As a reaction to the oppression of Jews during the Nazi regime and the horrors of the Second World War, a group of filmmakers in Germany (West Germany at that time) started what is today known as the New German Cinema Movement (NGC). NGC was not a uniform movement like the Italian Neo-Realism, but a scattered array of films and filmmakers who adhered to a particular socio-political ideology. The earliest roots of the movement can be traced to the famous Oberhausen Manifesto signed by eminent filmmakers such as Alexander Kluge and Werner Herzog. This manifesto reflected the growing conviction among German filmmakers that ‘the old cinema is dead, we believe in the new one’. New German Cinema essentially aimed at looking into German society from a different point of view. German society had been at a low since the horrors of Hitler’s regime came to be known. The revulsion and anger of the common people were reflected in a series of movements, especially in art and culture. NGC was one these attempts to face the guilt conscience that loomed over the German society post- Hitler.
After the Second World War and Allied occupation, Germany like most of Europe, was tuned to Hollywood cinema and any regional cinema reflected the values and essence of Hollywood. There was a lack of a distinct regional voice. In Italy, this void was filled up by people like Luchino Vishconti, Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, the last of them making a huge international impact with his breakthrough film Lardi di Bicilitte (The Bicycle Thief). In France, through the writings of Andre Bazin, a new kind of cinema was evolving with filmmakers like Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffuat and Bresson at the helm. In fact, the earliest inspirations for the NGC movement came from the French New Wave (FNW). Like them, NGC denounced ‘cinema du papa’, a term that was used for regional and international films that moved away from reality and showed fantasies and events not affecting the life of ordinary people. One of German Cinema’s biggest directors R. W. Fassbinder famously called on filmmakers to move away from the UFA (the largest studio in Germany) school of filmmaking that were still producing Hollywood style Laderhausen and Bavarian musicals.
Critics have often described NGC and especially Fassbinder’s films as quintessential pieces of Gegeninformation (alternative information) of the German society and culture. NGC was in more ways than one pre-occupied with history and its effect on future generations. This lead to many of their films reflecting post-war Germany, living under the shadows of history that affected their daily lives in ways that they never realized. Even though there was no direct influence, but like many intellectuals of that era, NGC filmmakers were also influenced by Marxist ideas. Fassbinder, for one, was heavily critical of the rampant Americanism that was prevalent in post war years in Germany and seemed to engulf almost every aspect of society. Filmmaker Wim Wender best explained this in 1976 when he said, “the need to forget twenty years created a hole and people tried to cover this in both sense by assimilating American culture”. The primary concern of these filmmakers was something more fundamental than the mere stagnation of cinema and its use in society. They wished to bring about a cultural revolution using cinema as the vehicle to carry their messages.
This meant a thorough understanding of the cinematic history and language. Alexander Kluge in his documentary Patriotic Women used documentary mode of filmmaking to present patriotism beyond the visible manifestations that was popularized by Hitler. Many of the NGC filmmakers used innovative techniques to tell their story. Fassbinder began his career with theatre and as such was heavily influenced by Brecht. His ‘theater am turm’ and ‘action theatre’ were heavily derived from Marxist ideas. He also toyed with the idea of anti-theatre and this was reflected in many of his early films where he used tableaux and other stylistic elements to tell his story, leading to many calling him avant grade. Fassbinder’s critique of the contemporary politics takes the form of vitriolic comment on western liberal bourgeois society. Luis Bunuel and his surrealist masterpiece, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, heavily influenced him and here one can recall his film, Why Does Herr. R Run Amok?, co-directed with Michael Fengler. This is a story of an ordinary man going beserk one evening out of sheer boredom and complacency of a bourgeois life. For Fassbinder this kind of social criticism to awaken the German society that needed to be told that it is very close to a kind of neo-fascism. This new kind of fascism would be subtle and would destroy the basic character of society.
NGC spoke of power as an essential tool in society. The relationship between individuals and society is always marred by a kind of political and sexual power play. In fact, NGC filmmakers, especially Fassbinder and Volker Schlondroff used nudity in an almost offensive and repulsive way to bring out their questions and statements. However the most important contribution of New German Cinema has been its tribute to the Holocaust and its victims in a series of films that tried to question many facets of that shocking event. Two very important films in this regard were Schlondroff’s Oscar winning adaptation of the Nobel Prize winning book The Tin Drum (1979) written by Gunter Grass and Germany in Autumn (1978). The earlier was a tour de force film that used magic-realism to convey its criticism of Hitler’s Third Reich. The story of Oskar Matzerath, who refuses to grow up from his four-year old self and uses his tin drum as anarchist weapons to convey his hatred of the world of ‘adults’ around him, becomes almost metaphorical a symbol of Germany’s endeavour to come out of its past.
The latter film, Germany in Autumn, was a collection of eleven short films made by various directors on the socio-political situation of Germany at that time. In these films, many of the directors have looked into the German society’s struggle to cope with the guilt and remorse of its bloody past. In his short segment, Fassbinder questions his own mother about her present political inaction which, he compares to the Nazi era’s vast majority’s astounding silence in the face of atrocities inflicted on the Jews, gypsies, communists and other parties. While speaking of Fassbinder and the NGC, one can’t help but bring in the dimension of narcissism. For instance, in Germany in Autumn, he questions himself as an artist and a lover.
The New German Cinema movement had been an attempt to show the viewers, especially in Germany, the things that they did not want to see, in such a way that they would watch it because it was made excitingly. This is why probably many of their films were commercial successes and got widespread international acclaim. They have experimented with form and content, ranging from the avant grade style to standardized Hollywood mode of representation. During their later years, the primary concerns of the NGC filmmakers have been more ideological and less political. This can be best understood from Fassbinder’s films, where “he uses the melodramatic form as a kind of dialogue between the historical present and the American cinema, so that they could use American cinema’s highly developed and proficient syntax to subvert its ideologically unsuspecting perspectives’.
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