Germany and England / England and Germany: Proposal for a Film, June 2008

By Chris Petit


Most contemporary cinema doesn’t really cover the world we drive through or explore the phenomenon of driving: the state of driving and driving’s state of mind, the road and going on the road, logging our daily landscapes, the stuff against which we unconsciously measure ourselves, those way-stations and haunts of migratory drift.

Driving twins with cinema, another form of projection.

I am interested in the world as defined by road, which so much of life is.

The world is very different from the one in 1979 when I set out to make that contradiction in terms, an English road movie. It is now nearly thirty years since Radio On, and its DVD release last month confirmed it as rare example of a European model in contemporary English cinema and a defining picture of post-war disenchantment. At the time it was described as ‘a film without a cinema’ but to my mind it never really was an English film and exactly this point is made in an essay accompanying the DVD: ‘There are long stretches when we could be in some comparable backwater in Belgium, or France or Germany. Industrial estate, dockside, car park. Rotterdam or the Ruhr.’

I always thought of Radio On as more of a report than a dramatic narrative, about the way things looked and the music we played, about cultural climate and weather, buildings and landscape, a sense of alien record. Now Channel 4 has given us some money to make another ‘report’ on the state of things.

I want to include Germany in this because Radio On was an Anglo-German co-production and would not have been made without the intervention of Wim Wenders. The start of the film is prefaced by a remark by Kraftwerk whose music we used: We are the link between the twenties and the eighties. We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun. I wonder whose children Kraftwerk would say we are now, and what the new links might be. When I visited them in Dusseldorf in 1978, both group and town seemed to belong to the future more than anything in England, but who could have guessed what a global force Kraftwerk would become. As for Dusseldorf, the writer J.G. Ballard has noted that the whole of Europe is a Dusseldorf suburb now. We’re all part of the same conurbation and drive German cars: UK plc has turned into a giant Mercedes/BMW concession.

The aim then is to report on this new European landscape, with regard to England and Germany, taking Radio On and its status as an official Anglo-German co-production as a departure point for a corresponding film about today’s landscape, history, architecture, weather and change.

It will be an essay in psycho-geography, defined roughly by the work of the English writer Iain Sinclair, with whom I have made several award-winning film collaborations, and the late Anglo-German writer W.G. Sebald. In London Orbital, a film made with Sinclair about the M25 motorway, J.G. Ballard declared that the future will be boring. Boredom underpins consumerism. It defines leisure (and desire), which collapses into shopping. Boredom invites terror (as its only cure). In A Philosophy of Boredom, Lars Svendsen writes: ‘Boredom has to be accepted as unavoidable fact, as life’s own gravity. There’s no grand solution, because the problem of boredom has none.’

With this film, the aim is to escape the restrictions of motorways, orbital or otherwise, to explore a new terrain of uncharted territory: brand new towns, looking like they have fallen from the sky; container cities; a landscape defined by distribution and storage. The film will in part retrace the drive made last year through East Anglia because the region is a microcosm of new and old, and because the rest of England ignores it. The east traditionally stands for lost causes. It’s what gets left behind in the migratory drift west. Most of it looks more like Holland or Germany in its architecture and flatness and canals.


In 1939 there were a hundred airfields in the region. By the end of the war in 1945 there were over 750. Last year I stumbled across an abandoned old USAF base, which crystalised an idea I’d had to make a film about history and landscape, and how buildings impose themselves on landscape and history. On that same journey I found myself dogging the footsteps of Sebald who was similarly interested in war and memory, a subject which particularly preoccupied me as someone who had been an army brat stationed in Iserlohn on the edge of the Ruhr in the 1950s.

Although born after the war, it saturated my childhood, and, because of my father’s army career, defined my upbringing even more than the rest of my generation. The war meant Germany, which in turn meant the cold war. Where the Second World War was illuminated by the clarity of victory -- or so we thought growing up -- the cold war was invisible and mysterious, compounded by the strangeness of a divided and military-occupied country so close to home. Three years ago I was filming in Leipzig, a good example of erasure and history as it was being fast-tracked into somewhere modern and western, with evidence of its communist past eradicated, apart from some bad modernist architecture (which looks like Britain) and abandoned Soviet barracks hidden behind high walls.

Germany always seems the most Anglo of nations but there is an unshared and ineluctable mystery to it, beyond the dark forests of German Romanticism. It’s more self-consciously bland than England, better organised but still nervous of its past. There’s no German museum in Berlin for the war, only the old Soviet one in former East Berlin. If you must engage with England and Germany it is, pace Fawlty Towers, impossible not to mention the war.


The big shed that characterises the new landscape has a predecessor in those prefabricated US air bases that were once all over East Anglia. Sebald has written of the absence of German accounts and recorded memories of those terrible raids. Prior to them, in 1940 an English writer of popular historical novels and satanist thrillers called Dennis Wheatley was hired by the government to think up scenarios for resisting German invasion. He singled out the east coast, particularly around Cromer, as especially vulnerable and suggested dropping pamphlets on German troops saying: Come to England this summer for your holiday and sample the fun we have prepared for you! Today in the same region, behind perimeter fencing still stands a field of mid-century accessories and barometers of cold war paranoia, a Ministry of Defence early warning station, overlooking abandoned observation posts facing out to sea, the site a nostalgic reminder now of a time when global threat was less complicated. As old spies used to say, at least you could sit down and drink with the Russians.

The new landscape is an inheritor to all that. We live in state of quasi-alert with the addition of identity passes, access codes and security guards, which has turned work into something more akin to a military state. Public buildings generally have become more withdrawn and harder to read. In his book Terminal Architecture, Martin Pawley acknowledges a purity of design lacking in the grandiosity of conventional buildings. They are the opposite of heritage architecture and, in the terminology of the immigration officer, ‘undocumented’ construction. No novelist or filmmaker explores beneath its surface. These sheds refer to new kinds of impermanence and a history of temporariness. As such, in their function and graphic simplicity, they refer back to the wartime concentration camp, which was the ultimate in anti-heritage. These throwaway cities anticipated the contemporary landscape: shopping mall and concentration camp require the same sort of mind for their design, both being about the process (and exclusion) of people.

The Germans, purposeful dreamers, combine the practical and inefficient. Himmler wasted fortunes on pseudo-scientific research and many of those involved went on to distinguished careers as academic anthropologists after the war. A German friend once explained that the difference between the two languages is that in English you can change your mind in mid-sentence where German, being more of a grammar of order (and orders), makes no such allowance. You see the same kind of premeditation in their buildings too. Even Bauhaus only achieves lightness through elimination, a purposeful stripping away. The results might have been radical and imaginative but not necessarily the result of an imaginative process. Germans are driven by a sense of the machine. Look at their cars. Listen to Kraftwerk. Watch their football.


I want to return to the German garrison town where we were stationed in 1957. Just as there is little civilian German record of the effect of the Allied bombings, so there is next to nothing recorded of this military occupation, yet we imported a whole world and had our own microcosm of schools, shops, housing, cinemas and transport.

It’s hard to be specific yet about the exact content of this film because it will inevitably be a journey of reconnaissance and discovery. For the moment, I envisage four points of departure. Containers. Content. History. Cinema.

Containers is everything from haulage to storage and the big boxes mentioned above. We live in a container society. Content refers partly to death of content in that everything now is to do with marketing and connections rather what anything is about or individual worth. This is apparent especially in media. Content can also refer to contentment as in happiness: austerity versus affluence and consumerism.

History, in England anyway, has been replaced by heritage, a diluted, more commercial version and often bogus reworking of the past that can be turned into money and sponsorship in a way that history can’t. My expensively educated son (who graduated from a Cambridge college that Hitler had his eye on as his country seat), has no sense of, or interest in, history. In some minor but important way this film would be a letter to his generation. I want to look at England and Germany in terms of its American invasions, one friendly, the other hostile, which helped set up a post-war cultural landscape of which we are still the inheritors. As Wenders famously said of the Germans: ‘The Americans have colonised our sub-conscious.’

In a way, this film will be a swan song to a kind of cinema and about what is possible and not possible any more, in English television at least. Its commissioner has said as much, complaining that no one is interested any longer in what anything is about or even asking what kind of programmes people should be making.

This project is due to enter production shortly.

Chris Petit is a filmmaker, novelist and critic. His debut feature Radio On, now a classic of British cinema, was recently released on DVD by the BFI. He will speak and show new work at the Aurora Festival in Norwich this November.