Görliwood: Germany’s New Film Mecca

Feb 06, 2014 at 10:31 AM ET

When Wes Anderson’s latest film premieres at the Berlin Film Festival this week, the world will be introduced to the fictitious Republic of Zubrowka. Like many recent film fictions, much of it was shot in a sleepy hamlet on the German-Polish border that’s becoming Saxony’s secret Tinseltown.

The stories from townies are straight out of Hollywood: Kate Winslet having a meal in a local restaurant, Jackie Chan biking to work, Ralph Fiennes walking the streets. But this isn’t Hollywood. It’s a small city named Görlitz on the German-Polish border. With all the movies being filmed here, it’s just as often called Görliwood.

“Jackie Chan jumped out of that window right there,” says Mario Frost, 44, a local web developer who writes a blog (in German) about the filming in town. When we spoke, Frost was standing in the main old town square, a spot featured in numerous television shows and films. He turned to the clock tower and pointed to the spot where a German war hero played by Daniel Brühl gunned down Americans as part of a propaganda video in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

So how did this little town become Görliwood? It’s an odd story that starts with World War II, runs through the time when Görlitz was part of East Germany, connects with an anonymous millionaire and results in countless movie stars turning up to act in a gorgeous little city with thousands of historic buildings that looks so perfect it may as well be a film set.

The latest is Wes Anderson’s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is set to open the Berlin Film Festival with its world premiere on Feb. 6. The all-star lineup, directed by the maker of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, includes Edward Norton, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Saoirse Ronan, Willem Defoe and the list goes on. Many in the cast and crew spent January through March of last year in Görlitz, filming parts of the movie.

“Yeah, what was that guy’s name?” yelled owner of Ratscafe, Christoph Zschornack, to a cook in the kitchen. “The tall movie star who came in here last year?” When the answer came back that it was Jeff Goldblum of Jurassic Park fame, he shrugged, saying, “Jackie Chan, too, and others.”

At this point, many in the town are almost bored with stars coming through to film.

“There are people who get annoyed with it,” says Frost, “but the majority think it’s fun and interesting. You can come here, to the center, and say hello to world stars. In another city, it wouldn’t be possible.”

The first point of contact with the city for many film producers is Kerstin Gosewisch, a 44-year-old location scout born on the German side of the city. As she explains it, the city is one of few in Germany that made it through World War II nearly unscathed. East German directors started using the city to film in the 1950s, but the city deteriorated some during East German times. That got worse in the few years after the wall came down because so many people moved to find jobs. Then an anonymous benefactor donated about $675,000 in 1995, just to help fix up the town. And nearly 20 years later, the same donation is still arriving every year (backed with funding from the German state) to help citizens renovate buildings.

When it first started, there was tons of gossip and speculation. Newspapers tried to break the secrecy of the anonymous donor. Germany’s largest tabloid newspaper, Bild, even posited that it could be Nicolas Cage. But most of the people in town have simply stopped wondering.

“I have no idea where it comes from,” says Gosewisch, “but I think it’s a lot more exciting that way.”

More than 4,000 buildings are now designated as historic in Görlitz, and with cobbled streets, towers and church steeples dotting the skyline, it’s essentially the perfect movie set. In the last few years, numerous films have shot scenes in the city, from the upcoming Monuments Men to The Book Thief to The Reader.

“There are a number of reasons to film in Görlitz,” says Andro Steinborn, a German producer who worked on films like Paris, je t’aime and Funny Games with Naomi Watts. “The architectural center is completely intact, so it’s one of the few places in Germany where you can shoot historical sequences.”

There’s also the close proximity to Berlin, where much of the German film industry is based. The support for filmmaking has helped make Berlin a new Hollywood in it’s own right, and with infrastructure in the area, Görlitz has an added boost. It’s a good thing because the city still hasn’t recovered economically in many ways. So at times it truly does feel like a movie set, with few people in the streets and just outside of the center, many an empty storefront.

That can even be helpful for filmmakers. Many scenes for The Grand Budapest Hotel were shot in an gorgeous but empty Art Nouveau department store in the center of town. Outside, the building is somewhat nondescript. It sits next to a modern mall with a casino and bowling alley. Now plans are afoot to fill it with upscale shopping once again.

And back in Görliwood, people can’t wait to see The Grand Budapest Hotel. As Frost says, for many people in town, it’s more about seeing parts of the city that they know than it is about seeing the stars when they’re here filming. And so seeing the new films when they come out is generally a big event, though it’s a far cry from the red carpet affair in Berlin on Thursday.

“It’s impossible to get tickets,” says Gosewisch, of the upcoming first showing of the movie in Görlitz on Feb. 26. “And everyone wants one.”