15 Essential Films For An Introduction To New German Cinema
The sixties are rightfully remembered as a period of global instability. The youth took to the streets from Selma to Paris and it seemed the status quo was crumbling around them.
In West Germany a vibrant and radical student movement took up many of the same causes as their international comrades, protesting against the Vietnam War and the symptoms of a repressive domestic government. Yet their indignation was sharpened by the ever-present shadow of the incomprehensibly heinous crimes of the recent past.
This is the context from which the New German Cinema movement emerged, a generation of young people surrounded by those who were either directly responsible for the Holocaust or had made it possible through their own passivity. They grew up struggling with the obvious inadequacies of the Nuremberg Trials and subsequent investigations. They grew up asking themselves what did their parents do during the war? Did they know about Auschwitz or Treblinka? Or was it as a character in 2008’s The Reader says:
“People go on about how much did everyone know? `Who knew?’ `What did they know?’ Everyone knew! Our parents, our teachers…”
Throughout the fifties German society had imposed an unwritten vow of silence upon itself. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer ended the de-Nazification process in 1951, leaving thousands of former active members of Hitler’s party in prominent public positions.
The film industry, which had been a monopolistic propaganda machine during the war, was dominated by American imports and Heimatfilmes. These home-grown, sentimental affairs were largely bland and light-hearted, set in the innocence of the countryside or in a disconnected past, such as imperial Austria. They were exercises in escaping and avoiding guilt.
In 1962 however a group of young discontented filmmakers declared war by signing the Oberhausen Manifesto. It declared “the old cinema is dead. We believe in the new cinema.” It pronounced that “a new style of film” was needed and though they differed on the exact treatment necessary, the diagnosis was unanimous: “Papas Kino ist tot” (Papa’s cinema is dead.) The New German Cinema was not so much born but unleashed.
This list is intended as an introduction to both the signees of the manifesto and (even more so) the heirs to their legacy. It is important to note that despite being thought of as one movement the films are thematically and stylistically extremely varied.
Some are historical epics, others deeply personal studies of racism or terrorism, others still are absurd or disconnectedly philosophical. There is perhaps only one common thread running through the entire list and that is that they are all affected by, moulded from, breaking out of or rebelling against the past.
1. Machorka-Muff (1963)
Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s first film together is perhaps their most accessible. Running just eighteen minutes, it is a stripped down adaptation of Bonn Diary, an already rather short story by Heinrich Böll. As such it is impressively concise, efficiently tearing at the fabric of Adenauer’s program of rearmament and increased militarism.
The film follows a Nazi colonel as he attempts to assimilate into post-war society and bitingly satires the phony peace that the fifties and sixties would represent. Yes, the war was over, but the CDU was determined to see Germany return as a militaristic power. Straub and Huillet’s film stands as an artefact of the decades of resistance to these efforts. As Karlheinz Stockhausen put it, Machorka-Muff is ‘a flash of lightning performing a balancing act between truth, concentration and aggravation.”
2. The Young Törless (1966)
Volker Schlöndorff’s debut feature film – an adaption of Robert Musil’s 1906 semi-autobiographical novel – was arguably the first piece to draw international attention to the new generation of German directors.
It portrays a horrifically repressive Austrian military academy in which three boys subject another to sexual, physical and psychological abuse as retribution for having stolen from a classmate. Thomas Törless, one of the abusers, takes part out of intellectual interest, seeing the increasingly violent bullying as a philosophical experiment.
The Young Törless takes Musil’s stream of consciousness and moulds it into a conventional arching plot. Its cinematography, steeped in realism, allows the director to draw political and ethical questions to the foreground. In Schlöndorff’s hands the story foretokens the rise of fascism and studies tyranny on a microscopic level.
The academy is an incubator for the ideas of power and subordination embedded in Nazism, an oppressive charade in which sadistic young men are respected by and popular amongst their peers.
3. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
The first of Werner Herzog’s five collaborations with the infamously unstable Klaus Kinski is a haunting, gruelling journey into the Amazonian wilds. It follows an expedition of conquistadors and their Incan slaves in search of the mythological golden city of El Dorado. Their inherently savage colonialism and the cruel, endless jungle engulfing them drive the Spanish to paranoia and mutiny, none more so than Aguirre (Kinski).
The landscape is as much of a star as any of the film’s performers; its wild unchartered greenery always seems encroaching and dangerous. At times, during moments of hypnotic intensity, characters simply stare into the distance or directly at the camera. You can feel their surroundings chillingly stare back.
Kinski’s is a performance of unbridled insanity, the product of a tortuous five weeks shooting in dreadful conditions and his own tendency for violent outbursts. After an incident in which an extra’s finger was shot off Herzog only kept his leading actor from storming off the set by threatening to commit murder-suicide should he leave. The pair’s legendarily volatile relationship is key to the film’s success in portraying madness.
The director knew his camera could often simply observe, and while it does so brilliantly, that success did not come easily. In the absence of a large budget the cast and crew had to hack and trek through mountainous jungle and grapple with extreme rapids on rickety rafts. As with Aguirre, Herzog and Kinski would learn that great successes require great sacrifices.
4. World on a Wire (1973)
Seeing Rainer Werner Fassbinder on this list will come as no shock, perhaps the only surprise is that his inclusion has been limited to three films. He lived fast, died young and left an extraordinary filmography.
Although the first two were released in the same year, each of the three represents a different period of his work. His dystopian sci-fi thriller World on a Wire links the austerity of his earlier avant-garde work to his later vast melodramas. The Brechtian influence that inspired so much of his theatre work remains as do hints of Godard.
After his predecessor dies in extremely suspicious circumstances Dr. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) becomes the new Technical Director at the Institute for Cybernetics and Future Science. He is thus responsible for a supercomputer that houses a virtual reality in which programmed people – referred to as ‘units’ – go about their everyday lives not knowing their world is data and code.
A unit defies its programming by attempting suicide and Stiller antipathetically adopts the role of the noir hero as he comes to suspect his superiors of corruptly conspiring to use the computerised world for means other than its intended research.
Originally broadcasted as a two-part television mini-series and clocking in at over two hundred minutes, its unhurried pace may try some viewers’ patience. But its length is justified as Fassbinder detachedly oversees a coolly paranoid and surreal meditation on our perceptions and interpretations of reality.
Although the director ultimately succumbed to his rock’n’roll vices too soon, dying aged just 37, his films keep his legacy alive. Indeed it is difficult to imagine Blade Runner or The Matrix being so brilliant without World on a Wire laying the groundwork.
5. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
Moroccan immigrant Ali’s relationship with Emmi, a significantly older German widow, becomes the lens through which racism, class, power and oppression are examined in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Though often overshadowed by the sheer breadth and aesthetics of The Marriage of Maria Braun and the visual audacity of World on a Wire, Fassbinder’s second entry here ought to be placed amongst his very best.
Ali shows a more tender side to the director’s work without ever succumbing to sentimentality, allowing for emotional engagement while remaining detached enough to scrutinize. This is the result of an unequivocally brutal visual style, with Emmi’s kitchen caging her inside with just her solitude when alone or protecting the couple from the outside world that condemns their love when together.
This use of architecture as a framing device is consistently employed to great effect, as Chris Fujiwara explains for the Criterion Collection: “(in) the several scenes set on the staircases of Emmi’s apartment building and the building she cleans, intrusive vertical forms (columns, pipes, window and door frames) divide the characters and make their power relations instantly readable.”
At times they are visually isolated, keeping each other warm from the harsh, brutal surroundings at the centre of wide frames, two against the world. Their lives are intertwined, leading to a dramatic climax that avoids the saccharine in favour of the genuinely emotional.
6. Under the Pavement Lies the Strand (1975)
By the mid-seventies the German student movement had given way to the clandestine radicalism of the Red Army Faction but its significance remains immeasurable.
By raising political questions such as the crimes of their parents’ generation, the increasing authoritarianism of the new ‘democratic’ state and its diplomatic support for numerous dictatorial regimes internationally, the students had faced the wrath of successive governments and the vicious right-wing press. They were vilified and violently repressed, giving way to the demoralisation that made transitions to ultra-vanguardism (such as Ulrike Meinhof’s) possible.
It is in this context that Under the Pavement Lies the Strand finds Grischa (Grischa Huber) and Heinrich (Heinrich Giskes) increasingly disillusioned with their own revolutionary ideas. The empowerment of being part of a mass movement is gone but new struggles are emerging that challenge the division of the personal and political.
Director Helma Sanders-Brahms, a highly influential feminist voice in New German Cinema, incisively employs Grischa as the centrepiece in her study of women’s oppression and liberation. She is equally capable of dealing with both the people and the ideologies that were left to make sense of the sixties’ aftermath.
7. The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975)
It’s a cliché to describe political dramas as ‘surprisingly relevant’ (or words to that effect) and yet it would do The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum a disservice to fail to point out it is exactly that. Newlyweds Margarethe von Trotta and Schlöndorff’s only co-directed feature depicts the tabloid press at its most vicious while hounding a young housekeeper with libellous claims that she is an active member of the Red Army Faction after spending the night with a fugitive.
The film is an adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel of the same name, in turn based on his own experiences of being harassed by the yellow press and police alike after criticising Bild-Zeitung’s sensationalist coverage of the RAF.
Forty years after its release it remains apposite, reflecting more modern events such as the post-9/11 hysterical xenophobia in the Western media and the ruthlessness of certain news outlets’ methods, as evidenced by the News International phone hacking scandal. In the context of the Charlie Hebdo attack its musings on the freedom of the press and the tendency of some to abuse those liberties are made even more pertinent.
While Schlöndorff bought the biting, bitter satirical edge to the film, von Trotta’s influence is obvious in its commitment to social realism. Together with Angela Winkler’s monumentally strong performance in the titular role, she crafts an atmosphere in which Katharine is constantly resisting not just attempts to demonise and degrade her but an entire political system that holds her in even greater suspicion on account of her gender.
The police and the particularly nasty tabloid hack covering her case are evidently emasculated by her refusal to indulge their curiosities and her principled insistence on her own autonomy in every aspect of life. Here we can see the beginnings of von Trotta’s career that would culminate in her becoming one of the influential feminist filmmakers of post-war Europe.
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