Monday, 28 May 2012

Cinematic Adventures Around the World - Part 3: Berlin

Before I started my travels Germany generally wasn't a country I was looking forward to. Even Berlin, which has been one of my favourite cities to date, I only started getting excited for in the week leading up to my time there, and wasn't expecting to write a blog on it. The thing that struck me about Berlin initially was how the city's history was so visible. In Berlin I was staying right across from Alexanderplatz where the symbol of communist Berlin, the TV tower, stands. Chunks of the Berlin Wall too can be found all over the city. Berlin's achitecture blends classic, modern, communist and even the occasional Nazi-style building. My tour guide highlighted throughout the day that more so than almost any other city, Berlin hasn't shirked from its history, but has taken responsibility for it. The city abounds in memorials to victims of Nazicism, or those who died scaling the Berlin Wall. When thinking about this I realised it was present too in German filmmaking. Some of the most internationally successful German movies of the last decade are films such as Downfall, Goodbye Lenin!, and The Lives of Others; all of which explore difficult periods of Germany's past. As I took a visit to Berlin's Museum of Film and Television I realised that German film can always be seen to have reflected its history, more so than the film culture of other nations.

The early '20s saw the success of films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (incidentally, my favourite silent film) and FW Murnau's Nosferatu. Both significant films for the horror genre, the museum highlighted it was hardly surprising that such a genre should flourish in the years following the loss of WWI. As Germany moved into the modern age, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a cautionary tale about modernity, gained international success and remains one of the most well-known films from that era. The early '30s were the era of Marlene Dietrich, both in German and American film. Dietrich herself was the symbol of Weimar Germany; liberal, confident and sexually ambiguous. Her defection to the US signalled the end of liberalism in German cinema, while the rise of directors such as Leni Riefenstahl ushered in a new era of cinema as propaganda. Riefenstahl's documentary style in particular, seen in films such as Triumph of the Will and Olympia, indicated a new seriousness in the German psyche. But beyond here unfortunately there is a yawning gap in my knowledge of German cinema. As far as I can tell, following WWII the German film industry remained quiet for about 30 years (I'm very happy to be corrected on this by someone who knows more than I do). But even if this is so, we can read a lack of prominent cinema as a reflection of German society too. It shows us a society consumed with its rebuilding and paralysed by its fracturing. Given the importance of cinematic propaganda to the Nazis we could also see the apparent abandonment of the film industry as a distancing of the country from this past.

Unfortunately, the Museum of Film did little to educate me on this topic. Organised chronologically, the museums exhibition of German cinema between the wars (including 3 whole rooms dedicated to Marlene Dietrich) was spectacular, but German cinema post-WWII is confined to only 2 rooms. Disappointing too was that the temporary exhibition (which seemed like a pretty cool exhibition on the figure of the hero) was only in German. There wasn't even much on the difference between East and West cinema - if much of one existed at all. I found this particularly strange given how much the division features in other areas of Berlin's culture. The only other real success of the museum was the architecture of the building itself, which seemed to reflect German history. Some parts with exposed and damaged brick walls; a reminder of the heavy bombing suffered in WWII, other parts floor to ceiling mirrors; representing the East/West division, others still modern steel and glass showcasing Germany's emergence as a European superpower. That such attention could be payed to the interior design, rather than on the exhibition post-1945 only reinforces my view that it's only recently that German cinema has regained international prominence, and that, still mindful of its damaging use in Nazicism, the content of German cinema today seeks to apologise and make sense of past atrocities.

To end with something a little more light-hearted, a clip from one of my favourite German films of the last decade. Enjoy

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