“It isn’t easy to accept that suffering can also be beautiful.” – Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Originating in the 1960s and continuing into the ’80s, New German Cinema was an artistic response to the stagnation of the film industry with a revolutionary declaration: “The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new cinema.” Influenced by the vision of the French New Wave, newer generations of filmmakers innovated with relatively less funds at their disposal. Their experiments would change the cinematic medium forever.
One of the leading figures of New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, said in a 1974 interview: “About half the early films were [about] my discoveries in the American cinema; in a way they transplanted the spirit of American films to the Munich suburbs. The others generally weren’t at all. They were investigations into German actualities: immigrant workers, the oppression of a middle-class office worker, our own political situation as filmmakers.”
He added, “I don’t see much of what I’ve been talking about in other German directors; they’re something quite different, with other possibilities. I’ve had the opportunity to learn a great deal more than most of them. I do feel a kind of kinship with Volker Schlondorff; he and I have a somewhat similar attitude to film, and to life.”
As a part of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we look at ten essential films from the New German Cinema movement in order to understand the creative forces behind one of the most influential movements in the history of cinema.
10 essential films from New German Cinema:
Not Reconciled (Jean-Marie Straub – 1965)
Based on the 1959 novel Billiards at Half-past Nine by Heinrich Böll, Not Reconciled is a fascinating examination of the rise of fascism and the imminent moral crisis in the country. Multiple stories are connected by the elusive cinematic thread, translating the anguish of history into moments of brilliance.
In an interview, the filmmaker recalled: “Alexander Kluge said before, when we appeared in Berlin with Not Reconciled, he said: ‘You treat language like an object. ‘ And you can’t do that, of course. You get these mass and chain reactions from writers. But you can view language as an object, and still treat it realistically even more so with regard to content than those who claim they don’t treat language as an object. Language is not just a vehicle. Besides, what interests us are these different spectrums/layers in the manners of speech and the voices.”
Young Törless (Volker Schlöndorff – 1966)
A brilliant adaptation of Robert Musil’s novel, this 1966 film is set at the beginning of the 20th century and depicts the sadistic behaviour of students at an Austrian military school. Underlined by homoerotic desires and existential frustrations, Young Törless is a coming-of-age masterpiece that remains embedded in the minds of those who experience the film.
Schlöndorff said, “I felt very much at ease with literature. Let’s say it came out of an accidental reading of Robert Musil’s [The Confusions of]YoungTörless, where I thought I’d find my own years in French boarding school somehow reflected. There’s always a power struggle, within every institution and especially within boarding schools, when you get all these strong-headed young men together.
“They’re like young dogs fighting with each other. It’s rites of initiation, in a sense. And so I found that very personal experience in Musil, while at the same time there was an amazing parallel to what had happened in Germany and how the Nazis had taken over an entire society. But frankly, I thought this was going to be my only movie based on literature.”
Yesterday Girl (Alexander Kluge – 1966)
An expansion of Alexander Kluge’s short story Anita G., Yesterday Girl chronicles the struggles of an East German immigrant who finds it hard to adjust to life on the other side of the wall. The film ended up winning four German Film Awards as well as the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Kluge explained, “The title Abschied von Gestern [the German-language title for Yesterday Girl] provokes a contradiction. Because you never can say goodbye to yesterday. If you try to, you get as far as tomorrow only to discover yesterday all over again. The whole film is a contradiction of this title.”
It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives (Rosa von Praunheim – 1971)
One of the pioneering works of the LGBTQ+ community, Rosa von Praunheim’s complex camp film is a true cult-classic. It follows the adventures of a young gay man who embarks on a quest for complete sexual freedom. Although its reception was controversial, the film is credited as the trigger for the modern gay liberation movement in Germany.
The director pointed out: “Take the difficulties young people continue to experience when coming out. Especially in puberty, they just want to belong and be like everyone else. So asserting yourself as ‘different’ remains a very difficult thing to do, especially when your classmates come from backgrounds where homophobia is very dominant. That’s a big problem.”
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog – 1972)
Shot in the jungles of Amazon with limited funds, Werner Herzog’s 1972 magnum opus is an epic historical drama that launches a powerful investigation of ambition and the fallacy of man through the legend of El Dorado. One of the defining works of the New German Cinema, this celebrated masterpiece deconstructs the complexities of the human condition.
While talking about his altercations with his star Klaus Kinski, Herzog said: “He packed all his things into a speedboat and he was just about to leave. Of course, that would destroyed the entire film, and I told him that I had, somehow, made up my mind months ago what would be the borderline of what could be acceptable and not. And, of course, the film, in my fill opinion, was at more value than his or my private feelings and disgust or whatever.
“And I said to him, if you leave the set now, you will reach the bend – the next bend of the river and I will shoot you – will have eight bullets through your head, and the last one is going to be for me. So the bastard somehow realised that this was not a joke anymore. It wouldn’t have taken me one second to deliberate. And he sensed that. And he screamed for help. He screamed for the crew to help him – assist him against this madman – and he meant me. He screamed for police. But, of course, the next police station was 450 miles away. Result was that he was very docile during the last 11 days of shooting, and we finished the film.”
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder – 1974)
This 1974 film by one of the greatest German filmmakers of all time is a brilliant commentary on the abundance of societal prejudices. It does this and much more by telling the story of two lovers who are separated by the divides of race and age, questioning the existence of oppression in modern society.
“There are considerable differences between my films,” Fassbinder commented. “The degree of stylisation grows in proportion with the artificiality of the theme. Effi Briest (1974) is much more hermetic, in that sense, than Fear Eats the Soul (1974), for instance. The theme is partly taken over from the characterisation, and so it has to do with the characters too. The films are very consistent in their attitude to the characters (these days I try to give each a visible, comprehensible motivation), but what grows from that depends very much on the theme.”
Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders – 1974)
Loosely based on Peter Handke’s novel Long Farewell, Alice in the Cities is the beautiful first instalment of Wenders’ famous road-film trilogy. Often seen as a precursor to Paris, Texas, the film follows a writer who takes custody of a young girl and decides to search for her grandmother. Exploring themes of fantasy, reality and family in a transitory framework, Wenders constructs a stunning vision of humanity.
Speaking about the road film genre, Wenders said, “Frankly, I didn’t know the genre existed. I must have seen some movies, I think I saw Detour (1945), but I didn’t recognize it as a genre. Of course I knew a lot of westerns, if there was any precursor to those movies it was the western. But I didn’t know you could make movies while travelling.
“I didn’t know you could actually get in a car, start a story, and the itinerary and story would become the same. While we made Alice in the Cities, I found out. I felt like a fish in the water. This was the kind of filmmaking I was born for.”
Supermarkt (Roland Klick – 1974)
Roland Klick’s 1974 crime film features a young drifter who rejects help and embraces a life of delinquency instead. While working for a small-time criminal and being in love with a sex worker, he plans an armed robbery to put an end to all his problems.
Klick elaborated, “For me, film is a wonderful mystery. Cinema is the expression of spirit through matter. You film the material world: a wall, people, a ship in the background … and this is what creates a spiritual expression. It’s like that in the big films that I loved, like Fellini’s La Strada. There a wonderful spirit of love and the desire for salvation is expressed through the filming of material things – the bodies speak.”
Under the Pavement Lies the Strand (Helma Sanders-Brahms – 1975)
An important debut by a talented filmmaker, this 1975 avant-garde feature is an existential examination of a couple who struggle to deal with their insignificance after the 1968 student rebellions in Germany. Even after all these years, this cult-classic remains a significant film that shares the political vision of the feminist movement.
“Cinema”, Helma Sanders-Brahms said, “Is the most beautiful thing that people have thought up, the most complex, the best of all. A really great film – everything is in it. All the arts that man has developed in the history of culture come together here. And that is what I would like to fill out. It is a gift, you either have it or you don’t. I can’t do a lot of things that normal people can. But when I am on a set, I feel an enormous amount of security.”
Hitler: A Film from Germany (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg – 1977)
Syberberg’s 1977 masterpiece is a seven-hour film that thoroughly dissects the psychology of the infamous dictator and manages to expose the Hitler within us. Presenting a surreal vision of fascism and influenced by Richard Wagner’s work, this is one of the crowning achievements of modernist cinema.
In an interview, the filmmaker explained: “Hitler was the greatest filmmaker of all time. He made the Second World War, just as he did the Nuremberg Party Congress for Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), and he viewed the war’s rushes every evening by himself, like King Ludwig attending a Wagner opera alone.
“It is very interesting that the only objects that remain from the Third Reich are fragments of celluloid; nothing else has survived—not the architecture of Albert Speer, not the extended borders of the German Reich of which Hitler dreamed. All that remains is the celluloid record of Hitler’s existence and of the war. I play with this notion in Hitler: A Film from Germany. Perhaps it is all a grotesque joke, but underneath such a joke there is some horrible truth.”