I do not intend to cover the history of the cinematic output of Germany; that would take a book, and many already exist. However, I have noticed German films mentioned on CURNBLOG occasionally, and I would like to offer some for consideration, and hopefully introduce them to new viewers. Before the Second World War, many highly acclaimed films were produced in this country, and some dazzling techniques and directorial styles also pioneered.
When I started watching films on my own, from the late 1960s on, I would seek out these early works, and by doing so, became aware of the emergence of the new German film-makers of the 1970s. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the reunification of that divided country a year later, the film industry there has enjoyed a return to form, and produced some stand-out titles. I have always thought that German films didn’t get the same acclaim and recognition as those from Italy, France, and more recently Spain. I think this should be addressed, in the hope of creating a wider audience for some outstanding films. Most of us with an interest in film and cinema, so by definition the readers and contributors to CURNBLOG, will be well aware of the classic films from Germany, known to all, and widely recognised.
These include the work of Austrian director Fritz Lang, made before he left Germany in 1934, going on to a successful career in America. His much acclaimed films Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), as well as the ‘Dr Mabuse’ trilogy, set up his reputation as an innovator in film making, and remain compelling works to this day. Other landmark films were produced during these early years, including Murnau’s chilling vampire story Nosferatu (1922), still terrifying though more than ninety years have passed since its release. The American actress Louise Brooks captivated the world with her performance as Lulu, in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), with themes of infidelity and prostitution considered scandalous and salacious at the time. The arrival of the Nazis in the 1930s, and the Second World War that followed made the German film industry insular and propagandist for the next ten years. However, the photographer and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl made some famous documentaries during this time; Olympia, a film of the 1936 Olympics, and Triumph of The Will, documenting the Nuremberg Rally of 1934. Despite the unfortunate associations of these pro-Nazi productions, the techniques and camera angles would be later used extensively in other films.
After 1945, Germany was divided, with the East under the control of the Russians, and the West overseen by the other allies. It was to be some time before the different talents from each side would be pooled again. In the meantime, the 1970s saw the emergence of real directing talent from West Germany, in a style that came to be known as New German Cinema. The films of young German directors began to be admired all over Europe, and across the Atlantic too. Directors including Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Wim Wenders, made outstanding films that allowed German cinema to find new markets, and a wider appreciation. They may not have become household names all over the world, but they did become famous to those with a love of cinema.
I have tried to see as many of these films as I could since the early 1970s. In the last quarter of a century following the reunification of the country, a fresher, often less dark feel has emerged from younger directors. But there has also been a return to the guilty past of the Germany of the Third Reich, a national purging of this period of shame felt by many. Nothing has been taboo, with powerful films about life in the concentration camps (The Counterfeiters 2007), and a stunningly realistic portrayal of Hitler by Bruno Ganz, in Downfall (2004). My selection that follows is varied both in theme and date, and includes nothing before 1970. It is offered in the hope that the cinema of Germany will be seen with fresh eyes, and achieve a wider audience.
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder made a large number of films during a short career, ended by his untimely death at the age of 37. He was a man of complex sexuality, some of which is reflected in his work. He was known for using the same actors in many productions, and also acted in some himself.
This unusual film stars Hanna Schygulla, one of the actresses who regularly featured in his films, and has an all-female cast. A dream-like tale of obsessive love and manipulation, set and filmed almost entirely in one room.
Petra (played by Margit Carstensen) is a famous fashion designer, and is surrounded by mannequins, suggesting that they are almost her companions in her lonely existence. She meets the beautiful Karin (Schygulla), and falls madly in love with her, agreeing to establish her career as a model.
But her love is not reciprocated, and she is used by the younger woman, who is awaiting reconciliation with her estranged husband. Meanwhile, Karin moves in with Petra, driving her insane with jealousy, and coming and going as she pleases.
The tragic Petra goes through various emotional upheavals, illustrated by Fassbinder with different coloured wigs, heavy drinking bouts, and abusing her mother. Karin eventually leaves to meet her husband in Frankfurt, with Petra left to wait for a call from her and hoping for reconciliation. Like many of his films, this is about desperation, loneliness, and unrequited love.
The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
Werner Herzog is one of the better-known German directors, achieving fame and recognition on both sides of the Atlantic with films like Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972). In both these films, and some others, he collaborated with the actor Klaus Kinski, and their tempestuous relationship has been well documented.
This film is based on a true story set in 1828. A young man was found in the town square in Nuremberg. He could only speak a few phrases, seemed to have difficulty walking, and apparently had no socialisation with others, or any form of education.
We see some of the background of the young Kaspar. Kept prisoner in a remote building, with only a toy horse for company. He is chained, unable to walk or stand, and is visited by a mysterious stranger, who brings him food and water. One day, the man carries him into the square, and leaves him. Initially, he is treated as a curiosity, and exhibited in a circus freak show, before being rescued by a kindly man who takes him in. He educates Kaspar, and introduces him into society, where his child-like mannerisms and unusual grasp of logic make him a figure of interest and research. One day, he is attacked, and we see that the attacker is the same stranger who cared for him as a prisoner. After recovering from this, he is attacked again, and this time he is fatally stabbed. Kaspar lapses into a fever and has visions, before succumbing to his wounds.
The implication throughout, is that he is the illegitimate son of someone in the aristocracy, and his developing education is in danger of revealing the secrets of his past. This is an interesting and accurate historical drama, made special by the unworldly performance of Bruno Schleinstein as Kaspar. A man with no acting experience, and really too old for the part of a boy in his late teens, Herzog wanted to cast him after seeing him as a street musician. It works incredibly well, as his obvious lack of acting style suits the ingenuous role of Kaspar perfectly. I cannot think of any other film like it, before or since.
Fear Eats The Soul (1974)
Fassbinder again, with another film about obsessive and hopeless love. This time, there are the added themes of the love of an older woman for a younger man, the issue of interracial relationships, and the racism that has seemingly never left the German psyche. The loneliness in this film is portrayed by the heartbreaking performance of Brigitte Mira, playing Emmi, a dowdy 60-year old cleaning lady. One night on the way home from work, Emmi goes into a bar where the customers are mostly Arab immigrants. There she meets Ali (El Hedi Ben Salim) who is taunted by his friends to dance with the old lady.
They soon begin an unlikely romance, and Ali moves into Emmi’s flat. Once she tells her family, they are aghast. They are outraged that not only is this widow sleeping with a young man, but that he is a dark-skinned Moroccan. Their meeting with Ali turns into a debacle, with her children calling her a whore, and leaving in disgust. Despite these setbacks, Emmi remains confident that the relationship will last. She eventually gets some acceptance, but only from those wishing to use her, as a customer, or helpful neighbour.
The cultural differences begin to take their toll too. Ali does not like to be bossed around by his German wife. She tells him they must eat German food, and discourages him from going out. His command of the German language is not so good, and he has trouble expressing himself (this is reflected in the subtitles, which show his poor language skills). Inevitably, he drifts back to his old gang of acquaintances, hanging out in the bar, meeting up with his former girlfriend, and coming back late. When she goes looking for him, he even denies that he knows his wife, causing further humiliation.
Emmi reluctantly settles for a reconciliation that will allow Ali more freedom, and outlets for his own culture. During a romantic dance at the bar, Ali is taken ill. The film ends with Emmi at his bedside as he recovers from surgery. She has chosen Ali over her Germanic heritage, and the wishes of her friends, her children, and society. Anything is preferable to Emmi, than being alone, and unloved.
There is more than a nod to the films of Douglas Sirk in this production. However, there are no glossy saturated colours and soap-opera dramas here. Just real life in the raw.
The Nasty Girl (1990)
Written and directed by Michael Verhoeven (no relation to Paul), this film was released soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is based on true events in the German town of Passau, which began in 1976.
Hoping to win a prize, schoolgirl Sonja (Lena Stolze) writes an essay to be entered into a national writing competition. As the subject, she chooses ‘My Town During The Third Reich’. The teenage girl does painstaking research for her article, and discovers many hidden truths about the small town where she lives. Like most young Germans, she has always thought that ordinary German people were little more than victims of the Nazi regime during the war. Delving into the archives and history of Passau, she finds that the opposite is true. Not only was the town surrounded by concentration camps, the townspeople were well aware of this fact, and had helped to ensure that all Jews were removed from the area, and their property stolen. Local landowners and influential families had profited from the expulsion of the Jews, and many had been active and enthusiastic members of the Nazi Party, far from the helpless civilians they had been portrayed as.
Realising what she is discovering, the authorities step in, making it difficult for Sonja to carry on with her research. The people close ranks against her, unwilling for the reputation of the town to be maligned by her writing.
She later marries a schoolteacher, and has two children, but does not give up her search for the truth. Obstruction has become threats, which turn into physical assaults on occasion, and even a bomb attack on her home. Her marriage suffers from her obsession for the truth, and the difficulties of living as a social outcast.
However, her determination wears down the local populace, and they change tactics, embracing her discoveries, and attempting to honour her for her work instead. For Sonja, it is all too late, and she will not cooperate with them.
The real-life Sonja left Germany, and emigrated to America, where she still resides. Verhoeven’s film was one of the first to challenge the silent acceptance that there was no wartime collaboration and enthusiasm for the Nazis in Germany from the civilian population. The film was well-received everywhere, part of the chest-baring new conscience of a unified Germany. It was nominated for the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and won the Berlin Silver Bear, and the BAFTA in the UK.
Goodbye Lenin (2003)
This incredibly touching, and often-humorous film, written and directed by Wolfgang Becker, takes a look at German reunification through the eyes of one family. It is set in the short period immediately before the fall of the regime in East Germany, and the formal reformation of the two countries into one republic. It starts in the GDR, where Christiane lives in East Berlin with her son and daughter. She is a supporter of the party, and a committed Communist. Her husband has already fled to the west, and she has raised her family alone.
Times are changing, and her son Alex (Daniel Bruhl) attends an anti-government demonstration, where he is arrested. His mother is so traumatised by his arrest, that she has a heart attack and slips into a coma. Visiting the hospital, Alex falls for a young Russian nurse, Lara, and they become involved. During the months that Christiane is in a coma, the Berlin Wall falls, and life changes dramatically for Alex, Lara, and his sister Ariane. The arrival of capitalism means that Alex loses his job, and his sister is forced to leave university, to work in a burger bar. Becker suggests that the new freedoms are not necessarily all they are thought to be, and that the citizens of the former East Germany do not always benefit as a result of life in the unified country.
After months in the coma, Christiane makes a recovery, and is allowed home. The doctors tell Alex that she must have no shocks or upsets, as she is still very delicate. He resolves to act as if nothing has happened, and not to tell his mother about the reunification, of which she is unaware. In a series of often very funny events, the family change the flat back to exactly how it was before the incident. They remove all trappings of commercialism, and all western identity from their life. Using old clothes, old food jars, anything to retain the impression that nothing has changed. When this becomes almost impossible to keep up, they tell Christiane a web of lies, pretending that it is in fact East Germany that is allowing the westerners into their country, after an imaginary financial collapse.
With their mother still very ill, the family takes a holiday in the country, where Christiane confesses to Alex that his father did not really desert them, but was driven away by problems with the Communist Party. Although she has also discovered the reality of the situation, she doesn’t let on, and dies soon after. Alex manages to find his father, and like the country itself, the family is once again reunited.
The Lives Of Others (2006)
There has been a lot of debate about lists lately on CURNBLOG. I nailed my colours to the mast by refusing to make any. However, if I did, this film would be at the top of at least one of them.
The first film by director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is also one of the only films to examine the control over the people of East Germany exerted by the Stasi, the secret police of that country. By the time the film was released, access to previously secret archives was beginning to reveal the extent of surveillance practised by the Stasi during the years after the Second World War. But it is not only a film about historical oppression, it is also about obsessive love, and how it can destroy lives.
With a riveting central performance from Ulrich Muhe, the film at times needs no subtitles, as his face tells the story through his expressions and manifestation of his thoughts. Claustrophobic in feel, and amazingly accurate in period detail, this is a film that will live on in your mind.
The setting is East Berlin, in 1984. Stasi officer Captain Wiesler (Muhe) is assigned to operate surveillance on Dreyman, a writer and playwright suspected of anti-government activities. After bugging the apartment, and listening to the tapes, Wiesler soon discovers that the real reason for this operation is that the culture minister Hempf, is obsessed with the writer’s girlfriend, an attractive actress, and that is why he is trying to discredit the man.
Hempf eventually seduces the actress, blackmailing her over illegal use of drugs. But when she returns to the writer, he resolves to destroy the couple, and orders Wiesler’s team to get evidence.
Dreyman secretly writes an article revealing the extent of suicides in the GDR, using an unregistered typewriter concealed in the flat. After interrogating the actress, Weisler discovers the typewriter, and removes it before his colleagues arrive to arrest Dreyman. The actress is ridden with guilt at her betrayal, and commits suicide by running in front of a passing vehicle. Weisler’s deception is uncovered, and he is demoted to a mundane job.
Years later, Dreyman discovers that he was under surveillance all along, and is intrigued to find out why he was never arrested. Gaining access to the files, he realises that the typewriter was concealed by the actual Stasi agent responsible for the investigation, and resolves to try to find the man. When he eventually finds Wieser, he decides not to talk to him after all. Instead he dedicates his new best-selling book to the unknown agent, using only his code-name.
This is only a snapshot of the huge output of German Cinema over the years. If you have never thought to examine the films from this country, I hope that this article will inspire interest, or rekindle a past enthusiasm.