restricted access Postwall German Cinema: History, Film History, and Cinephilia by Mattias Frey (review)
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Postwall German Cinema: History, Film History, and Cinephilia.
By Mattias Frey. New York: Berghahn, 2013. xi + 206 pages + 22 b/w illustrations. $90.00.

This book, largely based on the author’s 2008 doctoral dissertation at Harvard University, is part of a growing body of work exploring contemporary German cinema. In both its title and approach, it recalls Mary-Elizabeth O’Brien’s Post-Wall German Cinema and National History: Utopianism and Dissent (2012) [ed. note: see review in Monatshefte 105.2, Summer 2013, 359–360]. Both Frey and O’Brien explore the implications of post-Wall German history films for contemporary German national identity, and both use Alison Landsberg’s concept of “prosthetic memory” to suggest that history films can serve precisely such a “prosthetic” function. Both O’Brien and Frey also take issue with the use of the term “heritage film” in the German context. Frey, in particular, argues that this term, created in a British context to refer to a presumably positive national heritage, makes little sense in a German context in which the history being referred to is frequently a negative one, and in which the “heritage” [End Page 734] at issue is therefore being rejected. Frey’s study also echoes Paul Cooke’s book Contemporary German Cinema (2012) in its rejection of rote denunciations of post-Wall cinema as apolitical or a mere “cinema of consensus” (Erich Rentschler) because of its distance from the New German Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. For Frey, as well as for Cooke and O’Brien, there is a great deal to learn from contemporary German cinema, and its modest popularity with German (and at least in some instances, international) audiences is not necessarily a bad thing.

Frey takes a relatively circumscribed number of films for his analysis—in contrast to the much larger corpus explored by O’Brien and Cooke. The book examines primarily seven films: Sönke Wortmann’s Das Wunder von Bern (2003), Christopher Roth’s Baader (2002), Uli Edel’s Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008), Hans-Christian Schmid’s 23 (1998), Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! (2004), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der anderen (2006), and Oskar Roehler’s Die Unberührbare (2000). All of these films were made between 1998 and 2008, with most of them coming during the years of Gerhard Schröder’s chancellorship (1998–2005). In fact one of Frey’s fundamental conclusions with regard to Schmid’s still relatively under-explored film 23 is that it expresses some of the anxiety and fear experienced by an entire generation of Germans at the moment of the switch to a Social Democratic-Green coalition in 1998. Frey argues, “it seems fitting that the historical cinema began proliferating on German screens shortly after their coming to power in 1998” (101), and he notes that for many West Germans the years 1989– 1990 did not represent a radical break; “the real revolution became apparent after the September 1998 elections” (101). Here Frey and O’Brien differ considerably, since O’Brien argues that the years 1989–1990 are of paramount importance and have virtually displaced 1945 in significance. Obviously Frey’s perspective is a profoundly West German one, since it discounts the historical rupture of 1989 and the collapse of the German Democratic Republic. It is also notable that all of the films Frey considers are by West German directors, and that most of them explore the history of the Federal Republic, not the GDR. (The two films that explore the GDR, however adequately, are by West German directors and, as Frey notes, tend to promote national consensus rather than searing memory work.) From Das Wunder von Bern through Die Unberührbare, these are films that examine West German historical consciousness—the triumph of the 1954 World Cup victory, the terrorism of the 1970s, the anxiety of the 1980s, and the way that the national triumph of 1990 turned into personal catastrophe for one left-wing West German writer, the protagonist of Roehler’s Die Unberührbare (a fictional figure based on Roehler’s real-life mother, Gisela Elsner). What falls notably between the cracks of such an...