Biography 23.1 (2000) 235-238
[Access article in PDF]
For those familiar with New German Cinema, Susan Linville's recent book provides a welcome revision of postwar theories about Germany's inability to come to terms with the past, and an in-depth feminist analysis of five auto/biographical films directed by women. Linville explores and then explodes conventional theoretical paradigms for understanding both Vergangenheitsbewältigung [coming to terms with the past] and Germany's inability to mourn. Basing much of her critique on the widely respected postwar psychosocial research of Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, Linville argues that their brand of cultural analysis views the "forceful reinstatement of the traditional patriarchal family" as offering "the only possible antidote to fascism, a politics they metamorphized as 'effeminate' and 'regressive'" (3). For the Mitscherlichs, Hitler represents not a father figure gone mad, but a "variant on the so-called pre-oedipal, phallic mother" (6). By shifting the blame for fascism onto a female figure, and linking German avoidance of mourning to the lack of complete identification with the father, the Mitscherlichs' work serves to reinscribe traditional gender hierarchies, and validate "human male dominance" (9). I found Linville's discussion illuminating, well written and full of fascinating cultural asides, such as a brief digression on the implications of the U.S. right-wing use of the term "feminazi." Linville goes on to show how five auto/biographical cinematic texts, directed by German women, illuminate wholly different models for the process of understanding and mourning the past, as well as for changing the future. While the autobiographical content of the films provides crucial impetus for her analyses, Linville's project seeks to do far more than outline personal histories. For Linville, "German women's autobiographies are acts of self-invention, embodied in stylistically innovative--often reflective--aesthetic forms that serve as powerful critical tools" (19).
Linville begins her discussion with the stylistic innovations of Marianne Rosenbaum's Peppermint Peace (Peppermint Frieden, 1983), a surprisingly humorous and charming narrative told from the point of view of Marianne, [End Page 235] a young girl growing up in 1940s Germany, and featuring an appearance by Peter Fonda as an American serviceman. Linville briefly covers the auto/biographical context for the film, which includes the West German peace movement of the 1970s and 1980s. She then points to Rosenbaum's disruption of the "Hollywood filmic paradigm of the camera as a male gaze" (23). Marianne provides the focalization for the film--the spectator sees things from a little girl's eye view, and hears things from her perspective as well. What Marianne sees and hears allows the spectator to criticize "a warmongering postwar mentality that persists in postwar German culture" (29). Linville often makes revealing and relevant comparisons to various films directed by New German Cinema's men. In this instance, she contrasts the camera's controlling high-angle position in much of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire with the subjective camera work in Peppermint Peace. Unfortunately, Linville often relegates these discussions to footnotes, and she fails to develop them as much as I wished she would have. Perhaps Linville does not want to burden her analysis with too much attention to the old male canon, but many readers familiar with main stream (mostly male) New German Cinema might gain access to the films of Rosenbaum and others via directors and texts they already know.
Helma Sanders-Brahms's controversial film Germany, Pale Mother (Deutschland, Bleiche Mutter, 1979), is known to many cinema-goers, in part because it has received much critical acclaim and censure. Narrated by Sanders-Brahms, the film reconstructs events in Germany from 1939 to 1955, telling the story of "an intensely cathected mother-daughter dyad," Lene and her daughter Anna, whom Linville identifies as "Anna/Helma" (41). The title of the film is also the title of a Bertolt Brecht poem "(a)llegorizing Germany as a...