Berlinale Retrospective Caught between revolt and conformity

“Karla” by Herrmann Zschoche
“Karla” by Herrmann Zschoche | Photo (detail): DEFA-Stiftung, © DEFA-Stiftung/Eberhard Daßdorf

This year’s Retrospective features an interesting comparison of 1966 films from East and West Germany.

Last year’s Retrospective paid tribute to Technicolor, whereas this year most of the films are black-and-white: in an unusual juxtaposition, the festival is screening German films from 1966, from the East and the West. Let us begin with East Germany, the GDR: around half of all films that year were banned –  a unique development in the history of the GDR, especially given that the country’s censorship policy had been relaxed somewhat only shortly beforehand. The eleventh plenary session of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) prevented any overly rebellious films from being released or banned them after only a brief run. All the same, they were not destroyed. As a result, Frank Beyer’s working class ballad Spur der Steine (Trace of Stones) could be screened after the Berlin Wall collapsed in the autumn of 1989. Karla by Hermann Zschoche and Jürgen Böttcher’s free-spirited youth portrait Jahrgang 45 (Born in ’45) are now being shown alongside many others in both their original and censored versions. Some of these films have now come to be regarded as classics. For the directors concerned, however, this interference in their professional careers often proved devastating.

The way things go

The way things developed in the West was almost a mirror image of this, and yet in some ways similar. The Oberhausen Manifesto had declared in 1962: “The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new cinema.” The first films then arrived in the cinemas and reaped enthusiastic critique and awards. The filmmakers Alexander Kluge (Abschied von gestern/Yesterday Girl), Peter Schamoni (Schonzeit für Füchse/No Shooting Time for Foxes) and Volker Schlöndorff (Der junge Törless/Young Törless) established their careers and the reputation of New German Cinema on this basis. Nonetheless, these films are hardly known among the general public – to this day German television prefers to show the kind of “Papa’s cinema” that the Oberhausen Manifesto signatories were rising up against. One genuine rediscovery is Der sanfte Lauf (The Easy Way Out) starring a young Bruno Ganz, currently to be seen on posters all around Potsdamer Platz. In this story about Prague-born Bernhard, who is reluctant to embark on any career, Haro Senft also engaged with his own biography. He regarded the Berlinale screening now as a kind of delayed recognition but died shortly before the festival began.

New architecture, old structures

Many similarities can be found if one now compares the films from East and West Germany. It is not Germany’s past but its future that is the central focus. Caught between revolt and conformity, the young protagonists – many of whom are female – are searching for their place in the new post-war society. While the architecture of this society is purposeful and modern or even avant-garde, its structures belong to the adults. It would be misleading to talk of a “mood of new beginnings”, as the characters are never far from resignation. In the West, the year 1966 thus turns out to be merely a stepping stone on the way to the major rebellion of 1968, whereas the films from the East actually tend to appear more rebellious. The new impetus can be sensed aesthetically above all, in the way that conditions are depicted in a sober and almost documentary style. That said, a cheeky French New Wave-based film like Playgirl by the likewise only recently rediscovered Will Tremper is evidence of what was possible at the time – albeit only for a brief period.