The Oberhausen Manifesto
From the point of view of film, the year before the wake-up call of Oberhausen truly was a dismal one. All hopes had been pinned on one single film, Bernhard Wicki’s Das Wunder des Malachias (The Miracle of Father Malachia), which was a success d’estime at the Berlin Film Festival, but was little appreciated by the audience and was also given only half-hearted critical approval. The Venice Film Festival had rejected all five productions that had been sent to the Lido for selection, and there was no Filmband in Gold at the German Film Prize award ceremony, either for a feature film or for a director. The only entry to receive an award was the film documentation of Gustaf Gründgens’ production of Faust.
Art or cash?
The number of films produced in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich fell, but in particular, there was a dramatic fall in the number of cinemagoers, 14 per cent on the previous year. People were evidently tired of trite sentimental films in a regional setting, frothy love films, and of detective and war stories. Billy Wilder, to whom a Berlinale retrospective was devoted, had quite rightly stated that the German studios were technologically antiquated. In a captivating pamphlet, critic Joe Hembus stated soberly: “German film cannot be better” and his colleague Walther Schmieding pithily asked whether the issue was “art or cash “. German cinema was lacking in both.
Who were the rebels? Today, we no longer know all of the signatories. Ferdinand Khittl, whose Parallelstrasse (The Parallel Street) became an underground cult film and who read out the Manifesto in Oberhausen, was one of them, as was Alexander Kluge, who led the ensuing discussion. Also involved were Edgar Reitz, Peter Schamoni and Haro Senft, who, with the Munich group DOC 59 was the one who got the ball rolling in the first place, Hans-Jürgen Pohland, who produced Herbert Vesely’s Das Brot der frühen Jahre (The Bread of Those Early Years), Oberhausen’s first “official” feature film, and the two most important documentary film-makers of the Federal Republic of Germany at the time, Hans Rolf Strobel and Heinrich Tichawsky, whose brilliant satire Notizen aus dem Altmühltal (Notes From the Altmühl Valley) regularly made German diplomats’ hair stand on end when the film was shown at one of the Goethe-Instituts abroad.
In order to be able to better understand all the excitement over the Oberhausen Manifesto in West Germany, one has to be aware of the situation in international cinema at the time. The early sixties were a time of new beginnings. New schools and movements were forming everywhere. In France, the Nouvelle Vague had just taken over from the “tradition of quality“. In Japan, a number of New Waves were casting aside traditional viewing habits. In England, there was Free Cinema. In the Eastern bloc, young directors were in the process of undermining socialist realism. In Brazil, Cinema Novo was developing, and in the United States, a quite considerable number of film-makers (including John Cassavetes, Robert Frank, Shirley Clarke and Jonas Mekas) had got together to form the New American Cinema Group, which rang the death knell for traditional studio films. Only in traditional German cinema were people resolutely refusing to see any of this.
In a recently published book of short texts (Personen und Reden), Alexander Kluge wrote the following: “Film history was 70 years old then. Until Fassbinder’s death, what later emerged from the Oberhausen movement made up a quarter of film history. With many mistakes, many special features, diversity, enthusiasm and a number of works that enriched cinema. Today, we have retained its hope. Namely, that nobody can rule out the possibility of some big surprises from our country in the film sector, just as Röhler, Tykwer, Karmakar, Buttgereit (and many others) have again and again presented us with surprises. Just as Schlöndorff, Reitz, Kückelmann, Verhoeven, Bohm, Wenders and many others (including Herzog) have shown again and again what it means to make high-quality, authentic, off-beat films.”
Film as a means of communication
The ideas that were brooded over and carried into the world in the Oberhausen Manifesto were that directors cannot, should not be, and should not be allowed to be artists who are bound by instructions, and that they are not comparable with senior employees in other sectors. Also, that film can be a means of communication, and not exclusively made to function as a narcotic. And that there are many stories using moving images, not all of which are at home in conventional cinemas.
In connection with the fiftieth anniversary of the Oberhausen Manifesto, the question was raised in many quarters as to whether German film needs a new manifesto. Hanns Georg Rodek took up the question in an article in the daily newspaper Die Welt, writing as follows: “Of course, it would not only have to discuss contents, but also financing, distribution and different viewing behaviour. It might start like this: 'We do not believe that people see a film when it is played on a laptop or smartphone. We believe that films should not be interrupted by advertising or text messages...' Who would like to continue?”
Ralph Eue / Lars Henrik Gass (eds.):
is a film publicist and translator. He was editor of the journal “Filmkritik” until 1984. From 1990 to 1995, he was chief press officer at Tobis Filmkunst. Since 1996, he has been a television journalist and he was the curator of the Berlinale Retrospective in 2005. He lives and works in Berlin.
Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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