German film: traumatic encounters


There is a wonderful German term which encapsulates the context of recent German films to be discussed on this site.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung: Coping with the Past.

It is impossible to think about what has happened in German cinema recently without going back to the past and the cultural ruptures of World War 2. Germany has spent decades trying to come to terms with this heritage but the primary method has been avoidance and repression. Only recently have filmmakers begun to take on the question of representation of Germany’s traumatic  history, and then it has been controversial and not necessarily in tune with audience desires.

Just as the Second World War marked a radical disjunction in the flow of recent histories in almost every part of the world, so it created an abrupt pause and then radical transformation in cinema. There are hundreds of observations to be made on this, most notably those concerning the impact of new technologies, audiences, reception methods, global flows of images and so on; but little attention has been paid to the way filmmaking remapped  national and local narratives and self-representation in every state and nation during the postwar period and indeed to the present day.

Film became the primary means of spreading a new interpretive consensus, dominated by the unquestionable triumph of contemporary capitalist Anglophone cultures and values. The origins of this lie in Hollywood of the 1930s, but the spread of US screen cultures became a limitless flood. The production of screen narratives constitute one of the wealthiest global industries, no longer entirely dominated by US national cinema as such, but incorporating many national and transnational cinemas reflecting the same unquestioned memes, themes and schemas. This is often referred to as “the Hollywood effect”, and many theorists argue that all contemporary commercial cinema no matter what its local/national origin is saturated inevitably by a Hollywood-established sensibility. The evaluation of a “good” film depends largely on an implicit agreement about what makes a film “good” in the first place, and this refers back to technologies and traditions long-established in Hollywood cinema which can only be departed from at the film-maker’s peril.

Certainly today the Hollywood effect is still in play, with some exceptions. “Asian” cinema has been going its own way for some time.  The hesitant emergence of national and regional cinemas of diversity are hailed. This is certainly true but in so many cases they emerged mainly as a form of virtue-signalling by dominant national cultures intent on a kind of apologetics for the colonial cultural destructions of the past. Both Australian and Canadian indigenous cinemas are good examples. Their commercial success has been limited.

However a form of non-western cinema emerged and flourished at least to some degree in the context of the rise of the Soviet Union. The very existence of this cinema is largely unrecognized in the west, and if it is noticed it is largely a topic for satire or hilarity. Generally considered “bad cinema”, Communist/socialist films are considered decadent examples of saturated ideology. As will be apparent from my brief remarks above, the same can be said of almost all Western film. However that is not the argument I am pursuing here. I am not interested in a comparative evaluation of the virtues of “socialist” vs “capitalist” cinema. I have written about so-called “socialist bloc” cinema in Vietnam, Cambodia and North Korea, and argued that these cinemas are ideologically communitarian and nationalist, not socialist in any meaningful sense at all.

However, there was one cultural/historical moment where the emergence of ideology in cinematic production can be traced comparatively, although it has proved incredibly difficult to undertake. In opening up an encounter with German cinema in the immediate post-war era, East and West, it is possible to examine what happens when a single national culture which has been exposed already to intensive ideological manipulation followed by unimaginably traumatic events comes to be split in its cultural production between east and west, communist and capitalist.

As everyone knows, a primary effect of the split between the West and the Soviets was the attempt by the latter to sequester Western popular entertainment, to ban non-communist bloc cinema and to attempt to create its own screen culture. So, in Russia and East Germany particularly, a new tradition of cinema emerged, intended to satisfy the need for popular cultural experience in Communist societies while maintaining ideological purity.

The representation of World War 2 on film in the immediate postwar era  in Germany and the way filmmakers made sense of what had happened offers a particular example. It quickly became apparent that the impact of the war years on cinema was strangely confused and uncertain. It was as if nobody really knew what had actually happened, or how to represent it under ideological pressure. Prior to that German cinema had its own logic, history and customary tropes, carried on through the 1930s and into the Nazi era.

Only after the war ended, with the horrifying revelations about the prison camps and death camps, the savagery meted out by all sides, the struggles of pacifists and various underground resistances, the impacts of bombing, the destruction of cities, and finally the reality of atomic destruction did the need for some kind of revaluation and meaningful representation emerge.  Millions had suffered immense post-traumatic stress, almost unthinkably horrifying in comparison even with the aftermath of World War One (although in may cases the two were linked). Cinema, which has the potential to offer imaginative understanding and recuperation from intense trauma, was called upon briefly to undertake this task. The period of the Rubble Films is dicussed elsewhere on this site.

Afterwards, though, film turned to an expansion of  ideologically saturated forms of entertainment. If history existed, it was largely rewritten in the light of divergent ideologies. Emotional response to trauma – sadness, depression, angst, loss, nightmares, unhingedness, alienation – were not expressed. Instead, audiences were drawn into every-intensifying acceptance of the new world order. Whether pro-capitalist, or pro-communist, filmmakers largely obeyed the injunctions of their respective systems of power. There was to be no speaking Truth to Power, let alone any effort to share this truth with each other or with Others, now defined as a new kind of enemy.

The Cold War, struggles over the control of nuclear technologies, the question of responsibility and reparations, the need to re-settle and re-house displaced millions, the problems of migration and nationhood, the recognition of war crimes and the pursuit of war criminals – these were the issues that people all over the world had to face in a rapidly changing world order but very seldom was cinema allowed to face these realities.

By the late 1950s it was clear that the potential for a transformative ethics arising from the war had been almost completely suppressed or overcome. The transformative power of cinema, especially “art” cinema, burst and then disappeared. Popular culture hit like a tsunami, washing away the few fragments of wartime reflection and burying everthing once again under a sheen of unquestioning nationalistic proto-propaganda which became the dominant entertainment industry, first in cinema, then in television.

But the return of the repressed has its own logic. New films have emerged in Germany over the past decade attempting a new comprehension of the war and the Nazi years, as well as the impact of Soviet domination and the effects of the East-West split. This site will develop a discussion of some of the best-known of these films, with commentary and background for those interested in a closer encounter with a new German cinema which takes past-into-present as its thematic. On occasion, television series from or about the period will also be discussed.

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