The “Rubble Film”: Ruined Cities and Metaphorical Apocalypse


Post-war Germany: reality of rubble

My work on East German cinema began with the idea of exploring “socialist cinema” as a class or category of ideologically-produced representation which transcended cultures. See the introduction to EAST GERMAN CINEMA on this site. The Rubble Films (“Truemmerfilme”) made in Germany immediately after the war occupy a special place in the analysis of ideological transition, from Nazi spectacular through the brief period of US efforts at ideological manipulation to the Soviet-dominated East German cinema of DEFA between 1950 and 1989.

Working through the rubble films, and the various commentaries on them, led me to develop a particular awareness of the role of ruined cities as meta-level metaphor in much recent cinema. As the cultural perception of the Zeitgeist moves contemporary society towards the anticipation of an apocalyptic future, screen-based imaginaries forge the way. The destruction of cities becomes a key metaphor for the end of civilization, and in many cases for the end of humanity altogether.

World War Two hovers like a penetrating spectre above the contemporary world, as history’s experimental space for its first efforts at the process of destruction and elimination of human civilization as we know it, the dehumanization of fellow-beings and destruction of humanistic values. The war takes on a particular importance from this viewpoint. It was not just “something tragic that happened” but an exercise in systematic destruction of the values and understandings which created modernity, from which the world order has never recovered.

While the German rubble films are almost completely unknown to Western audiences, the aesthetic and sociological qualities seen in those films are found in a number of other, more recent films from other sources. In forthcoming comments on this site I will discuss a few of the non-German rubble films, and similar films of metaphorical apocalypse.


Aftermath: the fire-bombing of Dresden, 13-15 February 1945.

German rubble women

German women cleared rubble by hand in the bombed-out cities