Time for the Nazis to Move Off-Screen?

Zweileben

At the end of August Georg Maas’s film Zwei Leben was chosen as the German entry to this year’s Oscars and will now be put forward for consideration as part of the Best Foreign Language Film award. It was a move that surprised many as, although the film was released in Norway last year, a country where the majority of the film’s narrative plays out despite being in the German language, it was only released in Germany in mid-September, a full three weeks after it was chosen as the German Oscar entry. Furthermore, it beat critics favourite Oh Boy (Jan Ole Gerster, 2012) to the nomination, a film which had proved a surprise domestic indie hit and was named best film at this year’s Lolas (German Film Awards) .

If Oh Boy was judged to have been the best German film of the last 12 months at the Lolas, the question has to be why this did not transfer into being the German entry for the Oscars? Of course it may be that the 4 month gap between the Lolas in April and the decision on the Oscar entry, along with the later release for Zwei Leben, simply gave a chance for a better film to be come along. However, a look at the two films different narratives hints at another reason.

Zwei Leben tells the story of the breakdown in a mother’s relationship with her daughter as secrets from her past begin to emerge, a troubling history inescapably linked to Germany’s own past since the end of the Second World War, from the Nazis through to the East German Stasi. In comparison, Oh Boy is an understated contemporary film which tells the story of Niko, a young man trying to find his place in modern-day Berlin.

It is this difference in the time frame within which the films are set which highlights the problem at the core of the decision to select Zwei Leben. Not many German films manage to secure an international release and an Oscar nomination is one way to achieve this. Yet, in the last 10 years only 2 films chosen to be the German entry to the Oscars had contemporary narratives. As a result, this year’s decision to select another film with a nostalgic story is simply a continuation of this limited and historically biased situation; a situation which is creating problems for cultural concepts of Germany internationally.

Politically, the Euro crisis may have seen Germany begin to reassert a new confidence as a leading world power once more, yet culturally the country seems stuck in the past. This is particularly the case for its cinema globally as, whereas the New German Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s gained plaudits around the world for their tales of life in contemporary West Germany, German films released abroad today are still trading on the country’s infamous history.

Domestically, the German film production landscape is a diverse one, with a raft of films in different genres and styles being made by a growing number of directors, yet the international image of the country’s cinema is one firmly rooted in a bygone era. The problem is that, whilst German film at home may have moved beyond the process of coming to terms with the past and started to reflect more contemporary issues, international perceptions of the country are still based on Germany being the land of Fascists and Secret Policeman. It may be a more successful strategy both commercially and critically to play to these stereotypes, but in order to begin to change perceptions of the country and allow the rest of the world to get to get to know present-day Germany better, the agencies responsible for selecting which films to promote abroad need to change tack and begin to take a risk on these more contemporary stories.

Luke Postlethwaite

Image: critic.de

Snapshot of History

Clementine Max 1919

This photograph was taken in Munich in 1919. One year after the close of WW1, Munich was the centre of a political maelstrom: bombed in 1916 by the French, capital of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, site of street battles between the communists and the Freikorps. And yet, none of this is in the photograph. The photo is giving us a glimpse into the private, domestic lives of those who experienced these troubles. By reaching out through photographs into the past we can bring forward stories to the present. We can tell the narratives of those who have been lost. But at the same time, in old photographs like these which are so far removed from the candid camera shots on phones, we must remember that we’re telling stories not unearthing a hidden absolute truth.

So what kind of story can we tell from this photograph? The man is wealthy Jewish banker Max Kramer and the woman is his wife, Clementine. The house in Munich sadly no longer exists but we can see from their clothes, Max’s occupation, and the visible furniture that they were a wealthy couple. At least, they were in 1919. In just ten years from this photo, they lost the vast majority of their fortune and housewife Clementine took a job in a department store.

The posture of the couple is striking in all its strangeness. She seems to be leaning in affectionately but at the same time she looks like she might be about to pop off somewhere. By 1919, she was a published writer with her short stories featuring in weekend supplements, Jewish magazines, etc. By the time of her death in 1942, she had written over 75 short stories and many poems. Her first full length novel may have been on her mind although it wasn’t published until 1927. The focus of her creative output was always pacifism, the role of women, and fighting anti-Semitism. During the First World War she published work about longing for peace and wrote privately about the sufferings of mothers who had lost their sons. She was also an activist in the women’s movement. Before this photo, she had been involved in the German suffrage campaign, providing aid to war widows and displaced women, and campaigning for the rights and welfare of Jewish women.

All that is left of Clementine is her collection of creative writing, articles she wrote on women’s topics, and the meagre timeline of her life provided by her nephew. We know that she was deported to Theresienstadt in the spring of 1942 and in November she died. What we don’t know is everything before that. By investigating the woman she was through this photograph and not pitying her for the victim she became we can celebrate her life and her contribution to her community.

Corinne Painter

Image: 1919; Clementine Kraemer Collection; AR 2402; box number 1; folder number 8; Leo Baeck Institute

Regeneration or Revision?

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In the years since the fall of the Wall, Berlin has undergone a massive programme of reconstruction that has transformed its city centre from the epicentre of one of the defining political battles of the Twentieth Century to that of a modern-day metropolis. Yet, whilst areas such as those around Potsdamer Platz may have seen numerous new buildings rise from the ashes of division, other parts of the city have been forced to adapt and redefine their position within this new topography without undergoing any major facelift. The issue with this is that these buildings bring with them a remembered history and so pose a problem for the current transformation of Berlin as to how to incorporate this into its contemporary cityscape.

This is perhaps best illustrated in the way that the Fernsehturm, the tower at the centre of Alexanderplatz, has now become one of the default symbols for the unified city, alongside the likes of the Brandenburg Gate. When it was conceived in the 1960s, the tower was meant as a show of strength by the East German government, a communist monolith that could be seen from all over the dived city. Therefore, the Fernsehturm is undeniably communist in origin which means that, on the face of it, its strong presence within Berlin today acts as both a celebration and a reminder of the city’s communist history.

However, the problem is that, rather than being part of a greater commemoration of this part of the city’s past, the Fernsehturm’s re-appropriation by the contemporary city is done so in a way that breaks any meaningful links the building has to the old East Berlin, something that can be seen in the two major ways the tower’s image is being used as a symbol of Berlin. On the one hand it is regularly projected as the archetypal symbol of the contemporary city, a standalone logo which dominates the unified skyline. Yet the use of its image in such away, devoid of its Alexanderplatz locality, causes the tower to lose any association to the eastern part of the city. Equally, on the other hand, it crops up time and again as a kitsch symbol of the city’s communist heritage, sitting alongside images of the Ampelmann in numerous Berlin tourist shops. Whilst its use here may more obviously maintain the tower’s association with its communist past, the problem is that this past is being commoditised, becoming a product to be consumed in the contemporary city, a superficial act which once again robs the building of any symbolic, genuine link to its past.

Although it may be a powerful and bold move to base the contemporary identity of Berlin around such a strongly communist symbol, the methods used to achieve this are failing to build any connection with the building’s history into its new identity, meaning that it becomes as lacking in relevance for Berlin’s past as the new buildings around Potsdamer Platz. Obviously it would be impossible for a city with such a tumultuous and contentious history as Berlin to move on in any productive way if it stopped to commemorate every event from its history. However, the contemporary use of the Fernsehturm highlights how its current redefinition of its post-unification centre risks creating a new topography and identity for the city which pays little homage to the past, a development that would not only be foolish but could have massive implications for the future stability and growth of the city’s identity as a disconnection develops between Berlin’s past and its present.

Luke Postlethwaite

Image: mauro_ventura on Flickr

We’re getting ready to introduce ourselves and the [Dis]Connected project next week to the German department at Leeds. We’ll be at the Intro meetings for Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 on Tuesday and Wednesday to tell students about our blog. We’ll also be at Kaffee and Kuchen on those days if you want to chat to us further and find out more.