A few weeks ago I received a request from my esteemed colleague Sidney Schering, asking me to write for his internet column "Popcorn&" I would like to contribute a commentary on my everyday life as a freelance film critic. The topic: "Cinema Purgatorio – What film critics suffer from" made me think for a long time about what negative things can be found in my profession, if you only look for them long enough. In order to classify my musings more precisely, I would like to give a short insight into my vita at this point. After all, not every film critic is born as one.
When does one become a professional??
After graduating from a Hamburg high school, I initially decided against my passion for writing and took a down-to-earth path to a long (and hopefully successful) career. I always wanted to become a lawyer because of my above-average assertiveness and started an apprenticeship as a paralegal. A very bad idea. After one year I finished and after another year and the idea to start a film blog, which was born out of necessity, in this case unemployment, I started a traineeship in a publishing house with an affiliated television production, completed it and was able to not only learn a lot about film and about writing, but above all to try myself out during that time. My expertise thus emerged from a mixture of learning by doing and under the expert eyes of a handful of experts who have been observing the medium of film far longer than I have, if only for reasons of age. My cineaste existence thus began relatively late for me. Only at the age of 19 I discovered the fascination of Hollywood, which made me look into character cinema again and again over the time. I acquired a lot of knowledge on the job and in my spare time, watching films, analyzing them on my own, writing essays, interpretations, looking at the work of other critics and trying to soak up as much as I could. If you look at my very first "review" today, you can clearly see that about six years ago, it was anything but professional. Meanwhile I have clients all over Germany. By expanding my clientele, making a lot of contacts and recommending film distributors and colleagues, I was able to start my own business in May 2015 and allow myself to realize that this step can be considered a sign of success of my perseverance.
"Die Welt" headlined the "Panem" finale in capital letters "This film is no longer bearable". Regardless of the content of the actual criticism, such a comment is simply not appropriate.
This brief look at my own career path is necessary to properly classify the following lines. Due to the fact that I earn money with my film reviews, attend press screenings and I am invited by press agencies and film distributors to events and premieres, I consider myself a professional critic and not (anymore) just a blogger. This is to put my statements made here in as professional a light as possible and to expose grievances in an industry that, at the latest with the exponential growth of YouTube film channels, film blogs and hobby podcasts, is losing more and more of its importance. The statement that one is a film critic nowadays has an increasingly bitter aftertaste and not infrequently elicits a smirk from those around one. Due to the fact that all creative professions are always connected with a certain form of subjectivity and that everyone who likes to write, paint, make music or shoot films in his spare time can also adorn himself with such a designation as author, painter, musician and actor or director, respectively, it is difficult to assert oneself as a trained performer of one’s guild. The result: publishers prefer to hire interns rather than trained journalists, participating in casting shows makes you a star, and YouTube celebrities become role models for an entire generation.
The respect for passion
The journalism industry is thus subject to constant change. Of course, this also has an impact on the area that deals with any kind of culture. Editorial departments are getting smaller, individual departments are being cut back, and what remains is a handful of writers who used to be responsible for one area and now have to handle a whole series of them. From qualitatively high-quality, let alone passionate technical journalism there is only rarely something to feel. Of course, this is also due to circumstances. If someone used to be responsible for the culinary section of a large German daily newspaper and now also has to look after the cultural sector, you simply can’t expect the colleague to have his heart beating for Hollywood as well from now on. So week after week, the cinema and its films are just ticked off, and on interview dates, statements like the following arise:
"I’ve already been on three interviews this week, I can’t watch this shit anymore!"
This statement comes from a middle-aged colleague who said this in my presence during the interviews for "Crimson Peak". Let’s consider the situation in which we find ourselves: While a group of several film journalists is waiting in a posh hotel in Berlin for the arrival of world star Tom Hiddleston to interview him about his new project, Guillermo del Toro’s gothic horror film "Crimson Peak", a person who gets paid for something that other people would even pay money for, complains about the deplorability of his situation. Not only does such defensiveness prove that passion for the subject matter either never existed or has now been completely lost, it also highlights at the same time the lack of respect for cinema as well as the work involved in it. Moreover, the fact that some people do not appreciate their good fortune is certainly not a pure phenomenon of journalism, but since the art of film has more to do with passion than many other topics, the work can only succeed well if you muster those. So this colleague fights his way day after day through such "strenuous" appointments as an interview slot lasting about an hour, depriving people of the opportunity to, to carry out its work with that verve that it requires.
The BILD newspaper judged "Still Alice": Honey in the brain with 50. No trace of factual consideration.
The critic – The non plus ultra of the (good?) Taste
But drive and passion are not automatically the key to success. As a film reviewer, one is confronted again and again with the question of for whom one’s own work is intended in the first place. Even if a large part of my profession simply cannot imagine it, being a critic does not mean checking a film for mistakes. The reviews, ideally written with dedication and expertise, are not an appeal to "the art" itself, and they are certainly not a platform for the author to distinguish themselves. Ideally, film reviews should act as an atlas for all those viewers who are thinking about going to the movies. In times when cinema numbers continue to fall year after year, when watching and downloading pirated films is proving to be an increasingly harmful practice for the film industry, and when an average earner thinks twice about spending up to €14.50 on a film (multiplex price for a weekend screening of a 3D film with excess length), positive moments in the cinema are particularly important. However, these can only be experienced if one’s own expectations are fulfilled and, in the best case scenario, even exceeded. It is of no use to the reader thirsting for information if the film critic merely wants to prove with the help of his review how sophisticated his own taste in films is and how this compares with the production he is reviewing. Using one’s own preferences as a yardstick for a film review is a habit, through which at some point the assumption has taken hold that film reviews can never be objective. This is simply wrong. While it takes skill to empathize with the expectations of different audiences, completely independent reporting is still possible with a little flair. In my private life, I don’t have the slightest interest in the pure fantasy genre, but I still recognize the value of movies like "Lord of the Rings", without denying myself for it. My personal taste in films has no place in a press screening. Whoever does not internalize this principle is simply wrong in his profession.
The self-evident privilege
But how can one show respect for film, cinematography and cinema itself, when even the smallest demands on the critic cause him not only to forget his good manners, but also to elevate himself as a matter of course above the work of such people, which he himself could not do any better?? Let’s just take a look at what we as the so-called "experts" do every day: We evaluate something that we ourselves cannot. Actually, this fact is one that would immediately disqualify us in any other profession. Yet no other profession is as inept at dealing with criticism as those who earn their living by criticizing others. In a fictitious dialogue in the TV series "Castle", an actress has a conversation with a theater critic. The two clash and the sentence is uttered:
"If you can’t act, you become an acting teacher". And those who can’t even teach become critics."
With the conclusion "One would like to be deaf"!" to the deaf-mute tragicomedy "Understand the Beliers?"the CINEMA put an unpleasant crown on the modern form of the dispektierlichen criticism on.
Even though this sentence can probably be analyzed on different levels, there is still a lot of truth in it. To see this, just take a look at the colleagues throughout Germany. While certainly a majority of journalists write for one or even several prestigious employers, the trend is increasingly for bloggers, YouTubers and podcasters to use press screenings as an opportunity to ultimately toot their own horn on their portals. True to the motto: If it didn’t work out with my own career, at least I’m ragging on the careers of those people who managed to do what I’m dreaming about. This is not only an admission of one’s own limited world view, but also damages the reputation of those few critics who still do their job with passion and dedication and who actually have to make a living from it. Til Schweiger also knows this, and at some point he justifiably no longer wanted to expose himself to the stress of the limited-thinking journaille and has decided to forego press screenings of his films in advance. The fact that it is precisely with the (professional!) Reviews of his films can also earn money from the authors, he ignores and has all the right in the world to do so. Because with Til Schweiger, the mutual give-and-take relationship between filmmaker and journalist has at some point turned into a competition to see who can bash his productions the most painfully. And even Til Schweiger, who despite all the criticism still receives enough positive reviews, doesn’t have to put up with that.
The self-evidentness of the privilege begins with a majority of the film journalists however already in not recognizing, how beautiful the own occupation is actually. Apart from the over-committed fault-finding, which is of no use to anyone except perhaps to raise the reviewer’s pulse, the friction points for many critics start somewhere else and much earlier, before the actual enjoyment of the film. People complain about the early time of the press screening, denounce the wrong cinema, criticize the catering and, and, and… Behind nice gimmicks like the serving of drinks and food one immediately suspects bribery and in general no one trusts anyone here over the way. The fact that it is still about the review of film productions puts all these rants not infrequently in an almost absurd light. The question inevitably arises as to how, in the face of such convulsive pessimism, the desire to take a passionate interest in a film that has been produced for a lot of money by a lot of people in days and months of work is supposed to arise at all. But many seem to be unaware of this fact.
That it can be done differently is proven by excerpts such as the one from the FILMSTARTS review of "The Turkey of Panem", which was rated with only half a star out of five and begins with the words: "The FILMSTARTS editorial team looks forward to all films – and because this is the case, we never give up from the start."
No one makes it their goal to make a bad film
Of course there are these films. "Movie 43," "My Wife, the Spartans and Me," or, as the most recent example, the comic book adaptation "Fantastic Four.". All of these productions received almost exclusively negative feedback from critics, which proved to be justified due to the equally large number of viewer scoldings. In spite of the financial means and the potential for more, the audience was completely ignored. Nevertheless, there are also people behind a project for which a not insignificant amount of human work was put in. With all the big and small flaws that these films possess, even such projects deserve to be viewed and evaluated with a certain form of basic respect. If there is no broad audience for such a production – and whether one likes it or not: there are always one or two outliers – this is by no means a free pass for the critic to write it into the ground. Because one thing is especially important in the current economic crisis in cinema: film criticism must never be harmful. Neither for the cinemas themselves, nor for the filmmakers. If a production has the potential to leave the audience with an unpleasant feeling, it is the task of the journalist to show the reader alternatives. But how can this be taken for granted by someone who has long since lost his passion for cinema??
Finally, a few simple but no less personal words: I love my profession. I love any kind of film, I am open-minded and I think I have the ability to put myself in the shoes of the different target groups. That’s why I think of myself as doing my job well. Nevertheless, I am grateful for any form of constructive criticism and see myself far from reaching the end of my analytical and reviewing skills. What sets me apart, however, is the fact that for all the professionalism I display towards film in my job, I have never lost my love and shed my fan-ness. When I conduct an interview with an actor today, I still consider it a great honor and I’m still as excited as I was when I conducted my first interview with Jan Delay a few years ago. All the people I allow myself to judge are doing a great job. By what they direct, act and write, I am lucky enough to make money. It is up to me to show them the respect they damn well deserve. How nice it would be if this thought would also catch on with the many other film journalists who are hardly able to be inspired anymore.
Yours sincerely, Antje Wessels
PS: This text was published in 2015. In the meantime my opinion has changed in some details and has been formed by my several years of work as a critic. Nevertheless, I maintain the core of my view. (10/2018)