A Critical History of German Film (review)
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A Critical History of German Film. By Stephen Brockmann. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010. x + 522 pages. $60.00.

Today any number of voices can be heard speaking for and against the virtues of Siegfried Kracauer’s contribution to German film history. His defining work is more than six decades old, yet it feels as though he recently appeared on the nightly news. His detractors see in him a doctrinaire critic, but each page of From Caligari to Hitler (1947) yields new and different discoveries. What lies beneath the attempts to repair Kracauer’s so-called misreadings? Had he invented every one of the films discussed in his book out of whole cloth—had none of them ever existed—his chapters would still [End Page 472] teem with insight into cinema and psychology. How can a reader not admire a book with chapter titles such as “timid heresies” and “conflict with reality”? And the first half of the twentieth century in Europe indeed tended toward fascism, which leaves it difficult to deny Kracauer his most salient claim. While his discussion of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) may have weaknesses, as Stephen Brockmann points out (66), the trajectory of Kracauer’s argument holds true.

Brockmann draws on Kracauer in his introduction and elsewhere, asserting that his own approach tries, “to move closer to Kracauer but to update the analysis and take into account justified criticisms of Kracauer’s method” (3). Brockmann is more interested in the formal characteristics of the films he examines than in the vicissitudes of Kracauer’s overall social-psychological argument, which is fair enough, and Brockmann’s book extends long past the terminal point of Kracauer’s, so a comprehensive evaluation of all subsequent ideological tendencies in cinema would have become more than a little unwieldy. Just to be clear: Brockmann deserves high praise for his superbly organized study. It has thirty-four chapters and closely examines twenty-seven major films, which makes it useful for far more than a semester’s worth of screenings. Borrowing terms from a wordplay Brockmann finds in Volker Schlöndorff’s memoir, he examines German film history for its Witz and its Aberwitz. His close readings are filled with extensive background on the films and also include the world’s finest single-sentence synopsis of F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924) (“a nameless hotel doorman loses his job,” 74).

Brockmann sets out to engage in close readings of the formal signatures that define a diverse body of German films, and in that he succeeds. The volume’s numerous chapters include considered observations on, for example, Murnau’s employment of the floating camera, and Brockmann is equally methodical when it comes to a DEFA film such as Spur der Steine (1966). Among the high points of his commentary is his discussion of the famous and arresting sequence in which Paula takes Paul on a psychedelic “journey through time and space” (266) in Heiner Carow’s Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973). Moving beyond Weimar, Nazi films, and the DEFA, Brockmann turns his attention to New German Cinema. His most engaging chapter may be his exegesis of Schlöndorff’s Der junge Törless (1966), which he obviously holds in high regard. In that chapter he draws out the film’s numerous formal connections with Weimar cinema—its otherwise neglected echoes of sequences from films by Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg—particularly in the film’s climax, which resonates with that of M (1931). Also informative is Brockmann’s account of the controversy in the United States surrounding Schlöndorff’s Die Blechtrommel (1979), which included a campaign to censor the film. Students will certainly find comments of this sort informative.

This is an impressive book. It is a portrait of comprehensiveness and will surely be appreciated in classrooms. Perhaps, however, those who write it into their syllabi will consider experimenting: for the sake of folly—of Aberwitz—it would be worthwhile to try reading backwards. One could start at its end and explore how every moment in the history of German narrative film has led to Der Student von Prag (1913), Stellan Rye...


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