7

Film that centers around very national issues has a rather limited appeal to foreign audiences and cannot easily transcend cultural barriers. This particular industry is therefore unable to benefit from the Common Market. Another problem is the variety of languages in Europe: since dubbing is costly and time consuming, and subtitles often create the impression that one is missing something, only select films make it to cinemas or onto television outside the home country; hence, no particular European nation dominates the domestic markets. It is the US that holds this position. The enormous success of American films abroad indicates that these movies have a universal appeal lacking in European productions and that American filmmaking triumphs over the German/European approach. Germany's unique situation as an occupied country after WWII made it especially susceptible to American economic, political, and cultural influences.

What does all this have to do with Roland Emmerich? Emmerich, born on November 10, 1955, in Stuttgart, Germany, developed an early interest in science fiction. After finishing the German Gymnasium (roughly equivalent to the American high school), he was accepted for an internship at the Süddeutscher Rundfunk ("Southern German Broadcasting Corporation"). He also worked in advertising for a while, and later he enrolled at the Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film ("Academy for Television and Film") in Munich. Emmerich was more interested in the entertainment side than the art aspect of filmmaking. This commercial approach to film, coupled with his interest in science fiction and special effects, did not meet with the approval of his professors or fellow students. While at this school, he produced his first feature film, Das Arche Noah Prinzip (The Noah's Ark Principle, 1983), the most expensive project in the history of this institution.8 Emmerich left the school without graduating and decided to produce films on his own. He did not receive financial support from the German government, because the topics of his films did not meet the criteria of the Filmförderungsanstalt. He found private sponsors and the three films he made in Sindelfingen, Joey (1985), Hollywood Monster (1987), and Moon 44 (1989), were quite successful.9

Hollywood producer Mario Kassar recognized Emmerich's potential and brought him to the US. Universal Soldier (1992), Emmerich's first American endeavor, grossed $100 million, and his next venture, Stargate (1994), was a surprise hit, having been produced for $72 million and earning over $200 million at the box office. It was Independence Day (1996) that became a true blockbuster and established him as a major player in Hollywood, costing $71 million and making $460 million in only ten weeks. Why is this German so successful in the American market?

To answer this question, let us return to the Germany of the post-WWII years. The country had been virtually destroyed and the German people needed to rebuild their national and political identity. Film is a very useful and powerful medium for doing this, since it can create and project an image of unity and identity that has not been achieved yet, but to which one can aspire. Since the end of WWII, the German film industry has been quite prolific, producing movies that distinctly reflect the times during which they were made. The 40s and 50s focused on Trümmerfilme ("rubble films"), dealing with the war and its aftermath in order to try to come to terms with the past and to envision a better future. The best-known films from that era are Wolfgang Staudte's Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us, 1946), Erich Engel's Affaire Blum (The Blum Affair, 1946), Paul May's 08/15-trilogy (1954/1955), Helmut Käutner's Des Teufels General (The Devil's General, 1955), and Bernhard Wicki's Die Brücke (The Bridge, 1960). The 50s and 60s, the time of the Wirtschaftswunder, of rapid economic growth which provided self-confidence and a more positive attitude towards the future for the German people, saw a change in the subject matter of films. The "period of social comment, self-examination, self-pity, and satire was all but over,"10 and films dealing with the horrors of the past no longer attracted people to the movie theaters. The industry now focused on escapist cinema and many "easy to digest" films were made which painted a picture of a brighter and better future, distracting the audience from everyday life. Prime examples of this kind of film-making are the Edgar Wallace, Karl May, "Heimat," and "Sissi" films. The 60s, however, also witnessed the emergence of a group of socially conscious and politically motivated filmmakers who expressed their views in the Oberhausen Manifesto. Since that time, this generation of directors has dealt critically with the war and its aftermath as well as with Germany's current social and political conditions. For them, film became a means of self-expression and political commentary and moved away from simply providing escapist fantasies. The development of German film described here focuses on major cinematic trends at different times in the development of the post-WWII German film industry. A variety of film genres with diverse topics and different modes of representation always coexisted in all these eras, so we will find "easy to digest" films alongside politically charged ones at all times. It is important, however, to point out major artistic and thematic approaches at different stages of cinematic development in order to appreciate the progressive changes taking place in German film.

There had been a commanding presence of American movies in Germany alongside domestic pictures since the end of WWII. American film production did not suffer during the war in Europe, on the contrary, it was able to expand and solidify its international distribution system. Because production had continued without interruption, Hollywood had movies readily available for distribution in underdeveloped film markets. Many Western European nations tried to regulate the import of American films through taxes, subsidies for locally produced films, quotas etc., but most countries were "heavily dependent on American economic aid, and so had difficulty imposing quotas or other restrictions on American films as they attempted to rebuild their own film industries."11 Germany's situation as an occupied country did not allow for control over the flow of American productions into movie theaters and onto television screens. Since one of the goals of the allied occupation was to reeducate Germans and to make the country safe for democracy, the showing of Hollywood films might be considered part of this educational effort.12 The constant stream of American films into movie theaters and later onto television screens conditioned the German people much more so than other Europeans to become familiar with and adopt the American world view to a certain extent. Thus, Germans seem to have an affinity for American films that goes beyond the universal appeal of these productions. Pictures are often more powerful than words and any film can become an educational tool that shows us how things should or should not be. But, as Thomas Elsaesser points out, "while the Hollywood Major studios had unrestricted access to the German film market, West Germany nonetheless developed, from about 1948 onwards, a relatively buoyant domestic film industry [. . .]."13

This coexistence of German and American films influenced Emmerich tremendously and although he was certainly conditioned by the German way of filmmaking, he soon realized that there were other approaches as well. As his eagerness to try different and bigger projects grew, he almost naturally turned toward Hollywood, since the big budgets and the opportunities for creative development were there.14 It was not difficult for him to adapt his films to US taste because he had been ex- posed to American films all his life, and he almost intuitively knew what would appeal to this audience. Directors desire the largest possible audience for their films and working in Hollywood practically guarantees access not only to the US market but also worldwide distribution, because "With a market of more than eighty countries, the American film occupies more than 50 percent of world screen time and accounts for about half of global film trade."15 The international release of films is imperative, because movie audiences have been declining since the late 70s due to the introduction of cable, satellite, pay TV, and video, and directors must make films with international appeal if they want to draw viewers back into the movie theaters. Spectators are consumers who demand a certain product, and directors tend to cater to their tastes or try to create new ones. Given that the audience is not a homogeneous whole but instead consists of individuals with different needs and interests, the filmmaker must give something to everyone in order to reach the largest possible audience. Independence Day does just that, and it does so without us being aware of that while we are watching.

Independence Day is a film about saving the world from aliens who want to destroy mankind. The way the story proceeds is especially appealing to an American audience, because most of the action takes place in the US and the heroes are Americans, but there are enough references to the rest of the world to suggest that the film really deals with a global issue; additionally, the main characters are diverse enough to give every spectator someone with whom they can identify.16 Emmerich chose to make this film an ensemble piece, not a vehicle for one or two big stars. Thus we have a group of talented actors (Bill Pullman, Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Viveca A. Fox, Mary McDonnell, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin), but not one outstanding star. They present a motley crew of people who show us what can be achieved when faced with an overwhelming threat if every-one works together for the common good. In an age of internationalization and globalization, this message certainly reaches out to a very receptive audience. The main characters seem to be ordinary citizens, yet they are idealized types: e.g., the kind and competent president who loves his wife and child and whose priority is the safety and well-being of all Americans.

When we first encounter him, he is talking to his wife on the phone, telling her that he is in bed with a beautiful young brunette. Shocking? No, because since he is just watching television with his daughter, the audience knows that he is not having an affair. President Whitmore effortlessly pro-vides a moral example to his people. He is, however, attacked for not being assertive enough, as one woman puts it: "They elected a warrior (alluding to his fighter pilot past) and got a wimp." Little does she know that this wimp will later save the world through his calm and considerate actions and reactions, his insistence on thinking things through without being pressured into making decisions, and his constant consideration of what is best for the American people. The audience likes him because he has pleasant manners, possesses an innate authority, and comes across as quite an ordinary man, even though he is the most powerful man in the world. Yet, when it is obvious that diplomacy does not work, that the aliens do not wish to negotiate and want "no peace" and for mankind to "die," he does not hesitate to use any means available to destroy them.

President Whitmore is Bill Clinton as the American people would like him to be: honest, caring, faithful, competent, intelligent; a diplomat by choice, but a fighter if he has to be, a great leader who is approachable, a man who thinks of his country first and is quite willing to die for it. Of course, he cannot save the world all by himself, he needs help. His assistants are regular people with special skills and the right attitude, courage, imagination, and drive to deal with this extraordinary situation, not the military and government experts who advise him on a daily basis. One example is David Levinson, an M.I.T. graduate who prefers to work at a cable TV station and is able to track hidden signals the aliens are sending via earth's satellite system. He convinces the President (with the help of his ex-wife, the President's spokesperson) that the aliens have no peaceful intentions and, in fact, want to cause us great harm.

This genius with an average job masterminds the scheme that is ultimately used to destroy the mothership and all the others with it. As he is neither a fighter nor a pilot, he needs assistance to carry out his plan. Steven Hiller, a young African-American Air Force pilot with aspirations of becoming an astronaut convinces us through his daring flying, fighting, and overall bravery that he possesses the right skills to complete the mission. He is young, unafraid, and cocky, and, like the President, has a woman behind him, Jasmine, an exotic dancer with a good heart. David, on the other hand, is divorced, but he still loves with his ex-wife, and one can assume that at least one reason for his trying so hard to save the world is to regain her affections. The last member of this group of ordinary heroes is Russel Casse, an alcoholic crop duster and single father who claims he was abducted by aliens ten years earlier. He ends up with all the others at "Area 51", a secret army base not even known to the President. When help is needed fighting the aliens, he volunteers and shows courage as well as altruism when he crashes his plane into the spaceship when the missile he is supposed to fire accidentally jams. The President himself joins in the attack on the aliens, showing us that he is a man of deeds as well as words.

What do these men gain from their actions? The president proves that he is the right man for the office because he performs extremely well under pressure and never loses sight of the problem at hand. He is a family man first and the American people are as much his family as are his wife and daughter, and he will take good care of them in any situation. David Levinson, the Jewish computer geek, shows that brains will save the day and that people admire intelligence when it is put to good use. He wins his ex-wife back and gains the admiration of his father. Steven Hiller demonstrates grace under pressure and never loses sight of his goals. He realizes the importance of love and marries Jasmine, even if this means he will never be accepted by NASA because of her morally unacceptable profession. He is likeable because he acts so intuitively, is courageous without even thinking, and remains an optimist throughout the ordeal. His prize is the instant family he gets when he marries Jasmine, because her son Dylan will also join them. What about Russell Casse? The drunkard sobers up when he is needed and shows uncommon courage by sacrificing himself for the future of mankind. Through his actions, he wins the love of his children and earns the admiration of everyone who witnesses his selfless act. His example shows that even a seemingly useless element of society can rise to heroic stature if the cause warrants the effort. Independence Day has all the right ingredients for a blockbuster: a grand topic, a likeable cast, characters with whom one can identify, constant action, a fast pace, great battle scenes, special effects, and a relatively happy ending. People leave this film feeling great, because Earth as they know it has been saved, and they feel like they could be heroes, too, under special circumstances.

Why does a film that is so American in theme and style appeal to international audiences? First, everyone is included in the action because the alien spaceships are threatening cities all over the world and the US just happens to be one of many targets; second, the characters embody certain types of people that are universal; third, America is the only world power today and one almost automatically looks to the US for help in times of crisis. Finally, there are the virtues displayed by the individual characters like honesty, courage, and loyalty as well as a focus on family values which are shared almost everywhere, and many people like the film just because of its visual effects. Emmerich had all the right ingredients and combined them in such a way as to reach the largest possible audience-from children to grandparents, and across the boundaries of race, gender, social, and marital status. He packaged them nicely and presented them at such a furious pace that the visual stimuli alone ensured an attentive and appreciative audience.

Emmerich creates a vision of a united world because the defeat of the aliens is only possible through a concerted effort of all governments threatened by this menace from outer space. The concept of a united world does not seem so unlikely considering the current efforts of the fifteen nations that make up the European Union. A united Europe would represent one small but significant step in the direction of global unity. Perhaps Emmerich has planted the seed for visualizing a united world (under American leadership, of course) in our collective subconscious. The concept of a regime consisting of a politically correct, multiethnic group of ordinary people with extraordinary abilities as presented in Independence Day is very appealing because it suggests that we, the people, can and will play an integral role within our respective governments and are active participants in the creation of a common future. The effortlessness with which these people work together when threatened by a common enemy suggests two things: first, chaos and disaster will bring people together to help each other and second, that we need an enemy to prove our goodness and courage. In this age of global trade and international cooperation, we need to work together for economic and political reasons, forming partnerships with former enemies, consequently leaving hardly anyone to fight against in order to assert our goodness and superiority. Emmerich provides us with a new and formidable foe: an ugly, destructive alien who is so evil that no partnership is ever likely, who hates humans for no obvious reason and can be hated back unconditionally, who needs to be destroyed to save the world. Emmerich realizes that we want heroes, but that we live in a time that rarely calls for heroism. He responds by giving us what we crave and satisfies our need for grandeur.

In an interview with Georg Seitz of Bunte, Emmerich states that he himself believes the success of Independence Day is based on its "einfaches, schlüssiges Konzept. Jeder kapiert es, jeder fühlt sich angesprochen"17 which translates roughly as "simple, logical concept. Everybody gets it, everybody feels involved." Perhaps he is right. Independence Day is full of clichés, has no subtext, an easy-to-follow storyline, no intellectual pretensions, and, together with its fast pace and visual effects, makes for pure enjoyment. Emmerich's blockbuster formula goes like this: grand topic x likeable cast x spectacular effects x fast pace x simple message x big budget â happy ending = blockbuster. It matters, of course, how one puts all of these components together, and success is by no means certain. The audience still decides about a film's fate and its fickle taste can change from one minute to the next. However, Emmerich's formula (or at least a big part of it) seems to apply to all recent blockbusters and thus can claim a certain validity. He is Hollywood's "golden boy" right now, and it remains to be seen whether his recipe for success keeps working and if he can keep this position. His next movie, Godzilla, might not only decide the fate of the world but his future as well.


1 Peter Lev, The Euro-American Cinema (Austin: U of Texas P, 1993) xi.

2 I am thinking here of Faßbinder, Herzog, Kluge, Reitz, Schlöndorff, Wenders etc.

3 Ulrich Gregor, Geschichte des Films ab 1960, 3: Frankreich, Italien, Bundesrepublik Deutschland, übriges Westeuropa (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1983) 119.

4 Thomas Elsaesser, New German Cinema: A History (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1989) 3, James Franklin, New German Cinema: From Oberhausen to Hamburg, Twayne's Filmmakers Series, ed. Warren French (Boston: Twayne, 1983) 32, John Sandford, The New German Cinema, (London: Wolff, 1980) 14.

5 Filmförderungsgesetz, 6 Aug. 1998, FFA: Filmförderungsanstalt, 9 May 2000 <>.

6 The Filmförderungsgesetz allows two ways for a film project to qualify for subsidies: the first one is called "Referenzfilmförderung" and is based either on audience attendance or "merit" of a film. If at least 100.000 people watched the film in German cinemas within one year of its release, it will be considered for subsidies. Another way to qualify is if the Filmbewertungsstelle Wiesbaden, a kind of film rating board, considers a film to be of high quality or if the film wins the major award at a film festival (Filmförderungsgesetz §22). The second way is "Projektfilmförderung" and is granted if "ein Filmvorhaben auf Grund des Drehbuches sowie der Stab- und Besetzungsliste einen Film erwarten läßt, der geeignet erscheint, die Qualität und die Wirtschaftlichkeit des deutschen Films zu verbessern" (Filmförderungsgesetz §32). How these criteria are applied by the "Vergabekommission," the committee deciding what projects are worthy of support, is not explained.

7 Don R. Le Duc, "The Common Market Film Industry: Beyond Law and Economics," The American Movie Industry: The Business of Motion Pictures, ed. Gorham Kindem (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982) 361. By now, the European Union consists of fifteen nations with 530 million people, making the market more than twice as big as in 1982.

8 Emmerich found outside financiers for his ambitious project which took him three years and 1.2 million Deutschmarks to finish. For more information on his career see: Jo Müller, Roland Emmerich: Eine Werkbiografie (Cologne: vgs, 1998).

9 These films are also known as Making Contact, Ghost Chase, and Intruder, respectively.

10 Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel, The German Cinema (London: Dent, 1971) 113.

11 Lev 18. See alsoThomas Guback who claims that it is probable that "the Federal Republic of Germany never established a quota on the importation of American films because of diplomatic and economic pressure from the United States" (121). Thomas Guback, "Non-Market Factors in the International Distribution of American Films," Current Research in Film: Audiences, Economics, and Law, ed.Bruce A. Austin, vol. 1 (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1985).

12 Elsaesser provides a very nice summary of the American reeducation of Germany through film imports and how "economic objectives complemented political goals" in the first chapter of New German Cinema.

13 T. P. Elsaesser, "German Postwar Cinema and Hollywood," Hollywood in Europe: Experiences of a Cultural Hegemony, ed. David W. Ellwood and Rob Kroes (Amsterdam: VU UP, 1994).

14 The total budget of the Filmförderungsanstalt for 1999 was roughly 99 million Deutschmarks, not quite $55 million. Not even one of the films Emmerich made in the US could have been financed by that amount of money.

15 Thomas H. Guback, "Film as International Business: The Role of American Multinationals" (Kindem 338). He also maintains that "There is perhaps no industry in the United States which is so heavily dependent upon foreign markets as is the film industry" (340).

16 One potential drawback is that there are very few women in this film, and the ones that are featured more prominently do not play major roles. They are helpers and enablers for the men and they provide the incentive for them to give their best in order to save the world. The absence of strong female figures obviously did not hurt the film at the box office. It seems that either female viewers were content with the way women were portrayed in this film, or that it is not necessary to have same sex protagonists in order to be able to identify with a certain character.

17 Georg Seitz, "Ein Schwabe rettet die Welt," Bunte 15 August 1996, 15 May 2000.