German Film in the '70s

The time of walking gods

It was famous; it was in fashion and powerful. Those movies invoked ancestors’
heritage, discussed German history, dissected economical expansion and the new
consumerist society, and questioned identity, morality and ratio.

In June, 1982, when the public was informed that Reiner Werner Fassbinder had
been found dead in a hotel room in München, German film was in a state of
boiling and never before had enjoyed such a reputation all over the world. In
the early eighties television viewers of the world swallowed Berlin
, Fassbinder’s “smart melodramas” like Lili Marleen
reached ratings until then possible only in Hollywood. Volker Schlöndorff won
the Golden Palm and the Oscar for his Tin Drum, while Werner Herzog,
accompanied by the trumpeting of worldwide tabloids, shot his newest film in
rainforests with Mick Jagger. German film was famous; it was in fashion and

A generation of Germans still had a fresh memory of the time when such a thing
seemed impossible. Only in 1962, when a group of young and ambitious youths
signed the Oberhausen manifest and proclaimed that “daddy’s cinema is dead”,
German film was still sadly provincial. A few of the works by the old
expressionists, crime movies about Edgar Wallace, a few porn movies and films
about Winettou shot on Grobnik and Cetina – that was more or less everything
that the post-war Germany had to offer to the international world of film. From
an era of lethargy, conformism and commercialism, in less than a decade German
film entered the era of supreme conjuncture. It was rare in European film that
such a large number of great authors worked in such a small area. Let us
remember just the greatest: Fassbinder, Wenders, Syberberg, Reitz, Schloendorff,
Herzog, Handke and Von Trotte. They worked, were brilliant, provoked, caused
anger, and received awards. They brought Caspar Hauser, Nosferatu, Veronika
Voss, Maria Braun, Katarina Blum, Fitzcarraldo and Biberkopf to the world
culture. They outraged their fellow-countrymen, disgraced their parents, excited
film lovers and then – disappeared.

That day in June, when it was announced that Fassbinder died (probably) due to
drugs, nobody could imagine that the “new German film” would disappear as if
made of a web. Soon “new German film”, according to the new nomenclature, became
“young German film” which was in ironic discrepancy with the old age and
tiredness of its greatest representatives. Only Fassbinder died young: Wenders
turned into a caricature of himself; Schlöndorff specialized in Euro-lemonades;
Adlon and Petersen moved to Hollywood; Herzog ran dry on ideas, and nobody heard
anything new from Von Trotta. What happened? What really went on during those
fifteen years when German film came out of nowhere like a lightning in the sky
and lit up the tired European film horizon? This program presented by Film
Center tries to answer that question.

In a country where nobody is satisfied with its films, it is comforting to
examine an example of a country in which similar dissatisfaction produced a
flash of united talents. The German example shows that from a swamp, great works
arise only when film and filmmakers are ready to be dangerous and unpleasant.
German film did not soothe, did not lie, did not make things prettier nor did it
want to be pleasant. Germans were often angry about that great film of theirs
and watched it only rarely. This anger was understandable, especially when
filmmakers glorified murderers of factory owners and makers of Molotov cocktails
as heroes. Lack of understanding was also comprehendible because radicalism of
content during the German spring went hand in hand with the radicalism of form.
But they were great films and nobody had any doubts about that. They were great
because they did not ask for understanding but for a reaction and anger. They
invoked ancestors’ heritage, discussed German history, dissected economical
expansion and the new consumerist society, and they questioned identity,
morality and ratio.

The people who made them differed, as well as they do today, greatly among each
other. Fassbinder was a society chronicler, a gargantuan swallower of stories
and characters he produced with a scary speed and arranged in a Balzac-like
human lexicon. Herzog possesses sensitive mystery; he is Slavic-like irrational
and romantically excited when in contact with wilderness, the primordial and
third world. Wenders was and remains a salon director of the post ‘68
generations, a man who tried to turn road movies into philosophical attempts.
Von Trotta is an audacious civic dramatist whose dramas happen between a sitting
room and a bedroom, accompanied with a negligee and a crystal glass. They were
not interested in the same things, did not watch the same movies, nor did they
carry out the same politics or thought of Germany in the same way. That makes it
even less probable that film history put them in the same place and time – the
time when better and more dangerous gods – gods of plague -walked through German