Retrospective Locarno 2016 A new look at post-war German cinema

<i>Die Rote</i> (The Readhead, 1962) by Helmut Käutner
Die Rote (The Readhead, 1962) by Helmut Käutner | Photo (detail) © Deutsches Filminstitut-DIF e.V.

The films of the Adenauer era are considered by many to be unsophisticated and rather lowbrow mainstream cinema. Post-war German cinema was, in fact, much more diverse, as has been proven by a retrospective that was shown at the International Film Festival of Locarno.

Franziska wants to get away, as quickly as possible, no matter where to. She can no longer stand her husband, with whom she has travelled to Milan. There is another express train leaving for Venice, without any luggage she gets on it. The new refuge, however, turns out to be a dead end. She ends up back at the station, buying a ticket for somewhere else.
 
Helmut Käutner’s modern, yet subtle, portrait of a woman called Die Rote (The Redhead) (1962) was not a great success after its premiere. It did not fit into the scheme of popular productions made for wide audiences. The reason being that in the years after the Second World War, the vast majority of German moviegoers did not want to be confronted with the war crimes of the Nazis, nor with having to deal with their past, nor with having to take a critical look at the present.

Papa’s cinema is dead

Between 1949 to 1963, during Konrad Adenauer’s term of office, West German post-war cinema met the need for light entertainment by producing countless comedies, Heimatfilme (sentimental movies with regional backgrounds) and schmaltzy melodramas. Clichéd feature films like Schwarzwaldmädel  (The Black Forest Girl, Hans Deppe, 1950), Sissi - The Fateful Years of an Empress (Ernst Marishka, 1957) or The Trapp Family (Wolfgang Liebeneiner, 1956) with the likes of such stars as Maria Schell, Romy Schneider and Dieter Borsche became huge hits at the box office. It was against the form and content of this West German mainstream cinema that a group of young filmmakers directed their criticism in 1962. In the so-called Oberhausen Manifesto, under the slogan “Papa's cinema is dead”, they paved the way for a radical renewal of German cinema. When it comes to the verdict that the cinema of the Adenauer era was stuffy and not very innovative, little has changed to this day. In the period from 1949 to 1963, however, more than a thousand films were made in Germany. The fact that there were, in fact, some high-quality movies among them, has been mostly overlooked.

Precious rediscoveries

A representative selection of these often forgotten productions that stand out from the rest was presented in the form of a large-scale retrospective at the International Locarno Film Festival in August 2016 called Beloved and Rejected. They are films that take a close and often critical look at the social conditions of the 1950s and 1960s. They prove that West German post-war cinema was much more diverse than its reputation.

Die Ratten (1954) by Robert Siodmak Die Ratten (The Rats, 1954) by Robert Siodmak | Photo (detail) © Deutsches Filminstitut, Frankfurt It was particularly important to the successful producer, Artur Brauner, to create not only lucrative entertainment films, but also ambitious works that deal critically with the past and present. It was his company, CCC Film, that produced, among others, the award winning film of Gerhard Hauptmann’s Die Ratten (The Rats,1954), directed by Robert Siodmak, who had fled to the USA during the Nazi period. Brauner also produced Der achte Wochentag (The Eighth Day of the Week, Aleksander Ford, 1958), a social drama about a German-Polish couple that cannot find a place where they can be alone in war-torn Warsaw and Helmut Käutner’s political thriller Epilogue (1950). The retrospective specifically rediscovered Helmut Käutner (1908 - 1980) as one of the all-time greats. Although he had worked in Germany during the Third Reich, making such films as Große Freiheit Nr. 7 (Great Freedom No. 7, 1944) and Unter den Brücken (Under The Bridges, 1945), he still managed to maintain a certain ideological independence.

<i>Schwarzer Kies</i> (Black Gravel, 1961) by Wolfgang Käutner Schwarzer Kies (Black Gravel, 1961) by Wolfgang Käutner | Photo (detail) © Deutsches Filminstitut, Frankfurt His film noir Schwarzer Kies (Black Gravel, 1961) that had previously only been available in censored form deserves special attention. A military air base for several thousand US soldiers in Germany is a major hub for black market dealing, opportunism and prostitution. Schwarzer Kies depicts the everyday routine of post-war West Germany and openly criticises the US forces of occupation and their allies.

Criticism of imperialism in the films of the DEFA

Critical confrontation with the Nazi era and the Federal Republic of Germany during the Adenauer era was, however, most prevalent among the films of the DEFA. The films of the state-owned production company of the GDR dealt with topics that were taboo in the Federal Republic of Germany and at the same time persuaded moviegoers that the socialist system of government was morally superior to the “imperialist” West. They deal, for example, with Nazis who after the war make a career in West Germany, with West Germany’s American allies whose military projects were endangering peace in Europe and with nuclear armament in the Federal Republic. The drama Spotkania w Mroku (1960, Encounter at Twilight) by the director, Wanda Jakubowska, depicts the human disappointment of a Polish pianist. After the war, she returns to a West German town in which she had previously lived as a “forced labourer”. Ironically, the man for whom she developed deep feelings at the time, was now collaborating with former Nazis.

<i>Begegnung im Zwielicht</i> (Spotkania w mroku, 1960) by Wanda Jakubowska Begegnung im Zwielicht (Spotkania w mroku, 1960) by Wanda Jakubowska | Photo (detail) © DEFA-Stiftung/Eduard Neufeld. The visual aesthetics of Spotkania w Mroku impressively make use of fascinating shadow effects. Disturbing long passages from Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s piano concerto accompany the events of the film, their hard and melancholy sounds accentuating the plot that is determined by changing emotions and gloomy impressions.

A singular example of German-German co-production

One of the few West German directors who dealt with National Socialism was Wolfgang Staudte (1906 - 1984). He directed the first post-war German film Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us, 1946) and from 1955 onwards, much to the displeasure of the Federal Republic of Germany, worked more and more for the DEFA. He also tried in West Germany, to make films about socially critical issues. His extraordinary drama Leuchtfeuer (The Beacon, 1954) is a rare example of a German-German co-production.

<i>Leuchtfeuer</i> (The Beacon, 1954) by Wolfgang Staudte Leuchtfeuer (The Beacon, 1954) by Wolfgang Staudte | Photo (detail): © Deutsches Filminstitut, Frankfurt The Munich producer Erich Mehl managed to pull this off by using a Stockholm company with the symbolic name of Pandora as camouflage. The film is about the fishing community of a remote, barren island who are faced with famine and the collapse of their moral fortitude. In the hope of goods being washed ashore from wrecked ships, they force the lighthouse keeper to put out the light - with fatal consequences. With its dramatic storm scenes at sea, this complex timeless drama about guilt and responsibility proves to be a remarkable, fascinating work, both in its form and its visuals.