February 10–20, 2005

Ghosts

(1)

One of the remarkable aspects of the state of contemporary film discourse on world cinema is that one of its traditional pillars – that of German cinema – has almost completely fallen off the radar. Regularly scouring many of the leading academic and non-academic film journals and magazines published in English, I rarely find even the scantest mentioning of contemporary German films and directors, let alone more extended, critical analyses. Indeed, this phenomenon has not entirely escaped some recent commentators. For instance, well-known German film scholar Eric Rentschler writes in “Postwall Prospects: An Introduction” that German films have essentially “disappeared from American arthouses and distribution circuits. […] In crucial ways and for many reasons, we [in the US] have lost touch with contemporary German cinema.” (2) German film critic Andreas Busche, writing for Germany’s premier film magazine, Epd Film: Das Kino Magazin, seconds Rentschler’s observation, complaining that four years after the surprise success of Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt) (1998) even the most astute American critics have missed the boat on the recent resurgence of German cinema. According to Busche, the real regeneration of German cinema is less due to creative impetuses given by the internationally somewhat more renowned directors such as Tykwer, Oliver Hirschbiegel (The Experiment/Das Experiment, 2002) or Doris Dörrie (Men/Männer, 1985; Nobody Loves Me/Keiner liebt mich, 1994) than to the energy displayed by an even younger, newer generation of German filmmakers including Ulrich Köhler (Bungalow, 2002), Hans Weingartner (The White Sound/Das weisse Rauschen, 2001; The Edukators/Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei, 2004), or Markus Mischkowski/Kai Maria-Steinkühler (Westend, 2001). These directors, many of whom are graduates of an increasing number of German film schools, display a personal aesthetic and narrative sensibility that has recently found some recognition at international film festivals but has not yet been recognised or understood as a larger, coherent phenomenon (3).

Despite the fact that I am German myself, I, too, had gradually lost touch with the cinema of my native country ever since I moved to the United States in the early 1990s. My interest in and enthusiasm for German cinema was recently rekindled, however, by a generous present from a German friend who had sent me a dozen post-wall German DVDs, including Bungalow, Wolfgang Becker’s Life Is All You Get (Das Leben ist eine Baustelle) (1997), Fatih Akin’s Short Sharp Shock (Kurz und Schmerzlos) (1998), Sebastian Schipper’s Gigantic (Absolute Giganten) (1999), Hans-Christina Schmid’s Crazy (2000), Lars Becker’s Kanak Attack (2000), and Benjamin Quabeck’s Play it Loud! (Verschwende deine Jugend) (2003). The individual merits of one or the other of these films may certainly be debatable. Yet, it was the cumulative effect of these films that took me by surprise: they looked and felt like nothing I had come to associate with German cinema either in form of its two canonical periods of glory – that of the Weimar era and that of the New German Cinema, respectively – or in form of the many Beziehungskomödien (romantic comedies) such as Sönke Wortmann’s Maybe, Maybe Not (Der bewegte Mann) (1994), Detlef Buck’s Jailbirds (Männerpension) (1995), or Helmut Dietl’s Rossini (1996), that have been ruling the German box-office from the early 1990s on. My curiosity and excitement triggered, I thus decided to make the trip across the Atlantic to attend the premier showcasing event for new German films, the Berlin Film Festival, also simply known as the “Berlinale”.

The main competition screened three new German productions: Christian Petzold’s latest masterpiece Ghosts (Gespenster); Mark Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Sophie Scholl: Die letzten Tage), a film that is less than satisfying but is worth the price of admission alone for Julia Jentsch’s outstanding performance of the title role; and the episode film One Day in Europe by Hannes Stöhr, whose previous film Berlin is in Germany (2001) is one of the key works of post-wall German cinema. In addition, the festival featured a wide array of new German films in its various side series. Over the last four years, the “Perspective German Cinema” series, which exclusively showcases first-time efforts by German directors, has advanced to becoming one of the most popular events of what is generally considered the most audience-friendly of Europe’s big three film festivals. In case one failed to secure a ticket for any of the films featured in this series, the Berlinale provided attendees with many other opportunities to satisfy their cravings for new German films. Scattered across its half dozen side series featuring German film productions, anyone interested in recent German film inevitably gravitated towards the “Panorama”, the more experimentally-oriented “Forum”, and the “German Cinema” series. Showcasing films that already had their theatrical run in Germany during the previous year, the “German Cinema” series was organised by Heinz Badewitz, who also heads the International Hofer Spielfilmtage, an annual festival that has established itself as the more quirky, cutting edge alternative to the Berlinale for the showcasing of new German titles.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

The films I ended up seeing touched on a remarkable variety of subject matters and approached them from a range of aesthetic angles that indeed confirmed my sense that contemporary German cinema has finally begun to become bolder in its attempts to find cinematic means appropriate to its subject matters. To briefly summarise before discussing a few films in greater detail: Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (Der Untergang), Dennis Gansel’s Napola, and the aforementioned Sophie Scholl are films about the Third Reich, with especially the first two problematically relying on Hollywood narrative strategies and aesthetics (4). Thorsten Trimpop’s The Irrational Remains (Der irrationale Rest) and Justyna Feicht’s first film Remote Area (Durchfahrtsland) are two films that, in different ways, mobilise the documentary form to zoom in on various versions of catatonia that seems to have affected much of post-wall Germany. Sebastian Strasser’s 30-minute short film Happy End depicts a boy, now a high school-age teenager, who remembers the pains of growing up in an orderly bourgeois family that lacked patience for their son’s quirky, indeed obsessive, need to organise his daily experiences by counting everything, especially the number of steps he takes to get from school to his parents’ home and back. Mennan Yapo’s first feature, Soundless (Lautlos), an intelligent hit-man thriller/love story, Tilman Zens’ graduation film Don’t Look For Me (Such mich nicht), a well-made hit-woman thriller reminiscent of La Femme Nikita, and Anno Saul’s second feature, Kebab Connection, an engaging German-Turkish romantic comedy, are three examples of German cinema’s more recently developed willingness to embrace genre conventions (5). Thomas Durchschlag’s debut film Alone (Allein), Florian Schwarz’s graduation film Katze im Sack (Let the Cat out of the Bag is its English title, though a more accurate translation would be “Cat in the Bag”), and Maximilian Erlenwein’s 30-minute film school effort Blackout are, in their different cinematic ways, scruffy, dark films about young Germans who in one way or another seem adrift and lost.

The co-directed Berlin Stories (Stadt als Beute) (dir. Irene von Alberti, Miriam Dehne, Esther Gronenborn) adapts Berlin playwright René Pollesch’s theatre play of the same name that provides simultaneously an inside view of the alternative theatre scene in Berlin and a rather discursive critique of post-Wende Berlin’s attempt to transform itself into a capital of global capitalism. Jörn Hintzer and Jakob Hüfner’s Measures to Better the World (Weltverbesserungsmassnahmen) provides a somewhat less earnest critique of contemporary Germany. This somewhat gimmicky film consists of seven gently satirical episodes illustrating various measures that might improve the world, or, rather, the state of post-Wende Germany. For example, one episode proposes to get rid of annoying traffic jams – and thus increase social mobility – by getting Germans to move their cars synchronically once traffic lights switch to green. Another episode depicts the efforts to improve the local economy of a small Slavic community in Saxony by experimenting with a new local paper currency, the “Sorb Euro”, that comes with its internal, chemically controlled, sell-by date. Expiring after only a few week’s time, the currency’s short-lived value forces people to overcome their – typically German – instinct to hoard their savings in bank accounts (6).

Seeing so many films in a week’s time almost inevitably solicits one’s brain to seek a connecting thread, a theme that somehow holds the films together – or, perhaps better, that makes them hold together. Despite the risk of superimposing a narrative coherence on what are undeniably very different films in terms of their aesthetic choices and narrative subject matters, I nevertheless couldn’t help but noticing that the vast majority of recent German film productions address in one way or another their characters’ need for security and the attendant problematic of individual and social mobility. Though hardly ever explicitly articulated in exactly these terms, this somewhat nebulously expressed and felt desire for security percolating through these films might very well be considered symptomatic of the anxieties experienced by contemporary Germans. For the last 15 years, Germany has been on a rollercoaster ride that began with the extreme emotional heights of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, only to end up in 2005 with a record number of unemployed (now more than 5 million, a number unheard of since the days of the Weimar Republic), an increasingly ineffective bureaucracy, a long-cherished social welfare system that is now on the verge of collapsing, and, consequently, a rapidly intensifying disillusion with German politicians and their ability to produce effective solutions to the ongoing social malaise. All of this appears to express itself today in a general sense of anxiety, if not flat-out fear, which symptomatically manifests itself in an individual and social unwillingness to move lest the final remainders of a once solid sense of (social) security will vanish, too. Many of the German films screened at the Berlinale appear to respond to exactly this nexus of negativity (7).

What I find most interesting, however, is precisely the aesthetic choices and their effects that set these films apart from each other in their collective encounter with the socio-political and psychic aftermath of the events of 1989–1990. The most exciting of these new films – Oskar Roehler’s scathing Fassbinderesque family melodrama Agnes and His Brothers (Agnes und seine Brüder), Andreas Dresen’s latest effort in neo-Neorealism, Willenbrock, Petzold’s beautifully rendered exercise in visual abstraction and narrative minimalism, Ghosts; but also Till Endemann’s intelligently told coming-of-age story Smile of the Monsterfish (Das Lächeln der Tiefseefische) and Robert Thalheim’s compelling narrative about a gradually reconnecting father-son duo, Net (Netto) – are ultimately less interested in “representing” the German Zeitgeist than in presenting images that manage to have a purchase on Germany in 2005 precisely because they are aesthetically abstracted from empirical reality, notwithstanding some of these films’ generally “realist” narrative strategies. That is, the best of recent German cinema creates immediacy with the image rather than “empirical reality”. As a result of the very precision of the images, the objects imaged are ultimately removed from “reality”, but it is this very removal that ultimately infuses these images – as images – with a surprising vitality and, indeed, powerful purchase on Germany in the post-wall period. In a way, to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari’s argument about what they call the “event”, these images – intensifications of visible reality – are born in History and fall back into it but are not of it (8).

For instance, Oskar Roehler’s latest melodrama Agnes and His Brothers provides a caustic critique of the liberal-bourgeois consensus of post-wall German society by intensifying to breaking point the very attitudes comprising this consensus. Just like Fassbinder and Sirk before him, Roehler makes effective use of tightly framed camera shots through windows and doors, thus allowing the composition of the images to render visible what the characters themselves do not see (though at least some of them might feel it) and what the audience might not be willing to see on their own: namely, how it is these very liberal-bourgeois values and habits that may very well be (part of) the root-causes of contemporary German society’s nearly all-pervasive stasis.

Agnes and His Brothers

Consider, for instance, how Roehler depicts his three main characters. Agnes (Martin Weiss), formerly a man, is gentle to a fault. On the one hand tolerating a man who physically abuses her and, on the other, pining for an old love of hers before she had her sex change operation, she almost masochistically sets herself up for both emotional and physical abuse. Despite such a drastic attempt at self-reinvention, Agnes ultimately remains stuck in the past. Hans-Jörg (Moritz Bleibtreu, one of the stars of post-wall German cinema), one of Agnes’ two brothers, is a librarian who compulsively masturbates. Working as a librarian, he constantly finds himself surrounded by a seemingly never-ending number of teasingly beautiful young women whose choice of clothing suggests more the set of a porn shoot or strip club than the respectable propriety of a library. However, to take these images as “realistic” would be as mistaken as accepting at face value the ostensibly happy endings of Sirk’s melodramas. Though these women are not merely figments of Hans-Jörg’s oversexed imagination – after all, he does follow them to the women’s restroom where, sitting in a stall with a peephole he especially prepared for this purpose, he masturbates to the vision of his unsuspecting victims – their “existence” cinematically functions as a sheer affective intensifier. Not coincidentally, he eventually participates in a porn shoot where he will finally meet the woman of his dreams with whom he – having killed his father whom he suspected of having abused him as a child – is seen fleeing Germany for Baghdad of all places. The precision with which Roehler images Hans-Jörg’s porn-influenced desires has, however, the effect of creating an abstract image rather than a realistic one: it is the reality of an image – the melodramatic pornography at the heart of the desire for normalcy – that becomes available in its immediacy rather than the representation of an empirical reality.

But it is such abstraction that ultimately allows the film to visualise the root of the larger problem at hand. In the person of Werner (veteran actor Herbert Knaup), the third brother, Roehler has found the perfect foil for his critique. A politician for the German Green party, he is obsessed with institutionalising the so-called Dosenpfand (a law that requires all Germans to return their cans – soda cans, beer cans, etc. – to get reimbursed for part of the purchase price). At first, this legally mandated and economically reinforced recycling scheme might seem to be part of an ecologically friendly political agenda. Yet, the way Roehler depicts Werner makes visible how much the once utopian energy of the ausserparlamentarischen Opposition (extra-parliamentary opposition), or APO, of the late 1960s – a good part of which eventually joined in the founding of the Green Party in the late 1970s – has mutated in the post-wall period into an embodiment of German culture’s worst tendencies to stifle any existing social energies by territorialising them onto a bureaucratic level (9).

And yet, the odd part about Roehler’s handling of Werner is that despite the obviously pathetic figure he is meant to be he is not altogether unsympathetic. Or, perhaps it is because Roehler is so relentless with Werner that the pathos in pathetic immanently solicits sympathy (rather than just pity). At one time we see through the viewfinder of his son’s DV camera as he barks on the phone at what is suggested to be Joshka Fischer, a real Green politician who is currently the real German foreign minister, as he crouches with his pants down in his home office in order to, yes, take a dump! Later, we see him literally begging his estranged wife to grant him one last fuck before she leaves him. When she finally agrees as she’s sitting behind the steering wheel of her cabriolet, Roehler stages the scene in such a way that it maximises Werner’s patheticness. He also stages it so that it essentially belies the photographic realism of the scene.

Over and over Roehler cinematically intensifies the realist mise en scène to such a degree that it reaches breaking point. At these points of maximum intensity, which the melodramatic narrative structure rhythmically increases as the film moves towards its climax and “happy end”, Roehler abstracts from the liberal-bourgeois realist surface its own debilitating logic. This logic is as much characterised by its narcissistic obsession with maintaining a sense of propriety and security (even if, as in Werner’s case, it comes in form of a family who has lost all respect for him precisely because of his de facto impropriety) as by its utter lack of imagination, or the ability to re-envision the socio-political plane in any other way than through the territorialising force of the very bureaucratic lens that is increasingly impotent to operate in ways that can be considered productive for the citizenry. By pushing hard on the melodramatic heart of the ostensible normalcy expressed by the realist mise en scène, Roehler shifts liberal-bourgeois normalcy as such and makes it visible in new ways – ways that make it difficult for the viewers not to feel that their individual obsessions with security is as much part of the cause for the larger social paralysis as this social stasis is bound to preclude the individual from ever truly realising his or her desire for security.

Andreas Dresen’s latest installment in his attempt to chronicle reunified Germany from the perspective of former East Germans makes the issue of “security” even more explicit (10). As in Thalheim’s Net, where a dead-beat, unemployed, divorced father of a high-school aged son fantasises about having a career in securities precisely because security is what has been lacking in his life since the reunification, so Willenbrock presents a character whose struggle to maintain control over his life (and that of his wife whom he seems to love despite the fact that he frequently cheats on her) is ultimately doomed. Net frames the issue by focusing on characters that exist already fairly low in the social hierarchy of post-wall Germany. The father, Marcel (Milan Peschel in a break-out performance), for instance, dwells in a small, old, run-down apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, a working class neighbourhood in the eastern part of unified Berlin. His clever, (street-)smart son, Sebastian (Sebastian Butz), nevertheless chooses to live with his father, rather than moving in with his mother and her new man. Sebastian rejects the ostensible suburban idyll (a townhouse with fenced yard, a neat stereo, and what Sebastian sarcastically calls a “Wessie” haircut flaunted by her mother’s new “provider”) because in his astute mind this “idyll” represents nothing but another exemplary embodiment of the West’s relentless exploitation of the East. Endemann’s Smile of the Monsterfish ultimately makes a similar point as it depicts a down-and-out father (Dietmar, played by Peter Kurth) and his teenaged son (Malte, played by Jacob Matschenz) who (ultimately unsuccessfully) try to hold on to their impoverished family home at the Baltic Sea. The film shows them serving the very vacationers to whom their conditions of living remain obscured by beach dunes and hotels owned by greedy capitalists who desire to get a hold of their property in order to build new vacation homes.

In contrast, in Dresen’s film, Bernd Willenbrock lives with his wife in their recently built, spacious one-family home in a well-to-do middle class neighbourhood in Magdeburg. Willenbrock, unlike Marcel or Dietmar, is what Germans call a Wendegewinner: someone who managed to profit from the unification. Usually Wendegewinner are former West Germans, but Willenbrock, a former East German, managed to acquire a comfortable level of wealth by building a successful used-car business (which profits from exploiting the economic desperation of fellow East Germans). He, in other words, seems to have accomplished the dream of social upward mobility, which provided security for him as manifested in both material objects (house, vacation home, expensive car, etc.) and the remarkable loyalty of his wife. Crucially, even though Susanne (Inka Friedrich) seems to be aware of her husband’s affairs, she tolerates his infidelities, either because she actually loves him, or because he bought her a nice clothing boutique at a local shopping mall, or because she needs him to provide a minimum sense of security. In reality, it is probably all of the above, but the last aspect symptomatically turns out to crucial.

As played by one of Dresen’s regulars, the great Axel Prahl, Bernd Willenbrock dominates his environments through a combination of his self-assured physical presence, rooted in his double-success as an entrepreneur and philanderer, and his undeniable charm and good-naturedness. Even though the film’s predominantly grey images emphasise from the beginning that something is amiss (economically prosperous landscapes look different from the wasteland-like area surrounding Willenbrock’s business), the protagonist initially shows no cracks in his armour. He’s a man who knows he’s got it made and who can enjoy life because it’s been good to him.

Willenbrock

All of this changes, however, once Russian burglars surprise him and his wife in their family home. From this point on, we see how Willenbrock feels the ground underneath his feet giving way. With the local police unable to provide him and his wife with much reassurance and the local Russian mafia always attempting to gain more influence in his business, Willenbrock’s life gradually unravels. By the end, he has shot another (the same?) burglar as he caught him trying to break into his regular home, dumped one of his girlfriends while another woman (a young university student) resists all of his advances, and the local Russian mafia boss continues to increase his presence on Willenbrock’s used-car sales lot. Most catastrophically, his wife finally decides to leave him. It is telling that this happens at the very moment when she does not feel secure in their home anymore (notwithstanding a new alarm system that her husband just installed). That is, even though she also lost patience with her husband’s infidelities, she leaves him only once he cannot provide her with a sense of physical and psychological (not to mention emotional) security.

All of this – indeed, the entire film – is shot in a (social) realist style. (Dresen claims he has been very much influenced by Italian Neorealism as well as Truffaut; indeed, the ending of an earlier film of his, Nachgestalten [1999], ends with a clear homage to the zoom-in-on-a-freeze-frame ending of The Four Hundred Blows.) Yet, it is precisely the precision of this realism that ends up aesthetically abstracting an image from empirical reality: there is really no “realistic” correspondence between the initial burglary and the overwhelming, all-pervasive, inescapable, and seemingly irreversible loss of Willenbrock’s sense of security. What he experiences is much more than just a moment or two of doubt about whether a new alarm system will sufficiently protect his home. Rather, it is the sense that the very social upward mobility he believed to have achieved is the very reason for the encroachment of the “Other” on his life; and it is this Other (capitalism as practiced in its rawest form by the Russian mafia, for instance) that is immanent to the process of social upward mobility (11). It thus eludes his desire for (re)gaining control over his life; and hence, the sheer suspicion of its existence – whether immediately present or not – will always maintain its affective mark on Willenbrock’s body and psyche.

Interestingly, the film’s intensification of its realist mise en scène to the point where a new relation becomes visible (which Willenbrock does not explicitly thematise as such, that is, it does not attempt to “realistically” represent the relation between “proper” capitalism and its “bastard son”: organised crime as embodied by the Russian mafia) can be viewed as lending credence to the ideological slant of Weingartner’s The Edukators. In this film, a group of disillusioned, young political activists who call themselves “Die Erziehungsberechtigten” (literally: “those with the (legal and/or moral) right to educate”) break into rich people’s homes while the owners are away. But instead of stealing anything, they merely rearrange furniture and leave a note (“the fat years are over”). The point of doing this is to implant a socio-psychological virus into the minds and bodies of the Wendegewinner: from now on, despite all of their wealth and security systems, they will never be able to shake the uncomfortable sense that their security might be breached at any given time, which, of course, means that their sense of security has already vanished for good. And why? Because the very achievement of their social upward mobility – an achievement that came on the backs of the vast majority who for one reason or another were unable to participate in the economic boom years of the mid-1990s – came with its built-in virtual seed of destruction, the virtuality of which is now being actualised by the Edukators (12). But it is these invisible others – those, especially East Germans, who were forgotten in all the hype of the stock market craze – that both Dresen and Weingartner’s films image without making them available to us as mere representations of empirical reality, let alone bearers of dogmatic messages. Instead, these films, like Roehler and Petzold’s, affect us with the immediacy provided by a new image, rather than the mediated representation of pre-existing reality. This process of re-seeing, of being provoked to see anew a cliched empirical reality, is brought to its most abstracted moment in Christian Petzold’s Ghosts.

The film takes place in a location that forms the border landscape between the Berliner Tiergarten (a large, forest-like area) and Potsdamer Platz, a location that before 1990 used to be a no man’s land but now is gradually developed as the capitalist heart of the unified city (13). The space this film – and its few characters – occupies is, in other words, an in-between space, or what Petzold himself calls a “bubble” or parallel world (14). It’s a space that doesn’t immediately provide a social definition for the protagonists. It’s a porous space connecting, on one side, a capitalist space that has yet to be really integrated into the larger socio-cultural cityscape of Berlin (which is itself made up of essentially separate parts with their own identities, cultures, commerce, etc.) and, on the other, one of the city’s most famous “nature refugees” that allows Berliners to breath in fresh air, to take a deep breath from their stressful metropolitan existence.

But in Petzold’s hands, this space is nearly unrecognisable. Unless one actually knows the area rather well (be it as a tourist or, more likely, as someone living in Berlin), the viewer is not invited to recognise the mise en scène as anything specific – as anything that is represented and that, as such, is supposed to be decodable. Completely refusing to provide establishing shots that would specifically demarcate the cinematic location as an empirically real location – and thus allow viewers to enjoy the comforts of recognition (“ah, it’s Berlin”) and to reterritorialise the images onto the representational plane of the empirically (as well as cinematically) familiar – the film instead operates only on the ground, among the border neighbourhoods and its houses and parks. Petzold’s cameraman, Hans Fromm, has his Steadycam almost crawling – very slowly – with the film’s central character, Nina (played by the brilliant Julia Hummer, whose slouching posture and tentative, if not awkward, style of moving though her surroundings could not be more perfect for the mood this film attempts to express), as she inheres time and space, clearly not knowing where to go, what to do, but also clearly yearning for a drastic change to occur.

Indeed, it is as if Petzold is imaging a non-existing space, but what he really does is find new images for a space whose images have turned into cliches. By aesthetically abstracting all the images that pre-exist his film – that already fill the screen while the film has not even begun to project its images – Petzold’s Ghosts intervenes in the real existing social plane of post-wall Germany in general and reunified Berlin in specific. His film is not giving us an image of Berlin, claiming some sort of representational veracity that contains a “message” about the state of contemporary Germany. Instead, the film allows us to confront the images as being something in and of themselves, thus asking us to reconsider social normalcy precisely because the film’s images confront us with normalcy as imagined by the characters themselves. Emerging from outside of recognisable normalcy, Petzold’s characters’ existence gradually reconfigures normalcy from their point of view, from their very desires to join what they imagine to be normalcy.

Yet, precisely by not placing his characters in immediately recognisable representations of empirical reality (and thus normalcy) this reality avoids becoming a bad caricature of real life and instead assumes a certain measure of aesthetic autonomy. But contrary to the accusations of some critics that this film is a return to the allegedly esoteric hell of the German Autorenkino, (15) implying the film’s severance from any real world concerns or relevance, this film is all the more relevant to Germany’s present, or perhaps better, its future. Precisely because it does not re-present the city in cliched images and standard narrative structures the film might be able to affect its audience, one that may very well be yet to come, given how attached we tend to be to both narrative filmmaking and our habit instantaneously to reterritorialise what are first and foremost merely images onto the plane of mediating representations. The film sucks us in, perhaps even getting us close to a state of boredom and sleepiness, only to intensify a vague sense of immobility permeating so much of German culture in the present.

Ghosts

But it is this intensification that ultimately manages to break through into an image of sheer transformation. Nina, a teenaged orphan, has just encountered two potentially life-changing events: she met another young woman, Toni, with whom she builds a tentative friendship (that includes what may or may not be sexual desires for each other) that is complicated by Toni’s inclination to exploit Nina’s attachment to her for ulterior purposes; and she is confronted by an older, French woman who claims to be her long-lost mother (the film steadfastly refuses to confirm or deny the truth value of this claim: clearly, the film is invested in mobilising the fabulating function of what Deleuze calls the “powers of the false”, (16) rather than perpetuating the representationally grounded “regime of truth”). Both events pull on her psyche and emotions, as Nina, imaged in a constant state of directionless drift, seeks to belong to someone, something.

And then a moment of perfection transpires, as if out of nowhere, a moment of intensity that Nina experiences in purely affective ways. In what is perhaps the film’s most beautiful scene, Nina dances at a party, first all by herself, then in tender embrace with Toni.

Set to a trance-like trip-hop beat, the dancing occurs in a room completely infused with intensely red light, while the Steadycam provides us calm, dream-like, almost clinically precise pictures. The characters have clearly forgotten the outside world, and we, too, are fully immersed in the image as such. On the verge of melodramatic expressionism, the intensively filtered mise en scène disrupts the otherwise drab grey that suffuses the world of the characters’ dull existence.

This visually most intense moment of the film’s refusal to frame its characters in recognisable environments while never pretending to be anything but photographic realism (it’s not a fantasy film, for instance) corresponds to Nina’s refusal to join what others consider normalcy. Instead, the normalcy she desires is the normalcy she imagines, and that the film images at this very moment of utmost intensification: it’s a sense of normalcy, indeed security, however fleeting, found in each other’s arms, dancing with no regard for anything else at this moment, that is based in a lived refusal to either join the cliched desires of individual and social security or pursue the equally cliched liberal-bourgeois demand for social upward mobility.

Chiasmically revealing both desires as the negative inverse of each other, the film maintains the dialectical tension rather than sublating it into a third term. This suspension confronts the viewer with the image of refusal – not as refusal of something but absolute refusal. It is a ghost-like, abstract, perhaps utopian image – but, so this film suggests in unison with some of the other German films screened at this year’s Berlinale, it is a necessary image because it makes visible a socio-political parallel world that is neither visible in empirical reality itself nor in standard cinematic representations thereof.

Endnotes

  1. Thank you to the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that enabled me to travel to Berlin during the semester. Thank you to Christian Weisz, Katja, and Anton for their incredible hospitality, as well as to Marc Donay without whose generous gift I wouldn’t have thought about the Berlinale to begin with.
  2. New German Critique, no. 87, fall 2002, pp. 3–5. This special issue on post-wall German cinema, edited by Rentschler, is one of the few exceptions to what appears to be contemporary film discourse’s indifference to German cinema of the last 15 years.
  3. Im Jahr 4 nach Lola Rennt”, Epd: Das Kino Magazin, 3/03. Accessed 2/1/05. Recent film festival successes of German films include, for instance, Fatih Akin’s powerful Head-On (Gegen die Wand) (2004), which won the top prize at the 54th Berlinale as well the European Film Prize, and Weingartner’s controversial The Edukators, which, in addition to winning numerous festival prizes, became the first German film since 1993 to screen in the main program at Cannes.
  4. For instance, I find Wim Wenders’ critique rather astute that Downfall (produced by Germany’s überproducer Bernd Eichinger, who also wrote the script based on right-leaning German historian Joachim Fest’s book Der Untergang as well as the memoirs of Hitler’s last secretary, Traudl Junge) fails cinematically to clarify its own attitude towards the subject matter. See his controversial essay “Tja, dann wollen wir mal”. (Die Zeit is one of Germany’s most respected newspapers.)
  5. In “From New German Cinema to the Post-Wall Cinema of Consensus”, Rentschler critiques what he calls the German “Cinema of Consensus” of the post-wall period precisely for its reliance on genre conventions, though he focuses mostly on the crowd-pleasing romantic comedies that humorously depict the amorous struggles of a bunch of yuppies in their early 30s. See Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie (eds), Cinema and Nation, Routledge, New York, 2000, pp. 260–277. Likewise, Volker Schlöndorff has recently argued that the problem with the state of contemporary German films partially derives from their overly generic aesthetics and what he diagnoses as their lack of critical attitude and authorial signature. See http://www.zeit.de/2003/22/CannesSchl_9andorff.
  6. Interestingly, from a Deleuzean perspective, a proper Marxist critique of capitalism and its free market ideology would suggest that today’s capitalist market is not free enough. Not to be confused with neo-classical economic libertarianism, the point of this critique is to emphasise that the problem with the current version of the so-called free market is that it is highly regulated in favour of the already wealthy. These regulations actually block a more productive circulation of money by encouraging the unequal hording of money by an exceedingly small number of people and corporations.
  7. Indeed, this was already a sense I got from watching various German films of the post-wall period on DVD.
  8. For Deleuze and Guattari’s argument regarding their notion of the event, or becoming, see What is Philosophy?, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, esp. pp. 110–113.
  9. In a similar vein, Weingartner’s The Edukators, which was also screened as part of the “German Cinema” series, reveals how and why many former members of the APO have become the very people they once militantly opposed.
  10. If there’s any doubt about this, see the film’s official poster at http://www.willenbrock-derfilm.de that asks: “Fühlen Sie sich sicher” (Do you feel safe?).
  11. In this context, we might also think of John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980) where the “Other” comes in form of the IRA and refuses to play by the “rules” of capitalism as practiced by London’s East End gangster boss Harold Shant (Bob Hoskins).
  12. We might also think of the educators as “Culture Jammers”, a concept that to my mind has been best theorised by Christine Harold. See her “Pranking Rhetoric: ‘Culture Jamming’ as Media Activism”, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 21, no. 3, September 2004, pp. 189–211.
  13. Most memorably, Potsdamer Platz found its permanent place in cinema history through Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (Himmel über Berlin) (1987), specifically when Homer, the old story teller of the film, is seen searching for Potsdamer Platz as he’s wandering across the then desolated location, failing to recognise that this wasteland is the once bustling centre of Berlin.
  14. See the interview with him on the film’s official homepage.
  15. See, for instance, Hans Martenstein’s comments at http://archiv.tagesspiegel.de/archiv/17.02.2005/1651170.asp.
  16. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989.

About The Author

Marco Abel is Professor of English and Film Studies and chair of the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is the author of The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Camden House, 2013), which won the 2014 German Studies Association Book Prize, and Violent Affect: Literature, Cinema, and Critique After Representation (University of Nebraska Press, 2007); the co-editor of Im Angesicht des Fernsehens: Der Filmemacher Dominik Graf (text + kritik, 2010) and, with Jaimey Fisher, of the forthcoming The Berlin School and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art-Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2018). He has also published numerous essays on post-unification German cinema and interviews with German film directors in journals such as Cineaste, German Studies Review, New German Critique, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and Senses of Cinema, as well as in a number of edited volumes on German cinema history.With Roland Végső, he is also the co-editor of the book series Provocations (University of Nebraska Press).