- The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School by Marco Abel
Already years prior to publication of this tome, Marco Abel’s interventions on behalf of the “Berlin School” moniker were circulating via interviews and essays [End Page 346] he published in online and print journals, and through the videotaped afterlife of a conference, “The State We’re In” held at New York University back in 2013. His contributions came to constitute important reference points for North American scholars working through their own captivation with this growing body of films amidst an initial dearth of critical writing. The publication of Abel’s book (now also available in paperback) represents a certain milestone, for bringing a cultural, historical, and aesthetic coherence and systematicity to the way these films are now perceived. If the writing is sometimes laboured, this quality also bespeaks an authorial affect that conveys a certain intensity, one deriving from the commitment to rendering complex ideas in an accessible prose. This is an author who wants to be understood by his readers, even at the price of occasional redundancies in formulation. By the end of the book, we really do get the point. In this regard, Abel delivers on his ambitions.
Each chapter is devoted to a single filmmaker, beginning with the three founding directors – Arslan, Petzold, and Schanelec – and proceeding to the second “generation” or “wave” who similarly embraced the reduced aesthetics and contemporary focus on ordinary characters and “the extraordinary in the heart of everydayness,” to cite a phrase of Henri Lefebvre, adapted by Abel (16). These qualities signal an emphatic departure from the big-budget productions that began garnering Oscars and international acclaim in twenty-first-century Germany and that plundered national history less in the name of Vergangenheitsbewältigung than for the purposes of sensational storytelling rooted in the generic conventions of historical melodrama and its predictable pathways of identification. Abel’s two-pronged approach explores the authorial signature of each director via closer examination of several films, while also emphasizing stylistic features that bind these disparate directors and enable the author to make a case for reading them as a veritable counter-cinema. His conceptual framework is indebted to the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Jacques Rancière, Baruch Spinoza, and more contemporary scholars of affect theory such as Steven Shaviro and Brian Massumi. Overall, these theorists have yet to gain widespread traction among scholars of German Studies; as a result, Abel’s interventions do open new conversations within the discipline, while also bringing contemporary German cinema to the attention of scholars of affect whose gaze has otherwise seldom strayed beyond US, French, and British film production, as well as select exemplars of world cinema.
Rancière’s notion of “the redistribution of the sensible” becomes a veritable mantra throughout this book. This compelling concept references the ways in which aesthetics can reorganize the way we affectively respond to works of art. These new sensorial responses may, in turn, enable us as viewers to regard and respond anew to our own quotidian realities. Consequently, Abel maintains, Berlin School films are not political films in the sense of advancing a pointed social or political critique directed at societal norms, institutions, or movements. Instead, they advance a “politics of the aesthetic,” to use another phrase from Rancière, making films politically in a manner that some critics, not least those [End Page 347] west of the Rhein, have compared to the impulses of the French New Wave. Abel’s Deleuzian framework is also indebted to Baruch Spinoza’s writings, similarly seeking answers to the central question: “What is it that a body can do?” And, how is it affected, and how does it affect others? While depicting banal human exchanges, even states of anomie in ways synonymous with the Deleuzian “time-image,” Berlin School films intensify normality in a way that makes it newly palpable. This mode of arepresentational realism, Abel maintains, needs to be distinguished from previous forms of – for example – social realism or...