How film helped Germany deal with World War II | Film | DW | 02.08.2016
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How film helped Germany deal with World War II

Postwar German film may seem trite, but psychologist Gerhard Bliersbach explains how it helped Germany move on from the guilt of World War II. The genre is highlighted at the film festival in Locarno.

DW: This year, the Festival del Film Locarno takes a fresh look at postwar German film. In the early 1960s, people looked down on what they called "grandpa's cinema." But has the genre really died out?

Gerhard Bliersbach: Yes, it did live on - on television! The former filmmakers switched workplaces and starting filming for public television broadcasters. In this way, the people originally involved in 1950s film continued to work in the field and brought their approach with them. And their films always drove up audience ratings, like "Sissi," which was regularly broadcast at Christmas. They basically dominated afternoon programming, and that has continued until today.

And then of course it's a kind of cultural heritage that cannot be forgotten. For a long time, it was en vogue to look down on these films, like you would look down on your odd relatives. But you also have to pay attention to your odd relatives and deal with them simply because they're there and do play a role. The way these films approached reality and affectively told certain stories has somehow been preserved.

Film poster for Grün ist die Heide (1951)

'The Heath Is Green' first piqued Bliersbach's interest in postwar film

It's one thing to appreciate these films, and another thing to analyze them, especially regarding their subtext. That has been a primary focus of your research. How did you develop such an interest in postwar German film?

It all started back in the 1980s after I watched "The Heath Is Green" (a famous sentimental film from 1951). I hadn't seen it before, since it had a bad reputation. But when I did watch it, I was amazed at how much moaning and groaning, crying and fretting and regretting could be put into a film - incredible! I hadn't known there was anything like that - especially in such a sentimental and kitschy film. Movies from that period may seem superficial, but they contain other subtexts as well.

It has often been said that German postwar films of the 40s and 50s largely suppressed the past or focused on other things. Would you agree?

In my view, it's wrong to blame these films for suppressing the past. Suppression is a term that suits a subject, but not a society or a larger group. Our past was always present; the German public discourse almost collapsed under this burden. One thing that's really interesting is that the very first German postwar film - Wolfgang Staudte's "Murderers Among Us" (1946) - created thepostwar narrative. And that was that we weren't able to do anything about it.

That film tells the story of a a lieutenant who tried in vain to convince his captain to prevent an execution. I was quite surprised that this narrative was already part of the very first postwar film. That narrative was followed in the majority of the public discourse about the past.

Scene from Murderers Among Us, 1946, Copyright: DEFA

The message in 'Murderers Among Us' was one of impotence

A second narrative is equally interesting. It came about for the first time in 1963 with the film "Winnetou." Here, the main idea is that if you are on the victim's side, then you are not the perpetrator.

That means, on the side of Winnetou and the Native Americans - the victims…

Yes, and Old Shatterhand as their rescuer. That was in some sense a change of perspective. And it goes hand in hand with the way in which, at that time, the public talked about Nazi crimes.

The term "Holocaust," which the German language took over from the title of a US television series, is the word with which we place ourselves on the side of the victim. From our German perspective, we cannot use it. In this way, these two films have created the decisive narrative that we have continued to use.

How should the "ideal" postwar German film have looked in your view?

Thinking of the war films of that period, I think, what was lacking was the attempt to explore the possibilities of plot that did exist. If you think that nothing is possible, then the exploration quickly comes to an end. I think our postwar generation suffered from quick excuses. They didn't differentiate between the situations people found themselves in, the opportunities they had, what could have been done, or how they could have acted differently. I think that this range of opportunities was not explored.

Pierre Brice as Winnetou, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa

For Bliersbach, the Winnetou films contained the subtext: If you side with the victim, you're not a perpetrator

One possible focus would have been the resistance.

Yes, but it doesn't necessarily have to be such outspoken resistance; it could also mean the way people dealt with each other in daily life. These films are interesting in that you see again and again attempts to describe different kinds of resistance. And again and again, these attempts fail. That goes on from the beginning until the end of the 1950s. For example, the film "The Bridge" (1959) by Bernhard Wicki describes the vehemence of the murderous orgy of the Nazis, under which the impotent protagonists collapse and finally give in.

Did that change during the 60s and 70s?

No, the description of the realm of opportunities only followed much later. The last example of the narrative of powerlessness is the film "Downfall" by Oliver Hirschbiegel. It follows the narrative tradition of the 1954 film "Canaris" by Alfred Weidenmann. "Downfall" describes the process of total destruction in a one-dimensional movement towards an inevitable abyss. Adolf Hitler is locked in his rage as if in a cage. When he cries a tear during his last encounter with Albert Speer, he becomes the victim of his destructive and murderous policy. Sentimentality becomes an excuse.

In Locarno, one analyst has said that the thesis "Dad's film is dead" has been replaced by "Mom's film lives." Is that a legitimate way of seeing things?

There is certainly quite a bit to discover in the films of the 1950s. They were certainly not all bad. But it was probably a kind of narrative that young people rejected.

Gerhard Bliersbach at DW's editorial office in Bonn, Copyright: DW/J. Kürten

Gerhard Bliersbach at DW's editorial office in Bonn

But you shouldn't look down on an entire period of filmmaking, because you have to admit that the filmmakers of that time had to deal with the basic West German problem - that means, they had to embrace the new democratic system with their works, find their own position towards their attitudes and behavior during the Nazi regime, develop a halfway upright identity for themselves, and contribute to the discourse during the 1950s on the transformation of the former Germany into the Federal Republic of Germany.

You are a psychologist. Keeping that in mind, don’t we always have to turn away from our fathers to move forward, as the directors of the New German Film movement did in the early 1960s, and as film critics are doing now by reaffirming that German postwar film was actually good after all?

Yes, I also believe that it's a generational question. British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once famously said that, for the sake of your own development, you need to let your parents die - at least emotionally. You need to move away from them. But at some point you come back to them. You have to make peace with your parents to be happy. That, of course, is a very personal undertaking. That also concerns our cultural heritage - including our postwar film - and we should develop more than just an attitude of rejection.

In postwar German film, three generations assembled in movie theaters. Postwar film has interested our parents, grandparents, and my generation. It was where people had to come to terms with the Nazi era; it the place with the first pictures of consolation, emotion and conciliatory embrace. At least an attempt should be made to comprehend that this was necessary. I think that taking a new look at postwar German film is a good thing.

Psychologist and psychotherapist Gerhard Bliersbach has published several important books on German film history, including his pivotal 1985 work on the psychological factors impacting postwar film production. The retrospective of this year's Locarno Film Festival (August 3-13) is entitled "Beloved and Rejected: Cinema in the young Federal Republic of Germany."