Elsaesser, Thomas. “Introduction.” In New German Cinema. A History, edited by Thomas Elsaesser, 1–7. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Routledge, 1989.


Thomas Elsaesser

from New German Cinema: A History [1st ed.] by Thomas Elsaesser

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‘The Germans are Coming’?1

This book does not provide a complete survey of West German film production from the early 1960 to the present. Rather, it outlines a framework for understanding in a historical perspective what has come to be known as the ‘New German Cinema’. The perspective is a double one. It situates the New German Cinema as a national cinema within the economic development of the West German and European film industries, which have always been rivalling with Hollywood — usually without success – for dominance in Europe's domestic markets. But the study focuses also on the cultural issues raised by the revival of independent film-making in Germany, which happened partly on a competitive basis and partly in collaboration with national broadcast television. The lead taken by television set an example increasingly followed in other countries such as Italy, France and Great Britain. In Germany, the TV/film alliance brought a gradual change in independent feature films as ‘cinema’, away from the idea of mass entertainment (still vigorously and successfully pursued by Hollywood), but also distinct from television’s notion of family entertainment.

I could have made my task – and the reader’s – much easier if I had opted for one of the two models currently available when writing about ‘national’ cinemas or ‘new’ film movements: concentrating on individual directors or on specific themes and genres. For instance, I might have proceeded in the way John Sandford and Jim Franklin did when writing their respective books on the New German Cinema.2 Sandford, for instance, gives a brief general survey of the landmarks and turning points, introduces the directors who have come to prominence and discusses their work in chronological sequence with chapters on Alexander Kluge, Jean-Marie Straub, Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Hans Jürgen Syberberg. He concludes with a summary of other film-makers or individual films that deserve special mention. Klaus Phillips, as editor of a volume on New German Filmmakers,3 follows a similar model: his Introduction charts the success story, particularly in the United States, of New German films and film-makers since the Oberhausen Manifesto, and thereby leads up to seventeen specially commissioned articles on twenty different directors from Achternbusch to Wenders.

A more themes-and-issues approach is taken by Eric Rentschler and Tim Corrigan. Rentschler in West German Cinema in the Course of Time4 strongly objects to what he sees as the far too starry-eyed picture usually presented by American commentators in their efforts to ‘hype’ the films and make cult figures of the directors. He isolates some of the themes and stylistic traits that critics have discovered in the films, and discusses in depth generic trends such as the Heimatfilm or literary adaptations. However, his main purpose is to shift attention back to Germany itself and point out the struggles and difficulties which the film-makers have had to endure. He gives more scope than his American colleagues to the generally negative pronouncements of German critics and the equally pemimistic self-advertisements of German film-makers about the situation of their cinema. Corrigan’s The Displaced Image5 is textually oriented: it takes half a dozen individual films which are treated as key examples not so much of the New German Cinema but of contemporary art cinema, and its often intimate relation with contemporary film theory. A thematic-generic account of ‘The New German Film’, finally, can be found in Hans Günther Pflaum/Hans Helmut Prinzler’s Cinema in the Federal Republic of Germany,6 written as an information handbook for the Goethe Institutes.

In the chapters that follow many reasons, l hope, will be given for why I have chosen a different route, confusing as it may be since most readers’ interest in the New German Cinema will in all likelihood have been sparked off by watching particular films, by one of the well-known directors, or at least on a subject that presented an intriguing picture of West Germany, its past or its people. l have tried to bear these legitimate demands in mind, and hope readers will see their own questions addressed in one form or other. They will probably find certain points discussed at greater length than they had ever cared to consider them. This is partly, I suspect, because the book argues against at least two tacit assumptions that have, in a way, become received wisdom. One is that the origins of the New German Cinema date back to the Oberhausen manifesto of 1962, or rather, that a continuity exists between the films following Oberhausen, and those of Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog which gave the New German Cinema a recognisable identity. For the sake of greater historical accuracy and so as to identify a common set of moral stances (which translate into stylistic choices), I have stressed some of the discontinuities, suggesting that Oberhausen belong at least as much to the 1950s as it does to the 1970s.

To understand the renewal of film-making in Germany and the conditions for its brief international success, it seems to me that a distinction needs to be made between the Young German Film and the New German Cinema in terms of the politics of film-making, as well as in terms of style and subject matter. What does, superficially at least, unite the Young and the New German Cinema is a militant platform around the concept of the Autorenfilm (cinema of authors), but here again I see this as a complex, often contradictory term, undergoing many a sea-change in the course of its twenty-year history.

The second accepted view is that the New German Cinema was an avant-garde in the traditional mould, battling against the films and film-makers that had gone before, overturning the old order and creating the new; that its leading figures shaped their uniquely personal vision, spontaneously and untutored, out of an irrepressible urge towards self-expression. The paradigm of the ‘new’ is applied to this cinema, even though directors such as Fassbinder, Wenders, Syberberg and Schlöndorff have a demonstrably complex approach to their filmic forebears, to Hollywood, the German commercial cinema and the European art cinema, which cannot be accounted for by any simple antagonism or revolutionary break.

In fact, the concept of the Autorenfilm had primarily a strategic function, and the book tries to contextualise the often heroic self-representation of the film-makers, by showing how the star directors were part of a broadly-based movement inside Germany to win new audiences as well as representing a unique marketing asset internationally. Such a view does not mean the heroes have to be toppled front their pedestals – although the image of a solitary and persecuted, or even a collective and triumphant struggle has to be seen for what it is: a discourse, a stance, a necessary fiction to enable and motivate productivity. More importantly, it requires one to see direct and indirect government subsidy — the chief economic reason for the flourishing film production in West Germany during the 1970s – in a wider contest than that of the State supporting artists of genius. Instead, subsidy has become part of the politics of culture, where independent cinema is a protected enclave, indicative of a will to create and preserve a national film and media ecology amidst an ever-expanding international film, media and information economy.

Authors’ Cinema or Spectators’ Cinema?

The chapters proceed by first outlining a number of historical factors determining the German funding system, mainly from the perspective of the film-makers trying to gain access to production funds. My argument is that the apparently incompatible objectives of a national cinema - to be economically viable but culturally motivated – can be seen to have produced in West Germany different sets of debates or ideological fields, in which the contradictions were negotiated, contained and even temporarily resolved. These aim to legitimate film and film-making, once they are no longer justified by the automatic logic of financial profit, or the less self-evident logic of a public service like state television. Even as an economic activity it is difficult to decide whether film-making results in goods or services. As an ideological activity, the question remains – whom or what does it represent? Independent cinema funded in this way requires a contest or a definition which German directors were called upon to elaborate and verbalise. The films, their makers, film criticism and theory have in this field of culture become closely related to each other.

In Chapter 1 I outline the history and economic structure of a ‘mixed film economy’. From this follows a conception of the cinema as a social space and of film as a commodity — but of a special kind. Within West Germany, which since its foundation in 1949 has had a modern capitalist ‘social market economy’, culture occupies a compensatory function rather than standing in opposition to industry. The delegation of the state’s interventionist role to television and to the Film Subsidy Board ensured that film-making became part of official culture and entered into a primarily ideological arena, as opposed to staying in a strictly economic field. West German films, being produced outside box-office returns, had to define both their mode of production and their use-value differently.

The second chapter is thus concerned with the modes and models of production prevailing in West Germany. A ‘cultural’ mode of production distinguishes itself from economic modes of film production in so far as its logic is not determined by the profit motive (at least not directly). Even the traditional rationale of show business (namely that it provides pleasure and entertainment for the largest possible audience at the lowest possible price) does not have the same force with products situated at the very margins of the mass market.

The question of what determines cultural products is usually answered unproblematically, by assuming the author's intentionality or desire for self-expression as raison d’être and origin. Yet in the case of the New German Cinema the mode of production is such that neither authorial self-expression nor audience expectations are inscribed unambiguously in the films. Rather, one might say that as aesthetic objects, they are shaped by processes of self-representation and self-legitimation. For while the conditions of film-making have had a much more directly determining effect on the films than in a purely commercial system, they are at the same time less representative of anything other than themselves, since their efficacy as objects of pleasure remains largely untested at the German box office. Their use-value, to authors as well as audiences, therefore depends on the status that cultural production, but also cultural consumption has in a given social and political content: what it means, in other words, to make films and go to the cinema.

In France and Italy, for instance, the cinema enjoys a very high cultural prestige, in Britain less so, and in Germany – prior to the emergence of the New German Cinema — even less. Go the other hand, once film-making becomes totally absorbed into television, its cultural currency falls, being regarded as no different from ordinary television programming and on tap like other domestic utilities. German film-makers fiercely resisted such an absorption, which explains why the discourses of legitimation and justification took up so much space.

The main idea that the third chapter, devoted to the Autorenfilm, wants to put across is that the film-maker as Autor and originator of a given film occupies a double function within a double circuit: s/he is an ‘artist’ in the conventional bourgeois sense, and a producer in a pre-capitalist sense, engaged in a cottage industry. As artisans with a craft mentality, the film-makers faced an economic situation that gave them the status of a self-employed entrepreneur, but with the State playing the leading role in a system of patronage. Since the State also acts, via delegates such as television, as direct employer, the film-maker is servant of several masters, while having to maintain an image of autonomy and independence. Many of the political controversies arose out of the contradiction between ‘self-directedness’ and 'other-directedness’.7

The signs of these splits are that ‘West German film-making comprises both more and more varied films than those recognised as ‘art cinema’ and generally identified with the blew German Cinema, mainly because subsidised films are aimed at several distinct groups of spectators. Chapters 4, 5 and 6 try to retrace the strategies adopted in pursuit of audiences. Given that the commercial cinema, too, had to cope with an increasingly fragmented public, the many hesitations of West German cinema since the war between family entertainment and soft-core pornography, between nouvelle vague-ish post-Oberhausen films and the international art house productions of the New German Cinema can best be understood in the light of a more-or-less conscious process of reorientation towards a new public, different from the one that used to go or still goes ‘to the movies’. This is borne out when one looks at the debates around art films versus genre films; the demands for government measures to subsidise distribution and exhibition alongside production; the polemics of film-makers with the hostile press of the old commercial film industry; the superstar status of certain directors and, finally, the reliance on festivals and the international press for prestige in West Germany itself. ln other words, the search for a public manifests itself across a whole area of debate, conflict and strategy which begins to assume cogency only when viewed as belonging to the larger historical problem of the cinema’s place in the changing context of entertainment, leisure, information and education.

The central argument of the book, then, is that far from the New German Cinema constituting only acts of self-expression by a small number of highly gifted and personal directors, the logic of its production, the history of its failures and successes, and the aesthetic-formal strategies that give it a degree of stylistic coherence, derive front the various ways the films attempt to address spectators. Crucial for the New German Cinema, as for the more overtly spectator-oriented commercial cinema, was the issue of identification, in the general sense of providing the audience with a coherent or meaningful place in the fiction. The commercial cinema does this with a narrative of conflict, complication and resolution which proceeds from cause to effect via the central characters, but also through the processes of narration, how the story is told, how knowledge is distributed and revealed across the film's progress. The central characters, apart from functioning as agents for this narration may also act as role models. The films of the New German cinema differ to a greater or lesser extent from this norm, mainly by employing unconventional narratives, a feature typical of European art films.

Quite untypical for this art cinema is the New German Cinema’s search for positive heroes and exemplary stories, often reflected in the choice of titles. At the same time, the notion of a ‘place in the fiction’ is considerably extended to include what would normally be regarded as ‘documentary modes’, while German film politics and film practices conceive of the cinema as a particular social space. ‘Going to the cinema’ briefly became an activity and an experience comprising but not confined to entertainment.

Equally typical are more complex modes of narration and an often unusual deployment of the specifically filmic forms of identification. These are not dependent on clearly motivated characters, but have to do with camera-placing, editing, and what in German is called Einstellung: a useful term because it means both ‘scene, take’ in the cinematographic sense, and stance, point of view in the moral sense.

The search for more indirect modes of spectator-involvement may also explain why many German film-makers tended to work with narrative forms closer to the documentary and the film essay. l have chosen the term ‘cinema of experience’ to describe this major tendency within New German film-making. This helps to distinguish it from the perhaps more habitual form of involvement via genres (‘experience of cinema’) and allows me to discuss the social, political and aesthetic consequences: they range from the revival of melodramatic modes designed to enlist the spectator on behalf of victims, outsiders and outcasts, to films whose strategies of identification are deliberately ambiguous and contradictory, as in the work of many avant-garde and feminist directors. There, questions of gender and sexual identity imply a more theoretical reflection about the nature of cinematic identification itself and also highlight the role of minority audiences and subcultures. Specific target spectators—women or a working-class audience, for instance – implied the redefinition of the cinema as a means of militant self-awareness and self confirmation. This conception contrasted with the cinema as a refuge from self-consciousness and self-awareness, the search for a kind of post-ideological Space, attracting spectators to art experience of ‘pure being as pure seeing’: a desire perhaps best met by the films of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog.

A National Cinema: Self-projection or Self-parody?

In so far as the New German Cinema - as has sometimes been said - is an invention of the critics and the result of shrewd marketing strategies, it is useful to look at the terms in which the films have been viewed outside West Germany. But here, too, the question has to be put in a wider context, for this must include the directors’ response and defence. For instance, some reacted to the commodity status of their products by an excess of personality, and often parody, in order to escape the mandate as ambassadors of Germany asked to legitimate German culture: reactions which cart be studied in the films themselves. This inevitably implies an analysis of what sort of mythical construct emerges of the ‘nation’ and of ‘Germany’. If for the domestic spectator it is more a matter of identifying with this or that character or stance and recognising certain experiences, in the international context, a national cinema will be perceived as presenting or projecting an identity, a narrative image of an entire country.

Chapters 7, 8 and 9 explore these aspects more fully. Films by Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Syberberg, Kluge, Reitz, Schlöndorff, von Trotta and Helma Sanders-Brahms are discussed in so far as they have a bearing on the construction of a specific myth of Germany, its history and culture. The common extra-filmic referents, such as Nazism, urban terrorism or the post-war family which many of their films share are only the most obvious signs of this self-analysis as self-stylisation. For the internationally-oriented directors, the concept of authorship, media star status and self-consciously German subjects did at various points become essential ingredients of prestige and success. One can, however, discern in their work other strategies designed to compensate and substitute for what they lack in terms of box-office appeal: elements in the films which generate recognition and repetition similar to that offered by the commercial cinema through genres and stars. Among these are the frequently literary source material and the trilogies or series associated with a specific director or actor, or both.

The book thus looks at the concept of independence when applied to film-making today, as situated between the commercial cinema on the one side, and television on the other. The question is not only whether under these circumstances the traditional opposition of commerce/culture is still valid, but also whether there can be an independent cinema at all. If independent of market forces, as the New German Cinema was for a time, can it be independent of the conditions of production as well? The New German Cinema presents an exemplary case of an independent cinema shaped by very special circumstances, and the book suggests that these affect the films themselves and not just how they are made.

If much of what follows is concerned with the 1970s, it is because they were a decade of transformations for the visual media outside Germany too. The New German Cinema coincided with major changes in the economic structures of the film and television industries. New technologies were beginning to be introduced which necessarily affected the social use and significance of media products. For instance, given the way that every national broadcast television system recycles old cinema films and given the wide availability of home video, a form of film culture is developing in most advanced countries, with often quite noticeable effects on new national production as well. Thus, Chapter 10, beyond the specific case of West Germany, looks in conclusion at the general conditions and possibilities of film-making in the two decades that witnessed the resurgence of Hollywood, the transformation of the traditional European art cinema, as well as the victory of television, which effectively now determines in most Western countries the economic survival of other media including the cinema.

The United States in many ways still holds the key to future developments. By the sheer quantity and proliferation of their products in this domain they are in the position to define the norms, set the expectations as well as the pace of change. Other countries try to maintain themselves on a terrain staked out by the competition. West Germany is one example, but the implications affect all developed countries whose sense of cultural identity is based on a need to maintain markers – and markets – of difference vis-à-vis the products of the international entertainment businesses. Their standards or economic priorities control in most industrial and industrialising countries network television and commercial film-making. For reasons which will form the substance of this book, West Germany's film-makers seem to have been remarkably successful in doing battle on two fronts for at least a limited period.



Andrew Burris, ‘The Germans are Coming, the Germans are Coming’, Village Voice, 27 October 1975.


John Sandford, The New German Cinema (London: Oswald Wolff, 1980); James Franklin, New German Cinema: From Oberhauen to Hamburg* (Boston: Twayne, 1983)).


Klaus Phillips (ed.), New German Filmmakers: From Oberhausen Through the I970s (New york: Ungar, 1984).


Eric Rentschler, West German Film in the Course of Time (Bedford Hills, New York: Redgrave. 1984).


Timothy Corrigan, *New German Film: The Displaced Image (Austin: University of Texas, 1983).


Hans Günther Pflaum and Hans Helmut Prinzler, Cinema in the Federal Republic of Germany [Bonn: Inter Nationes. 1983).


The terms come from David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1953) and figure, for instance, in the Hamburg Declaration in 1979: ‘We shall not allow ourselves to be other-directed.’