Intensifying Life: The Cinema of the “Berlin School”
by Marco Abel

Christian Petzold's  Ghosts 

Christian Petzold's Ghosts 

After a quarter century of neglect, German cinema has rekindled international interest in its productions. The many awards and recognitions German films have recently garnered evidence this renaissance of German film culture. For instance, Wolfgang Becker’s bittersweet Ostalgie comedy about Germany’s reunification, Goodbye, Lenin! (2003), became the first German film to win the European Film Award; it also won the French and Spanish Film Awards for “Best European Film” and earned a nomination for “Best Foreign-Language Film” at the Golden Globes.1 German-Turkish director Fatih Akin’s go-for-broke migration melodrama, Gegen die Wand (Head-On, 2004), became not only the first German film in almost two decades to win the Golden Baer at the Berlin International Film Festival (“Berlinale”) but also received the European Film Award only one year after Becker’s triumph. And Hans Weingartner’s Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (The Edukators, 2004), a drama about three good-looking twenty-somethings confronting the (im)possibility of engaging in effective political action in the age of globalization, was the first German film production to compete at the Cannes Film Festival since 1993—an honor subsequently enjoyed by Akin’s complexly layered, episodic drama, Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven, 2007), for which Akin received the prize for best screenplay. Most remarkably, German films have also risen to prominence at the Academy Awards since the beginning of the second millennium.

Two films won the Oscar for “Best Foreign Language Film”: in 2001, Caroline Link’s Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa), which follows a Jewish family’s flight from Nazi Germany to Kenya and its struggle to adjust to the African environment; and in 2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s controversially discussed Stasi-drama Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). (In 2007 this award was won by Austrian-born director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s German-language production, Die Fälscher [The Counterfeiters], a film about a Jewish counterfeiter whom the Nazis approach for help in their effort to destabilize the United Kingdom by flooding its economy with forged currency.) Two additional films were honored with a nomination for this award: in 2004, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s portrait of Hitler’s last three days in the FührerbunkerDer Untergang (Downfall); and in 2005, Marc Rothemund’s KammerspielfilmSophie Scholl—Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl—The Final Days), which revisits the final confrontation between the Nazi regime and Ms. Scholl, member of one of the few bona fide German anti-Nazi resistance groups, the “White Rose.” Of these four recent German success stories at the Academy Awards (five, if we include The Counterfeiters), all but one deal with the country’s fascist legacy, with The Lives of Others still fitting this pattern given that it, too, focuses on the country’s past troubles—in this case, the state totalitarianism perpetrated by “real existing socialism.”

Notwithstanding the many accolades these films received, they did not really advance the art of filmmaking in Germany. For all but Akin’s films embrace thoroughly conventional film aesthetics and narrative strategies. However, that they nevertheless exude significant appeal for an international audience is, at least in my view, hardly coincidental, since they almost pathologically corroborate the ideologically convenient belief perpetuated outside Germany’s borders that this nation is still almost exclusively reducible to its totalitarian past(s) (see sidebar). Further, even though films such as Downfall, The Lives of Others, and Goodbye, Lenin! promote themselves by way of their ‘big’, historically and politically charged, topics—the Nazis!; the Stasi!; the Reunification!—the politics of the image perpetuated by them is remarkably conservative. Yet, since these films seemingly offer a window onto Germany’s internal struggles with Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past), this lack of aesthetic adventurousness, which might have functioned to problematize the exoticizing voyeuristic point of view these films afford international audiences, did not seem to hinder their (relatively) successful runs abroad.

Only too predictably, the German press and the country’s film industry representatives jumped on the opportunity to appropriate the recent success stories of German films, as if to declare, “we’re somebody again.” This nationalistic rhetoric eagerly espouses the belief in a German film ‘resurgence’—a convenient myth that via a synecdochal logic allowed more nationalistically minded journalist and bureaucrats to dream of the long hoped-for fulfillment of their desire to see the country itself resurge out of the long shadows cast by its totalitarian history (and post-reunification economic woes) and emerge, at long last, as a ‘normal’ country. However, as appealing as this view of German film ‘history’ may be, it simply draws an incorrect picture, as one of Germany’s leading film critics, Katja Nicodemus, asserts in response to this newfound nationalist feeling about German film productions. The mainstream press and film industry representatives, which now celebrate the success of Downfall or The Lives of Others as ingenious entrepreneurial endeavors that almost single-handedly pulled German films into the limelight of international film culture, have always obsessively focused their attention on how well the country’s film productions fare at the box office; but they have only rarely paid attention to developing a healthy film-cultural infrastructure capable of nurturing and sustaining a broad range of homemade productions—including artistically innovative small-scale films that usually do not rake in big returns at the box office but that are, aesthetically, considerably more challenging than the nation’s best-known productions. And yet, as Nicodemus argues, it is precisely these small films that constitute the proper “we” at the heart of German film culture, rather than the few internationally mainstream successes opportunistically celebrated by the country’s culture industry.

Accounting for the recent developments in German film culture, French film critics coined the phrase nouvelle vague Allemande. Pleased with this positive reception across the Rhine, the German film industry un-self-critically appropriated this assessment into their own self-satisfied nationalist sentiments, all the while ignoring that for the French this term encompasses not merely films such as Goodbye, Lenin! but also Ulrich Köhler’s Bungalow (2002), Christoph Hochhäusler’s Milchwald (This Very Moment, 2003), or Angela Schanelec’s Marseille (2004). It is films such as these—persistently ignored at home—that cumulatively demonstrate the emergence of a new film language in German cinema and constitute, according to Nicodemus, the true “we” of contemporary German film culture. Yet, what appeared to the Cahiers du Cinéma as a ‘new’ wave of creatively innovative German films in fact are only more recent examples of a subterranean genealogy of German filmmaking that hearkens back to the first half of the 1990s. Consequently, what appears to many as a ‘resurgence’ of German cinema is much better thought of as a continuationof an ongoing filmmaking process since reunification—one that predominantly took place below theradar of the country’s self-appointed cultural guardians.

This, if you will, counter-cinema, has become known in Germany as the “Berlin School.” The films associated with this ‘school’ distinguish themselves from other post-wall German films primarily in that they constitute the first significant (collective) attempt at advancing the aesthetics of cinema within German narrative filmmaking since the New German Cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Alexander Kluge, Klaus Lemke, Margarethe von Trotta, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, and others. So who or what is the Berlin School? The label, coined by German film critic Rüdiger Suchsland, originally referred to what is now known as the 1st generation of the Berlin School: Schanelec, Christian Petzold, and Thomas Arslan. All three attended and graduated in the early 1990s from the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb), arguably the country’s most intellectual film school, and were taught by avant-garde and documentary filmmakers Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky. However, as others have observed, the “Berlin School” label is somewhat misleading when its scope is widened to a 2nd generation of filmmakers such as Köhler and Henner Winckler, graduates of the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg, Hochhäusler, Benjamin Heisenberg, and Maren Ade, graduates of the Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film München, Maria Speth, who honed her skills at the HFF “Konrad Wolf” in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Valeska Grisebach, who studied film in Vienna, or Aysum Bademsoy, who studied theatre at the Freie Universität Berlin and is, like Arslan, a child of Turkish immigrants who came to Germany in the 1960s.

In short, many so-called Berlin School directors neither hail from, nor learned their filmmaking skills in, Berlin (even though most of them have moved there by now). Nor, I hasten to add, are many Berlin School films about, or even set in, Berlin; in fact, one of the more interesting aspects of these films is their willingness to encounter spaces outside of Germany’s urban centers. Still, the label has unquestionably become part of the daily vocabulary of German film critics—so much so that discussions of the merits of individual films are often subordinated to considerations of them as examples of this school. That this de-singularization is something neither filmmakers nor more adventurous film critics are particularly fond of is understandable. Symptomatically, Olaf Möller claims in his program notes for “A German Cinema,” a side series he curated for the 2007 Indie Lisboa Film Festival, that he did not include certain directors usually associated with the Berlin School at least partially because he did not want to perpetuate already existing prejudices. He points out the danger involved in pigeonholing these directors, citing the reception of the latest films by Arslan, Schanelec, and Petzold (Ferien [Vacation], Nachmittag [Afternoon], and Yella, respectively), which were often discussed upon their premiere at the “Berlinale” in 2007 only in relation to each other rather than based on their own, individual merits.

Agreeing with Möller’s concerns, I still think the label remains useful because it enables the description and even advocacy of a cinema that otherwise finds itself ignored by a mainstream press more concerned with the latest box office numbers than with challenging its readers to seek out films that actively try to re-envision what German cinema could be(come). So what are these films like? Oskar Roehler, one of Germany’s foremost directors of the post-wall era who decidedly does not belong to the Berlin School, characterizes these films as recalcitrant and stern. According to him, nothing much happens in films such as Arslan’s Mach die Musik leiser (1994), Schanelec’s Plätze in den Städten (Places in Cities, 1998), Petzold’s Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000), Grisebach’s Mein Stern (Be My Star, 2001), Hochhäusler’s Falscher Bekenner (Low Profile a.k.a. I’m Guilty, 2005), or Köhler’s Montag kommen die Fenster (Windows on Monday, 2006). Instead, so Roehler, these films are slow and dreary, feature hardly any dialogue, are admired by critics—and attract 5,000-10,000 viewers. Indeed, box office receipts confirm Roehler’s negative assessment. For instance, whereas films such as Downfall, Michael “Bully” Herbig’s (T)raumschiff Surprise (2004), and Tom Tykwer’s Das Parfum—Die Geschichte eines Mörders (Perfume—Story of a Murderer, 2006) attracted 4.6, 9.1, and 5.5 million theatrical viewers, respectively, Jan Krüger’s Unterwegs (En Route, 2004) was seen in Germany by merely 1,200 theatrical viewers, Winckler’s 1st feature, Klassenfahrt (School Trip, 2002) by 2,300, Schanelec’s Marseille by 3,100, Low Profile by 6,600, Heisenberg’s Schläfer (Sleeper, 2005) by 10,600, Grisebach’s Sehnsucht (Longing, 2006) by 22,500, and Petzold’s Gespenster (Ghosts, 2005) by 40,000. Only Petzold’s The State I Am In, the winner of the German film award in 2001, found a considerably broader theatergoing audience, attracting a respectable 120,000 viewers, which makes it the most successful Berlin School film to date.

Yet it would be misleading to consider this group of filmmakers merely successful with cineastes in France and England (BFI’s Sight & Sound has probably paid more attention to contemporary German cinema than any other international publication) and a handful of film critics in Germany. With a production cost that rarely exceeds 1 million Euros, most of these films reach a 12-15% audience-share during their TV screenings. Furthermore, judging by the “Berlinale” of the last few years, this film movement is picking up some steam. For instance, among the annually fifty or more German films the festival screens were new efforts by Arslan, Petzold, Schanelec, Grisebach, Heisenberg, Hochhäusler, Köhler, Speth, and Winckler. Even more remarkable, Grisebach’s second feature-length film, Longing, a provocative study of longing in small town East Germany shot with non-professional actors, was screened in the festival’s main competition in 2006, rather than as part of the artistically more adventurous “Forum” or “Perspective German Cinema” series. Although Grisebach’s film didn’t win any prizes, audiences enthusiastically applauded the film, and many critics considered it the best competition entry. Likewise, many praised Petzold’s Yella as the best film of the 2007 competition. Yet the film’s positive critical reception did not prevent it from fizzling out at the German box office at around 80,000 theatrical viewers; and as one of the few Berlin School films that received U.S. distribution, it has thus far earned less than $20,000 since its May 2008 release in New York City.

Nevertheless, it would be preposterous to suggest that the Berlin School has become, or is at least part of, the establishment, either in Germany or elsewhere. Indeed, most Germans have never even heard of these directors and their films. Nor, for that matter, has this group as a whole received unanimous critical praise. In fact, their general lack of commercial success has made them vulnerable to polemical attacks from representatives of the German mainstream film industry and media. Writing for the Berlin Tagesspiegel, film critic Harald Martenstein, for instance, lambasted the “Berlinale” premiere of Ghosts, complaining that upon viewing the film he “felt thrown back into the hell of the German Autorenfilm of the 1970s, in which protagonists remain meaningfully silent and each character functions as a metaphor for existential thrownness.” And Doris Dörrie, one of Germany’s best-known directors ever since her breakthrough film, Männer (Men, 1985), chimed in the ongoing backlash against the Berlin School by accusing them in the German film monthly Film-Dienst of hiding too much behind film theory and playing it too safe, adding, “I secretly hold against them […] that they do not risk enough and hide behind form. I don’t like this: to hide oneself behind form.”

Most notoriously, the Berlin School cinema recently became the implied subject of a highly visible public put-down by the president of the German Film Academy, Günter Rohrbach. Rohrbach once was an important supporter of the New German Cinema. He produced, for instance, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and also left his mark on German film culture as the producer of some of the country’s commercially most successful movies, including Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (The Boat, 1981). Having presided over the Academy since its founding in 2003, Rohrbach attacked in an essay originally published in Germany’s leading weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, German film critics as vain self-publicists for their tendency to trash commercially successful German film productions such as Tykwer’s Perfume while celebrating films such as Longing that “wither away in the cinema.” Rohrbach singled out Grisebach’s film because German film critics enthusiastically reviewed it and vehemently complained that this personal film, unlike Tykwer’s blockbuster, received no nominations for the German Film Prize, which as of 2005 is being awarded by a body of voters resembling the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In addition to the charge of box office impotence, Ekkerhard Knörer reports that another common criticism of Berlin School films is that they supposedly lack interest in the political and instead present us with a “bourgeois poetics of middle class navel gazing.” According to Christina Nord, this tendency has hypostatized in some cases into a sense of bourgeois “melancholic suffering” affecting the films’ protagonists and, simultaneously, a formal mannerism affecting the films themselves. It’s impossible to argue against the empirical evidence of these films’ struggle at the box office; however, to charge these films with the ‘crime’ of being a-political strikes me as questionable. In the age of finance capitalism, the conception of the ‘political’ at work in such accusations seems unproductive, not least because it nostalgically relies on a version of traditional ‘leftist’ politics that may no longer have any purchase on the objects of its critique (for more on this issue see my interview with Christian Petzold, Cineaste online, June 2008). Indeed, part of the reason the Berlin School films are so compelling—and deserving of greater (inter)national recognition—is their specific cinematic nature, which renders these films political, albeit not in the traditional (content-based, or ‘agitational’) sense of the term.


If one wanted a shorthand description for the films of the Berlin School one could do worse than starting to consider how they tend to pursue an aesthetics of reduction reminiscent of the films by Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Michael Haneke, or the Dardenne Brothers, as well as the 2nd generation directors of the French New Wave such as Maurice Pialat, Jean Eustache, and Philippe Garrel. Many, though not all, Berlin School films are dominated by long takes, long shots, clinically precise framing, a certain deliberateness of pacing, sparse usage of extra-diegetic music, poetic use of diegetic sound, and, frequently, the reliance on unknown or even non-professional actors who appear to be chosen for who they ‘are’ rather than for whom they could be. In so doing, films such as This Very Moment, a contemporary riff on the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale, “Hansel and Gretel,” set in the German-Polish border region, Winckler’s Lucy (2005), a patiently observing study of a teenage girl’s reluctance to live up to the expectations and responsibilities she suddenly faces as a new mother, Arslan’s Aus der Ferne (From Far Away, 2006), his nearly voice-over-free travelogue of Turkey, his country of birth, or Karger (2007), a Ken Loach-like study of the fate suffered by working class life in the post-industrial age by Elke Hauck, another dffb graduate, sharpen the viewer’s attention while effortlessly creating ‘un-dramatic’ tensions. And cumulatively, these cinematic aspects stress the characters’ spatio-temporal existence—the fact that unlike the films belonging to what Eric Rentschler influentially described as the “cinema of consensus” cycle these films unmistakably take place in a specific time and place: in the here and now of reunified Germany.

Such spatio-temporal precision directs viewers’ attention to the poetic texture of what could easily be mistaken for an artlessly realist mise-en-scène. These remarkably precise films solicit audience attention so that our sense perceptions are made to tune in to the extraordinary qualities of otherwise rather ordinary lives. Many of these films, that is, thematically focus on the every day and attempt to capture normality—though they do this so that in their visual intensification of normality the extraordinary at the heart of everydayness emerges. And as Benjamin Heisenberg remarked in a conversation with me, what these films have in common is “that the camera does not allow the viewer to identify with the characters, but it’s not really distancing us from them either. Instead, it creates and positions us in an in-between space that pulls us to and fro, ultimately holding us suspended in a middle space that’s quite akin to the characters’ own subjectivity/subject position.” It is as if they intentionally heeded a filmmaking adage André Bazin once attributed to Erich von Stroheim: “Take a close look at the world and keep on doing so.” Relentlessly focusing their camera on seemingly unremarkable events, these films exhibit a tendency to ‘stare’, thus effecting an alteration of that which they stare at from within the act of seeing (and listening) itself.

We should therefore not reduce these films to the ‘documentary-like’ moniker that is so often used to describe films that call in the services of so-called realism. Certainly, as Hochhäusler says of Köhler’s Bungalow, a distinctive feature of the Berlin School films is that they allow for an “incursion of reality into the German film.” If anything, though, the Berlin School’s aesthetic is more akin to what Bazin once defined as “true realism”: these films are too obviously stylized by means of camera movement and mise-en-scène as that they could be described as ‘documenting’ reality. For instance, the sheer length of most of Schanelec’s shots in Marseille foreground the artificial choices that give rise to the sense of reality we feel when exposed to her images: reality isn’t just ‘captured’ but rendered sensible through the effects her images have on the viewer. Likewise, the ambient diegetic sounds (car and street noises, the sounds of trees swaying in the wind) in Petzold’s Ghosts or Yella, which often intrigue us because of their astonishing, indeed eerie, clarity, don’t so much declare “that’s the way reality is” as provoke in us a sense of wonder about the materiality at the heart of the everyday. These films force us to confront something that is ‘real’ enough for us but that usually remains outside of our day-to-day purview because of how our perceptive apparatus tends to block out such aspects of social reality. Rather than aiming to ‘represent’ reality ‘as it is’, these films abstract from our preexisting cliché perceptions of reality in order to induce a different experience of it by making reality itself appear more intensely sensible.

Along with this forgoing of any attempt at producing representational (or ‘psychological’) realism comes these films’ tendency to flaneur in the Benjaminian sense with their characters, seemingly aimlessly or, perhaps better, phlegmatically, as is the case in, for example, LucyGhosts, Arslan’s Der schöne Tag (A Fine Day, 2001), Schanelec’s Mein langsames Leben (Passing Summer, 2001), or Ann-Kristen Reyels’ Jagdhunde (Hounds, 2007). Köhler’s Bungalow is in this respect one of the most quintessential of all Berlin School films. Not only is the defining feature of the film’s protagonist, Paul, his utter apathy and refusal to care about the consequences of his (in)actions, but the film’s mise-en-scène itself relentlessly images his refusal to engage and to live up to expectations (of the army, his brother, his friends, etc.). Consider, for instance, the film’s opening sequence. For about three minutes, we witness a continuous camera movement that follows the arrival of an army truck, depicts soldiers entering and exiting a burger joint, and suddenly ‘refuses’ to continue its movement with the soldiers, just as Paul, seemingly spontaneously, ‘decides’ to stop his own movement and not join his troop as it leaves. Did he plan to desert? The film does provide no evidence for this. Why does Paul not re-join his comrades? We never learn, and we do not gain the sense that Paul himself knows, or cares to know. Paul’s ‘actions’ are imaged here and throughout the film not in terms of an active, conscious rejection of something in particular but in terms of an unexplained phlegmatism, exemplified by Paul’s deliberate, slow movements through the rural middle-class spaces he inhabits, his lack of emoting in his interactions with his do-gooder brother and his pretty Danish girlfriend, as well as his general indifference to how his behavior affects his surroundings. For the viewer, the strangeness of Paul’s behavior foregrounds also the strangeness of what otherwise might simply appear as the normal, mundane environment in which many middle class Germans dwell. In short, the Berlin School films’ ethnological gaze—which they frequently direct at in-between spaces, such as the border region separating Germany and Poland in School Trip and This Very Moment or the socially and emotionally transitory spaces that one frequently finds within German cities in most of Petzold’s work—shows contemporary Germany as if from the perspective of a stranger.

Although the Berlin School does decidedly not exhibit the traditional characteristics of ‘avant-garde’ cinema, these films’ attitude towards reality is akin to that of an experiment whose outcome is yet to be determined. These films approach the world they encounter with the assumption that they do not yet know what this object—or the other—they try to depict is. They are careful not to ‘represent’ this other and thus reduce it to the preexisting point of view of a subject that speaks from a position of superior knowledge; they instead exemplarily heed, as Theodor Adorno put it in Aesthetic Theory, “the primacy of the object.” They neither speak for this object nor make it speak; rather, in patiently engaging their objects, they create maps of the very socio-political, economic, cultural, and emotional forces that have paralyzed post-wall Germany since 1989, when the country’s most recent rollercoaster ride began with the heights of the fall of the Berlin wall and the country’s subsequent reunification only to end in massive unemployment and an attending social malaise. This depression culminated around the turn of the millennium in a public debate on the Germans’ unwillingness to ‘move’—to communities away from home, to different careers, to a different state of mind no longer beholden to the belief that the role of the state is supposed to be to take care of its citizens—lest the final remnants of the once well-functioning welfare state vanish, too. Indeed, it is hardly a coincidence that current German President Horst Köhler, formerly head of the IMF, felt compelled to admonish Germans in 2005 to become more mobile in a speech about which the most remarkable aspect was that it had to be delivered to begin with; after all, one of his predecessors, Roman Herzog, had already famously addressed the German nation in 1997 with the demand that Germany needed to jolt itself into action. Köhler’s reiteration of Herzog’s original appeal thus simply yet symptomatically marked the seemingly all-pervasive paralysis that afflicted Germany once its ‘reunification party’ came to an end.

The Berlin School cinematically responds to this nexus of socio-cultural paralysis. However, these films do so neither by realistically representing such immobility nor by providing viewers with sympathetic characters who manage to escape. Their aesthetic is not emblematic of a more traditional ‘representational realism’, let alone expressive of a naïve form of political (thesis-driven) social realism. Indeed, Ulrich Köhler recently published a polemical essay in which he explains why he does not make political films. One of the surest ways to receive public funding for film productions in Germany is, so Köhler, to make topical, message-driven films that package political enlightenment in stories. Köhler, who like many of his fellow Berlin School directors is currently struggling to find financing for his next film project, derides such Lehrfilme (educational films) as the embodiment of “the aesthetic program of social-democratized cultural politics.” Against this moralistic imperative to be a conscientious filmmaker who uses his art for the betterment of society, Köhler mounts a near-Adorno-esque defense of the autonomy of art, writing “art, which wants to be nothing but art, is often more subversive” than topical art, whose popularity itself is frequently an index for its affirmation of the status quo. Arguing against any form of liberal-bourgeois instrumentalization of filmmaking, Köhler declares, “If art is political then it is so in exactly this manner: it resists its appropriation for daily political and social concerns. Its strength lies in its autonomy.” Far from political acquiescence, Köhler articulates here that the job of art is not to be political (qua content) but to produce politically. In the case of cinema, producing politically today entails an (renewed) investigation of the politics of the image—not least because contemporary capitalist culture is the ‘lightest’, most image-based economic operation to which we have ever been exposed.

Rather than (moralistically) exercising the well-meaning yet ineffective operations of representational realism, the Berlin School films invent images of mobility that render visible something that is currently absent in the viewers’ real social context. These films image their characters’ lived refusals to either embrace the clichéd desires of individual and social security or pursue the bourgeois demand for social upward mobility—the very demand rhetorically articulated by the German presidents. Yet the experimental character of their individual encounter with reality ensures that these films ultimately differ from each other. This singularity ensues from the directors’ essential attitude towards their medium—an stance perhaps best articulated by Hochhäusler when writing in the British film magazine Vertigo that the “goal is a cinema that makes life more intense. Every film has to let itself be measured against life. It could be said: A film is an instrument in the process of producing reality. It is therefore part of a social context. The basic question is: What is real? Each attempt at replying is a personal commitment.” This strongly felt sense of personal commitment to reality results in a cinematic attitude towards reality that rejects the very clichés that have dominated German cinema, as well as its post-wall political discourse, for the last two decades. 

Instead of catering towards the familiar, these films present their audiences with new, non-preexisting images of Germany. But this imaging of novelty proceeds by intensifying their look at reality, rather than by avoiding it. These films are thus involved in inventing—or at least experimentally developing—an a-representational realism: a film style that cinematically embraces, seeks out, and non-judgmentally welcomes reality but does so in ways that can be considered an extension of Adorno’s often forgotten late-career argument about cinema in “Transparencies on Film.” Putting the slightest pressure on Adorno’s comments, we might say that the task the Berlin School sets itself is not to create immediacy with reality but with the (reality of the) image, so that the depicted world becomes aesthetically autonomous, abstracted from empirical reality. It is, however, just this aesthetic abstraction from empirical reality that affords viewers an intensified encounter with their own social reality, as they find themselves confronted with the necessity to rethink the very relation between what and how they see. Put differently, the (hoped-for) effect of such aesthetic intensification of the act of seeing is to bring about a momentary suspension of our habituated tendency to read images through the framework of representational realism. By affirming the image as image, the Berlin School films thus affectively transform reality, forcing viewers to engage the seemingly familiar as something unfamiliar while never alienating us from what we see. This achieved effect thus neither correlates to the ‘cinema of identification’ nor embraces the imperative to create distance between image and viewer as it was advocated by what some have denounced as “grand theory” (see, for instance, David Bordwell and Noël Carrol, Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies). While some might consider this failure to create distance between the film and our perceptive apparatus another reason for characterizing these films as, at best, a-political, I would concur with Steven Shaviro that in a world in which the experience of life is dominated by permanent alienation one can hardly have any faith in creating more alienation as an effective political solution to the problems caused by consumer capitalism. As Shaviro writes in The Cinematic Body, “Precisely because film is already predicated on what Benjamin […] calls the destruction of the aura, because it is already an ‘alienated’ art, its capacity to affect the spectator is not perturbed by any additional measure of alienation.” Instead of alienating us from their images in order to ‘get out’ of them, the Berlin School films immerse us in their images (and sounds) to get us away from the clichés of reality—to affect us so that we may begin to re-see and hear again, that is, to rethink, our own relation to the world we all too often perceive in overly reductive ways.

Instead of becoming (however unintentionally) a mouthpiece for the patriarchal, neoliberal rhetoric of Germany’s past and present presidents, then, these films offer viewers sensations of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in their inspired interpretation of Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” have theorized in Empire as “absolute refusal” of neoliberal mobility. This sensation, articulated by Bartleby’s famous “I prefer not to” reply to any request put to him, is rendered haptically available through an intensive filmic actualization of mobility: it is precisely because so little movement occurs in many of the Berlin School films that the sensation of movement becomes affectively palpable at crucial moments in them. I’m thinking here, for instance, of the opening and closing moments of Bungalow; the astonishing ending of Marseille, which forces us to consider the transformation the protagonist might have undergone as we look at a static, seemingly endless long shot in which she gradually disappears strolling along the Mediterranean beach; the last images of Low Profile in which the protagonist, who falsely claims authorship for a series of violent events, smiles directly into the camera as if to express that he finally managed to escape the comfortable yet boring life afforded him by his suburban, provincial upbringing; or for that matter Petzold’s entire oeuvre (for an extended discussion thereof, see my forthcoming essay on Petzold in The Collapse of the Conventional: German Film and its Politics at the Turn of the Century, eds. Jaimey Fisher and Brad Prager).

Consider also Benjamin Heisenberg’s Sleeper. The film narrates a triangle love story in which one of the male protagonists, German scientist Johannes, is asked by an agent of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND, the German Secret Service) to file reports on Farid, his Arab colleague, whom the BND suspects of being part of a currently dormant terrorist cell. Sleeper compellingly images the affective, if you will ‘viral’, quality inherent to the act of denunciation. The film’s point is not to make us wonder whether Farid is guilty of the bomb attack that eventually occurs. If the film posits the question of guilt at all, then the point seems to be quite clearly that it is Johannes whom we are supposed to consider guilty because of the way he takes advantage of the power that’s been given to him: Johannes, refusing to provide Farid with what would seem to have been a genuine alibi, is the film’s real sleeper, not Farid.

But what strikes me as most interesting about the film is how the film renders visible the moments of transformation that lead Johannes to abuse his power. We can identify three steps. The 2nd and 3rd pertain to Johannes’ feelings of jealousy: of Farid’s appeal to Beate, the two men’s love interest, and Farid’s success at work. Crucially, Johannes does not report on Farid until the latter’s presence affects Johannes on the level of desire. In other words, Johannes does not begin to report on Farid because of ideological motivations, because Johannes is inherently bad, or even because he believes the BND has a good case. Johannes does not do what he does because he thinks it’s the morally and ethically right thing to do; rather, Johannes becomes a sleeper because of the way he is plugged into a particular circuit of desire. But, arguably, neither the 2nd nor 3rd step in this transformation would have occurred had it not been for the 1st crucial step: Johannes’ encounter with the ‘outside’—his meeting with BND agent Mrs. Wasser. For it is his exposure to her insinuations that implant in his mind—virus-like—something that he cannot not respond to. Even though he dismisses the very idea of his colleague being a potential terrorist, he does perceive Farid with a heightened, affectively intensified awareness that emerges only as a result of having been encroached upon by the force of the outside. In a reversal of the Enlightenment slogan “cogito ergo sum,” we observe the formation of subjectivity being beholden to the formula: something impinges upon me, therefore I become-different to myself. So Johannes becomes a denunciator not because of his inherently immoral character, because of his preexisting ideological commitment, or because of some brainwashing operation he underwent; rather, his becoming-denunciator is the result of the force of desire that affects him.

Johannes is not a denunciator by nature; nor is his behavior explainable via recourse to ‘ideology’. Rather, the film shows how social action is largely an effect of desire, of affect, of sensation. And this becomes sensible for the viewer because of the film’s stylistic choices: its patiently observing gaze, its languorous tracking shots, its refusal to sensationalize or sentimentalize, and its refusal to show the bombing and turn the film into an action thriller. It’s the film’s durational quality—how we are made to endure the events without being afforded moments of explosive relief—that leaves its mark on our sense-perception of the film.

What I’m trying to suggest is that the logic of Sleeper induces a transformative moment in the viewer: it is we (rather than the characters) who ultimately are moved to, well, move, for our preconceptions about the nature of denunciation and moral betrayal are put at stake. Indeed, the film suggests that we are the real sleepers, in two opposing senses. If we continue to insist that the most important questions to ask of a film are questions of meaning—is Farid guilty or not?—then we simply sleep through the film’s political provocations. But if we affirm our subjection to the film’s affective qualities we might find that specific virtual potentials within us—dormant or un-actualized thus far—might actualize themselves. Whether such actualization of virtual potential occurs depends, of course, on multiple conditions: for a seed to come to fruition, the environment in which it is planted has to be responsive to such seeding. But part of these conditions is undoubtedly the need to take seriously the force, or affective quality, of images: that images have their own reality, independent of their representational meaning, and that this reality does things to us.

Although Sleeper—but I could have just as easily discussed films such as Ghosts, Longing, Afternoon, Vacation, Windows on Monday, or Speth’s Madonnen (Madonnas, 2007)—provides us with images that seemingly invite contemplation, their nature is not hermeneutic, since what we see is always quite lucid. The question they provoke is never, “what does this image ‘mean’?”; instead, they affectively solicit our subjection to them: they provoke our fascination and expose us to their sensations. In so doing, they establish a mimetic relation in Adorno’s sense between the depicted world and the reality from which the images are abstracted; instead of ‘representing’ this reality and thus inevitably reducing it to the primacy of the representing subject, these films articulate an analogical similarity with this world, which, however, becomes possible only because they heed the irreducible difference of that to which their images point. It is this very metonymic relation that affectively expresses the cinematically fashioned provocation for us to move as well—to forge relations with our world so that the preexisting life-world reappears as strange. This making-strange of the familiar initiates in viewers material encounters with their worlds that issue forth a sense of joy and thus hope. It is as if these films were appealing to their (German) audience to start believing in their world again, rather than wallowing in nostalgia for a lost Eden— sugarcoated by whitewashed memories of life in pre-unified Germany—or investing their hopes in the false utopia promised by neoliberal demagogues.


To return to my earlier notion of the cartographic quality of the Berlin School films, the nature of the maps these films produce of contemporary Germany is ‘untimely’ rather than ‘representational’. They delineate less a series of images of post-wall Germany ‘as it is’—cliché impressions that would merely have the questionable appeal of tourist snapshots—than a network of images that, as if by accident, emerge from within the characters’ subjective existence. Generative in nature, these images do not represent a preexisting reality; they instead render visible aspects of social reality that are either inaccessible to, or simply absent in, the current ‘real’ reality of post-wall citizens. And it is their ‘untimeliness’ that finally imbues these images with a political quality: they are ‘of’ their time only in so far as they are offered up in hopes of a better future to come. The Berlin School produces films that are politically necessary, not because these directors make ‘political’ films (i.e., message-driven films such as Michael Moore’s) but because they make their films politically—because their images don’t so much pretend to represent some invisible knowledge of ‘real’ Germany offered up as indispensable insights as point to the future in hopes that the force of these images bears enough virtual potential for affecting yet-to-come moments with transformative energy, with the capacity to alter the very reality from within which these images initially emerged.

This aesthetic dwelling in, and intensification of, the here and now points us to one final aspect of the Berlin School. These films neither willfully universalize their cultural-historical specificity as do, for instance, many German comedies of consensus such as Rainer Kaufmann’s Stadtgespräch (Talk of the Town, 1995); nor do they sidestep the difficulties of the present by once again dutifully (re)turning to the by now neatly codified horrors of the past as did the recent wave of Hitler-films such as Sophie Scholl, Dennis Gansel’s Napola (2004), or Downfall. The Berlin School instead presents us with a passionate and innovative effort to find new ways of describing and analyzing the present of a country that continues to struggle with finding its ‘true’ identity six decades after the end of WWII and almost two decades after its reunification. This presentism—pursued in the name of affecting the future—should not be considered a denial of history, as if this new generation of filmmakers turned its back on the horrors perpetuated by an earlier generation of Germans. Rather, the films’ insistence on discovering, and tapping into, the plentitude of stories available in the country’s present sheds light on the very conditions of possibility in today’s Germany for ethically heeding a sense of responsibility—for habituating one’s capacity to become response-able before the other at the very moment when the socio-psychic environment of Germany faces great pressures from within and without in form of both the economic and psychological costs of the reunification, which went anything but smoothly, and, concurrently, the brutal socio-economic effects produced by the logic of neoliberalism, which accelerate the erosion of Germany’s once celebrated social security net.

Notwithstanding their individual differences, we might view the Berlin School as undertaking the effort to create an itinerary of the present—not in order to deny history but to speculate about how a different future might be brought about. Since speculation—specere is Greek for ‘to look at’—is by definition ‘of’ the sphere of the visual, it is only proper that these filmmakers pursue their conjecture by carefully attending to how their practices realize their medium’s inherent qualities. The Berlin School films produce images that invent new lines of flight, or arrows of thought, so that viewers may pick them up in order to find solutions to their individual and collective malaise by re-seeing the problem from within their own social space. By amplifying the images’ realistic concreteness to a point of abstraction, these films insist that such images are, precisely, politically necessary. It is through this process of rendering-visible that the sensation of mobility or transformation emerges: at the most intensified moment of utter stasis is where things break down, where transformation, that is, the affective sensation of movement for which one then needs to forge linkages with the reality of socio-cultural space, occurs. Understood this way—as attempting to wrestle away utopian images from preexisting social reality—the Berlin School films can be regarded as a cinema that is engaged in the difficult task to improve Germany’s reality in the age of post-wall globalization by providing better images for it.

  1. From the mid-1990s on, when the initial euphoria about reunification morphed into the creeping sense that too many people, especially from former East Germany, ended up being Wendeverlierer (losers of the reunification), the phenomenon of Ostalgie— nostalgia for life in the former German Democratic Republic—emerged. Films such as Peter Timm’s two Go, Trabi, Go comedies (1991; 1992), Detlev Buck’s Wir können auch anders (No More Mr. Nice Guy, 1993), and Leander Haußmann’s Sonnenallee (Sun Alley, 1999) successfully tapped into this developing sense of East German disenfranchisement and, in turn, fed the intensifying resentment and attending yearning for life before unification. Although Becker’s film is superior to, and may be less ‘ostalgic’ than, the others, it nevertheless displays fondness for the idea(l) represented by the GDR’s “real existing socialism,” albeit not for its actual instantiation.

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Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4