Two Germanys on Film

This past weekend, LACMA began its new film series–“Torn Curtain: The Two Germanys on Film”–impressively filled with a number of unusual and rare titles; I’m particularly excited about the inclusion of Straub-Huillet’s first film, Not Reconciled (1965). The series is also at the center of a web of fascinating links and events.

The first two titles of the series were key “rubble films,” The Murderers Are Among Us (Wolfgang Staudte, 1946) and the lesser known (outside Germany) In Those Days (Helmut Käutner, 1947), two of the earliest films shot on location in a bombed Berlin with the task of addressing the nation’s postwar poverty, guilt, and confusion. I found myself having a mixed response to the films: while they make some strides in acknowledging the past and their current historical moment, they seem stymied by their commercial intents and social pressures, making them less like exposés and more like coping strategies. Neither contain the wide systemic critique or plea for renewal embodied in a film like Roberto Rossellini’s rubble film, Germany Year Zero (1948), a difference Robert Schandley pinpoints in his book, Rubble Films: German Cinema in the Shadow of the Third Reich (2001):

“The rubble films were forced to seek out a film language strong enough to confront recent German history while avoiding a confrontation with their German audiences. . . . [Italian] neorealism should not be used as a yardstick for German rubble films. They arise out of entirely different conditions. Neorealism in Italy originated under fascism as an aesthetic resistance movement, showing from the start a willingness to take not only aesthetic but also political risks. German filmmakers in the late 1940s show no will toward taking political risks and little toward taking aesthetic ones. . . . If they expressed resistance, it was against the conditions under which they worked, in which they lacked autonomy, material necessities, and moral authority. Their films are confined to describing the environment and telling small stories of small lives. In some sense, they resist realist tendencies, aspiring instead to an idealism that ignores the basic facts about the past that they are discussing.”

The Murderer’s Are Among Us, the first film by East Germany’s DEFA studio, has a provocative premise in which a disillusioned war medic becomes obsessed with bringing his ex-commander to justice after the war for the slaughter of prisoners one Christmas. (Two of the film’s best moments reveal the hypocrisy of Christmas carols and religious sentiment masking war crimes.) Yet the film is comprised of second-rate, expressionist visuals that seem hastily assembled, with an inconsistent use of low-key lighting and canted frames. The film’s central romance between the medic and a concentration camp refugee (who looks as glamourous as any mid-century movie star) is equally flimsy, blossoming as it does between the medic’s drinking binges and angry outbursts. Finally, as pointed as the story is, its drama is predicated on an evil authority figure and a conscientious but powerless underling, which seems like an overly convenient way of schematizing the previous twelve years.

I had the pleasure of seeing Käutner’s previous film, Under the Bridges (1945) a couple years ago, and its quiet romanticism made a favorable impression on me, so I was looking forward to seeing his first film after the war. (Particularly after reading Christoph Huber’s enthusiastic portrait of the filmmaker. Interested Angelenos should know that the Goethe Institute media lounge lists a handful of Käutner DVDs with English subtitles under New Acquisitions.) In Those Days is certainly a more refined film than The Murderers Are Among Us–its elegant structure follows seven owners of an ultimately junked car that literally narrates the action–but it’s even less politically engaged, choosing instead to offer a warm, humanist portrait of apolitical citizens during the Nazi years. A young woman must choose between two suitors; a young girl learns her mother is having an affair with a blacklisted composer; another woman discovers her husband and her sister are having an affair and are plotting to leave the country. Käutner is a master of tone, and some of the episodes have a rich, tragic poignancy: a Jewish shopkeeper and her husband face anti-Semitic business policies and growing public danger (with a quiet emotionalism worthy of Borzage); two German soldiers race through the Russian front under the cover of darkness (with a hard intensity worthy of Clouzot). On the other hand, the film studiously avoids commenting on Nazi policy or ideology despite framing the story explicitly during the rise and fall of National Socialism.

With free hindsight, it’s perhaps easy to critique these films for their tendency to pull their political punches at a time when the filmmakers were lucky to be making films at all. (According to Schandley, “Käutner is reported to have broken down in tears on the set, fearing his project would never come to fruition for want of the bare necessities of his cast and crew and the lack of raw filmstock.”) Further, it’s not likely that the occupying powers would have endorsed controversial or highly provocative films. Yet The Murderers Are Among Us appears at the top of many German film polls, such as the Kinemathekverbund’s “100 Most Significant German Films”, and it’s undeniably important as the first DEFA film.

DEFA collapsed in 1992 after German reunification, and its catalogue has been slowly spreading to the rest of the world through a number of retrospectives and festivals. First Run Features has released a whole line of DEFA films on DVD (two of which, The Second Track and Berlin–Schönhauser Corner are part of LACMA’s series).

Lastly, LACMA’s Ian Birnie introduced the screenings last weekend, telling us about two fascinating organizations. The first is the Wende Museum in Los Angeles (dedicated to the Cold War), which I discovered is featuring its own film series beginning this month at venues around Los Angeles, “Wende Flicks: Last Films from East Germany”. The second is the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which was founded by German film scholar Barton Byg. Amazingly, it describes itself as the only archive and study center outside Europe devoted to the study of a broad spectrum of filmmaking by East German filmmakers or related to East Germany from 1946 to the present.” (Apparently, they have recently released a DVD of the classic 1932 film of the German Left, Kuhle Wampe.) If any Film Journey readers want to recommend films from the Wende series or the DEFA Film Library holdings, please do!

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