Encouraging German-American Youth Exchange through Film

Alexander Wochnik

Alexander Wochnik holds a PhD in Politics and International Relations from Aston University, UK. His research focuses on German foreign policy, Polish foreign policy, and Polish-German relations. He was a Harry & Helen Gray/AICGS Reconciliation Fellow in the summer of 2012; a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Sciences (JSPS) Postdoctoral Researcher at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo in 2014; a Research Fellow at Manchester University, UK (2013-14); and in 2016 a DAAD/AICGS research fellow assessing German multilateralism through security relationships: German-U.S. Cooperation in Afghanistan. Alexander has published in the international peer-reviewed journals Geoforum, German Politics, West European Politics, and East European Politics and Societies.

He is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

How to keep young Americans interested in Germany is one of the key questions in maintaining solid U.S.-German relations for future generations to come. The nature of the asymmetric relationship has always meant that more young Germans have been interested in the U.S. than their counterparts in America toward Germany (this is quite common in such type of relationships as, for example, Poles and Czechs experience with Germany). During the Cold War a smaller world meant that young people had fewer options when trying to explore other countries, and a generously sponsored youth exchange program provided enough financial incentive for young people to cross the Atlantic in order to go to school in Germany or the U.S. for at least a semester or two.

However, in the twenty-first century Germany faces “more competition” in attracting U.S. youths. After the collapse of communism, Europe has become bigger, and many rapidly developing states in Asia have also tremendously improved their appeal (Japan, South Korea, and above all, China). To make matters worse, the current U.S. administration unveiled plans to scrap various funds for young Americans who might wish to spend some time in Germany.  The political shift of focus away from Europe toward Asia and the Middle East, paired with unfortunate remarks that NATO was obsolete and the closing down of U.S. airbases in Germany, means that fewer young Americans “stumble” across Germany as a “cool destination.”

Not all is bleak, of course. Germany as the football and export “Weltmeister,” and Berlin as one of the trendiest cities on the planet continues to have enough “sex appeal,” but how could this be effectively communicated to young Americans?

One of the best mediums available with lasting impact are blockbuster movies. A causal link has been established, for example, between certain Hollywood movies and recruitment numbers to join the U.S. army. Most famously, the 1980s movie “Top Gun” led to soaring applications to the U.S. air force (the U.S. military is aware of the impact of Hollywood and therefore bans certain directors from shooting close to or from using military equipment for movies that portray a critical picture of American forces). Hence, a joint film project portraying U.S.-German cooperation in an entertaining and engaging way would be an ideal tool in nurturing joint interest in each other.

So far, most Hollywood productions focus on American heroism in defeating the evil Nazi Reich when dealing with Germany, but there is plenty of thematic scope to include “ze Germans” as “the good guys.” The mission in Afghanistan could be an obvious choice when an action blockbuster is called for. During my two-month research fellowship in Washington, DC, in 2016, several sources revealed to me that American policymakers and practitioners on the ground have not valued another country more for its contribution in Afghanistan than Germany—even ahead of the Brits, America’s traditional Number One ally. Germany was also instrumental in trying to negotiate with the Taliban, and it is an open secret that German Special Forces (KSK) have been involved in some heavy fighting in Afghanistan. On a political level it was Germany’s Chancellor Merkel who convinced Obama to commit U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016. Hence, there is plenty of room for finding some engaging cinematic material. Moreover, if a John Le Carré style thriller would be preferred, a Cold War setting in Berlin with West German and U.S. spies in East Berlin could be an idea. This leads to the question: how to put the idea into practice?

In the U.S., decisions about cinematic projects are done privately with coolheaded calculations of investment versus expected gross revenues dominating the Hollywood picture. In Germany, the individual states (Länder) and the federal government actually have grants for film projects at their disposal so that an initial idea could be pitched with one of the bigger production companies based in California. Who would not be excited to see Tom Cruise together with Daniel Brühl in joint action in Cold War Berlin?

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.