November 26, 2013
“I watch old [soccer] games on YouTube. Gladbach against Cologne in 1973, Ernst Huberty is broadcasting. Four camera positions, few cuts. Berlin School.”
-Christian Petzold (quoted in epigraph to Marco Abel’s The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School)
This tongue-in-cheek quote from director Christian Petzold identifies the severe economy of style associated with the “Berlin School” of filmmakers, now receiving a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Petzold, Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec each attended the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb) in the early 1990s under the tutelage of Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky. The three directors made recalcitrant, intensely observational genre films as a reaction to the 1990s “cinema of consensus” in Germany, as described by Eric Rentschler. The end of East Germany became the fodder for comedies like Go Trabi, Go (1991), along with the sober historical dramas that continue to this day (Downfall, The Lives of Others). This first generation of “Berlin School” directors instead wished to focus on the dislocations of the present, whether of the influx of Turkish immigrants, or internal displacement wrought by the shift from socialism to capitalism. Other directors with similar interests, who did not attend the dffb (including the editors of Revolver Magazine, Benjamin Heisenberg and Christoph Hochhausler), were later grouped with Petzold, Arslan and Schanelec as the “Berlin School” of filmmaking, which would produce the most critically-acclaimed German films since the “German New Wave” of Fassbinder, Herzog and Schroeter. It is a critic’s construct, first coined by German reviewer Merten Worthmann, and perhaps has led to the films being ignored in the United States. While “New Wave” suggests the vibrancy of youth, “Berlin School” elicits visions of pedantic schoolmasters chastising viewers with ruler thwacks to the wrist.
Hopefully the series at the Museum of Modern Art will begin to change all that. The series is more of an introduction than a deep dive, with 17 films by nine directors, including the New York premiere of Thomas Arslan’s Gold. The series also coincides with the publication of three English language studies: Marco Abel’s The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School, Jamey Fisher’s Christian Petzold for the University of Illinois’ Contemporary Film Directors series, and the Berlin School Glossary from the University of Chicago Press. It seems like a tipping point has been reached, at least in small academic presses, but the vast majority of these movies have never been released in the United States, although the success of Petzold’s Barbara from last year is a step in the right direction. Then again, it’s the only Berlin School feature set in East Germany before the wall fell, and may simply have fooled audiences into thinking they were seeing a feel-good Stasi movie like The Lives of Others. It’s not encouraging that the very sellable Gold still lacks a distributor. A (north) Western, it tracks a doomed caravan through the Canadian Yukon as they trek towards the remote city of Dawson, and a rumored gold rush.
It stars Berlin School muse Nina Hoss as Emily, a tight-lipped divorcee who emigrated to Chicago from Bremen. A housemaid now determined to strike out on her own, she is the most self-reliant of the group of money-hungry scalawags. The caravan is led by an incompetent con-man, and followed by a bibulous reporter, a cowardly father and bickering husband and wife cooks. All are escaping the American dream and chasing a similar one in the wilds of Canada, this time without the burden of family or societal constructs. In escaping one freedom they get trapped in another. Shot digitally on the Arri Alexa, Arslan obtains an uncanny effect – his long shot landscapes seem to enclose his protagonists instead of set them free. Nature is against them from the start, during which a wooden axel shatters on an overgrown path, their one mechanical luxury – a wagon – rendered unusable. Then there are broken bones, bear traps and amputations. This host country is as malevolent as the one they left, but Emily is determined to survive by any means necessary.
Arslan is the son of a Turkish father and a German mother, and experienced firsthand the traumatic dislocations of immigration. He first funneled these experiences into his “Berlin Trilogy”, a series of portraits of Turkish youth navigating life in Berlin. Brothers and Sisters (’97) is a loose, improvisatory drama about teens in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin. Once a community for poor immigrant families, it’s now one of the more gentrified parts of the city. Under Arslan’s roaming handheld camera, though, it’s a maze of flourescent delis and abandoned parks. The non-professional actors wander aimlessly, imbibing metric tons of Coca-Cola and wondering how they’ll escape this city. It follows one family and the assimilationist divisions therein. The older brother Erol (Tamer Yigit), who looks like a curly haired James Franco, still has vivid memories of Istanbul, and chooses to accept his induction in the Turkish army. His younger brother Ahmed (Savas Yurderi, now one of Germany’s most popular rappers), avoids ethnic signifiers, ready to accept his nascent German-ness. Their sister Leyla (Serpil Turhan) is thrashing at the conservative yoke of her father, and eager to break free. Arslan uses Mean Streets as a template, channeling the live-wire indolence of its hangout scenes, where boredom can snap into violence with the snap of a pool cue. He places the same actors in different parts and locales in the next two parts of the trilogy, Dealer (’99) and A Fine Day (01), in which he reconfigures the crime drama and Rohmerian romance. These are not deconstructions of genre but engaged revivals, as in his cool Melville-esque heist film In the Shadows (’10), which was somehow never released here.
Christian Petzold is another recombinator of genre, as he places his stories of East German phantoms into templates of Hollywood narratives. The State I Am In (2001) opens MoMA’s series, and was his (and the Berlin School’s) breakthrough feature, winning the German Federal Film Prize. Two exiled RAF (Red Army Faction) terrorists and their daughter make their way back to Germany, only to discover their own ghostly irrelevance in the new neoliberal state. Petzold modeled his film on Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, as he told Jamey Fisher: “They drive all over the country, cannot really die, but also not really live, living in the dark, hanging around transit spaces, in bars, in campers, in trailer parks.” They “cannot really die” because it seems the police are no longer looking for them, more concerned with rounding up the illegal immigrants at a rest stop than these aging totems to an archaic radicalism. Their former Baader-Meinhof colleague greets them with incredulity that they are still active – only aiding their escape after some physical re-education. Their daughter Jeanne is the only one visualized to be alive and connected to this new world -as she is eager to acquire the material trappings of the West. Early on she dreams of a rich boy’s villa, lingering on the phrase “underfloor heating”, as if it were an incantation. She gets her wish, and the new reality awaits.
Another such phantom exists in Christoph Hochhausler’s debut Falscher Bekenner (I Am Guilty, 2005). Hochhausler is one of the younger generation of Berlin School directors, who, along with Benjamin Heisenberg, edits the film journal Revolver, which acts like a tendentious house organ for Berlin School arguments. One such argument led to the making of Dreileiben (2011), a triptych about a serial killer loose in the Thuringian forest, inspired by critiques of Berlin School form by old school genre director Dominik Graf. Graf, Hochhausler and Petzold contributed to this rather astonishing work (which I wrote about here, and of course, was never distributed stateside). I Am Guilty is another youth film, like Brothers and Sisters, but there does not seem to be any assimilationist moves for Armin (Constantin von Jascheroff) to make. Already a blonde-haired blue-eyed German youth, he has been given every opportunity to become a part of Germany’s economic boom. Instead he lurks and broods and fantasizes. Hochhausler shoves him to the edges of the frame when around groups of people, uneasy with the success of his middle-class family, whose only concern is that he get a job. Their entire lives seem like performances, every bit of advice he receives regards the stagecraft of job interviews, of proper tone and outfit. All Armin wants to wear is leather, and escape to his dreams of lithe biker boys straight out of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. Where Jeanne is eager to accept entry into the German dream, Armin wants to develop his own subterranean fantasies, and discovers it in the back of a cop car with a smile.
I am an arriviste to the Berlin School, but am entranced by their command of formal language as well as film history – and how they continuously confront the contradictions and dislocations that writhe underneath their still booming country. This is a major movement that has barely seen screens in the United States, so if you live in the NYC area try and catch the remaining shows. The series runs through December 6th.