The Rubble Films (die Truemmerfilme)

During World War II, mass indiscriminate bombing of cities full of civilians became for the first time  an element of modern warfare. London  felt the full effects of German bombing raids during The Blitz and, in response, the Allies launched devastating raids on German towns and cities from 1942 on, with greater intensity in 1944/45.  Civilians were killed in still unknown numbers, some estimates being around one million dead directly from the bombing.  Homes, workplaces and essential infrastructure was destroyed. The fabric of ancient cities was obliterated.  By May 1945 when Germany was finally defeated major cities were buried under an estimated 400 million cubic metres of rubble. In the immediate aftermath of war, the question of how to represent what had happened in Germany became pressing from many points of view. The role of cinema, which was important in Germany from the Weimar period onwards, remained a significant element in post-war reconstruction. The existence of this “Rubblescape” became a metaphor for Germany’s fate. Debate continues to rage about German responses to the catastrophe. The lack of authentic encounter with the trauma began immediately after the war.

THE RUBBLE FILMS (“Die Truemmerfilme”)

Film making was an important aspect of Stunde Null (Null Hour), a term referring to midnight on 8 May 1945 in Germany which marked the end of World War II and the start of a new, non-Nazi Germany. The creation of such a concept was an element in the attempt by Germany to disassociate itself from the Nazis. Denazification had become the watchword and the Allied forces were anxious to promote the idea that the Nazi era was definitively past and gone.

Filmmakers of the Nazi period struggled with their new role. The Allies introduced strict guidelines for cultural production, as part of the systemic deNazification program. These did not sit easily with existing modes of self-recognition or narrative. Filmmakers had to find of ways of making films which were both compliant and relevant to audiences. Analysis of the works of the “rubble” period allows a complex picture to emerge of postwar cultural construction which has had reverberations to the present day.

The films of interest here are those made between 1945 and 1951, many under the auspices of the newly established DEFA ( Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft). Ultimately the Soviets took over the existing film production facilities in Babelsberg after Berlin was divided into zones in 1948, opening up a new field of German socialist cinema. For the years in between, there was no agreed-on narrative, no single approach and no certainty about the appropriate mode for representation of the unprecedented trauma or the “right” mode in which to respond.

The Rubble Films occupy a special moment in the creation of post-war German self-evaluation.  They are often said to lack the narrative and stylistic unity that would constitute them as a genre, and display uncertain aesthetics, an uneasy bricolage style and conflicting means of responding to their own ethical dilemmas. But this uncertainty and experimentalism itself creates a kind of unity. These films participate in a form of active re-imagination aimed at reestablishing a sense of authentically valuable German existence in the face of occupation, political collapse and unthinkable humiliation.

“Rubble Films” were also made by several non-German filmmakers, taking advantage of the spectacular sets and cheap costs at the time. Apart from Roberto Rosselini’s film  Germanio Anno Zero (mostly filmed on location), several Hollywood directors made films in the post-war disaster zones, some of which are unbelievably insensitive and unethical from a contemporary standpoint. These will be discussed elsewhere on this site (in the blog posts).

Thanks to the amazing program undertaken at the DEFA Film Library and Archive at the University of of Massachusetts, Amherst, many of the films of the period are available now for purchase on DVD with English subtitles. In addition, scholars are able to view virtually all the films of the GDR there, including a vast collection of 35mm and 16mm prints, books, periodicals and articles. Extracts and chapterised versions of some films also turn up on Youtube although generally in poor quality and often without subtitles.

The best known of the Trummerfilme are listed here:

Die Moerder sind unter uns. (The Murderers are Among Us) Dir: Wolfgang Staudte. DEFA – 1946

Irgendwo in Berlin  (Somewhere in Berlin) Dir: Gerhard Lamprecht DEFA-1948

Ehe im Schatten (Marriage in the Shaodows) Dir:  Kurt Maetzig DEFA– 1947

Und uber uns der Himmel  (And the Heavens Above (or) And the Sky Above Us (or City of Torment) Dir: Josef von Baky, Objective-Filme – 1947

Zwischen Gestern und Morgen (Between Yesterday and Tomorrow) Dir: Harald Braun, Neue Deutsche Filmgesellshaft, Munich – 1947

Film ohne Titel  (Film Without a Title) dir: Rudolf Jugert, Camera Hamburg – 1947

In Jenen Tagen  (In Those Days) (also known as Seven Journeys) dir: Helumt Kautner– 1947

Strassenbekantschaft (Street Acquaintances) dir: Peter Pewas, DEFA – 1948

Lang is der Weg (Long is the Way) dir: Herbert B. Fredersdorf, Marek Goldstein, in German/Yiddish, International Film Organisation – 1948

Germanio anno zero (Germany Year Zero) dir: Roberto Rosselini – 1948

Und Wieder ’48 (’48 All Over Again) dir: Gustav von Wangenheim, DEFA – 1948

Die Affaire Blum (The Blum Affair) dir: Erich Engel, DEFA – 1948

Der Apfel ist ab (The Apple is off!) dir: Helmut Kautner, Camera Hamburg – 1948

Berline Ballade (The Ballad of Berliin) dir: Robert A. Stemmle, Comedia Munich – 1948

Liebe ’47 (Love ’47) dir: Wolfgang Liebeneier, Filmaufbau, Goettingen – 1949

Der Ruf (The Last Illusion) dir: Josef von Baky, Objective Munich – 1949

Der Verlorene (The Lost One) dir: (and starring) Peter Lorre – 1951. One of the earliest post-war serial killer films, made in West Germany, Arnold Pressburger Filmproduktion. Personally I don’t think it should be included among the rubble films at all. It does illustrate the direction filmmaking took in the aftermath of the war, reflecting the newly minted noir sensibilities emerging from the immediate post-war period. The only film Peter Lorre directed, it is based on a true story.  Uploaded on Youtube in 10 minute segments, here is segment 1:

I recently reviewed the whole film on DVD and was astonished by how bad it was. Peter Lorre was clearly the driving force in making the film, and his decision to direct himself was probably a main factor in why it was such a shocker. It was not shocking in the way most trauma films are, but rather in the way it was edited and cut, and the barely coherent narrative and dialogue. Most reviews focus on its political/ethical impact but ignore its failings as a film (see for example Laura Detre’s “You are the murderers” in Colloquia Germanica Vol 48 No 3. 2-15).

Although many rubble films have their problems, those made by Germans in Germany had the advantage of excellent and experienced directors. They explored themes including the problems of returning soldiers, the poverty, suffering and distress in post war Germany, collective guilt, crime and punishment, war damage and losses, life in the rubble; and reconstruction. They reflect a specific moment when it was possible to re-narrativize and offer some kind of explanatory comfort to those who had lived through these traumatic years. Some believe that in focussing on the suffering of the German people themselves the broader implications of the Nazi era slipped out of any kind of open discourse, leading to the continuing unease and almost secrecy maintained around the era in Germany today. This issue has been the prompt for a number of recent German films, taking secrecy, denial and repression as their leitmotiv. A selection of these films is discussed on the associated page New German Film: Traumatic Encounters.

The best and most accessible published reference to date is:

Shandley, Robert R. 2001. Rubble films: German cinema in the shadow of the Third Reich. Phil.PA: Temple University Press.

A few films dealing with the same period by non-German filmmakers:

Billy Wilder – A Foreign Affair 1948. Wilder made this film with difficulty, he had lost his mother and grandmother to the camps and had just finished editing the Holocaust documentary Death Mills.

Howard Hawkes/Cary Grant: I Was a Male War Bride. 1949.

Fred Zimmerman. The Search. 1948. About a 10 year old Holocaust survivor searching for his mother.

French Émigré Jacques Tourneur – Berlin Express 1948.

The aesthetic and emotional impact of the Rubble Film has endured in western filmmaking. One of the best examples is The Pianist (2002), starring Adrian Brody and directed by Roman Polanski. The German bombing and obliteration of Warsaw, featured in this film, is turning up in a number of other recent productions. Recently The Zookeepers Wife tells a fictional (but realist) story about the way people and animals were sheltered in the Warsaw Zoo. There are scores of other films, both fictional and documentary, about the same period.

The image of towns and cities reduced to rubble has become an iconic representation of recent warfare especially in the middle east.

Although the original German rubble films remain obscure and barely known, their sustained impact on the cinematic imagination cannot be ignored.