In the 1960s a new breed of post-war filmmakers arose in Germany. Upon invitation of the Berlinale, two of them appeared before a full house for a discussion and Q & A: Volker Schlöndorff, born 1939, from former West Germany and Wolfgang Kohlhasse, born 1931, from former Eastern Germany. They discussed similarities and differences of their careers around 1966 or 50 years ago.
Kohlhasse is considered Germany’s best script writer over many years and has received life-time awards. In post-war socialist Eastern Germany there was only one film studio: the DEFA. It was financed like a governmental opera house or a cultural institute; money was not really a problem. However, the Deutsche Democratic Republic was not to be shown in a bad light; it was supposed to be reformed into a functioning socialism where the worker was the most valuable asset. In 1961 the Wall went up between east and west and the conditions for cinema became stricter. One such film which did not adhere to the rules, Das Kanninchen bin ich (I’m that rabbit), was made in 1965, immediately forbidden and eventually went public in 1990! Film viewers were not encouraged to go off into fantasies of their own, or even think for themselves. And so, under these circumstances, the DEFA film studio churned out more than 600 films in 40 years.
There was a generational conflict. Older people refused to analyze mistakes, refused even to admit that war was anything besides a hairy ghost in the far past. What was needed was a middle generation, but either this age group was dead or “dead in their heads” as Kohlhasse put it. The 1960s was a good time for beginners all over the East, whether in Germany or Prague or Warsaw; all had been just kids during World War II. Youngsters, like these new filmmakers, savored conflict and change. They thought that viewers should live out new ideas.
Volker Schlöndorff grew up in Western Germany. He went to Paris as an exchange student and completed several years of studies before returning to Germany. He said he felt like a pioneer in the 1960s. There was a new film language, new equipment, new subjects and themes. French director Jean-Luc Godard had just made Außer Atem (Breathless,1960) which broke with old habits and came out with new techniques and film ideas.
Here, the popular opinion was: there was nothing anyone could have done about the war, so forget about it and look forward. Nazis were no longer subjects for films. Viewers should expect something pleasant. Postwar films in the 1950s were so-called Heimatfilme about happy families running through the corn fields and smiling at each other over the dinner table. Schlöndorff echoes Kohlhasse when he also says that these viewers were “dead in the head” (tod im Kopf).There were no conflicts or problems. The rare, shoot-‘em-up film with detectives solving violent crime cases, always took place in a different country such as England or Hong Kong, never in peaceful, happy Germany.
Schlöndorff and his young film colleagues set out to change these conditions, to question authority, to reflect society as it was, where homosexuality was illegal and women were not allowed to have their own bank accounts. They considered themselves members of a group creating “junge deutsche Filme” (young German films). They were supported in their development by freedom of the press and helpful examples from the United States, where hippies were turning things around to their own liking. Schlöndorff is still thankful to these impressions from across the ocean in a Germany that was lagging by comparison.
His first successful film was in 1966 with Der Junge Torless (Young Torless) which symbolizes this general postwar tendency to reject any personal responsibility. A young boy goes to a boarding school where there is the worst kind of bullying, including rape. He is a silent witness, standing back and taking no responsibility to stop or report anything. This is a mirror of the population in Germany during the war, when nobody “saw” anything. Schlöndorff went on to win the Golden Palme at the Cannes Filmfestival and an Oscar in 1980 for best foreign-language film with Der Blechtrommel.
So, where is Germany going today? Schlöndorff thinks that this generation of young directors has gone full circle and now features the family again, although not as happy, smiley, but full of conflicts which must be resolved. We’ll see how this idea rates 50 years from now.