Last month, the Goethe Institut – Max Mueller Bhavan, Bangalore, India organized a film workshop on the “New German Film Wave” (also known as the “Berlin School”) conducted by film scholar Dr. Peter Zimmermann (profile here) that took a look at the films (and directors) that are classified under this hip banner by world critics. Spread over two days, the workshop presented films and film excerpts, with runtimes ranging from half hour to 45 minutes, and attempted to discuss the stylistics of their directors in relation to the other German contemporaries like Fatih Akin, Tom Tykwer and Wolfgang Becker, who have had a more conventional approach compared to these “Berlin School” directors. Led by the trio of Christian Petzold, Angela Schanalec and Thomas Arslan who, apparently, studied at the Berlin Film School together in the 90s, the “New German Wave” seems to be characterized primarily by filmmaking techniques that deviate starkly from existing classicist forms. The workshop kicked off with small clips from Run Lola Run (1998), The Downfall (2004), Goodbye Lenin! (2003) and Head-On (2004) in order to establish what exactly the German New Wave is antithetic to. The following section attempts to take a broad look at this new movement based on a film each by its three major helmsmen and then a number of excerpts from other films. Although this may be a gross under-sampling, I was assured that these films are generally accepted to be the quintessential works of the movement so far.

Dr. Zimmermann clarified that “New German Film Wave” and the “Berlin School” are merely terms coined by world critics and are not bodies consciously founded by a set of filmmakers. However, it is also apparent that these set of films do have much in common, stylistically and thematically, and can well be placed under the same label of Berlin School, even if they do not stem from a clear-cut movement with well-defined agendas and motives. The most interesting aspect of these films is the fact that most of these are collaboratively produced by TV stations and film companies. Dr. Zimmerman pointed out that the TV stations, specifically their screenplay departments that fund these films, allow the first three films of new directors to be telecasted late night, in order to supplement theatrical releases which get little or no attention. The TV stations, surprisingly, give complete freedom to these directors, even to the extent of allowing the film to be experimental, and as a result the films, although whose scripts resemble TV dramas, are presented in a completely new film language that just can’t go unnoticed.

Let me present some of the general characteristics of all the films that had been screened at the workshop. For an initial approximation, one can describe the approach of the Berlin School as “cinema vérité minus the intimacy”. It is as if all the “new waves” have a tendency to negate their country’s legacy, to turn inside out the world’s perception of their cinema. If the French Wave attacked psychological realism, the New American cinema declared the studios to be dead and the new Russian cinema discarded montage for truth, the Berlin School seems to be directly going against the stylistics of the Expressionists. These films thrive on ultra-realism wherein the images are desensitized, possessing only a bland colour palette. Serene yet ordinary suburban or countryside locations with a startling absence of civilization often form the backdrop, thus making the characters the only beings in this deserted zoo. The soundtracks resemble ones from Tarr movies and accentuate natural sounds to such unreal levels that, beyond a point, images start accompanying sounds, instead of the usual way. These films have little or no non-diegetic music and predominantly present sounds from objects and characters present off-screen. The cinematography is sober, eternally static, almost always presenting detail in tightly-framed medium, long and extremely long shots, usually with a shallow focus that allows us to observe only one character at a time (much detail would be lost during pan and scan). Traditional dramaturgy is sacrificed for loyalty to reality of space and time and the films assume a plotless nature, content with merely observing the characters over a time interval. We are constantly reminded of the limits of the film screen and that a world lies beyond its four edges using shots in which characters are either cut off physically or leave the frame long before a scene ends. This technique is also used for the purpose of denying emotional identification with the characters who, in turn, flourish on repressed emotions. The films could be seen as a chunk of cinematic reality in four dimensions with no contrived starting and ending points. The typical themes seem to be emotional isolation and a felling of pointlessness in a sparse and cruel world and the inability to get a grip on life despite incessant attempts. Usually downbeat in presentation, these films almost always have an open ending.

The workshop, which began with an introduction to popular German cinema influenced by the likes of Hollywood, was succeeded by a screening of Thomas Arslan’s Holidays (Ferien, 2007). Strikingly similar to Woody Allen’s Interiors (1978), Holidays presents us a struggling translator Anna (Angela Winkler) and her husband Paul (Uwe Bohm) who travel to the countryside to visit her parents. We soon learn about Anna’s extra-marital affair that results in the breaking up of the couple. Holidays is shot in an idyllic countryside where nature is at its prettiest and its sounds, the most dominant. As if indifferent to the petty tribulations of these individuals, this nature, with its majestic stance, reminds us of the transitory nature of their dreams and hopes. The soundtrack is stylized with hyper-real sounds of gusts of wind and ripples of water from the pond located near the villa where the characters stay. Low on plot and with conventional writing tricks, Holidays contains some fine performances with understated emotions but the film still cannot transcend the limitations of a middle-brow drama that has too few words to provide meaning to the silences between them. As a result characters come across as perennial whiners who have only themselves to blame.

Almost same is the case with Angela Schanelec’s Afternoon (Nachmittag, 2007), which discards even basic plot requirements to capture of-the-moment experiences of its characters. Taking place, again, in a serene suburb where an actress Irene (played by the director herself) has arrived to meet her son Konstantin (Jirka Zett) – an unsuccessful writer who lives and tends to his uncle Alex (Fritz Schediwy). Irene is disheartened to see her son in such a state and tries to help in vain. The highly idiosyncratic cinematography of the film restricts the film frame to a very small space and lets the action evolve irrespective of the character positions with respect to the camera. Shot-Reverse Shot techniques are eschewed in conversations and a Kiarostami-like approach is taken up. With barely fifty shots in the movie, naturally, a lot of pressure is placed on the actors’ shoulders and they do a convincing job. Characters are written in such a way that they complement, mirror or negate each other in a fashion that isn’t entirely unseen before. One big blow for the film is its choice to be a explorative narrative film. If only Afternoon chose to be a non-narrative contemplative cinema that never worried about what the characters felt, it could have effectively made us “feel” the titular afternoon that forms the backbone the movie.

Christian Petzold’s Yella (2007) is perhaps the most renowned of all the films of this collective and rightly so. Richly layered and completely low-key in execution, this typical Berlin School product follows Yella (Nina Hoss) – a young woman whose professional and personal life seems to have come to a stalemate. With the hope of starting anew, she leaves for West Germany after selling off her company. There, she finds herself as an assistant to the flamboyant Philipp (Devid Striesow), getting involved in large-scale business deals and witnessing corruption, back-stabbing and forgery all the way. But that does not seem to be much of a bother compared to the ghosts of her past, which she attempts to renounce, that haunt her. At heart, Yella is an acknowledgement to the fact that no one – neither an individual nor a country – can completely escape the past. Mildly nostalgic about the life and times in East Germany, Yella boasts of remarkable production design, wherein images from East Germany are laden with lush greenery and vast open spaces, as if providing people with spiritual freedom and prosperity if not economic, while those from West Germany are endowed with rigid, geometrically precise furniture with icy cold blue colour and claustrophobic, corporate buildings dominating the frame. Carefully treading the line between being instructive and being neutral, Yella could well claim to be, aesthetically and contextually, the most triumphant of the New German Film Wave.

Now, there are some very big complaints that I have with this so-called Berlin School. All the films of this movement that I have seen deal with the age-old theme of urban loneliness, empty living and emotional alienation. I really don’t have a problem with this redundancy as long as the approach taken offers a fresh perspective to these phenomena. But with Berlin School, these serious issues come across as mere notions waiting to be illustrated cinematically. There is no political, cultural or social exploration whatsoever in any of these movies. It is as if the directors assume emotional isolation to be an isolated phenomenon by itself, devoid of historical and political connotations. None of these films seem to want to engage us in a socio-political discussion within the fabric of the family drama that is unfolding on screen (Only Petzold’s Yella provides a historical dimension if not examination). Even when situations and characters are written to serve as microcosms of the German society, the statements made are too broad and general to have any contextual weight (There is barely a statement which concretely locates the film in time and geography – a move that seems only too simplistic). Also, none of these films seem to be personal in nature, for avenues to exploration of the cause of tumult is sacrificed for unwarranted recording of consequences. One is only reminded of the egg that Pedro throws at the camera in Los Olvidados (1950)!

Furthermore, the aesthetics of this collective seems to be extremely genre-limited. It is difficult to imagine how the school can think of venturing into other genres or deal with other themes or even dig deeper from where they stand now without having to relinquish, in part or completely, their style which relies on a rigid, academic mise en scène, inflexible camera work and protracted shots. The more dangerous issue is that the school’s aesthetics runs the risk of being compromised by the shallowness of the scripts. The general approach of these directors invites us for a detached rumination about the life of the characters, but the scripts contradict that intention by not having any depth of examination, instead calling for emotional engagement. As a result, the movement comes across less as a prism for evaluation of contemporary Berlin than as a bag of stylistic eccentricities that serves no purpose other than to call attention to itself. Additionally, these films rely too much on “dead times” and silences to evoke empathy, in vain. They seem to equate mundanity of the script to that of the characters’ lives and, hence, provide little insight in these stretches of time. One needn’t look any beyond than the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder to understand what the power of these seemingly banal passages of time are. Even in a completely plotless and clinically mundane film such as Beware of the Holy Whore (1971), Fassbinder scathingly and self-reflexively reveals political, social and sexual power games at work in the city. Well, one shouldn’t complain. Not every director is a Fassbinder. And not every film movement is a Nouvelle Vague.

 

[Originally published in Indian Auteur]