- Postwall German Cinema: History, Film History, and Cinephilia by Mattias Frey, and: Cinema and Social Change in Germany and Austria ed. by Gabriele Mueller and James M. Skidmore
The past five years have witnessed a boom in scholarship on contemporary German cinema, one correlative of the latter’s renewed marketability since the millennial turn. The commercial success of German films can be measured by the number that have garnered Academy Awards – including Nowhere in Africa (2001), The Lives of Others (2006), and the Austrian co-production The Counterfeiters (2007) – or that were shortlisted, such as Downfall (2004), The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008), and The White Ribbon (2009). Even niche cinemas, such as those which critics identify under the moniker “Berlin School films,” or German-language documentaries cultivating a “politics of the aesthetic” to bring global attention to pressing social and environmental issues, have acquired a [End Page 511] numinous aura among film scholars and critics for their innovative responses to creeping neo-liberalism in and beyond Germany. While financially constrained academic presses seem more compelled than ever before to subject book manuscripts on “niche” topics to intense scrutiny, the visibility of books on recent German cinema seems to indicate that “postwall cinema sells,” not only at the box office, but also in publishing houses.
The two books under review here represent two distinct trends in contemporary publishing on this topic. Mattias Frey addresses the renewed turn towards historiography and the mining of climactic moments in German history; he situates these lavish period productions relative to earlier eras of German film output and criticism and their attendant “ways of seeing.” Certainly, the increasing temporal distance from the ruptures of 1989 has facilitated heightened historical reflection among spectators, critics, scriptwriters, and film-makers alike. But the passage of time has also revealed an increasingly heterogeneous body of work with regard to style, aesthetics, and modes of production. Anthologies, such as the one edited by Gabrielle Mueller and James Skidmore, therefore also serve a very useful function in showcasing a variety of methodological approaches advanced by scholars on both sides of the Atlantic, bridging the disciplines of cinema studies and German cultural studies.
Turning first to Frey, his highly original contribution to historiography reconsiders the “historical turn” in recent German cinema, framing it as also indicative of a cinephilic reworking of the history of the cinema, effectively remediating previous filmic representations of history. His approach invites us to rethink the merits and shortcomings of existing scholarly explanations for the film authorial recourse to history, whose reception he breaks down into four approaches. One strand pejoratively frames these films under the umbrella term of heritage film, herein borrowing an identifier first employed in the British reception of big-budget films showcasing the more glamorous and heroic facets of British history, best exemplified in the opulent Ivory-Merchant productions of the 1980s. One would expect the proper German correlative to such productions to encompass films offering similarly edifying portraits of “poets and thinkers.” Such portraits do exist, but the German films to which the “heritage” label is oft (mis)applied are actually cast in less ennobling contexts, such as concentration camps, or they focus on the persecution of specific populations under National Socialism. Frey maintains that scholars applying the heritage lens in the German context instrumentalize the term to exercise a form of ideological critique of what they perceive as these films’ naive revisionism, which projects onto the past wishful scenarios of heroism or multiculturalism – what Frey, paraphrasing Johannes von Moltke, refers to as “conciliatory retroscenarios” (22).
Another approach regards these motley films not as a genre so much as a fashionable production trend initiated in response to market forces and therefore presumably having a more limited life span than is associated with genre conventions that coalesce over several decades. The third...