Oldenburg Film Festival: 31st Anniversary

By the time most festivals enter their third decade, they have settled into a familiar groove where youthful rebellion has given way to respectability and the event offers few real surprises.

The Oldenburg Film Festival, which turns 31 this year, is still waiting for that respectability label. But Germany’s leading indie cine fest has the rebellion part down pat, continuing to celebrate the rebels and rogues, the forgotten masters, and the up-and-coming underdogs of independent moviemaking.

Ahead of this year’s event, THR presents a list of the (at least) 31 things any Oldenburg newbie should know. 

1. The Dates The 31st Oldenburg Festival runs Sept. 11-15, 2024.

2. The location The small city (population 170,000) of Oldenburg, Germany, a medieval town founded in 1108.

3. The inspiration Oldenburg was launched in 1994 as Germany’s answer to Sundance. It came in the midst of the ’90s indie film boom — Pulp Fiction had just won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and Oldenburg’s inaugural lineup included Spike Lee’s Crooklyn and Peter Medak’s Romeo Is Bleeding, starring Gary Oldman.

4. The founder Torsten Neumann founded and has run Oldenburg from the start, staying true to his independent roots by programming movies that continue to challenge convention and mainstream cinema, whether art house or commercial.

5. How to get there Oldenburg is about half an hour from Bremen. Fly in (or take a train from Hamburg or Berlin) and it’s a quick hop from there.

6. The cost Oldenburg charges $54 (50 euros) for feature film submissions and $27 (25 euros) for shorts submitted by the May 24 deadline. (It costs $48 if you can get them in by March 29, $75 for late submissions from May 25 to June 14).

7. The State Theatre Oldenburg’s imposing 18th-century opera house is the epic location where the festival holds its centerpiece premieres, as well the opening and closing ceremonies.

8. The parties Oldenburg’s bashes are legendary. Every year, the festival holds a secret blowout in an undisclosed location, usually a retrofitted building somewhere in the city. Top spots have included an old castle, an underground parking garage, an abandoned police station (“which felt like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13,” says Neumann,) and the gymnasium of the town’s local elementary.

9. Indie celebration Oldenburg audiences love their indie cinema, wherever it hails from. Last year’s “Spirit of Cinema” award winner was Petrus Cariry’s Brazilian drama Heavier Is the Sky. John Connors’ The Black Guelph, a crime thriller set in the Irish Travellers community, took the best film honor in 2022 (and secured a U.S. release via Slated.com two years later). And Puppy Love, a dark romance tale from Canadian director Michael Maxxis starring Paz de la Huerta (Boardwalk EmpireEnter the Void) and Hopper (son of Sean) Penn, took the top prize in 2020.

10. Deborah Kara Unger The Canadian actress (The GameThirteenSilent Hill) first attended Oldenburg in 2010. Thanks to an overnight romance turned 14-year-long relationship with festival director Neumann, she’s never left and is now an inseparable part of the Oldenburg team.

11. German breakouts Neumann has a proven track record for spotting German independent films. Jan-Ole Gerster’s 2012 debut, A Coffee in Berlin, swept Oldenburg’s top prizes, taking the German Independence award, audience award, and the best actor prize for star Tom Schilling, before going on to triumph at Germany’s equivalent to the Oscars, the German Film Awards, or Lolas, the following year. The 2023 best film winner, Ayşe Polat’s In the Blind Spot, a twisty documentary-style conspiracy thriller set in modern-day Turkey, followed its best film win in Oldenburg with Lolas for best director and best screenplay.

Courtesy of the Oldenburg Film Festival

12. Cult heroes For its retrospectives and lifetime achievement awards, Oldenburg prefers the deep cuts, honoring the shamefully forgotten or ignored. Among them are the likes of directors Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I), Michael Wadleigh (WoodstockWolfen), and Ted Kotcheff (Weekend at Bernie’s, First Blood).

13. The Audacity Award Probably the coolest of Oldenburg’s honors, this prize is giving to the most “original, daring and audacious film” in the official selection that pushes the boundaries between genre cinema and the avant-garde. Recent winners include Dominik Krawiecki and Patrycja Planik’s black-and-white, experimental satire Faggots, about homosexual men who are the last survivors of a mysterious plague; and Jérôme Vandewattyne’s The Belgian Wave, a 1990s-set psychedelic drama inspired by a real-life outbreak of UFO sightings in Belgium.

14. Trailer spoofs In place of self-important promotion, Oldenburg every year releases a festival trailer spoofing a major blockbuster or cult movie. Previous targets include the Matrix and Fast & Furious franchises, as well as Apocalypse Now, which featured the follicly challenged Neumann as Marlon Brando, tongue firmly in cheek.

15. DIY Films Back in 2001, frustrated by the lack of German indie film tradition, Oldenburg decided to create its own, backing 99EuroFilms, a short-film omnibus project of 12 five-minute movies — each shot on a mini-DV camera on a 99 euro ($106) budget. Oldenburg repeated the experiment in 2003. This year, the festival is teaming up with Vandewattyne to produce 10 short movies directed by 10 Oldenburg alumni, inspired by Vandewattyne’s new electronic music album.

16. Producers get respect Oldenburg likes to shine a light on the people behind the scenes that make indie film happen. Former Stanley Kubrick producer James B. Harris (The Killing, LolitaPaths of Glory) was honored in 1996; the festival’s 2017 retrospective was dedicated to maverick producer Edward R. Pressman (American Psycho, Bad LieutenantThe Crow); and Jen Gatien (For EllenMidnight Sun) was feted last year.

17. Prison screenings The festival holds an annual screening and gala at the city’s high-security prison, the JVA. This Knastkino (Prison Cinema), planned as a one-off in 2006, is now an Oldenburg tradition, where invited guests sit side by side with hardened (but well-behaved) prisoners.

18.The Platform Oldenburg has its own VOD service, ironically named The Platform, which celebrates the best of the festival’s first three decades. “It’s a sanctuary for genuine emotions, unfiltered voices, and untamed narratives that challenge conventional norms,” says Neumann.

19. The season’s coolest movies Alongside its world premieres, Oldenburg’s selection features the best, or at least the weirdest, movies from the festival circuit. Recent highlights include Julia Ducournau’s gender-and-genre-bending Palme d’Or winner Titane, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden from Cannes; Michael Sarnoski’s Nicolas Cage starrer Pig from Edinburgh, and, from Locarno, the animated feature Mad God from Oscar-winning special effects master Phil Tippett, all of which had their German premieres at Oldenburg.

20. The discoveries Oldenburg is where you can spot the stars before they got big. An 18-year-old Keira Knightley came to Oldenburg for the German premiere of her 2001 feature The Hole, a year before her Bend It Like Beckham breakout. Noémie Merlant won best actress in Oldenburg in 2016 for Twisting Fate, years before the rest of world discovered her in Céline Sciamma’s 2019 Cannes Festival hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire

21. Live gigs Whether it’s Butch Walker giving his best Johnny Cash in a prison concert, German pop star Jan Plewka performing in the vault of a local bank, Asia Argento taking the stage for a jam session or Belgian trio The Experimental Tropical Blues Band rocking local pub Marvins, Oldenburg’s live gigs are the stuff of legend.

22. Gitternet Roughly translated as “iron cage TV,” this is an in-house TV channel at Oldenburg’s high-security prison, run by the inmates. During the festival, Gitternet interviews directors and talent, giving those inside a taste of indie cinema culture.

23. Lappan Tower The historic bell tower, built in 1467, is one of Oldenburg’s oldest landmarks, and among the few buildings to have survived a fire in 1676 that razed the city.

24. Directorial debuts Star Trek and Roots star LeVar Burton presented his directorial debut, Reach for Me, in Oldenburg in 2008. Last year, indie producer and power agent Cassian Elwes (Dallas Buyers ClubLee Daniels’ The Butler) presented the world premiere of Passenger C, his first turn behind the camera. If what you really want to do is direct, Oldenburg is for you. 

‘Passenger C’

Andrew Parke

25. Casablanca Kino Oldenburg’s first art house cinema, located on Johannisstrasse, embodies the festival’s indie spirit, programming auteur and outside-the-mainstream movies year-round.

26. Somtow Sucharitkul The world of classical music knows Sucharitkul as a groundbreaking Thai conductor and composer, but for festival fans, Sucharitkul is the writer and star of The Maestro, a B-movie schlock horror tale that won Oldenburg’s spirit of cinema award in 2021. Since then, Sucharitkul has been a festival regular, often attending with members of his Siam Sinfonietta youth orchestra. 

27. Activism Oldenburg prefers to put its movies before its politics, but has been known to step up when required. In 2013, the festival shone a spotlight on exiled Iranian filmmaker Mania Akbari (From Tehran to London), who fled her country after a crackdown on regime-critical filmmakers. In 2021, it held the world premiere of Myanmar feature What Happened to the Wolf? while the film’s star, Eaindra Kyaw Zin, was still in prison for anti-government activity and its director, Na Gyi, was in hiding (where he remains to this day).

28. Living room premieres In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down public events worldwide, Oldenburg found a way to hold premieres in an online-only world by getting local festival fans to host mini-galas in their own homes (German COVID regulations allowed for small groups to gather in private residences). The directors and stars of the invited films walked private red carpets (complete with socially distanced paparazzi) to watch their premiere together on the couch and answer questions in intimate Q&As. Oldenburg streamed the whole thing live.

29. Saturday tapas at Caldero In what’s become an annual festival tradition, attendees gather on Saturday afternoon, post-hangover, pre-screenings, for a tapas (or paella) top-up at the city’s legendary Spanish restaurant, located right next to City Hall.

30. Seymour Cassel The late, great actor, whose career in indie cinema stretched from 1970s John Cassavetes features to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, became Oldenburg’s biggest booster after being honored with a festival retrospective in 2008. Oldenburg repaid him by renaming its acting prize the Seymour Cassel Award in his honor.

31. Nicolas Cage! Oscar winner Nicolas Cage is probably the biggest star to walk Oldenburg’s cobbled streets, attending the festival to receive its 2016 lifetime achievement honor. The Face/Off and Wild at Heart actor went off-piste, checking out an Oldenburg dive bar and drinking into the night with a local bowling club. 

Nicolas Cage at the 2016 Oldenburg Film Festival.

Tim Bruening


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