American filmmaker Matt Sweetwood on exploring Germany through its beer culture

“Beer is communication," said American filmmaker Matt Sweetwood, who moved to Berlin in 1995. "Beer gives the opportunity to sit down and talk and get to know people." Omnified contributor Hana Eckermann talks to the filmmaker about exploring Germany through its beer culture.

Photo courtesy Matt Sweetwood

A guest post for Omnified by Hana Eckermann

It’s through a camera lens and a lot of beer that American filmmaker Matt Sweetwood discovered Germany, the place he’s called home now for over two decades.

“Beer is communication,” said American filmmaker Matt Sweetwood, who moved to Berlin in 1995. “Beer gives the opportunity to sit down and talk and get to know people.”

Sweetwood’s most recent film, “The Beer Jesus from America,” documents the journey of Greg Koch, co-founder of Stone Brewing, as he tries to realize his dream of bringing his American craft beer business to a new market: Berlin. Sweetwood followed Koch, nicknamed “Beer Jesus” by a Berlin tabloid newspaper, over three trying years.

Sweetwood’s documentary reflects the great joy of success as well as the frustration of unforeseen problems and the disappointment of failure. It’s the power of a human dream, dedication and resilience mixed with the downfall of human mistakes and cultural clashes. It’s a craft beer romantic story that meets a hard core reality. And it’s also not Sweetwood’s first foray into making a film centered around beer.

After moving to Germany in the mid-1990s, Sweetwood would see the occasional short reports about beer on television, but he hadn’t yet seen someone do a deep dive into beer culture in Germany. He hastened to fill that void, traveling around the country, talking to countless people about German beer tradition. What surprised Sweetwood was the diversity of beer culture he found in each region.

“After filming, I realized each region has its own type of beers. Each region has their own traditions. Each region has their own relationship to the drink,” Sweetwood said. “And in my eyes it made this country diverse and open and kind of funny because beer is funny.”

His self-led tour around the country resulted in an 80-minute documentary called “Beerland.” In 2009, the film, which Sweetwood wrote and directed, won the Dokuwettbewerb from Bayerische Rundfunk.

Matt Sweetwood traces his interest in beer culture back to when he was a teenager. It all started in high school, when the first exchange student that came to his high school in Missouri was from Germany.

“We were kind of jealous of this guy, he could already drink, he could go into pubs. We thought this was a type of freedom and independence that we Americans just didn’t have,” remembered Sweetwood. “So it kind of fascinated me.”

After picking up filmmaking at a young age, Sweetwood decided to pursue that passion through college. In 1990, he graduated from the Television and Film Department of California State University San Diego.

Photo courtesy Matt Sweetwood

“Films are just a very subjective point of view. From that frame of time. Through that lens. And I don’t look at films being sort of a dogma: ‘this is the truth about beer culture’ or ‘this is the truth about politics,'” said Sweetwood.

As a documentary filmmaker, Sweetwood has the feeling he’s always on the “edge of something about to happen.” It feels voyeuristic at times, he said.

“On one side you think – wow this will make a great scene – but the other side, maybe I shouldn’t film this,” said Sweetwood. “Maybe I should just stop, put the camera down and just be myself. And maybe this does not belong in the film. And I think the audience respects such decisions.”

So what is the best way for those audiences to enjoy Sweetwood films? Sweetwood recommends cracking open a few beers (as he himself has done when reviewing his work).

“I think it kind of makes you connect with the people a little bit more,” Sweetwood said with a laugh. “So I would recommend that drinking a beer kind of puts you in it. It’s my version of virtual reality, I guess.”

Matt Sweetwood’s most recent film, “The Beer Jesus from America,” will be shown on Feb. 7 at 10 p.m. for the opening night of the Berlin Independent Film Festival.

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