The following text was written for the Austrian film magazine kolik.film http://www.kolikfilm.at in 2006. An English translation was included in a brochure accompanying a program titled ‘A German Cinema’ at IndieLisboa 2007, curated by Olaf Möller. For its publication in Senses of Cinema, we have written a postscript to give an impression of what happened to the Berlin School between the text’s initial publication and today. In a second postscript, Stefan Pethke adds further remarks on the Berlin School’s international context.
During the mid 1990s festivals first began showing films by filmmakers who have since become known as the founders of the Berlin School: Thomas Arslan’s Mach die Musik leiser in the Panorama section of the 1994 International Berlin Film Festival, Angela Schanelec’s Das Glück meiner Schwester (My Sister’s Good Fortune) in the Forum of the 1995 Berlin Festival and Christian Petzold’s Pilotinnen at the 1995 Max Ophüls Festival in Saarbrücken. All three directors, more or less, simultaneously attended the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB – German Academy of Film and Television Berlin).
The DFFB is a small school with a familiar atmosphere. It is during their first year, where students are kept in close proximity by the confinements of mandatory introductory courses, that struggles of delineation ensue which are as inevitable in their acrimony as they are productive. Students quickly identify potential allies from other years.
During the 1970s, the DFFB had acquired a reputation of being radically leftist and strongly focussed on content. It was, roughly speaking, the advent of video which heralded a theoretical-aesthetic re-orientation, as a result of which the explicit political impetus weakened. The faction which represented the new stance most visibly was the one which called upon pop discourse as a means of counteracting the gut instincts of the self-proclaimed ‘doers’ who dominated a notoriously anti-theoretical German film landscape. From the beginning of the 1980s until the mid 1990s, the model of the bohemian-artist-intellectual filmmaker prevailed at the DFFB.
Christoph Dreher (admitted to the DFFB in 1978), Bärbel Freund (1979), Frank Behnke (1982), Reinhold Vorschneider (1983), Wolfgang Schmidt (1984), Angelika Becker, Ludger Blanke, Michel Freericks (1985), Thomas Arslan (1986), and Christian Petzold (1988) were among the students admitted during that period.
From the late 1980s onwards, Blanke, Freericks, Arslan and Petzold attended classes together; they also organised and implemented as part of an extensive scheme of student self-administration a regular time slot for film screenings so as to familiarise themselves with a large spectrum of films.
Those films included Coup de boule (Robert Karmakar, 1987), Gallodrome (Karmakar, 1988), Hunde aus Samt und Stahl (Karmakar, 1989), Bike Boy (Andy Warhol, 1967); Two Thousand Maniacs (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1964); Blood Feast (Gordon Lewis, 1963), La rosière de Pessac (Jean Eustache, 1968), Le père Noël a les yeux bleus (Eustache, 1966), Echoes of Silence (Peter-Emmanuel Goldman, 1967), Landscape Suicide (James Benning, 1986), Two Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971), Bill Douglas’s autobiographical trilogy: My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973), My Way Home (1978); Eltávozott nap (Márta Mészáros, The Girl, 1968), Sherman’s March (Ross McElwee, 1986), Spend It All (Les Blank, 1972), Der Lauf der Dinge (Peter Fischli/David Weiss, The Way Things Go, 1987), William Wegman’s dog films, and many more.
The students’ individual approaches to cinematic practice reflected this diversity and ranged from Freericks’s re-actualisation of Eastern European irony in his films Unser Mann im All (1988) and Chronik des Regens (1990), to a Warholian coolness in Arslan’s films Risse and 19 Porträts. Photographic influences were important too: beginning with Walker Evans and Robert Frank in Petzold’s Süden, they also included Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston influence on Blanke’s films Der Tod des Goldsuchers and 7 Melodies Chrono, and the early work Larry Clark on Arslan’s Mach die Musik leiser. Comic influences were palpable too (the clear contours in Petzold are especially reminiscent of the ligne claire school in the wake of Hergé). A fascination for B-formats of industrial narrative forms and a strong affinity to underground eccentrics across all genres – the common poetic-aesthetic ground was always founded on a reference to pop, and quite crucially to pop music.
Films made during this period include Hilf mir, Gabrielle (Martin Schlüter/Irina Hoppe/Heino Deckert, 1986), Zwischen Gebäuden (Between Buildings, Thomas Schultz, 1989), Cannae (Wolfgang Schmidt, 1989), Das Wasser des Nils wird zu Blut werden (Frank Behnke, 1989).
Initially, Irina Hoppe (at that point already a graduate) was the only woman to sympathise with this pop ambient. Her aesthetic complicity can be witnessed in one of the most beautiful scenes in Blanke’s Der Tod des Goldsuchers in which Hoppe can be seen – together with Florian Koerner von Gustorf (drummer of the band MUTTER; later a producer with Schramm-Film, the company that produces most of the Berlin School’s films) – enjoying and filling the dispositif of an improvisational space: the dialogue never finds its object because the reality of film shooting continuously interjects into the conversation with its spontaneous mental blackouts and sudden fits of laughter. This generates a sound which will become a stylistic feature of many of these films: an airy stroll along the boundaries between staging and documenting, between the creation of distance through artificial gestures and the production of closeness through the inclusion of one’s own reality of life.
In 1994, Hoppe made the documentary Deutschländer, a contribution to the cinematographic examination of foreign migrants in Germany which went strangely unnoticed, and which is, incidentally, also an important part of Arslan’s work as he was the film’s cinematographer – two years before making Kardeşler/Geschwister (1997), the first part of his trilogy about migrants, to be followed by Dealer in 1999 and Der schöne Tag (A Fine Day) in 2001.
Angela Schanelec is the last among the three supposed founders of the Berlin School to join the DFFB in 1990. Having previously been trained as a stage actress, she realises that the films mentioned above (particularly Arslan’s) provide answers to personal questions about cinematic procedures of representation and dramatisation and immediately starts producing films herself. In 1992 she works as an assistant director to Arslan on his 40-minute film Im Sommer-Die sichtbare Welt (the cinematographer being Blanke, and for the first time Arslan is more geared toward Eustache than Warhol). In the same year, Schanelec shoots Ich bin den Sommer über in Berlin geblieben (1994) – with elements derived from Arslan’s work, but mainly inspired by her own sphere of life. It was this film which demonstrated that this specific realistic method made sense in a world outside the boy-dominated context of pop, that it could be applied to different environments and subjects. Schanelec’s graduation project Das Glück meiner Schwester (My Sister’s Good Fortune) was followed by the films Plätze in Städten (Places in Cities, 1998), Mein langsames Leben (Passing Summer, 2001) and Marseille (2004).
In the mid 1990s, the German film and television scene was dominated by successful comedies produced by Munich production firms in collaboration with the powerful private television channels. Their propagandists (Bernd Eichinger, magazines such as Bild, Spiegel, etc.) supported these films with a sometime ugly retaliatory discourse. It attributed a supposedly illegitimate superiority to the unpopular auteur cinema, a remnant from the Oberhausen Manifesto and the German New Wave of the 1970s, to which they opposed a self-confident, popularist audience for industry films, and proclaimed the necessity for a strong and powerful film industry whose scope remains firmly within the borders of 1959. Eichinger’s 1996 ‘German Classics’ production is a symptomatic expression of this political restoration in film which attracts considerable media attention – ‘cinema for television’, expensive remakes of successful films from the Adenauer (1) period, produced for Sat1 television (Leo Kirch), accompanied by a big PR-effort, and funded by public film endowments. Typical directors include Nico Hofmann, Sönke Wortmann, Rainer Kaufmann, Katja von Garnier and Eichinger himself. At the same time, the film market underwent an American style process of differentiation. In 1994, the producer Stefan Arndt and the directors Dani Levy, Tom Tykwer and Wolfgang Becker launched ‘X-Filme’ in Berlin, an enterprise which, like Harvey Weinstein’s American Miramax, was designed to cater to the Independent/Arthouse channel which had become a niche market in its own right. Both projects were predicated on an aesthetically backward concept of the filmic genre which fused in a seemingly natural fashion with the execution of rule-centred dramaturgical models. During this period, the discourse in films schools, production firms and among television editors consisted mainly of phrases from the doxa of popular scriptwriting manuals (3-act structure; plot points; identification and empathy; ‘powered by emotion’). These had developed in the United States in the late 1970s with the re-formation of the studio system after New Hollywood, and, by the 1990s, had become the standard evaluative instruments for film funding and film distribution, and also pervaded film criticism. This economic-distribution macro-perspective ousted the micro-perspective focussing on procedures of representation. The films of the Berlin School presented themselves as possible alternatives within these transformed conditions.
The film critic Rainer Gansera was the first to use the term “Berlin School”. (2) On the occasion of the release of Thomas Arslan’s Der schöne Tag (A Fine Day, 2001), he offers – in an article entitled “Glücks-Pickpocket” (“Pickpocket of Happiness”) published in Süddeutsche Zeitung, no. 3, November 2001 – a number of criteria which together define the common aesthetic found in the films of Arslan, Schanelec and Petzold: “All three wish neither to expose nor to ironise reality. They generate self-evidence by endowing their characters with beauty and dignity.” One may assume that Gansera, who in the 1970s wrote for the magazine Filmkritik, was also thinking of a historically antecedent Berlin School which developed in the DFFB after 1968. After the éclat surrounding the expulsion of 18 students of the first and second year (among them Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky), a group of filmmakers had marked out the working class as their protagonist, as one among many political options of making films. In the early 1970s, the term “Berliner Schule des Arbeiterfilms” (“Berlin School of the Proletarian Film”) was coined, referring to films such as Der lange Jammer (The Long Lament, 1973) by Max Willutzki (about exorbitant rents in the Märkische Viertel of Berlin) or Liebe Mutter, mir geht es gut (Dear Mother, I’m All Right, 1972) by Christian Ziewer (about a factory workers strike); films with a genuinely political self-conception that dissociated themselves from the so-called Munich Sensibilists (Ingemo Engström, Rüdiger Nüchtern, Gerhard Theuring, Matthias Weiss, and others).
In a sense, one can see this as an inner-filmic continuation of the controversy between the “political” and the “aesthetic” left which was carried out in the magazine Filmkritik from the mid 1960s onwards. There is a link between the magazine (which ended publication in 1984) and the DFFB of the 1980s and the filmmakers of the younger Berlin School: Filmkritik authors such as Peter Nau, Manfred Blank and Helmut Färber taught at the academy, as did Harun Farocki (who to this day makes important dramaturgical contributions to Christian Petzold’s films) and Hartmut Bitomsky, the present director of the school. Petzold features in Bitomsky’s film Kino Flächen Bunker, and there is a direct path from Der VW-Komplex (1988/89) to Wolfsburg (Petzold, 2002). However, the affinity between the explicitly political approach of Farocki’s and Bitomsky’s films and the cinema of the second Berlin School which is orientated more towards the French ‘Deuxième’ Nouvelle Vague, is not one which is immediately striking. It can be found, for example, in the idea that to narrate and to explain ought to be related activities, an idea which can be made out in the films of Christian Petzold.
One could perhaps reconstruct the affinity between the Berlin School directors of the 1990s and the ‘second’ Nouvelle Vague generation (Jean Eustache, Philippe Garrel, Jacques Doillon, Maurice Pialat, Benoît Jacquot) through an implicitly shared post-utopian concept of the political which can conceive of social change only as a retreat into the private realm and the cell formations which take place there. In many respects one could add to the array of precarious micro-communities which populate the films of Garrel and Doillon the family cell of Petzold’s Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000). Thanks to Petzold’s film (his first one to be regularly shown in cinemas after the television productions Pilotinnen in 1995, Cuba Libre in 1996 and Die Beischlafdiebin in 1998), the Berlin group was unexpectedly brought to wider attention in February 2001, finally culminating in the award of the Goldene Lola (the German Film Prize worth €500,000). Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Das Experiment (The Experiment, 2001) was the most highly decorated film at this event (taking place in June 2001), while Tom Tykwer’s Der Krieger und die Kaiserin (The Princess and the Warrior, 2000) and Hans-Christian Schmid’s Crazy (2000) were only awarded second prizes (the Silberne Band).
Two years later, a fusion took place, initiated by Bernd Eichinger, Ulrich Felsberg and Helmut Dietl, between the newly founded German Film Academy and the German Film Prize. The latter, which had always favoured commercially successful films, was now no longer a supposedly independent instrument of public film sponsorship but was degraded to a tool of the already dominant forces of the industry, thus further reducing the chances for less commercial films to receive awards and subsidies. Four hundred filmmakers (among them Arslan, Petzold and Schanelec) signed a letter protesting this politically questionable move but failed to influence the decision, which was rapidly passed by the federal cultural board.
The official recognition bestowed upon The State I Am In must be viewed, however, against the backdrop of a rather different coincidence: just before the release of the film, the two most influential of Germany’s print media, the weekly magazine Spiegel and the daily tabloid Bild-Zeitung, were once again busy scrutinising key figures of the 1968 generation who at that point had become an integral part of the political establishment. Joschka Fischer, then foreign minister, was pressed to confess to having thrown molotov-cocktails while minister of the environment Jürgen Trittin found himself confronted with a manipulated photo in the Bild-Zeitung depicting him as a cudgel carrying political radical. As a result, an unscheduled parliamentary debate was held, and on the 29th of January 2001, the Spiegel headline read: ‘The ghost of the 1970s and the presence of the past”. Petzold himself gave countless interviews in which he argued against the one-sided expectations of those who saw his film as an appraisal of the ongoing effects of the Red Army Faction’s terrorism. In any case, the film’s public success can only be adequately appreciated by taking into account this larger discursive mobilisation. In the wake of the Berlin School’s to-this-day biggest success (120,000 viewers), Petzold became its first protagonist, aided by a detailed discussion in organs such as the Berlin-based art magazine Texte zur Kunst.
A school is only a “school” by virtue of a shared aesthetics or at least a difference, or a series of differences, which allow one to define the criteria of belonging or non-belonging. One should therefore look for similarities between members of the school and differences to non-members. The shared history (DFFB) and public reception would then be symptomatic of a common ground and would consequently allow for an openness towards new members, an openness which becomes visible in the (self) perception of younger directors and their self-proclaimed status as “new-and-so-now-members-too” of the Berlin School. The filmmakers and founders of the film magazine Revolver, Christoph Hochhäusler (as the propagandist of this (in)corporation) and Benjamin Heisenberg add their work to the context of what is perceived to form a school. Valeska Grisebach, Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler are cautious when it comes to self-attributions of this kind, but well-meaning film critics such as Katja Nicodemus (of the weekly Die Zeit) and Cristina Nord (of the daily taz) readily attach the Berlin School label to their work. Hochhäusler and Heisenberg attended the Munich Film School; Köhler and Winckler graduated from the Hamburg School of Fine Arts; Grisebach studied at the Vienna Film Academy. They now live in Berlin and watch each other’s films, occasionally exchange thoughts or simply work them out by themselves. In interviews, they refer to each other as friends or as would-be friends. Reinhold Vorschneider is an important link – he has been the cinematographer for Angela Schanelec (since Plätze in Städten) and did the camera work for some of the above films. He also collaborated on the films of Maria Speth, who studied at the Potsdam School for Film and Television (HFF Potsdam) and has since, as a maverick within this constellation, made two films, In den Tag hinein (The Days Between, 2001) and Madonnen (Madonnas, 2007).
On the one hand, it seems difficult to clearly mark out those who are not, and will never become, friends. On the other hand, one may generally say that in the German film scene, French film references are often viewed with suspicion on the grounds of their alleged intellectualism. Even Dominik Graf, in his inaugural address as honorary professor at the International Film School in Cologne in May 2006, equated a conscious reflection on form with a loss of reality and preaches a new vitalism; he called for a renewal of genre narratives in order to regain cinema’s vitality. Bernd Eichinger and his aides, on the other hand, really are as naїve as they pretend to be and proud of it as well, something which sets them apart from Tom Tykwer who, with a considerable display of pathos, seeks to make films which are both popular and grounded in the art film tradition. Then there are those filmmakers who combine social realism with comedy (such as Andreas Dresen, Wolfgang Becker and Detlev Buck), adhering to a rather simplistic belief in the immediacy of the rescue of reality in film.
As far as the free radicals of German film are concerned, there seems to be a proximity between the Berlin School and Romuald Karmakar who sees film as an explicitly political art, politics being, however, a fit for form and content. It is therefore no coincidence that Karmakar, like the Berlin students of Bitomsky and Farocki, likes to reflect on the relationship between the fictional and the documentary.
When describing the realism of the Berlin School, critics use terms such as “slowness”, “accuracy” and “the everyday”. The films are set in the present and tell stories of people whom one would not be surprised to encounter in everyday life. In other words, Berlin School films are not genre films. And if they are – Arslan’s Dealer and Petzold’s work, such as Cuba Libre, Toter Mann (Something to Remind Me, 2001) and Gespenster (2005), come to mind – then the references to genre history (self-reference) are countered by a precise localisation, and genre stories and genre types are linked to socio-topes and milieus that are saturated with reality effects (hetero-reference).
Realism is at once program and form. It is not sufficient to hope that reality will easily materialise in representation. In this case, a realistic position entails an adherence to people and things as they are, it entails verism. If one were to formulate the topmost commandment of the Berlin School, it would consist of a proscription of manipulation – of reality and of the observer. From this, everything else follows: a commitment to observation, a prohibition of intervention (which could also mean intervening against false interventions), a concept of representation which wishes to cure actors of acting, the camera of autonomy, montage of becoming authoritarian and narration of lapsing into topoi and clichés. Almost throughout, extra-diegetic music as a means of underscoring images is regarded as illegitimate: original sound. It is the world that should appear: original world. Reality is fetish, its fair representation is “beauty”.
This is not a relapse into false immediacy but a reflective realism, a conscious rendering and modification of theoretically and film historically derived methods. The tendency of de-familiarising, of thwarting illusions is taken from Robert Bresson. One must lie in wait for the real reality which is visible only in the inner movements of things. The cinema is the apparatus with which one can track down these inner movements of things and people (who are just a special instance of things with a life of their own). The cinema is the machine of the phenomenological opening towards the world but this is only possible if it restrains itself to the greatest extent. What is needed is a moment of pause, a bracketing of the “natural setting”, a working against convention. The films of the Berlin School bear the signs of this endeavour. One senses (at least in the films of Arslan, Petzold and Schanelec) the effort required by it. One realises that it is hard to refrain from arranging the visible.
One could also say that it is impossible. In this sense, the verism of the Berlin School stems from a “second order authenticity”. This aesthetic concept forms a system (which is perhaps different from what the filmmakers themselves believe) – a system of concentrated abstention which produces a “reality” of inner movements in representation; and which holds this reality to be the true countenance of the world. One need not agree with these assumptions in order to see that a shared adherence to them will eventually form a “school” whose principles of faith and techniques of producing a very particular image of reality together make up the metaphysics of a phenomenological realism.
Thanks to Ludger Blanke, Michel Freericks and Wolfgang Schmidt.
- Konrad Hermann Joseph Adenauer (1876–1967), first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (then known as West Germany) from 1949–1963 and chairman of the Christian Democratic Union from 1950 to 1966.
- Following the initial publication of this text in the Austrian film magazine kolik.film, we received an email from the film critic Rüdiger Suchsland in which he pointed out that the term “Berlin School” had already been used prior to this date, namely by Merten Worthmann in Die Zeit. In an article entitled “Mit Vorsicht genießen” (“To be taken with a pinch of salt”) on Angela Schanelec’s Mein langsames Leben (Passing Summer), Worthmann writes: “… watching the films of the ‘Berlin School’, one notices a very similar treatment of time and space. Despite varying cinematographers, the same kind of light seems to pervade the images, a glowing which is sober yet intense. The perspective on their subject matter is comparable as well; it is devoid of all assertion, instead, assertion has given way to observation.”
Postscript (May 2010)
Since we wrote this collective text in summer 2006, more than three years have passed. It is therefore legitimate to wonder if a term like “Berlin School” still holds any value now. Even then, the label operated on at least three distinctive levels. (i) It had a film-political dimension insofar that it united a group of people and positions that stood in clear opposition to the pseudo-opulent Eichinger-Kino. In terms of funding and recognition (e.g. within editorial departments of TV stations that are crucial for film production in Germany), this might have been an advantage at a certain point in time. Marketing is easier if you have a sticker to put on the package (be it “Berlin School” or “Nouvelle Vague allemande”). The flipside to this: once the wind has changed, it is also easier to be dismissed as a whole, regardless of individual positions; rumour has it that for many TV funding schemes in today’s Germany, the sheer reference to films of the Berlin School considerably reduces the chances of a film project getting financial support. (ii) It described a loose social network of directors that not only shared an awareness of film history and a certain concept of cinema, but also met from time to time and followed their respective careers with mutual interest and sympathy. The magazine Revolver and the “Revolver live”events (public conversations with directors and other film-workers) in Berlin were an important tool for this network. (iii) The third and most difficult meaning of the term has to do with the aesthetical implications. Is there really a common inventory of forms and cinematographic gestures? And if there was: does it make sense to fix this in a terminological concept like “Berlin School” that automatically generates exclusion and false homogeneity?
Today, it seems that it is much more important (and justified) to stress the differences instead of the shared concerns. This goes for influences and references as well as for what becomes visible in the directors’ current projects. We saw this when some of us invited a number of the directors to a seminar on the Berlin School in 2006/07. Instead of having them talk about their own films, we asked them to present and discuss films that they liked and that had influenced them in their way of thinking about cinema. Here’s what they chose to present: Christian Petzold: The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973), Angela Schanelec: Mes petites amoureuses (Jean Eustache, 1974), Thomas Arslan: Snake Eyes (Brian de Palma, 1998), Ulrich Köhler: Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990), Christoph Hochhäusler: Der schöne Tag (Thomas Arslan, 2001).
As much as the fault lines within the movement are becoming more visible when looked at from close up – things still look very different from afar. The films and directors associated with the Berlin School still remain mostly unheralded and undistributed internationally, a few retrospectives notwithstanding (14 films of the Berlin School in Toronto in winter 2008, Angela Schanelec in Lisbon in March 2009). When in the last weeks and months the best of the year and best of the decade lists were published it became very clear that the Berlin School has hardly made a dent in the last decade’s world cinema – even in the eyes of festival-faring experts and connoisseurs. (One shudders to encounter mediocrities like Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of the Others, 2006) and Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004) instead on these lists.)
There are a few (minor) exceptions. Valeska Grisebach’s Sehnsucht (Longing, 2006) came up in the rather authoritative TIFF cinematheque list that was the compiled result of a survey including ”over sixty film curators, historians, archivists and programmers from festivals, cinematheques and similar organizations around the world”. Sehnsucht was also one of the very few Berlin School films with any kind of distribution outside festivals (excepting Germany, where audiences remain far from huge and funding options are tenuous for these films. Germany’s all-powerful TV editors more or less abhor them). Christian Petzold’s recent works Yella (2006) and Jerichow (2008) also found some resonance and, with a bigger splash, Maren Ade, whose sophomore effort Alle Anderen (Everyone Else, 2009) was quite a hit when shown at last year’s Berlinale, winning a Silver Bear, kudos from critics all over the world, and an invitation to the prestigious New York Film Festival (but, alas, no distribution in France or the USA yet).
The first half of 2010 has certainly been a very interesting moment in the ongoing history of this “movement”, as another round of films by its protagonists – both from what may be called the DFFB and the Revolver generations – have been presented at this year‘s festivals (mostly Berlin and Cannes, it seems). Thomas Arslan with Im Schatten (In the Shadows), a film inscribing itself firmly in the noir- (or neo-noir) tradition, shot digitally in the streets of Berlin. Angela Schanelec has gone digital, too (choosing the Red One, as did Arslan) with Orly, Poem 1-4, her first production in French language, shot at the Orly airport in Paris. Benjamin Heisenberg’s Der Räuber (The Robber) secured a competition slot at the Berlin film festival; Heisenberg is one of the founders of Revolver magazine, and his sophomore feature film also defies the “Berlin” moniker as an Austrian production that tells, in a fictionalised form, the real life story of Austrian bank robber and marathon runner Johann Rettenberger. Christoph Hochhäusler also has left Berlin for his third film Unter dir die Stadt (The City Below), recently screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section. His David-and-Bathseba story among bankers takes place in Germany’s capital of finance Frankfurt and was co-written with Ulrich Peltzer, author of Teil der Lösung (Part of the Solution) one of Germany’s best reviewed novels of the last years.
The most interesting project might be the three joint films that Petzold, Graf and Hochhäusler are preparing. The idea has its origin in an email-correspondence that they had in 2006. Hartmut Bitomsky, one of the first students at the DFFB in 1966, relegated for political reasons in 1968, had returned to the same institution as its director at the beginning of 2006. To celebrate its 40th birthday, there were a number of screenings and other events. And there was this long exchange of emails, finally published in a small brochure that initiated a common project of three films combining different perspectives on the same crime. Christian Petzold describes this series of three films, made for TV but also intended to have a cinema release, as follows:
We are preparing three films that take place at the same place and at the same time, in the Thuringian countryside. A sexual offender has escaped. There is the work of the police. The work of the fugitive. The work of a guy doing his civil service and infecting himself with the crime. The stories meet, overlay and yet stay for themselves. (in CARGO no. 4, 2009).
Maybe that’s what characterises the work of the Berlin School filmmakers best: they meet, overlay and yet stay themselves.
Postscript II: A few more remarks on the Berlin School’s international context
by Stefan Pethke
Realism – although it is hard to define its specific meaning, the Berlin School’s major inspiration seems to come from new forms of movie realism as articulated in the 1970s, with New Hollywood, but more importantly with the direct follow-up generation to the first French New Wave (Jacques Doillon, Maurice Pialat, Philippe Garrel etc.). In terms of films that were made in a similar way, this particular style of cinema had its first acolytes in Germany during the late ‘80s. If, in retrospect, such a delayed development should be called a movement, its starting point would have to be located in the DFFB, the Berlin Film and Television School. At that time, the aesthetics of harsh artificiality with nights lit in a blue as radiant as nuclear garbage had definitively come to an end: video-gloss did not fit a cinematic storytelling interested in the precise representation of regular people’s lives and in narrative micro-structures. Technological progress in both fields, emulsions and lighting, enabled much more nuanced, almost impressionistic colour composition. Duration shots suggested an antagonistic mode of image consumption, compared to video clip montages and an ever-expanding zappers’ mentality.
It is a significant example of how the dynamics of globalised cultural fashions do not necessarily follow a path of economic common sense when filmmakers of two neighbouring countries, i.e. France and Germany, regardless of evident similarities in taste and attitude, never really got together for any kind of common action. For instance, the younger French cinephilia turned more naturally to new processes in the national cinema industries of the Far East – Olivier Assayas’ 1997 portrayal HHH about Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, shot for the acclaimed TV series Cinéastes de notre temps, is just the most striking expression of a collective affinity – rather than at least considering to notice what was shyly blossoming on the other side of the Rhine.
Partly a case of hip exoticism, acted out on the grounds of certain imperial traditions, this favouring of the remote over the close was also a recognition of rising mutual attraction between France and the Far East: more and more films from that region, considered to operate almost exclusively in a mode of highly stylised aesthetics and fairytale-ish narrative abstraction, began to discover a fascination for normal life and its cinematic representation. One could say that the trend started in the ‘80s in Taiwan and has expanded ever since to many of the national film industries of the area (Hong Kong and Mainland China, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand etc.).
The international festival circuit played a crucial role in that process. Fuelled by the dynamics of globalisation, the events grew drastically in number, creating an international market pressure, a worldwide hunt for the next bite of formerly unknown/unnoticed realities. Despite a post-colonial scepticism which condemns a complex machinery of western ideology transferred by the means of art, the process has definitively lead to the high visibility of a specific kind of world cinema, with a wide range of realistic concepts and an impressive cast of canonised masters from regions as diverse as Iran (Abbas Kiarostami), Belgium (the Dardenne brothers), China (Jia Zhangke), Mexico (Alejandro González Iñárritu), Argentina (Lucrecia Martel), Turkey (Nuri Bilge Ceylan), Roumania (Cristian Mungiu), Austria (Barbara Albert) etc. – while in the UK there seem to be no resources left for British participation to this international research group after the premature death of Alan Clarke and the “arthousation” of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.
The de facto protectionist US-American film industry got ”contaminated”, too – with reminiscences to its own underground history (John Cassavetes, Shirley Clark, and of course, Andy Warhol), but more directly inspired by these recent tendencies from abroad, either hiring representative artists or copying their approach (like Gus Van Sant has done in most of his films since Elephant, for example). More than remnants of this trade in cinematic gestures can be found in the currently very popular US TV series The Wire. Elliptic story telling, the use of silence as dramaturgical counterpoint and many more ingredients of that new school of realism were introduced to the small screen. For instance: long handheld camera movements in a dark, narrow and dirty place, as seen in The Wire, resembling a film school exercise: how to apply the Rosetta (1999) lessons to picture the drug business at the level of housing projects in Baltimore/Maryland, are unimaginable in a regular television surrounding, in America or elsewhere. For the record: the first three seasons of The Wire have been photographed by German cinematographer Uta Briesewitz, thus establishing the whole look of the pioneering series. Briesewitz started studying film in 1990 – at the DFFB.
It has been repeated many times that German film has to exist within a framework determined by limitations: limitations of market access, due to the notorious hegemony of the US distributors; (linguistically induced) limitations of its market expansion potential; last, but not least, limitations of political vision: German cultural politics in general, since 1945, are traditionally decentralised. What was meant to democratise cultural production and consumption, liberating it from elitist concepts decreed by the few, turned out to open the door to enhanced lobbying, a struggle for scarce subsidies, most of the time won by those who have the best organisational structure; or: who have a structure at all. It comes as no surprise that the strongest structures (in terms of funds activated) are those whose primary interest is return on investment. They have both the need and the capacities, to build up a network that will help them reach their business goals. Agents from these structures of film commodification are officially (and traditionally) entrusted the promotion of German films in Cannes – an eloquent example of how much an attempt to establish an efficient networking structure between the more “artistic” or “intellectual” filmmakers of Germany and France can count on institutional support…
But one cannot blame the “film industrial complex” in Germany for each and every clumsiness of its scattered opposition. As a matter of fact, it is highly questionable if the filmmakers of the Berlin School think of themselves as a movement. On various occasions, their protagonists failed to demonstrate a clear will in using the label put on them from the outside world of movie criticism as a tool for designing whatsoever common perspectives. This was most flagrantly shown during a symposium held at the DFFB on the 29th of September 2006, when the film school celebrated its 40th birthday and had chosen the Berlin School hype to revalue its own history as an educational institution. That day, it became very obvious that none of the directly involved guests (perhaps with the exception of panellist Christian Petzold, and Christoph Hochhäusler, in the audience that day) had really given the opportunity of collective action a thought. The typical reactions ranged from arrogant irony (“What for?”) and clueless naiveté (“I want to continue to make films the way I like to make them”) to uninspired speechlessness – artists indeed, but artists trapped in the (not so golden) cage of individualism (of which the artist should be the finest specimen): This “movement” has no discourse, no manifesto, no elected spokesperson, no strength coming from within. It does in no way put at risk the claims of film-political adversaries, i.e.: the misbalance in distributing German film subsidies and public attention will continue to persist; so will today’s artists-filmmakers’ very private networking, defending little niches of activity they are able to defend individually (Arslan is now a professor teaching film – in an art school…).
In times of a manifold crisis – the generic economic difficulties in a period when the digital revolution endangers more and more income generating standards; the French locomotive losing momentum since a couple of years, with no essential change in sight; a spreading culture of resentment and suspicion against intellectual filmmaking etc. – neglecting the work of strengthening the foundations of a specific approach to film is equivalent to letting it fade away. What could have become a school, an artistic community with a sense of tradition building, is then doomed like a short-lived fashion anecdote. Read the signs on the wall: persisting rumours say that, for many TV funding schemes in today’s Germany, the sheer reference to films of the Berlin School considerably reduces the chances of a film project gaining financial support.
In the future, it will be interesting to observe the Austrian and the German scenes in comparison: in fact, the film production company Coop 99 consists of four former students of Vienna’s Filmakademie: Barbara Albert, Jessica Hausner, Martin Gschlacht and Antonin Svoboda. In less than 10 years, Coop 99 has established itself as a successful platform for both international festivals and the box office (arthouse dimensions, though…). And Coop 99 (or members of their artistic entourage) has already established solid bonds with Berlin. One of the Berlin School protagonists, German director Valeska Grisebach, had also studied at the Filmakademie Vienna and is friends with the Coop 99 gang. The Munich Film School alumni Hochhäusler and Heisenberg have worked with the Coop’s team members – a role model for the possible benefits of artistically oriented cooperations between filmmakers.