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The Mitlaufer in Two German Postwar Films: Representation and Critical Reception

From: History & Memory
Volume 15, Number 2, Fall/Winter 2003
pp. 64-93 | 10.1353/ham.2003.0013

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History & Memory 15.2 (2003) 64-93

[Figures]

During the early postwar period, few German feature films dealt explicitly with the National Socialist past and its aftereffects. As in other eras, filmmakers responded to the audience's wish for entertainment. Some directors and screenwriters in both the East and the West did feel that the disturbing present, even if not the recent past, should not be ignored completely, and several films of the late 1940s were set in destroyed German cities. But as these so-called "rubble films" tended to focus on devastation and the difficulties of reconstruction, even this serious genre addressed everyday life during the Nazi dictatorship with its persecutions, war crimes and genocide only indirectly or in passing. Therefore most films did not confront German viewers with unsettling analyses of their behavior between 1933 and 1945. However, Wolfgang Staudte's early postwar films were exceptions to this trend. This director obviously wanted to understand the complete moral collapse of "respectable" civil society that followed the Nazis' seizure of power. He was particularly interested in the less spectacular forms of complicity such as opportunism, cowardice, vanity, careerism, unscrupulousness and the simple lack of courage to stand up for one's beliefs. Western occupation forces labeled participants in these forms of collaboration with the Third Reich Mitläufer, i.e. persons who "followed along." The Mitläufer constituted the fourth category in their denazification procedure, nestled between the "lesser offenders" and the "exonerated." While morally unflattering, the label Mitläufer implied no juridical consequences.

Staudte placed Mitläufer at the center of two of his films: Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are among Us) from 1946 and Rotation from 1948-49. In each film, the protagonist is apolitical and in no way supports the Nazi Party; indeed, he privately opposes the regime and the war. Nonetheless, both men are complicit: one as an officer on the Eastern Front, and the other as an employee of the press that prints the main Nazi newspaper. Each fails to intervene in crimes that he witnesses, and even when one of them eventually makes up his mind to support the resistance, he acts too late and all too ineptly. So, neither character is a hero, at least not in the beginning. Each must face the evil consequences of his complicity and go through a process of reformation until he can find redemption.

In this article, I want to pursue the question of how Staudte conceived of his two characters, how the films represent them, and how German audiences understood them. I will explain Staudte's interest in the Mitläufer and summarize their development over the course of each film, but my main interest is to examine the ways in which contemporary audiences perceived both figures. "Following along" with the seemingly omnipresent and all-powerful Nazi regime had been a widespread attitude in Germany. It was not only easier and safer, it offered several advantages. After the war had been lost, many Germans were annoyed by the questionnaires the Allies forced them to fill out and by which they were put into denazification categories and then either punished or allowed to keep apartment, job and property. In this procedure, it might have been a relief to be labeled a Mitläufer. Still the way the occupation powers morally evaluated Mitläufer must have been obvious to everybody. How, then, would Germans respond when one of their countrymen confronted them, while sitting in a movie theater, with the shameful behavior in which a majority of them had indulged?

Most cultural historians will readily agree that in addition to studying cultural representations per se, their contexts and their authors' intentions it also makes sense to look at the perceptions of audiences -- who are the viewers, listeners, readers of certain works and how they understand and evaluate what is presented to them. Every cultural representation is ambiguous and needs recipients to give it particular meaning, and as a result, individual readings vary depending on the reader's historical situation, interests, experiences with a genre, and so on. Cultural history would therefore miss half the subject if it failed to examine the reception process...



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