February 10–20, 2006
Last year, I took the opportunity to write for this journal on the state of affairs of contemporary German cinema in the form of a festival report on the 55th Berlin Film Festival. At the time, I advanced two basic propositions: one, that German film, traditionally one of the pillars of world cinema, had by and large fallen off the critical radar of cineastes and film scholars across the world; and two, that something interesting was underway in contemporary German cinema that had to do with the question of mobility in post-unification Germany – a country that has been struggling for more than a decade now with a sense of socio-cultural and economic insecurity. The German films at this year’s Berlinale confirmed this impression, notwithstanding the remarkable variety of stories these films tell and the films’ obvious aesthetic differences that deserve to be encountered as differences rather than being immediately conflated into a unified aesthetic idea for the sake of a coherent critical argument. Nevertheless, at the 56th Berlinale, the best of the 25 German films I saw stand out from the rest because of their ability to abstract from the imaged insecurity affecting their characters images of mobility that are not so much represented as rendered sensible. Committed to inventing a proper cinematic form that manages affectively to image something that seems to have been absent from post-Wall German reality for the past decade, these films thus seek to converse with the German present. However, these films and their directors pursue this conversation not just amongst each other; nor is the nature of the conversation with their German audience merely an untimely one – that is, a conversation for which the actual interlocutor is yet to come. My sense – based on the last two Berlin film festivals as well as the critical discourse in Germany on homegrown film productions of the last few years – is that we may very well be witnessing the moment at which a gradually forming audience for these film is beginning to respond with increasing interest.
That over the last half decade such a cinematic conversation had a chance not only to emerge, however slowly and tentatively, but also to assume some degree of “ecological” consistency has, in my view, something to do with the Berlinale itself – with its institutional weight and the way this weight has been mobilised by the festival’s current director, Dieter Kosslick. I am not about to suggest that Kosslick is single-handedly responsible for bringing about what I think is a crucial transformation of German film culture; such transformations are always the effect of a multiplicity of forces that include institutional and political circumstances, film aesthetic developments, a great number of individuals who apply their talent to film production rather than other art forms, and, of course, a fair bit of happenstance. Nevertheless, I think Kosslick has assumed the function of a conduit or relay through which the already ongoing cinematic modulation of German film culture was allowed to gather some steam – at first almost without notice and largely subterranean, now with increasing visibility and confidence. If my assessment here is halfway correct, then I think it is worthwhile to take the opportunity afforded to me by this festival report to map out some genealogical connections between the history of the Berlinale in the 21st century and the emergence of a new German cinema, of what the French press, including Cahiers du cinéma, has recently called the “nouvelle vague Allemande”. In so doing, I hope to tease out some interesting connections between contemporary German film history and its post-unification context.
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From the beginning of his tenure as the festival’s director in May 2001, Kosslick positioned himself as a tireless champion of German cinema. When he took over the festival from Moritz de Hadeln, the German film landscape was still dominated by an overwhelmingly pessimistic mood among German cineastes about the state of affairs of the nation’s film industry – an industry bogged down by ineffective film subsidising structures, dominated by momentarily successful but in the long run forgettable comedy and heritage film productions, and artistically in thrall of what many critics deride as the aesthetics of “German TV realism”, or what André Bazin once called “pseudo-realism”. (2) To make matters worse, the doomsday mood among German film critics was worsened by de Hadeln’s decision to open his last Berlinale with the German–French–American $70 million co-production, Enemy at the Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001). Positioning this production as the opening night film of the festival, de Hadeln hoped to lend new international renown to the Berliner Babelsberg Studios as a film production site; instead, the film was a commercial flop (3) and ended up being derided by German critics as the industry’s misplaced attempt to reassert its place in world cinema by displaying an arrogant “wir-sind-wieder-wer” attitude, as if the ability to contribute loads of money to an international costume film production were synonymous with artistic credibility or, to use Werner Herzog’s term, “legitimacy”. (4)
Looking to Kosslick for leadership, German film critics at the time felt that his most pressing job as the festival’s director was to create a stronger forum for German film in the festival’s main competition. (5) Now, five years into Kosslick’s tenure, it has become increasingly clear that his quite visible lobbying in favour of German cinema is gradually beginning to pay off. (6) Competition films such as Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), Fatih Akin’s Gegen die Wand (Head-On) (2004), as well as Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl (2005), all managed to find international audiences, though the reasons for this vary. Akin’s film found an international audience not just because it fit into the recent wave of German–Turkish films, or what is often referred to as “migrant cinema”, but also because of his sure-handed and ultimately cinematically compelling way of narrating a harrowing story about love and cultural displacement. Sophie Scholl arguably attracted international attention primarily because its subject matter continues to appeal to an international audience whose knowledge of German culture often appears to be limited to the country’s Third Reich years; though it features a tremendous and justly celebrated performance by Julia Jentsch as the title-character, I do not think it was due to the film’s cinematic merits that Rothemund’s film was nominated in 2006 for an Academy Award for best foreign film only one year after the same honor was given to Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang (Downfall) (2004), (7) the most prominent and commercially successful of the recent Hitler-film wave. (8)
Good Bye, Lenin!, too, managed to find a national and international audience because of its engagement with that other German subject matter that has caught the international community’s attention – the country’s split and subsequent reunification. However, unlike some other German films that approach the subject matter in a more “realistic” fashion, (9) Becker’s film found a surprisingly large audience because it tapped into the then ongoing debate about so-called “Ostalgie” (nostalgia for East Germany). The film allows viewers to feel sentimental for an (imagined) time before the wall came down, though one might debate whether the film itself endorses such sentiments. Benjamin Heisenberg, co-editor of the important German film magazine, Revolver, and director of Schläfer (Sleeper) (2005), argues that the gradual resurgence of German cinema might very well have come to the attention of viewers outside of Germany as a result of Becker’s film (and not, as many have suggested, Hans Weingartner’s Cannes competition entry Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei [The Edukators] ), since it simultaneously appealed to a wider national and international audience and attracted widespread critical interest. (10)
Elaborating on the genealogical question of contemporary German film, Katja Nicodemus helpfully points out that Head-On – whose success at the Berlinale and the European film prize, which it won in 2005, was appropriated by the German press as proof that “wir sind wieder wer” – was not the beginning but the continuation of a film movement that has been a fixture of German film culture since at least the mid-1990s. That is, whereas the German mainstream press (and the film industry’s bureaucratic representatives) construct a story of national pride based on the seemingly increasing success of German film productions in the early- to mid-2000s, Nicodemus insists that the “wir” in this construction names a contested subject position: whereas the press essentially thinks along the lines of international flair and productions that can compete with Hollywood, Nicodemus suggests that “we” entails those who have been quietly making small films that cumulatively add up to what one might deem a new film language in German cinema. She is specifically thinking of films by Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan or Angela Schaneleck, who are collectively known as the “Berliner Schule” (Berlin School), but also films by an even younger generation that includes Christoph Hochhäusler, Henner Winckler, Ulrich Köhler, Valeska Grisebach or Benjamin Heisenberg – all of whom had, in addition to Arslan and Petzold’s wife, Aysun Bademsoy, key entries at this year’s Berlinale. The ultimate point of Nicodemus’ argument is a simple yet important one: whereas the German film establishment has recently begun to celebrate the rebirth of German cinema based on a few commercially successful films, the latest wave of creatively innovative German films began to emerge from the mid-1990s on. That is, this “nouvelle vague Allemande” began to build its earliest momentum at the very moment when German mainstream cinema’s only success stories were a series of “cinema of consensus” comedies that had no audience anywhere abroad. (11)
But the effect of Kosslick’s active promotion of German film can be felt in other ways as well. For instance, the presence of German cinema at the Berlinale has been enhanced by the inauguration in 2002 of a new sidebar devoted exclusively to German cinema, the “Perspektive Deutsches Kino”. Organised by Alfred Holighaus, the “Perspektive” offers films by newcomers and mavericks of German filmmaking, thus providing audiences with insights into what might become the future of German cinema. (12) Moreover, German films continue to be screened to a general public in all series; and the “German Cinema” sidebar gives accredited film industry visitors the additional chance of exploring a host of German films that already played on the country’s screens during the previous year. In general, the number of German films screened at the Berlinale has increased by more than 10% since 2001. (13)
Perhaps most importantly, once again four of the festival’s 26 competition entries came from Germany. (14) Matthias Glasner’s Der freie Wille (The Free Will) (2006) depicts in unsettling directness the failed attempt of a serial rapist to rid himself of his illness. The film itself received mixed responses (mainly driven by the question of whether we really need to see rape in such explicit detail), but critics praised the candid performance by one of Germany’s best young actors, Jürgen Vogel, as the self-abusing rapist.
Oskar Roehler’s Elementarteilchen (Elementary Particles) (2006) was the most anticipated of the four German competition entries, not the least of which due to the all-star cast that German über-producer Bernd Eichinger assembled for this production. The film, however, disappointed many precisely because it was not Roehleresque enough. Known for his relentless attacks on bourgeois values, Roehler seemed to be the perfect director for a film adaptation of Michel Houellebecq’s infamous, “post-romance” reckoning with what he perceives to be the narcissistic and egotistic attitudes of “68ers”. (15) Yet, in the end, it appears as if the commercial imperatives superimposed onto the film as a result of its production values cost Roehler the ability to inflect the film with greater aesthetic bite.
The remorseless social critique provided by the novel gets translated into relatively harmless, albeit entertaining melodrama, as if to confirm Eichinger’s ludicrous press conference statement that one “cannot film social critique, only melodrama.” Ironically, Roehler’s own films such as Suck My Dick (2001), Der alte Affe Angst (Angst) (2003), or Agnes und ihre Brüder (Agnes and Her Brothers) (2004) have proven the untruth of Eichinger’s paean to commercial cinema: out of all the post-Fassbinder directors, it’s been Roehler who most explicitly tapped into the melodramatic form as a means of providing social critique.
The third German competition entry was Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem (2006), an intelligently rendered film about the last reported case of exorcism in Germany in the 1970s. Schmid is one of contemporary Germany’s most respected directors whose films such as Crazy (2000) or Lichter (Distant Lights) (2003) manage to strike a balance between artistically interesting, yet commercially viable films. Requiem widely opened in German theatres immediately after the festival’s end, just like fellow Berlinale films Elementary Particles, Dominik Graf’s Der rote Kakadu (The Red Cockatoo) (2006) (a bitter-sweet slice-of-life film set in East Germany during the last optimistic days before the Wall was built in 1961) and Vanessa Jopp’s Komm näher (Happy as One) (2006), a multi-story film that like Markus Herling’s “Altmanesque” Schöner Leben (Riding Up Front) (2006) unfortunately never manages to provide convincing internal reasons for the necessity of the individual stories’ existence. Requiem carefully observes the mental deterioration of a young woman whose psychic life gets torn apart by the mutually opposing forces of, on one hand, her conservative Catholic upbringing and, on the other, the new freedom she experiences as a freshman university student.
Unlike William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and its copycats, however, Schmid’s film plays down the more sensational aspects of the case and instead patiently lingers on the psychosocial relationship between the protagonist and her environment. It is the visual precision with which Schmid renders the mise en scène that makes his style of filmmaking, though more commercial in nature, a close cousin to the “Berliner Schule” films of which the fourth German competition entry, Valeska Grisebach’s amazing Sehnsucht (Longing) (2006), is one of its best examples, as I will discuss at the end of this essay.
Ironically, the increasing visibility of German films at the Berlinale (which found its momentary peak when Akin’s Head-On somewhat controversially won the Golden Bear in 2004) generated this year much debate among German film critics about a possible backlash against Kosslick’s partisan promotion of German film. Speculating that one of the four German films would take home the coveted main prize – especially Longing and Requiem were rumoured to be top-contenders for the award – critics worried that in such an event foreign directors would choose to avoid the Berlinale in the future, presumably because they would perceive another German win as signaling the Berlinale’s succumbing to an increasingly jingoistic attitude of national self-promotion. Whereas German critics fretted at the beginning of the millennium that there were not enough quality German films worthy to be screened at the country’s own flagship film festival, now they are worried about the possibility that a second win within three years by a homegrown film might cast the festival as too provincial in the eyes of renowned international directors. In the end, this fear proved to be premature, since the Golden Bear went to Jasmila Zbanic’s Grbavica (2006) – a decision that surprised most “experts” even more so than last year’s win by Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, a film that was co-produced by the Berliner production company Razor Film and was nominated for the Oscar for best foreign film this year. (16)
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Given all of the above, then, one might be inclined to wonder about the first proposition stated at the beginning of this essay: that German film has fallen off the critical radar of world cinema. But I think this would be a mistaken assessment, at least at this stage. Notwithstanding the increasingly important presence of German films at the Berlinale and even at the Oscars, their success there has not yet fully translated into elevating German cinema to a renewed level of international visibility. Undoubtedly, the fates of individual national cinemas are exposed to a multiplicity of forces, and, in any case, their ups and downs are better measured over decades rather than years. But one might also argue that too many contemporary German films still suffer from the problem that as cinema they are not yet sufficiently interesting for an international audience to really care about films that are situated quite explicitly in a German context. Of course, the latter should be considered a significant improvement over many of the films that have dominated the German box-office over the last two decades – films that for the most part could have taken place anywhere and were utterly lacking in displaying any intellectual or aesthetic attitude whatsoever toward their subject matter.
In my estimation, the weaker films at this year’s Berlinale can be considered symptomatic of this problem. Films such as the aforementioned Happy as One and Riding Up Front, as well as Mirko Borscht’s Kombat Sechzehn (Combat Sixteen), Buket Alakus’ Eine andere Liga (Offside), Aelrun Goette’s Unter dem Eis (Under the Ice), Isabelle Stever’s Gisela, Eoin Moore’s Im Schwitzkasten (No Sweat), or Christian Moris Müller’s Vier Fenster (Four Windows) are simply not cinematic enough for them to have any real impact on cinema viewers – abroad as well as, I suspect, in Germany. Some of these films certainly tackle important issues such as economic hardships and the emotional cost it taxes from post-Wall German citizens. But they generally fail to find proper cinematic forms to prevent these stories from turning into merely well-intentioned yet ultimately unconvincing, rather generic film productions whose aesthetic reflects more the standard German made-for-TV drama mould than responding to peculiar imaging demands of the big screen.
Take, for instance, No Sweat by Eoin Moore, an Irish-born director who has been living in Berlin since 1988 and who has garnered excellent reviews with his previous two films, Break Even (Plus-Minus Null) (1998) and Pigs will Fly (2002). In his latest film, he narrates the story of seven Germans who exchange themselves in a sauna about contemporary Germany’s socio-economic malaise. The German title Im Schwitzkasten literally means “to be in a sweatbox” or “to be in a headlock”; idiomatically, in other words, the film’s title suggests the application of externally induced pressure on someone. Indeed, we quickly learn that the protagonists visit the sauna in order to relieve some of the pressure induced upon them by living in the socio-economic sweatbox of reunified Germany: a young woman with an academic degree has been a long-time welfare recipient; another woman loses her employment as a flight attendant and is reluctant to take a lesser job; a middle-aged father suffers from sexual impotence and has been out of a job for such a long time that he has no confidence left to try to find one; other characters, including the siblings who run the sauna, are self-employed but barely make ends meet.
Notwithstanding the dour subject matter, however, this film is actually a comedy. Still, the problem with No Sweat is that it never really manages to scratch the surface of its affable social comedy, notwithstanding the fact that the film even features a Goethe-expert who writes speeches for his politician-wife and whose function in the story it is to explicitly articulate the various arguments circulating in Germany in the age of Hartz IV. (17) Differently put, while the idea of deploying comedy as a means to reveal the brutalities of the German economic system in the age of Hartz IV is interesting, No Sweat ends up not being funny enough as that it would make the audience’s laughter come to haunt them. By the end of the film, one has laughed with, perhaps even at, these characters – but without ever having been made to choke on one’s laughter.
I cannot help but being reminded in this context of Horkheimer and Adorno’s differentiation between laughter and joy/happiness that they diagnosed in their famous “Culture Industry” argument more than 60 years ago. They write that in films of the culture industry there
is laughter because there is nothing to laugh about. […] Reconciled laugher resounds with the echo of escape from power; wrong laughter copes with fear by defecting to the agencies which inspire it. It echoes the inescapability of power. […] To moments of happiness laugher is foreign. […] The collective of those who laugh parodies humanity. They are monads, each abandoning himself to the pleasure – at the expense of all others and with the majority in support – of being ready to shrink from nothing. Their harmony presents a caricature of solidarity. (p. 112). (18)
In the end, that is to say, No Sweat (unintentionally) allows us to laugh at the farce-like situations that confront its characters. As a result, the affect sensed by the viewer is a kind of laughter that does not foster a sense of implication and thus solidarity; rather, it’s a monadic laughter that in its harmony with the laughter of others creates merely the illusion of commonality.
Happiness, for the two Frankfurt School thinkers, is something that has to be earned, whereas laughter comes cheap. That this insight does not have to result in films that wallow in cliché-like Germanic pessimism is evidenced by Andreas Dresen’s latest effort, Sommer vorm Balkon (Summer in Berlin) (2005), which is his most recent entry in his ongoing series of cinematically astute examinations of life in the post-Wall era. Unlike in some of his prior films, Dresen infuses his latest with a more light-hearted mood as a means to aesthetically foreground in a poignant manner the painful socio-economic transformations Germans are (reluctantly) undergoing. The brilliance of Dresen’s film lies in the fact that it investigates its working-class characters with an eye on their own (in)ability to maintain solidarity with each other: while the film does not for a moment blame the characters for their socio-economic hardships, it nevertheless reveals the psychological and emotional difficulties of forging sustainable relationships of solidarity among these characters.
The last point is made explicit on the plot level when Nike, a nurse, and Katrin, a currently unemployed mother of a son, both become attracted to Ronald, a womanising truck driver. Until Ronald entered their lives, the two women enjoyed a solid friendship, which involved taking pleasure in regular late night drinking sessions on Nike’s balcony up high in the Prenzlauer Berg district in Berlin – a district in former East Berlin that is home to mostly working class and lower middle-class people.
The drama that ensues from Ronald’s presence highlights how the power of the cliché – in this case configured as jealousy – territorialises what Deleuze and Guattari might call a line of flight of solidarity onto the plane of individualised psychology, with the consequence that both women behave on a personal and professional level in ways that cut off this line of flight in its tracks.
Yet, the film renders this process of territorialisation in such a way that on the level of the cinematic the line of flight from which these two women are momentarily blocked becomes affectively sensible. From its earliest moments that evoke the opening scene in François Truffaut’s Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) (1959) in which the camera is already in the middle of things – in the middle of Paris, in the middle of life – and expresses a certain lightheartedness through its sheer mobility, Dresen’s film repeatedly finds ways of rendering sensible glorious images of mobility: from the handheld shots on the streets of Prenzlau, to the sweeping camera movements from the balcony overlooking the neighbourhood, to the cinematographic capturing of the intense greens and blues of summer, to the wonderful close-ups of the women’s faces that allow us to see in the actresses’ eyes the desire of their characters – the desire to not give in to the pitfalls of what is peddled to them as the solution to their problems, be it an affair with a man who quite obviously is not right for Nike, or the bottle, as is the case with Katrin. Without ever crossing the line into fairy-tale territory, Summer in Berlin eventually manages through its dramatic amplification of the two women’s immobile subject positions to make sensible (to us and them) the importance of not foregoing their (gendered and classed) solidarity with each other – of not caving in to the solidarity-undermining neoliberal rhetoric of social-upward mobility – and instead to create a network of social relations that might actually allow them realistically to carve out a better future for themselves.
What Dresen problematises with the help of purely cinematic means, then, is precisely the issue of solidarity and how it can be maintained, developed, and productively transformed so that those who already find themselves on the short end of Hartz IV do not turn against each other. Differently put, Summer in Berlin manages to wrestle away a moment of transcendence from the paralysing status quo of post-Wall German reality. This moment of transcendence, however, emerges immanently through the film’s aesthetic rather than being externally superimposed as a means to pacify an audience that presumably craves for happy endings precisely because their own lives are troubling enough. That is, even though the film images a moment of transcendence towards the end when we leave Nike and Katrin, who are at least momentarily and tentatively reconciled with each other, in one last sweeping, lighthearted camera movement from high up their balcony-refugee, this moment is not necessarily a “happy ending”. In neorealist fashion, Dresen finishes his film like he began it: in the middle of things, with nothing really resolved. That’s how life is, as the film says. Yet, this final image explicitly positions the women in and as an image of something that has been absent in their lives. This image, which undoubtedly has a certain utopian, joyful quality to it, renders visible the sensation of mobility affectively felt by these women – an affective sensation of joy that is the effect of their ability to re-establish their solidarity with each other but, in so doing, also to re-configure the very notion of solidarity as something that works only when it is asserted against or despite of more individualised desires.
My comparing of Moore and Dresen’s films is meant to suggest that the problem with the weaker contemporary German films has to do with the fact that they do not work on the level of cinema itself, by which I mean the display and execution of a consistent aesthetic attitude. As a result, these films, although often better than many of their 1990s predecessors, by and large fall short of their implicit promise to offer viewers stories that provoke them to reflect on their own situation, including their complicity in the problems that are being depicted. In the end, these films do not transcend the level of cliché – the offering up of images that in their very nature, both content and form, are already familiar to the viewers, with the effect that they are not encouraged to re-see their immediate and extended environments. If these films are also concerned with the lack of mobility characteristic of post-Wall German culture, their aesthetic decisions trap them in a purely representational encounter with the problem. They end up offering images to their audiences that are neither compelling enough for them to be able to compete with the truly fantas(ma)tic images produced by Hollywood nor properly realistic enough for them to abstract new images from a German reality that might be sufficiently provocative for a German (and international) audience to find itself emotionally, psychologically, affectively and intellectually reeling. Neither fish nor fowl, these well-intentioned films end up perpetuating the status quo rather than putting it into suspension precisely because the realism they pursue is not realistic enough. Their realism is still too wedded to a representational logic of images, which prevents them from imaging something that does not (yet) exist in contemporary German reality itself.
But as my discussion of Dresen’s film meant to intimate, this year’s Berlinale, even more so than last year’s, featured a number of German films that do indeed present audiences with images that offer the opportunity to see anew German reality. The films I have in mind include first and foremost those of the “Berliner Schule”: Ulrich Köhler’s Montag kommen die Fenster (Windows on Monday), Henner Winckler’s Lucy, Valeska Grisebach’s Longing, Thomas Arslan’s Aus der Ferne (From Far Away), Christoph Hochhäusler’s Falscher Bekenner (Low Profile), Benjamin Heisenberg’s Sleeper and Aysun Bademsoy’s Am Rande der Städte (On the Outskirts). But I would also include a series of directors who are usually not associated with the Berliner Schule but whose films strike me as exhibiting an aesthetic strategy of storytelling that closely resonates with the aesthetics at work in many Berliner Schule films. In terms of this year’s festival, I’m thinking in addition to Requiem and Summer in Berlin also of Andres Veiel’s astonishing documentary Der Kick (The Kick) about the vicious murder of a teenager in rural East Germany that seems to have been inspired by a scene from Tony Kaye’s American History X (1998).
Moreover, I am especially thinking of Romuald Karmakar’s powerful Hamburger Lektionen (Hamburger Lectures). Aesthetically analogous to Karmakar’s Himmler Projekt (Himmler Project) (2000), Hamburger Lectures relies on a radical form of cinematic minimalism to re-stage word for word two actual lectures given by Imam Mohammed Fazazi at the Al Quds mosque in Hamburg that might have been attended by various members of the so-called “Hamburg Cell”, including three of the four pilots used in the attacks of 9/11. Over the course of more than two hours, the film shows us only German actor Manfred Zapatka as he sits on a chair and reads directly from a manuscript the translation of Fazazi’s lecture and answers to the questions he was given in writing from his audience. (19) Draining from the actual words any of the rhetorical flourishes and pathos that one might imagine to have inflected the original lectures, Karmakar’s camera, together with his actor’s “neutral” delivery and bodily presence, succeed at intensifying the power of the words and the logic of Fazazi’s argument to such a degree that, by the end, one might very well find oneself agreeing that “God knows best”, as the Imam refrain-like reiterates.
Karmakar has managed to find a cinematic form that images the original event, not insofar as the film represents reality, but insofar as the cinematic staging of the event aesthetically sustains the sensation of the force of Fazazi’s words themselves. That is, the cinematicness of the film renders sensible to a presumably skeptical, “enlightened” audience the very affective violence that the Imam’s words launched at his believing audience. What a straightforward representational recreation of the event would have more than likely reduced to a sensationalising and clichéd spectacle is instead transformed by Karmakar’s cinematic staging into an affectively rendered violence of sensation produced by the sheer non-sensational, clinically cold logic of the Imam’s lectures.
Given Karmakar’s radical cinematic style – one that aesthetically pushes on and through conventional realism precisely so that representationally pre-existing clichés become abstracted from the screen and the filmmaker and our brains – it is not surprising that a good number of “Berliner Schule” directors mention his name when discussing their influences. But who or what is this “Berliner Schule”? Popularized by German film critics such as Rüdiger Suchsland, Katja Nicodemus and Rainer Gansera, the label points to what we might call an “aesthetics of reduction and anticipation” reminiscent of international arthouse directors such as Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Michael Haneke, but also Karmakar. The “Berliner Schule” films tend to be dominated by long takes, long shots, and clinically precise framing, which foregrounds the mise en scène’s temporal duration in a unified space. The films turn to the every day as a means to create their narrative tensions, but these tensions themselves emerge through relatively “un-dramatic” inflections of the reality they observe. In so doing, they visually intensify existing reality in such a manner that reality itself is shown in its transformational ontology. Reality, as these films suggest, is not akin to the static representational clichés that most films deploy – and that most of us have recourse to on a daily basis; instead, reality itself becomes available to our curious ethnographic gaze as something extraordinary and strange. And in this becoming-strange of reality, these films also produce images that render visible or sensible moments of pure mobility that as such are absent in their German viewers’ social reality. Such images – and their affective intensities – are strange to them. They are images that affectively render the sensation of mobility rather than representing images of mobility – images, that is, that merely represent pre-existing understandings and conceptions of mobility as they currently dominate German discourse.
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While I could discuss any number of the above listed “Berliner Schule” films as a means of illustrating these points, allow me in conclusion to focus simply on Grisebach’s Longing, her first feature-length film. (20) My essay began with a discussion of Dieter Kosslick’s role in the revival of German cinema. And there may be no better evidence of his role than the fact that Longing was included in the festival’s main competition as the fourth German entry – something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
Amazingly having become somewhat of an instant cause célèbre after its premier screening among both audiences and critics, the reception of this aesthetically stripped-down, yet visually beautiful film was primarily framed in terms of its “documentary” aesthetic. Based on Grisebach’s initial video-research about the private lives of Berliners in their 30s, the film uses a non-professional cast to depict its barebones story. Markus (Andreas Müller), a self-employed metalworker and volunteer for the local firefighters in a small village in Brandenburg, East Germany, rescues someone from what initially appears like a car accident but turns out to be a suicide attempt. Until this moment, Markus seems to have been happily in love with his high-school sweetheart and now wife, Ella (Ilka Welz); in fact, the couple seems to be so much in love with each other that their friends and neighbours look at them with a certain amount of skepticism. Yet, when Markus goes on a weekend trip with his firefighting squad, he starts an affair with a waitress, Rose (Anett Dornbusch). Oscillating between his extremely strong feelings for both women, Markus’ increasing uncertainty about who he is and what he wants out of his life grows to the point where he shoots himself.
Book-ended by these two suicide attempts, Longing aesthetically makes its audience observe the few characters populating the narrative. The film primarily relies on extremely long takes that render sensible the duration of the intensively experienced forces of a life in which not much ever happens. In the process, Grisebach invents wonderfully precise images of yearning – Markus and Ella’s yearning for each other, Markus’ nebulous longing for something absent in his life, Rose’s desire for Markus and vice versa, and the longing of all three for something that none of them can articulate. The film intensifies its mise en scène to such a degree that it pushes its predominantly static images to a breaking point: what appears to be a “documentation” of reality metamorphoses into an immanently reached abstraction thereof.
In the end, the film is precisely not “documentary-like” because of the distance Grisebach creates between the images and reality. (21) Out of this aesthetic distance, the images assume aesthetic autonomy so that, though rooted in empirical reality, they reach a level of poetry that infuses their very specific spatio-temporal ontology with a sense of mystery, if not fairy-tale-like quality. Reminiscent of Christoph Hochhäusler’s brilliant debut film Milchwald (This Very Moment) (2003), which quite overtly revisits central tropes of the Hansel and Gretel story as a means to inflect its mise en scène with a more-than-realistic, though not “hyper-realistic”, intensity, so Longing mobilises a cinematic aesthetic that forges an intensive relationship between the viewer and the images that operates on a purely affective level. The way we are made to look at these images – and at the characters longingly looking at each other as well as at something off screen, as if hoping to catch a vision of a life-yet-to-be-lived, or the potential of a line of flight – transforms our look form a purely optical experience into what Gilles Deleuze theorizes in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation as a “haptic” look: our eyes are so immersed in these images, in the characters’ looks, that our eyes sense the heaviness of the three protagonists’ hearts and souls. It is as if our eyes can touch the weight Markus feels bogging down his big shoulders – a weight with which Markus must have been struggling long before we meet him for the first time.
Organised around a series of “real-time” scenes – the most remarkable being when Markus dances by himself to the German New Wave band Grauzone’s “Ich möchte ein Eisbär sein” (according to which ice bears never cry) with such intensity and despair that this image is rendered beyond any sense of irony or representational realism – Longing’s point of view rigorously images its characters in such a way that we cannot help but sense ourselves looking.
This foregrounding of the process of observing – of being made to subject our gaze to the world’s primacy that metamorphoses into something strange in front of our eyes or, rather, through our intense look at it, precisely because its utter banality is cinematically emphasised – is without a doubt a key characteristic of the “Berliner Schule”. But because the question of seeing is, in the end, a stylistic question – Heidegger would have called it a matter of the primacy of poiesis over techne – these films ultimately differ from each other. In responding to the question of how to image their worlds, diverse films such as Heisenberg’s Sleeper (a thriller-like film that examines the virus-like conditions that make people spy on each other when living in a state of all-pervasive insecurity), Arslan’s From Far Away (an almost purely visually rendered documentation of the complexity of contemporary Turkey, the director’s home country that he has not visited in decades), or Winckler’s Lucy (a careful study of a teenage mother and the social milieu that offers minor moments of happiness but constantly threatens to crush her desires before she can ever figure out what they actually are) render visible their individual subject matters by heeding the same ethical demand to see seeing: to encounter their subject matter in a mode of questioning so that the world’s images assume their own reality, rather than remaining subordinated to the reality from which they emerge and to which they obviously have a material relationship.
This foregrounding of the visual – this becoming-haptic of the visual – defines, in my view the efforts of the “Berliner Schule”. Their sheer mode of sympathetic observation instills in us a sense of anticipation: we sense something is going to happen, though we don’t know when and what. And even after an event occurs such as the unintentional commencement of Markus and Rose’s affair, we are not sure that this was just what we were waiting for. The utter languorous quality of Grisebach’s mise en scène provokes us to ask a series of questions: what is it that holds these characters back?; why do they not move on?; what are the conditions under which they could possibly move on?; why do we feel they ought to move on?; and what, finally, is it that we are witnessing anyway?
In one of the most remarkable endings of a recent German film I can think of – any film, for that matter – Grisebach amplifies the level of our uncertainty one more notch. After we are made to believe to have witnessed the suicide of Markus, the camera cuts away from the rescue helicopter to a group of small children talking in a tree house. Eventually, a girl begins to tell a story that closely resembles the narrative of the film itself. We learn that the man, whose desire was split between two loves, survived his suicide attempt. The children discuss the decision to end one’s life, with one saying that it takes courage, whereas another declares that he couldn’t do it. (This conversation echoes an earlier one between Markus and Ella after he learned that he had saved someone from committing suicide.) The girl finds it romantic and wonders whether the boy would not do the same for her. Then, as the girl continues with her story, we hear that the man once again lives with one of the two women. Teasing her audience – and us, of course – the girl asks, “guess with whom?”
That the answer will be withheld by the girl and Grisebach is of course the point of the film: having posited the question of fate – and what happens when you intervene in it, as Markus did in rescuing a suicidal person – Longing asserts that fate is that which you cannot change… but to which you have to respond. For it is in responding to the conditions into which one is placed or confronted by that one assumes one’s responsibility, that one affirms one’s response-ability. And in so doing, in encountering the world on its own terms, the film suggests that the world itself reveals a line of flight, a moment of transcendence that becomes available only through an immanent encounter with the material conditions of one’s experience of the world.
In confronting us with our own desires – that we want to know with whom Markus now lives – Longing also confronts us with a very Nietzschean question: why do we prefer willing anything, even nothing, to not willing at all? That is, why do we believe that it makes any difference (to us) to know with certainty how the story resolves itself? Could it not be that such a desire to overcome ambiguity is precisely that which is the very affect that blocks our mobility, our ability to re-imagine our social conditions on their own terms (rather than on purely transcendental grounds)? Might it be the case that for the reality of contemporary Germany to improve, a fundamentally different mode of vision needs to be mobilised, habituated, and envisioned? A mode of seeing, haptic in nature, that affirms this world, as Deleuze suggests in Cinema 2, rather than longing for a past that may or may not actually have been better or for a future whose conditions of emergence reside outside of the plane of the social itself?
Could it be, finally, that the social reality of Germany has a chance of improving only if its images will improve, to steal from Jean-Luc Godard’s radical affirmation of the power of cinema? It seems to me that the best of the German films ask just such questions and do their best to find ways of responding to them. The hope might thus reside in the potential these films bear to find and transform an audience through purely cinematic means – means that demand from their interlocutor to reconsider their own visual habits and that render visible processes of social transformation that haptically make available a sense of mobility that is necessary for larger social transformations to occur, a sense of mobility, however, that is precisely not representational, that has nothing to do with the rhetoric of neoliberal mobility that is based on purely extensive notions of mobility. In the end, mobility as imaged by the best German films screened at this year’s Berlinale is a matter of intensity, of a nomadic inhabiting of one’s social space so that this space becomes-otherwise.
- I am grateful to the English Department at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln for enabling me once again to travel to Berlin during the semester.
- “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, What is Cinema? Vol. 1, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967, pp. 9–17; p. 12.
- In Germany, this film about the battle of Stalingrad attracted a stunningly low 0.2 million viewers. Had it not been for its moderate success at the US box-office where it made more than $50 million, the film would have turned into one of the greatest catastrophes of European film production.
- “Wir sind wieder wer” is essentially an untranslatable German idiomatic expression. While it literally means “we are someone again”, its usage in German culture is overdetermined by its echoes of right-wing desires throughout the 20th century – first by the Nazis who saw in Hitler someone who could re-establish Germany as a world power after the “shame” of the Versailles contracts; then by an essentially conservative bourgeoisie during the economic miracle years of the 1950s, who, especially after West Germany’s surprise victory of the soccer World Cup in 1954, felt that they had re-established Germany as a decent country on the world stage; and finally in the 1990s when, under the leadership of conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl, the nation took the chance offered by the reunification to engage in more open discussions about German patriotism and the role it deserves to play in Europe and in the world. Werner Herzog used the term “legitimacy” when speaking about the New German directors’ films in the early 1970s as the first legitimate German cinema since the days of F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. See the Signs of Vigorous Life documentary on the Criterion Collection DVD edition of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
- See, for instance, Michael Althen’s comments written for the Süddeutschen Zeitung.
- For a contrary, indeed scathing, assessment of Kosslick’s reign up until 2004, see Olaf Möller’s Film Comment review of the 54th Berlinale. At one point, Möller writes: “The changes in Berlin’s structure, organization, and outlook became blatantly obvious at this year’s 54th edition. They’re all the more noteworthy because the Berlinale has finally become a true reflection of the German cinema establishment itself, where decisions by committee and middlebrow ambitions result in dreck like Rosenstrasse or Das Wunder von Bern and annoying nothings like Nowhere in Africa and Goodbye Lenin, our international successes of 2003.” While I take Möller’s argument to be an important and persuasive one, I think that his valid objections to the decidedly middlebrow quality of the Berlinale of the 21st century creates a critical blind-spot that prevents us from seeing that notwithstanding all this “dreck”, films by the “nouvelle vague Allemande” were in fact surprisingly well represented in the last five years, as the Berlinale program archives evidence.
- The third German film in the last five years that was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film was Caroline Link’s Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa) (2001); unlike the other two, Link’s film actually won the award.
- Germany periodically witnesses waves of films about the Third Reich. In addition to Downfall and Sophie Scholl, we can also name Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosenstrasse (2003), Dennis Gansel’s Napola (2004), and Volker Schlöndorff’s Der neunte Tag (The Ninth Day) (2004) as part of the most recent wave. These films are characterised by a sense of seriousness, if not flat-out misplaced veneration, as is the case with the Bernd Eichinger production Downfall. Perhaps a sign of the end of this current wave is the fact that Dani Levy, director of the successful German–Jewish comedy Alles auf Zucker! (Go for Zucker) (2005), is currently filming the Hitler-spoof Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler. According to Der Spiegel, the film, in the tradition of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), “takes a tongue-in-cheek look at Hitler’s final days and parodies both the dictator and recent portrayals of him such as the critically-acclaimed 2004 film Downfall.” According to Levy, himself Jewish, the film is supposed to function as an “‘anti-signal’ against films which he believes have put Hitler on too much of a pedestal.”
- See, for instance, Andreas Dresen’s Night Shapes (Nachgestalten) (1999) or Hannes Stöhr’s Berlin is in Germany (2001).
- Personal conversation, New York City, 19 December 2004.
- I take the term “cinema of consensus” from Eric Rentschler’s “From New German Cinema to the Post-Wall Cinema of Consensus” in Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie (eds), Cinema and Nation, Routledge, New York, 2000, pp. 260–277.
- Indeed, a quick perusal of the Berlinale online archives reveals that from its inception the “Perspektive” supported the very German directors that Nicodemus describes as that other, proper “we” to which the label “Berliner Schule” lends some conceptual consistency. I will say more about the label below.
- By my count, in 2001, the festival screened 51 German films; this year it offered 57, which is two fewer than last year’s peak of 59. Undoubtedly, the concept of national cinema is more problematic than I make it out to be. At least for the purposes of my discussion here, however, I let myself be guided by the festival’s official “Deutsche Filme” program that lists 56 films in its 2006 edition. The 57th German film screened was Heisenberg’s Sleeper. The film does not appear in the official program because it was a last-minute addition to the “German Cinema” series, probably in response to the film’s success at the Max Ophüls festival where it won the prestigious main prize just two weeks prior to the start of the Berlinale.
- Kosslick bumped up the number of German entries in the competition to four as early as 2002; before then, the festival included fewer homegrown products in its competition.
- I borrow the term “post-romance” from Antje Ascheid.
- German films did not go entirely empty-handed, however. The Silver Bears for best actor and actress went to Moritz Bleibtreu and Sandra Hüller for their performances in Elementary Particles and Requiem, respectively. As well, Jürgen Vogel was awarded a Silver Bear for best artistic contribution as actor in, as well as co-writer and co-producer of, Free Will.
- Hartz IV is the last phase of recommendations for the reform of the German labour market provided by a commission headed in 2002 by Peter Hartz, who was then the human resources executive of Volkswagen. Since then, Hartz IV has become a lightening rod in German politics, largely because these reforms significantly weakened the traditionally strong social security net of the German welfare state.
- Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2002.
- An anonymous attendee of the lectures tape-recorded the lectures. Karmakar and his team had them transcribed by various Arabic translators to ensure utmost accuracy of the translation.
- Mein Stern (Be My Star) (2001), her graduation film, was only about an hour long.
- Such a distance is not to be confused with the kind of distance between image and spectator that various schools of film theory advocate as a means to empower viewers’ critical facilities.