German National Cinema, by Sabine Hake. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. Trade paper, $22.95, 232pp. ISBN 0-41508-902-6
It is certainly astonishing, although not unexpected, that it has taken almost three decades from the onset of the international interest in New German Cinema, before a critical survey of German film history has appeared in the English-speaking world. Much of this delay is no doubt due to what Peter Bondanella referred to in his now redoubtable Italian Cinema as “the monolingual bias of most English-language [film] critics.” Certainly academia has not ignored German or most other non-English language cinema, but the specialized publishing houses of the U.S. and the U.K. increasingly favor the popular multi-use text aimed at the widest possible readership, and apparently French and Italian film have earned surveys, while other national cinemas are only popular in particular decades, if at all. This reflects the equally skewed and only recently overthrown “norm” of what non-English cinemas could be marketed to American audiences beyond the art house — into video/DVD rental and on cable television.
While German cinema has been served on a highly academic/ theoretical level in English by fine genre and period studies, introduction of this history in film schools and college-level film and cultural courses has been left to book and article assemblage. Is it any wonder that the nonacademic readership/audience and popular criticism continually hark back to such ancient evaluations as Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler or coffee-table tomes such as F. W. Ott’s The Great German Films? As part of Routledge’s new National Cinema Series, Sabine Hake’s jargon-free and elegantly written compendium is immediately successful simply for its uniqueness in offering detailed chronological coverage.
Interweaving the raucous developments of more than 100 years of German history and politics into film examination without making it seem a dry necessity, Hake’s survey focuses deftly on the dialectics of major and minor movements, styles, genres, technical, and economic aspects of this cinema. And she rarely commits the blunder so often found in German film analysis — the co-opting of Austrian cinema or its talents. Crossover is, of course, part of the history of both these German-language cinemas, but Hake always reminds the reader when she is dealing with Austrians not Germans, especially with such shared “superstars” as Austrian director/actor Will Forst and Austrian dramatic diva Paula Wessely (whom Laurence Olivier once cited as one of the greatest actresses in film). The author clearly delineates the two cinemas, particularly in view of the Third Reich: “The annexation of Austria in 1938 destroyed another German-speaking cinema that had offered extensive artistic exchanges and shared many cultural traditions. From its inception, Austrian cinema had conveyed an alternative image of Germanness in the larger context of national fictions and iconography” (66). But even this sensitive acknowledgement is too biased. Austrian cinema is also a non-German Central European art, a multicultural mix that shares iconography and cultural identification equally with its neighbor nations (and former imperial subjects) in Eastern and Southern Europe.
In its attempt at contriving a series with uniform titles, Routledge has brought itself needless controversy with German National Cinema. While the publisher’s Australian, British, and French National Cinema titles might also raise some eyebrows (e.g., how does the “national” in this context include new wave movements, anti/non-establishment, ethnic minority, alternative film, etc.), Hake’s title suggests specific political phases beyond the simple notion of films from the “German nation” — a debated concept in itself. How can one claim a geopolitically unbiased analysis with such a title, given the two Cold-War German states and the East German (GDR) rejection of West Germany’s (FRG) notion of two states within one nation? Nor can the title represent the alternative West German movements, which from the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962 to the New German Cinema of the 1970s and ’80s, to the post-unification avant-garde film, have made statements against any dominant “national” trend. Hake does an admirable job in dealing with the book’s title in her compelling introduction: “One might wonder whether the renewed attention to national cinema marks the return of national as a category of difference in, if not resistance to, the leveling effect of a global cinema culture ruled by Hollywood” (6). A national-based cinema might indeed function as an alternative to international co-production, but given German history, the concept of a “German National Cinema” is something too (mis-) interpretable to function as the heading for Hake’s well-balanced look at all German cinema.
Hake does a superb job of introducing the silent and sound Bergfilm (mountain film), which has recently gained renewed scholarly and popular interest beyond the attention given to Leni Riefenstahl‘s centenary. The genre has even found a minor rebirth in contemporary American cinema, and although this aspect falls outside of the parameters of her study, Hake is sensitive to the genre’s value beyond the traditional dismissal of it as “(pre-)fascism or reactionary modernism” (43). She follows Eric Rentschler’s lead in understanding the genre as part of the “dialectics between modernity and myth” (43) in the German Weimar Republic. Perhaps this is also the source of its attraction today, as modernity becomes myth in our postmodern era.
Hake heralds the German film of the 1920s and early ’30s as the progressive, artistic, Hollywood-threat cinema it certainly was, without ignoring the sociocultural/economic upheaval of the Weimar Republic, which shifted conventional cinematic vocabulary in a manner found in no other Western cinema of the time. It allowed actresses to “cover the entire range of modern humanity from the classical … to the emancipated New Woman” (44), but their roles were more or less limited to dealing with the “problems of femininity” (44). Certainly this aspect was part of the female image even in Hollywood, but in German film of the era, gender representation could be at once liberated and reactionary, evoking the loss of (national) identity, the recasting of social values, and, of course, the threat of economic and political strife. Hake points out that Hollywood films were perceived as both positive and negative influences on popular culture. Thus Chaplin could represent the victory of mass culture as well as modern alienation: his films were either a window to a humanistic future to be found in modernity, or a warning of social dissolution that only a return to traditional or a new reactionary German order could prevent.
As ideologically controlled as the product of Berlin’s major studio UFA became under National Socialism and Propaganda Minister Goebbels, Hake suggests that aside from the Hetzfilm or anti-Semitic hate film and theme of heroic death, the majority of narrative features of the Third Reich were quite similar to Hollywood’s wartime output, particularly in comedy and in the creation of a cinema of stardom. Nevertheless, while the New Deal’s gender-based comedies recognized “social and economic inequities” (73), the Reich’s versions created such anarchic proceedings outside of “all social and political categories (73).” Hake also reminds the reader that many of the genres common to Hollywood and German-language film were the result of a significant German and Austrian exile population in Hollywood (she praises Ernst Lubitsch in particular) that brought the impulses for film noir, social drama, operetta film, and the screwball comedy to Hollywood in the first place. Also like Hollywood, the glamour of the female star was used to divert attention from astringent reality. Ironically, these stars also provided escapism from the very ideology that made them icons, since Nazi Germany never managed to create a popular sensation out of the ideal “Aryan” woman (although Kristina Söderbaum, wife of director Veit Harlan — one of the few directors “able to develop a unique film vision in full accordance with Nazi ideology” (71) — was promoted in this role). The audiences preferred the sultry and intelligent Swedish-born Zarah Leander, who took on the Garbo, Dietrich, and Joan Crawford-type roles; the Hungarian dance sensation Marika Rökk; or other exotic types. While UFA in Berlin concentrated on historical and biographical dramas, especially of the “genius genre” (biopics on the greats of German history intended as sources of national identification), as well as on comedy and the documentary/propaganda film, the remnants of Austrian cinema, centralized at the semi-autonomous Wien-Film studio, were responsible for some of the entertainment genres Vienna had done best prior to the Anschluss: imperial-era musicals, operetta, and the salon comedy. Of course, such excursions into the past and the use of Viennese dialect gave many of these films a subversive quality by reminding audiences of an Austria and a sovereign culture that no longer officially existed.
In approaching the reconstruction of two postwar German film industries, Hake also examines the conflicting and still emerging scholarly interpretations regarding their differences. Were there in fact two very separate German cinemas fostered by opposing Cold-War ideologies, or did movements crisscross over the barbed-wire borders? While West German film had to relocate, reorganize, and battle American imports, the German Democratic Republic inherited the old UFA studios (renamed DEFA) in East Berlin and moved immediately into Soviet-backed, socially critical productions of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the Nazi past), such as Wolfgang Staudte’s Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us). The film made an international star of Hildegard Knef, whose evocatively beautiful face graces the cover of Hake’s book. It is a splendid choice, since Knef is one of the few leading film performers who successfully crossed over the many geopolitical phases of German cinema, from her minor Reich beginnings, into early GDR film, popular stardom in West Germany, to a stint on Broadway and in Hollywood.
Unfortunately, the “rubble film” of East Germany did not develop its neorealist aesthetics as did Italy, and although West Germany was obsessed with the immediate past in sociopolitical thought and in literature, its films moved toward trivial entertainment, in costume epics, comic celebrations of its “economic miracle,” and in the provincial Heimatfilm. The failure of a “new wave” to take root after the Oberhausen Manifesto in which young filmmakers rejected “Papa’s movies,” and the complex hybridism of the entertainment genres that drew audiences are well detailed by Hake, who suggests the success of the West German escapist film as a symptom of an “amnesiac postwar culture” (109). Despite censorship, state control and Socialist Realism, Hake considers East German cinema to be the more progressive, since it had absorbed avant-garde modernism “in the tradition of Bertolt Brecht” (123) and created the German anti-fascist film. Hake’s information on the many “shelved” films of the GDR is also a fascinating aspect of this cinema.
It is not an easy task to reduce so much, often conflicting scholarship on the New German Cinema of the 1970s and ’80s (Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, von Trotta, Schlöndorff, Sanders-Brahms, et al.), its many ideological and cinematic messages into the reductive flow of a chronological survey, but Hake explores these films lucidly as providing “aesthetic alternatives to Hollywood and … a break with the cultural and political traditions associated with the Third Reich” (159). Marking the demise of the provocative prime of New German Cinema with Fassbinder’s death and the national ascendancy of conservative politics in 1982, Hake turns to more recent talents and developments of pre- and post-reunification film. What she discovers is that the trauma of Nazism could be placed into the past, at least in cinema, although its specter resurfaces in films dealing with the dictatorship of the GDR, xenophobia, racism, and the lingering differences between the East and West Germans in a reunified state. She finds a more multicultural (if not gender-balanced) auteur cinema, reflecting a Germany that can no longer claim something akin to ethnic homogeneity. There are German directors at work internationally, increased co-productions with the U.S., Austria, Hungary, and France, alternative and experimental filmmakers who move cinema margins (feminist, gay, ethnic minority subjects) into the mainstream, and historical-critical works that also display high-tech prowess and entertainment savvy, as in the films of Joseph Vilsmaier (Stalingrad, Comedian Harmonists, Marlene) or in the MTV-inspired multivalent narratives of Tom Tykwer. With the old UFA/DEFA studio complex remodeled to cutting-edge technology by director Volker Schlöndorff, and the accessibility of Germany’s cinema history and art at such venues as the Berlin Film Museum and in emerging film schools, Germany is also attracting international filmmakers to create their own visions within its cinema — for the first time since the Weimar Republic.
No other Western cinema has had to mutate and divide politically so often in its history, survive through eras of virulent propaganda, compromise, and creative bankruptcy, only to reinvent itself through periods of innovation and influence. Hake’s accessible, highly insightful, often quite original survey of the very richness of the German film experience will without doubt become a staple in German and film studies. More importantly, it might also influence significant change in the static relationship English-speaking cineastes — particularly Americans — have with German cinema, its history and its visions.