The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue

Films of the Berlin School at MoMA

November 20 – December 6, 2013

Rare is the cinematic movement that deliberately forms and labels itself. Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s self-consciously performative Dogme 95 aside, most movements are declared by critics and studied by scholars, with the filmmakers in question catching up somewhat post-ipso facto. The Berlin School is not based in Berlin and its loosely associated members went to, and observe, different schools, but, since it was coined by German critics, the phrase has clung to the most acclaimed set of films from Germany and Austria, perhaps even from Europe in general, since 2000. That many of the filmmakers associated with it did subsequently sit down to discuss whether to adopt the critics’ label—and accordingly issued a manifesto—underscores one notable difference: many of the directors of this trend knew each other well, continue to be friendly, and even work on each others’ films. In the telling of Christian Petzold—the Berlin School’s leading light, maker of its most critically celebrated and commercially successful films—these directors decided that a single declaration would be too contrived, given that each of their films moves in its own individual, although consistently intriguing, direction.

Jerichow. 2008. Germany. Directed by Christian Petzold. Christian Schulz. Ã?© Schramm Film. Courtesy Arne HoÃ?Ë?hne Press.

Seventeen of the most important films of the Berlin School will be screened at the Museum of Modern Art between November 20 and December 6. The series will offer multiple works from many of its key directors, including Petzold, Angela Schanelec, Thomas Arslan, Christoph Hochhäusler, Maren Ade, and Ulrich Köhler, among others. The retrospective usefully offers some of the earlier films associated with the Berlin School’s emergence around 2000 (including Thomas Arslan’s Geschwister – Kardeşler [Brothers and Sisters, 1997], Petzold’s Die innere Sicherheit [State I Am In, 2000], Schanelec’s Mein langsames Leben [Passing Summer, 2001]) as well as some of its most recent and highest profile works, like Petzold’s Barbara (Germany’s 2012 Oscar submission), as well as Arslan’s 2013 neo-western, Gold, both of which indicate new and innovative approaches and styles for the School. The film series will be accompanied by a two-day conference, cosponsored by the N.Y.U. Deutsches Haus, on November 21–22, where many of the filmmakers will be present for panels, some moderated by Professor Marco Abel from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and author of the first book on the movement, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Camden House, 2013).

Although many critics (and MoMA’s press materials) have emphasized the Berlin School’s presentist and realist approach­­—the contemporary world observed in almost obsessive detail—Petzold has been concerned with history in various ways in almost all of his films. Barbara, for example, is set in early 1980s East Germany and traces the dilemma of a woman doctor deciding whether to flee the East for the West. Starring Berlin School regular Nina Hoss, the film seems deliberately directed against the German foreign-language Oscar winner The Lives of Others, with its easy moral logic and facile use of its female lead. Concerned with an altogether different history is Petzold’s (and the Berlin School’s) breakthrough The State I Am In, about the afterlife of (domestic, left-wing) terrorists who are compelled to return to Germany after years away living underground. Petzold’s erstwhile film-schoolmate Thomas Arslan has confirmed this turn to the historical (and generic) with his neo-western Gold, which follows a group of German desperados through Canada during the mid-19th-century gold rush. Reminiscent of Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Gold observes but simultaneously dismantles the western genre and its usual gun-slinging, loner hero.

Conspicuously missing from the MoMA series is what many consider a masterpiece by Petzold, his 2007 film Yella, which explores how neo-liberal/finance-oriented capitalism has fundamentally refigured both work and its workers, dematerializing both their labor and their imaginations. Contemporary economy and its remaking of people at the most intimate levels is the focus of many Berlin School films, including Hochhäusler’s Unter dir die Stadt (The City Below, 2010), which explores the work, love, and abuses of Frankfurt’s hyper-successful bankers. Both Yella and Unter dir die Stadt explore today’s blurred lines between sky-scraping financial success and outright criminality. Such seductive criminal impulses coursing through the everyday are also the subject of Benjamin Heisenberg’s Der Räuber (The Robber, 2010), in which a marathon runner who luxuriates in exercise adrenaline turns to the kind of petty crime in which he can stretch his legs. Both Hochhäusler and Heisenberg have established themselves as among the most outspoken of the Berlin School directors, not least in the journal Revolver, which they co-founded and co-edit and which has featured writings and other work from many of these directors. (Hochhäusler and Heisenberg will be present for an evening discussion of their films and the journal on Monday, November 25.)

Alle Anderen (Everyone Else). 2009. Germany. Directed by Maren Ade. © Florian Braun/Komplizen Film. Courtesy Komplizen Film.

The Berlin School also extends and upholds one of the notable features of Germany’s previously celebrated new wave, the New German Cinema of the late 1960s through the early 1980s, namely, the presence of important women directors. Angela Schanelec has been a leading figure from the school’s earliest days, and it was in writing about her Mein langsames Leben (Passing Summer) as well as Arslan’s work that critics first coined the term Berlin School—not a coincidence with Passing Summer, since the film focuses on a lazy summer in Berlin and its youngish, somewhat adrift characters in the German capital. As in Marseilles, Schanelec offers fleeting glimpses of people’s complex emotional lives while suggestively setting them against the absorbing ambient sounds and gestures of a contemporary European metropolis. In Alle Anderen (Everyone Else, 2009), Maren Ade directed one of the Berlin School’s most popular films, a canny refiguring of the road-movie romance. Ade precisely, even surgically, dismantles her couple by destabilizing their expectations around gender roles and ultimately their place in the partnership.

Among the contemporary phenomena that these films have addressed is growing immigration and diversity in European societies. Here, again, many of the films are directed against the mainstream, particularly contrary to well-intentioned, but often simplistic, social-work-like films that emphasize the one-sided victimization of immigrants to Germany. The picture that emerges in these films instead is of a largely white society struggling with subtle, even subtextual racism that only complicates the already complex lives of immigrants and people of color. Thomas Arslan’s Geschwister (Brothers and Sisters, 1997) was a groundbreaking film in this vein, offering a clear-eyed, multifaceted exploration of a Turkish-German family in Berlin’s famously diverse Kreuzberg neighborhood. With his 2008 Jerichow, Petzold remade the James Cain and subsequent film-noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice by resetting it in the German provinces and recasting it with a Turkish-German, rather than Greek-American, entrepreneur who proves easy prey for the desperate, nihilist white drifter. Ulrich Köhler’s Schlafkrankheit (Sleeping Sickness, 2011), which won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, similarly investigates Germany’s place in the larger and more diverse world through a medical clinic in Africa. In these films, the Berlin School directors consider Europe’s changing place in the wider world, transcending the cinematic navel gazing of which art-house films are sometimes accused and underscoring their serious engagement with the politics of the moment.

11 West 53rd Street // NY, NY


Jaimey Fisher

JAIMEY FISHER is Associate Professor of Cinema and Technocultural Studies at University of California, Davis. He is the author of Christian Petzold and Disciplining German: Youth, Reeducation, and Reconstruction after World War II as well as the editor of various books on German cinema.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

All Issues