New German Cinema is the term usually applied to a loose grouping of films that were made in West Germany (FRG) during the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Although grouped together, these films resist clear generic delineation and are in fact marked by their stylistic and thematic diversity. Nevertheless, critics have identified three common elements that unite them. Firstly, all the directors were born around the time of the Second World War, grew up in a divided Germany, and can therefore be characterised as a generation. Secondly, due to funding criteria and opportunities, the ‘new cinema’ was based on an artisanal mode of production which facilitated close collaborations and a high degree of experimentation. And thirdly, the films shared a concern with contemporary West German reality on the one hand and a search for audiences and markets on the other.
Internationally, the New German Cinema was heralded as the most promising development in German cinema since German Expressionism, and a handful of its directors – especially Wim Wenders (born 1945), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-82), Werner Herzog (born 1942), and more recently Edgar Reitz (born 1932) – have won international reputations. In Britain and the US awareness of the New German Cinema began to grow during the mid-1970s via various magazine and television reports. These early accounts tended to suggest that this new phase in the history of German cinema had been brought into being solely through the endeavours of a small number of talented and dedicated young directors. Consequently many observers focused on the personalities of the new directors, discussing them as creative geniuses, ‘artists with something to say’ (Eidsvik 1979b: 174), and examined the films almost exclusively in terms of their directors’ personal visions. Thus, in Britain and America the New German Cinema was initially discussed predominantly as a ‘cinéma des auteurs’.
Abschied von Gestern (Yesterday Girl, Alexander Kluge, 1966)
In 1962 a group of twenty-six filmmakers, writers and artists, spearheaded by Alexander Kluge (born 1932) and including Khittl, Senft and Edgar Reitz, added their voices to this escalating condemnation of West German film. They drew up and published the Oberhausen Manifesto, in which they argued that given the opportunity they could create a new kind of film which would revive the dying German cinema:
“The collapse of the conventional German film finally removes the economic justification from a mentality which we reject. The new German film thereby has a chance of coming to life. In recent years German short films by young authors, directors and producers have received a large number of prizes at international festivals and have won international critical acclaim. These works and their success shows that the future of the German film lies with those who have demonstrated that they speak a new film language.
In Germany, as in other countries, the short film has become a training ground and arena of experimentation for the feature film. We declare our right to create the new German feature film. This new film needs new freedoms. Freedom from the usual conventions of the industry. Freedom from the influence of commercial partners. Freedom from the tutelage of other groups with vested interests. We have concrete ideas about the production of the new German film with regard to its intellectual, formal and economic aspects. We are collectively prepared to take economic risks. The old film is dead. We believe in the new."
Jagtszenen aus Niederbayern (Hunting Scenes from Bavaria, Peter Fleischmann, 1969)
Eventually the government responded to this mounting criticism by setting up the first film subsidy agency, the Kuratorium junger deutscher Film (Board of Young German Film). Launched in 1965 by the BMI, the Kuratorium was given a brief to promote the kind of filmmaking demanded by the Oberhausen Manifesto signatories and to ‘stimulate a renewal of the German film in a manner exclusively and directly beneficial to the community’ (quoted in Dawson 1981: 16). Kuratorium funding took the form of interest-free production loans for first feature films only, which meant that for the first time young, new filmmakers who had been unable to gain access to the commercial film industry had a real chance to break into feature film production. Initially the Kuratorium was very successful in fulfilling its brief.
Within two years twenty-five films had been produced with Kuratorium funding. Four of these were the first features of Oberhausen signatories Alexander Kluge (Abschied von gestern/Yesterday Girl, 1965-66), Hans Jürgen Pohland (Katz und Maus/Cat and Mouse, 1966), Edgar Reitz (Mahlzeiten/Mealtimes, 1966), and Haro Senft (Der sanfte Lauf/The Gentle Course, 1967); and a further two were produced by signatory Rob Houwer. In direct contrast to the commerical industry, the contractual arrangements governing the Kuratorium loans allowed filmmakers to retain total artistic control, and as a result most of these films broke with the conventions of mainstream cinema, varying from episodic and experimental narratives to highly avant-garde pieces. Some of these films also enjoyed unprecedented critical acclaim. Kluge’s Yesterday Girl won several awards including the Special Jury Prize at the 1966 Venice Film Festival and was nominated for its Gold Lion award, while the following year Reitz’s Mealtimes received the Best First Feature Award.
This success also seemed to mark the beginning of a new phase in West German cinema generally. Non-Kuratorium financed films by other new directors were well received at Cannes in 1966, especially Ulrich Schamoni’s Es/It (1965), Volker Schlöndorff’s Der junge Törless/Young Törless (1966), and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Nicht Versöhnt/Not Reconciled (1965). Back in Germany Peter Schamoni’s Schonzeit für Füchse/Closed Season for Foxes (1966) won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival; and between 1967 and 1969 three Kuratorium films and three further films by new young directors also won Federal Film Prizes.
Der plötzliche Reichtum der armen Leute von Kombach (The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach, Volker Schlöndorff, 1972)
Not only did these films offer a radical departure from mainstream cinema at a formal level, they also dealt with contemporary concerns in a way that contrasted sharply and refreshingly with the ‘escapist’ nature of 1950s German cinema. For instance, It by Schamoni (born 1939) addressed the question of abortion at a time when it was still illegal in Germany, while Young Törless by Schlöndorff (born 1939) used the story –adapted from a Robert Musil novel originally published in 1906 – of a young boy’s experience of two fellow pupils at a boarding school torturing a Jewish boy to raise questions about the Nazi past. According to Reitz, ‘The press was unbelievably positive. And when the first films came out, there was a degree of public interest which has never been matched since’ (quoted in Dawson 1981: 17) (Julia Knight: New German Cinema).
Corrigan, T. New German Film. The Displaced Image, Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1994.
Elsaesser, T. New German Cinema: A History, Macmillan/BFI, Basingstoke, 1989.
-- Fassbinder’s Germany: History Identity Subject, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 1996.
Franklin, J. (1986) New German Cinema, Columbus, London, 1986.
Frieden, S. et al (eds.) Gender and German Cinema: Feminist Interventions (Vol. 1 and 2), Berg, Providence & Oxford, 1993.
Kaes, A. From ‘Hitler’ to ‘Heimat’. The Return of History as Film, Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London, 1989.
Knight, J. Women and the New German Cinema, Verso, London & New York, 1992.
-- New German Cinema: Images of a Generation, Wallflower Press, London & New York, 2004.
Rentschler, E. West German Film in the Course of Time, Redgrave, Bedford Hills, 1984.
-- (ed.) German Film and Literature. Adaptations and Transformations, Methuen, New York and London, 1986.
-- and Prinzler, H.H. (eds.) (1988) West German Filmmakers on Film, New York: Holmes and Meier