Friday, January 24, 2020

Post-Wall Cinema of Christian Petzold: The Berlin School and Beyond

Post-Wall Cinema of Christian Petzold: The Berlin School and Beyond - Mapping Germany’s Past, Present and Future

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Gespenster/Ghosts (2004) is a great introduction for getting into the world of German director Christian Petzold. The film’s cold and unforgiving atmosphere, daring split narrative structure, economy of its camera movements and edits, the acute representation of its female protagonists’ disconnection and loneliness, comments on Germany’s political & cultural landscape and collective German psyche in the post-wall neo-liberal Germany. With his latest, 15th feature length film Transit, getting a wide distribution in the States in 2019, I decided to examine the impact his films have made in modern German cinema and his representation of Germany’s past, present – both east and west, and future through 4 specific films from his filmography. 

68er Studentenprotest Debatte Generation
In order to talk about Christian Petzold’s films and the Berlin School, in which he is considered as one of the key figures, one needs to talk about 68er Bewegung/German Student Movement of 1968. Around 1966, fueled by violent police crackdown and encouraged by other student protests across the globe, German university students, dissatisfied with the conservative, authoritarian policies of those in power (many of them from Nazi era), began organizing massive sit-ins and street demonstrations which started in Freie Universität Berlin/Free University Berlin, then spread around the country. They were rallying against the silence for the US imperial war in Vietnam, restrictions on civil rights and press and enacting German Emergency Acts, which was seen as the revival of fascism. The protests peaked in May 1968 with massive demonstrations resulting in the death of 2 students and declined after the coalition government passed the Emergency Acts which gave a power to the government to curb any dissident activities during national emergencies. This is also the time New German Cinema formed. Getting their inspiration from French New Wave and British New Wave, New German cinema strove for reflecting politically and artistically meaningful subjects and rebuffed the standard film production process. Its directors such as Alexander Kluge, Harun Farocki, Hartmut Bitomski, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Magarette von Trotta and many others projected their frustrations over artistic and political stagnation in the midst of the economic miracle which built on the backs of migrant labor. But however invigorating and thought provoking New German Cinema movement appeared to be, its legacy, made up a handful of internationally revered auteurs, was overshadowed by its financial failure and the fact it was mostly ignored domestically in favor of commercially viable albeit mediocre films. With strong influence of private and public television companies and the proliferation of home videos, the enthusiastic spirit of New German cinema had died out by mid-80s. 

What came after that was so called “cinema of consensus”, termed by scholar Eric Rentschler. He argued that the vast majority of German film productions in the nineties consisted of light fare meant to please and placate audiences. This trend toward uncomplicated storylines with agreeable resolutions becomes all the more prominent if one compares German cinema of the nineties with that of the seventies. Rentschler applauded New German Cinema directors who in the seventies “interrogated images of the past in the hope of refining memories and catalyzing changes.” By contrast, Rentschler saw contemporary German cinema as lacking “oppositional energies and critical voices.” A decade went by which saw the fall of the Berlin wall and the directors who were born in the 60s came of age. 

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Christian Petzold with Harun Farocki

The Berlin School is considered the most significant film movement in Germany since the New German cinema. The first wave of its directors including Angela Schanelec (b.1962), Thomas Arslan (b.1962) and Petzold (b.1960) all attended Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin/The German Film and TV Academy Berlin (DFFB). It’s name, the Berlin School, first coined by film critic Merten Worthmann in describing Schanelec’s Passing Summer (2001) and later critics at Cahier du cinéma started grouping them as Nouvelle Vague Allemande, the Berlin School is loosely connected group of filmmakers (the second wave of Berlin School directors don’t necessarily come from DFFB) who were countering what mainstream German cinema had become- the cinema of consensus. They’ve been working in each other’s projects and constantly in communication through interviews and publications (Revolver - an influential film magazine, founded by the second wave directors of the movement, Christoph Hochhäusler and Benjamin Heisenberg, which gave the Berlin School its further legitimization in the industry). Their films are not easily defined and can’t be readily be explained with few words, but the main theme these filmmakers are grappling with in the post-wall Germany is “sehnsucht” (longing)- a longing for Germany that never materialized under neoliberal capitalism. The Berlin School, in effect, is ‘reseeing’ Germany without being tied to its war past, without exploiting history. It’s the ‘here and now’ of unified Germany. Even though the Berlin School’s output doesn’t very much resemble those of New German Cinema and by the disciples of Oberhausen Manifesto, a declaration of 26 young German filmmakers to establish ‘a new German feature film” in 1962. I would argue that the connection between New German Cinema and the Berlin School runs deeper than both just countering mainstream cinema. There is definitely a strong leftwing political lineage, if not in teacher-student relations (Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky were DFFB Faculty), but in films of Petzold, Ulrich Köhler, Christoph Hochhäusler and many others the fighting spirit of counter cinema, as Köhler articulates that the job of art is not to be political (qua content) but to produce politically.

Although many critics emphasized the Berlin School’s presentist and realist approach, Petzold has been concerned with history in various ways throughout his filmography. With his last three films, Barbara which takes place in East Germany in the 80s, Phoenix, set in the aftermath of WWII and Transit, set in the near future/parallel present where Europe is in the grip of Fascist German regime once again, Petzold, unlike his compatriots of the Berlin School, does not shy away from Germany’s ugly past and finds new and innovative approaches to address the same inquiry – unfulfilled desire of finding a collective utopia that is ‘Deutschland’. By approaching Petzold’s four films in the years they were released rather than historical timeline, we gain insight to Petzold the filmmaker, evolving over time as a writer/director: 

die innere sicherheit
The first feature Petzold directed outside TV, Die innere Sicherheit (2000) tells a story of a young girl named Jeanne whose parents belong to the far-left militant organization (unsaid in the film, but most likely Red Army Faction; RAF). For the first time, this was a breakout film by a filmmaker from the Berlin School and garnered a critical and commercial success for the first time. When the film starts, this nuclear family is on the run in Greece. Always extremely cautious of their surroundings – in colorless attire, not trusting anyone, constantly on the move in their comfy confines of their white Volvo, they lead voluntarily invisible lives. Jeanne has lived on the road all her life, thus never experienced a ‘normal life’. Now that she is a teenager, she questions her predicament for the first time. She wants to attend school. She wants to ‘hang out’ at the mall and buy new clothes. She wants to fall in love. She wants to do and be like any other girl her age in a neo-liberal, capitalist society. She rebels against her parents even though she understands that there is no way she would ever leave her parents. They are the only family she’s known. After finding out the bundle of money in Deutsch Marks they just dug up from the hidden place where their comrades had buried long ago is too old and rendered useless in the time of Euros, they decide to rob a bank. Despite the screwed up the situation, Jeanne has no choice but to stick with them. There is a heartbreaking scene that takes place in their Volvo: Jeanne’s parents find out that she fell in love with a boy her age during one of their stops, that she might have spilled too much information about who they are. Now Jeanne is a liability. The parents decide to ditch her with some relatives. They justify it by saying that it’s time she needs to lead a normal life. Jeanne protests back, “You decide that after 9 years? You shouldn’t have had me then! You can take that back now!” When she pleads that she will never love anyone again, the parents relent. Perhaps it’s because deep down, Jeanne knows the contemporary life in West Germany is superficial and there is no meaning to any of it. She understands that her parents, who have been violently resisting the status quo of capitalism since the 68er Bewegung, are right ultimately, even though her young life is wrecked. Again, like in many of the Berlin School films, the atmosphere is bleak and claustrophobic. Edit in the cuts are almost brutal, accentuating the fact that the family is always on the run and their emotions are in check. Julia Hummer, a young actress who also shines in Gespenster, embodies the angst of a new generation stuck between the ideals of the generation before her in the neoliberal capitalist society, forever vacillating where to put her allegiance. Der innere Sicherheit does, like Petzold’s other films before and after it, examine sensucht, the longing for that unrealized utopia in West Germany.

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Barbara (2012) marks Petzold’s first deviation from presentist tendencies of the Berlin School. It is set in 1980 in East Germany, which was 9 years before the fall of the Berlin wall. It’s his first ‘period film’ depicting the life under German Democratic Republic (GDR)- the place of his parents. He himself never experienced growing up. It’s an entirely “A-picture” according to Christoph Höchhausler, a fellow filmmaker of the Berlin School and admirer. But the film is not a scathing indictment of the failed socialist state that was GDR. It depicts people, despite limited mobility and freedom, who try to find their sense of home as its title character chooses to do at the end of the film. And unlike German heritage films of the 90s, in which periodic details and costumes overshadow its political implications of the past, Barbara doesn’t feel like it’s a period film. Petzold’s view of the East is a of vilified view of the nightmarish failed state as it is often depicted. It’s a melodrama with the “slow realism”. 
True to the Berlin School aesthetics, the film relies on unconstructed reality of effervescent beauty of everyday life. Barbara (played here by Nina Hoss) is a city doctor who gets banished to the country as a punishment when she applies for her exit visa to go west. All the while planning her escape to the west into the arms of her wealthy West German lover. 
She meets a young, good-natured fellow doctor Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld). He slowly wins her trust with his talent and sincerity. It turns out that he shares a similar history. There is a mutual attraction between them growing but things get a little more complicated when Stella, a teen runaway from a nearby labor camp is admitted to the hospital. She immediately latches on to Barbara. The official policy is to send her back to the camp as soon as she is well. As the planned escape date approaches, Barbara's personal ethics and morality are being challenged. 

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Petzold elegantly uses a famous painting to drive the point home in the middle of Barbara. Andre uses Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp as an analogy for what it's like to be living under communist regime in the 1980s: you want to divert the attention of the spectators (or in this case, of nosy government officials) to obtain a little bit of relief/freedom in a rigid society which applies to Barbara's situation as well. The painting depicts the picture of the corpse of Aris Kindt, a convicted felon laying on the autopsy table, and Dr. Tulp explaining the musculature of the dead man’s denuded right hand (as opposed to the left, to be anatomically correct) to other medical professionals. Their gazes are fixed upon the opened anatomical textbook presented in the far corner of the painting, not on their subject, the dead man or his wrong hand. In a broader sense, Andre, knowingly or not, is showing the unrealized promise of socialist utopia – the gazes are fixed on the textbook and not on the subject suggesting the GDR’s socialist theory neglected its own people.

phoenix
If Barbara was considered a period film, then Phoenix (2015), taking place just after World War II, takes the cake for being the real period film and ‘heritage picture’ (historical drama) in all of Petzold’s work. It’s a clean break from his insistence throughout all his filmography focusing his cinematic gaze on the present rather than past. The film is also unabashedly a genre cinema. Like many of the Berlin School filmmakers, Petzold is known for his use of genre filmmaking mold to tell stories. Yella (2007) is his take on American obscure indie horror Carnival of Souls (1962) and Jerichow (2008) is a reimagining of James M. Cain’s noir Postman Always Rings Twice. He once said in an interview, “I have the feeling that I make films in the cemetery of genre cinema, from the remainders that are still there for the taking.” He willfully contributes his talents to directing TV crime series Polizeiruf 110 and professed his love for Hollywood heist genre fare like Den of Thieves (2018) at a Transit screening Q & A session in New York. Taking obvious cues from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1959), Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage (1947), Phoenix is a noir/melodrama to the highest degree. Clocking in at a very lean 98 minutes, the film revolves around a concentration camp survivor named Nelly, played once again by Nina Hoss, in her sixth collaboration with the director. Nelly returns to Berlin, now occupied by American GIs, with the aid of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a case worker for the newly established Jewish State, who keeps urging Nelly to leave Germany and go to Palestine, and start anew as soon as her bandages come off. Badly disfigured by a gunshot to the head in the camp, Nelly is told by doctors to choose any face for reconstruction or 'recreation' - perhaps a face of a movie siren or to be a different person altogether. Despite the urging of others, Nelly insists on having her old face back. Even though she was told that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld of Barbara) gave her up in order to save his own skin, Nelly can't stop searching for him, for she still loves him. In the film, they were a famous musical duo before the war, Nelly a chanteuse and Johnny a piano player. Her search for him leads to Phoenix, a cabaret where Johnny now works as a busboy. She is shattered when he doesn't recognize her. But there is enough of a passing resemblance that triggers Johnny to enact his scheme: he wants Nelly, now Esther, to pretend to be his wife who miraculously survived the camp and is now back, so as to get money from her estate (he secretly divorced her right before her arrest). Still deeply in love with Johnny, she goes along, keeping her emotions in check, pretending to learn old Nelly's behaviors, speech and writing (or just being herself), in order to see if he recognizes her in time. This might need a total suspension of disbelief from the audience, but in Petzold's assured hands, melodrama is kept to a minimum.

Petzold plays around with the idea of forced forgetfulness. After the atrocious war, many Germans wanted to erase its shameful history from their minds. It's Nelly and Lene who can't let go. Once she reemerges, she asks Johnny how to answer when the others ask about the camp. Johnny simply tells her, "They won't." But it's as if Johnny doesn't want to recognize her, even though she is right in front of him - buried and gone. At first, it's very hard to believe that a woman as striking as Hoss, with her penetrating blue eyes and sharp cheekbones, would be unrecognizable to anyone despite the disfigurement. Petzold's regular theme of loss of identity also plays a big role here. Nelly never had to be conscious of being Jewish before, but Nazi Germany made her do so, in a drastic way. She literally loses her face, but she longs for her old self even though she learns along the way that nothing is the same anymore. With these heady ideas in the background, the film moves along in its stunningly economic pace, without sacrificing beautiful period details or complexities of characters. In preparation for Nelly's comeback from the dead (to legitimize the inheritance), Johnny divulges about how his neighbors and friends turned away from them once Nelly was being hunted by the Nazis. The film perfectly builds up to its emotionally cathartic ending. 

Phoenix further shows Petzold’s direct confrontation with Germany’s past, using the B-movie genre mold. He digs up the sensitive subject of collective guilt and forgetfulness and challenges the rise of white nationalism in post-wall, supposedly cosmopolitan Germany. The film is further evidence that the filmmaker is charting new territory away from the establishing tenet of the Berlin School.

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Based on a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers on her experience in France under Nazi Occupation, Transit (2019) is another first in growing Petzold filmography. It is a film not originally written by the writer/director. It transposes its premise to modern day/near future Maseilles, again being under the Fascist Germany. With the rise of authoritarian right wing regimes and their nationalist rhetoric and anti-immigrant sentiments across Europe and everywhere, it is frightening to think that this film is not a far-fetched scenario. This time Petzold uses a sci-fi/noir mold to paint people who are again, on the run, pushed by outside forces. Georg (Franz Rogowski) is asked to deliver letters to Weidel, a writer of some importance in Paris. It's a dangerous mission- there are police raids daily and it's harder to get around on the street without constantly being asked for proper papers. Everyone knows a major raid is about to go down soon: there are people being dragged away in the streets by the heavily armed authorities- 'the purge' is at hand. But with some money promised, Georg is up to the challenge. But once he gets to Paris, he finds that the famed writer has committed suicide, leaving his documents and the latest manuscript behind. With others urging to take a sick Arab man to Marseilles and notify the Mexican consulate of the death of Weidel, Georg hops on the train to the now occupied port city. Petzold brilliantly equates this dystopian scenario with the current Syrian refugee crises. He also alludes the holocaust using trains as a human transport. The letters reveal that Weidel was promised a safe passage with his wife Marie (Paula Beer of Franz) to go to Mexico and that she will be waiting for him in Marseilles. Once he arrives at Marseilles, he reluctantly assumes the identity of Weidel, makes friends with an Arab immigrant boy whose dad (the sick man) he accompanied on the journey died on the way. He also sees Marie everywhere, scouring the city for her husband, day in and day out. She is involved with Richard, a doctor who has put his departure on hold because he doesn't want to leave her behind. No one wants to be the one who leaves. These characters are stuck, going around in circles, trapped by love, by the sense of loyalty or simply by human decency.

Transit's got a lot to do with guilty conscience: Guilt of leaving someone behind. Guilt of forgetting. Guilt of being indifferent. In this, the film is a great companion piece to Phoenix. It also is in line with Petzold's usual themes - people in transit, state of uncertainty caused by an outside force, by something bigger than an individual and again, the question of identity. Even though Petzold again uses the noir/sci-fi mold for his narrative, being an adaptation from the 40s, it resembles strongly of Nouveau Roman writers' works and feels closer to Alain Resnais’ contemplation on memories and forgetfulness.

Looking over the course of Petzold’s mid-career filmography, there are unmissable thematic consistencies coursing through all his work. Although he shares many similar themes with fellow filmmakers of the Berlin School, he deviates from presentist tendencies of the School and actively, engages in inquiries about what it means to be German into past and future. Petzold might be the fiercest and bravest of the bunch. Mapping Germany from east to west and from past to present and future, Christian Petzold continues to distinguish himself not only as a gifted storyteller but also as a keen observer of German history. 


Sources Consulted

Abel, Marco. ​The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School​. Boydell and Brewer, 2013: ​1-28, 69-110

Baute, Michael, Ekkhard Knrer, Volker Pantenberg, Stefan Pethke and Simon Rothhler​. “​The Berlin School - A Collage.​” Senses of Cinema, ​Issue 55 (July 2010) http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/feature-articles/the-berlin-school-%E2%80%93- a-collage-2/

Cook, Roger. “The Texture of History: Petzold’s Barbara and The Lives of Others.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September 2017) http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/christian-petzold-a-dossier/the-texture-of-history/

Fisher, Jaimey. “Petzold’s Phoenix, Fassbinder’s Maria Braun, and the Melodramatic Archaeology of the Rubble Past.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September 2017) http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/christian-petzold-a-dossier/petzold-fassbinder/

Fisher, Jaimey, Marco Abel. “Christian Petzold: A Dossier.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September 2017) http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/christian-petzold-a-dossier/christian-petzold-introduction/

Hjort, Mette, Scott MacKenzie eds. Cinema and nation. London; New York: Routledge, 2000: 260-278

Hochhäusler, Christoph. “The Protestant Method.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September 2017) http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/christian-petzold-a-dossier/the-protestant-method/

O’Brien, Mary-Elizabeth. ​Post-Wall German Cinema and National History: Utopianism and Dissent.​ Boydell and Brewer, 2012.

Petzold, Christian. “The Cinema of Identification Gets on my Nerves: An Interview with Christian Petzold.” by Marco Abel, Cineaste, Vol 33, No 3 (2008) https://www.cineaste.com/summer2008/the-cinema-of-identification-gets-on-my-nerves

Prager, Brad. “No Time Like the Present: The Edges of the World in Christian Petzold’s Barbara.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September, 2017) http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/christian-petzold-a-dossier/christian-petzolds-barbara/

Roy, Rajendra and Anke Leweke. ​The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule​. Museum of Modern Art, 2013



Sunday, January 12, 2020

How Turkish German Immigrant Experiences are Shaping Post-Wall German Cinema

How Turkish German Immigrant Experiences are Shaping Post-Wall German Cinema:
Fatih Akin’s Head-On and Thomas Arslan’s A Fine Day

Turkey & Germany
Image Ralph Peters

        November 9th, 2019 commemorates 30 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall that effectively ended the Cold War. After the fall, the unified Germany has become the global powerhouse not only economically but politically and culturally as well, with Berlin as its center once again. With the influx of migrants from the global south flooding into the country, caused by political instability and economic hardship, the face of the German society is very different now, where 15 percent of all German population considers themselves immigrants, than almost 60 years ago when the wall first went up across Berlin. The post-wall German cinema with works by directors like Thomas Arslan and Fatih Akin not only reflect this change, but invigorate the whole German cinema which has been laying stagnant since the New German Cinema of the 70s and 80s. 

        The Berlin Wall, built by the German Democratic Republic (GDR, also commonly known as East Germany), to prevent the East Germans fleeing to the West, effectively cut off the flow of manual workers needed for economic revival after the devastation of WWII. West Germany (FRG) then signed a series of bilateral labor recruitment agreements with other countries, including Turkey, on the guest workers program. I thought it would be imperative to examine the history, especially of west Germany, in order to understand how Turkish German experiences are shaping the post-wall German cinema in the new millennium.

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        Two films by two filmmakers I am concentrating on are Fatih Akin’s Gegen die Wand/Head-On and Thomas Arslan’s Der schöne Tag/A Fine Day. I chose Akin and Arslan because they both are second generation Turkish Germans who came of age and start practicing their film craft in the post-wall 1989 Germany, to be precise, Arslan, since 1990 (19 Portraits) and Akin (Sensin- Du bist es), 1995. Even though they both are regarded as practicing hybridity- where they have experienced both Turkish and German cultures and move as freely between them in their craft as possible, they occupy very different areas in German motion-picture industry. I will examine how the representation of Turkish Germans in German cinema evolved through the years and investigate how their culture is contributing to the revival of the German cinema and also reflecting their uneasy relationship within the now-unified Germany. But my inquiry is not a complete picture. Head-On came out in 2004 and A Fine Day was released in 2001. Since then, many things have happened and both Akin and Arslan made other films. These films are snap shots of what was then, early turn of the millennium, and might not reflect what’s currently happening. This inquiry will need a postscript at some point.

        Germany signed labor agreement with Turkey in 1961, the same year the Berlin Wall went up. It was meant to be a guest worker arrangement that soon proved to be neither practical nor profitable for the corporations. Many migrant workers stayed after two-year term and later brought their family in to the country. There are close to 4 million estimated Turks, including ethnic minorities from Turkey, currently living in Germany, a country of 80 million. That’s roughly 5 percent of all population. Germany holds the most concentrated Turkish population outside Turkey. Even though their almost 60 year presence in the country with its government repeatedly trying to join the European Union since the 80s, their immigration status and path to citizenship were in constant limbo until 1999, when the Citizenship Law finally granted the descendants of the first wave of migrant workforce in the 60s and 70s to become citizens, whereas descendants of German blood (having either of German parent)- Russian Germans and Eastern European Germans were automatically granted citizenship. In many ways, the post wall Germany brought out in the open the fragility of its perceived cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism that FRG strove for. 

Ali
        The first wave of Turkish German cinema of the 70s and 80s were mainly domestic dramas or about the problems of the guest worker (Gastarbeiter) by directors identified with New German Cinema. Getting their inspiration from French New Wave and British New Wave, New German cinema strove for reflecting politically and artistically meaningful subjects and rebuffed the standard film production process. Its directors such as Alexander Kluge, Harun Faroki, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and many others whose films projected their frustrations over artistic and political stagnation in the midst of the economic miracle on the backs of migrant labor. This “Gastarbeiter cinema” was that of “cinema of duty”, drawing on a social realist tradition and relying on ethnic stereotypes, used empathetic identification to promote social reform and political change. They “mostly involved overdetermined figure of the suffering and entrapped Turkish woman, a key witness in both feminist critiques of patriarchy and liberal arguments for secular democracy.” Examples of this period of Turkish German cinema would be Helma Sanders-Brahms’s Shirin’s Wedding (1976), Yimaz Güney’s Baba (1971) and Hark Bohm’s Yasemin (1988). But it’s impossible not to mention Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), when talking about the immigrant experience in Germany, especially for the fact that Fassbinder’s original intention was to call the film “All Turks are Called Ali”. But instead a Turkish protagonist, wanting to give the starring role to El Hadi ben Salem, a Moroccan immigrant, who was his lover at the time, it became Angst essen seele auf/Fear Eats the Soul. Faithfully borrowing the storyline of a classic Hollywood melodrama, All that Heaven Allows (1955, dir. Douglas Sirk), Fassbinder criticizes postwar racism as a continuation of the Nazi past and also reifying the stranger as an object of orientalist fascination, while playing with traditional gender roles. Emmi (played by Bridget Mira), an elderly cleaning woman, meets a good natured Moroccan guest worker, falls in love. Their improbable love is tested by racism and general social condemnation. There’s also a sexual politics and power dynamics at play. Just like many protagonists of the cinema of duty, Ali can be seen as the prime example of an enlightened victimology. But however invigorating and thought provoking New German Cinema movement appeared to be, its legacy, made up a handful of internationally revered auteurs, was overshadowed by its financial failure and the fact it was mostly ignored domestically in favor of commercially viable albeit mediocre films. With strong influence of private and public television companies and proliferation of home videos, the enthusiastic spirit of New German cinema had died out by mid-80s. 

        What came after that was so called “cinema of consensus”, termed by scholar Eric Rentschler. He argued that the vast majority of German film productions in the nineties consisted of light fare meant to please and placate audiences. This trend toward uncomplicated storylines with agreeable resolutions was all the more prominent if one compared German cinema of the nineties with that of the seventies. Rentschler applauded New German Cinema directors who in the seventies “interrogated images of the past in the hope of refining memories and catalysing changes.” By contrast, Rentschler saw contemporary German cinema as lacking “oppositional energies and critical voices.” He mentions exception to this cinema of consensus, “offbeat voices and less reconciled visions” of directors like Tom Tykwer, Fatih Akin, Rosa von Praunheim, Ulrike Ottinger and Harrun Farocki, who made “less visible films with a historical ground, a post-national sensibility and a critical edge.”

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        Fatih Akin is the prime example when considering the shift in filmic sensibilities from “cinema of duty” to the “pleasures of hybridity” Born in Hamburg in 1973 to Turkish immigrant parents, Akin went to University of Fine Arts of Hamburg to study Visual Communications and graduated in 2000. He grew up watching countless films on VHS tapes, both Turkish and Hollywood cinema, professes his love for Scorsese. His debut feature, made while he was still in school, Kurz und schmerzlos (1998) was said to have “represented New German-Turkish Cinema.” His films contributed to a street culture known as Kanak - first used as a derogatory term for Turks and other Arab countries’ immigrants in Germany, later became a normal colloquial term for Turkish Germans and used as self-identification. His kinetic and visceral films, mostly concerning second generation of Turkish immigrants and bonds between immigrants from other countries living in Germany became a commercial and critical success. But it was his fourth feature Gegen die wand/Head-On (2004) that really pushed him to be the face of contemporary German cinema. It won numerous awards, including Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival, Best Film and Audience Award at European Film Awards and Best Foreign Film at the National Board of Review in 2004, while directly dealing with the theme of the Turkish-German experience, albeit secular. It grossed 14 million USD at the box office. But when we talk about the perception and marketing of Fatih Akin in the German press, his films are treated as still the ones of cultural in-betweenness, not the cultural hybridity and transnationalism. Head-On follows heavily on the tradition of melodrama - explosion of emotions with larger than life characters. It deals with many of the societal taboos - sex, drugs and suicide that are normally seen as opposite in a traditional, family oriented, patriarchal immigrant community. The film is a head on collision with these familial concepts. It’s a fatalistic love story of two suicidal individuals who happen to be of Turkish descent. Cahit is a heavy drinking widower who crashes his car into a wall, and Sibel is a young woman who is trying to get away from her traditional, patriarchal Turkish German family by slitting her wrist. They meet at a mental hospital. Sibel has a proposition - she wants him to marry her in order to free herself from her traditional family. And because he is a Turk, they will consent. For this fake marriage, she will cook and clean the house and they can see other people in the meantime. After her dramatic second suicide attempt, Cahit gives in, and their strange romance starts. It’s Sibel’s presence in Cahit’s life that gives him meaning to continue living. But Cahit kills a man one day to protect the honor of Sibel and goes to jail and Sibel moves to Turkey to start a new life. And It’s her retreat to Turkey that ultimately connects Cahit to his forgotten Turkish roots for the first time.

        In the world of Head-On, Germany in mid-2000s, Hamburg to be exact, there are no Germans treating Cahit or Sibel any different because they are Turkish descent. Cahit doesn’t even speak Turkish very well. Only their names give away their backgrounds. In a funny scene, a German psychologist asks what the meaning of Cahit’s name is. Cahit, completely perplexed by the question, asks back why. The psychologist tells him that all “their” names mean something, something beautiful, deep and profound. Cahit tells the smiling doctor that he is completely nuts. Germany in 2000s is seen as secular, transnational society where Turkish Germans freely question the possibilities of simultaneous transnationalism and rootlessness. 

        The Berlin School is perhaps the most significant film movement in Germany since the New German cinema of the 70s. The first wave of film directors it produced were Angela Schanelec, Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. First coined by film critic Merten Worthmann in describing Schanelec’s Passing Summer (2001) and later that same year by Rainer Gansera in his review of Arslan’s A Fine Day (2001), the Berlin School is loosely connected group of filmmakers (the second wave of Berlin School directors don’t necessarily come from DFFB) who are countering what mainstream German cinema has become - the cinema of consensus. Working in each other’s projects and constantly in communication through interviews and publications (Revolver - an influential film magazine, founded by the second wave directors of the movement, Christophe Hochäusler and Benjamin Heisenberg, which gave the Berlin School its further legitimization) in the industry. Their films are not easily defined and can’t be readily be explained with few words but the main theme these filmmakers are grappling with in the post-wall Germany is “sehnsucht” (longing)- a longing for Deutschland that never materialized under neoliberal capitalism. The Berlin School, in effect, is ‘reseeing’ Germany without being tied to its war past, without exploiting history. It’s the ‘here and now’ of unified Germany.

A Fine Day
        Thomas Arslan was born in 1962 in the north-central German city of Braunschweig, to Turkish immigrant parents. He went to an elementary school in Turkey, but lived his formative years in Germany, studying German literature and eventually ending up in DFFB: Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin/The German Film and TV Academy Berlin. He has said in interviews that Godard, Bresson and Rossellini’s works have influenced him. At a glance, by virtue of his ethnic background is cast as being concerned with the representation of (ethnic) identity. With nine feature films under his belt, he is best known for his later termed “Berlin Trilogy”- Brothers and Sisters, Dealer and A Fine Day, chronicling the lives of young Turkish Germans in Kreuzberg section of Berlin. I chose A Find Day (2001) because the first two of the trilogy might mark the shift from a ‘cinema of the affected’ to a ‘cinema of hybridity’, but their protagonists continue to “struggle with the similar problems as their predecessors in the Gastarbeiterkino,” whereas in A Fine Day, Deniz, its protagonist, at a glance, doesn’t seem to be afflicted with the immigrant’s blues. In the film, we follow Deniz, a young Turkish German woman living in Kreuzberg, Berlin, as she takes public transportation and walks around the town to meet her friends and family, to go to work, to get around in general. She navigates briskly and confidently around town. The film is devised as one day in the life of… story. She breaks up with her boyfriend, attends her job as a voice-over actress, does her laundry at her mother’s, hangs out with her successful architect sister who is briefly in town, lectures young neighborhood kanaks who whistled at her and starts flirting with a neighbor. Nothing dramatic happens. Everything is almost documentary-like. Yet, with deliberate camera movement, Deniz’s gaze, gestures and seemingly trivial things that are said in conversations, one can detect Deniz’s isolation and loneliness and explains many of the symptoms of integration problems the right wing politicians like to talk about after almost 60 years of assimilation. Even though it is the new millennium and the second or third generation Turkish Germans have gained their rights to their eventual citizenship, their identity, their sense of being German is shaky. Arslan simply demonstrates this fact in a single scene in the beginning of the film where Deniz breaks up with her German boyfriend - she walks into a cafe to meet her boyfriend. during their conversation, which is over the shoulder shot of Deniz, the camera dollies over to the other side of his shoulder, breaking the 180 degree law for coverage and completely changing the audience’s point of view of Deniz. Then the camera reverts back to the original position. Is she as confident as she presents herself? Are we seeing the other side of her? The whole reality is shaken. Her cosmopolitan existence may not be as solid as it presents itself to be. If not Deniz herself is struggling with traditions, it is shown through her Turkish mother’s dilemma - she is widowed a while ago. But to honor the memories of her late husband, she says she would never be in another relationship, even though Deniz reminds her that she is still young and can remarry. She chastises her mom for being old fashioned. Just like many of Arslan’s protagonists, Deniz hardly shows any emotions. There is something definitely missing in her life. Her rootlessness is shown in many different occasions throughout the film. Arslan cleverly suggests through her being an actress, that she can or pretends to be any body- Deniz is told to be a little more emotional when she is in a dubbing session, for Eric Rohmer’s Summer’s Tale, in German. Whatever she is yearning for, she tries to find it in other people. Her gaze is not that of romantic gaze in Rohmer movies. Her gaze is searching kind, trying to find a stability, in a place, in a person, in a culture. 

        Like in Akin’s films, there is a solidarity among other immigrants, Deniz flirts with a young man from Spain. She might have some common understanding with the Spaniard, but she doesn’t find what she is looking for in him either. Arslan suggests in the smallest ways the fragility of the secularism for the Turks living in a supposedly cosmopolitan country. The fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 and difficulties of German reunification undermined the public commitment to diversity and gave way to a period of unprecedented rightwing violence that began with attacks on asylum seekers and contract workers. Then the violence of 9/11 and its worldwide reverberation – London and Madrid bombings, changed the dynamics again. I dare say that in a very subtle way, A Fine Day was not only reflective but prophetic in seeing these changes and uncertainties in German society. 

        The Berlin School might be well known in festival circuits and film academia, but it shares not only the spirit of the New German Cinema but the burden of being a financial liability. An interview with Christoph Hochäusler reveals as much: 

“Of course the implication of the label is sometimes harmful. For example, when it comes to financing a film I've heard many times that they say 'we don't want to finance the Berlin school films'. Because the industry is full of expectations - 'they (the Berlin school films) are too slow' or call it whatever else you can think of when you don't like something. So there is always a problem being labeled like that.”

        Both Akin and Arslan had made several other films since Head-On and A Fine Day. They have moved on from films with Turkish protagonists and expanded their palettes. Akin directed another acclaimed searing melodrama of forgiveness and redemption with Turkish protagonists in The Edge of Heaven (2007) and revenge thriller In the Fade (2017) with the international star Barbara Kreuger in the lead role who is avenging her Kurdish-German husband’s death in neo-nazi attack. Most recently he directed a serial killer movie based on a best selling novel, The Golden Glove (2019). Arslan, like the Berlin School comrades, namely Christian Petzold and Christoph Hochhäusler, delved into genre filmmaking. In the Shadows (2010) is his no nonsense thriller of the highest order, with an Eastern European hitman protagonist operating in Germany. Then he did a Western, Gold (2013), starring Nina Hoss, a Petzold regular, about German prospectors in British Columbia in the 19th century. Recently he did Bright Nights (2017) which was shot in Norway. It is about an Austrian man’s road trip to re-tracing his father’s past who just passed away. 

        A lot has happened in the last two decades. Arab Spring, terror attacks, ISIS, Syria and its refugee crisis put a lot of pressure on European Union to reassess their immigration policies. We are living in an unprecedented political, economical, environmental crises world wide. The rise of nationalism in many European countries, including Germany can’t be ignored. The future seems all but uncertain. Germany has undoubtedly benefited from its Turkish immigrants, economically and culturally. But we are living in a different world than 20 years ago. If Akin reflected the pulse of the cosmopolitan spirit of 2000s Germany, Arslan showed the reflection of that fragile cosmopolitanism and somehow predicted its uncertain future. 


Sources Consulted

Abel, Marco. The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School. Boydell and Brewer, 2013: 31-78

Baute, Michael, Ekkhard Knrer, Volker Pantenberg, Stefan Pethke and Simon Rothhler. “The Berlin School - A Collage.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 55 (July 2010)
http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/feature-articles/the-berlin-school-%E2%80%93-a-collage-2/

Bennhold, Katrin. “Germany Has Been Unified for 30 Years. Its Identity Still Is Not,” New York Times, November 8, 2019

Gueneli, Berna. Fatih Akin's Cinema and the New Sound of Europe. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2019

Hake, Sabine, and Barbara Mennel, eds. Turkish German Cinema in the New Millennium: Sites, Sounds, and Screens. NEW YORK; OXFORD: Berghahn Books, 2014

Hoad, Phil, “Continental drift,” The Guardian, February 14. 2008. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/feb/15/worldcinema

Hochhäusler, Christoph “Interview: Christoph Hochhäusler On The Lives of Victors And Dangers Of Being Labeled.” by Dustin Chang, Screen Anarchy, April 13, 2015. Web Magazine. https://screenanarchy.com/2015/04/interview-christoph-hochhausler-on-the-lies-of-the-victors-and-dangers-of-being-labeled.html

Martin, James P. "Crossing Bridges/Crossing Cultures: The Films of Fatih Akin." South Atlantic Review, Vol.74, No. 2, 2009: 82-92

O’Brien, Mary-Elizabeth. Post-Wall German Cinema and National History: Utopianism and Dissent. Boydell and Brewer, 2012

Roy, Rajendra and Anke Leweke. The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule. Museum of Modern Art, 2013

Takenag, Lara. “I Will Never Be German: Immigrants and Mixed-Race Families in Germany on the Struggle to Belong,” New York Times, November 8, 2019