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Hollywood as a Tool of German Foreign Policy?

Have the Germans discovered an alternative to war in order to conduct their foreign policy?

May 28, 2004

Have the Germans discovered an alternative to war in order to conduct their foreign policy?

Don't worry, this story is not about rehashing the saga of German opposition to the invasion of Iraq, an undertaking which German chancellor Gerhard Schröder — with great foresight — had termed an "adventure."

Today's German strategists are much more refined than their Hogan's Heroes style reputation makes them out to be. Case in point: the release of the new blockbuster "The Day After Tomorrow."

Roland Emmerich, the movie's director, comes with impeccable cinematographic credentials, including "The Patriot" and "Independence Day." Both these movies revolve around core American ideals — such as overcoming adversity, fighting for one's way of life and the ultimate belief that good will conquer evil.

In other words, Mr. Emmerich has sound all-American credentials – and he can certainly claim a stunning ability to tap into the nation's nerve center and image pool.

Which is precisely why the White House and conservatives are so nervous about the May 28 release of his latest movie "The Day After Tomorrow." It is cast as an epic — and rallying call for Americans to start taking global warming seriously — and especially in U.S. policymaking circles.

Evidently, director Emmerich knows the politics of movie-making well. He believes that it takes a great movie to make key topics relevant to today's audiences. In his view, this is especially true if one wants to rally young people who are usually completely disinterested in political issues.

Movies, however, are a great way to crack their sense of apathy. As Mr. Emmerich has pointed out, Hollywood thrives — and falls — on its ability to draw 18 to 21 year olds into theaters.

In that sense, this activist director must feel like he has achieved a perfect circle — aligning the commercial interests of the movie industry with his own agenda, which in this case is pro-environment.

So far, so good. What is completely overlooked in this tale is the fact that Mr. Emmerich hails from Germany, is an avid supporter of the pro-environment German Green Party — and is known to hang out on trendy Berlin cafes with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the leading figure of the Green Party.

And here is where things get really interesting. As everybody is well aware, moviemaking à la Hollywood has long been used as a tool to project "soft" American power around the world.

Movies such as Independence Day or The Patriot have certainly put a very positive spin on all things American — and have helped the rest of the world to view things quite a bit more through U.S. eyes.

What is much rarer, in contrast, is the reversal of this process — having non-American directors use the powerful tools of Hollywood to shape the U.S. political debate.

In that sense, one could say that Mr. Emmerich is smartly no longer considering war — but rather Hollywood — the continuation of politics with other means, to paraphrase General von Clausewitz ever so slightly.

There is a great political logic behind his strategy. If the Bush Administration cannot be moved to support the Kyoto Protocol — as many Europeans would want it to do and as director Emmerich advocates — one potentially effective strategy is to alter the dynamics of U.S. domestic politics.

Turning out the youth vote by making a cataclysmic portrayal of a new ice age may seem far-fetched to some, but not to Mr. Emmerich. He realizes full well that in a society where the borderlines between reality and imagination are ever more fluent at all levels, one can certainly imagine the political powers released by the movie.

What is most stunning, however, is the sophistication with which the Germans are nowadays executing their political strategies in the United States.

Perhaps that is why some U.S. critics and anti-environmentalists were quick to label it a "propaganda movie" — something for which Germany (and German filmmakers such as Leni Riefenstahl) used to be known in a former era.

But saying so is really sour grapes. German foreign policy is no longer rooted in abstract principles of raw power, including military assets.

Rather, it is based in a profoundly democratic vision of helping citizens all around the world see what the common, future-oriented agenda ought to be to ensure the sustainability of society and the economy all around the globe.

And in that context, nobody could have come up with a more clever – and artfully constructed – ploy than Roland Emmerich did when he shot "The Day After Tomorrow."

Of course, the fact that it is hitting the movie screens at the same time when there is much debate about whether Michael Moore's movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" will be shown in U.S. theaters only adds to the suspense.

The Bush Administration, or so it seems, is gravely worried about the pincer movement by the new "axis powers" — Roland Emmerich, a German director who made it big in Hollywood and Michael Moore, a leading representative of the activist side of the U.S. documentary film business.