What’s That “German-ness”?

By Nienke Huitenga

Submerged in visual entertainment, and having a close encounter of the German kind, I feel it’s time to reflect on that intuitive idea of German culture and how it engages the attending audience. In a piece describing the status of the 8th edition of AFGF (in an interview by Dagmar Pysik on the Goethe Institut festival blog), Klaus Krischok stated that “it smiles at the Australian audience and looks forward to new and vibrant exchanges with our cool and young-ish viewers.” I think I fit the young-ish viewer profile, and therefore would like to summarise my impressions of how this festival has communicated its ‘identity’ to me.

The Audi Festival of German Films appears to be a delicately balanced composition of films that appeals to a heterogeneous audience. I have attended screenings where I joined a 60 to 70-something audience (Clara, Effie Briest), but equally enjoyed films with a 20 to 30 year old audience (Dr Aleman, Berlin Calling), or younger (Lippel’s Dream, Krabat). Festival related activities like Berlin Sessions – an event where prominent German DJs present their latest electronic remixes – and GDRetro (East German film side-program), give an opportunity to enjoy this festival just the way you like it: an exposition of German cinema (through the available panel discussions and Q&A’s) or a cultural immersion through the variety of identities presented in the films.

Actually, when I read between the lines of the festival’s presentation and program, I find there is something of a gentle juxtaposition: a reunion of a differing generational viewpoints belonging to an intuitive idea of what German cinema embodies. An illustrative example is the documentary Eye to Eye: All About German Film by Michael Althen and Hans Helmut Prinzler (2008). Presented as a ‘celebration of 100 years of German cinema’, this topically reconstructed overview of cinematic history is built on the memories and personal ‘ideas’ of German cinema of ten eminent German filmmakers, including Tom Tykwer, Doris Dörrie, Wim Wenders, Caroline Link, Christian Petzold and Michael Ballhaus. The interview fragments (with the experts) are alternated with thematic sequences of film clips from the most conspicuous (historical) scenes, and edited together as though we are watching one long take on all the (universally) connected (‘German’) themes through time. Characteristic films like Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), Heimat (Edgar Reitz 1919-2000), M (Frits Lang, 1931), Rocker (Klaus Lemke, 1972) and Fassbinder’s Martha (1974) are nostalgically associated to childhood memories or genius inventions which influenced the artistic view of some of the experts in this documentary.

Festival director Krischok (who was present in the audience during the screening) rightly pointed out that this documentary is not a history lesson, but an emotional journey through cinematic history. This is exactly what makes it both successful and unsuccessful. It is extremely successful for the thematic chain of clips, which take you on a journey through all the different manifestations of German cinema. However, these drifting-along clips and memories leave the less German cine-savvy spectator empty handed at ‘The End’.

The tableau that Eye to Eye sketches lacks accessibility, for it pertains mainly to a more proficient German cinema cinephile. Therefore it conjured up enough questions for the panel discussion following the screening. Most of the questions from the audience were in the spirit of ‘why are there mostly male directors in de the documentary’ (besides Dorris Dörrie and Caroline Link), or ‘why isn’t there any attention to the New German cinema’? A question I personally had in mind is why the more recent episode from the 1990s till the 21st century is not represented, but someone from the audience covered that interest by commenting that she totally did not relate to the presented view on German cinema, because the invoked perspective comes off a bit antiquated to a younger audience. I assumed she felt just as much a bystander to this phenomenon as me: something of a different generation.

The film critics present at the panel discussion, following this screening, tried to take in the criticism and give a satisfactory answer. Panel member Christian Buss (film critic for Der Spiegel) largely agreed with the audience that his favourites were missing too. Adrian Martin (Film critic and Senior Research Fellow in Film and Television Studies at Monash University, Melbourne) tried to give a more film theoretical approach to this inspection of German film culture. Inspired by the suggested ‘German-ness’ (a neologism suggested in the documentary), Adrian Martin raised the question: what does this idea of a national cinema actually lead to? He commented on this nostalgic (canonical) view on German cinema that it falls in the trap of a narrow interpretation of what such a cinema is. In a similar way, Wim Wenders underlines Martin’s point by saying (in the film) that he actually fled from his German roots to America, so he could free himself of a particular predilection what German film should be. Unfortunately, he could not escape and embraced his film culture later on in his career.

The overall impression I have of this festival is that the perspective given on German cinema gravitates to a national, and perhaps self referential, presentation, rather than placing it in a larger, international context. However, the festival convincingly offers an interesting display of the successes of contemporary German film culture. Yet, as I have stated earlier in my first contribution to the blog (‘The Festival as a Cultural Meeting Point’), I am not convinced that the Audi Festival of German Films will disclose its nature, persona or innate ‘Germaness’ as effectively to an audience non-related to Germany’s (cinematic) identity.

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4 Responses to “What’s That “German-ness”?”

  1. Thomas Gerstenmeyer Says:

    “A close encounter of the German kind” – what a wonderful term indeed. There is a lead straight to that other rather good word, “German-Ness”, and how to reach an understanding through film. Or in the case of a Film Festival organised by the Goethe Institute, through the Arts and Culture in general. This is what the Institute does on a year-round basis, and this has significant influence on what their film festival programme will look, and probably more importantly, “feel” like. Film festivals have to negotiate the tricky territory between economic realities, artistic ambition and audience approval, and to do so within a socio-political framework defined by internal as well as external agendas.

  2. Thomas Gerstenmeyer Says:

    Apologies, above comment is to be continued here (‘submit’ click came to fast): we were with “internal and external agendas”

    A Goethe Institute Festival programme will therefore always be different from, say, an independent organiser’s one, simply due to the Institute’s general policy. This in turn has an effect on how it’s perceived publicly. In this respect it is really interesting to see how the blogs refer differently to different films. It’s good to see in particular that a film like ‘Hilde’ gets praised because it takes the “German-Ness” into the international arena and is accessible (in the best possible sense of the word).

  3. Nienke Huitengaa Says:

    Hi Thomas, apologies for the late reply on your comment. I think you are absolutely right in saying that the policy of such a cultural institute influences the overal atmosphere and film selection of such a small festival. However, taking in mind that policiy and agenda are important elements that will effect the programming, it is still interesting that, for me, the image of German cinema they bring to the fore seems to be narrowly defined. The overall composition of the pogram is very heterogeneous, appealing to a wide range of age-groups, but it does not resonate majorly with the ‘youngish viewers’, which I happened to take as my point of view for this blog. I was thinking, maybe the way the festival has been promoted here in Melbourne – Sydney seems to be a more successful event due to better promotion – might have made the difference. Unfortunately I did have had the time to investigate how the Goethe Inistitute’s policy (agenda) offers a framework for this filmfestival. Now I think of it, I should have looked into that. So, that will definitely be a good next point to write on. Thanks!

  4. Drema Oman Says:

    here i’m going once more, always finding mundane topics to read about. although this one was a somewhat additional interesting than what I’m normally used to

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