Papas Kino (Daddy’s Cinema) was the derogatory term applied to the post-war West German films that reproduced the conventions of movies made in the fascist era. The so-called Heimatfilm (“homeland movie”) in particular developed into a hugely popular genre in the 1950s, equivalent to the American Western. As Anton Kaes notes in his seminal From Hitler to Heimat, the more than three hundred films of this sort released in this decade “painted an unabashedly idealized, nostalgic picture” of the country, replete with “cliché-ridden, Agfa-coloured images of German forests, landscapes, and customs.”1 With the German economy flourishing again some ten years after the end of the cataclysmic war, most West Germans deemed it wise to ignore the traumatic past, for “looking back would have […] slowed down the progress.”2

In 1962, twenty-six young filmmakers and journalists launched the Oberhausen Manifesto to express their dissatisfaction with a cinema that had hardly distanced itself from Nazi entertainment films. They claimed that the time had come to circumvent the legacy of fascist cinema by creating new content, new forms and styles. Exemplary in this regard is Nicht versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt, wo Gewalt herrscht (Not Reconciled, Jean-Marie Straub, 1965), in which the youngest son cannot come to terms with the present because the spectre of fascism, in his view, still haunts the 1960s. Wishful thinking or not, Straub tried to combat this spectre by introducing alienating effects as an antidote to the cinematic diversions of the Nazi era. His Not Reconciled is characterised by a static camera, non-professional actors who explicitly “quote” lines, written texts on title cards, and unmarked flashbacks.3

The impact of the avant-garde films of the 1960s, however, was relatively limited in comparison to the so-called Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Cinema) of the 1970s. The figureheads of this movement tried to adopt certain narrative principles while looking for stylistic inspiration beyond the fascist aesthetic. Wim Wenders was fascinated by the American genre films of John Ford, Samuel Fuller, and Nicholas Ray; Rainer Werner Fassbinder was intrigued by the mise-en-scène found in the melodramas of Douglas Sirk; Werner Herzog explored a connection with the silent cinema of F. W. Murnau, who died before Hitler’s rise to power. If Hitler was addressed at all, as with the monumental Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland (Hitler: A Film from Germany, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, 1977), he was represented as an “empty vessel,” at once a “nothing” and an “everything.”4 The “Hitler” in this film plays a great number of roles: house painter, raving maniac, “Charlie Chaplin”, the child killer in Fritz Lang’s M, to name just a few. The many roles were meant to cast Hitler as an “impossible” character on screen, outside the category of human beings.

But from this period – the late 1970s – onwards, German filmmakers began urgently to “challenge the repression of the past.”5 The trigger for a turn to the dark pages of one’s own history came from outside, for it was propelled by the “overwhelmingly emotional outpourings” elicited by the four-part American miniseries Holocaust (1978).6 The response was far from unanimous, but with Holocaust “some sort of dam had burst” among both the general public and German filmmakers. A few of the latter attempted to radically break with conventional cinema in the vein of Straub – Harun Farocki among them. Fassbinder, for his part, excelled in revelling in ironic excess in Nazi kitsch, most markedly in Lili Marleen (1980). But the most common strategy was what Thomas Elsaesser dubbed the “work of mourning.”7 Several filmmakers reflected upon the ways “ordinary people” had experienced separation and loss during the fascist era as well as in its aftermath. Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, Volker Schlöndorff, 1979), which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, was about angry young Oskar (David Bennent), a boy who has stopped growing out of frustration with the crazy adult world. Containing a number of grotesque scenes, this drama sketches how Oskar and his family cope with the atrocities of war. In The Patriotin (The Patriot, Alexander Kluge, 1979), the history teacher Gabi Teichert (Hannelore Hoger) frantically digs with a spade in German ground during the post-war years, in expectation that the objects she discovers will shed light on the past. Deutschland bleiche Mutter (Germany Pale Mother, Helma Sanders-Brahms, 1980), by highlighting memories of the war from a female perspective, “turned to the home and found fascism around the family dinner table.”8 The highly influential Heimat – Ein Chronik in elf Teilen (Heimat, A Chronicle of Germany, Edgar Reitz, 1984), a series running over 15 hours, presented the developments and misfortunes to befall a German village from 1919 to 1982.

The Tin Drum

For some filmmakers, it seemed as if certain sinister ghosts had been exorcised thanks to this cautious work of mourning performed in these pivotal years between 1978 and 1984. This process would ultimately enable increasingly more realistic depictions of the perpetrators in German cinema, of which Die Wannseekonferenz (The Conference, Matti Geschonneck, 2022), a reconstruction of the notorious gathering of Nazi leaders instituting the Final Solution as policy in 1942, is a recent example. Significantly, Hitler is to a (too) great extent “normalised” in Der Untergang (Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004), represented as a “human” with angry outbursts by Bruno Ganz, which thanks to YouTube parodies would become the source for many an internet meme. Or, as in the comedy Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back, David Wnendt, 2015), we find Hitler transformed into a hilarious, charming guy (played by Oliver Masucci). By contrast, Saralisa Volm’s debut feature Schweigend steht der Wald (The Silent Forest, 2022), which premiered at the Berlinale, is better placed in the tradition of Kluge, Sanders-Brahms, and Reitz. Indeed, the protagonist of Volm’s film, the forestry student Anja Grimm (Henriette Confurius), can even be considered a “niece” of the self-declared “patriot” Gabi in Kluge’s 1979 film mentioned above. But whereas Gabi is an amateur archaeologist, believing she can come to “grasp” the past only by literally touching objects,9 Anja is an intern in forestry whose task is to map the soil of Bavarian woods. In the end, Kluge’s The Patriot, a hybrid of documentary and fiction with fragmentary scenes, voiceover commentary, and intertitles, is more experimental than the mystery thriller The Silent Forest. But the two films subscribe to the idea that one has to dig for the remnants of the past in order to gain historical knowledge.

Zebra Hunting

Saralisa Volm had first been a writer, producer, and actress before directing her first feature film. The opening shot of The Silent Forest, an adaptation of Wolfram Fleischhauer’s Schweigend steht der Wald (2013), is the reverse of a famous shot from Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986). Lynch’s film starts with idyllic images of small-town America: friendly waving firemen, colourful flowers, white picket fences. Jeffrey’s father (Jack Harvey) is watering the green lawn when he suddenly falls to the ground, hand grasping his neck. We do not know whether he has been bitten by an insect bite or has suffered a stroke. Soon the camera zooms in to the ground and underneath the grass we see bugs in extreme close-up, their audible buzzing becoming louder and louder. In Blue Velvet, this shot heralds the entrance into a universe no longer protected by the “good” father. After Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a cut-off ear in a forest, the camera zooms into the ear and thus enters a world dominated by the hypermasculine psychopath Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). The movie’s universe is all the more uncanny due to the film’s remarkable sound design. All the perverse adventures depicted seem to end when the psychopath is killed, which more or less coincides with the moment when Jeffrey’s father returns from the hospital. His health remains weak, though, and we see a robin eating a bug, indicating that the restored order is still fragile.

Volm’s The Silent Forest starts with worms in extreme close-up, crawling in the earth. Unlike Blue Velvet, the camera does not zoom in but slowly zooms out. The 28-year-old Anja is doing her job in the forest to the accompaniment of the soundtrack’s creepy sounds, which arise as soon as the camera provides an extreme close-up of what initially seems to be an ear. As the camera zooms out, however, the object turns out to be a wilted white arum. Then Anja is almost run over by a truck; the driver asks her whether she is deaf. This prologue raises two questions: Is Anja deaf to the clearly audible sounds because she is too focused on the “noise” of the silent forest? And what does the reversal of the bugs-shot from Blue Velvet tell us about the generation of fathers in Volm’s film?

The story of The Silent Forest is set in 1999 in the Upper Palatinate, a region in Bavaria in southern Germany known for its low mountains and a forest with deep valleys. The film is structured against the background of a form of historical amnesia which is explained in the final text before the end credits. This text, originally in German, runs as follows:

When the Nazis disbanded the concentration camps, shortly before the end of the war in 1945, thousands of prisoners perished on death marches across Bavaria. Their murderers were German soldiers who had orders to cover up traces. Civilians from the surrounding villages participated in the murders and tried to cover up their deeds for a long time after the war. Bones are still found in the Upper Palatinate to this day.

In the beginning of Volm’s film, Anja does not know about these mass graves, but she hopes that anomalies in the forest soil will help her find her father’s body. On 18 August 1979, the teacher Johannes Grimm, who had gone hiking in the woods, was reported missing. Anja is under the assumption that Xaver Leybach (Christoph Jungmann) is the perpetrator responsible for Grimm’s death, and we have good reason to think she is on the right track. We have seen how this bearded 63-year-old man, widely known as the local “madman,” threatened Anja with his shotgun when she started digging in the area of the Haingries. Moreover, that very same day, he smashes his mother’s skull and ends up incarcerated in a mental institution. It seems obvious who the Frank Booth of this story will turn out to be.

Anja swimming laps in the local pool is crosscut with scenes in which Xaver is taken to the bathroom in the psychiatric facility. At the very moment Xaver breaks the mirror and cuts his throat with a shard, Anja gasps for breath in the pool, as if beset by some intuition of the tragic incident. Perhaps she is endowed with a “sixth sense,” as one character remarks at one point in the film, and it seems that she is beginning to doubt Xaver’s guilt. Gradually, a different picture is sketched out in bits and pieces. Pressured by her son Rupert (Noah Saavedra) – a peer of Anja – Waltraud Gollas (Johanna Bittenbinder), Xaver’s sister, admits that his uncle was the typical fall guy. It was their own mother Anna (Astrid Polak) who had killed the teacher, with the consent of many civilians, the then police inspector Gustav Dallmann (August Zirner) among them. The teacher was murdered the same week in August 1979 when the Italian president, Sandro Pertini, was to meet the head of the Bavarian government, Franz Josef Strauss, for a memorial service at the site of the Flossenbürg concentration camp. Gustav had to see to it that any possible disturbance of this event would be prevented. Many citizens were fearful that the teacher would discover traces of the mass graves. They had participated in “zebra hunting”, beating to death many prisoners from the camp who had hid in the forest. Xaver had been too young to participate but, as his sister Waltraud says, he “had to watch it, for his education, they said.” Always a bit screwy due to this childhood trauma, Xaver had been locked up by Gustav during Pertini’s visit in 1979 as a precaution, since a madman, according to the former police inspector, is always suspicious.

Anja learns of Rupert’s plans to construct a tourist attraction in the forest. He has obtained a bank loan to build a fairy-tale theme park, and Anja, in an ironic tone, wishes him good luck. During the night she visits the place in the woods where Rupert, his father Franz (Johannes Herrschmann), and Gustav have started building the theme park. Bones of the concentration camp victims are scattered all over when they lay the cement. Gustav, discovering that Anja is nearby, takes out his gun and aims it at her, watched by Rupert and Gustav’s son Konrad (Robert Stadlober), his father’s successor as police inspector. Konrad points his weapon at his father, who says, in an aggrieved tone: “It is for the likes of you we’ve done all that.” Gustav ignores his son and, in a point-of-view shot of Anja, shoots directly at the camera. The screen goes black for some seconds. Hence, more than anyone else Gustav is the evil man in The Silent Forest, but rather than an outrageous Frank Booth, he is the equivalent of Sergeant Williams, the police inspector in Blue Velvet whom we never know what to make of. This sergeant seems to be on Jeffrey’s side in Lynch’s film, but it could also be that he is strategically disguising his affinities with Frank Booth, akin to his colleague, the mysterious “Yellow Man,” who we know has been seen in the company of the psychopath.

The Silent Forest

Slow dissolves and tracking shots

The most strategic device of The Silent Forest is the frequent punctuation of new episodes by tracking shots or top-down shots of the dark Bavarian woods. Such shots are far from arbitrary, since German mythology has been associated with forests as far back as antiquity, according to the historian Simon Schama in his study Landscape and Memory. Obsessed with myths of their origins, the National Socialists went to great pains in the 1930s to have the Codex Aesinas Latinus 8 be brought from Italy to the Fatherland, though their quest was in vain. This codex contained among other texts the study Germania, written by the Roman historian Tacitus around the year 98. He had depicted the landscape of Germania as a “cold, damp place” with “primeval woods,”10 a characterisation that contrasted with that of civilised Rome. Even though Tacitus identified the impenetrable German forests with “horrifying barbarism,”11 the woods were glorified in German history as the terrain where they had strategically outsmarted the Romans. Because Germania covered the victories of ancient Germanic tribes, the Nazis regarded the document as exceedingly valuable, a founding text for their Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) ideology: they believed in a connection between racial purity and white supremacy on the one hand and the “uncompromising ruggedness” of the forested German landscape on the other.12 This trope of the majestic landscape continued in the post-war years, as if to help the German audience ignore the calamities of the Second World War. Rather than emphasise the historical atrocities, they praised the enduring and subliminal beauty of the countryside, as is hinted at in the title of one the most popular Heimatfilme: Grün ist die Heide (The Heath is Green, Hans Deppe, 1951). 

In reply to the popularity of this genre, whose heyday lasted from 1950 until 1963, a critical version of Heimatfilme emerged, as mentioned.13 The Silent Forest is one of its latest examples, and most conspicuous are the five slow dissolves into the woodlands of Bavaria. The first takes place when Xaver sits at the side of his bedridden elderly mother and tells her: “There is digging in the Haingries.” The mother stares silently into the void, and we get a very slow dissolve from her face in profile to the forest. We also get lap dissolves to the woods when a slightly sedated Xaver, locked up in the mental institution, is shown with a blank look, after Gustav has told Rupert what a fine woman the latter’s grandmother Anna was, and after Waltraud has disclosed the secret of the teacher’s murder. Finally, after Gustav has fired a shot at Anja, we get a black screen for a few seconds, after which the film ends, with a tracking shot backwards through the forest.

It is made abundantly clear that the forest is not just a place but a mental space. The centuries-old forest is depicted as a “guilty landscape”, having “witnessed” all the atrocities of the war and its aftermath. The trees themselves do not move, but a moving camera presents them via tracking shots, whose narrative function can be compared to the shots of Barbara’s glasses in Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951). Bruno (Robert Walker) has proposed an outrageous “criss-cross” plan to the successful tennis player Guy (Farley Granger) during a train ride. Bruno will murder Guy’s wife, who has been refusing to agree to a divorce, as Bruno has read in the yellow press. In return for this favour, Guy has to murder Bruno’s father. Bruno will strangle Miriam (Kasey Rogers), indeed, but the killing is filmed via one of the victim’s thick glasses that has fallen to the ground. Bruno feels untouchable because no one has witnessed the murder, but when he sees Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock) with the very same glasses Miriam had, he shows visible awkwardness. A tracking shot forward to the glasses brings back the memory of the strangling. The camera movement highlights a superimposition in twofold of the lighter he used during his crime as a reflection in her glasses. Moreover, his phrase “Is your name Miriam?” and the music of the fairground where the murder took place are heard over the soundtrack. The second time, Barbara attends a party, and when a tracking shot forward emphasises the glasses she is wearing, Bruno even faints. The presence of Barbara herself does not shock him, but her glasses derange him. Likewise, the slow dissolves to the tracking shots of the woods in The Silent Forest indicate how the forest as such is imprinted in the minds of those who have committed crimes in the Haingries during “zebra hunting” (Anna), or have witnessed them (Xaver), or have kept the identity of the killer of Johannes Grimm a secret for so long (Gustav, Waltraud).

But there is nonetheless a crucial difference. Strangers on a Train is particularly famous for its tracking shots forward, which in this Hitchcock film indicate that not a subject but an object (a pair of glasses) is gazing at Bruno.14 The trees in Volm’s film also have this function as a gaze since they have observed the crimes, but at the very end of the movie, there is a tracking shot backward, not forward, as if the trees were refusing to return the gaze and thus obstruct any revelation. Another crime has been committed at that point, since Anja has been shot by Gustav – and it is likely that she is dead. It could be that Rupert or Konrad will ensure that justice takes its course, but if not, the woods will cover up the traces, as always.

In his study Caught by History, Ernst van Alphen examined what he called the “Holocaust effect”. The atrocities in the concentration camps cannot be re-presented, for it is impossible to give an informative account of what happened. At best, certain aspects of this horrible past can be re-enacted, however. Such aspects can only be experienced indirectly by performing events that are related to the Holocaust as well as its aftermath. Van Alphen discusses the work of the Dutch writer, poet, and visual artist Armando (a pseudonym of Herman Dirk van Dodeweerd), who describes the trees near a concentration camp as “bearing blame” since they are “still there as indifferent witnesses”.15 In his analysis of Armando’s literary and visual work, Van Alphen observes:

Trees are guilty not only because of their inability or unwillingness to testify, but also because they cover over the traces left by the violence. […] The trees’ growth demonstrates and embodies the work of time: time produces forgetting, just as nature overgrows the place of action.16

Likewise, in Volm’s films, the forest is blamed for its taciturnity. The trees function as what Van Alphen calls the “indexical traces of the unspeakable and the unrepresentable.”17 The forest has seen it all, but the final tracking shot backward suggests its complicity in the cover-ups of crimes: the trees will reveal no trace of what has happened, unless someone is so bold as to start digging.

In Blue Velvet, but also in the television series Twin Peaks, created by Mark Frost and David Lynch,18 trees constantly loom in the background of the small American towns where the stories are set, but the “veneer of civilisation” appears thin. The protagonists gradually discover that they are on a journey in places “both wonderful and strange”, to quote Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) from Twin Peaks. The film and the television series come to border on the surreal and the supernatural. Much as in Volm’s film, the forest that surrounds the town in Twin Peaks – with its sycamore trees and Douglas firs – is threatening and enigmatic but, as Karra Shimabukuro observes, the woods in Lynch’s series “are also presented as a source of knowledge”.19 In the folkloric forest, one encounters evil, but one can also cross over into the domain of dreams and magic, for the woods can provide information to those who possess affinities with the occult. In Lynch’s universe, a forest reveals its secrets eventually, at least for those who have finetuned their antenna towards the supernatural world. That’s why Lynch’s cinema is marked by the concept of the “zoom-in”: civilization looks fine, but beware of taking a closer look, for there is a dark world with weird characters swarming underneath. By contrast, Volm’s film depends upon the concept of the “zoom-out”. Despite a brief suggestion that Anja has a “sixth sense”, she identifies herself as a scientist with a rational mind, examining the forest’s soil, which, in her eyes, is “like the skin of a child. It remembers everything”. The traces of a dark world have been locked away, however, and those who committed evil crimes have taken positions as “normal” citizens (Anna, Gustav). Whereas the protagonists in Lynch’s cinema have to immerse themselves in the sinister atmosphere of their small-town world to gain (occult) knowledge – underscored by the zoom-in – in The Silent Forest an inquisitive and rational mind like Anna’s is required to arrive at the big picture and to see how history has been whitewashed – indicated by the zoom-out. Her curiosity, though, will cost her dearly.

Twin Peaks

Realizing how utterly silent the forest is, Anja offers, in a scene that precedes the finale, her cruel interpretation of the famous Hansel and Gretel story, told by the Brothers Grimm, with whom Anja shares her family name. 

Must have been an antisocial family. Abandoning their children during a famine. The children were petty criminal themselves. Broke into the house right away. The old woman locked up the boy, but the girl was just as depraved. They beat the old woman, rob her, burn her, and return home with the loot. And the parents accept that, they have no problem believing the story about the old witch. Our favourite story is an oversugared pogrom story. We do not even hear the screaming of that burning woman.

In Anja’s reading of Hansel and Gretel, she shows that an old woman – called a “witch” in the terms of a fairy-tale – is brutalized and reduced to a scream, so that we never get to hear the story from her perspective. Much like those of the witch, the screams of the anonymous concentration camp victims who had hidden themselves in the woods have remained unheard. And while the two children may seem innocent, they actually are, as participants in a “pogrom”, as guilty as the civilians from the surrounding villages – civilians who claimed they did what had to be done for the generation of their children. Thus, this grim fairy tale actually heralded the latter’s complicit behaviour during the darkest years in German history.


  1. Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 15.
  2. Ibid., p. 14.
  3. Ibid., p. 19-20.
  4. Ibid., p. 50.
  5. Ibid., p. 198.
  6. Thomas Elsaesser, Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996), p. 141.
  7. Ibid., p. 145.
  8. Ibid., p. 133.
  9. Kaes, p. 110.
  10. Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), p. 81-82.
  11. Ibid., p. 85.
  12. Ibid., p. 82. Even though the forests were domesticated in later centuries, they continued to be depicted as a “sylvan arcadia”, according to Schama (p. 98).
  13. In addition to already mentioned titles from the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the Oscar-nominated Das Weiße Band (The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke, 2009) can be counted among the critical Heimatfilme as well.
  14. There is a fast tracking shot forward that even surpasses the scenes with the glasses in effectiveness. While Guy is waiting for his turn on the tennis court, he looks at the audience. The tracking shot forward that starts as his point of view illustrates that all the onlookers are moving their heads to and fro in order to follow the game, except for one character, who stares at Guy without making any movement at all: with his stern look, Bruno wants to remind Guy of the criss-cross deal. Bruno is the odd man out here: he is not even a subject but has reduced himself to a motionless gaze.
  15. Ernst van Alphen, Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 128.
  16. Ibid., p. 131.
  17. Ibid., p. 127.
  18. Twin Peaks ran for two seasons (1990-1991), eight episodes in the first season, and twenty-two in the second. A reboot provided a third season of another 18 episodes in 2017.
  19. Karra Shimabukuro, “The Mystery of the Woods: Twin Peaks and the Folkloric Forest”, Cinema Journal, Volume 55, Issue 3 (January 2016): p. 121-125.

About The Author

Peter Verstraten is an Assistant Professor in Film and Literary Studies at Leiden University. He is an author of among others Film Narratology, Humour and Irony in Dutch Post-war Fiction Film and its “sequel” Dutch Post-war Fiction Film through a Lens of Psychoanalysis.

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