Helma Sanders-Brahms “Germany Pale Mother”

Deutschland bleiche Mutter (Germany Pale Mother)
Deutschland bleiche Mutter (Germany Pale Mother) | Photo (detail): © Helma Sanders-Brahms Filmproduktion, DIF

In “Germany Pale Mother”, Helma Sanders-Brahms recounted from a radically subjective viewpoint how she and her mother survived the Second World War. Panned by German critics, this 1980 film made her the foremost German filmmaker – abroad.

We hear men talking about the Heroine of Germany Pale Mother (original title: Deutschland bleiche Mutter, 1980) before we actually see her. Lene, a young woman, (played by Eva Mattes) is hurrying along the banks of a river, pursued by four Hitler Youths with an Alsatian dog, who are raucously harassing the “Fräulein”. Lene’s future husband Hans (Ernst Jacobi), taking a spin on a rowboat with a friend, is amused by the situation. He falls in love with her at first sight, but doesn’t come to her aid. These poignant images of a tainted German idyll are preceded by Bertolt Brecht’s eponymous poem. From the opening scene on, director Helma Sanders-Brahms depicts a world of male brutality and helplessness. Hans and Lene are then happily married, but he is soon conscripted into the German army and sent off to fight in World War II. Their daughter Anna is born to the blaring din of an air-raid alarm. After their house is bombed, mother and daughter roam through the war-ravaged land. And by the time Hans returns home, he and his wife have grown apart. “Orderly conditions” are eventually re-established in post-war Germany, as Hans and his denazified friends re-establish themselves professionally, but Lene is suffering from depression and a mysterious case of facial paralysis. Only her daughter’s desperate entreaties stop her from taking her own life.

Grimm’s fairy-tale as a metaphor for Nazi atrocities

It is the daughter Anna, now grown up, who narrates the story in a voiceover. The voice is that of the director herself, explicitly working through the story of her own mother in her fourth feature film. The daughter’s fears for her mother, whose psychological wounds she has symbiotically internalized, are palpable in this autobiographical drama. Meanwhile, her individual memories become a mirror of the collective memory through the insertion of snippets of archival footage – as in her fictional encounter with an actual boy searching for his parents amidst the ruins. And on a third level, fairy-tales serve as metaphors for the atrocities committed by the Nazis. In one pivotal scene, the mother tells her daughter the Grimm’s tale of the Robber Bridegroom and the band of (wo)man-eating bandits, as they wend their way through factory ruins, stopping for a rest by a furnace reminiscent of the Auschwitz Crematoria. Sanders-Brahms uses long takes and tracking shots here to depict a poetic nightmare.

Subjective cinema of the soul

“Every film scene has to mean more than merely what it depicts, it has to reach into the soul like a tremendous funnel,” commented the director on her uncompromising cinema of emotions, which, however, proved too emotional for most German critics (“the guardians of the temple”, as Sanders-Brahms calls them). Since the mid-’60s, reworking and reassessing wartime experiences had been a central concern of New German Cinema. And yet Helma Sanders-Brahms, one of the few women among the leading auteurs of the age like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff and Alexander Kluge, took a radically subjective angle on remembrance: “To me, my country is first and foremost my mother and father, everything else is historians’ twaddle. Historians always act as though they can interpret history objectively. That is simply a lie.”

Instead, Sanders-Brahms depicts hitherto untold feminine behaviours that were quite typical of the times. In her struggle for survival during the war, for example, Lene experiences a sense of freedom and self-confidence. In the post-war order, however, this feeling is stripped away from her by a renewed subjugation in which her teeth are literally and figuratively extracted in the treatment of her mysterious malady. And yet Lene, who instinctively abhors the Nazis, becomes yet another passive accomplice when a Jewish acquaintance of hers is attacked and, instead of intervening, she strains to duck away from the scene.

A legend abroad, forgotten at home

The filmmaker had already shown a knack for stories about cultural taboos in Shirin’s Wedding (Shirins Hochzeit, 1976), a drama about a Turkish woman married off against her will in Cologne. The director subsequently received death threats and had to have police protection for several months. Her refusal to cater for the prevailing taste earned her a Deutscher Filmpreis in 1977 for Heinrich, a highly emotional portrait of a poet, which was, however, panned by the critics. Reactions to the world premiere of Germany Pale Mother at the Berlinale festival in 1980 were so merciless that it was withheld from theatrical release by the German distributors.

This was indeed a paradoxical chapter in German film history, for Germany Pale Mother became a cult film abroad, enjoying a first run of 72 straight weeks in Paris, 18 in Tokyo, 16 in London and two weeks in New York’s cinemas. Garnering awards at a number of international festivals, it was acclaimed a “classic of foreign cinema” in the US, and Helma Sanders-Brahms was dubbed a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in France. While German critics panned its “heavyhanded” “navel-gazing” symbolism, their French counterparts extolled it as one of the precious few films to “inventory the Nazi era from the inside out” and whose “archive photos of German ruins crack open the academic varnish of fiction”. American critics praised it as “perhaps the most daring motion picture in New German Cinema”.

But for Sanders-Brahms it became increasingly difficult to raise funds for new projects. In the end she was all but forgotten. Two years before she died of cancer in May 2014, she said, “Before I die, I’d just like to make one last attempt to rescue my films from oblivion in my country and say: at least have a look at them.”