And there he is: perhaps not entirely unlike those famous bespectacled eyes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz-age novel The Great Gatsby (1925) that stare hauntingly down at passers-by from a massive billboard, beholding everything, almost godlike, so his eyes, framed by glasses that cover almost half of his fleshy visage, stare down from a massive screen at an only sparsely populated press preview at Potsdamer Platz, also almost godlike; and just as Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s otherwise disembodied eerie eyes advertising an “oculist” shop in one of modernism’s quintessential novels disturb the novel’s protagonists, so the decidedly embodied eyes confronting us at the screening of the opening film at the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) issue a double provocation: it is as if the close-up of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s face, the first image greeting viewers in François Ozon’s Peter von Kant, his homage to the Übervater of post-World War II German cinema, not only encapsulates the question of whether the movies will ever be able to recover from the ongoing pandemic and regain even a modicum of the global cultural significance they still enjoyed during Fassbinder’s heyday but also, more locally, challenges contemporary German cinema, 40 years after his untimely death, with an image personifying a kind of filmmaking that was still able to provoke its audience – one that mattered not just abroad but also at home in (West) Germany. 

Rainer Werner Fassbinder making Berlin Alexanderplatz

For whatever one might say about Fassbinder’s work, it did not leave people feeling indifferent: one loved or loathed his films (if not also the man), one argued about them and his public antics, in short: one had to have a position vis à vis his presence. The sheer force not just of his personality but also of his films, including of course Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972), could not be ignored.1 Can the same be said for “Fassbinder’s (grand)children” and their films? Do they make films that cannot be ignored?

Peter von Kant

Perhaps this is an unfair question, if only because (German) filmmakers are simply working in an entirely different context today than their predecessors did in the 1970s. They are, for example, no longer shaped to the same degree by Naziism and its post-World War II legacy in the West Germany of the so-called “economic miracle” years of the 1950s and 1960s as was Fassbinder’s generation; nor do they operate in an environment in which, during Fassbinder’s time, films had, relatively speaking, few competitors for people’s attention. Moreover, contemporary German filmmakers do not have the benefit of enjoying standing support of a television network with the help of which Fassbinder was able to churn out several movies a year (over 40 in merely 13 years): whereas it took him just months from scriptwriting to finished film, it often takes today’s filmmakers years before they can shoot a single film.2 And yet, the question remains: whither German film? The latest prominent attempt to confront this question head-on took place after the Berlinale in the context of the “Future German Cinema” initiative at the LICHTER Filmfest in Frankfurt, where filmmakers, intellectuals, and film industry representatives debated about “What we want – What we need!”3 Yet the fact that this question recurs with great regularity suggests that the (financial and aesthetic) problems confronting German cinema may well be intractable.

Writing this report belatedly, several months after the festival has ended, certainly does not make me feel overly optimistic either, for I now find myself struggling to recall most of the films I saw – which is not exactly a sign that individually or collectively they left a strong mark. If anything, I remember that I often felt dismayed by what I saw – not so much because I thought they were bad or incompetent films but because many of them struck me as, for lack of a better word, pointless, something that could certainly never be said about a Fassbinder movie.

Allow me to single out two examples, which I chose because they are by directors whose previous films had given me some hope for their most recent efforts. Zum Tod meiner Mutter (The Death of My Mother), Jessica Krummacher’s follow-up to her debut feature Totem (2011), depicts the slow process towards death that a terminally ill woman in palliative care, the 64-year-old Kerstin (Elsie de Brauw), undergoes after deciding that she would no longer accept any food and fluids. For well over two hours, the film observes how Kerstin’s daughter, Juliane (Birte Schnöink), witnesses her mother’s painfully slow demise and in the process gets very close to her. Hardly anything happens: a few former friends and family members stop by to reminisce, but that’s about it. 

The Death of My Mother

That Krummacher refuses to give this story the “Hollywood treatment” – i.e., an approach that doesn’t trust that a person’s decision to slowly starve and dehydrate themselves constitutes plenty of dramatic potential on its own – strikes me as ethically powerful. And it is noteworthy that few if any films have concerned themselves with such intensity with the passing of a human being’s final hours; yet the film does not find compelling formal means to transform this story into cinema. While at times uncomfortable to watch, the calm, mostly static long-take images, in which the dark red of the walls in Kerstin’s room dominate, do not infuse what transpires with any force that would enable the film to break through what felt to me like a hermetically sealed private world, notwithstanding moments when the issue of euthanasia (illegal in Germany) is broached or, in a more ironic vein, when Juliane is invited by friends to dinner at former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s favourite restaurant to “enjoy” his favourite meal: Saumagen (pig stomach). Perhaps I was still affected by jet lag and the need to rise early to undergo the daily COVID-test the Berlinale required of members of the press to attend the screenings; still, my sense is that The Death of My Mother could have as easily been a theatre play and, at best, is a television film – but it lacks precisely the cinematic ingenuity that allowed Fassbinder to transform his stage play, Petra von Kant, into a compelling cinematic melodrama that transcends the claustrophobic physical and psychic mise-en-scène of the Kammerspiel (chamber play) and instead assumes a powerful existence in social space.

A second example. Grand Jeté, the new film by Isabelle Stever, director of several prior films including Gisela (2005), which played at the 56th Berlinale,4 suffers from a similar problem, notwithstanding its formal strategies that are almost diametrically opposed to those of Krummacher’s film. Whereas the latter relies on images that offer virtually no visual interest and instead counts on the acting to carry the day, Stever films her incestuous mother-son drama in a 3:2 aspect ratio to induce in us a sense of (visual) constraint. Complementing this decision is the relentless use of extreme closeups of body parts: shot with a handheld camera that is constantly moving and frequently approaches the protagonists from behind or below, above or sideways, without any establishing shots, they are designed to be in our face, to make viewers viscerally share in the obvious pain to which the protagonists were or are subjected (whether they be images of Nadja’s severely bruised feet, which is the price she had to pay for all those years during which she disciplined her body in order to become a successful ballet dancer, or of her son who competes against other young men to find out whose penis can hold up the longest a significant weight hanging from it). Often chaotic and seemingly intent on assaulting our sense perceptions, Stever’s images work hard to induce in viewers a sensation of being violated to match the physical and emotional pain to which Nadja subjected herself to perform seemingly impossible bodily feats of grace.

Based on a novel, Grand Jeté is not satisfied with merely being a film about the experience of extreme bodily pain. All too typical for German film productions, it instead overloads the story by also making it about incest – specifically, between Nadja (Sarah Grether) and her son Mario (Emil von Schönfels), who was raised by his grandmother so that Nadja could pursue her career as a ballerina but with whom she now gradually seeks to reconnect. Obsessed with her own (damaged) body, she is fascinated by her son’s impressively healthy, buffed-up physique, itself the result of a disciplined workout routine. Soon she begins to touch him in ways that become “inappropriately” intimate. 

Grand Jeté

I place inappropriately in quotation marks precisely because it is obvious that Stever’s intention is not to judge Nadja and Mario; this is in line with her previous films, including Gisela and Das Wetter in geschlossenen Räumen (The Weather Inside, 2015), also a film focusing on a middle-aged woman and a considerably younger man. But notwithstanding the film’s obvious desire to push our (moral) buttons, to transgress norms (tellingly, in the film’s press kit, Stever identifies Christoph Schlingensief and Charles Bukowski, among others, as “role models”), Grand Jeté ultimately falls flat. Just as with Krummacher’s film, I found myself wondering what it wants from its audience, why I should care. The film (purposefully, I think) does not afford us the chance to identify with either of the protagonists: we simply do not get to know them well enough. To be sure: refusing the cinema of identification is not a bad thing in my book; but to successfully pull off such a refusal would have required Stever to find other ways of making viewers invest themselves in the story, and it seems as if the violation of the incest taboo is supposed to accomplish this. I doubt, however, that it does because the topic of incest is considerably less transgressive today than it might have been during Fassbinder’s time – notwithstanding the fact that the dynamic in Stever’s film between a middle-aged mother and her on-the-brink-of-adulthood son is relatively unexplored cinematic territory that surely has great potential for filmmakers to explore further. (This isn’t to say incest is socially, let alone legally, anywhere near being acceptable; but in the context of film history, incest has long lost the capacity to be truly transgressive, not least due to the numerous films on the topic preceding Stever’s, including Louis Malle’s Le souffle au coeur (Murmur of the Heart, 1971), Andrew Birkin’s The Cement Garden (1993), Tom Kalin’s Savage Grace (2007), which is based on a true story about a wealthy socialite and her schizophrenic son, or for that matter Fassbinder’s Wildwechsel (Jail Bait, 1971), which caused a considerable scandal in West Germany in the early 1970s because of both its depiction of an illicit relationship between a 19-year-old man and 13-year-old girl and the clear suggestion that her father also harbours sexual desires for her.)

But perhaps the primary reason I think Grand Jeté does not work is unintentionally expressed by the director herself when, in an interview included in the press kit, she states that the film is about “the search for happiness and freedom and the way to yourself, without being held back by external circumstances or guidelines.” Fair enough. But the film leaves the external circumstances or guidelines – i.e., the social reality in which these characters exist – so vague that the stakes of this rather bourgeois fight for personal fulfillment, for feeling authentic, remain unclear. In a way, the film remains as hermetically sealed as The Death of My Mother, severed from a larger sense of social circumstances that have impacted the protagonists to behave the way they do and to be who they are. Both films struck me as solipsistic, uninterested in the larger world – and I don’t think this is the kind of cinema, German or otherwise, that we need today.

A far more successful film focusing on the (albeit non-incestual) relationship between an older woman, an actor who is no longer getting many offers to perform, and a considerably younger man, who is still in high school, is Nicolette Krebitz’s A E I O UDas schnelle Alphabet der Liebe (A E I O UA Quick Alphabet of Love). A romantic comedy about an “impossible” love, the film’s plot matters much less than the wonderful nonchalance with which Krebitz sketches the unlikely couple’s story, which takes them from Berlin to the south of France. Their story commences when, improbably, Adrian (Milan Herms) seeks out Anna (Sophie Rois, great as always) to receive speech lessons after their initial encounter with which the film commences: Adrian steals Sophie’s handbag but is ultimately caught by a young couple witnessing the crime. When Anna meets her mugger again in her apartment, she recognises him because she recalls his scent from the moment when he bumped into her on the street to rip her bag away from her. In other words, the film establishes from the start Anna as a sensuous being, as a woman who craves sensuality notwithstanding the normative cultural expectations of women of a certain age. Yet what makes Krebitz’s film so delightful is precisely that she does not feel compelled to foreground the supposedly transgressive nature of such a relationship, nor to justify Anna’s actions with recourse to the logic of authenticity. Rather than letting her film be weighed down by adding to the alleged “problem” of her protagonists’ age difference, Krebitz instead subtracts any sense of significance from her film – and this is, paradoxically, what lends it political import. A summer fantasy, A E I O U casually both normalises sexual desires of women who have been rendered asexual by mainstream cinema and reverses mainstream cinema’s conventions of having normalised (to devastating social effects) relationships between (often powerful) older men and considerably younger women. A #MeToo movie without didacticism, A E I O U spells its “message” out for us without ever getting beyond the most sensuous of the five vowels: Anna and Adrian never get beyond A, as they are too busy exploring all its intensities, in so doing simply forgetting about any norms and instead rejoicing in their carefree refusal of the very sense of propriety with which Grand Jeté relentlessly hammers its viewers on the head.

A E I O U – A Quick Alphabet of Love

A worthy, albeit radically different, follow-up to her astonishing Wild (2015), which concerns the intimate relationship a young woman forges with a wolf, A E I O U evokes films such as Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) or 1980s films with John Cusack, grand gestures and all, not to mention classic French New Wave films; in the German context, however, I think it is important to mention the films of the so-called New Munich Group of the mid- to late-1960s – a group of filmmakers (Klaus Lemke, Rudolf Thome, Max Zihlmann, the duo May Spils and Werner Enke, Roger Fritz, and Martin Müller) who filtered their education in classic Hollywood movies through their encounter with the early French New Wave and proceeded to make films that are among the lightest and most delightful in German film history. That they have largely been forgotten is directly relevant to Krebitz’s film, insofar as hers is one promising example of how the New Munich Group’s largely ignored legacy and unrealised potential (including its proto feminism) can be actualised in updated form more than half a century after their heyday.

Another promising way forward for German cinema might be the films directors such as Max Linz and Julian Radlmaier make – films that in Germany have been labelled “discourse cinema.” The latter premiered his brilliant Blutsauger (BloodsuckersA Marxist Vampire Company, 2021) at last year’s festival (which due to COVID took only place online), and the former was present at this year’s festival with L’état et moi.5 L’état et moi is a hard-to-classify film, as it crosses genres and happily merges slapstick, linguistic puns, mix-ups, unrealistic coincidences, among other stylistic elements, which cumulatively are mobilised to raise questions about class and capitalism in a story that focuses on a composer called Hans List (Sophie Rois, great as always in both this role of a male composer and that of a female judge), who fought in the Paris Commune in 1871 and now travels, improbably, as a sans papiers through the posh environs of contemporary Berlin where one of his compositions is rehearsed at the venerable Berlin State Opera. L’état et moi self-reflexively reveals how cultural production in the age of neoliberalism and its “soft” deployment of power is always a question of class struggle – a heady political topic that nevertheless is never burdened by the heaviness of the kind of pedagogical impetuses that all too often characterise German film productions.6 Instead, like Krebitz’s film – notwithstanding their considerable differences – Linz’s film seduced me because of its witty playfulness, because it gave me the feeling of watching something that despite its headiness was seemingly made en passant, as if on a whim – a feeling that is perfectly rendered sensible when Sophie Rois sings towards the end, “Mag sein dass ich verloren habe / doch Rot bleibt eine schöne Farbe” (it’s possible that I lost / but red remains a beautiful colour). The affective intensity of the utopian political dream and the struggle for its realisation lingers on, thereby maintaining the potential for its future actualisation, one that is not just a matter of politics but also aesthetics – or rather: a political matter that is precisely a matter of aesthetics (in Jacques Rancière’s sense, whose work is an important interlocutor for these “discourse-cinema” directors).7

L’état et moi

Philip Scheffner’s Europe, which together with Cem Kaya’s Ask Mark Ve Ölüm / Liebe, D-Mark und Tod (Ask Mark Ve Ölüm / Love, Deutschmarks and Death) was the best of the documentaries I saw, also concerns itself with the reality of being sans papiers. Both films are well worth seeking out. Unlike more traditional documentaries such as the rather pedestrian Eine deutsche Partei (A German Party) about Germany’s right-wing populist party AfD (Alternative for Germany), which is of interest mostly due to the access director Simon Brückner managed to get to some of the party’s local and national politicians, or Vera Brückner’s Sorry Genosse (Sorry Comrade) about a real-life across-the-Iron-Curtain love story, which has its charms but does not really add anything new to what by now, over 30 years after the fall of the wall, is fairly well-trodden territory (at least for German viewers), Kaya’s and Scheffner’s films manage to surprise, whether due to the subject matter (in Kaya’s case) or the film’s form (in Scheffner’s). 

Ask Mark Ve Ölüm tells for the first time the astonishing story of the unique music culture Turkish immigrants created over several generations since Turkish immigration to West Germany started in 1961 as a result of a labour recruitment treaty between the two countries – an agreement that, from the perspective of West Germany, was meant to lead to temporary support of its booming economy but resulted in the permanent presence in Germany of those who, as Fatih Akin’s documentary once put it, “forgot to return home” (Denk ich an DeutschlandWir haben vergessen zurückzukehren / When I Think of GermanyWe Forgot to Return Home, 2003). Feeling unwelcomed by their West German “hosts” who did not (and often still do not) want to have anything to do with their “guests” while also becoming increasingly strangers in their home country, the original immigrants from Turkey and their (grand)children forged through the creation of a music culture that is singular to their experience as strangers in a strange land an affective space of identity and belonging.

Aşk, Mark ve Ölüm | Love, Deutschmarks and Death

Ask Mark Ve Ölüm shows the remarkable diversity of music and music scenes that developed over six decades but that has remained to this day largely unknown to the majoritarian population in Germany, even though some of these brilliant musicians sold millions of copies of their music. Seeing the film in one of the few sold-out screenings I attended was a rare treat at this year’s Berlinale, which for the most part felt like a ghost town.8 The excitement the audience felt during and after the screening was palpable, with people laughing at the right moments, moving their bodies in their seats in rhythm with the tunes, and clapping in unison when the credits rolled. A festival highlight!

A very different and decidedly less upbeat story is documented by Philipp Scheffner, whose previous documentaries include Havarie (2016), for which he stretched a YouTube clip from a mere two and a half minutes into a feature-length film showing refugees on a jam-packed boat crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. One of them was Rhim Ibrir, who came to France to get medical treatment.9 Europe tells her story in a formally ingenious way, allowing a more straightforward documentary naturalism to transition into a narrative mode of “state enforced fiction”: since Rhim (named Zohra in Europe), as we eventually learn, has been denied the right to stay in France after she recovered her physical health resulting from the treatment she received there, she is rendered essentially invisible by the state, for whom she no longer exists (other than as “illegal immigrant”). It is at this moment that Scheffner’s mise-en-scène literally excludes her, thereby prompting viewers both to question whether Zohra/Rhim has been deported and to interrogate their stance towards her seeming deportation – with the primary addressees perhaps being especially those European viewers whose genealogy hearkens back to generations of ancestors who colonised Africa.


The film’s latter parts, which look “artificial,” in fact precisely render Rhim’s actual experience after she learned that the French state considered her a persona non grata; in turn, the “naturalistic” opening sequences render sensible the life she (momentarily) was denied but, through her employment by the film’s production, as Scheffner explained in interviews, was able to regain. Impressively, Scheffner and his co-writer Merle Kröger (and, it must be stressed, Ms. Ibrir and other people from the community of the residency block giving the film its name also contributed to the final script) tell Rhim’s story – and the story of contemporary neo-colonial Europe – in images that match the protagonist’s almost Zen-like composure: just as each frame quietly yet precisely positions us in relation to Zohra-cum-Rhim and her presence/absence or in/visibility, so the film’s (fictional/real) subject always remains calm, even when we would expect her to “act out” in dramatic fashion. One can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Rhim – a non-professional actor – to revisit, to re-enact, what must have been an utterly traumatising moment in her life. Regardless of how she “truly” responded upon being told by the French bureaucracy that her request to have her residency permit renewed was denied, it is the film’s aesthetic decision not to cater to the kind of “psychological realism” shaped by a certain history of movies depicting (common) people under duress that ultimately compels viewers to pose questions about “our” culpability, especially those of us who are citizens of a biopolitical European regime of governmentality in which the state exercises its power through the right to make live and let die, as Michel Foucault once famously put it. 

Crucially, Europe refuses the documentary form’s re-presentational tendency (and its penchant to “speak for” its subjects) and instead empowers Rhim Ibrir to fabulate (rather than re-present) herself, letting her counter the state-enforced fiction with a counter-fiction, fabulating an ever-so-slightly refracted version of herself in ways that do not really permit viewers to discern where her “true” persona ends and her “fictionalized character” begins. With Gilles Deleuze, we might say that Europe’s aesthetic strategies result in the film grasping not so much the “identity of a character, whether real or fictional, through [her] objective and subjective aspects,” “but the becoming of the real character when [she herself] starts to ‘make fiction,’ when [she] enters into the ‘flagrant offense of making up legends’ and so contributes to the invention of [her] people” – the becoming-people of the sans papiers, as it were, precisely in the aesthetic interstices of neo-colonial state bureaucracy.10 By rendering the boundary between truth/fiction indiscernible precisely by centring Rhim without turning her into an aesthetic object, Europe avoids perpetuating a liberal documentary attitude that is predicated on positing a pre-existing truth that, however, “necessarily expresses the dominant ideas or the point of view” of those defining the terms of cultural and political discourse and, in a way, delimiting what lives are and are not permissible to imagine.

In this precise regard, Europe is a considerably more powerful film than, for example, Andreas Dresen’s Rabiye Kurnaz gegen George W. Bush (Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush), which uses (in admittedly entertaining and at times moving ways) comedy conventions in order to tell once more the (in Germany) relatively well-known story of Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish national living in Germany who, though innocent, was held and tortured for half a decade in extrajudicial detention at Guantanamo Bay. Focusing on his mother, Rabiye (Meltem Kaptan’s terrific performance earned her the best actor award), the film dramatizes her fight to free her son, which ultimately involved a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that set the stage for Kurnaz’s eventual release. 

Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush

Rarely transcending the conventions of a well-made television movie, the film ends up presenting an affirmative humanist message that another liberal filmmaker, Robert Redford, once precisely formulated in The Company You Keep (2012) when one of the film’s minor characters lectures his college students that pace Marx(ism) history is “made by human effort and action and passion” – an ideological affirmation of humanist but also neoliberalist dogma that could easily serve as an epigraph for Dresen’s film and career.11 The problem with this view is not so much that it is wrong – of course, human effort is important! – but that its unproblematised affirmation tends to substitute for the considerably more insidious systemic logic of (neo)colonialism the humanist gospel of individualism without rendering sensible for viewers how the latter is the ideological fuel that runs the engine of neoliberal governmentality, a regime of power in which the “free” humanist subject is always already subjected to the very conditions of possibility that enable and constrain the efforts championed by Dresen and Redford. Rabiye allows viewers to feel good about themselves, for at no moment is it in doubt on whose side we are supposed to be, nor on whose side we are; Europe, in contrast, not only leaves Zohra’s/Rhim’s fate unresolved but also demands of its viewers – which, one can surmise, are imagined to be well-educated and liberal – to interrogate their own participation in the majoritarian production of the state-sanctioned fiction that renders subjects such as Rhim invisible and thus precarious while maintaining the appearance of humanistic liberalism.

No report about the latest crop of German films can be complete without also discussing films that explicitly engage the country’s historical legacy of atrocity. Too often, such films cast the past as past, thereby allowing contemporary German viewers to distance themselves from the historical crimes that that they are explicitly invited to behold from a morally superior subject position. It is to the great credit of the filmmakers of Echo, Schweigend steht der Wald (The Silent Forest), and Alle reden übers Wetter (Talking about the Weather) that their films avoid this ethical trap – and they manage to do so because they are less Historienfilme (films about Germany’s past) than films about the present or, rather, about the force the past exerts in the present. 

Of these three films, I would say that Mareike Wegener’s Echo is perhaps the least successful, if only because it tries to do too much, as a result of which it loses steam in the film’s second half. A film about personal and historical trauma and individual and collective (wilful) repression, it repeatedly confronts its protagonists with echoes of their and their culture’s history, which is also to say: with the return of that which can never be completely repressed. In proliferating characters who suffer from a range of personal traumas that the film then explicitly and implicitly, and at times too symbolically, links with German history – whether Naziism or Germany’s (reluctant) engagement in Afghanistan – the film does not quite manage to strike a balance between the heaviness of its topic and the lightness of the quirky comedy (think village cops), not to mention the transcendent beauty of the images of the last wild horses on the European continent that at one time gallopingly traverse the frame, as if they were relics from an era before humans ever settled Germany’s northern plains and left its deadly legacies (in form of bombs that have not yet been defused) behind.


Saralisa Volm’s debut feature, The Silent Forest, which like Echo is set in rural Germany, strikes the balance between genre filmmaking and historical topoi more successfully, not least because its story is more narrowly focused. Upon her work-related return to the very region in which her father disappeared when she was only eight years old, a forestry student (Henriette Confurius) accidentally uncovers intimations of violent secrets that the Bavarian villagers had long hoped to have buried but that, like the undead in horror films, keep haunting the perpetrators and their families. A mystery-thriller with horror-genre elements, Volm’s film astutely links post-unified Germany to its past crimes, which notwithstanding a long history of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (working through of the past) have not ceased to impact the present. Connecting the so-called death marches of concentration camp inmates at the end of World War II to an impoverished Bavarian village’s struggle for economic survival (in 1979) by any means necessary (specifically, by trying to turn its forest into a Disney-inspired fairy-tale forest), to the crime’s discovery in the story’s post-unified present (in 1999), to, ultimately, our contemporary moment, Volm, who has acted in several films by Klaus Lemke, successfully mobilises genre conventions to pose questions about justice and guilt without overloading the narrative with a moralising message.

The Silent Forest

The most compelling fiction film I saw at this year’s festival is, however, Annika Pinske’s debut feature, Alle reden übers Wetter (Talking About the Weather) – a film that quite brilliantly stages the ongoing difficulties contemporary Germany has with how the country’s unification was manufactured over three decades ago. The film focuses on Clara (Anne Schäfer), a 39-year-old philosophy Ph.D. student in Berlin who returns in the film’s second half to her provincial, working-class roots in East Germany for her mother’s 60th birthday. Organised around a series of binaries – the metropolis of Berlin vs. the East German provinces; the bourgeois academic elite vs. working class folks; a feminist desire for self-determination (professionally and privately) vs. family obligations; liberty vs. constraint; West Germany vs. East Germany some 30 some years after the fall of the wall – Talking About the Weather nevertheless abstains from taking sides and never gets lost in these abstractions. Instead, true to its title, which refers to the banal chitchat to which people have recourse when they don’t have much to say to each other or, more to the point, when they do not know how to talk with each other because of the affectively felt distance separating them (even a mother and her daughter) as a result of different social biographies, the film locates the larger socio-political struggle in the everyday, in the routine or banal activities and interactions of its protagonists. 

Talking About the Weather

The divorced mother of a teenage daughter, Clara is keenly aware that the degree to which she is not from and will never quite belong to the elite academic milieu the film deliciously skewers is equal to the measure by which she is also no longer part of her original social environment, unlike her mother, relatives, and former lover whom she all left behind when deciding to pursue her own intellectual pursuits in the big city. It is precisely by affirming this measure of difference that characterises Clara in relation to both her past and present, the country and the city, the working class and the bourgeoisie, East and West, that Talking About the Weather manages to render sensible how specifically the personal is the political, how the private sphere is a matter of socialisation, and how any sense of individual authenticity is less a matter of engaging in (allegedly) norm-busting behaviour than of critically reflecting on the very perspective from which one encounters one’s surroundings. Clara’s hard-won ability to do just this prevents her from becoming nostalgic for an allegedly purer experience of community (frequently associated with East Germany, including in many films about the former East) as much as it empowers her not to be blind to the emotional and social cost involved in joining a class to which she does not “organically” belong and that quite possibly will never fully accept her because of the fact that she comes from the East, that she is working class, and – a point that is crucial to Clara and Annika Pinske – that she is a woman in a male-dominated (academic) world.

And while Talking About the Weather has aesthetically nothing in common with either Fassbinder’s cinema or Ozon’s homage to it, the astuteness with which Pinske offers a multifaceted diagnosis of interpersonal and social dynamics that affect an individual’s sense of identity and belonging nevertheless reminded me of the tenor of Fassbinder’s overall project. In this sense, I like to think of the concluding image of Ozon’s Peter von Kant in which Fassbinder (Denis Ménochet) is seen looking out of his apartment’s window, his gaze following his much-abused servant Karl (Stefan Crepon, acting the part Irm Hermann had in the original) who appears to be leaving him for good. Fassbinder smiles – as if in response to the challenge his gaze seems to issue at the film’s start: maybe there is a future for German cinema after all.


  1. A wonderful retrospective at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany, “Methode Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Eine Retrospektive,” which was organised to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his death, powerfully communicated just this point. Readers interested in Fassbinder can explore the retrospective via a terrific German-language book of the same name.
  2. Note, for example, that even well-established filmmakers such as Christoph Hochhäusler, one of the key directors associated with the so-called Berlin School, has not been able to make a film since 2014 (and many other Berlin School filmmakers, widely acknowledged as the most important group of German directors since the New German Cinema of Fassbinder’s generation, suffer a similar fate). Hochhäusler is only now making a new film, after having had several projects at various stages of development since the release of Die Lügen der Sieger (The Lies of Others, 2014) that ultimately were not greenlit. For more on Hochhäusler, see my interviews with him in Senses of Cinema 42 (2007) and Cineaste 41.1 online (2015). For more on the Berlin School, see my The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Camden House, 2013).
  3. https://lichter-filmfest.de/en. Lars Henrik Gass, the director of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, penned a review of these efforts that does not give much cause for optimism: https://www.filmdienst.de/artikel/54514/lars-henrik-gass-kongress-zukunft-deutscher-film.
  4. For my report, see Senses of Cinema 39 (2006).
  5. For brief discussions of their previous Berlinale entries – Radlemaier’s Selbstkritik eines bürgerlichen Hundes (Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog, 2017) and Linz’s Weitermachen Sanssouci (Music and Apocalypse, 2019) – see my festival reports in, respectively, Senses of Cinema 82 (2017) and 90 (2019).
  6. Suffice to say here that this tendency is the result of Germany’s public television-based film funding system.
  7. Radlemaier, for example, has translated into German Rancière’s book on Béla Tarr.
  8. Industry professionals and members of the press remained largely absent from the festival due to ongoing COVID-concerns, which resulted in a festival experience that was both pleasantly relaxing – no lines! – and buzz-less, which I think negatively impacted the films’ overall reception, since often even mediocre films tend to benefit from hundreds of people immediately engaging in lively discussions of what they saw.
  9. For a discussion of recent documentaries about refugees, see Joy Castro’s “‘The People Are Missing’: New Refugee Documentaries and Carceral Humanitarianism,” Senses of Cinema 90 (March 2019).
  10. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (University of Minneapolis Press, 1989): 145.
  11. For more on Dresen’s work, see my interview with him in Senses of Cinema 50 (2009).

About The Author

Marco Abel is Willa Cather Professor of English and Film Studies and chair of the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is the author of The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Camden House, 2013), which won the 2014 German Studies Association Book Prize, and Violent Affect: Literature, Cinema, and Critique After Representation (University of Nebraska Press, 2007); the co-editor with Chris Wahl, Michael Wedel, and Jesko Jockenhoevel of Im Angesicht des Fernsehens: Der Filmemacher Dominik Graf (text + kritik, 2010), with Jaimey Fisher of The Berlin School and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art-Cinema (Wayne State University Press, 2018), with Christina Gerhardt, of Celluloid Revolt: German Screen Cultures and the Long 1968 (Camden House, 2019), and with Jaimey Fisher and Aylin Bademsoy of Christian Petzold: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2023). He has also published numerous essays on post-unification German cinema and interviews with German film directors in journals such as Cineaste, German Studies Review, New German Critique, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and Senses of Cinema, as well as in a number of edited volumes on German cinema history. With Roland Végső, he is the co-editor of the book series Provocations (University of Nebraska Press). He is currently working on his third monograph, Mit Nonchalance am Abgrund: Das Kino der ‘Neuen Münchner Gruppe’ (1964 – 1972), which is under contract with transcript Verlag (Germany) and likely to be published in 2024.

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