Leonie Naughton. 'Recovering the "Unmastered Past": Nazism in the New German Cinema'. In T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 121-30.


Leonie Naughton

In 1975, the West German filmmaker, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg directed an astounding documentary called The Confessions of Winifred Wagner (Winifred Wagner Und Die Geschichte Des Hauses Wahnfried Von 1914-1975).(1) Throughout the film, Winifred, the geriatric daughter-in-law of the famed composer Richard Wagner, talks about her cultural and political influence during the Third Reich. Yet in contradiction to the films's title, Winifred confesses nothing. The contradictions within her discourse do, however, reveal the extent of her delusions and political commitment as an unrepentant fascist. She paradoxically describes herself as a completely apolitical being, adamant that her classification as a grade three Nazi at the end of the war was a grave injustice. Still Winifred cannot contain her amusement when she recalls that after the collapse of the Third Reich, she was the only person left in Germany who would admit that she was a Nazi. Some of Winifred's most disquieting comments are within the film's epilogue. To those critics who self-righteously and indignantly condemn her generation, Winifred retorts: "there is no personal merit in not being born in a barbaric age where you're tested to the limit." The dowager's comments are indeed sobering, particularly when one acknowledges that political repression, terror and wholesale slaughter haven't abated with the collapse of Germany's fascist dictatorship. However repugnant that regime was, it's not as if Germans have exclusive rights over historical atrocities. As the West German social psychologists, A. and M. Mitscherlich, have reasoned: "The erstwhile military and moral victors over the Third Reich have since shown, in `limited' wars of their own such as those in Algeria or Vietnam, that they too are capable of very grave acts of inhumanity."(2) Accordingly, suspicions about the barbarism of our own age and own history may be more justified than even Winifred Wagner has suggested. It is, after all, "only a redeemed mankind (which) receives the fullness of its past - which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments."(3)

Although indignation is an understandable response to Hitler and his regime, moral disgust about this chapter of German history hardly enhances our critical awareness or understanding of it. In agreement with the historian and filmmaker, Joachim Fest, I consider that moralistic appraisals of the German past serve to inhibit critical and analytical discourses on that past. I don't dispute that National Socialism was one of Germany's most sinister political developments. But on the other hand I question the value of treating Nazism solely as a moral or ethical issue. To do so is to obscure and mystify Nazism's ideological and historic foundations. And I'm inclined to consider that moralistic discourses on German fascism have fostered a popular misconception about Nazism. And that misconception is that German fascism is history's greatest and most evil hiatus.

But the topic of my paper is not so much Nazism as an historical phenomenon, but rather discourses West Germans have recently presented in an effort to "come to terms" with their past. Essentially it is the critical discourses on Nazism expressed within West German films which I wish to examine in this paper. I want to discuss West German films which recover, reappropriate, and represent aspects of the Nazi past. This task is hardly as arduous as it may sound, ostensibly because representations of the fascist past only gained predominance in relatively contemporary local films.(4) The "Hitler wave" (Hitler-Welle) was a phenomenon of West German cinema of the late 1970s. Long distanced from the social and political reality of the Federal Republic's citizens, National Socialism found its curious and belated representation in West German film more than three decades after the collapse of the Third Reich. It was with their historical dramas that West Germany's filmmakers made a concerted effort to recover part of their wretched national history. Remarkably the combined efforts of these filmmakers are without precedent in the entire history of West German cinema. I'm intent on discussing why this should be the case, taking into consideration why West German filmmakers generated a barrage of images recovering and reviewing the fascist past in the 1970s rather than in any other decade. Indeed why would West Germans be inclined to represent or expose themselves to scenes recalling the most abject incidents of a past that ultimately brought them little more than desolation, misery and world-wide condemnation? Why recover what seems to have been so effectively repressed? Furthermore, I want to identify not only the discourses on the past articulated in these films, but also the ideological functions attributed to them. But first of all what deserves to be clarified is the ways in which the Nazi past was "desubstantiated" (derealisiert) after the war, and the role cinema played in effacing that past.

It was during the period of the Allied occupation that the precedent for the denial of the past was established. In the Western Zones of occupation denazification was, perhaps unwittingly, one means through which this repression was assured. However necessary, ill-fated or inconsistent denazification may have been in the West, it was through control of the mass media, and in particular of film, that the Allies could seal Germans off from the recent past. The German film industry became a prime target for the operation of denazification, precisely because film had played an indispensable role in the manufacture of Nazi propaganda during the Third Reich. The demolition of the film industry in the West involved the outlawing of vertical integration (the system the Americans knew worked too well), along with the banning of import quotas. With the back-bone of the industry broken, Germans could be "re-educated" and exposed to Democracy, as pictured in Hollywood films. Conveniently, America's old export rival could, in the process, be eliminated from the market. Local producers were discouraged from making films which dealt with the recent past or the contemporary political situation, as was to be the case when the Federal Republic was established.

When the Christian Democrats came to power in 1949, they did so in acceptance and confirmation of the past that the Western Allies had selected for the zones of Germany they occupied. In that past the "reality of anti-fascism was largely buried."(5) And with the foundation of the Federal Republic, the cinematic institution was one which continued to be regulated to deflect critical impressions of the recent past.

Neither dramatised, fictionalised nor documentarist accounts of the fascist years were a feature of West German cinema in the first two decades of the Federal Republic's history. In 1957, one film critic commented on this situation when she wrote: "events of the thirties and forties are either ignored or treated as something remote, regrettable and faintly unmentionable, like hallitosis or prostitution in Paraguay."(6) West Germans rarely saw critical reflections of themselves, their contemporary situation, or their past when they viewed locally produced films. As the German writer, Kraft Wetzel, has indicated, throughout the period of the Economic Miracle, the West German film industry specialised in the production of films which took place in no particular geographic location."(7) If Germany was to represent itself, then it would be a pseudo-Bavaria that would be depicted. Whatever adventure stories the war and the Berlin Wall inspired in Hollywood, neither were favoured topics with West German producers nor censors. In 1975, for instance, a German survey of historical dramas produced in the period since the Second World War revealed that "Thirty years after the event there still hasn't been any critical analysis of National Socialism in West German film."(8)

Reticence about the Nazi past, I have argued, was a general characteristic not only of post-war German cinema but also of West German society during this time. Basically, the repression of the past, of the history and repercussions of the Third Reich was assured in film through the imposition of restraints and limitations on production and exhibition. As was the case during the period of the occupation (when producers could only obtain licenses to make films when they agreed to shoot "up-to-date" material,(9) fascism continued to be viewed suspiciously, as a disease against which Germans had no immunity. Under Adenauer, restrictions on the representations of recent history extended from locally produced films to imports from Japan, Britain, Italy, France and America. Imported films, notably those from the Eastern Block, which dealt critically with the Nazi past, were banned throughout the 1950s. Films like Rome Open City (Rosselini, 1946) were only granted public release in West Germany in the 1960s, and any film which made derogatory comments about the German army, past or present, was censored.

Regularly Hollywood films, like Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942), or Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) were drastically re-edited and redubbed to exclude references to Nazis. When re-editing for West German exhibition proved impractical, redubbing meant that the behaviour of Hollywood's villains could be dramatically and instantly modified. Consequently in the cinema of the Adenauer era it wasn't uncommon for Nazi spies to be transformed into drug smugglers. Entideologisierende Bearbeitung was a common form of political censorship in Adenauer's Germany, a process which involved eliminating undesirable ideological imprints from a wide variety of films. Politicised figures, whether they were Nazis or Communists were repeatedly transformed into criminals. Sam Fuller's Pick Up On South Street (1953) was one such instance where characters were subject to "political rehabilitation." Gefahr Aud Dem Dunkel, otherwise known as Quiller Memorandum (Anderson, 1966), was yet another film about espionage and Neo-Nazism that by virtue of creative re-editing was made totally unintelligible to West German audiences. Once the motives of the film's Neo-Nazis were concealed and they were re-identified as "damned rough lads" (verdammt harten Burschen), West German audiences were left free to presume that the villains were Communists, and the film became known as a rather "unfortunate adaptation of George Orwell's 1984."(10)

It's difficult to ascertain how long this form of censorship, this repression of the past and the political rehabilitation of characters, was practised in the West German cinema. However, at least up until 1965 cinematic references to fascism and the support the movement received from big business and industry were outlawed. The most recent example of censoring images of fascism of which I am aware is the case of Cabaret (Fosse, 1972), another film which was modified for local exhibition.(11)

The "desubstantiation" of the past was ensured not only through film, but also through the ideological apparatuses of the family, the church, the legal and educational systems and the media. Throughout the post-war years, recollections of Germany's shameful past were defensively warded off privately, individually, and socially. As Wetzel affirms "Adenauer's economic policy in the 1950s and early 1960s was based upon a tacit agreement to repress the recent Third Reich past, war guilt, and the murder of the Jews in favour of strong support for federal reconstruction and the Economic Miracle."(12) With the systematic repression and mystification of the social, ideological and economic foundations of fascism the conception of the past as "unmastered" became ingrained and widespread. That power, authority and influence remained relatively constant, despite the foundation of the "new" regime after the war, and that the Christian Democrats accommodated many an old Nazi within its ranks is, today, hardly disputed. Nevertheless, once in power Adenauer and his staunchly conservative government made concerted efforts to dissociate themselves from the past, concealing any structural affinities between the old order and the new.

Neither the victorious Western allies nor the block of Christian Democratic industrial entrepreneurs, which had reorganized itself with lightning speed after 1945, had any interest in making the actual causes and the background of fascism a subject for public discussion ... The Western occupational forces, the former Nazi entrepreneurs, whom they exculpated and patronized, and their Christian-Democratic Party following professed a feigned ignorance with respect to the political and economic roots of German fascism.(13)

Furthermore, the collective denial and desubstantiation of the Nazi past provided many Germans with relief from feelings of shame that recollections of the past activated. In National Consciousness in Divided Germany Schweigler has explained that:

West Germans on the whole do not feel ... guilty of what was done in their name during the Third Reich. In June 1961, for instance, at the time of the Eichmann Trial in Israel, 88% if a representative sample of West Germans said that they "as Germans" did in no way feel guilty for the mass murder of the Jews; only 8% expressed some guilt.(14)

Although a sensitive topic, the more distant the Third Reich became, the less defensive West Germans seemed about the stigma of the past. With the growth of the student movement in West Germany in the late 1960s the Left's scrutiny of the legacy of fascism intensified. Post-war youth condemned the hypocrisy of a generation which denied the moral implications of political actions under the Third Reich. Recognition of the authoritarian foundation of many social institutions in the Federal Republic incited rebellion amongst politicised students, and late in the decade the fascist pasts of numerous public figures were disclosed.

The change to social Democrat rule in 1969 signalled not only a change in political climate, but also to some extent a change in public attitudes to the past. On the night of his election victory, for example, Brandt is said to have jubilantly announced: tonight, finally and forever Hitler lost the war. Later when Brandt fell to his knees before the Auschwitz monument, his gesture was interpreted as one of profound public significance.(15) And for many it was only when the ill-fated SPD party came to power that the Federal Republic could be seen to have made a decisive break with the past.

One German political critic, aptly named Ona Zukumpt, outlined the political platform of the SPD during the 1970s in the following terms: finally the SPD "could boast a program that was no longer rhetorically restricted to the recovery from an embarrassing past. (The slogan) `Make Germany Strong Again' was supplanted (in the 1976 election) by `A Good Future for Us.'"(16)

"Collective amnesia" about the past also began to be challenged, at least by local filmmakers who, during the latter half of the 1970s, began to address a hitherto repressed past. The "unmastered past" was the spectre that was to shadow cinema screens for a particular generation; for those who had lived through the student revolts of 1968 and 1969, and had witnessed the hysterical response to German terrorism in the decade that followed.

West German film and TV may have been oblivious of the Nazi past and its post-war repercussions, but this situation was one which was rectified by a new found concern to "come to terms" with the past. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the past may have been repressed, and its reflections banished from local films but in the 1970s silence about the unmastered past was dramatically broken.

The historic myopia of West Germany's mass media was rectified in the 1970s when a resurgent interest in the fascist past led to a fixation which became known as the "Hitler wave" (Hitler-Welle).

The Germans suddenly began to reinvent National Socialism. The Hitler period became an extraordinary creative source for a whole generation of filmmakers. As far as the terrorists were concerned, the Thirties became a fundamental reference.(17)

It was in 1977 that the Federal Republic's media, and in particular its state sponsored cinema, began to ride most vigorously on the Hitler wave. In that year the release of two films, Hitler - A Career (Hitler - Eine Karriere, Fest/Herrendoerfer) and Hitler A Film From Germany (Hitler Ein Film Aus Deutschland, Syberberg), marked the spectacular arrival of a historical wave which swamped the West German cinema for what remained of the decade. As silence about the past had been sustained for so long in the mass media, these films created a public uproar. Fest's film attracted media attention comparable to that which surrounded the national broadcast of the American tele-drama Holocaust two years later. Acclaimed by right-wing organisations and publications for its favourable portrayal of Nazism, objection to Hitler - A Career was, at times, violent: when the film was screened bombs were thrown, cinema staff assaulted, prints were vandalised and protesters demonstrated against the documentary dressed as concentration camp inmates.

The Hitler wave extended to all aspects of the media throughout 1977. Biographies of the Nazi greats, recordings of Hitler's speeches and novels about the Nazi past flooded the market place. Early copies of Mein Kampf and Stars of David became memorabilia. Every large illustrated magazine carried cover stories about old Nazis by this time, and the press was particularly attentive of public and critical response to the release of Hitler films. Neo-Nazi propaganda grew, Hitler operas and plays were produced and Nazism became an important theme for current affairs, talk shows and quiz games on radio and TV.(18) Meanwhile the Hitler wave gained further momentum in West German cinemas. By 1979, representations of the fascist past became so common that the historical film virtually emerged as another genre of the New German cinema, superseding the "anti-Heimat" film and the workers' documentary that had been prevalent at the start of the 1970s.

Included among the overwhelming number of historical films which accelerated the velocity of the Hitler wave are Zero Hour (Die Stunde Null, Reitz, 1975), Der Madchenkreig (Brustellin/ Sinkel, 1977), Out of a German Life (Aus Einem Deutschen Leben, Kotulla, 1977), Adolf and Marlene (Adolf Und Marlene, Lommel, 1977), Winterspelt 1944 (Fechner, 1977), Germany in Autumn (Deutschland Im Herbst, collective, 1977/1978), The Marriage of Maria Braun (Die Ehe Der Maria Braun, Fassbinder, 1978/1979), Germany Pale Mother (Deutschland Bleiche Mutter, Sanders-Brahms, 1979), David (Lilienthal, 1979), The Children from No. 67 (Die Kinder Aud No. 67, Barthelmess/ Weller, 1979), and The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel, Schlondorff, 1979). The above list is, however, hardly extensive and does not include the plethora of TV productions broadcast late in the 1970s.(19)

Apart from films which directly represented or reconstructed the fascist past, allusion to Nazism, critiques of that chapter of German history and its repercussions for post-war German society were manifest among a wide variety of fiction films of the period. Films with contemporary settings addressing salient social and political dilemmas of the 1970s often extended their historic horizons to include unsettling references to the "unmastered past". Features like Von Trotta's Dark Times (Bleierne Zeit, 1981), Wrong Movement (Falsche Bewegung, Wenders, 1974), In a Year of Thirteen Moons (In Einem Jahr Mit 13 Monden, Fassbinder, 1978) and The Last Hole (Das Letzte Loch, Achternbusch, 1981) are but a few which present critical discourses on the recent German past.

Significantly, the recovery of Nazi history in West German film of the 1970s was sponsored and acclaimed by the state's intricate funding system. The production of these films was only possible because of the Social Democrat's liberal policy of film funding. Nowhere else are filmmakers who achieve a modest success and "a high international visibility" so generously rewarded.(20)

In contrast to the situation in France, Italy or America, during the 1970s New German filmmakers were more dependent upon state subsidies, loans and awards than on profits from the box-office. And because of this the New German cinema resists comparison with any other in the world. This cinema's productions are described as "independent", however rarified and precarious their conditions of existence may be, and its cinema is forever vulnerable to the vicissitudes of government funding policy and party politics.

What I've already suggested is that to outline West Germany's tardy appropriation of historic themes is to highlight aspects of the cinematic institution. And because New German cinema operates within a peculiar institutional framework, I'm convinced that it is imperative to examine the conditions of production and consumption of its films. Neither these texts nor others operate in isolation from contexts.(21) It is the context of their production, distribution and reception that deserves attention.

In referring to institutional discourses on film within the Federal Republic and identifying the functions these films were expected to fulfill, one develops an idea of this cinema's investment in the struggle for "popular memory". Essentially, the popular memory debate of the 1970s called for a range of cultural commodities of the Left, or in Noel King's words, "the start of some counter-archive".(22) At the centre of the debate, the polemicist, Foucault, saw film as a form of political intervention that could revive repressed and marginalised portions of popular memory. To him film was capable of restituting the working class' memory of its struggles and of providing popular struggles with historicity.(23)

As a mighty protagonist in the struggle for popular memory, film was viewed as the medium that was to return to people the effective memory of resistance, protest and political experience:(24) memories which have been systematically repressed through a whole variety of avenues, like popular literature, school texts and film entertainment.(25) Foucault was convinced of film's capacity for formulating dynamic histories, as much as the medium's potential to show people not only what they were, but what they remember they were.

In discussing the immobilisation and reprogramming of popular memory, Foucault places emphasis upon discourses on history rather than the referent and in doing so seeks to turn history into a discursive present. Admittedly, the popular memory debate is a contentious one. Even though it assumes rather than justifies the existence of something approximating class memory, and when extended to film posits a naive and impressionable viewer whose role in the production of meaning is negligible, the notion of popular memory still has some value. Highlighting the film/ history/ memory conjuncture, the popular memory debate invites us to reconsider the means through which consensus views of the past are publicly instituted. Despite my scepticism about the political efficacy Foucault attributes to film, I do accept that film presents possibilities to contain and regulate meanings that may be generated through historical recovery. Through the medium's imaginary reconstruction of historic events and conflicts, film is more than capable of reconfirming, refining or challenging popular conceptions of the past.

And it is in relation to West Germany's Hitler wave that the notion of popular memory is especially tantalising. Although the discourses on fascism presented within those historical dramas are not always concordant, what is regularly disregarded in the films of the 1970s to which I've referred is indeed political opposition to National Socialism. It's the history of the resistance in Germany that is repeatedly ignored or trivialised in West Germany's wave of films about Nazism.

German resistance, whether it be anti-fascistic, anti-Hitler, active or passive, or extended to include forms of non-conformism, is scarcely featured in these films. Broadly speaking it is the spectacular, historic failure of the German Left during the 1930s that escaped attention and reflection in these films. That was the task of historic dramas in the "other" Germany: cinema in the DDR reappropriated, celebrated and mythologised resistance against fascism.

With the exception of Lilienthal's David and The Children from No. 67, West German films focussing on the struggles of Jews, Communists, Socialists or those who resisted Nazism are exceedingly rare, as were films featuring protagonists capable of decisive political action.

Understandably the recovery of history within these films involved the depiction of a past that was, in the majority of instances, acceptable to West Germans. Commonly their historical dramas focussed on the fate of fictional characters who conformed to the fascist regime without being ardent supporters of Nazism (e.g. Marriage of Maria Braun, Germany Pale Mother). Heimat is the most recent and most sentimental example of this tendency. Predominantly the emphasis in these 1970s films was upon "ordinary" Germans; on passive conformists and loyal countrymen; images which counteracted Hollywood's impressions of Germans as heel-clicking psychopaths and perverts obsessed about accuracy and punctuality.

Significantly the central figures of the 1970s historical dramas were children. The focus on children (in The Tin Drum, or The Children from No. 67 for example) facilitated the expression of complex historical dilemmas and political conflicts in rudimentary and intuitively moral terms. Commonly the forces of history are presented as titanic, predestined and beyond the control and understanding of those it implicates.(26) Treating Nazism as a mass movement and ignoring the possibility or actuality of opposition to it, as does a film like Hitler a Career, in a sense provides many Germans with an historical alibi. And with reference to the popular memory dispute, I do reckon that West Germany's spate of historical films, at least in the 1970s, did work to foster the impression that there was no meaningful struggle or opposition to National Socialism.

I have already implied that the impressions of the past developed in the films of the two Germany's are strikingly divergent. In the East German cinema the Nazi past isn't conceived of as unmastered, and the ideological and economic foundations of fascism are highlighted as is opposition to the movement. Arguably, earlier historic dramas, like Wolfgang Staudte's Rotation (1949) and Konrad Wolf's I was 19 (Ich War 19, 1968), are more intriguing than the recent productions of the West German cinema. DDR dramas like these are to my mind more illuminating and ultimately more exhilarating, probably because by their closure the historical agents in these films are generally redeemed.

By contrast, the images of social consensus with which West German audiences are asked to identify themselves, regularly present Nazism as a unanimous movement against which there was little meaningful opportunity for struggle. Respectively the cinemas of the DDR and BRD delineate and recover different histories, one glorifying the struggles and conflicts of the Left, the other generally dismissing that conflict. I'm not implying as Foucault seemed to, that the images of social consensus proffered in divided Germany's cinema are controlled by conspiratorial intent, because the meanings that each of these national cinemas generate in their imaginary reconstructions of the past aren't in themselves strictly or constantly homogeneous. But I do concede that these films are capable of regulating, reinforcing, or affirming widespread conceptions of the past that are themselves the product of ideological restraints. If anything, the divergence in these two cinemas' historical impressions indicated the ideological stakes involved in reappropriating the past.

The Social Democrats in particular were aware of how high those stakes were even in the 1960s. Sheila Johnston is one writer who had commented on the SPD's awareness. She observed that one of the ideological functions that the SPD attributed to New German cinema was to combat what Brandt and others have termed the "distorted and falsified image of contemporary German problems" being projected by "Eastern propaganda."(27) When the SPD came to power, film became part of the Federal Republic's cultural arsenal; supposedly a weapon with which the ideological stances of the "other" Germany's cinema could be counteracted. In this sense one of the first films of West Germany's Hitler wave, Syberberg's Hitler A Film From Germany, can be read as an attempt to reappropriate and identify a cultural heritage for West Germans.

To refer to the prescribed ideological functions of New German cinema is not, however, to conclude that those ideological functions were necessarily fulfilled. And nor is it to revert to an analysis of auteurial intention. For as Elsaesser has indicated, the films of this "national" cinema acquire political meanings in ways not always controlled by their makers or by the institutions which subsidise their films' production.(28)

In reference to early productions like Hitler A Career and Hitler A Film From Germany (which Syberberg advertised as a "work of mourning") these films could be conceived of as long overdue acts of reparation. They were to counteract the stigma of the past and the embarrassment associated with it. Ideally they could mitigate fears and superstitions about Germany's heritage; the sorts of fears that tell us, as non-Germans, "Whatever you do, don't mention the war" in German company. Clearly films about the "unmastered past" provided West Germans and non-Germans with the possibility to reassess not only their ideas about what Germans were but also what they are. As Elsaesser has affirmed:

The international distribution and consumption of this particular national cinema are such as to make these films opaquely psychological reflecting mirrors in which an audience may find confirmation of its own cultural or identity. They are also official representations, sanctioned and sponsored by a country that has had difficulty in profiling itself either politically or culturally, (West Germany has done this) through a relatively recent, though intensive preoccupation with its internationally notorious past and its troubled ideological identity as a nation.(29)

Yet because these images are sanctioned by the state is not to presume that this cinema lucidly reflects the political values of its benefactors. The principle of multiple funding sources for film production would fracture the consistency of such a political projection. Funding bodies, whether they be federal, regional, TV or the Ministry of the Interior, couldn't exactly determine the ways in which these films could be produced, appropriated or consumed.

I don't doubt that one of the major ideological functions attributed to this cinema in the 1970s was to advertise the liberalism of the state. By 1975 the New German cinema had managed to ingratiate itself with international audiences and had succeeded in rectifying some of its earlier, crippling distribution and exhibition problems. The international attention credited New German cinema by this time verified film's status as a "cultural commodity", "part of a range of commodities one might call national heritage. In short, New German cinema was a "quality" product which allowed West Germany to regain esteem and refine cultural, national and psychological identity. Film's potential for disseminating information about, and impressions of, post-war German society and its profuse cultural and intellectual heritage was heightened by the mid 1970s. When in international circulation films about the "unmastered past" could foster the impression that as a hitherto "unrepentant" nation West Germany was finally "coming to terms" with its shameful history.

Considering the social climate of the late 1970s, and in particular of Autumn 1977, when the social and political stability of the Federal Republic was shattered by the activities of the Baader-Meinhoff group, turning to the past became safer than representing and analysing the present. By the time the Hitler wave swamped West German cinemas, terrorism was a taboo subject for the country's filmmakers: the state wasn't going to sponsor films about its newly identified enemy nor about the programmed persecution of the Left.

Accordingly, representing the political repression of the Third Reich was less harmless than drawing attention to the political repression of the present. Deflecting attention from the inflammatory events of the present to those of the past was a politically expedient matter. Especially when those representations reminded West Germans of how the coercive agencies of a truly right-wing state operated.

Like the critical accounts of West German society and politics that were filtered through the New German cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, the international circulation of films about the Nazi past were striking evidence of the liberalism of the post-war German state. These films were persuasive advertisements of the government's self-proclaimed pluralism and of its political and ideological distance from a version of the past delineated in these "retro-scenarios". As Sheila Johnston has argued, these films also enhanced the prestige of the state and highlighted its status as tolerant and benevolent "patron" of the arts.(31 Furthermore West Germany may have been proud of its affluence and that affluence could be flaunted through heavy state investment in film culture. Moreover state sponsorship of films that were critical of the social and political order of the Federal Republic, films like Dark Times, Hunger Years or Germany Pale Mother could, paradoxically, be considered as evidence of the state's own stability and assurance. The high international profile maintained by the New German cinema in the latter half of the 1970s provided its benefactors with unprecedented kudos. The sponsorship of a heterogeneous, politically engaged cinema allowed the government to distinguish itself, in more subtle terms, not only from the Democratic Republic but also from its predecessor.

It provided the Federal Republic with opportunity to distinguish itself from a dictatorship that nationalised all cultural produce: a regime that turned film into an agency of Nazism's reactionary ideology.

By the 1970s, the award system was graded so that films could be classified as valuable and especially valuable, and filmmakers whose projects were deemed to be of artistic, historic or "documentary" value received entertainment tax consessions.(32) Virtually all of the films that rode on the Hitler wave were so honoured by the Social Democrats.

Although institutional discourses on film have changed in the 1980s, with greater emphasis being placed on popular entertainment, in the 1970s the state subsidy laws confirmed that film was recognised as a cultural commodity with a social function. The government's concern was to sponsor an "art" cinema, but not one that could be construed as socially irresponsible. It was film's social function that was repeatedly emphasised in institutional discourses on film within the Federal Republic. Rentschler has remarked that the critical success of West German film has been measured in terms of its ability to "reflect a larger social entity". He stresses that "a film's impact on West German public spheres, be they mainstream or progressive, bourgeois or alternative, depends mainly on its social relevance.(33)

In conclusion I maintain that the wave of Hitler films were part of a design to promote a "quality" cinema; one rich but preferably saturated in aesthetic value. In short the state's objective was to sponsor a bourgeois art cinema that projected the vision of its cultivated auteurs both nationally and importantly internationally. Collectively these films could be viewed as acts of mourning; indications that West Germans were "coming to terms" with a past they had defensively denied and for which they had ultimately began to accept responsibility. I sense that these films serve to call forth and ultimately exorcise a past that has had an undeniably devastating impact upon the German name.


1. This paper is a condensed version of the introductory chapter of my MA thesis.

2. A.& M. Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn (trans. B.R. Placzek, New York: Grove, 1975), p. 15.

3. W. Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History", in Illuminations (London: Fontana, 1973), p. 256.

4. "Ruin films" (Trummerfilme) were, however a short lived feature of German cinema during the period of the Allied occupation immediately after the war. The Murderers Are Amongst Us (Die Morder Sind Unter Uns, Staudte, 1946, the first German film produced after the war), Rotation (Staudte, 1949), Somewhere in Berlin (Irgendwo In Berlin, Lamprecht, 1946), Marriage in the Shadows (Ehe Im Schatten, Maetzig, 1947) and Blum Affair (Affare Blum, Engel, 1948) are representative of the genre at its peak. These engaging and politicised films directly addressed the Nazi past and the moral and political dilemmas that faced its subjects. It is worth noting however that all of the above mentioned were the products of Deutsche Film Aktien Gesellschaft, or DEFA, the stable state owned film company that was located in the Eastern Zone of Occupation. Rarely did films produced in the Western Zones of Occupation approach the political incisiveness of the DEFA productions. Helmut Kautner's Trummerfilm, In Those Days (In Jenen Tagen, 1947) was one of the few films produced in the Western Zones to address National Socialism and the Second World War. Kautner's film traces the changes in ownership of a car throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Opportunity for rigorous political analysis of Nazism and questions of complicity with the fascists is, however, severely restricted, as the car functions both as narrator and major unifying force of the narrative itself.

5. L. Niethammer, "Anti-Fascism in Post-War Germany", in People's History and Socialist Theory, R. Sammuel ed. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 212.

6. I. Quigly, Spectator, 24 May 1957

7. K. Wetzel, "The New German Cinema: Economics without Miracles", Semiotexte, vol. iv, no. 2 (1982), p. 222.

8. H. Blum, 30 Jahre danach: Dokumentation zur Auseinandersetzung mit National Sozialismus in Film 1945 bis 1975, Koln, May 1975, p. 5.

9. H. Borgelt, "Filmforderung - pflicht oder Gnade?", in Film in Berlin: 5 Jahre Berliner Filmforderung, hrsg. vom Senator fur Wirtschaft u. Verkehr. Red.: Hubert Ortkemper, Berlin, Colloquium Verlag (1983), p. 37.

10. Blum, p. 47.

11. Ibid, p. 49.

12. Wetzel, p. 222.

13. M. Schneider, "Fathers and Sons Retrospectively: The Damaged Relationship between Two Generations", New German Critique, no. 31 (Winter 1984), p. 7.

14. G.L. Schweigler, National Consciousness in Divided Germany (London: Sage, 1975), p. 224.

15. See A & M Mitscherlich, Chapter 1.

16. Ona Zukumpt is a name play on the ethos of punk and the "No Future" generation. See Zukumpt, "Modell Deutschland: A Good Future For Us?", in Semiotexte, vol. iv, no. 2 (1982), p. 261.

17. Christo, "Wrapping Up Germany", Semiotexte, vol.iv, no. 2 (1982), p. 20.

18. J. Berlin & D. Joachim Usw. (hrsg.), Was? verschweigt Fest? Analysen und Dokumente zum Hitler-Film von J.C. Fest (Koln: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1978, p. 7.

19. It is largely because of problems of access that TV productions are granted little attention in this paper. Escape Route To Marseille (Fluchtweg Nach Marseille, Engstrom/Theuring, 1977), for example, is one important TV production which has proven extremely difficult to obtain. Such is the case for a number of "tele-films" which are not released or distributed throughout West Germany. Engstrom and Theuring's film, surprisingly enough, was critically neglected in the Federal Republic. That it was only broadcast once on public TV, and unlike TV films such as Hungry Years (Hungerjahre, Bruckner, 1980) never made it to local cinemas, makes one wonder to what degree the film has been "silenced". Apart from Filmkritik's coverage of the film (2/1978) Escape Route is rarely listed in West German film anthologies.

20. Thomas Elsaesser, "Lili Marlene: Fascism and the Film Industry", October, 21 (Summer, 1982), p. 116.

21. Annette Kuhn, "Women's Pictures", Screen, vol. 25 (January/February 1984), p. 28.

22. N. King, "Recent `political' Documentaries: Notes on Union Maids and Harlan County USA", Screen, vol 22, no. 2 (1981), p. 9.

23. K. Tribe, "History and the Production of Memories", Screen, vol. 18, no. 4 (Winter 1977/1978), pp.9 & 10.

24. S. Heath, "Contexts", in Edinburgh Magazine, 1977, no. 2, p.38.

25. M. Foucault, "Interview", (trans. M. Jordin, 1st publication In English in Radical Philosophy, no. 11), Edinburgh Magazine, 1977, pp. 20-25.

26. J. Ellis comments on this presentation of history in his article, "At the Fountainhead (of TV History)", Screen, vol. 21, no. 4 (1981/1982).

27. S. Johnston, "A Star is Born: Fassbinder and the New German Cinema", New German Critique, no. 24/25 (Fall/Winter 1981/1982), p. 63.

28. Elsaesser, p. 117.

29. Ibid, p. 117.

30. Ibid, p. 116.

31. See S. Johnston, "A Star is Born", and her article, "The Author as Public Institution", Screen Education, no. 32-33 (1979/1980), pp. 67-68.

32. H. G. Pflaum and H. Prinzler, Film in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, February 1982), p. 105.

  1. E. Rentschler, "American Friends and the New German Cinema: Patterns of Reception," New German Critique, no. 23-24 (Fall/Winter 1981/1982), pp. 12-13.

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