Luminous Days: Notes on the New German Cinema

By Ekkehard Knörer

this-very-moment-christoph-hochhausler.jpgThis Very Moment, 2003

The First Generation – Beginnings

After decades of almost international irrelevance, German cinema is on the map again. This year's Academy Award for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others was already the second Best Foreign Film Oscar within five years, after Caroline Link's Nowhere in Africa in 2003. Fatih Akin's Head-On won the Golden Bear at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival – to almost everybody's acclaim. Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall, which divided critics in Germany but attracted a huge audience, made its presence felt even in the notoriously difficult US market, a feat Donnersmarck's enthusiastically lauded Stasi drama seems about to duplicate.

But there is more to German cinema's new strength. In the shadow of these mainstream achievements something aesthetically far more interesting (and commercially far less successful, of course) has developed. The names of directors like Christian Petzold (The State I Am In, 2000), Angela Schanelec (Passing Summer, 2001), Christoph Hochhäusler (Low Profile, 2006) or Valeska Grisebach (Longing, 2006) have only recently begun to be whispered by observers of the international film scene. In France this group of filmmakers has already been dubbed the "Nouvelle Vague Allemande" by Cahiers du Cinéma. In Germany the label "Berliner Schule" ("Berlin School") was coined and readily applied – to some of the rather individualistically-minded directors' dismay.

The label is correct, however, insofar as in the beginning there actually was a school in Berlin. Angela Schanelec, Thomas Arslan and Christian Petzold, the three filmmakers now most readily identified as the initiatiors of this "Berlin school", were fellow students at the Berlin film academy "dffb". This was in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when German essay / documentary masters Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky were teaching there. Bitomsky's and Farocki's influence is palpable in their students' works, although not in the most obvious ways.

For one, neither Schanelec nor Arslan nor Petzold, who all write their own screenplays, set out to work in the essayist mode – they preferred fiction films from the very beginning. Only Arslan made a documentary, From Far Away (2006) between his latest feature films A Fine Day (2001) and Vacation (2007). And even the arguably most striking feature of Bitomsky / Farocki's work, its overtly political and socio-critical character, seems not to be present in the majority of the "Berlin School" films. Their apparent preference for a rather bourgeois poetics of middle class navel gazing is in fact one of the more frequently heard allegations levelled especially against Schanelec, but also for example against Arslan's Vacation.

longing-valeska-grisebach.jpgLonging, 2005

At first sight, there is some truth to this observation. Schanelec's Passing Summer, Marseille (2004), and Afternoon (2007) consistently focus on middle class people drifting through their lives, unable to make decisions that could free them from their constant state of melancholy. Passing Summer is a purposefully elliptical group portrait of thirty-somethings undergoing various kinds of pre-midlife-crises who, instead of getting active, remain subdued and passive throughout. Having left Berlin for Marseille, Sophie (Maren Eggert), the photographer protagonist of Marseille, is observed doing nothing much but taking seemingly random photographs on her walks through the French city.

Social relations are spiced up more in Afternoon, a transposition of Checkov’s The Sea Gull into a present time round dance of passive-aggressive rivalries in the setting of an obviously well-to-do circle of family and friends in a Potsdam villa. In this as in all of Schanelec's films the real "action" lies not in the plot but in her cinematic modes of observation. Faces as well as cityscapes are presented in luminous compositions and subtly framed and blocked shots that very deliberately conceal as much as they reveal.

Evolving differently, Thomas Arslan has moved from the Turkish-German Berlin-Kreuzberg settings of his first films Siblings (1997) and Dealer (1999) towards more general explorations of private and familial relations in today's society in A Fine Day and Vacation. Christian Petzold is the most openly political of the group. He worked as an assistant director with Bitomsky and Farocki; the latter is also explicitly credited as "dramaturgical advisor" in all of Petzold's films. Petzold's breakthrough film, The State I Am In (2001) – with an audience of 120,000 also by far the most successful of all Berlin School films – programmatically fuses the political and the private sphere. It is a film about terrorism – but we get to know the terrorists Hans (Richy Müller) and Klara (Barbara Auer) only when they are already on the run with their daughter Jeanne (Julia Hummer), who becomes the embodiment of their own repressed doubts as well as their longing for an impossible normalcy.

In fact, most of these films – and also those of the "next generation" of directors like Ulrich Köhler, Henner Winckler and Christoph Hochhäusler – are, in one way or another, family films. These families quite often become something like a mirror of society, an arena in which a micropolitics of the states and moods our capitalist society is in are explicitly or obliquely thematized. It is at this point that the often declared and observed affinity to the so called "Second New Wave" in France, with directors like Jean Eustache, Jacques Doillon, Philippe Garrel, and also the more solitary figure of Maurice Pialat, becomes most obvious. There is certainly no political speech-making here – in contrast to, for example, Hans Weingärtner's would-be political pamphlet The Edukators (2005) – but this does not mean that politics and the analysis of social realities are completely absent.

ghosts-christian-petzold.jpgGhosts, 2005

In Petzold's Yella (2007) the economic scene of venture capital is presented as a realm and world of the undead leading their haunted half-lives in the non-places of bleak German landscapes. Similarly, in Ghosts (2005) the urban Berlin landscape becomes a place where the teenage protagonist Nina (Julia Hummer) is haunted by a past that might or might not be hers, and where a woman from France (Marianne Basler) desperately seeks a daughter she lost a long time ago. These psychological as well as real landscapes are very contemporary versions of an uncanny that no longer hearkens back to German romanticism. Rather, it is the contemporary uncanny of a society in which all conventional ties are cut and social relations are in dire need of being re-knit or made up out of thin air and mere imagination.

It is, once again, Petzold who spells out what remains framed in a more private perspective in Schanelec's and Arslan's films. There can be no doubt, however, that Afternoon as well as Vacation are clear indictments and often scathing portraits of a bourgeois lifestyle out of touch with a lot of the realities of today's society. What remains absent are clear-cut solutions and, on the characters' side, even the attempt – successful or not – to overcome the melancholy disposition induced by the sad state of affairs in matters private and public. But if there is no utopian vision here, there certainly is no bleary-eyed nostalgia for something lost, either. These are films presenting characters longing for and sometimes finding "fine days" and moments of happiness, but their general attitude remains unflinchingly bleak.

But looking at content only won't get you far when considering the "Berlin School" films' stance or message. What is far more important than explicit or implicit political statements on the level of character constellations, dialogue and setting, is a politics of the cinematographic image. It is, one can argue, this aesthetic version of a political consciousness or this implicitly political aesthetics that lies at the core of what – in spite of all differences in mood, subjects, personal temperaments and obsessions – really connects these directors and justifies the ever problematic use of a label like "Berlin School" or "Nouvelle Vague Allemande".

Speaking of only the image, however, is another misleading reduction, as cinematography, editing, and sound are of almost equal importance. Cinematographers Hans Fromm (for Petzold), Reinhold Vorschneider (for Schanelec, but also Maria Speth and Benjamin Heisenberg), Bernhard Keller (for Valeska Grisebach and Christoph Hochhäusler) and Michael Wiesweg (for Arslan), editors Bettina Böhler and Bettina Blickwede or casting director Ulrike Müller are very close collaborators whose contribution to the unity of the respective directors' films can hardly be overestimated. The aesthetic concept underlying most of the "Berlin School" films might be summed up as a realism intent on avoiding the pitfalls of naturalism. It is a realisms that avoids all kinds of manipulative effects, ranging from plot point oriented storytelling to sound tracks heavy on music. It is an idea of realism that can to some degree, most conspicuously in Arslan's earlier films, go hand in hand with the defamiliarization found in a Bressonian scepticism towards the acting technique.

low-profile-christoph-hochhausler.jpgLow Profile, 2005

All this does not make for movies as entertainment or instant emotional gratification. There is no doubt that Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec take film very seriously as an art form; you can find absurdist comedic touches here and there, but in general their films are stern studies in rigorously framed melancholy. And even Christian Petzold, who shows considerable interest in and knowledge of genre filmmaking, reliably proves to be a master of toning it down. His versions of crime (as in Something to Remind Me or Wolfsburg), ghost (Ghosts) or horror stories (Yella) regularly feel like transpositions of pulp originals into a more sober, more serious and more restrained mode. No wonder, then, that the works of the "Berlin School" have been called cerebral, boring or, even worse, very French. A less superficial look, however, will reveal that this is filmmaking of the most meticulous and therefore rewardingly intense and rich kind: Every single image, every gesture, every cut and every camera movement counts and every single element adds another layer of often ambiguous meaning to what at first sight seem simple plots and constellations.

The Next Generation: Köhler, Winckler, Grisebach, Speth – and the Revolver Group

Schanelec, Petzold and Arslan are all well into their forties. They have meanwhile been joined by a second generation of filmmakers in their thirties. This certainly is a more rag tag group of directors from very different backgrounds and film schools, with various affiliations and origins. Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler, for example, were students at the Hamburg Academy of Fine Arts, whereas Valeska Grisebach studied at the Vienna Film Academy and has developed close ties to the Austrian collective "coop 99". Her graduation film Be My Star (2001) was co-produced by the formerly East German "Konrad Wolf" Academy HFF in Potsdam, where Maria Speth was a student.

In 1998 a group of young film students at the Munich Film Academy, later film directors Christoph Hochhäusler and Benjamin Heisenberg among them, founded the film magazine Revolver. They were motivated in part by their passion for thinking about making movies and in part by a frustration about the open disregard for theory, film history, and reflection at their film school. Hochhäusler and Heisenberg have since moved to Berlin and left a mark with their first films. Heisenberg's Sleeper (2005) presents the highly topical subject of a suspected terrorist "sleeper" – but transforms it into a study about the pervasiveness of suspicion; a suspicion that quite literally infects not only the Arab protagonist Farid's (Mehddi Nebbou) friends and colleagues, but also the camera's and the spectator's gaze.

Hochhäusler’s In This Very Moment (2003) is an icy family portrait loosely modeled on the Brothers Grimm fairytale Hansel and Gretel slowly and relentlessly unfolding in deliberately static shots. Despite his debut's huge critical success in Germany as well as in France, Hochhäusler did not manage to get funding for his second film. Low Profile, financed with private money and with a shoestring budget, is a deeply unsettling expedition into the realities and phantasies of teenager Armin (Constantin von Jascheroff), who confesses to crimes he didn't commit. His behaviour at first sight seems to be decipherable as a cry for attention in an environment against whose career expectations he can only passively rebel. What is so extraordinary about Low Profile is that the film never really contents itself with this conventional explanation. Armin's motivation remains a mystery to his family, to the spectator, and also to himself. Hochhäusler's daring and ultimately his artistic triumph lies in his will to spell out this dissociated state of mind in often completely ambiguous scenes that blur the boundary between fact and imagination.

windows-on-monday-ulrich-kohler.jpgWindows on Monday, 2006

Paul (Lennie Burmeister), the protagonist of Ulrich Köhler’s debut feature Bungalow (2002) seems to be suffering from a similar syndrome. He deserts from his military duty and hides in his parents' bungalow. There he stays whiling away his time masturbating or making advances to his brother's girlfriend Lene (Trine Dyrholm). Köhler's second film, Windows on Monday (2005) is, once again, the story of an attempt to escape family life. Nina (Isabelle Menke) for no explicit reason decides to go awol from her duties as a mother and wife and finds herself in an eery hotel populated by strange people like a former tennis star, actually played by the 1970s tennis enfant terrible Ilie Nastase. In this scene as in others Köhler, who admits to Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul's influence, successfully walks a very fine line between subtly comic absurdism and stern realism.

Henner Winckler as well as Valeska Grisebach and Maria Speth (at least with her second film Madonnas, 2007) arguably are committed to a formally less rigorous – but not necessarily less adventurous – low key realism. Winckler’s School Trip (2002) and Grisebach's Be My Star are sensitive portraits of young people in their teens, both featuring scenes of very precisely observed interactions, with Grisebach especially showing an incredible ear for the nuances of dialogue.

Her follow-up Longing (on release in the UK through the bfi from 18th May) managed to transpose her debut's strength into a provincial and adult setting. This simple and movingly tragic love story, filmed once again with a lay cast, was very warmly received at the Berlin Film Festival competition in 2006 – and has since travelled to festivals around the world. So there is hope that what has in only a few years become a fully fledged movement in Germany will move beyond the international festival circuit and be shown regularly at cinemas abroad.

A season of films from the New German Cinema, "Voices outside the Frame – The Berlin School in Recent German Cinema" organised by the Goethe-Institut London and the Institut Francais in collaboration with Vertigo and Revolver magazine will take place at the Cine lumiere, London, from 30th April – 10th May 2007. For further information please see and

Ekkehard Knörer is a writer and critic. He is the editor of the online film magazine Jump-Cut and a regular critic for German daily die Tageszeitung