“Il faut souffrir,” Fritz Lang, playing himself in Jean-Luc Godard’s masterful Le mépris (Contempt, 1963), laconically declares to screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), as he shrugs off the outraged response of his greedy American producer, Prokosch (Jack Palance), to the rushes from Lang’s attempt to adapt The Odyssey by mobilising the language of high art rather than that of Hollywood action cinema. One must suffer: this would have made for a more felicitous motto for this year’s Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) than the famous second-wave feminist slogan – “The Personal is Political” – that the festival’s director, Dieter Kosslick, lazily appropriated for his 18th and final hurrah. To be fair, on one level the slogan was well chosen, for it expressed the festival’s commitment to drawing (some) positive consequences from the emergence of the #MeToo movement and from what more than one critic saw as Kosslick’s largely stunt-like (re)actions in response to the movement at last year’s festival.1 For example, of the 17 films from which the jury under Juliette Binoche’s leadership eventually selected Nadav Lapid’s French-Israeli drama, Synonymes (Synonyms, 2019), for the Golden Bear, seven were directed by women – thus giving female filmmakers a considerably higher share (41%) of the coveted Competition slots than the Berlinale’s A-festival competitors, Cannes and Venice, did in their respective main competitions. Also noteworthy was the festival’s decision to devote this year’s Retrospective (always a Berlinale highlight) to featuring films made by women in East-, West-, and unified Germany from 1968 to 1999.2 And of the 400 (!) films the festival screened, 45% were made by women (including those in the Retrospective). All of this is laudable.

Retrospective Catalogue – Self-determined: Perspectives of Women Filmmakers

On another level, however, the choice of “The Personal is Political” as the motto for his last festival also reveals the fundamental problem with Kosslick’s vision (or lack thereof) for both the Berlinale and cinema at large. While his many critics had undoubtedly already suspected this choice to be little more than yet another PR-stunt even before seeing a single film, it was the director himself who unintentionally exposed with how little actual commitment – and, I have to say: understanding – he opted for a declaration as his final slogan that originally had, at its core, not only announced a political conviction but also opened up a new space, in the context of the cinema, for a crucial aesthetic intervention. Let’s remember that the declaration that “The Personal is Political” functioned, first and foremost, as a mots d’ordre, an “order-word” the force of which effected an incorporeal transformation – an un-representable event that from the moment of its declaration existed (and has continued to exist) in and through its effects, in and through what it did and continues to do, that is: in and through its always singular manifestations. Just as a speech act such as, say, “I am homosexual” made by a teenager coming out to his parents (incorporeally) transforms his body, not because his body as such changes but because its social position(ing) does, so this crucial feminist declaration transformed the personal realm, not because that very realm changed as such but because it was given a new social position. Whereas prior to this order-word the private was not sensible – i.e. in Jacques Rancière’s use of the word, simultaneously meaning seeable, perceivable, and sense-able – as political (most certainly not by men but, arguably, also not by most women), and whereas, likewise, the political was not sensible as belonging to the private realm, this feminist declaration transformed – redistributed – what could be sensed about the private, the political, and their relationship. Importantly, this redistribution was precisely not just a political event but also an aesthetic one: it was at the level of what was seeable, perceivable, and sensible (in both meanings of the term: feeling and comprehending) that this transformation occurred. Or, rather, it was at the level of aesthetics that the transformation was declared into existence, into having come into being – a being that, due to its event-like quality, continues to be brought into being, which is why the declaration of its existence can ultimately always only be declared in its (implied) future perfect sense, namely as a demand directed at the future: the personal will have been the political if and when it can be instantiated time and again from the moment of its declaration on.3

This complex logic and temporality inscribed in this feminist speech act can only inadequately be enacted on the level of representation (because one cannot represent an event, as it exists only through the actualisations of its ongoing virtual becoming), and yet it is exclusively at that level that Kosslick seemed to understand this speech act, as is evidenced by his short, carelessly written editorial in which he informs us that the “renewed impact” of this “slogan from the women’s movement around 1968” manifests itself at the Berlinale in four themes: childhood, family, gender equality and food.4 Not a word, however, about how films dealing with these topics seek to find cinematic means appropriate to their current status as being matters of both the private and the political sphere. Perhaps it was his knowledge of (most of) the films’ failure to push themselves as films that Kosslick nearly forgot to mention his festival’s slogan in his own promotional interview that attendees could watch looping on the big screen outside the Berlinale Palast (the Competition screenings’ primary location): only as the interview winds down does he hastily add that he would be remiss not to mention that the festival’s 69th iteration takes place under the banner of “The Personal is Political”. Feminism as an afterthought: well done, indeed, Mr. Kosslick.

My diagnosis of Kosslick’s political and aesthetic failure – and of his widely bemoaned lack of cinematic imagination – was in full sight not only in what most critics characterised as an even weaker main competition than in previous years but also in 24 German-language films I sampled. In the last 15 years during which I primarily focused on the festival’s German-language offerings, I have come to expect to suffer through many films that I would not have chosen to watch if not for professional (scholarly) reasons; yet, I would also always leave the festival with a sense of excitement about a handful of films – in many cases new efforts by the directors associated with the Berlin School but often also discoveries such as last year’s wonderful yet commercially underperforming if not critically underrated Der Hauptmann (The Captain, Robert Schwentke, 2017), one of the best films about the Nazi period to appear in a long time; or, this year, Oray, Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay’s marvellous debut film that explores in cinematically moving and intelligent ways the dialectic of, on the one hand, secular love and, on the other, Islamic faith and the desire to belong to a brotherly community; as well as Alles ist gut (All Good), Eva Trobisch’s subtly scripted and acted, deftly shot debut film about a woman who refuses to let herself be defined by the experience of rape.5

Deniz Orta and Zejhun Demirov in Oray
© Christian Kochmann / filmfaust

Aenne Schwarz in Alles ist gut (All Good)
© TRIMAFILM

This year, however, I by and large struggled to identify such films – films that I think will remain of interest long after Kosslick has faded into distant memory as someone who has succeeded at turning the Berlinale into the world’s largest film festival but failed to impose on its ever-more sprawling line-up any semblance of coherence, let alone an aesthetic vision of the political for a festival that likes to flatter itself as the most political. To be sure, there were some interesting films that are noteworthy, both in the Competition and in the festival’s sidebars. For example, of the three German films I saw in the Forum – traditionally the festival’s home for its most experimental offerings – Max Linz’s Weitermachen Sanssouci (Music and Apocalypse) stood out for its aesthetic adventurousness; yet I also left with the feeling that the target for its satirical critique – the German academic system in the age of neoliberalism and its insistence on a logic of excellence that produces many things but no longer genuine scientific or intellectual discoveries because the funding system forces scientists to craft research proposals that already announce the results prior to engaging in proper scientific experiments – was not compelling. To me, at least, the academic system seems low-hanging fruit for a critique that on the aesthetic level demonstrates how a merging of the theatrical and the real can (still or again) produce interesting effects, decades after this technique’s heyday (think Straub-Huillet, Godard, and other directors working in this de-naturalising Brechtian vein).

Sophie Rois and Philipp Hauß in Weitermachen Sanssouci (Music and Apocalypse)
© Carlos Andrés Lopéz & Amerikafilm

Another film I saw in the Forum, Labour Power Plant (dir. Robert Schlicht and Romana Schmaisch), was considerably less successful, however. Like Linz’s film, Labour Power Plant targets neoliberalism’s effect on contemporary subjectivity. Drawing on scenarios from real-world training courses, the film dramatises how human capital is produced on a micro-political level, with the effect that the subjects produced through such training sessions have been fitted to the demands of the contemporary labour market. The film is an extension of the directors’ theatrical and installation work and deploys a mix of professional actors and “non-actors” who actually have experience in the corporate world as trainers and trainees. It is a cold film, which is due to both the anti-psychological acting that blocks a viewer from identifying with – and at least for me also taking any interest in or caring for – the characters/people (of which I think there are simply too many) and the chilly mise-en-scène resulting from a combination of set design with its slick, streamlined, uninviting spaces of contemporary corporate interiors and the greyish-blue hues dominating the colour palette. Watching the film with considerable detachment, I found myself recalling Harun Farocki’s analyses of capitalism (which are superior to this film’s) as well as two interesting experimental “interview films” by the Kölner Gruppe (Cologne Group), filmmakers Markus Mischkowski and Kai Maria Steinkühler’s Warteschleifen (On Hold, 2010) and Wolkenheime (Black Dogs, 2012), which, in my view, are more successful in not only revealing to their viewers how the communicative logic of neoliberal capitalism produces new subjectivities but also making us care for these subjects, perhaps precisely because the interviewees (actors who we do not necessarily perceive or receive as actors but, rather, as “real people” entering an interview situation in which they talk through their experiences as neoliberal worker-subjects) manage to affect us in ways that Labour Power Plant’s do not. In fact, whereas in Mischkowski and Steinkühler’s films the private/public opposition is resolved very much along the lines of second-wave feminism’s credo, this is not really the case here (nor in Linz’s, for that matter). While Labour Power Plant seeks to find aesthetic means appropriate for its critique of neoliberalism, it ends up feeling too much like filmed theatre, rather than cinema.

Labour Power Plant

There were other films whose primary critique targets our neoliberal world order, such as, for example, Florian David Fitz’s 100 Dinge (100 Things, 2018), playing in the Lola sidebar that features the longlist of films nominated for the German Film Prize. A box office success in Germany (about one million viewers saw it), this buddy comedy featuring some of Germany’s biggest stars (the director himself as well as Matthias Schweighöfer) wants to be a critique of consumer society and surveillance capitalism: the plot conceit hinges on a bet between the two IT entrepreneurial protagonists that forces them to relinquish all of their belongings – down to their underwear, which allows the film to make much “eye candy” use of the actors’ well-trained physiques – to see who can live longer without their prized possessions, as they can regain only one object per day over the course of 100 days, or until one of them breaks down in his ability to live a life momentarily suspended from participating in material consumption practices. In the end, however, 100 Things affirms little more than the cliché of the importance of authentic friendship, which it offers up as yet another thing for us to consume thoughtlessly precisely because it does not even try to find any aesthetic means with the help of which it might complicate the very consumerist attitude that its light-hearted and predictable comedy enacted by handsome actors invites the viewer to assume.

Of the films I saw that explicitly engaged what neoliberalism does to contemporary subjects, I would say that it was Austrian director Marie Kreutzer’s Der Boden unter den Füßen (The Ground Beneath My Feet), which played in the Competition, that was most compelling in putting cinematic pressure on its subject matter. While I think the film ultimately might not have trusted its own insight enough – namely that schizophrenics are not (merely) those whom capitalist society locks away in mental institutions but also (and perhaps ever more) those who are neoliberalism’s most capable subjects, such as Lola (convincingly played by Valerie Pachner), an ambitious corporate consultant whose smooth ascent up the corporate ladder is suddenly interrupted – it is nevertheless far superior to the films I discussed above in its ability to make the viewer sense how it is neoliberal capitalism itself that induces a state of schizophrenia in its eager participants. The film begins with a seeming opposition between two sisters: one healthy and successful in her job as a consultant who instructs struggling corporations on how they can become more productive by downsizing their labour force, the other, Conny (Pia Hierzegger), living on and off in a mental institution due to her paranoid schizophrenia. Yet before long we are given reasons to doubt that Lola’s clinically precise perception of her surroundings is sound, and she herself gradually unravels as a result of the enormous pressures to which she is exposed as a woman trying to survive and indeed beat her (mostly sexist male) competitors.

I think it would have been an even more compelling film if it had embraced its thriller aspects more, that is: if it had pushed its viewers more to inhabit the sensation of indiscernibility to which Lola is increasingly subjected – the inability to distinguish between the reality of (neoliberal) normality and its allegedly abnormal other. The infusion of genre elements into its mostly realist design would have, I think, made the film’s diagnosis even stronger – yet as a whole, The Ground Beneath My Feet was one of the highlights among the German-language films at this year’s Berlinale, perhaps not least because it takes seriously the aesthetic implications of the mots d’ordre with which feminist discourse around 1968 reframed the relationship between (women’s) personal sphere and its political valences: rather than merely denouncing the violence to which political and economic operations subject women (as well as men), Kreutzer’s fine film shows how these operations rely on and effect their own ways of seeing, sensing, and perceiving – ways that, at their limits, which, however, are closer than we like to believe them to be, dissolve clear-cut boundaries between the private and the public, the personal and the political, the healthy and the abnormal. (It is worth mentioning that Lola is also in a lesbian relationship with her superior, yet while the film is alert to the problematic power differential of such a relationship, to its great credit it does not cast lesbianism itself as an issue or even a matter for commentary. One of the ways in which the film politicises the personal is precisely by treating it as normal.) Neoliberalism has us all reeling, with each day a tad more – but, importantly, it pushes its female subjects even more towards the abyss precisely because it does not ever allow them to show any weaknesses. On the diagnostic and aesthetic level (and the former would not be what it is without the particularities of the latter in this film), The Ground Beneath My Feet strikes me as stronger than Maren Ade’s celebrated Toni Erdmann (2016), which also focuses on the pressures to which its female neoliberal corporate consultant is subjected.

Valerie Pachner in Der Boden unter den Füßen (The Ground Beneath My Feet)
© Juhani Zebra / Novotnyfilm

Whereas these four films explicitly try to position themselves in relation to their neoliberal context, most of the German-language films I saw seemed to be driven by a desire to withdraw from it into a private sphere that seems wilfully to shut itself off from any larger political concerns, thereby not following the path that the declaration that the personal is political pried open. I am thinking here of films such as Edward Berger’s Panorama entry, All My Loving, which some critics praised for its masterful acting but which mostly struck me as a pointless exercise in studying how difficult it is to belong to the well-to-do middle-class. Without giving us any sense of the larger circumstances the three siblings, whose stories are told in three episodes loosely held together by a framework in which the birth of a new family member seems to make up for their alleged pain, the film’s focus on the personal sphere of its protagonists can be seen as political only in the most abstract negative sense, in that it offers us neither anything beyond a middle-of-the-road realist aesthetic nor any attempt at unpacking how these middle-class woes connect to and are embedded in the very privileges they nevertheless so clearly enjoy.

Lars Eidinger in All My Loving
© Jens Harant / Port au Prince Pictures

Not much better were Tamer Jandali’s easy love and Thomas Moritz Helm’s Heute oder Morgen (Before We Grow Old), both Perspective entries that aim to interrogate heteronormativity and monogamy. The former features seven men and women, all played by non-professional actors who portray themselves and who contributed scenes from their lives to the script, as they grapple with the question of how to live a happy and fulfilled life. The latter confronts viewers with an anarchic female protagonist, Maria (Paula Knüpling), who is single-mindedly committed to advancing her own agenda, especially when it comes to realising her sexual desire and vision for how to live together in non-traditional structures. Both films seem to take pride in their sexual explicitness (which is nothing objectionable in and of itself, to be sure). Yet while at first sight the “characters’” exhibitionism could strike viewers as brave and as a way to infuse the films with a high degree of authenticity, it might be worth keeping in mind that the context within which such exhibitionism is flaunted as the apex of authenticity is a social-media environment where a rapidly growing number of “regular” people cast themselves in their own pornographic features. In other words, these films, like so many of the German-language films I have briefly discussed here, fail on the conceptual level, seeing their retreat from the public world into the most intimate sphere as an act of (political if not aesthetic) transgression at the very moment when “transgression” has been commodified to such a degree that it quite obviously has become a crucial part of the very engine that runs the production of neoliberal subjectivity.6

Stella Vivien Dhingra and Niclas Jüngermann in easy love
© Janis Mazuch

I have to say, too, that Nora Fingscheidt’s Competition entry, Systemsprenger (System Crasher), which was relatively well received by critics, not least due to its young actor’s captivating performance, is in the end little more than a one-note social drama about a nine year-old girl, Bennie (Helena Zengel), whose extreme behaviour exceeds anyone’s capacity to cope, including that of the well-meaning but helpless social workers. While the film’s intention to take its young protagonist on her own terms and not judge her seems laudable, it is the film’s failure to take seriously that this girl in fact does significant damage to other children that reveals its conceptual weakness, which is further amplified by an overly familiar use of close-ups shot by a handheld camera whose claim to realism is only interrupted at the moments when the young girl sees red (or, rather, pink) as the film’s cinematography infuses the scenes when her suffering is at its most extreme in pink colours in an attempt (to me ill-advised) to render her damaged interiority visible. Although the film has its moments – one rarely sees films that engage children on their own terms, at their eye-level, as it were – the film’s potential to shed more light on the political relations that have contributed to damaging this little girl remains largely untapped, as System Crasher merely hints at the cause of her trauma and instead offers the cliché of a mother who is unable to cope with her daughter, whom she nevertheless loves, not least due to the bad choices she seems to be making when it comes to the men in her life.

Helena Zengel in Systemsprenger (System Crasher)
© kineo Film / Weydemann Bros. / Yunus Roy Imer

The most interesting of the films I saw that focus almost exclusively on the personal sphere of their characters was Ich war zuhause, aber…. (I Was at Home, But…), for which its director, Angela Schanelec, won the Silver Bear, thereby joining her Berlin School colleagues Ulrich Köhler (who won in 2011 for Schlafkrankheit [Sleeping Sickness]) and Christian Petzold (who won in 2012 for Barbara) on the list of Best Director honourees. As is common for a Schanelec film, her latest effort caused considerable irritation among some viewers, but its overall critical reception was surprisingly positive, with some calling it a masterpiece. I would not go quite so far but also think that it was among the strongest films at the festival and certainly so among this year’s crop of German-language films. Viewers familiar with her oeuvre will easily recognise the film as a Schanelec film. Yet it is noteworthy that I Was at Home, But… significantly adds to this auteur’s cinematic palette – and no, I am not thinking here of the much-discussed use of the film’s framework that in seemingly red-herring-like fashion depicts a donkey (yes: Bresson!) and a dog (whom we observe for a while chasing a rabbit – hints of Renoir? – and then, though we have not seen it catch its prey, chewing on its dead victim) who might have nothing to do with the film’s main storyline but whose presence offers a surprisingly and movingly playful and non-anthropomorphic reframing and thus enlargement of the insularity if not claustrophobia that defines the moment in time of the characters, especially Astrid (played by the great Maren Eggert), that constitute the film’s primary concern. Much has already been made of the intensely personal aspects that the director inscribed into this film, whether in form of a husband whose death Astrid still mourns (Schanelec’s husband, the theatre director Jürgen Gosch, died in 2009), of the repeated insertion of scenes in which school children practice a scene from Hamlet (Schanelec and Gosch translated this play), or of an extended dialogue between Astrid and a filmmaker (played by filmmaker Dane Komljen) about the relationship between art and truth in which the former appears to voice the director’s own aesthetic position holding that no one can understand what one did not also feel.7 Even the child actors in this film bear a striking resemblance to the director’s own children, and the momentary conclusion to one of the most moving scenes in the film – in which Astrid throws her children out, refusing to let herself be touched by them in an attempt to comfort her – is shot in the entrance to the apartment building in which Schanelec lives.

Angela Schanelec
© Janis Mazuch

Yet notwithstanding such biographical detail that seems to permeate this film more – or at least more overtly – than her previous efforts, I Was at Home, But… has scenes the dramatic intensity of which strike me as new for Schanelec. For example, the just mentioned scene that results in Astrid throwing her children out of the apartment involves a moment in which Astrid loses her shit, as it were, yelling at her children and refusing any attempt on their part to connect with her through establishing physical contact (yet it is simultaneously an act of great moral integrity, insofar as she refuses to have her children serve as her crutch; and the film refuses, in turn, to give us any clue about which of these options it means to endorse – of course, they are not mutually exclusive). Indeed, Astrid’s emotional pain – presumably caused by her husband’s death – manifests itself explicitly physically for her in this scene, so much so that she is unable to move except, finally, through a bodily explosion that violently (without, however, physically harming the children) frees her from what at that moment seems to affect her in the most oppressive fashion: her own children. In another scene, during the also just mentioned dialogue between Astrid and a filmmaker-professor, Astrid – one cannot put it in any other way – berates him for his film’s failure and insists that acting is always a lie. What is astonishing, however, is less her argument itself than the relentlessness with which she – and ultimately Schanelec – goes about making it: at multiple moments it seems she has finished making her point and is satisfied, only to recommence her verbal “assault” once more on her remarkably calm interlocutor, repeating and expanding her argument with even more intensity, almost desperately trying to get the man to understand what she means (and we get the impression that he has long understood what she is getting at, which lends the scene’s dramatic intensity, inter alia, also a surprisingly amusing tone that seems to directly contradict Astrid’s intensifying despair at her inability to properly – whatever this may mean for her – articulate her point).

Maren Eggert and Dane Komljen in Ich war zuhause, aber… (I Was at Home, But…)
© Nachmittagfilm

Critics accuse Schanelec of being hostile to her audience, of not taking into consideration their needs. This is another way of claiming that her cinema is too excessively private or personal, aloof with regard to the public sphere, i.e. the realm of the political. Such an accusation, however, is predicated on an understanding of the political and the personal that the performative declaration that the personal is political sought to reframe. Unlike most of the films discussed above – and this is crucial – Schanelec’s responds to this mots d’ordre on the level of film form that is characterised by a radical refusal of redundancy. Whether it is her refusal to rely on shot/reverse-shot sequences because it, is in her view, enough for us to see an image once; whether it is her refusal to reduce characters to their psychology; whether it is her refusal to link scenes or even shots in ways that Deleuze characterised in terms of a (traditional) cinema of the movement-image (Schanelec is definitely a director of the time-image, given the frequency with which her cuts do not link time and space in logical fashion but rather instantiate moments of what Deleuze called “any spaces whatever,” which are spaces to which we no longer ascribe any certainty and that are inhabited by a “new race of characters” who are seers rather than actors); or whether it is on the level of dialogue that tends to refuse a realist or naturalist use of language by skewing ever so slightly recognisable phrases or delivery of everyday speech (which can be the cause of much frustration for viewers) – Schanelec pursues her will to form the world she depicts as personal at every cinematic level.8 But it is precisely because of this rigorous forming of the world as personal that her cinema manages to be radically open to the event that reframed the personal as political. If the personal is political, then any filmic engagement with the latter demands a personal way of forming the world. In the works by the great directors who seek to produce strong responses to this mots d’ordre, such forming of the world is done with enormous and single-minded, indeed singular, intensity – and it is as a result of such intensity that the most personal aspects assume political force. This phenomenon is, perhaps, encapsulated at its most beautiful in the film’s coda, where we see donkey and dog, the former seemingly looking at the world outside the stable, the latter asleep on the floor next to his companion. The image does not signify anything: it is just an image of two animals, of their bodies, in their non-anthropomorphic space and time. It is an image of the world, momentarily free from any human point of view – until we remember that, of course, the image was also formed by Schanelec’s camera, without, however, giving us any reason for this act of shaping the world in such personal manner. This might irritate – but it is an irritation that is well worth suffering.

In stark contrast, the irritation provoked by Fatih Akin’s much-anticipated Competition entry, Der goldene Handschuh (The Golden Glove), was not worth suffering at all – and I say this with sadness, as I generally like his work and regard his Golden Bear winner, Gegen die Wand (Head-On, 2004), as one of the most compelling films German cinema has produced in the third millennium. Having probably caused more fodder for discussion than any other film at this year’s Berlinale, Akin’s ninth feature, which follows on the heels of the generally well-received Aus dem Nichts (In the Fade, 2017), is, in my view, an utter failure of the filmic (and political) imagination (and here I am decidedly not thinking of failure through an Adornian negative dialectical logic of necessary failure).

The film, based on Heinz Strunk’s celebrated 2016 novel that fictionalises the events around the real-life serial killer Fritz Honka, who killed at least four women between 1970 and 1975, is Akin’s attempt at making a horror film, a genre that for him is “defined by the intention to scare people.”9 But the film is not scary – for the induction of fear relies on differentiation or modulation, while in Akin’s film, the narrative, cinematography and acting are utterly monotonous, predictable and flat. From the first to the last frame, Akin shoves our faces into the ever-same images of misery surrounding his characters, so much so that one might not be amiss in describing what we are exposed to as “misery porn”. Honka’s apartment is filthier than any that I can remember seeing in the (more recent) history of cinema, German or otherwise; the eponymous bar in which he finds his sad, washed-out, alcoholic prostitutes might as well be a circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno; and Honka himself (played by Jonas Dassler, who performs his part so perfectly that I found myself more marvelling at his devotion to his performance than  fearing the character he enacts) is without any features that might make viewers take interest in him – in any case, I found it impossible to care about him.

Worse: I found it impossible to take any interest in his female victims. As someone who has argued for a “masocritical” (a-judgmental) approach to violence in literature and film10, I am not necessarily bothered by the possibility that some viewers might in fact take interest in the utter immorality of Honka’s actions or by the images of violence (the most gruesome of which take place just off-screen, as the camera frames the action so that our sight is blocked from the action, though one could be excused for thinking this is little more than a cop-out, given that the film’s sound design makes us listen to these actions all the more). I am bothered, however, by the fact that the film – notwithstanding Akin’s intentions – fails to give us any cinematic reasons to care about the women whom Honka fills up with alcohol prior to raping and killing them – and before ultimately butchering them so that he can more easily stow them away behind a wall in his attic apartment, where he then leaves their body parts rotting away with the result that before long they develop an unbearable stench (for which he blames his Greek neighbours and their alleged penchant for cooking lamb whenever any of his visitors comment on it).

Margarethe Tiesel and Jonas Dassler in Der goldene Handschuh (The Golden Glove)
© Boris Laewen / 2018 bombero int./Warner Bros. Ent.

I think this failure directly results from the film’s inability to do what one of Akin’s models, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, always did so well: to tell the political story of West Germany through the lens of the private lives of women. Crucially, whereas in Fassbinder’s films we are always on the side of the victims (even though he refuses to glorify them, thereby heeding Adorno’s important insight that “in the end, glorification of splendid underdogs is nothing other than glorification of the splendid system that makes them so”,11 in The Golden Glove we are on no one’s side, simply because Akin’s direction does not manage to affect us with anyone’s fate with enough force to make us care. Put differently, while as viewers we are a priori inclined to be horrified by Honka’s action – no one would identify with him, and the film certainly does not try to do what, say, Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), or Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991) do in that they suture the viewer into the point of view of their respective serial killers – it is not the film itself that generates our allegiance to and care for the women. This is not due to Akin’s lack of good intentions, as becomes clear from his public statements such as this one from the already quoted interview: “I hope that my film shatters people, especially men. Women should not even bother watching the film. Men should watch it! I believe that I manage to get men to reflect by really showing them how say, mean, and horrific violence against women is.” Fair enough. But why, then, does Akin not show us more about these women’s lives? Why not allow us to see their homes, what they do to survive (other than drink themselves into oblivion day after day), let alone how they became who they are now: human wrecks left behind by the so-called economic miracle of West Germany’s post-war years?

The novel itself is much richer in this regard, and it is telling that Akin decided to single-mindedly focus on Honka, thereby transforming his victims largely into one-dimensional cyphers who are objects, not subjects. And while the point is, of course, that for Honka these women were nothing but objects to be consumed like the cheap Schnapps he and all the other people we encounter binge-drink, I think it is precisely the film’s job to differentiate between Honka’s essentially fascist treatment of his victims and the women’s actual existence in the world as subjects, no matter how down-and-out they, too, are. In short, notwithstanding Akin’s potential desire to shock his middle-class and well-educated (male) audience into consciousness by confronting us with raw images from the (sub-)proletarian sphere of West German society, his film ultimately fails to allow his characters, most importantly his female characters (and thus also the real women who fell victim to Honka), to have any sense of dignity – or, rather, the film fails to affect the viewer so that we would feel that these women are deserving to be seen with dignity just like any other person who has not fallen as far as they have.

The best I can say about The Golden Glove is that it aims to show how men treat women as objects. But this is hardly news to the very women who in their everyday lives constantly experience how men treat them as such. The film’s failure, then, lies in the fact that it tries to make its point through a logic of exceptionalism – the abnormality of Honka’s utter depravity that is simply not the normal state of affairs. But what feminism insisted, and continues to insist, on is that it is precisely this allegedly normal state of affairs that actually does incredible violence to women. And this is why the private – that which seems most normal – must be conceived as political.

It is perhaps symptomatic of Kosslick’s own failure to comprehend the real impact of second-wave feminism’s mots d’ordre that his final festival’s most controversial film shares in his incomprehension. Il faut souffrir, alas.

Berlinale – Berlin International Film Festival
7-17 February 2019
Festival website: www.berlinale.de

Endnotes:

  1. See my “Clouds over Berlin: A Few Remarks about German Cinema at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival”, Senses of Cinema 86, March 2018.
  2. For more, see Ela Bittencourt, “Berlinale 2019: German Women Filmmakers Retrospective”, Mubi Notebook, 28 February 2019.
  3. For more on the order-word and incorporeal transformation, see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1987, esp. pp. 79-81; on the (re)distribution of the sensible, see Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill, Continuum, New York, 2004, esp. pp. 7-46; on the event, see Christina Gerhardt and Marco Abel, “Introduction: German Screen Cultures and the Long 1968,” in Celluloid Revolt: German Screen Cultures and the Long 1968, Christina Gerhardt and Marco Abel, eds., Camden House, Rochester, 2019, pp. 1-23 but especially the section “1968 as Event”; and on the future perfect, Marco Abel, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School, Camden House, Rochester, 2013, especially pp. 1-8 and pp. 297-310.
  4. Dieter Kosslick, “The Personal is Political”, Berlinale Journal 7 – 17 February 2019, p. 3.
  5. For more on The Captain, see my “Clouds over Berlin”. It deserved to be seen by more than 61,000 viewers that saw it in German movie theatres (https://www.filmportal.de/film/der-hauptmann_fbe6ec44331646cba45951460f18fab4) and an even smaller number in the U.S., where its box office take barely exceeded $240,000 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Captain_(2017_film)).
  6. For a compelling argument about how the logic of authenticity works in the age of biopolitical neoliberalism, see Jeffrey T. Nealon, I’m Not Like Everybody Else: Biopolitics, Neoliberalism, and American Popular Music, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2018.
  7. As I have argued elsewhere at great length, the issue of understanding, especially in relation to narrative and language, is crucial to Schanelec’s work. See The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School, chapter 3.
  8. Gilles Deleuze, The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989, p. xi.
  9. Wolfgang Höbel, “Frauen sollen den Film am besten gar nicht gucken”, my translation, Der Spiegel, 9 February 2019.
  10. See my Violent Affect: Literature, Cinema, and Critique after Representation, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2007.
  11. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott, Verso, London, 2005, p. 28.

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 with Chris Wahl, Michael Wedel and Jesko Jockenhoevel of Im Angesicht des Fernsehens: Der Filmemacher Dominik Graf (text + kritik, 2010), with Jaimey Fisher of The Berlin School and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art-Cinema (Wayne State University Press, 2018) and, with Christina Gerhardt, of Celluloid Revolt: German Screen Cultures and the Long 1968 (Camden House, 2019). 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).