Long Overlooked, German Cinema Gets Its Close-up With Filme 50/50/50 Festival

The 1920s may have been the heyday of German cinema, but the New German Cinema movement of the 1960s and ’70s provides a fascinating insight into postwar Germany, as a year-long Israeli festival shows.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany, and an impressive cinematic project, Filme 50/50/50, is being held in Israel to mark the occasion: 50 films, 50 years, 50 German directors.

In cooperation with the Goethe-Institut in Israel and the German embassy, the cinematheques of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Holon will screen 50 German films that have been produced since 1965 – one film per week, for each year between 1965 and the present. The event opened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque with a screening of Alexander Kluge’s 1965 film “Abschied von gestern” (“Yesterday Girl”). Kluge was one of Germany’s most important film directors, laying the foundations of the New German Cinema of the 1960s. “Abschied von gestern” is one of the most important films to be made during this period.

The 1920s were the heyday of German cinema, with directors such as F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst. German cinema, particularly its stylistic and expressionist strains, had a great influence on the film industry worldwide. During World War II, Germany produced entertainment films that contained a strong propaganda element. But several interesting films came out of postwar Germany, dealing with the memory of the war and confronting the German social, cultural and political experience that took shape afterward. Among these films are “Murderers among Us” (1946), directed by Wolfgang Staudte, and “Die Brücke” (The Bridge), directed by Bernhard Wicki in 1959.

Cinematic manifesto

But most of the films produced in Germany in the 1950s were in popular genres such as melodrama, comedy and, mainly, Westerns and suspense films. American film actors living in exile in Europe, whose Hollywood careers had faded, played the starring roles in the Westerns and thrillers.

But a great change was about to occur in German cinema, a change heralded by a manifesto published on February 28, 1962, at an international short film festival in Oberhausen. The document, which became known as the Oberhausen Manifesto, was signed by 26 young film directors, who called for the creation of a new German cinema that would deal topically with Germany’s past and present, and integrate stylistically the modernist transformations that were taking place in two neighboring countries, France and Italy.

Among the directors signing the manifesto were Kluge, Peter Schamoni (whose 1966 film “Schonzeit für Füchse” [“No Shooting Time for Foxes”] will be screened as part of the festival) and Edgar Reitz, whose 1967 film “Mahlzeiten” (“Table for Love”) will also be screened. (Although Reitz’s film is an important one in the history of New German Cinema, he became best known for directing the “Heimat” mini-series for television.)

I saw Kluge’s “Abschied von gestern” again, and it fascinated me just as much as it had the first time I saw it. Kluge, a writer and playwright born in 1932, studied history, music and law at the University of Marburg and the Goethe University Frankfurt. In Frankfurt, Kluge became friends with the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. After Kluge published several short works, Adorno suggested that he concentrate on film and introduced him to the film director Fritz Lang, who had returned to Germany from Hollywood. Kluge worked as Lang’s assistant on the set of “Der Tiger von Eschnapur” (“Tiger of Bengal”) in 1959.

Kluge directed his first film, a 12-minute short entitled “Brutalität in Stein” (“Brutality in Stone”), in 1960. The film was about the way the Nazis had used architecture to express their vision of the Übermensch. He became internationally known with the release of “Abschied von gestern,” which was based on his short story “Anita G.”

Shot in black and white, and containing an element of coarse aggression, the  film tells the story of Anita (Alexandra Kluge, the director’s sister and his partner in making many of his films), a young Jewish woman who has left East Germany to seek a better life in West Germany, but fails to achieve that goal.

Enormous influence

Kluge had an enormous influence on New German Cinema. During that time, several younger directors made their way into the movement. They became well known and their films won more international recognition than his own. These younger directors included Volker Schlöndorff, whose 1975 film “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” – which he directed with his wife at the time, the actress and director Margarethe von Trotta – will be screened during the festival. Others were Werner Herzog, whose film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) will be shown; Wim Wenders, whose highly acclaimed 1987 film “Wings of Desire” will also be screened; and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose 1971 film “Händler der vier Jahreszeiten” (“The Merchant of Four Seasons”) will be shown. The 1978 omnibus film “Germany in Autumn,” which had 11 contributing directors, including Kluge, Fassbinder, Reitz and Schlöndorff, will also be screened.

Other interesting directors whose films will be screened throughout the year are Peter Fleischmann, Reinhard Hauff, Michael Verhoeven (whose film “The Nasty Girl” will be shown), Werner Schroeter, Jan Schütte, Christian Petzold and Fatih Akin (whose 2007 film “The Edge of Heaven” will be screened).

German cinema, with its high and low points, cannot help but be interesting to us in Israel. This year-long project offers an opportunity to follow its development over several of its most significant decades. The 1960s and ’70s were the peak of New German Cinema. Its peaks are fewer today – as are those of European artistic cinema in general, which influenced and shaped German cinema.

I believe that the blossoming of German cinema began to fade in 1982 with the death of Fassbinder, who was the greatest German film director in modern times. He was only 37 when he died. But the program on show here offers a fascinating historical context for this blossoming, and the traces that it left on more recent decades.