Tuesday, September 15, 2015

An Introduction to German Cinema

As I discussed last week in my post on Russian Cinema, studying the history of a country’s films gives a unique window to the history of that country.  This is certainly true with the cinema of Germany, whose tumultuous events of the 20th century were explored by its filmmakers--from the devastation and confusion following the country’s defeat in World War I, to the rise of Fascism under Hitler (including the Holocaust), to the struggle to rebuild the country after World War II, to the division of country into communist East Germany and capitalist West Germany during the Cold War, to the fall of the Berlin wall, and beyond.  Here are some of the important films, directors, and movements of German cinema.


In the 1920s, following Germany’s defeat in World War I, a new art movement arose in that country which came to be known as Expressionism. This art form used jagged, dream-like imagery to emphasize the forces of the irrational lurking beneath the surface of the seemingly mundane.  Expressionism could be seen in painting, literature, and cinema, as artists used the form to explore the underlying, potentially destructive forces lurking beneath the surface of polite German society.  Indeed, the 1920s were a period of instability in Germany, as different ideologies competed with one another for popular support—socialism, communism, fascism, etc.  It was this period of instability which allowed for the rise of Hitler’s fascism in the 1930s.  The highly creative Expressionst films of the early silent era in Germany may be seen as prophetic, suggesting a sickness beneath the surface that would ultimately erupt into the Third Reich.  Notable Expressionist filmmakers of this era include Robert Weine, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst, and Joseph von Sternberg.

1.) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari directed by Robert Weine (1920).  Considered by many to be the quintessential “Expressionist” film, this silent masterpiece uses highly expressionist, abstracted, painted sets to convey a kind of menace and fear.  The film tells the story of Dr. Caligari, an escaped mental patient who uses a hypnotized sleep-walker to murder his emenies.  Caligari, like many of the villains of the Expressionist era, may be seen as prophetic of Hitler, who played on irrationality and fear to entice an entire society into becoming something dark and terrible.

2.) Nosferatu directed by F.W. Murnau (1922).  An Expressionist take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this film tells the story of the evil Count Orlok (aka Dracula), who is one of the most terrifying of film villains, with his pale skin, pointed ears, and rat-like teeth.  Orlok unleashes a plague upon Germany, as he demonically rises to power.  Who can stop him?!

3.) Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler directed by Fritz Lang (1922).  Like other Expressionist-era villains, Dr. Mabuse is a criminal mastermind who has often been compared by critics to Hitler.  In true Hitlerian fashion, Mabuse foments hysteria, destruction, and madness in the mob for his own nefarious purposes.  This is the first in a series of films which explore the villain Dr. Mabuse, who is ultimately destroyed by his own delusions.

4.) Metropolis directed by Fritz Lang (1927).  An early masterpiece of science fiction, this film also represents the cultural distress of Germany following World War I.  Metropolis tells of a future dystopia in which the wealthy rulers of a city are literally divided from the exploited workers who live in the underlying depths.  The film presents a vision of a divided society that, in some ways, reflected the Germany of its day.  The workers rising from the depths of the supposedly “perfect” city represent the underlying problems and inequalities the country was facing at the time.

5.) The Blue Angel directed by Josef von Sternberg (1930).  One of the most famous of German early sound films, The Blue Angel tells the story of a respectable professor who ends up marrying a sultry night-club performer (played by the lovely Marlene Dietrich).  In true Expressionist fashion, the film uses brilliant cinematography to explore the two identities/forces within the professor, as he struggles to reconcile the intellectual/rational with the sensual/irrational.

Nazi Cinema

By 1933, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party had come to power, and the country became full-blown fascist.  Under Hitler’s regime, as under Stalin’s in Russia, severe restrictions were imposed on artists and filmmakers.  Many fled to the USA, while others stayed and struggled.  This was the era of the propaganda film, state-sponsored projects that glorified the Nazi party, German superiority, and Hitler as the god-like leader.  Perhaps the most famous filmmaker of the Nazi era was a woman named Leni Riefenstahl, whom Hitler employed as the cinematic propagandist of the Nazi Party. 

6.) Triumph of the Will directed by Leni Riefenstahl (1935).  This is one of the most disturbing films ever made, as it presents Adolf Hitler (who, in retrospect, is regarded as a monster) as the god-like savior/ruler of Germany.  It is presented as a “documentary” following the Furer as he visits various political rallies and parades.  In reality, it was all totally staged, a highly effective marketing campaign for the Third Reich.  What makes this film all the more disturbing is the fact that it quite beautifully shot.  Riefenstahl was a capable filmmaker.

7.) Olympia directed by Leni Riefenstahl (1938).  This is another highly staged piece of propaganda by Leni Riefenstahl.  Olympia documents the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, and attempts to promote the idea of Germans as a race of ubermenschen, or supermen.

8.) Munchhausen directed by Josef von Baky (1943).  Not all films made in Nazi Germany were overt propaganda.  People craved a kind of escapist entertainment to take their minds off the war, much like most Americans today view the movies as escapist fantasy.  One popular film of this type was Munchhausen, a special-effects heavy tale of a Baron who travels around the world, and even to the moon.

9.) Kolberg directed by Veit Harlan (1945).  This was the last film released under Hitler's regime that was sponsored by the government.  It's a nostalgic war film that was meant to boost the morale of the German military and public.  Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels personally wrote some of the speeches included in the film.  Ironically, three months after this film's premier, Germany surrendered.

East German Cinema

After World War II, Germany was divided into communist East Germany, and capitalist West Germany--the greatest symbol of this division was the Berlin Wall.  While West German films were widely distributed and seen throughout Europe and the United States, East German films remained relatively unknown in the West due to the divisions created by the Cold War.  These films are only recently becoming available to western audiences.  The major film studio of East Germany was DEFA, which defined itself in opposition to the West German UFA.  Many of the films made in East Germany were "socialist realism" meant to demonstrate the virtues of communism.  The preferred editing style of these films was, ironically, similar to Hollywood films--simple, easy-to-follow "invisible editing" meant to reach the masses.  Whereas Hollywood was driven by capitalist concerns, East German films were driven by communist ideology.

10.) Berlin—Schonhauser Corner directed by Gerhard Klein (1957). A film about teenage dropouts whose parents don't understand them, this film (ironically) told a similar type of story as Hollywood 1950s "rebellions teenager" films.  The movie was not overtly political except in its depiction of East German police as kind and understanding.

11.) The Rabbit is Me directed by Kurt Maetzig (1965).  The year this film was released, the Communist Party in East Germany met and created even stricter forms of censorship.  It was considered unpatriotic and illegal to make films which criticized the government.  Hence, The Rabbit is Me, which depicts a young girl's struggle against the country's sexism and harsh justice system, was banned (despite the fact that the director was a committed member of the Communist Party).

12.) Traces of Stones directed by Frank Beyer (1966).  Like The Rabbit is Me, this film, which centers around the construction of a power plant, was banned for deviating from the strict Party line.  It uses nonlinear storytelling, and raises "problematic" issues of individualism.

13.) The Legend of Paul and Paula directed by Heiner Carow (1973).  In the 1970s, there was a slight thawing of censorship, as East German filmmakers began making (supposedly) non-political films about everyday life.  A good example of this is The Legend of Paul and Paula, which tells the story of a free-spirited woman (Paula) and her relationship with a sexually promiscuous young man (Paul).  Scholar Martha Nochimson writes, "The willingness of this film to celebrate the collapse of more traditional morals in favor of the fulfillment of Paul and Paula's individual desires marks a real change in East German cinema."

The New German Cinema

In the 1950s and early 1960s, cinema in West Germany was struggling to find its footing.  Television had, for many, replaced the cinema as the main form of entertainment.  This was the postwar period of optimism, and a kind of cultural denial of the atrocities and traumas of World War II.  Then, in 1962, during the annual International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, a group of young filmmakers demanded a new kind of German cinema in the “Oberhausen Manifesto,” which had similar goals as the French New Wave.  “The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new,” they proclaimed, and wanted to make films that critiqued the conformity and apathy of German society.   Over the next couple decades, a group of dedicated and highly creative filmmakers began to tell stories that challenged the "official" or "polite" history of Germany.  Filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Margarethe von Trotta, Volker Schlondorff, Ranier Werner Fassbinder, and Wim Wenders used cinema to challenge, critique, and reflect upon troubling aspects of postwar Germany in poetic and insightful ways.

14.) Aguirre, the Wrath of God directed by Werner Herzog (1972).  This film follows the crazed and delusional Spanish conquistador Don Lope d Aguirre (played with feverish intensity by Klaus Kinski), as he recklessly sacrifices his companions in pursuit of gold and power.  An unflinching look at European conquest and the delusions of power, Aguirre recalls a kind of Hitlerian madman.  Nochimson writes, "Herzog's films routinely explore the materiality of their locations as they tell tales of madmen from European countries pursuing their cosmic dreams in defiance of the world around them."

15.) The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum directed by Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlondorff (1975).  Though made in the 1970s, decades after the defeat of Hitler and fascism, this bleak film offers a critique of the kind of society that can lead to the disaster of the Nazis.  The film follows two lovers torn apart by the repressive institutions of their society.  This idea that "the personal is the policital" resonated with many directors of the New German Cinema.  Nochimson writes, "The gap that this film creates between what we know to be reality and the 'official story' proclaimed by politicians and journalists alike makes the audience aware that it must be critical and thoughtful about official discourse.  The film asks us to remember that government statements and newspaper accounts may be based on destructive lies."

16.) Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) directed by Werner Herzog.  This is an update of F.W. Murnau's classic expressionist film Nosferatu, based on the story of the vampire Dracula.  A good example of the New German cinema, this movie seeks its cinematic roots in the pre-fascist German film culture of the 1920s, as it tries to say something new.  The villain is played by the super intense actor Klaus Kinski, who would act in other Werner Herzog films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, and Cobra Verde.

17.) The Marriage of Maria Braun directed by Ranier Werner Fassbinder (1979).  Set at the end of World War II, the film examines the traumatic and devastating impact that World War II had on German society and individual lives.  In the opening scene, the protagonist Maria is marrying a German soldier as their city is being bombed.  A portrait of Hitler explodes as a bomb blasts a hole in the wall of the Civil Registry office.  Fascist ideology has literally gone to pieces as Maria struggles to make her way in a ruined society.

18.) Wings of Desire directed by Wim Wenders (1987).  This is one of my favorite films of all time.  Shot and set in Berlin a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the movie follows an angel named Damiel as he wanders about Berlin, observing and listening to the inner lives of regular people.  A quiet symphony of ordinary life, Wings of Desire is a gorgeous film.

Bonus Section: More Films By Werner Herzog!

For over two years now, my friend Steve Elkins and I have hosted weekly film nights at Hibbleton Gallery.  One of the first series we did was a month of Werner Herzog films.  Here are the films we showed, with a couple extras--to show the breadth and depth of this amazing German filmmaker.  All descriptions are by Elkins...

19.) Portrait Werner Herzog (1986):  Herzog's autogiography of his early work, including a feature film shot with his entire cast under deep hypnosis (Heart Of Glass); documenting the lives of Miskito Indian child-soldiers behind enemy lines in Nicaragua (Ballad Of The Little Soldier); flying to the island of Guadeloupe after it's been evacuated due to an impending volcano eruption to talk to the one man who refuses to leave (La Soufrière); contracting malaria before his entire film crew is imprisoned and beaten for suspected espionage in Cameroon during production of Fata Morgana, walking from Germany to Paris in the middle of winter (breaking into homes to survive along the way) in the belief it would save the life of one of the founders of the French Cinematheque, and pretending to be a medical official to steal an army of monkeys for a scene in Aguirre, The Wrath Of God.

 20.) Herdsmen Of The Sun (1989):  Documentary about the Guérewol ritual of the Wodaabe people in the Sahara of Niger, in which men attempt to attract women by putting on elaborate make-up, feathers, jewelry, and drinking a hallucinogenic fermented bark concoction.

21.) Lessons Of Darkness (1992):  An exploration of the apocalyptic Kuwait oil fields as they are set on fire to keep American companies from illegally taking them over at the end of the first Gulf War. Herzog is there when Texans are sent in to put out the fires, who eventually go insane and start lighting the oil fields on fire all over again. 

22.) Bells From The Deep (1993):  An investigation of Russian mysticism through Siberian shamans, Orthodox bell ringers, local drunks, pilgrims searching for visions of the lost city of Kitezh beneath a frozen lake, and much more. 

23.) Burden Of Dreams (1982):  Les Blank's documentary about Werner Herzog’s attempt to haul a real 320-ton steamship over a mountain in the Peruvian Amazon with no special effects in the midst of a war between two native indian tribes attacking each other with poison spears. What unfolds is far more insane than even that initial premise (including Herzog and his lead actor Klaus Kinski literally plotting each other's murder), the result being a perfect introduction to the “Ecstatic Truth” of Herzog and his drive to tell “the inner chronicle of who we are” even under suicidal circumstances. We also screened Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, in which Herzog jumps into a cactus and literally eats his shoe to inspire others to make war on mediocrity.

24.) Wheel Of Time (2003):  If I had to pick only one film to share with the world, it would almost definitely be Werner Herzog's Wheel Of Time. Or to put it another way, if the human race died out and we left one film behind to represent the best of what we were, I hope it would be a film like this. Wheel Of Time documents the life threatening pilgrimage Buddhist monks have been making for thousands of years, bowing their way across 3,000 miles of the Himalayas on their stomachs to the tree where the buddha was enlightened, in order to better understand the nature of the human mind. The pilgrimage culminates in the creation of an enormous mandala out of colored sand which is promptly destroyed upon completion to reflect the impermanence of all things and the importance of non-attachment to even our most profound accomplishments. Completely transcending the boundaries of Buddhist beliefs, this film is one the most moving depictions of the power of selfless human devotion I can think of.

25.) The White Diamond (2004):  Herzog follows an enigmatic airship inventor to the treetops of Guyana on a breathtaking and moving adventure involving a man who lives with giant gorillas, a breakdancer on a waterfall, a rastafarian who loves his rooster, stunning scenery in unexplored regions of the earth, and plenty of insane people. Not to mention one of the best film scores of all time, combining the madness of experimental Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger, Sardinian throat singers, and Mola Sylla from Senegal.  This night we also welcomed one of the lucky few to have been admitted to Herzog's Rogue Film School, OC Weekly writer and theater director Dave Barton who shared his personal memories of the experience, which Herzog himself describes as ""not for the faint hearted; it is for those who have travelled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lockpicking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects. In short: for those who have a sense of poetry."

26.) Encounters At The End Of The World (2007):  Herzog goes to Antarctica to find evidence of something Alan Watts once said: "Through our eyes the universe is perceiving itself, and through our ears the universe is listening to its cosmic harmonies. And we are the witness to which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence." "I noticed that the divers in their routine were not speaking at all," Herzog observes, "to me, they were like priests preparing for mass. Under the ice the divers find themselves in a separate reality where space and time acquire a strange, new dimension. Those few who have experienced the world under the frozen sky often speak of it as going down into the cathedral."     

Stay tuned for next week's post, An Introduction to Italian Cinema! 

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