I have written the following piece in response to a conversation I had today with my dear friends Holly and Charlette. And before I explain anything further I’d like to thank them and say that it was the best conversation I have had about film all week. Now, to continue, it seems essential to me to put into the written word the fruits that this conversation. I have spent the passed two hours ordering my thoughts and observations to compose this piece that is neither conclusive nor all encompassing. Rather, it should be considered a prologue to a social gathering between friends.
Of all the “New Wave” movements that took place in the sixties it is perhaps hardest to define that one which occurred in West Germany known popularly as the New German Cinema. Unlike the French, the Germans were recovering their culture and heritage well into the sixties. Where the French had established their New Wave by 1960, the Germans would take an additional eight years. Partly, this is due to the occupation of Germany by the Allied Forces in the wake of WWII, but also due to the Nazis Regime itself. Under the Third Reich, all the filmmaking giants of the silent era had been transformed into the gears of Hitler’s propaganda machine, souring any desire to produce films for years to come. Ultimately it would take a generation of filmmakers born at the onset of WWII to resurrect German cinema.
The first group of German filmmakers to find any renown consisted of Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlondorff and Jean-Marie Straub. Each filmmaker adopted proven and decidedly different modes of movie making, though each was in some way indebted to the works of the French New Wave. Kluge created a number of films that drew upon the gritty realism of British “kitchen sink” dramas as well as the kinetic and faced passed style that defined Godard’s Breathless. Meanwhile Schlondorff, along with his wife and muse Margarethe von Trotta, constructed large-scale dramas that centered upon either a political issue or a sociological phenomenon. Straub, in the meantime, pursued filmmaking in more avant-garde terms. Employing reflexive strategies in the telling of a story.
Though the body of work made by these three filmmakers is among one of the most important and innovative in all of film history it is generally overlooked and forgotten by the average moviegoer. Maybe these filmmakers are simply overshadowed by the directors that followed in their wake or perhaps there is something generally un-American about these films. The next generation of German filmmakers that arose in the late sixties makes up the more famous and commercially successful part of the New German film cannon. Among these directors you find Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. Younger and more in step with the times than their predecessors, these four directors address the Americanization of their country, and the cultural diffusion that has seeped into every facet of their lives.
The filmmakers in this second generation had not yet come of age when Kluge, Schlondorff and Straub rose to prominence, and were as such more aware of an audience that had grown up in Germany addicted to all things American. This very simple anomaly allowed the films of this second generation to be, at times, both homage and a criticism of the culture that had invaded Germany. Of course, this American influence also allowed, for the most part, these filmmakers to make films that could be potentially commercially viable in the U.S. and other countries. The films these directors made between 1968 and 1982 are at once deeply rooted in German heritage and contemporary German issues as they are reinvented archetypes of American cinema in the fifties (the two notable exceptions being Herzog and Syberberg). But even those moviemakers who did not so overtly adopt the American cinema found themselves traversing its vernacular in period pieces (Herzog) and monumental experimental features (Syberberg).
So one is confronted with a first generation of New German filmmakers who, in the early sixties, adopted the defining mechanisms of narrative filmmaking from the French and Germanized them and a second generation who did what the French did by adopting the American cinema for themselves. Simultaneously the New German cinema is as much French as it is American while never being anything but German. This is the paradox that one has to grapple with to define the common links between all these different films. Yes, certain elements link all of these filmmakers together stylistically, but each is also as iconoclastic as the next. So the trick is not a one of generalization or labeling, but one of experience. What I mean to say is, more than any other film movement in the passed seventy years, the New German Cinema is singular in that it demands you accept the whole of the movement only be accepting the movement by one film at a time. Sadly, this is virtually impossible. Only the second generation of these filmmakers has a majority of their films readily available here in the U.S., so one is forced to analyze only a half of the movement in depth while merely speculating how it informs the rest.