Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 7, February 2004

 

 

Angelica Fenner

 

German Cinema History as Rhizome:

_The German Cinema Book_

 

 

_The German Cinema Book_

Edited by Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter, and Deniz Goektuerk

London: British Film Institute, 2002

ISBN 0851709246X

302 pp.

 

Arguably, amongst extant historiographies of national cinemas, the German context currently constitutes one of the most consolidated of histories, its trajectory tracing divisions into epochs with clearly delineated borders. The broader categories of Weimar cinema, Nazi cinema, the New German cinema, and more recently, Post-Wall cinema, conveniently correspond to significant political regimes and social movements in the broader history of the nation. The canonization of particular films as benchmarks in German film history serves as the inevitable by-product of such master narratives about German cinema history. Similar trends are discernable in other European cinema histories: in the French context, the stylistic divisions into poetic realism, *cinema du qualite*, New Wave, historical retrospectives, and the *cinema du look*, seem similarly over-determined through the master narratives of political history.

 

Yet scholars are now beginning to break from ossified trends and to explore neglected eras and previously discounted film works: for example, Thomas Elsaesser's anthology on early cinema, _Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative_ (1990), is part of a growing body of work, while Nora Alter's excellent book on the 'film essay', _Projecting History: German Nonfiction Cinema, 1967-2000_ (2002), is part of a growing trend to reconsider the significance of individual genres. _The German Cinema Book_ is unique in that it undertakes this long-anticipated reterritorialization of German cinema historiography under one book cover -- with contributing essays subsumed under five overarching categories: Popular Cinema; Stars; Institutions and Cultural Contexts; Cultural Politics; and Transnational Connections. Such a reconceptualization of German film need not abandon all fealty to linear history, as editors Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter, and Deniz Goektuerk still manage to render topical essays within each rubric into some sort of variegated chronology. Thus, the rubric on Cultural Politics moves from Marc Silberman's discussion of Weimar cinema, to Julian Petley's discussion of policies in the Third Reich, to Elsaesser's case study of Alexander Kluge, to Ulrike Sieglohr's study of women filmmakers and the avant-garde via the example of Ulrike Ottinger, and finally, Ian Garwood's exploration of the genealogy of the *Autorenfilm*. Part Three (Institutions and Cultural Contexts) offers insights into a realm often neglected in national cinema histories, namely considerations of how cinema as social institution is inflected in specific national settings, and the productive nature (in a Foucauldian sense) of state legislation, censorship, and funding upon film content. This section of the anthology similarly borders of the rhizomatic, advancing from Joseph Garncarz's exegesis of the origins of film exhibition in Germany, through Joseph Kessler and Eva Warth's discussion of early cinema and its audiences, to Hans-Michael Bock and Michael Toeteberg's history of Ufa, to Horst Claus's elaboration on the stylistics and identity of the DEFA as a studio that operated as an extension of the state, and finally, Martin Loiperdinger's exploration of the specificity of state legislation, censorship and funding in a century of German cinema.

 

In their Introduction the editors offer an excellent summation of past and extant trends in German film historiography. Until recently, critical approaches to German cinema were often constrained by certain assumptions about German culture, history, and national character that were in high circulation within both Germany and abroad. German culture has often been effectively regarded as 'high culture', with the notion of a popular German cinema dismissed pejoratively, whether it be the *Heimat* films or the comedies of the 1990s. It has been the fate of German high culture to be appropriated in the curricula of Germanist and art history classrooms as exemplary of a certain austere intellectualism and romantic melancholy, captured in the expressionism of the 1920s, as well as in the works of various *auteurs* of the New German Cinema. Simultaneously, the perception of historical German audiences as prone to the influences of totalitarianism has been so well-reinforced through Nazi cinema, that the narrativization of any cinematic movements in the postwar era was virtually guaranteed to shy away from popular culture elements, seeking refuge instead among the intellectual mandarins of Young German cinema and beyond. The Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, with its notion of a 'culture industry' as the all-pervasive expression of manipulative capitalist ideology, has gone a long way to reinforcing the binarisms of high (i.e. politically resistant) and low (politically co-optive) culture prevalent in German film histories. In turn, Kracauer's tome, _From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film_ (1966), conjoined the framework of the culture industry with specifically national characteristics, to argue that textual features of narration and style reflected and shaped the identity of the nation.

 

The editors also offer an overview of the different trajectories of film studies within Germany, where it has not undergone the degree of institutionalization common in the United States and Great Britain. In Germany, film research often takes place under the auspices of other disciplines, such as sociology, as well as cultural, literary, and theatre studies. However, Germany's network of film archives and research centers (such as the DIF, or German Film Institute in Frankfurt/Main) are becoming increasingly active in generating both film journals (_FilmGeschichte_, _FilmExil_, and _CineGraph_) and significant monographs. There has been much transatlantic exchange of theory, with Anglophone feminist film theory and spectator studies migrating into Germany. Simultaneously, within the broader discipline of film studies there has been a renewal of interest in revisiting the Marxist film critical canon that predates Adorno and Horkheimer's pessimistic regard for cinema's relationship to politics and power. In the search for a more dynamic concept that can link film art with social change, scholars have turned to the Weimar era, to early Kracauer, to Benjamin, Arnheim, and Balazs. What contemporary historians have adapted from these theorists is their common perception of cinema as a dynamic medium significant for the manner in which it produces new modes of subjectivity in specific historical moments of modernity. New methods of seeing and showing, as exemplified in elements of film language such as the close-up, are not only historically unprecedented, they produce new ways of perceiving and experiencing the world. This revisitation of the historical basis of perceptual modes has offered a way out of the methodological stranglehold of both social psychologies that read German film as the mimetic reflection of what Kracauer referred to as the *psychological dispositions* of a nation, as well as Anglophone film-psychoanalytical strands that reproduce universalized Oedipal structures of sexual difference and visual pleasure. Weimar film theory has also come to represent an ideal object choice at a moment in which contemporary film scholars are rediscovering German cinema's international dimensions -- consider recent scholarship on emigre and exile cinemas, on transnational co-productions, and post-Wall assessments of the influence of globalization on media industries and forms of representation.

 

It should be noted that the individual chapters are not intended to provide close readings of specific films, but instead construct a different paradigm through which to regard a broader assemblage of film productions. While limitations of space prevent me from reviewing all 23 chapters of the volume, I will review one of the topical rubrics, namely that of genre, to offer a more in-depth view of the approaches represented in this volume. Among the contributors to this topic, Johannes von Moltke's discussion of the *Heimat* genre acknowledges the need to move beyond ahistorical and totalizing approaches to these films. The genre is hardly homogeneous; rather it is riddled with contradictory ideological premises, and with ellipses and silences that merit closer evaluation. Von Moltke is particularly concerned to consider the *Heimat* film as a spatial genre in the same sense as the Western or film noir. The images of place conveyed through regional landscapes can ultimately be seen to constitute historical responses to the ongoing transformation of space in modernity, responses that reveal the space of *Heimat* to be profoundly ambivalent, encompassing the contradictions of the rural and the urban, the provincial and the modern, the regional and the cosmopolitan. Von Moltke also expands our understanding of the genre beyond the confines of the 1950s, pointing to examples of early cinema, as well as the *Berg* films and novels of the 1920s. He furthermore disputes popular assumptions that the *Heimat* films were spatialized expressions of escape from the urbanization of West Germany; closer inspection reveals them to negotiate, for example, tourist plots that speak of a self-consciousness of a new service economy.

 

Jan-Christopher Horak's chapter on German film comedy also seeks to reevaluate the problematic relationship that is perceived to be harbored by not only German cinema but German culture towards humor. Horak follows Elsaesser's example in resituating the source of this perception as inhering not so much in the culture itself as in the intelligentsia that has traditionally commented on and established the periodization of German film history. Film comedy is now more fully recognized as a site of ideological contestation, as either a control mechanism for hegemonic forces or as a discourse that subverts the institutional status quo. In reality, the comedy has been the bread and butter of the German film industry throughout its history, as evinced in the literally thousands of comedies that have yet to be historically evaluated. Inevitably, comedy in a nation that has dwelled under the shadow of fascism is qualitatively different; while comedies during the Kaiserzeit and Weimar period were transgressive, Horak maintains that the monopoly capitalism of German fascism held zero tolerance for subversive discourses. (Here, I think Linda Schulte-Sasse's monograph on Nazi cinema (1998) would probably counter any assumptions that Nazi cinema was monolithically conservative and repressive; her readings of individual films reveal a surprising heterogeneity of competing discourses.) Horak's primary focus is upon the influence of the German-Jewish humor cultivated by Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder -- a brand of humor which fed in particular upon gender relations. It was the return of exiled filmmakers in the 1950s, and their influence on the Young German sex comedies, that paved the way for the revival of humor in popular cinema, as evinced in the relationship comedies that began with Doris Doerries's _Maenner_ in 1986, and led to the hetero/homoerotic complications present in many comedies of the 1990s, such as Sonke Wortmann's _Der bewegte Mann_ (1994).

 

Tim Bergfelder's contribution, 'Extraterritorial Fantasies: Edgar Wallace and the German Crime Film', looks at the fin-de-siecle British crime novelist's impact on German cultural production. Wallace's books were adapted for the German screen during the 1920s, and resurfaced in the 1960s to become the bread and butter of the German film industry. Bergfelder points out that while Wallace seemed to represent the quintessence of British ambience, there was really not that much specifically British about the novels, which rendered them ideal for cultural appropriation in Germany and the United States. Bergfelder traces the manner in which Wallace's work was variously shaped and readapted in various eras of German history. During the Weimar era, Wallace's work fitted right in among the crime films preoccupied with serial killers, such as in G. W. Pabst's rendition of John Gay's _Beggar's Opera_ (1928), Fritz Lang's _M_ (1931), or Robert Weine's _Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari_ (1920). Under the Nazi takeover, the crime genre fell into decline as they put many Jewish artists, managers, and publishers out of business, and furthermore regarded the crime genre as a corrupting influence on the public readership. During the 1950s the appreciation for Wallace's British ambience came to be regarded as indicative of Germany's normal status vis-a-vis other nations. Many Wallace adaptations during the 1960s -- internecine feuds about inheritances shot in the labyrinthine settings of country mansions harboring subterranean hideouts and trapdoors -- were among the top-grossing films in Germany during that era. These adaptations -- peopled with stereotypes about the class system, Dickensian characters, dotty old ladies, and subversive butlers -- were a form of distraction or escape. Bergfelder summates the appeal of these films among West Germans as a form of progressive nostalgia, because the historical reference point for these films was a period untainted by the fascist past, yet the pleasures gained from the consumption of these narratives were intended to be a substitute for a sense of national identity repressed by realpolitik of the contemporary era.

 

Robert Kiss offers an overview of queer traditions in German cinema. In taking stock of some of the more widely known early depictions of homosexuality, transvestism, and lesbian desire (i.e. Richard Oswald's _Anders als die Andern_, Wilhelm Bendow's _Aus eines Mannes Maedchenzeit_, Leontine Sagan's _Maedchen in Uniform_, and Murnau's _Nosferatu_). What Kiss is particularly concerned to show is that these depictions are bound up with a paradigm of 'sexual intermediacy' ('sexuelle Zwischenstufen'), which maintained the existence of a third sex, one in which the blend of physical, psychological, or behavioral traits were ambiguously situated somewhere 'between' those of men and women. Yet even after the ascension of Nazi power, some unambiguously queer works managed to surface, such as Reinhold Schuenzel's _Viktor und Viktoria _ and Zarah Leander's portrayals of socially excluded women, with which gay men, lesbians, and transvestites identified. Even images celebrating Nazi social organization, such as the scene in Riefenstahl's _Olympia_ where nude male athletes gather in the sauna, seem defined through a homosocial or homoerotic subplot. In the postwar years, with both East and West Germany accepting and actively prosecuting under Paragraph 175, queer portrayals were more subdued; and remakes of several Weimar classics excised ambiguous sexual roles almost completely. Only Veit Harlan's _Anders als du und ich_ seemed to prefigure the tactics of post-1968 directors such as Rosa von Praunheim and Heiner Carow, in seeking from works of the Weimar era strategies and traditions that could be synthesized with a surface discourse of emancipation.

 

This volume's lasting usefulness is further enhanced by a comprehensive appendix of reference works and resources. The compilation of data encompasses encyclopedias, dictionaries, magazines and journals, CD-Roms, web sites, databases, and archives. The bibliography itself is subdivided into such areas as national and regional film histories, stars, genre studies, and periodized histories. Additionally, addresses are provided of key distributors for film rental and purchase. I will express only in passing my bewilderment at the inclusion of resource lists for Switzerland and Austria, which draws attention to a lacuna within the overall volume, which has nothing to say about Austrian or Swiss film productions or their location within the broader reterritorialization of Germanophone cinema. In this regard, the volume's title has to be taken literally and in its most limited sense. Indeed, book titles tell all: the use of the definite article in 'The German Cinema Book' might at first glance seem presumptuous, given the plethora of other books on German cinema, and yet this anthology is indeed (to date) singular in its approach and in its multivalent agenda. With its pointed exclusion of the usual transcendental signifier of *history* and the qualifier of the *national*, the simplicity captured in the title _The German Cinema Book_ speaks to the manner in which revolutions in academic discourse need not be loud and demonstrative, instead persuading us with a certain quiet sophistication.

 

University of Toronto

Ontario, Canada

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004

 

 

Angelica Fenner, 'German Cinema History as Rhizome: _The German Cinema Book_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 7, February 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n7fenner>.

 

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