Memory has a texture which is both social and historic: it exists in the world rather than in people's heads, finding its basis in conversations, cultural forms, personal relations, the structure and appearances of places and, most fundamentally .... in relation to ideologies which work to establish a consensus view of both the past and the forms of experience which are significant and memorable. M. Bommes & P. Wright, 1982 1
As part of the "Hitler-Wave" which swamped West German cinemas in the late 1970s, Helma Sanders-Brahms' film Germany Pale Mother (Deutschland bleiche Mutter, 1979) seeks to recover the so called unmastered past ("die unbewaltigte Vergangenheit"), presenting memory (both 'personal' and collective), 'private' experience and broader socio-political 'events' in dialectic relation.
Germany Pale Mother is to be distinguished from other contemporaneously produced, German "retro-scenarios", a spectrum whose extremes can be marked by Fest's documentary Hitler - A Career (Hitler - eine Karriere, 1977) on the one hand and Edgar Reitz's historic melodrama Heimat (1984) on the other. Whereas Fest's film seeks to pose immutable historic truths through reliance upon the authenticity of the archival (accepting the veracity of Nazism's own documentation of the Third Reich), Reitz's epic locates the "original truth" of history in the authenticity of lived experience. The political and the familial, subjectivity and history are presented as mutually exclusive within Heimat's 60 year-long family saga. These divisions are eschewed throughout Sanders-Brahms' comparatively modest production. Hers is a film which accentuates the process of historical recovery, treating history not so much as an indisputable, fixed referent, but rather as a site of contestation between the sexes, between generations and communities and between victors and defeated.
In contrast to Fest and Reitz's highly publicised extravaganzas, Germany Pale Mother does not purport to "tell everything" about the past, about "already completed events" that can be recovered in their entirety by denying that "anything is absent or that anything has to be searched for". 2 Neither personal testimony nor documentation is deployed exclusively as guarantee of historical truth throughout Germany Pale Mother. The film takes another trajectory: it presents a history of subjectivity and explores the subject as constructed within history. Repression plays a central role in this historic drama, and it is my ultimate concern to outline the ways in which repression shapes the text, in particular the central section of the film, which entails the narration of a complete Brothers Grimm Marchen (tale). I shall subsequently argue that this section of the film functions, at one level, as a 'screen memory', simultaneously operating as a repository for what is repressed throughout the body of the text. Within the realm of the film's tracing of national history, it is in the lengthy Marchen segment that the atrocities of the Nazi regime and the process of denazification find their displaced diegetic presence. It is likewise here that the psychic trauma which inaugurates subjectivity is symbolically rendered. As I shall later elaborate, the narration of the Brothers Grimm Marchen plays a vital structural role within Germany Pale Mother's narrative, integrating the discourses on history, fantasy and subjectivity developed elsewhere in the film.
Among other things, Sanders-Brahms tells the story of her own beginnings in Germany Pale Mother, retracing the infancy spent as a refugee, travelling with her mother, Lene, across war-torn Germany while her father was sent off to fight 3 . Apart from sketching the courtship and marriage of her own parents in Nazi Germany, Germany Pale Mother details stories of the resilience and hardship of the country's Trummerfrauen (literally women who lived in the ruins of the war later to rebuild houses and apartment blocks); stories which have been largely suppressed or devalued in 'official' discourses on the past. The film, moreover, counters the widespread conception that the "Economic Miracle" was the golden age of German history. Significantly, the immediate post-war years are identified as the locus of profound national and individual trauma. In broad social and political terms, Germany is presented as a country which was not so much denazified as renazified after the war. The peace-time reconstruction of the family and the state is portrayed as a "facile restoration", based, as the social historian Schneider has claimed, upon a "hurried overhauling of the old capitalist economy, in a 'strong' state" and dependent upon the maintenance of an oppressive social order. 4 Sanders-Brahms' film includes characters (rather than caricatures) who are ardent Nazi party members, and they are shown to be swiftly reinstated into the political and economic order of the Federal Republic's first government. Political opportunism leads distant family friends and relatives once again to prosperity under Chancellor Adenauer. Yet neither Lene nor her husband fare so well.
It is the filmmaker herself who provides Germany Pale Mother with its elliptic voice-over narration which takes the form of subjective reflection upon family existence during the Third Reich and the 'Economic Miracle'. The latter is recovered as a period which mother, father and daughter endure in a state of acute psychic impoverishment (Lene's existence after the war is intolerably wretched; she suffers a disfiguring facial paralysis, and in the final, harrowing scene of the film, attempts suicide). The range of the film's modes of address is as rich as its appropriation of cultural artefacts. They encompass literary quotation (the recital of the Brecht poem, acting as prologue and providing the film with its title), the oral tradition of the folk-tale or Volksmarchen (which Lene tells to her daughter during their destitute journey across the German countryside), universally recognisable German Christmas carols along with a repertoire of widely circulated images which have come to signify the archive we identify as "Germany during the war".
Germany Pale Mother's mobilisation of a range of discursive modes serves to elucidate the nexus of the public and the private, of individual recollection and officially instituted histories. The film facilitates dexterous shifts from the most delicately rendered scenes of domestic intimacy (Hans' anguish as he fondles the buttons of his wife's wedding gown; Anna and Lene's relish in a bath taken together) to images and sounds which have come to constitute official discourses on the past (archival footage of bombed cityscapes; Berlin in ruins; recordings of Hitler's political speeches). Moving from the monumental events of national history to the quotidian, the film succeeds in imbuing memory with "a texture which is both social and historic" 5 . Rather than presenting personal experience and recollections as 'private' constructions, Germany Pale Mother presents them in correlation to historic context and social imperative.
Accordingly, each of the central characters of Germany Pale Mother is profoundly and irremediably affected by their various experiences of war, by the objectives and consequences of the fascist dictatorship and its ideology, which they inadvertently internalise. The internalisation of social structures and political values moulds their responses to one and other, even during the peace years.
Hans, for instance, returns from the war desensitised and callous, physically assaulting his playful daughter, Anna, who in innocence and ignorance, calls him a childish, disrespectful name. He responds with violence in expression of "a prevailing cultural insistence on obedience". 6 It is the spectre of fascism which shadows his life, even though he, like Lene, survived the war as a passive conformist.
Brutality, rigid discipline, unquestioning respect for authority and social standing, symptoms of an authoritarian legacy, become features of the family's everyday life. Fleissigkeit (diligence/discipline) is accordingly the trait that Anna learns to value over others as she painstakingly perfects the sentences she repeats in her exercise book whilst the family's brittle structure shatters around her. In the final section of the film, the values of Bildung and Fleiss are shown to take precedence over compassion: witnessing her mother's abysmal emotional disintegration, the loss of her will to live, Anna tearily pleads for quiet, anxious about the school test she must sit the following day. Hans' response to his suicidal wife is startlingly embittered, devoid even of the child's physical tenderness. Hans declares that it is a matter of complete indifference to him that Lene wishes to die. He is more perturbed that he has missed another job promotion than by his wife's collapse or his own depressive condition.
After returning from the war, Hans repeatedly displays his "respect for anonymous and constraining authority ... and the rejection of everything that is different, spontaneous, humane, and therefore, potentially chaotic". 7 In doing so, he unwittingly perpetuates the structures of authoritarianism and subservience that conditioned patterns of behaviour under the Third Reich. This is nowhere more acutely evident than in the scene where Hans, horrified by his wife's facial paralysis, seeks medical opinion and a somatic cure for her psychic disorder. Hans acquiesces to the doctor's brutal 'remedy' with stoicism. In disregard of Lene's protest, Hans silently observes his traumatised wife as each and every one of her teeth is extracted. "Whatever you think is correct (richtig)", is Hans' response to the white-coated authority figure.
Within the first three scenes of the film, Hans is drawn as a fundamentally apolitical figure, indifferent to National Socialism, seeing no reason to join the Nazi Party, nor to support the Left. His experience of war, however, drastically alters his demeanour along with the language he uses in an ineffectual attempt to articulate his experience. When Hans returns to Berlin on leave to visit Lene and to meet his daughter for the first time, the viewer is made painfully aware of the irreconcilable nature of Lene and Anna's experience of the war as refugees and Hans' experience within the Wehrmacht. He has adopted nationalistic cant as part of his vocabulary, in graphic emphasis of the way ideology finds its consolidation through language.
The limits of his language are the limits of his world: with his return from the front, Hans has embraced the official language and the Weltanschauung of the state, proclaiming to his wife, "We shall fight until the last drop of blood is spilt". Neither Hans nor Lene can understand each other's language. Lene talks of her experience of war on the home front, of giving birth during an air raid and of watching Anna grow up. Hans' retort, only "victory or destruction is worthy of the German people", functions as an abrasive dismissal of Lene's experience. The inability of the couple to reconcile their respective experiences is further aggravated when Hans berates his wife for the momentary levity she displays by singing to her daughter.
Germany Pale Mother places great emphasis upon men and women's disparate experiences of history, sensitively tracing the internalisation of social structures and political values within a specific epoch. History and ideology are not uniquely viewed as of national significance, but are shown to permeate the intimate exchanges of individuals within the 'private' sphere.
Sanders-Brahms' film distinguishes itself from innumerable European and American historical epics which render the war as an "opulent action-extravaganza" or as "a great adventure which, despite a couple of victims, was great fun for the survivors". 8 The distinction rests in the German film's construction of a rare social history of women during and after the war, an accomplishment which is, in part, either critically misunderstood or undervalued. Barbara Hyams, for example, sees the film as aligning woman with the German people, 9 whereas Kaplan voices misgivings about the figure of Lene, whose experience she reads as being representative of the German nation. 10 Kaplan is especially critical of Lene's illness, maintaining that her "distorted face cannot comfortably carry the idea of a divided post-war Germany", whilst dismissing "the teeth pulling scene, equally symbolic of Germany's suffering" as "being merely melodramatic [my emphases]." 11
It is the filmmaker's own rationalisation which underscores the emphatic distinction the film text draws between male and female experiences of history of the war and the period of reconstruction. Seemingly in anticipation of the critical elision, Woman/the German people, Sanders-Brahms explicitly states:
Women have experienced war differently, more objectively. They were indifferent to heroism: they would rather have had their men by their sides. But after they had spent a long time alone in flaming cities ... they developed an awareness of their strength; a strength which came not through heroism, but rather from survival. All of a sudden, after the war ended, this strength, in many cases, was worthless. For a whole generation of women [born during the war], emancipation was the first experience of childhood, and that emancipation was more profound than our own. Those women lived with the independence of free people - without self pity or self-indulgence, without complaining, but rather with humour and amusement. I have never heard my mother sing since. In those days, she used to sing a lot. 12
Sanders-Brahms' affirmation aside, Germany Pale Mother presents clear enough indication that its predominant focus is on history's impact upon women as a subordinated group. The film is, moreover, one which charters the ways in which the experiences and memories of such groups may be either marginalised, suppressed, devalued or incorporated and transformed, 13 according to ideological dictate and dominant conceptions of history.
As accomplices in recollection, Anna and her mother, for instance, exhume a counter-history of the war years, which are recovered as a remarkable period when patriarchy's social and familial order was disrupted. The war years are glorified as a discrete, Mycenaean age when the preoedipal daughter lived in symbiotic union with her mother. Empowered with resilience and determination, Lene is the sanguine figure who, having discovered the bombed, smouldering ruins of her house, grins at her daughter and resolves that they should set out on foot (or, in Lene's case, in high heels) to walk across the country to Berlin. The invigorating independence they share as war-time vagabonds, "flying like witches over the rooftops", is, however, shortlived. Hans' return, the restitution of peace, home and patriarchal order signal disaster for Anna and Lene, along with the abnegation of their war-time experiences. Despairingly, the filmmaker asks in voice-over:
Lene, what should we expect from freedom? In the beginning cleaning up after the war was a distraction. But the stones with which we built our houses were worse than before. If only we'd known, Lene ... What should we expect from peace? ... Now with the reconstruction, war starts within the houses.
Lene, once the potent, almighty preoedipal mother of her daughter's fantasy, is transformed into a feeble figure in the post-war years. She, like Anna, is obliged to take up her prescribed position of subordinance within the family once Hans returns from the war. The relegation to the feminine position is one that Lene resists, and that resistance finds its somatic expression through the illness of hysteria; the condition where the terms 'masculine' and 'feminine' have no psychic mooring. 14 Lene's facial paralysis in this sense carries more than the "idea of a divided post-war Germany". 15 Her symptoms of hysterical conversion emerge as protest, whereas her subsequent suicide attempt signals the return of the repressed.
Reminiscent of Freud's most famous and defiant hysteric, Lene falls ill and is confined to the sick-bed; a socially 'acceptable' affirmation of femininity and the fragility attributed to it, yet equally capable of being read as a form of protest, "signifying ... a rejection of femininity as illness and a hatred of the patriarchy that defined it as such." 16 Lene's socially censured hostilities and desires re-emerge to speak across the body: her illness is the mark of a reluctance to surrender the phallic power, social privilege and independence she experienced during the war years. Then she was the usurper of what, under more regulated circumstances, is bestowed upon men; "namely, autonomy, freedom and the power to control" their destiny. 17 The reconstruction brings with it stifling constraints: Lene in effect is turned into a social castrate. Her experience of space is altered dramatically: she is immobilised and immured within darkened interiors (Anna likewise loses her mobility). Lene is no longer shown performing any activities of social significance or value.
Lene, as much as Anna and Hans, is the product of historical circumstance. She is constructed in and by ideology, the subject of its needs and constraints which affect her interpersonal relations within the private realm of the family, and result in her post-war banishment from the public sphere. Her subjectivity, along with that of the members of her family, is historicised, a matter acknowledged and temporarily championed by Bammer. 18 Despite her otherwise valuable insights, Bammer manages to dismiss what, to my mind, is the film's major achievement: its demonstration of "how the traditional psychoanalytic focus on interpersonal relations can - indeed must - be radically historicized." 19 This accomplishment, once identified, is discredited if not negated when, in discussing the issues of guilt and responsibility, the author contradictorily asserts:
Lene and Anna ... traverse the battlefield of history without essentially being touched by it. In the extreme ambiguity of Sanders-Brahms' stance, the question of responsibility thus loses its historic meaning ... Rather than being in history and of it, they seem merely to be passing through a time and space at once deeply familiar and utterly foreign to them ... Lene's essential innocence (she is guiltless because she is ignorant) ... beg(s) the essential question of guilt and responsibility. 20
Bammer's claim that Germany Pale Mother's characters are essentially untouched by history cannot be convincingly sustained if one examines their fate during the Economic Miracle. History's impact is devastating, inflicting upon each of the protagonists a "chronic disease of the spirits and ideals", 21 manifesting itself through a form of Versteinung (numbness/petrification) which abolishes the likelihood of any potentially meaningful libidinal attachment.
In Lene's case, it is the stigma of the recent past which impels her to attempt suicide. (The connection is one obliterated by Hyam's allegorical reading of the suicide scene, which she interprets as either an expression of "staunch German dignity" or "despairing self-hatred". 22) Lene specifically suffers from reminiscences, from involuntary eruptions of memory 23 characteristic of hysteria. The final scene of the film is consequently imbued with unmistakable historical significance, for it is here that Lene attempts to gas herself. She literally enacts what the protective forces of apoliticism and historical myopia have been summoned to repress, namely the unspoken horrors of Nazism and its consequences.
Lene's is the disorder of repeating rather than remembering. The attempted gasing signals the return of the repressed: not what has been expediently 'ignored' in reprehensible contrivance, but events which have been banished from consciousness. As Freud has reasoned in discussing the process of remembering, repeating and working through the intolerable traumas of the past, "the patient does not remember anything of what ... [is] forgotten and repressed, but acts it out". The repressed is reproduced, "not as memory, but as an action"; one which the patient repeats, "without, of course, knowing" what he/she is repeating. 24
Lene re-enacts what has been historically repressed and what she could not consciously acknowledge, namely the fascist's heinous crime of extermination. It is not that she has chosen or pretended to simply ignore the atmosphere of horror, as Bammer suggests. 25 As an hysteric, Lene is plagued by the past, the condition being one which results when
patients have not reacted to a psychical trauma because the nature of the trauma excluded a reaction, as in the case ... [where] social circumstances made a reaction impossible or because it was a question of things which the patient ... repressed from conscious thought and inhibited and repressed. 26
Lene is not an historically exonerated figure, nor is she a helpless victim. She is the survivor who severs ties with the past and the accusations of guilt which accompany it. Differentiating herself from numerous figures who populate German retro-scenarios of this time, at least Lene remembers that she forgets. Repression plays a decisive role in her story, as much as the individual and collective stories which constitute part of the social history of Germany's transition from the Third Reich to the foundation of its separate nation states.
Indeed, the grounds which contributed to the repression and denial of the fascist past in Germany are more intricate than some writers on Germany Pale Mother are inclined to admit. 27 With regard to a history which has brought them shame (as distinct from guilt), international condemnation and accusations of collective guilt, Germans have been described as a people who are chronically forgetful in remembering. As a widespread characteristic of post-war society, 'historical amnesia' was for many (notably those who were determined to obtain a Persilschein, a denazification certificate given out by the Allies to signify that an individual was 'whiter than white') an expedient response. For others, historical amnesia or myopia could be viewed as a psychic defence to ward off the suffering and shame associated with twelve years of Nazi dictatorship. I do not dispute Maerthesheimer's observations surrounding the historical amnesia so many Germans displayed after the war, when
they all seemed guilty for the first time. Perhaps they were too, even though they didn't feel it, because they didn't want to feel anything any more: they didn't want to see, to hear, or to be aware of the atrocities; the ones which confronted them in 1945, having shared responsibility or having brought them about. Faced with the mass-graves which they themselves had not dug, they reacted against the accusations of collective guilt with individual responses: with blindness, with deafness and with unrepentance... In 1945, these people put their soul on ice. 28
Just because Germany Pale Mother documents this historical myopia, this doesn't mean that the film condones it, as Bammer suggests through her criticism of the protagonist's "ignorance" of the "atmosphere of horror". 29 Questions of culpability, implication and the appropriation of blame are more tortuous to answer than the author infers. Sanders-Brahms, to her credit, refrains from providing facile answers to what Bammer labels "the essential questions of guilt and responsibility". 30 To treat the repression of the past and the historic myopia Lene displays in Germany Pale Mother as simply a moral issue is to disregard on the one hand the climate of political terror, fear and persecution which characterised the dictatorship of the Third Reich, and to ignore on the other hand the social, political and legislative factors which supported and consolidated the denial of the past, not just during the period of the occupation but through the two decades after the war (see footnote 27). By social and political necessity, Lene shares with Hans a derealised past.
Hyams' article on Germany Pale Mother is largely devoid of the moral indignation implicit in Bammer's concluding criticism of the film, its use of the Brothers Grimm tale and the characterisation of Lene. 31 Hyams prefers to identify the problematics surrounding what she terms "the issue of the crime of silence" and does so with perspicacity. Her analysis of the "Robber-Bridegroom" tale is also illuminating. 32 I would like to extend some of the points she raises in discussing the Marchen, which is virtually a word for word rendition of folk tale 40, recorded by the Brothers Grimm in their 1819 edition of Kinder - und Hausmarchen, Winkler-Verlag, Munchen. 33
Wer uber die Marchen lacht, war nie in Not.
(Who ever laughs at fairy tales has never been in need.) 34
Marchen have an historic essence. And they tell of grave misfortune. Jules Michelet, Die Hexe, Leipzig 186435
In the time of the Kaiser, folk-tale researchers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm dug intensively, looking for German history. They dug and they dug and found folk-tales. Their content? The way a people worked out their wishes for 800 years. Alexander Kluge, The Patriot
No matter what has become of the fairy tale, its main impulse was at first revolutionary and progressive, not escapist, as has too often been suggested. The realm of the fairy tale contains a symbolic reflection of real socio-political issues and conflicts. Jack Zipes37
A miller betroths his daughter to a suitor who lives in the depths of the forest. Whenever the miller's daughter sees her husband-to-be, she is filled with dread. He insists that she visit him, and so that she can find her way to his house, he scatters the path with ashes. The miller's daughter sets out on her journey with unease, sprinkling her path with peas and lentils. She travels into the depths of the forest where she sights the bridegroom's house and is warned by a talking bird that she is about to enter the house of murderers ("Kehr um. Kehr um, du junge Braut. Du bist in einem Morder Haus"). The girl enters the seemingly deserted house to find an old woman who repeats the warning already given to her. The old woman predicts that the girl will marry death and that her husband-to-be wants to kill her, cut her body up into pieces and eat her.
The two conspire to escape from the house of murderers by giving the bridegroom and his band of robbers a sleeping potion. The old woman hides the girl behind a vat, from where she witnesses the return of the bridegroom and his accomplices who have in their midst a maiden [virgin]. The troop give the girl three glasses of wine, one red, one yellow and one white, and her heart bursts in two. They rip off her clothes and hack the maiden into pieces. One of the robbers notices that she wears a golden ring. They chop off her finger to seize the ring, but the finger springs into the lap of the hiding miller's daughter. The men sprinkle the virgin's dismembered body with salt and eat her, after which they drink the sleeping draft. The old woman and the miller's daughter leave the house to find that the ashes which marked the path have blown away. The peas and the lentils, however, have sprouted, and the pair make their way in the moonlight back to the miller and tell him of the events.
The wedding festivities, already planned, take place. Each of the wedding guests is asked to tell those assembled a story. The miller's daughter tells the story of her trip into the forest, of the house of murderers and the robber bridegroom, prefacing the tale with, "It was just a dream, my love". But when she reaches the end of the tale, and tells of the golden ring and of dismemberment, she turns to the bridegroom to announce, "Here is the finger and here is the ring". The bridegroom turns as pale as ash. He is detained by the guests at the wedding party and is brought to trial and punished for his crimes.
The narration of the Brothers Grimm tale is one of the most haunting and strangely compelling sections of Sanders-Brahms' film. It is 'uncanny' in the sense that the tale (recorded more than a century before Hitler's rise to power) symbolically prefigures the history of a nation under Nazism and alludes to the "house of murderers" which Germany was to become. What is repressed elsewhere within the diegesis, namely, Germany's history of horror, finds its displaced figuring within this segment. As a repository of the repressed, the folk-tale provides a locus for what is elsewhere unspoken and conspicuous in its absence - the Nazis' assiduous programme of extermination and terror, the crimes perpetrated in the German name and the retribution which was to follow the defeat and collapse of the fascist state.
The narrative elements include, for example, reference to a path scattered with ashes, redolent of the macabre reality of Nazism, which saw the construction of road ways from the ashes and bones of cremated concentration camp inmates. The reference is one which finds its reverberation through the locations in which the tale is narrated: at one point, Lene's recital of the tale is interrupted as she and her daughter pass a towering chimney stack, depicted in a lingering tilt shot. Elsewhere, when Lene and Anna enter the ruined shell of a building, in the background, ovens evocative of a crematorium are conspicuous. In another location where the narration is continued, concentration camp transports are brought to mind with the inclusion of an abandoned railway terminus, the railway tracks overgrown and disused. Denazification also manifests itself in the narrative closure of the tale, with the murderers captured and sentenced for their crimes.
The tale of the robber bridegroom is one which also manages to integrate the biographical and familial components of the film, establishing parallels between the narrative function of the bride within the tale and incidents in Lene's life. Lene duplicates the fictional role of the bride who is told she will marry death and live in the house of her murdering husband, an identity which Hans himself assumes as a soldier during the war. Other details link Lene and her fictional counterpart: in one scene which interrupts the narration of the tale, Lene is approached by Allied soldiers who offer her wine before they assault and rape her; when reunited with her sister, Lene (like the maiden in the tale) drinks three glasses of wine; while the brutality with which Hans, in one early scene of the film, rips the clothes off his wife finds its recurrence in the story. In the final scene, it is Lene who, in her psychic distress, accuses Hans of wanting to kill her.
The analogies between the predicament of Lene and Anna and the women in the Brothers Grimm tale are pronounced: 40 on several occasions Lene and Anna are affectionately referred to as 'witches' through the voice-over, the motif of witchcraft surfacing within the tale in the form of the sleeping draft/witches brew/vat/cauldron. The mother-daughter configuration likewise finds its parallel in the tale with the "woman as old as stone" and the maiden designated as "miller's daughter". Both pairs undertake journeys "deep in the woods" and, comparable to the miller's daughter, it is Lene who, after her journey through the woods, is ultimately reunited with her husband. Each of the protagonists displays, moreover, an ambivalence towards her marriage partner whose presence is met with dread and enmity. The resolution of the tale involves the daughter and mother-figure escaping from the house of the murdering husband to find their way in the moonlight, an embodiment of Anna's fantasy of union with the mother and elimination of the rival for her affection.
At various points during the folk-tale segment of the film it is apparent that the diegeses replicate one another. Early in the segment, Lene recites the warning of the talking bird to her mesmerised daughter, and the pair pause to observe a bird perched on a tree branch. When Lene completes the narration of the tale with the lines, "here is the finger and here is the ring", we see Lene and her daughter travelling on a freight train, Lene's wedding band highlighted and made conspicuous through gesticulation and reframing.
Important structural links can be drawn between the final scene of the film and parts of the folk-tale, where the primal fantasy of castration finds its graphic expression. The narrative of the folk-tale is one which is marked by castration, literally by the act of dismemberment. 41 It is the bridegroom and his band of robbers who mutilate and disfigure the maiden; they grab an axe and cut off her finger. The severed finger springs into the lap of the miller's daughter and is later produced as evidence, incriminating the murderous bridegroom. Vestiges of the pre-oedipal phantasy of the phallic mother re-emerge with Lene implicated by the tale and established as its focal point.
The conjunction of folk-tale and the final scene of the familial drama revolves around the psychic threat of castration and the role recognition of sexual difference plays in the acquisition of subjectivity. Throughout the body of the text it is the drama of the appropriation of a sexual and social identity, a sense of self, which is enacted with Anna as protagonist. The imaginary plenitude of the child's relation to the pre-oedipal mother finds its felicitous staging during the war years. By contrast, the peace years are marked by profound trauma. Anna struggles to maintain her tenacious and possessive hold over Lene whilst becoming increasingly conscious of Hans' role as rival within the scenario. The enforcement of the symbolic order, precipitated after the war by the return of the father, brings with it a horrendous psychic menace. And that menace becomes actual in the agonising scene where the child's pre-oedipal ties with the mother are brutally severed. For the first time in the film, access to the mother is barred. Anna stands before the locked bathroom door, pleading with Lene, aware that she is intent on committing suicide. We share the child's distress and her harrowing position of isolation when her greatest fear is clarified through voice-over:
It took Lene so long to open the door, and sometimes I think she is still behind it, and I am still before it, and that she won't come out to me and that I must remain alone and grow up alone.
The moment is one which denotes Anna's painful inauguration into the symbolic realm, where acquisition of subjectivity is dependent upon relinquishing the symbiotic bond with the mother and the acceptance of a traumatic loss; a loss which she is terrified will never be replenished. For the child, "the separation from the mother results in a kind of primal lack or beance, a gaping", 42 activating a vain and impossible nostalgia for the initial plenitude of the imaginary, of which the mother was an integral part.
Germany Pale Mother abounds, as Kaplan has suggested, in the enactment of agonising primal fantasies. The primal fantasy of castration, an archaic rationalisation of sexual difference, plays a vital role in the history of subjectivity which Sanders-Brahms' film dramatises. Rather than finding its literal and comprehensive enactment within the domain of the family, this primal fantasy is one which finds its displaced embodiment within the folk-tale, one of Anna's most indelible recollections.
The rendition of the folk-tale forms one of the film's longest segments and, together with the final scene of the film, is afforded greater narrative import than either the declaration of the World War II or Hitler's suicide. In this sense one could argue that the tale functions, in relation to the body of the text, as a "screen memory", a perplexingly poignant recollection which contains the repressed and displaced fantasies of childhood. Screen memories are characterised by their unusual sharpness and by the apparent insignificance of their content. 43 In Freud's terms, "Not only some but all of what is essential from childhood has been retained in these memories (...) They represent the forgotten years of childhood". 44
As a screen memory, the tale incorporates repressed elements of the Geschichten (histories/stories) related throughout the film: the history of subjectivity, the history of a nation and the repressions which shape these convergent stories. With acumen, Germany Pale Mother avows the configuration of history and memory as forever susceptible to individual and collective repressions, themselves components of the precarious national imaginary called Germany.
Translations from texts listed by their German titles are my own.
1. M. Bommes & P. Wright, "Charms of Residence: The Public and the Past", in Making Histories (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Birmingham: Hutchinson, 1982), p.256.
2. C. Metz, "History/Discourse: Note on Two Voyeurisms", Edinburgh Magazine no. 1 (Edinburgh Film Festival,1976), p.24.
3. The director dedicates the film to her mother and to her own daughter, Anna, who, for part of the film, is cast as the young child of Lene and Hans.
4. M. Schneider, "Fathers and Sons Retrospectively: The Damaged Relationship Between Two Generations", New German Critique, no.31, Winter 1984, p.35.
5. Bommes and Wright, "Charms of Residence", p.256.
6. A. & M. Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn (New York: Grove, 1975), trans. B.R.Placzek, p.57.
7. J. Yago-Jung, "Growing up in Germany: After the War, After Hitler, 'Afterwards'", New German Critique, no.20, Spring/Summer 1980, p.80.
8. H.R. Blum, 30 Jahre zur Auseinandersetzung mit dem Nationalsozialismus im film 1945 bis 1975 (Koln, 1975), p.6.
9. B. Hyams, "Is the Apolitical Woman at Peace? A Reading of the Fairy Tale in Sanders-Brahms' Germany Pale Mother", Wide Angle, vol.10 no.3, p.42.
10. E.A. Kaplan, "The Search for the Mother/Land in Sanders-Brahms' Germany Pale Mother", in E. Rentschler (Ed.), German Film and Literature: Adaptations and Transformations (London and New York: Methuen, 1986), p.302.
12. H. Sanders-Brahms, Deutschland bleiche Mutter (Reinbeck: Rowohlt, 1980), p.26.
13. Bommes & Wright, "Charms of Residence", p.252.
14. C. Kahane in C. Bernheimer & C. Kahane (Eds.), In Dora's Case: Freud, Hysteria and Feminism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), p.23.
15. E.A.Kaplan, "The Search for the Mother/Land", p.302.
16. C. Bernheimer, In Dora's Case, p.7.
17. E. Janeway, "On Female Sexuality", in Women and Analysis (New York: Laurel, 1975), p.74.
18. A. Bammer, "Through A Daughter's Eyes: Helma Sanders-Brahms' Germany Pale Mother", New German Critique, Fall 1985.
19. Ibid, p.100.
20. Ibid, pp.106-108.
21. M. Schneider, "Fathers and Sons", p.35.
22. Hyams, "Is the Apolitical Woman at Peace?", p.150.
23. S. Freud, "Remembering, Repeating, Working Through", vol. xiv Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, (London: Hogarth, 1958), p.150.
25. Bammer, "Is the Apolitical Woman at Peace?", p.108.
26. Freud, "Remembering", p.150.
27. The grounds which contributed to the 'erasure' of the past after the war cannot be adequately nor exclusively rationalised in terms of massive "self-willed loss of memory" (Schneider, "Fathers and Sons", p.11) just as reticence about the past cannot be explained solely as a psychological defence. The denial of the past was compounded by social, economic and ideological factors and was contingent upon the 'desubstantiation' (Derealisierung/Entwirkung) of Nazi history during the period of the Allied occupation and the 'Economic Miracle'. Desubstantiation of the past was eventually favoured by the Allies. Largely because of their own 'organic' conception of Nazism, the Western Allies discouraged reflection on the delusional nature of National Socialism. For the Americans in particular, Nazism was either a genetic malfunction, a psychological disorder or an endemic disease against which Germans had little or no immunity. As fear of a Nazi resurgence was strong, in the Western Zones of occupation the Allies determined to seal Germans off from the past and the 'disease' they had contracted. Its 'cure' did not entail a rigourous examination of the economic and social conditions which facilitated the Nazi's rise to power. It involved isolating Germans from the past, screening them and finally re-educating them in the ways of Western democracy (J. Sandford, The New German Cinema [London: Oswald Wolff, 1980], p.9).
The desubstantiation of the Nazi years was subsequently sanctioned by the first government of the Federal Republic, which despite structural and economic links (or perhaps because of them), made a concerted effort to differentiate itself from the old regime. Continuously in power for 17 years, the Christian Democrats feigned ignorance of the social, economic and political foundations of fascism (Schneider, "Fathers and Sons", p.7).
It is nevertheless well known that members of the legal, medical and teaching professions prominent under the Nazi dictatorship continued to prosper under the new regime. In the 1960s, for example, it was estimated that around two thirds of the judges who had passed death sentences in Hitler's courts were still holding office. Hitler's euthanasia doctors also practiced for decades after the collapse of the Third Reich, frequently having avoided prosecution.
Adenauer's right hand man and Secretary of State, Hans Globke, was not the only member of parliament to be incriminated by his past. He had served as a high official for the Ministry of the Interior under Hitler and was also responsible for writing the official commentary on the Nazi's Nuremberg race laws. The situation in the public service was not greatly different. Of the Christian Democrats' 67 top civil servants, only three percent could claim an anti-Nazi record (D. Childs, From Schumacher to Brandt [London: Oxford, Pergamon, 1966], p.61). Whereas in 1952, "when one did not readily admit one's Nazi past", Dr. Adenauer acknowledged that "two thirds of the senior officials in the Federal Republic's Foreign Service were former Nazi party members" (Childs, p.51). On the industrial front, firms like IG Farben, Krupp, Thyssen and Siemens continued to generate massive profits, just as they had done through their support of the National Socialists.
The process of denazification was itself cast in a suspicious light when, in 1958, it was publicly disclosed that "the Baden Wittenburg government had appointed to the directorship of the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes a man they knew to have been a storm-trooper and party member" (M. Balfour, West Germany: A Contemporary History [Croom and Helm, 1982], p.190).
Public opinion polls conducted after the war reveal astounding attitudes to a past that clearly remained 'unmastered'. In startling defiance of the Allies' conviction (that the German people were to accept collective responsibility for Nazism and its aftermath) and their attempts to denazify the Germans, more than half the respondents to a variety of surveys conducted between November 1945 and October 1948 expressed the belief that Nazism had been a good idea poorly executed (see L.J. Edinger, Kurt Schumacher: A Study in Personality, Political Behaviour [Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1965], p.76).
Even after the foundation of the Federal Republic, few West Germans were inclined to accept responsibility for the past. The 1953 Jahrbuch der offentlichen Meinung, for example, recorded that only 32% of West Germans put the blame for World War 2 on Germany, while 24% considered "other countries" responsible. In his book National Consciousness in Divided Germany (London: Sage, 1975), Schweigler refers to a survey conducted in West Germany at the time of the Eichmann Trial. In 1961, 88% of those questioned said that "as Germans" they felt in no way guilty for the mass murder of the Jews. Only 8% expressed some guilt (p.224).
28. P. Maerthesheimer and I. Frenzel, Im Kreuzfeuer: Der Fernsehfilm "Holocaust". Eine Nation ist betroffen (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1979), p.13.
29. Bammer, "Through a Daughter's Eyes", p.108.
31. Ibid. Bammer argues that a number of scenes "seem intended to plead Lene's essential innocence" and objects to the rationalisation that "she is guiltless because she is ignorant".
32. It should be noted that Hyams relies upon an English translation and summary of the tale which deviates from the German version actually retold in the film. In the version to which she refers, the miller's daughter is hidden behind a hogsshed rather than a vat, whilst the virgin's severed finger springs not into the lap of the young bride but rather to her chest.
33. The Brothers Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmarchen (Munchen: Winkler-Verlag, 1819). The tale which Lene narrates is reprinted in Sanders-Brahms' Deutschland bleiche Mutter, pp.92-6. Bolte and Klivka list several condensed pages of variations of "Der Rauberbrautigam", the talking bird and the dream scene being missing elements in many versions. It is the second version of the tale recorded by the Grimms which is narrated in Sanders-Brahms' film. In the first edition of the tales that the brothers collected and published in 1812, the bride-to-be is the daughter of a king rather than a miller, and the bridegroom marks the path to his house by tying ribbons to the trees rather than by scattering ashes. In the earlier version, the victim of the robbers is the bride's grandmother instead of "a virgin". The authors note the similarities between the story of the robber bridegroom and tale number 46, in the Grimm collection, "Flichters Vogel". That tale includes a murderous bridegroom who conceals his identity, the dismemberment of daughter/bride(s), a wedding party organised to trap the criminal groom and a talking bird. See Bolte and Klivka, Anmerkung zu den Kinder und Hausmarchen der Bruder Grimm (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1963), pp.370-373.
34. quoted, Alexander Kluge: Die Patriotin, Zweitausendeins, Frankfurt am Main, Marz 1980, p.465.
35. Ibid., p.126.
36. Ibid., p.123.
37. J. Zipes, Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (London: Heinemann, 1979), p.36.
38. The director gave serious consideration to its omission.
39. Bammer refers to the shots including the smokestack and the crematorium ovens in her article.
40. Lene is associated with other characters from Brothers Grimm tales in the early part of the film: "Sleeping Beauty" is evoked in one scene where Lene, as a young bride, pricks her finger on a needle; whilst at another juncture Hans refers to his impression that Lene was "as pure as the freshly fallen snow", recalling the story of "Snow White and Rose Red".
41. In his discussion of "The Uncanny", Freud has discussed the role of doubling, of severed parts of the body which have a life of their own, drawing a correlation between castration and the uncanny, the German term for which (unheimlich) is used by the bride to describe the bridegroom's house.
42. F. Jameson, The Prison-House of Language (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972) p.172.
43. Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis (London: Hogarth, 1973), p.410.
44. S. Freud, "Remembering, Repeating and Working Through", Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XII, p.148. Freud also speculated about the correlation between screen (or concealing) memories and cultural forms: "the 'childhood reminiscences' of individuals altogether advance to the signification of 'concealing memories' and thereby form a noteworthy analogy to the childhood reminiscences as laid down in the legends and myths of nations". "Childhood and Concealing Memories", Psychopathology of Everyday Life (New York: Mentor), A.A. Brill, trans., p.34.
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