Goodbye to yesterday - Neglected German New Wave Cinema
After World War II, one of the first things that cropped up in West German cinema were the weird Heimat films of the 1950s. Set in the bliss of the beautiful countryside, their function was clearly to escape from an even deny the global catastrophe Germany had just caused. The settings were pristine, somehow well-managed and in perfect order. If a conflict ever arises, it inevitably involves a love story. Romy Schneider’s famous Sissi movies, for instance, were a subgenre of the Heimat films.
Why such infantile denial? Well, the country had been divided into East and West quickly after the war. When the Americans, together with the British and French, occupied the West and the Russians the East, each side took a different attitude to its recent history. East Germany committed itself never to allow the recent horrors to happen again. Officials of the old regime were mostly thrown out of positions of power; Nazi businesses were closed down. The West, in contrast, was in a hurry to forget the past and rebuild the country with as little reflection as possible, relying on the help of the Americans. Many Nazis from the East fled to the West, where they were allowed to flourish again. This set up a situation that would run through West German history and cinema ever since.
Fortunately, there was more to post-war German cinema than just Heimat films. A different kind of filmmaking emerged with the New German Cinema movement at the Oberhausen film festival in 1962. At this event, directors demanded a cinema that was relevant and engaged with social issues. A guy named Alexander Kluge kicked things off with a marvellous film called Yesterday Girl, about a woman from East Germany who escapes to the West to find that it has its own forms of repression, control and censorship. The movies that were spawned from this movement were low budget, and because not much money was involved, allowed for maximum artistic freedom.
In the late 60s, this cinema movement grew hand in hand with the student revolts. A new generation realized that their parents had been responsible for one of the greatest genocides of the century. They had been told that a phase of de-Nazification had supposedly taken place, and yet many former Nazis were now leading government officials, industrialists and bankers. For example, even the chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, had been a Nazi. When demonstrations and peaceful activism proved ineffective, some activists moved into militant struggle. The most famous militant group formed at the time was the Baader-Meinhof Group or Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF). These people were largely artists, filmmakers and reporters, who were deeply concerned about the direction their country was taking but eventually saw no other option than to adopt the deadly methods of terrorism. The German government responded by turning the country into a police state. There was police brutality, mass surveillance, the shutting down of alternative media, roadblocks where everyone was searched and identified – a total violation of human rights and civil liberties in the name of security. There were manhunts being conducted throughout the country to capture and silence radical left-wing alternative groups. The films of the German New Wave reflected this world, and dealt with these issues head-on.
It is my belief that cinema helps us understand history. And I’m not talking about costume dramas here. Almost every film, even a fiction film, becomes a documentary about its own time. We see how people thought, how they dressed, and how society worked. Some say that these films are dated. Not me. I see them as creating alternatives that unlock us from the fatalism of the present moment. They help us dream, but they also reveal a bigger picture.
On January 8 the Goethe Institute will screen a series of these films, roughly in chronological order. Some are offbeat movies by more well-known directors like Fassbinder and Herzog. Others are by more obscure artists, like the visionary Harun Farocki. The screenings will be held twice a month on Wednesdays, from January to June, and I have made sure that the entrance is free. A free 48-page English booklet called ‘Abschied von gestern’ will be available at the screenings. It is an overview of fifty years of German history and cinema, including the Berlin counterculture of the 80s. The booklet concludes with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, when West Germany annexed the East. And although the previous Cold War might have come to an end, a new ‘cold world’ perhaps began to take root.