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Suggested Citation: Gross, Bernhard: The Relationship between Film and History in Early German Postwar Cinema. In: Research in Film and History. The Long Path to Audio-visual History (2018), No. 1, pp. 1–11. DOI: https://doi.org/10.25969/mediarep/14791.
My deliberations begin with these questions: to what extent do films themselves create history, and, if indeed they do, then how? To what extent are films an arena in which one experiences the tension between historical events and individual historicity? I would like to first outline these issues in the context of the usual models of (film) history, and then explain what this type of approach means specifically in analyzing the early period of postwar German cinema.1
There are three common models for describing the relationship between film and history as being representative of each other. First, there is a way of writing history through film that assumes that the objectivity of its analysis derives from the objectivity of its sources. Here, the writing of history becomes a chronicle that links events caused by the actions of empowered historical subjects, or that arise out of structural contexts. Hayden White2 was the first to point out the narratological problems in this method of writing history, for it is able to recount what films themselves cannot – the process of reappraising the past is implicitly required in order to regard it as over and done with. The second position concerning the relationship between film and history is closely linked to the first; it regards films as representations of historical events and relies, in epistemological terms, on their indexicality. The more realistically films depict the past, the sooner they are categorized as these kinds of representations. This assumes that a film portrays a reality that precedes it. The third possible way of linking film and history not only sees film as a depiction of reality, but simultaneously treats it as a historical source, as Pierre Sorlin first formulated it.3
Yet, what kind of relationship can exist between film and history if they do not mutually represent each other?4 Media theory has answered this question by privileging the role of technological media in historical processes (Kittler’s apriority of media history). In the writings of Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin (also regarded as an important source for media theory) we find historical positions from the first half of the twentieth century that can be understood not only in terms of media theory, but also as aesthetic theories: optical media (photography and film) initially made it possible to 'experience' the historical processes of the twentieth century at all. Instead of reproducing a previous reality, photography and film were the first to structure access to this reality, which is deemed inaccessible, incomprehensible, and indecipherable – entirely as if it were expressing Kracauer’s paradigm of historical realism or Benjamin’s “optical subconscious.”5 This historical viewpoint—understood as aesthetic theory—can epistemologically be flanked by Jacques Rancière’s position, which analyzes the systematic disposition of twentieth-century film among the arts. Rancière regards film as the leading medium precisely because it makes a specific experience of history possible. He does not believe that the historicity of film is an a-historical occurrence. Rather, he speaks of the “history of the historicity of the film,” which prefigures the “historicity of man” in specific ways,6 because film manufactures a specific form of “thinking images”:
"Film is the art that realizes the identity of an eidetic mode of thought and the thinking mode of the visual material.”7
From this perspective, it is possible to examine the cinema historically and systematically as a form of aesthetic experience—a cinematographic form that does not merely photograph and represent reality. Rather, it reflects the construction of reality itself and also provides the possibility to experience the reality of this construction. This outlines the epistemological, historical, and systematic problems that comprise the foundation for my investigation of the early postwar German cinema as a specific form of aesthetic experience of historicity, not as a representation of it.
All of the aspects of postwar German cinema whose theoretical premise is to photograph and represent a prior reality—whether for the purpose of documenting historical conditions or of delineating the intellectual climate and its ideological signature within a narrative—have been sufficiently researched. Therefore my reflections begin wherever these theoretical figurations appear as the results of what the films provide in terms of food for thought, when they make it possible to experience historicity as the tension between the course of history and the history of the individual. Connected to this is the thesis that still-virulent topics such as 'Stunde Null' (zero hour), 'Kollektivschuld' (collective guilt), 'Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit' (coming to terms with the past), 'Unfähigkeit zu trauern' (inability to mourn), etc., are terms that were shaped in the postwar German cinema immediately after the war, id est they were initially made visible and thus could be experienced, enabling their content to be unfolded in the period that followed. This thesis works under the assumption that cinema of the first half of the twentieth century was acknowledged as the leading aesthetic and cultural medium, and was then redefined after 1945 (Benjamin, Kracauer, André Bazin). This redefinition could best be described using terms taken from current research on emotion in the humanities, namely as a mutable form of the audience’s experience.
My question, therefore, is to what extent early postwar German films make it possible to have an original experience of history that is realized in the states of standstill and paralysis linked to the (in)famous notion of the “zero hour,” and in the heterogeneous types of images resulting from that. Because, according to my thesis, the original realism arises precisely out of the heterogeneous types of images found in early postwar cinema. This realism cannot be reduced to depictions of rubble, because it is realistic in the sense that it unfolds a specific mode of experience based squarely on the fact that the coherent form—whether it is the type, the genre, or the style—has been abandoned. Many postwar German films use a kind of eclecticism8 to create just this kind of visual modulation, which is precipitated in the “zero hour” theme and opens up to the characters, as well as to the audience, a cornucopia, so to speak, of possible democratic choices.
This is why I think it is necessary to inquire into how postwar films address the audience, and what sort of audience they have in mind. Correlated to this is the idea of the renewal of cinema after 1945, a context that also includes the postwar German film. The idea behind Italian neorealism, especially as Bazin and Kracauer describe it, is also paradigmatically related to this. It is about a kind of cinema that is political, because, first of all, it puts the audience in a situation where they can perceive and thus experience a world and its rules that have become inextricably confusing and impossible to decode. Independently of one another, Kracauer and Bazin describe film’s key aesthetic operation as the ability to make it possible to experience the ambivalence of reality.9 This idea is explicitly linked to postwar cinema and its new concept of a democratically oriented audience. In this, Bazin and Kracauer see a new way of thinking among audiences after 1945. Hence, one can talk about a “zero hour” in early postwar German cinema, in which paralysis is expressed in temporal ambivalence—something which could be called a 'no longer' and a 'not yet'.
I will examine this complex through a question that though obvious has been left more or less unanswered: What function does rubble have in postwar films? It is connected to the thesis that rubble structures the matrix of the postwar film’s experiential mode. It is not only the major component of the so-called Trümmerfilme (rubble films), but also of the entertainment and documentary films of the period.
One of its functions is as counterpart to the depictions and descriptions of concentration camp victims: the voluntary or involuntary 'dehumanization' of concentration camp victims in news reports, pictures, photographs, and films of them immediately after the war is simultaneously contrasted to the 'humanization' of the rubble. This change is realized in literature by a conceptual transposition of what was seen in the “atrocity pictures.” It is realized in rubble and genre films by an anthropomorphizing gaze upon the rubble. While the Allies showed it from a bird’s-eye perspective (in countless documentary films, as well as in American “rubble films” such as A FOREIGN AFFAIR (USA 1948)), in German films it is shown at eye-level from the perspective of the characters (as in ZWISCHEN GESTERN UND MORGEN / BETWEEN YESTERDAY AND TOMORROW (D 1947)).
In turn, the documentary BERLIN IM AUFBAU / BERLIN UNDER CONSTRUCTION (D 1946) sets both perspectives together, making the victims look like perpetrators and the perpetrators look like victims, despite assertions to the contrary on the soundtrack.
Finally, it was deemed necessary after 1945 to show pictures of landscapes in ruin. They had existed since 1942, but had been previously censored, like the images of concentration camps. Neither of these types of pictures had been seen, and it was forbidden to show10 them or speak about them, at least in public.11 On the other hand, the majority of the population lived in rural areas, had no idea how extensive the damage was, and above all, had never seen images of it. Herein lay the perpetrators’ dilemma: namely, the irreconcilable contradiction that is bound up in the experience of being responsible for the horror, yet simultaneously being at its mercy and having experienced it on one’s own person. At any rate, as far as the important questions of blame, atonement, and how to deal with them are concerned, there is also an experiential dilemma acted out through the repeated usage of emotional rhetoric in the perpetrator-as-victim images found in the “perpetrators’ films” id est the postwar German cinema. Thus, these films initially create a place where this inconceivable and unbearable contradiction finds a reality in the aesthetic, meaning, a place that negotiates the politics of this cinema, if one regards the political as Hannah Arendt does, id est as the constantly renegotiated agreement over how people can and want to live (together).
In this sense, as I will demonstrate, the images of rubble structure early postwar cinema because they encompass all of the narrative and documentary films’ antagonistic, ambivalent, and heterogeneous experiential modes, especially in the ways that they present perception, community and individual, mediocre characters, that run through the register of all types, genres, and epochs.
In order to comprehend the notion of rubble as the matrix for the postwar cinema, it is necessary to draw another distinction that can be easily overlooked on the phenomenological level: the distinction between rubble and ruins.12 Just as iconographies of victim and perpetrator oscillate in early postwar German cinema, there are different ways of interpreting rubble and ruins in the motif of the bombed-out city, and they can change even within the context of individual films. So, in examining the question of a matrix, one involuntarily encounters the rubble and ruins that constitute not only numerous films of any ilk, but also the way that cinema is discussed and labeled. This opposition of rubble and ruins is present in literature, essays, radio, and newspapers as well—without, at the same time, being present in its aesthetic and cultural/historical context as the matrix for postwar cinema. Here, my primary concern is not with an iconography of the ruin13 or with a typology of rubble, which rests upon the apriority of media history, id est the nexus of war, technology, and consciousness,14 nor am I interested in the ruin as a metaphor for remembrance and trauma.15
The distinction between rubble and ruins is based on the fact that many early postwar German films feature old furniture and antiques in rooms that are far too small for them. These are contrasted with other rooms that are makeshift and scantily furnished. While the latter are organized primarily according to function, the antiques in the rooms have no function at all, even if they are cupboards, tables, or lamps that have a “virtual utility value”—the rooms are so stuffed with furniture that there is not enough space to actually use it.
This theme can be found in many 'Trümmerfilms', as well as in entertainment and documentary films. DIE KUCKUCKS / THE CUCKOOS (D 1949) works with the theme in a significantly different way, however. This 'Trümmerfilm' is about orphans who are being raised by their eldest sister. The orphans are repeatedly forced to find a new place to live, because their landlords think they are too loud, too strange, or that there are too many of them. The first third of the film shows them moving constantly; at one point the children, like the female protagonist in LIEBE 47 / LOVE 47 (D 1949), are in a furnished room containing all of the furniture belonging to the landlady’s son, who is missing in Russia. Because the woman keeps the room like a mausoleum, the children are not allowed to use or touch anything, which leads to grotesque situations; this space is a stark contrast to the semi-destroyed, empty house that they finally occupy in the second half of the film. The people and biographies frozen in their furniture are set in opposition to the young, mobile characters in empty rooms.
This dichotomy also marks the melodrama DU BIST NICHT ALLEIN / YOU ARE NOT ALONE (D 1949). Of course in that film a single mother is indeed no longer alone; nevertheless, she has to live in her father-in-law’s house, which is full of Gründerzeit (late Victorian) furniture that cannot be moved or changed, and can only be used with the greatest of care. Like DIE KUCKUCKS, the focus is on the mausoleum-like room once occupied by the missing son/husband. DU BIST NICHT ALLEIN also contrasts the mobility of the young characters in “airy” places (like the mother’s sparsely furnished first apartment) with the ornamental, immobile magnificence of the old furnishing in the house owned by the father-in-law, who lives alone.
A variation on the theme is the stockpiling of antiques, which is portrayed in the crime film RAZZIA / POLICE RAID (D 1947), then in the comedy KEIN PLATZ FÜR LIEBE / NO PLACE FOR LOVE (D 1947), and finally in the 'Trümmerfilm' FILM OHNE TITEL / FILM WITHOUT A NAME (D 1948). In RAZZIA the conflict is not only between good and evil (that is, between the police and penicillin smugglers), but also between furnished and unfurnished spaces. Among the former are Goll (Harry Frank), the bar owner and smuggler whose office is full of antiques, as well as his opponent, Commissioner Naumann (Paul Bildt), whose home is equally full and therefore still. Contrasted with this are, for example, the care room occupied by Naumann’s son (Friedhelm von Petersson), also a smuggler, or that of the commissioner-in-waiting (Claus Holm), who becomes Naumann’s successor and son-in-law. Here, as well, the scant furniture is linked to the mobility of the characters.
In FILM OHNE TITEL not only is the protagonist’s house full of antiques, but he also operates an antiques shop (similar to KEIN PLATZ FÜR LIEBE, which ends in an antiques shop). The antiques do not really represent the sheer antiquity of the characters associated with them, but, as in RAZZIA, they literally stop them from moving. Thus, the concept of space in the films functions, on one hand, to immobilize the characters in the scenes and sequences. In FILM OHNE TITEL the main character (Hans Söhnker) is the figure most noticeably bound to this connotation: not only is he named after his favorite relic, St. Martin, but he also has a stiff arm. 1-2-3 CORONA (D 1948) also employs the apparently hermetically sealed world of his main setting—a crowded camping trailer—in a world that is open to every direction, which is a counterpoint to the ornamental “setting” of the trailer.
The ornamental also leads to a function that springs more from the visual staging of the image space16 than from the logical contexts of the plot. It produces overly abundant scenery, consisting of forms like arabesques that make spaces opaque rather than distinct. In this way they create an image of space that offers an immediate vividness able to define the postwar situation. They make it possible to see, to experience through the senses, what it means to be confronted with a world that has become indecipherable. This is heightened by the fact that the films also always present the reversal of this image of space: emptiness.
What antiques are for interiors in postwar cinema, ruins are for exteriors. Whereas the 'Antiquitäten', like ruins, have no real function, yet refer to something that is left over from the past that is now useless, rubble functions as something that is not used: it is something that is not or not yet occupied, and has the potential for something new. Hence, rubble and ruins are the two ways that the structure of postwar cinema manifests itself: here, too, we find the dichotomy between the overflowing and the empty space created in these films; here, as well, we find the arabesque and the cuboid, the postwar image of space, equally opaque and clear. For the films usually show both, or else they present the way the two functions alternate, so that the same object can sometimes be a ruin, and at other times, a pile of rubble.
The temporality of this image of space corresponds to the sense of time that determines, on the level of the characters, the film’s dramaturgy in, for instance, LIEBE 47, as it alternates between “hero”/”heroine” and the “average Jane and Joe.” The rubble makes space for a time that is 'not yet', the ruins for a time that is 'no longer', and in the indeterminacy of both forms, in their flowing transition, the “in between” (between 'no longer' and 'not yet') unfolds. At first, this describes the sense of time in the narrative: there are countless scenes in documentaries and narrative films in which stones are dug out of the rubble in order to be used again, so that they move out of an “antiquated state into a historical one,”17 the state in which—translated to the characters—it is assumed that one ceases to be a victim of fate and takes on individual responsibility instead, creating, from an aesthetic point of view, average characters and not heroes. Here, the eternity of the myth is replaced by endless reflection: for instance, the constant metamorphoses of the characters and their figurations.
There are also countless sequences in which rubble and ruins are linked to suffering and sorrow, to guilt and responsibility. One is reminded of the death of the adolescent boy (Hans Trinkhaus) in IRGENDWO IN BERLIN / SOMEWHERE IN BERLIN (D 1946). The victim of a higher purpose, he falls—among the rubble that is his playground—from a ruin to his death. The film begins in a world of rubble governed by its own rules, where the boy’s peer group plays. In a test of courage, he climbs a ruin and then finally jumps down from it. This leap from the ruins changes the whole film, because the boy’s heroic sacrifice makes renewal possible. In the first part of the film the emphasis is on the horizontal, as determined by the children’s play. The vertical first comes to the fore when the boy climbs up and then falls from the ruins; in the final image of the film, the vertical is prominently featured, indicating the rebuilding of the rubble. The film oscillates between the pathos of rebuilding born out of lamentation of a fallen soldier as his epitaph (emblematically staged by the boy’s fall from the ruin and the scene of his death) and a playful, almost whimsical use of the rubble in the children’s act of playing with which the film began.
On one hand, the typical image of ruin and rubble belongs to the established, stereotypical repertoire of formulaic suffering, but, on the other, it cannot be traced back to the pictures of the camps; the images of ruins complement the other images of suffering and destruction. In the atrocity pictures people who are literally in ruins appear in what had been to the very end the perfectly functioning machine of the camps (buildings and equipment, such as the ovens, were shown intact in the films), and people in the rubble pictures are properly dressed and coiffed, although they are living in a ruined community.18 Furthermore, it is a strange, abstract depiction of destruction: often there is an emphasis on the stunning ornamentation of the ruins, for instance, through dramatic low-angle shots. There are countless scenes in which ruins are more or less effectively staged; they are as antiquated as the rooms full of unused furniture, often understood as a 'no longer', as reminiscent of Weimar expressionism and its connection to dark romanticism. DIE MÖRDER SIND UNTER UNS / THE MURDERERS ARE AMONG US (D 1946) is still famous for exactly this reason.19
Materially speaking, ruins contain a collection of former buildings and their actual fragments. Rubble, on the other hand, consists of individual stones that can be used to create new and different houses or things. But they also contain all of the lives—the ones that have been extinguished, and the ones that have survived, the ones buried there or somewhere else, the broken or interrupted lifelines of both victims and perpetrators. Everything that is brought together or contrasted in the dramaturgical structure of various postwar films of all genres, from melodramas to gangster movies, documentation and entertainment, can be found in the mutable image of space between ruin and rubble, as a sort of “extinct form,”20 a 'woven pattern' of all of prior histories.
So when rubble and ruins are shown at the same time, they are the manifestation of something that runs throughout the very early postwar cinema: the ambivalence of the phenomena and modalities vividly portrayed for the audience in the form of an image of space. Herein lies the key to what actually makes images of rubble and ruins the matrix for the postwar film.
It was my aim to discuss the ambivalence of rubble and ruins not only in phenomenological terms, id est to stand back from the idea that the depiction of rubble and ruins merely illustrates a reality of some kind that existed beforehand. It was also my goal to define the ambivalence of rubble and ruins as an image of space for the postwar situation as a whole. Seen in this way, one can ask if the basic assumption that film after 1945 in general, and postwar German film in particular, creates new kinds of perception and consciousness, making it at last possible to contemplate the conditions of everyday perception. In his essay on the work of art, Walter Benjamin described the potential of film and photography21 as an opportunity to take another look at the (bourgeois) concept of art, to understand the aporias involved in the way that it represents itself, and thus be able to substantiate the leading function of technological media. The “optical subconscious”22 describes this ability of film and photography, which Kracauer called their “revelatory capacity,” meaning the ability to use optical media in order to be able at last to experience (“Erfahrungsfähigkeit,” according to Hannah Arendt) the modern world. Understood as aesthetic theory, Kracauer’s and Benjamin’s ideas therefore aim at the question of how film and photography allow for an incommensurable experience that cannot be had in any other way.
The context established here gives rise to another question: is there anything new to be experienced in the 'Trümmerfilm', especially in the rubble and ruins? I have attempted to give reasons why the ambivalence of rubble and ruins makes it immediately possible to comprehend temporal and spatial discontinuity as a pattern, how it can be formulated on a phenomenological level as 'no longer' and 'not yet', or through the opposition of “full” and “empty”—without these states ever being complete but seen as a process; their “condition” is change itself. So this is no longer about a temporal and spatial experience that is determined by the continuity of a past and a future, a sense of chronological time; this also corresponds to Deleuze’s description of the “crystal image” as the thing that makes it possible to see coinciding levels of time.23 The relationship between rubble and ruin functions like the knots of the woven pattern of this experience—it calls attention to its continuity (necessary for everyday perception), while at the same time making it possible to experience something that is inconceivable in everyday life: the blending of past, present, and future, the visibility of the arcane. Thus, the relationship between ruins and rubble appears as the spatial and temporal manifestation of the postwar situation.
Translated by Allison Moseley
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