Germany’s Counter-Cinemas, Julia Hertäg (Notes)

I took some notes from Julia Hertäg’s “Germany’s Counter-Cinemas” article published in New Left Review. All the quotations in the notes are from the article:

Hertäg, J. (2022, May/June). Germany’s Counter-Cinemas. New Left Review, 135. https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii135/articles/julia-hertag-germany-s-counter-cinemas


Germany’s Counter-Cinemas

The author gives examples of the export-driven cinema in Germany with the films about coming to terms with its past, containing films about Nazism, the Stasi, the fall of the GDR, and the Red Army Faction. The style: “conventional, Hollywood-style cinematographical narratives” [1] Following the mainstream style conventions, one difference is that these films are partially state/publicly funded. Some quotes about the consequences: films that “stay inside a corset of conventional narrative” or “cineastic low-fat quark”.

Machinery of consensus

Referring to the Oberhausen Manifesto in 1962, which called for free filmmaking for the artists. In the late 1960s, following France’s model, the state started to fund films for their cultural value. Artists whose early works were funded by ZDF or ARD: Fassbinder, Reitz, Kluge, Farocki.

In the 1990s, the competition for a larger audience starts instead of striving for cultural prestige. Meanwhile, the power of ZDF/ARD bureaucracies increases. In general, the films needed state funds together with TV channel co-production. The factors: “in addition to cultural and aesthetic criteria, potential commercial success and promoting the ‘positive development of the industry’ should be key factors in the allocation of funds”. The political/ideological influence comes from the responsibility of the state-TV channels to serve the ‘public interest.’ How do you define it?

The film-funding machinery works, but it is not easy for non-mainstream cinema producers to get into it since it’s against free filmmaking – does that exist anyways? On average, the films have 5-6 maybe more institutions who fund them, more the number more people who intervene in the production process. The production of the films takes 6-7 years. Hard to get approval. “’market-conforming’ bureaucracy” (Merkel) or ‘dictatorship of mediocrity’ (Lars Henrik Gass). A public service aiming for commercial success.

Wrapping political enlightenment in history (Ulrich Köhler) or serving a menu for an international audience with series like Babylon Berlin and Deutschland 83/86/89. On the national TV front, Eldorado KaDeWe: Jetzt ist unsere Zeit. Hertäg’s remark: “… in fact rather uninterested in the era it is depicting; its narratives of sexual liberation, deprivation and excess might as well be set in the here and now”.

Berlin School and after

Directors challenged Germany’s self-image and economic miracle in the 70s and 80s: Fassbinder, Kluge, Reitz, von Trotta. In the 90s and early 2000s, Berlin School was a counter-example of mainstream cinema. The term arose with Schanelec, Petzold, and Arslan being shown in festivals after some stagnant period for alternative filmmakers. It first appeared in Die Zeit in 2001, finding a similarity between the films of these directors: “…a liking for ellipsis and for keeping a distance; a similar way of dealing with space and time; the same diffuse bright light. Most important, ‘all assertion has gone, replaced by observation’; in a country whose filmmakers were ‘diligently learning streamlined storyboarding’, this was a blessing”.

Berlin School:

  • presentist cinema
  • resisting the psychological realism, conventional dramatic structure and well-worn political tropes favoured by the system
  • exploring forms of realism, ‘a sensation of the reality of the present’ (Marco Abel)
  • set ‘in the here and now of unified Germany’ (Marco Abel)
  • low budget, easier to shoot
  • subtle alienation effects
  • loosely bound second generation: Hochhäusler, Grisebach, Heisenberg, Ade, Köhler (~10 directors, ~50 films)
  • styles diverge in time (Hochhäusler)

Hertäg aims to conceptualize “‘Post-Berlin’ cinema of the 2010s and 20s, including recent films by the School’s founding members”. Two trends:

  1. Outward turn
    1. Toni Erdmann (2016): Romania, a multinational corporation
    2. Western (2017): Bulgaria, German workers, construction
    3. Transit (2018): Marseille, re-contextualizing the refugees of the 1940s today
    4. Le Prince (2021): German art world and a businessman from DRC
    5. Giraffe (2022): Polish workers on a Danish Island building a tunnel to Germany
  2. Historical turn: “experimenting with new aesthetic strategies for the representation of the past”
    1. Barbara (2012): the GDR of the early 1980s
    2. Phoenix (2014): post-war Berlin
    3. Undine (2020): present-day Berlin and the world of Romantic mythology
    4. Blutsauger (2022): in 1928
    5. Gold (2013): a German party’s journey to the Klondike of the 1890s
    6. Fabian (2021): Weimar era, based on Erich Kästner’s novel from 1931
    7. Die Andere Heimat (2013): 1840s, with Rhinelanders as economic emigrants
    8. In My Room (2018): the future, resembling a distant past

“The heterogeneity of German counter-cinema over the past decade defies rigid categorization, even in terms of its oppositional stance.”

Outward turns

Grisebach’s film Western is examined thoroughly by Hertäg. Its relation with the ‘western’ genre as an ‘eastern’, masculinity, encounter with the settler/colonialist, Germany in Eastern Europe, water rights, etc. are some core themes. In terms of style: it looks like a documentary, with landscape shots, spontaneity, non-professional actors, and physicality over psychology. A contemporary take on the “trans-border encounters.”

Ade’s film Toni Erdmann “examines managerial-level social stress and the highly gendered world of white-collar immaterial work.” The pressure of the competition, corporate sexism, her father, etc. Ines tries to surrender and fight back. Takes a look at the personal/professional interiors and interactions. A Berlin School rule is followed: “avoid psychology as causality.”

Re-framing past and present

A recent focus of filmmakers draws apart from the focus on the present in early Berlin School films. Petzold is a major example with Barbara, that does not conform to the official narratives of the GDR with extra elements that are lacking in films like Das Leben der Anderen. In Phoenix, the Jewish woman is not recognized by her ex-husband. He betrayed her to the Nazis and now trying to appropriate the heritage by using her as a doppelgänger. Transit and Undine also “indicate a certain urgency in finding new ways of relating past and present that go beyond naturalistic representation.” There are detailed analyses of these films, which I won’t go into here: “The tension between immersion and contemplation, being and seeing, experience and understanding, is always present in Petzold’s films.”

Fractured epochs

Dominik Graf, as an opposite to Petzold, the seduction cinema. He likes popular genres, also worked in TV a lot. He made Dreileben as a dialogue with Petzold and Hochhäusler, not far from the Berlin School. Hertäg looks at his latest, Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde.

A fractured, conflicted, distracted, dark, hand-held, spooky, glance-based, fast-montage filmmaking. Unlike “Babylon Berlin, Graf avoids the iconic sites of the capital.” The opening scene (the long-shot moving from today to past, in a metro station) and the Stolperstein “reminds us of what lies ahead of these characters.”

Capital as a genre

Here, Hertäg starts with Radlmaier’s Blutsauger and mentions L’etat et Moi. Since I noticed this similarity with my shallow knowledge, I’ll block quote this part. After this, one can find an analysis of Blutsauger.

“His graduation film, Selbstkritik eines bürgerlichen Hundes (Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog, 2017) already demonstrated this new approach, shared by others of his cohort, including Max Linz, Radlmaier’s contemporary at the DFFB. Their work explores the boundaries of what is possible within the German funding system, making films with multiple references to theory and cinema history, explicit political analysis combined with comedy and slapstick, and a visual language that on many levels obstructs conventional realism. (In Linz’s L’État et moi (2022), which reverses the coordinates of past, present and future, a time-travelling exile from the Paris Commune lives as a refugee in contemporary Berlin, where he appears as an extra in Les Misérables.)”

Note: See the article for more on Blutsauger analysis.

Different voices

Most films differ from the earlier ones in dealing with the past and transnational matters. Abel was mentioning statis and mobility for the Berlin School, the new wave focuses on capital and labor, or work. They also continue trying alternative ways of filmmaking economically. “While the Berlin School as a ‘school’ may have come to an end, its network of collaboration and exchange continues to exist.” Still, the attempts are mostly individual, a Oberhausen-like manifesto is needed to have drastic changes.


[1] Examples: Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004), Sophie Scholl (2005), Das Leben der Anderen (Lives of Others, 2006), Baader Meinhof Complex (2009), 13 Minutes (2015), Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer (The People vs Fritz Bauer, 2015)

P.S. By the way, I found out that Christoph Hochhäusler has been actively writing a blog called PARALLEL FILM, since 2006. I’m reading it with auto-translate now, let me leave that here too.

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