World War II, National Socialism, Terror, Division and Reunification: Artists deal with German contemporary history and keep the memory alive. We present some of the works.
From the two world wars to a divided country – the 20th century was a time of great upheaval and change in Germany that left it deeply scared. But the fall of the Nazi regime after the Second World War and German reunification in 1989 also gave rise to the Federal Republic of Germany we know today. These events shaped our national borders, laws and fundamental social values. And while there is widespread agreement that we must never forget, it is sometimes hard to figure out the best way to keep Germany’s collective memory alive. Films, books and monuments are a push in that direction, though not without stirring up some controversy along the way. We present some examples of works that have had a particular influence on the public debate and some of which are discussed in school.
Photo (detail): © picture-alliance / dpa
“Die Brücke” (The Bridge)
Back in 1959, Bernhard Wicki's anti-war film Die Brücke showed that dying in a war was far from a heroic sacrifice for the fatherland, and in fact an act of futility. Shortly before the end of World War II, seven 16-year-old boys from a small German town were drafted to serve in the military and assigned to defend a bridge already slated for demolition. Only one lived to tell the tale. Wicki's work is regarded as the first German anti-war film and was seen as a response to the sentimental heimatfilm (homeland film) genre so popular in the 1950s. The film won numerous awards, including a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. It is still shown in schools today to illustrate the deceit of indoctrination that glorifies war.
Photo (detail): © picture alliance / Arco Images GmbH
Stolpersteine (stumbling stones)
A small commemorative plaque in front of every house in which the persecuted or deported once lived: since 1992, artist Gunter Demnig has been installing his stolpersteine, pavers topped by a brass plate that commemorate the victims of National Socialism. Each stone is inscribed with "Hier lebte" (here lived), followed by the name, and date and place of death of a person murdered by the Nazis. The stones are set in the pavement in front of their last place of residence. What began as a small art project has now spread to 21 European countries, making stolpersteine Europe's largest decentralized memorial.
Photo (detalis): © picture alliance / United Archives
Steven Spielberg's film about German industrialist Oscar Schindler, who saved 1,200 Jews from death in extermination camps during the Nazi era, triggered a new wave of dialogue about the Holocaust in 1994. The merciless portrayal of the violence and brutality of the concentration camps left many cinema goers shocked and in tears. For Spielberg, the film was a way to process his own family history, as many of his relatives died in German concentration camps, and he kept none of the proceeds from the film. Shot in original locations, the film was nominated for twelve Oscars and won seven. The real Oscar Schindler died virtually destitute in 1974, supported by the Jews he saved until his death. Schindler was awarded the German Federal Cross of Merit 1st class in 1965, and Spielberg received an even higher honor, the Great Cross of Merit with Star, for his film adaptation.
Photo (detail): © picture-alliance / ZB / Soeren Stache
The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, commonly known as the Holocaust Memorial, was unveiled in 2005. Since then, 2711 concrete stabs erected in a 19,000-square-meter area close to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate have stood in mute commemoration. One of Europe’s most impressive memorials for sheer size alone, it has also been the subject of a great deal of criticism. Writer Martin Walser described artist Peter Eisenmann’s work as a "nightmare the size of a football pitch" and the Central Council of Jews also distanced itself from the installation. And while the project’s exorbitant cost caused wide-spread indignation throughout Germany, the memorial attracted an estimated 3.5 million visitors in its very first year alone. The associated exhibition was one of the ten most frequented museums in Berlin in 2012, and every year around 2,000 guided tours and educational events take place, 70 percent of which target young people.
Photo (detail): © picture-alliance / dpa /Constantin Film
It is possible to portray Hitler with even a modicum of humanity? Released in 2004, Der Untergang was the very first film since the end of World War II to focus primarily on the figure of Adolf Hitler and depict the final days in the Führer's bunker. While the film was a national and international box-office success, it kicked off vehement discussion in Germany, especially among historians, about how Hitler could be portrayed in film. While some were convinced that showing Hitler as a person with feelings helped demystify him as a historical figure, others vehemently opposed allowing any form of emotional association. Both producer Bernd Eichinger and lead actor Bruno Ganz received the Bavarian Film Award, and Der Untergang was also nominated for an Oscar as best foreign language film.
Photo (detail): © picture-alliance / ZB / Stefan Sauer
The Novels by Günter Grass
Throughout his life, author Günter Grass explored the effects of National Socialism and many of his works featured the recurring themes of flight and expulsion. Today, Grass's 1959 debut novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) is viewed as a novel of the century and one of the most important works of German post-war literature, though it was widely lambasted by critics at the time. As a person, Grass also remains a controversial figure, even after his death. In 2006, he went public with his former affiliation with the Waffen-SS, the brutal armed wing of the Nazi’s SS, sparking heated debate over whether the author could still serve as a moral authority in post-war Germany. Some politicians even called for Grass return the Nobel Prize for Literature he was awarded for his life's work in 1999.
Photo (detail): © picture alliance / Everett Collection
“The Baader Meinhof Complex”
The 2008 film the Baader Meinhof Komplex offers an unfiltered look at how student protesters from the 1968 movement radicalized into Red Army Faction (RAF) militants. The triggers - the brutal beatings at protests against the Shah of Iran, at which student Benno Ohnesorg was shot and killed by a police officer, the attack on student leader Rudi Dutschke, and the continuation of the Vietnam War – are as dramatically portrayed in the docudrama as the subsequent acts of violence enacted by RAF terrorists. The film was based on journalist Stefan Aust’s historical account by the same name. Aust worked with Ulrike Meinhof as a columnist for Konkret magazine. The locations were painstakingly reconstructed based on contemporary film and photographic materials. Producer and screenwriter Bernd Eichinger said he created the piece for the younger generation who had not witnessed the events. The Baader Meinhof Komplex was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best foreign film.
Photo (detail): © picture alliance / Mary Evans Picture Library
“The Lives of Others”
What has to happen before a compliant public servant, a cog in the machine, is ready to throw his convictions to the wind? Released in 2006, Das Leben der Anderen was the first feature film since German reunification to deal with surveillance in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) without excessive sentimentality or “ostalgie” (a German word that describes a feeling of nostalgia for East Germany). It focuses on two men, Dreymann, a celebrated GDR author and as an artist, automatically suspect, and Captain Wiesler, an officer in the Stasi or East German secret police assigned to surveil him. The suicide of a blacklisted friend turns Dreymann into a dissident. Instead of doing his duty and turning him in, Wiesler protects Dreymann, and is ultimately demoted and forcibly relocated. Singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, himself a victim of the GDR persecution apparatus, praised director von Donnersmark for his convincing portrayal of the GDR: "He wasn’t there, yet this young man can hold up his end of the conversation. Apparently this West German has the skill to both judge and condemn. He is not just part of the conversation; he is actually adding to it.” Das Leben des Anderen was honored with a number of awards, including an Oscar, a César, and the European Film Prize.
Photo (detail): © picture-alliance / Mary Evans Picture Library
“Good Bye, Lenin!”
What is a good son to do when his comatose mother has slept through German reunification and awakens with no idea that her beloved GDR no longer exists? The answer is simple: rewrite history. In the 2003 tragicomedy Good Bye Lenin!, teenager Alex Kremer tries to shield his mother – a faithful and ardent socialist – from another heart attack by staging the GDR in a Germany in the process of unification. He even takes it one step further, and has the fake GDR offer asylum to flocks of West Germans. Unlike other films of the time, Good Bye Lenin! refrained from poking fun at the GDR. Director Wolfgang Becker sympathetically portrayed how the fall of the Berlin Wall meant the painful loss of their homeland for many people, and how seriously the rapid changes brought about by unification impacted them. Good Bye, Lenin! was Germany's most successful film in 2003, and went on to win the German Film Award nine times. It was also the first German film to win a Felix, the European Film Award.