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.

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.

Coma (2022) | Notes

I guess I’ve seen the first screening of this film in Berlinale. I just noticed that it doesn’t even have a movie poster as of this moment. After some time, it was the first film where I attended a Q/A session with the director and the actors. My first non-open-air-cinema Berlinale experience after the compensation screenings in 2021.

It tells the story of a teenage girl during the pandemic spending her time at home while watching a YouTube influencer (Patricia Coma) videos, doing video calls and Zoom discussions about serial killers with her close friends, dreaming of some sitcom plays with her dolls and spending the nights in a forest in her dreams/nightmares where she re-encounters people from her virtual daily life. Her story is covered with a prologue of experimental lockdown short by Bonello and an epilogue from some found-footage about the climate crisis, both subtitled with a letter by Bonello to her daughter underlining the hopes about a better future.

The whole film felt like a series of random and inspirational decisions taken by the director in terms of the plot-building. I can’t say that I got a cohesive understanding but the state of mind and the need for the instantaneous intervention to the pandemic effect was transmitted well enough. As an intrigued viewer, YouTube, amateur celebrities, niche messenger communities deserve more attention in cinema and literature in my opinion.

The vast imaginary realm that Patricia Coma (Julia Faure) brings to the film was immersive. Replicating this kind of action with an intermediary device (such as transposing a YouTuber to a film character) is mostly a hard thing to do but when it’s succeeded, it pays off. The favorite scene of mine was during the Zoom call that the protagonist makes with her friends while Patricia was watching them in the movie theater. At first, it may look like a cheap alienation tactic but it worked quite well in this scene while the Zoomers were having a disturbingly violent conversation that invites the audience as a spectator to a private chat.

Don’t Look Up (2021) | Notes

A professor and a Ph.D. student discover a comet that will hit the earth in a couple of months. They try to transmit this information to the officials who can initiate action at this scale. However, their attempts in talking to the media or the president of the U.S. don’t end up with concrete action. Their message is lost inside the social media frenzy, political and business interests, the avoidance and the rejection of truth, etc. When the president decides that it’s the right time to tackle the issue, they team up in a project to do some propaganda about “saving the world” and to deflect the comet. But at the very moment, the Apple/SpaceX CEO intervenes and changes the plans since his team finds some very valuable minerals inside the comet. The passion for profit takes precedence over saving the world.

In terms of its overt messages, it is a critical movie. In terms of its screenplay, storytelling, and puns, pretty mediocre. Its success can be found in transforming the mainstream media and communication critique to superficial characters and dialogues. That is also its defeat. If it’s only a dinner of family and close friends that you can put against the whole extravagance you observed, it means you’re unable to build any counter-discourse against it. Cate Blanchett does her best for underlining what these patterns do to one’s own self, but it doesn’t suffice in the end. I felt sorry for Meryl Streep while watching her struggling with the terrible dialogues written for her part.

Weimar Culture: Outsider as Insider, Peter Gay | Notes I

Peter Gay’s comprehensive account on the culture of the Weimar era (1918-1933), first published in 1968. I’ll try to take notes, chapter by chapter. For general histories of the era, check out the liberal Erich Eyck and the radical Arthur Rosenberg. For political history, see Heinrich August Winkler and Hans Mommsen. Or you can check out the authors, artists, directors, diaries, films for sure. It’s a pretty saturated cultural milieu as I understand.

Gay’s general thesis: “Weimar Culture was not encapsulated, not simply a product of a lost war. In short, the talents and the energies that were to make the republic virtually unique in history—certainly in German history—did not emerge from nowhere, virginal and unknown. But not until the disastrous end of empire could they really rise to their full potentialities.”

Gay aims to avoid the sentimentalist account of the era. Mannheim sees it as a new Periclean age, but for Gay, “it was a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano”.

I. The Trauma of Birth: From Weimar to Weimar

Weimar Republic: “an idea seeking to become reality.”

“The Weimar ideal was both old and new. The striking mixture of cynicism and confidence, the search for novelty and for roots—the solemn irreverence—of the twenties, were a child of war, revolution, and democracy, but the elements that made it up came from both the distant and the recent past, recalled and revived by a new generation.”

The popular movements of Wiemar era had their roots in the pre-Weimar era, Gay takes expressionism first. Next to the several examples, “Kandinsky wrote his revolutionary manifesto, Über das geistige in der Kunst, in 1910 and published it in 1912”. The focus on outsiders: “The Expressionists were a band of outsiders. But they were determined and active. The Republic would add to their lives nothing but success”. Painting, poetry, and experimental short prose also had their roots, see Thomas Mann’s early works, “Buddenbrooks, Tonio Kröger, and Tod in Venedig, all published by 1911”.

The roots of the currents in pyschoanalysis, history and music: “Psychoanalysis was introduced into Germany in 1910, with the founding of the Berlin branch of the International Psychoanalytical Association. Friedrich Meinecke and Otto Hintze, who drew the attention of the historical profession in other countries to Berlin in the 1920s, had done significant work before the war: Meinecke’s Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat, which some of his pupils would later fondly remember as his best book, was published in 1907. Max Reinhardt, the magician of the Weimar theatre, had practically filled his bag of tricks by 1914. Arnold Schönberg, who completed the twelve-tone system in 1924, had broken through to atonality before 1912”.

Burning questions of the era: “For the outsiders of the Empire as, later, for the insiders of the Republic, the most insistent questions revolved around the need for man’s renewal, questions made most urgent and practically insoluble by the disappearance of God, the threat of the machine, the incurable stupidity of the upper classes, and the helpless philistinism of the bourgeoisie.”

Gay interprets the Weimar era in a twofold way, successful but kind of destined to death: “the trauma of its birth was so severe that it could never enlist the wholehearted loyalty of all, or even many, of its beneficiaries.”

Cynicism and detachment: “Beyond all this there was another, subtler inducement to cynicism and detachment. In August 1914 the Western world had experienced a war psychosis: the war seemed a release from boredom, an invitation to heroism, a remedy for decadence. But it was in Germany that this psychosis reached heights of absurdity.”

The war in left: “the greatest, most effective enemy of the Weimar Republic was the civil war fought within the republican left, the struggle, as Eduard Bernstein said, of “Socialists against Socialists,” which broke out as soon as the Republic was proclaimed; its very proclamation, after all, was an act directed not merely against the monarchy but against the Spartacists.”

Rosa, the regime, socialists and Spartacists: “He did, in fact, do more than wait: he killed, with abandon and with impunity. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the leaders of the Spartacist movement, were murdered on January 15, 1919; Kurt Eisner, Prime Minister of Bavaria, was murdered by an aristocratic student on February 21, and the Bavarian Soviet Republic which came out of the assassination was brutally put down by regular and Freikorps troops toward the end of April and the beginning of May. And these events could only exacerbate fratricidal hostilities: the Spartacists denounced the governing Socialists as pliant, socially ambitious butchers; the government Socialists accused the Spartacists of being Russian agents. It all seemed like a sarcastic commentary on Marx’s call to the workers of the world to unite.”

The Peace of Versailles, “the shameful, humiliating peace”. The old order: “These were fateful strategic mistakes, but the men of Weimar made an even more fateful mistake when they failed to tame, or transform, the machinery of the old order—the military, the civil service, and the courts.”

Günter Wallraff, Lowest of the Low | Notes

Lowest of the Low (‘Ganz unten’ in the original, ‘En Alttakiler’ in Turkish) is Günter Wallraff’s undercover participatory journalism book where he disguises himself as a migrant from Turkey and attempts at experiencing the daily lives of the migrants in Germany. It was published in 1985, and translated to Turkish too –that’s how I read it after a recommendation from a friend. It is apparent that the book had caused debates and had a considerable impact when it was first published. It seems to have become popular in the 80s in Turkey too, but it was a forgotten book as of today, or maybe I just never encountered it in another text or a bookstore.

It’s not the only sensational work Wallraff published. Even though I haven’t read the other ones, there are some other journeys he took throughout his life, starting with working in a tabloid newspaper or, lately wearing blackface to act as a Somali. With his work, he is criticized both from the right (as expected) and from the left for his methodology being racist. Even though I admired his way of working, there are also some disturbing aspects of his methods, maybe mainly not putting his own identity on the table in his personal observations. One main question for me is about the will to present his own experience instead of building close relationships with people he wants to represent and strengthening their voices. He tries it from time to time in the book, where he transmits the dialogues without intervention. Nevertheless, Lowest of the Low was impressive in general.

Wallraff disguises himself as Ali and builds a story around the challenge of not being able to speak Turkish. In his story, he is the son of a Turkish father who leaves him at a young age and a Greek mother. He grows up in Piraeus with his mom. When others ask him to speak a little bit of Greek, he gives examples from his early courses about Ancient Greek, Odyssey in particular. Despite being 43 years old, he does some physical training and acts as if he is around 25-30 years old. He thinks that he sees the other face of society by his experience.

I don’t aim to summarize or transfer the disgraceful experiences he was exposed to during his life as Ali. He narrates all these in the book in a way that I cannot even cover the gist of it. Instead, I want to note jobs and places he worked just to remember and go back in the future.

As first steps, he repairs the barn of a mansion in Cologne, and works at a farm in Lower Saxony, next to Grohnde Nuclear Power Plant. He goes to a football match between Germany and Turkey in Berlin, 1983 and to a meeting of CSU in Passau where Franz Josef Strauss also joins. He even pretends that he’s a follower of the Turkish nationalist movement and Türkeş, leading to him having an autograph from Strauss.

After working some time at Mcdonald’s, he critically examines the company’s work culture, which might look pretty ordinary (in a negative sense) today but was surprising for him back in the 80s. After the service sector, he starts to work in construction sites, without papers (GBI, WTB, DIMA), and as a subcontracted laborer.

Ali tries hard to be baptized and meets with several priests who reject his will to convert to Christianity. Only toward the end, one migrant priest accepts his request. He even tries his luck with Sannyasins, followers of Bhagwan, but he is also ridiculed and rejected there. An infobox among the pages redirected me to an interview Bhagwan gave to Der Spiegel in 1985, where he had some terrifying appraisal of Hitler. That wasn’t mentioned in Wild Wild Country, or maybe I missed it. This religion-side-story ends with Ali discovering the funeral services in order to send his corpse back to his country after his death.

I found out that going step by step with every other experience will be hard for me. I couldn’t even cover the majority of the book. Let me take a short note about the drug trials he attends, the factory near Hamburg that produces brake pads by processing asbestos, his long-lasting knot at Thyssen, his dear boss Adler and Würgassen nuclear power plant.

Throughout the book, Wallraff refers to numerous occasions that tarnish one’s physical health and self-esteem. Even though I read some critics who argue that what the author cares about in the end is his personal gains after these projects he did, when I think solely about the book, I found Wallraff’s effort and position positive and solidarity. As I understand, his conclusion is a puzzling one. How did these people tolerate all this misery?