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The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School

The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School

Marco Abel
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School
    Book Description:

    The group of contemporary German directors collectively known as the "Berlin School" constitutes the most significant filmmaking movement to come out of Germany since the New German Cinema of the 1970s, not least because its films mark the emergence of a new film language in German cinema. The filmmakers belonging to the Berlin School, including Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan, Angela Schanelec, Christoph Hochhäusler, Ulrich Köhler, Benjamin Heisenberg, Maren Ade, and Valeska Grisebach, are reminiscent in their auteurism of the directors of the New German 'Autorenkino' and of French 'cinéma des auteurs' of the 1960s. This volume is the first book-length study in any language of the Berlin School. Its central thesis -- that the movement should be regarded as a "counter-cinema" -- is built around the unusual style of realism employed in the films of this movement, a realism that presents audiences with images of a Germany that does not yet exist. Abel concludes that it is precisely how these films' images and sounds work that renders them political. They are political not because they are message-driven films but because they are made politically, thus performing a "redistribution of the sensible" -- a direct artistic intervention in the way politics partitions ways of doing and making, saying and seeing. Marco Abel is Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-873-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. Note on Translations
    (pp. xii-xii)
  5. Introduction: So This Was Germany—A Preliminary Account of the Berlin School
    (pp. 1-28)

    An ominous cacophony made by string instruments assaults our ears as our gaze is pulled through an unfocused camera space until the zooming motion stops on a close-up of a glass mug containing an unidentifiable yellowish-brown fluid. The liquid becomes cloudy, as if disturbed by the same catastrophic event that a male voice-over narration begins to describe as having forced people to relocate to the moon. The sudden cinematic rescaling of the mug renders the relatively familiar sight strange in the same way that Jean-Luc Godard rendered coffee and common pebbles strange in the 1960s.¹ We might say that these...

  6. I: The First Wave

    • 1: Thomas Arslan: Realism beyond Identity
      (pp. 31-68)

      Let us begin our exploration of the cinema of the Berlin School by turning to a filmmaker of the group’s first wave—a director who by virtue of his ethnic background is cast as being concerned with the representation of (ethnic) identity: Thomas Arslan. Arslan, born in 1962 in the north-central German city of Braunschweig, spent most of his formative years in the heavy-industry city of Essen but lived between 1967 and 1971 in Ankara, Turkey, where he attended elementary school. His parents arrived in West Germany as part of the first generation of Turkish immigrants who came to the...

    • 2: Christian Petzold: Heimat-Building as Utopia
      (pp. 69-110)

      Toward the end of the first minute of Christian Petzold’s sixty-eight-minute, rarely seen made-for-TV debut feature, Pilotinnen (Drifters, 1995), the voice of a French man, whose face the camera studiously withholds from our view, tells his female interlocutor, “At some point, we’ll have a place to call our own.” Looking back at Petzold’s eleven-feature-film career to date, we can recognize in this overt expression of Sehnsucht or longing, enhanced cinematically by the man’s tender tone of voice and the woman’s lowered eyes and head, the director’s first attempt to articulate what I consider the core of his—perhaps the best-known...

    • 3: Angela Schanelec: Narrative, Understanding, Language
      (pp. 111-148)

      The previous chapters have, I hope, sufficiently introduced and supported my position that in the context of contemporary German cinema, the Berlin School, as an otherwise merely loosely configured assemblage of individual directors, assumes a degree of consistency when considered as a counter-cinema. Such a diagnostic claim in turn makes palatable and, I think, necessitates the use of such a collectivizing label. Yet, by claiming that the Berlin School is a counter-cinema I do not mean to position these filmmakers as belonging to the tradition of avant-garde or “pure cinema.”¹ Although both Arslan’s and Petzold’s work is at least partially...

  7. II: The Second Wave

    • 4: Revolver Cinema and Électrons Libres: Cinema Must Be Dangerous
      (pp. 151-161)

      Our discussion of the Berlin School is about to take a significant turn as we now explore the group’s second wave of filmmakers—directors, as I suggested in the introduction, whose subsumption under the label “Berlin School” is more problematic than that of their somewhat older first-wave peers. Arslan, Petzold, and Schanelec all attended the dffb in the early 1990s, were influenced by the same group of teachers, and even occasionally collaborated on each other’s student short films. In contrast, the second-wave Berlin School filmmakers generally did not share such a cohesive institutional background. Moreover, the relationships they eventually developed...

    • 5: Christoph Hochhäusler: Intensifying Life
      (pp. 162-200)

      Like many of his colleagues, Christoph Hochhäusler, born in 1972 in Munich, came to filmmaking only after he had immersed himself in a different art form. Before studying filmmaking at the HFF München (1996–2004), he studied architecture at the Technische Universität (TU) in Berlin (1993–95). This interest in architecture—that is, space, geometry, façades, lines, angles, and how buildings organize social space, affect subjects by creating subject positions, as well as move people—has clearly left its trace on almost every frame in his filmmaking practice. If Arslan’s cinema is attuned to teasing out the extraordinary in the...

    • 6: Benjamin Heisenberg: Filming Simply as Resistance
      (pp. 201-229)

      Born in Tübingen in 1974 into a family whose best-known member, the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, formulated the famous “uncertainty principle,” Benjamin Heisenberg studied freie Bildhauerei (sculpture) at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Munich (1993–99) before enrolling at the HFF München in 1997 to study filmmaking. To this day, Heisenberg sculpts and also paints and creates video installations, and since the mid-1990s he has regularly exhibited his work in German art galleries. He graduated in 2005 with his first feature film, Schläfer, which followed a number of shorts, including Terremoto (1996), Alles wieder still(1998), Am See (2002),...

    • 7: Valeska Grisebach: A Sharpening of Our Regard
      (pp. 230-248)

      Unique among the Berlin School directors, Valeska Grisebach, born in 1968 in the Northern German city-state of Bremen, actually grew up in Berlin. After studying philosophy and Germanistik in Berlin and Munich, she enrolled at the film academy in Vienna. Counting Austrian directors Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl among her teachers, she also befriended key members of new Austrian cinema, including Barbara Albert and Jessica Hausner; the latter, according to Grisebach, continues to be one of her main interlocutors.¹ The importance of Grisebach’s Austrian connection for her work has not gone unnoticed. In his insightful essay on her second feature,...

    • 8: Maren Ade: Filming between Sincerity and Irony
      (pp. 249-273)

      One of the trends in Germany after unification was its Spasskultur—a cultural phenomenon in which a premium was put on having fun, on partying, on celebrating. Unified Germany’s Spassgesellschaft positioned itself quite explicitly against the mood, values, and attitudes that had arguably characterized the previous three decades. Indeed, the emergence of Spasskultur after 1990 can be understood as a symptomatic expression of the political rejection of the ’68ers who now, after unification, were increasingly accused of having been on the wrong side of history. The winds of historical change almost instantaneously blew away the sociopolitical conditions that privileged a...

    • 9: Ulrich Köhler: The Politics of Refusal
      (pp. 274-296)

      In this penultimate chapter, I want to organize my discussion around a few select sequences from each of Ulrich Köhler’s three features to date: Bungalow, which focuses on Paul (Lennie Burmeister), a young man who out of the blue “decides” not to rejoin his military comrades and instead heads back home to the empty bungalow of his parents, located in the rolling hills by Marburg, where he subsequently bides his time without a clear sense of purpose; Montag kommen die Fenster, which centers on Nina (Isabelle Menke), who one day “decides” to abandon temporarily her husband and preschool daughter and...

  8. Conclusion: A Counter-Cinema
    (pp. 297-312)

    What, then, is the Berlin School? I suppose it is possible that even at this stage in our discussion we have not arrived at a clear-cut answer to this question. Throughout the previous analyses, I have repeatedly suggested that one of the most interesting aspects of these films is their ability to force the viewers to confront something that is real but that usually remains outside of our day-to-day purview because our perceptual apparatus habitually tends, or is made, to block out such registers of social reality. I would be content if readers were to take this as my answer...

  9. Filmography
    (pp. 313-314)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 315-330)
  11. Index
    (pp. 331-348)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 349-349)