Autorenfilm: A Process of Enlightenment

An overview of the development of the Oberhausen Manifesto, now celebrating its 50th anniversary with a retrospective.
Candace Wirt

Above: Reading of the Oberhausen Manifeso before the West German press.

In 1962, twenty-six West German filmmakers—including writers, directors, producers, and an actor—declared the Oberhausen Manifesto at the 8th Oberhausen Short Film Festival. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the manifesto, the festival organized the retrospective “Provoking Reality: Mavericks, Mouvements, and Manifestos,” in which they screened nearly forty short films by the manifesto’s signatories. (Earlier this year, Daniel Kasman wrote about several of the retrospective's shorts in his report from the festival, "Manifestations".) This week, the Museum of Modern Art will also screen a selection of them from September 27th through the 30th. Out of these new films, a Junger Deutscher Film (Young German Film) emerged to counter the established film industry and the conventional German entertainment of the 1950s.

Above: The 8th Oberhausen Short Film Festival.

After the Allies defeated Germany in World War II and subsequently partitioned the country, the West German film industry rebuilt. A handful of companies—including Central Cinema Company (CCC), Constantin Film, and Gloria—gained control of film production, and by 1955, the Federal Republic of Germany became the fifth-largest producer of feature films in the world.1 However, these monopolies prevented the development of a once expressive German cinema. After achieving some box office successes, the film establishment repeated its formulas. It released a large succession of imitative films produced for an increasingly misjudged German audience. CCC, Constantin, and Gloria turned out countless variations on a small number of routine themes: thrillers adapted from the novels of Edgar Wallace; Westerns from the novels of Karl May; “Sissi” films starring Romy Schneider as a teenaged Austrian aristocrat; and Heimatfilme (homeland films) and adventures shot in picturesque tourist destinations. The films avoided showing the contemporary society as well as questioning its former Nazi regime; this entertainment only allowed its audience to escape.

The boom in film production did not last long, and by the end of the decade, the market collapsed. In the late 1950s audience numbers dropped sharply, precipitating both the closing of cinemas and the decrease in film production. At the Berlin Film Festival in 1961, the Federal Minister of the Interior did not award the annual Federal Film Prize. The minister announced that no German film was worthy of it, signaling an artistic bankruptcy of the film industry. 

Two years earlier, Czechoslovak German filmmakers Haro Senft and Ferdinand Khittl founded the short and documentary film collective DOC 59 in Munich. Another group quickly formed out of DOC 59, primarily consisting of young short filmmakers who aspired to write and direct feature films. Each year, they met and exhibited their short films at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival. Recognizing the artistic and economic crises of the industry, the filmmakers proclaimed the Oberhausen Manifesto at the festival on February 28, 1962. Specifically, they stated, “The collapse of the conventional German film finally removes the economic basis for a mode of filmmaking whose attitude and practice we reject.”2 They aimed to create a new German feature film by changing the actual conditions of film production. This new film required “new freedoms. Freedom from the conventions of the established industry. Freedom from the outside influence of commercial partners. Freedom from the control of special interest groups.”3 The filmmakers concluded by declaring the death of German cinema; they believed in the Young German Film, the first phase of a cinematic new wave that we now call the New German Cinema.

Above: Haro Senft (left) with cinematographer Jan Curik.

The Oberhauseners criticized the aesthetic mediocrity and commercialism of the film establishment. They objected to the lack of originality and the preoccupation with escapist themes in most films produced in the 1950s. These young filmmakers rejected the older generation who controlled the industry as artistically and politically compromised by their work in Nazi cinema. Needless to say, the Oberhauseners did not want to storm the industry. Instead, they assumed its demise as a fact, but unfortunately, they discovered such an assumption was premature several years later.

In creating a Young German Film, the Oberhauseners turned to the French New Wave as a model. They particularly focused on the first term in the concept of la politique des auteurs, participating in a political struggle for independent filmmaking in a postwar culture dissimilar to that of France. The young German filmmakers assumed greater administrative and financial responsibilities than their French compatriots. La politique des auteurs eventually transformed into Autorenfilm. The Oberhauseners’ spokesman Alexander Kluge explained, “We took the words and changed their meaning. With the Politik der Autoren, the financial as well as the artistic responsibility are one. Our concept is like that of the Prussian reformers after Jena and Auerstedt, in the period 1807-1810…We very much like this dawn of the bourgeois mode of production in Europe. We transposed the ideas of [Max] Horkheimer and combined them with more practical concepts.”4 To counter the prevailing mode of film production, the young German filmmaker gained control of his or her film; the director became the producer. Kluge further specified:

We never understood socialism as anything other than the careful adaptation of early bourgeois ideals. That was the beginning. That is the big picture in which film is only a tiny part. In this small part we made the author strictly responsible, but we tried to transpose his “Robinsonism” to Greater London. That is, we combined anti-Robinsonism, the utmost artistic efforts, freedom, and responsibility for the economics. When I was cutting Abschied von Gestern (1966) with Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus, in one morning we rented our equipment, adopted our concept, learned bookkeeping, and from then on became producers. At the beginning there was a requirement that one be enrolled in the register of businesses at the courthouse. You had to have one hundred thousand marks. None of us had one hundred thousand marks. All during the 60s, none of us had that, at least on his own. And therefore we said we have a philosophy that it is not necessary to be registered. If you put your name on a paper, that is a production. This is the Kino der Autoren: the Nagra tape recorder, an Arriflex, your own cutting table, a knowledge of bookkeeping, and the idea that this was a process of enlightenment.5

Above: Alexander Kluge.

In the essay “What Do the ‘Oberhauseners’ Want?” also published in 1962, the filmmakers identified their goals, “(1) Free film from its intellectual isolation in the Federal Republic; (2) militate against the dictates of a strictly commercial orientation operative in the film industry today; (3) allow for conditions which make film aware of its public responsibility and, consequently, in keeping with this responsibility, to seek appropriate themes: film should embrace social documentation, political questions, educational concerns, and filmic innovations, matters all but impossible under the conditions that have governed film production.”6 In Young German Film, this new generation attempted to examine Germany’s unbewaltige Vergangenheit, or “unassimilated past.” The themes of the new short and feature films explored the troubled world of the contemporary Federal Republic, its social problems, and its relationship to the recent Nazi past.

After declaring their aim through the manifesto, the Oberhauseners argued for cultural government intervention. A parliamentary lobby emerged out of this document, taking its place alongside but in opposition to the film industry’s own lobby. As a group, the young filmmakers considerably influenced government circles. Social Democratic and other liberal members of the Bundestag supported Young German Film. They wanted to develop a distinct cultural policy in anticipation of soon forming a new administration. Led by Alexander Kluge, who formerly practiced as a lawyer, the Oberhauseners successfully lobbied members of the Bundestag and of special commissions as well as ministerial assistants. Aware of the necessity for adequate financial support, they called for a system of film subsidies from federal and state governments and later from television. In receiving these subsidies, the filmmakers strove to maintain a noncommercial stance within the framework of a free market economy.

As a result of lobbying by the manifesto’s signatories and supporters, the Federal Minister of the Interior established the Kuratorium junger deutscher Film (Young German Film Board) in 1964. Its primary objective was to implement the proposals of the Oberhausen Manifesto. As a grant-making agency with funding from the cultural budgets of states, the Kuratorium awarded DM 5 million during its first three years of existence for the partial or full financing of approximately twenty feature films.7 The Kuratorium concentrated on supporting the first and second films by new filmmakers through a revolving fund. The agency’s selection committee, consisting mostly of film critics, evaluated screenplays submitted to them. It then awarded grants, usually amounting to DM 300,000 per film, in the form of interest-free loans.8 The agency requested the filmmakers repay them in order for the money to be reinvested in future film production. In fact, little of the money was returned, yet the Kuratorium still succeeded as a cultural institution. Twenty films represented a sizable percentage of West Germany’s output when the film industry was in crisis. More importantly, the Kuratorium was key to the eventual development of New German Cinema, sponsoring the first films of Kluge (Yesterday Girl, 1966), Werner Herzog (Signs of Life, 1968), and Peter Fleischmann (Hunting Scenes from Lower Bavaria, 1968).

Above: Werner Herzog (center).

In 1966, the feature films of Young German Film arrived, attracting the attention of the world. Kluge’s Yesterday Girl won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival that year; it was the first time in over twenty years that a German film received an award at the festival. In Cannes, Volker Schlondorff’s Young Torless (1966) and Ulrich Schamoni’s It (1965) competed for the prestigious Palme d’Or, and critics also praised Jean-Marie Straub’s Not Reconciled (1965). And at the Berlin Film Festival, Ulrich’s brother Peter Schamoni won the international prize of the Silver Bear for his film Closed Season for Foxes (1966). By October 1967, the Mannheim Film Festival presented a survey of Young German Film, and in the following months, cinemas screened new West German films in cities such as London, Paris, Rome, and Prague.

Top: Volker Schlondorff (left). Above: Jean-Marie Straub.

Unfortunately, the young Germans’ optimism in their new cinema was short-lived. The film establishment—Opas Kino as they now referred to it—strongly objected to the Kuratorium. The industry perceived its sponsorship of twenty films within three years to be unfair competition. Consequently, they lobbied parliament, finding support in the Christian Democrat Hans Toussiant. Toussiant, also known as “the gravedigger of the young cinema,”9 pushed through a bill that finally became a law in 1968—the Filmforderungsgesetz (Film Promotion Law) or FFG. The effect and undoubtedly the intention of the FFG were to reinforce the dominance of the commercial cinema and to encourage the production of its typical entertainment. Over the next several years, the young Germans resumed their struggle against the film establishment; but now, they changed the mode of film distribution, finally achieving success as the New German Cinema in 1974.


1. Fraklin, James. “Introduction: The New West German Cinema from Oberhausen to Hamburg,” in New German Cinema (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983), 28.

2. Bluthner, Bodo and others, “The Oberhausen Manifesto,” in German Essays on Film, ed. Richard W. McCormick and Alison Guenther-Pal, 202 (New York: Continuum, 2004.)

3. Ibid.

4. Liebman, Stuart and Kluge, Alexander, “On New German Cinema, Art, Enlightenment, and the Public Sphere: An Interview with Alexander Kluge,” October 46 (Autumn 1988): 24. In this quote, Kluge refers to a famous battle during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1806, Napoleon defeated a Prussian army under the command of Prince v. Hohenlohe in Jena while the German reserves remained in Auerstedt.

5. Ibid., 24-25. In relation to “Robinsonism,” Kluge alludes to the character of Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe’s novel.

6. Kluge, Alexander, “What Do the ‘Oberhauseners’ Want?,” in German Essays on Film, ed. Richard W. McCormick and Alison Guenther-Pal, 203-04 (New York: Continuum, 2004.)

7. Franklin, “Introduction,” 31.

8. Ibid.

9. Kluge described Toussiant as “the gravedigger of the young cinema.”

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OberhausenAlexander KlugeJean-Marie StraubWerner HerzogPeter FleischmannHaro SenftFerdinand Khittl
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