- Affectless Economies:The Berlin School and Neoliberalism
The Berlin School is a loosely affiliated group of contemporary German filmmakers whose work can be said to constitute a new countercinema. Emerging in the 1990s, when first-generation Berlin School filmmakers Thomas Arslan, Angela Schanelec, and Christian Petzold released their first features, the group has gained increasing recognition over the past decade for a growing body of films that pay renewed attention to film form and aesthetics, turning their lens on life in Germany and Europe during the era of late capitalism and globalization.1 Much interest in German cinema during recent years has focused on big-budget high-profile movies, which are Oscar-friendly (in fact, they are sometimes produced by Hollywood companies) and capitalize on audience familiarity with German history, especially the Nazi or East German past. By contrast, Berlin School films are typically set in the present day. Conveying a strong sense of contemporaneity, they represent not Germany’s turbulent twentieth-century history but rather its less sensational aftermath. In particular, these films experiment with narrative time and the representation of space, shifting focus away from dramatic historical events and onto the everyday lives of their characters. These average Germans have lived through the dissolution of their national borders, radical alterations to the spaces of their cities and towns, and an acceleration of time and a decrease [End Page 72] in spatial distances due to technological developments as well as a host of other changes brought about by German unification, the expansion of the European Union, the impact of globalization, and the hegemony of the free-market economy. Berlin School films examine the effects of these transformations in an understated way, exploring their impact on social structures, on family and love relationships, and on the struggle to overcome alienation and find happiness.
Berlin School films have been the subject of public debate about the role of cinema in contemporary Germany and Europe, not least because, like the New German Cinema films of the 1970s, they have received a warmer critical reception on the festival circuit and abroad than at home. Critics and scholars have tended to focus on the rigorous aesthetics of the films, viewing them as attempts to redeem a European tradition of realism in the face of the predominant transnational style of commercial filmmaking. At the same time, a number of vocal detractors of the Berlin School have decried the fact that films with so little commercial appeal have generated so much discussion.2
Accounts of the place of cinema in the contemporary world, especially those that emphasize production and finance, have been relatively united in their assessment of present-day art cinema as a nostalgic throwback to the twentieth century. According to such accounts, the rise of digital technologies means that cinema has become a residual form of visual culture, an analog relic that art cinema attempts to resuscitate. More significantly, in the era of neoliberal media regimes, the strategies of art cinema—defamiliarization techniques, distantiation, contemplative aesthetics, self-referentiality, and subversion, among others—have been thoroughly recuperated for mainstream cinema, draining art cinema of its oppositional value.
In his discussion of emblematic postcinematic works from the early twenty-first century, for example, Steven Shaviro dismisses the current vogue for “contemplative cinema” as nostalgic recycling with no political basis.3 Shaviro privileges video and film productions that map the present moment by pushing contemporary multimedia aesthetics to an extreme, thereby “up[ping] the ante on our very complicity with the technologies and social arrangements that oppress us.” In an era when it is impossible to imagine alternatives to capitalism, Shaviro argues, postcinematic media perform a valuable function of cognitive and affective mapping of the present moment: “They help and train us to endure—and perhaps also to negotiate—the complexity of cyberspace and multinational capital.”4 [End Page 73]
From a different perspective, Randall Halle’s discussion of “German film after Germany” attends to the commercial, transnational mode of production that emerged in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, after the dismantling of film subvention schemes to promote national cinema, in a new market-driven era that mandated self-sustainable, profitable filmmaking. Despite...