Elsaesser, Thomas. “Introduction. Terror and Trauma” In German Cinema—Terror and Trauma. Cultural Memory Since 1945, edited by Thomas Elsaesser, 1–29. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Introduction: Terror and Trauma

Thomas Elsaesser

from German Cinema: Terror and Trauma – Cultural Memory since 1945 by Thomas Elsaesser

View this book

The Power of Nightmares

In 2005, the British television journalist Adam Curtis produced a three-part program for the BBC, called The Power of Nightmares, subtitled “The Rise of the Politics of Fear,” in which he proposed the bold hypothesis that the Bush-Blair “war on terror” was not a response to 9/11, but the solution to an altogether different problem.1 Instead of using the attack on one of the United States’ most visible and best-known icons, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, to restore a sense of rational order and national security to the country, or even to extract revenge on the perpetrators and their paymasters, the “war on terror” became an attempt to restore the authority of political leadership in Western democracies, by extracting a heavy price in civil liberties and individual freedom.

With the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat, so the argument ran, the West no longer faced a foreign “enemy” powerful enough to detract from domestic problems, such as poverty, unemployment and lack of social injustice at home. Nor was there an enemy that justified American hegemony in large parts of the world, notably the oil-rich Middle East and other strategically vital regions. Traditional party politics had also suffered a dramatic decline in credibility in Europe because of the decline of the nation state as the primary social bond that would keep individuals loyal to their country and its government. Cynicism, voter apathy, anxiety and the end of any hope for radical social change had bred a crisis in the legitimacy of democratic governments, demoted to being managers of free market economies and bail-out bodies for bankers and multi-national corporations. Into this crisis, the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath came as an opportunity to change both the perception and the power politics of Western-style neoliberal governance.

Curtis, backed by a number of British and U.S. academics and policy makers, argued that politicians had used the traumatic impact of 9/11 and the climate of fear and uncertainty that it left, especially after further suicide bombings in Madrid (March 11, 2004) and London (July 7, 2005), in order to increase democratic governments’ power over civil society and control over its citizen. Quoting a number of authorities who asserted that the idea of a conspiratorial worldwide network of Jihadists, out to destroy the West, is exaggerated and seriously misleading, The Power of Nightmares proposed an alternative scenario: “that politicians such as Bush and Blair have stumbled on a new force that can restore their power and authority—the fear of a hidden and organised web of evil from which they can protect their people.”2 The huge build-up of the security apparatus all over Europe and the United States, the Iraq war, the curtailment of civil liberties at home, the covert practice of torture and “rendition” of suspects, the outsourcing of military tasks and policing duties to private security firms, unaccountable and making enormous profits at the tax payers’ expense, all fit into a picture of not letting a crisis go to waste, and acting on the famous adage by Milton Friedman, that “only a crisis—actual or perceived— produces real change.”3

But Curtis complemented this by the then quite widely accepted view of a conservative and capitalist conspiracy—made famous a few years later in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism — with a possibly even more audacious hypothesis, based on a startling set of parallels. He pointed out that the “origins” of both the conservative “war on terror” and militant Islamist radicalism to which it claimed to be the response, were not only fundamentalist in inspiration (neo-con fundamentalism versus Jihadist fundamentalism), but had charismatic, if to the wider world little-known leaders, who developed their ideas at roughly the same time (1949), in roughly the same place (the American Midwest, i.e., Chicago and Colorado), and in response to the same perceived decadence of liberalism, materialism and individualism. If Chicago economist Leo Strauss inspired many of those who became the spokesmen of neo-conservatism during the Bush presidency (William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Dick Cheney), it was Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian exchange scholar spending time in Greeley, Colorado, between 1948 and 1950, who went on to found the Muslim Brotherhood that inspired Al Qaeda. The devout and learned Qutb was so traumatized by America’s acquisitive consumerism and its loose sexual mores, that he resolved to protect his country and Islam from any and all of its blandishments and influences, not unlike the neo-cons who vowed to roll back the permissiveness and narcissism they saw as the legacy of the students’ anti-Vietnam movement, the hippies and the sexual revolution: “Both [the Islamists and neo-conservatives] were idealists who were born out of the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world. And both had a very similar explanation for what caused that failure. These two groups have changed the world, but not in the way that either intended. Together, they created today’s nightmare vision of a secret, organized evil that threatens the world. A fantasy that politicians then found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age. And those with the darkest fears became the most powerful.”4

The lessons that Curtis drew from his material are not always straightforward. When uncovering these unlikely parallels and dark cabals, he himself tends to subscribe to some version of a conspiracy theory or “grand design.” The roots of both the libertine individualisms and of the conservative fundamentalisms that he claims arose against them in response can be traced back to the failures of Western Enlightenment, and its ideals of political liberties and individual freedoms. What, one wonders, did these essentially conservative and religious opponents of democracy have in common with left-wing critics of Enlightenment, such as Max Horkheimer and T.W. Adorno of the Frankfurt School? The latter were fierce critics of capitalism and, at least initially, advocates of socialism, while the former, at the least the neo-cons, were fervent believers in capitalist enterprise and self-reliance, coupling their moral critique of individualism with an economic and political critique of socialism, calling the European style social-democratic welfare state a “nanny state,” fostering all kinds of dependencies. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood can be understood in such terms is equally debatable, given that it was opposed to Nasser’s form of secular nationalism with a socialist agenda, as much as it now rails against Western capitalist policies, especially when espoused by their own autocratic leaders.

Perhaps Curtis’ parallels make a different point: that power manifests itself in modern societies obliquely and indirectly, often via proxies and hidden agendas, with unforeseen and unintended consequences, across reactive moves rather than proactive strategies. Equally important, however, would be the insight that antagonists or rivals for power appear to achieve their goals not when they oppose each other, but when they consciously or inadvertently collude or cooperate with each other, as the “terrorists” and those waging “war on terror” seem to have been doing: each traumatizing civil society into accepting the consequences of the “politics of fear,” and acquiescing in the resulting political paralysis or gridlock democracy. Terror and trauma, too, would then no longer stand in a relation of cause and effect, nor be in opposition to each other. Together they would make up an antagonistic mutuality, sustained by the complementarity that enlists trauma in a strategy for control, just as terror is always a strategy for intimidation. Terror and trauma would then be the two sides of a state of exception when governing the ungovernable: politics of fear from above and from below, with globalization and finance capitalism the twin dragons at the gates of hell.

Terror and Trauma: The Violence of the Past in the Present

In some ways, this book pursues a parallel project, even though it is conceived in a different context (Germany since World War II), has a narrower focus (the cultural history of German cinema), and is concerned with the consequences and afterlife of a different history (the Nazi regime and the Holocaust). But it is not unreasonable to think of “terror and trauma” as the alternative subtitle for “the power of nightmares” and vice versa. More specifically, this book came out of a slim volume published in Germany in 2007, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the relatively short period of extreme violence and terrorism, at the origins of which was the Red Army Faction (RAF), a group of political activists who could be said to have practiced an earlier version of the politics of fear.5 Known as the Hot Autumn (or Deutsche Herbst), the RAF’s series of assassinations, bank robberies, hostage taking and counter attacks by the police and the government’s security services shocked and traumatized the Federal Republic of Germany in the fall of 1977 into a virtual state-of-emergency.6 The aftereffects of “Germany in Autumn” have been felt ever since, while its back-stories, prehistories and subsequent narratives are being periodically recycled, reevaluated, and reinterpreted, with no agreed version in sight about the motives of either the chief protagonists or the true significance of these events, half “past history” half “living memory.”7 1997 and 2007 were particularly intense years of retrospectives and reassessments when, with varying degrees of cooperation, the perpetrators of the violence and the relatives of their victims, the representatives of the State and of the security forces had their say on television and in print, along with further “actors”: eyewitnesses, participants, historians, sociologists, filmmakers, and trend analysts. A veritable RAF Industry has established itself around its afterlife, to which I have devoted chapter 4.8

What became evident was that the periodic returns of the RAF as a topic that just “would not go away” showed similarities with West Germany’s other recurring trauma topic, namely the Nazi period and the premeditated genocide of the Jews. For this perpetually returning past, a special term was coined: Vergangenheitsbewältigung variously translated as either “coming to terms with the past” or “mastering the past,” but quite odd in German, insofar as in the word Bewältigung resonates Gewalt, i.e., violence, and implies an obstacle to be overcome. It thus makes the past into something undead, a threat or at any rate, a force or agent that has to be wrestled down. The RAF and the Nazi past were also linked insofar as one of the justifications the group’s members gave for their action was that the Federal Republic was still essentially a Nazi state, while those who condemned their politics as well as their actions referred to the RAF as “Hitler’s children.” How could the RAF be opposed to Nazism and emulate Nazism at the same time? What was behind this compulsion to repeat, to enact or act out, along with the inability to find closure? How did commemoration become such an important part of West Germany’s public life, and why did the occasions for commemoration invariably produce scandals, missteps, misunderstandings and moments of intense embarrassment: for politicians, public figures and even for responsible and respected writers?

It was questions like these that prompted me to write the book. I wanted to listen more closely to this perpetual murmur of a country talking to itself about its repugnant past across generational, political and emotional divides— occasionally resulting in faltering dialogue, more often rising to a crescendo of mutual recrimination, and in one instance, the RAF episode, ending in deadly violence. What the interminable dialogue with the past and with each other also showed was evidence that the main antagonists often seemed inadvertently to complement each other, as if not only the RAF and the Nazi past might just be two sides of the same coin, but as if a trauma of unacknowledged or disavowed guilt and the terror unleashed by a small group of militants were also communicating vessels. As a film historian, I wanted to examine these delicate and troubling issues across their repercussions in the particular counter-public sphere of the New German Cinema, which during the 1970s and early 1980s had been an internationally recognized “new wave,” creating a series of films that spoke critically about Germany, but also spoke on behalf of Germany: again a potential paradox, since the films were largely financed out of the public purse, but (with rare exceptions) ignored, shunned or even ridiculed by the general film-going public and television audiences in West Germany.

The first occasion for analyzing this intertwining of countervailing forces came in 1997, when for the twentieth anniversary of the Hot Autumn, German television screened a two-part docudrama, DEATH GAME (directed by Hans Breloer), seen by millions of German viewers. What caught my attention was that it echoed GERMANY IN AUTUMN (1978), an omnibus film directed by several of the iconic names of the New German Cinema, controversially received at home, but widely discussed abroad. DEATH GAME seemed to me best understood as a “remake,” but one where repetition-with-difference called for an altogether more unusual interpretative strategy, one that required these multiple framings, retroactive causalities and shifting temporalities because the events had assumed the force of traumatic symptoms. Redolent of allegorical meaning, these symptoms had the power to act back on the events, as if the effects in retrospect altered the causes that had given rise to them. Breloer’s docudrama retold the story of those months in 1977, but reversed many of the arguments of GERMANY IN AUTUMN as well as shifting the emphasis to a different cast of characters. It was like a mirror image of the earlier work, revealing not only the difference between an oppositional, avant-garde film, made for the cinema screen, and a more mainstream, compliant television production. Death Game also marked the political shifts that had taken place between 1977 and 1997, with the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Wall and German unification being the main turning points. “Antigone Agonistes: The Red Army Faction, Germany in Autumn and Death Game” was first presented at a conference devoted to the figure of Antigone in literature, film and philosophy, organized by Joan Copjec at the State University of New York at Buffalo. As the text is available in book form and on-line, it has not been reprinted here.9

This rewriting of the RAF episode in DEATH GAME into something quite different from how it had appeared in the filmmakers’ first-hand testimony that was Germany in Autumn made me want to examine how the New German Cinema itself had dealt with the history of terror and violence it had inherited. Taking its intellectual figurehead, Alexander Kluge as my main example, I looked at the films not for a critique of Nazism, but for the more invisible traces of what in the 1960s and early 1970s was still referred to by the metonym “Auschwitz.” The result, “Absence as Presence, Presence as Parapraxis,” was given as a lecture at Tel Aviv University in May 2000. It was there that I first developed the concept of “parapraxis,” the English translation of the Freudian term Fehlleistung, which was to become the major poetological, political and interpretative device, in a series of case studies of films and filmmakers that form the bulk of this volume. They are framed by essays of a more theoretical nature, on “Terror and Trauma: Siamese Twins of the Political Discourse,” “The Poetics and Politics of Parapraxis,” and a look back at “Trauma Theory,” which an essay of mine called “Postmodernism as Mourning Work” had helped to extend to film and media, as a critique of “representation.”10 Other essays, notably “Memory Frames and Witnessing: Burden of Representation and Holocaust Films,” “Generational Memory: The RAF Afterlife in the New Century,” “From Holocaust Memory to Guilt Management,” were expressly written for the present volume, and are meant to reflect on yet another intervening decade, taking us into the new century, where some of the issues still won’t go away, and others resurface and return: turning “mastering the past” into the post-trauma of a perpetrator nation, either engaged in “guilt management” or reclaiming for itself, too, the status of history’s victims.

Memory and Trauma—The New Markers of Identity

By way of a more general introduction to the chapters, I want to briefly consider Germany’s persistent preoccupation with its recent past across several broader considerations that also point to present day Europe and beyond. Chief among them is the urge to invest so much of identity—personal, collective, national—in “memory,” and to promote, as memory’s most authentic manifestation, the search for and effects of “trauma.” Much has been written in the last decades about “collective memory” and the late twentieth century European culture of commemoration, both for and against. Negative, as symptomatic for the penchant of this continent in geopolitical decline to cling to its past and to fetishize even horrific parts of its history, in waves of nostalgia, that act as a defense against an uncertain future. Positive voices, i.e., those in favor of more “memory studies” would argue that cultural memory is an ethical duty: towards the many senseless deaths that the twentieth century has witnessed, but also as a salvage mission, to rescue from oblivion what “creative destruction” and relentless technical innovation are so rapidly discarding or rendering obsolete. This so-called memory boom,11 with its nationally distinct memory discourses and periodically changing memory frames, is a theme throughout this study, partly implicit, because willy-nilly contributing to it, and partly critically reflected and challenged, as in chapter 4 on the RAF afterlife, chapter 10 on Holocaust memory, and chapter 11 on trauma theory.

What deserves special comment, however, is that memory has become one of the chief markers of identity, individually as well as collectively. Once upon a time, nations and communities tried to unite around a common project, directed towards the future (changing the world, fighting for a better life) that ensured a sense of personal identity and collective belonging. Now it is shared memories, or the retrospective construction of a group (manifest in the use of “generation” as a period marker) that defines self-worth and creates the (fraying) ties that bind. This in turn casts much of life under the signs of loss and disaster, making survival a generic term for being alive, if not the sole goal of life itself: a not altogether unproblematic development, as thinkers otherwise as different as Zygmund Baumann and Alain Badiou have argued.12 It is in this context that one needs to see the emergence of trauma as such a central trope, outside any clinical application or context. Trauma has come to prominence not just within the various memory discourses, but in popular culture as well, where it tends to refer not only to victims of past and present disasters, but is extended to all “survivors,” and can even include those that might once have been considered perpetrators. It is as if the catastrophes (of history, but also of life itself) are either of such enormity that individual or even collective agency cannot account for them, or that—in the case of violent events, such as a world war and unspeakably inhuman acts, such as the Holocaust—their afterlife in memory is what becomes the actual trauma, making all those exposed to this afterlife, regardless of their individual life story or role in the events, at once its survivors and victims.13

How did trauma become the new currency of identity and victimhood, indeed of identity as victimhood? How can it refer to an individual or a group that occupies positions of both victim and perpetrator? What is the role of the new public sphere of permanent media presence and twenty-four-hour news coverage in promoting such a broad array of potentially contradictory references? While an analysis of the term’s current use is most certainly in order— my contribution was the essay on “Postmodernism as Mourning Work” and is the “Postscript on Trauma Theory,” chapter 11 of this volume—I also found it necessary to look for an overarching concept that had a different pedigree, but shared similar properties, such as being inherently double-sided and self-divided, bracketing the tensions of active and passive, language and embodiment, intention and contingency, the past in the present, and the “other” bound into the self. For a number of reasons I hope will be clear in the chapters themselves, I did not want to resort to the vocabulary of modernism (ambiguity, aporia) or postmodernism (in-between-ness, hybridity, entanglement), or even deconstruction (undecidability, deferral, difference).

However, it would be disingenuous to claim that the idea of parapraxis that I eventually opted for, does not share many of the concerns expressed in these terms, and indeed their weaknesses, while possibly adding some more of its own. Crucial in my choice was the dual and reversible meaning of Freud’s German original Fehlleistung, which gives this psychoanalytic term a broader reach as well as a more precise definition than that of the “Freudian slip.” In particular, I wanted to demonstrate that it was especially illuminating when thinking about the cinema as a medium of conflict and of conflicted situations, establishing a dynamic field of active and passive, with its narratives generally tending towards closure, but in many cases capable of carrying apparently self-contradictory meanings that do not just delay or suspended resolution, but achieve an equilibrium all of their own.

The major gain of its double-sidedness, however, is that for my subject of terror and trauma, parapraxis can, in the encounter with moving images (“moving images” here understood in its widest sense, as visual and aural events) produce both a politics (in public life, the spheres of political action) and a poetics (manifest in literature, the cinema and other spheres of symbolic action). This claim of the centrality of parapraxis, especially when dealing with trauma, I try to make good with reference to the particular situation of Germany since World War II, in its politics and in its cinema. It leads to the hypothesis that Germany’s particular ways of (not) mastering the past holds lessons for other nations, for other situations and perhaps for the West quite generally. Parapraxis, in other words, as a pharmakon: the poison as the cure.

Parapractic Politics: Failed Performance

The Freudian term Fehlleistung — which translates as “failed performance” as well as “performance of failure” — first suggested itself to me as the appropriate term by which to highlight a series of uncanny parallels and unexpected coincidences in the history and politics of West Germany since 1945. Some of these I detail in chapter 4, but their common denominator was that on certain public occasions, usually to do with anniversaries, commemorative events and official speeches, public figures often failed, in quite spectacular ways, to perform as they were expected and no doubt intended to. These faux pas or breakdowns of the symbolic mandates were more than missteps, because the truths they inadvertently let slip invariably referred back to Vergangenheitsbewältigung or some equally unresolved and deeply conflicted aspect of German national identity and self-image, indicative not only of divisions that could not be papered over, or of feelings that refused to be suppressed, but pointing to hidden connections and strange continuities across divided loyalties, divergent histories and deep ambivalences of affect and feeling. Such failed performances also occurred between the generations, where oedipal conflicts between fathers and sons were doubled by the son generation appearing to act out hidden or missing agendas of the father generations. In other words, such performances failed, but also succeeded, because it was only through their failure that their meaning could become manifest. Thus, Fehlleistung at first came to stand for a different way of making sense of the moments of collusion or sudden illumination, within the violent confrontations between the perpetrator-fathers and their rebellious sons (and daughters) around the RAF episode, but it eventually led me to a new under standing of why Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung could not (and perhaps should not) succeed: in its failure it was already succeeding, even if this insight was always a retrospective-retroactive one. These parapraxes, in the arena of politics and public life, highlighted the way that speech acts and body language, gesture and tone had become saturated and colored by the disavowals, the deferrals of responsibility, the compromises and sins of commission and omission accumulated since the Nazi period and pervading its afterlife. The stumbles of Fehlleistung signposted but also vindicated the difficult path to eventual accountability of official Germany and individual acknowledgement of the terrible wrongs done in the nation’s name, across personal slips of the tongue, public gaffes and political scandals that nonetheless revealed their coherent historical frames and retroactive inevitability.

Parapractic Poetics: The Performance of Failure

As indicated, Fehlleistung is most useful for my purposes because the single word is a typically German compound that contains the potentially irritating but suggestive contradiction of “failure” and “performance,” pitting intention against result, or maybe putting result before intention and thus appearing to mock the latter. Its reversibility and play with cause and effect are the main resources for its creative potential, which led me to identify a poetics of parapraxis. Here, the stress is on failure as something that needs to be performed: the more or less strategic deployments of failure (in different guises: mishap, bad timing, non-sequitur, absurdity, wordplay, bad puns, skewed metaphors) become textual effects or narrative strategies, a tactic observable above all, though not exclusively, in several key films of the New German Cinema.

It is in the various case studies, mostly of individual films that I track down some of the parapraxes and tease out the overt or hidden purposes they seem to serve. Of course, in a general way, these essays inscribe themselves in what by now is a vast literature, setting out to describe or analyze how West Germany and its cinema did or did not “master the past.” As such, it may indeed seem that I am going over familiar terrain—over and over again—as if the very effort that the book represents is itself a symptom of its subject, i.e., of failed Vergangenheitsbewältigung in the modus of repetition and parapraxis. This could well be true, and if the case, I accept at least one implication, namely that for a German of my generation, the generation born during or near the end of World War II, it is impossible to step outside a certain circularity, when talking about Germany and German cinema. Especially among those of us who have spent most of their professional lives abroad, any attempt to presume detachment and distance is to risk being in denial, just as too close a proximity can lead to a false sense of familiarity. Which is why, alongside parapraxis, related terms such as witnessing and testifying, identification and overidentification, observation and self-implication keep coming up throughout.

To be more specific, the aspect of repetition and return is relevant, insofar as the present volume is my third attempt to “come to terms” with the 1970s and 1980s. The intersection of cinema, national identity and the politics of representation during these two decades was unique in Germany’s post-war history. This is why the period and some of its films are still my implicit reference point, now examined across a different conceptual lens from the way the prevailing auteurist perspectives tended to perceive the New German Cinema at the time (focused mostly on the singular vision and work of Wenders, Herzog, Syberberg, Fassbinder, Kluge, Reitz, Schloendorff, von Trotta, Sander, Farocki, Sanders-Brahms). But Terror and Trauma also differs from how I myself wrote about the New German Cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, which was from an institutional point of view, and had as one major focus the divergent reception of the films in Germany and the Anglo-American world.14 At the same time, the book is a sort of sequel to my study on R.W. Fassbinder, in which I looked at the recasting of a nation’s identity and its self-understanding across the cinematic oeuvre of an outsider who became — paradoxically and parapractically — a representative by the very force of his deviancy and unrepresentativeness.15

Fassbinder also seized on national trauma in his films (THE BRD TRILOGY, LILI MARLEEN, BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ) as well as produced shock and scandal with his films (“I don’t throw bombs, I make films”). Whereas in Fassbinder’s Germany, the director’s rewriting of German history in the form of doomed or impossible love stories was the central theme and guiding thread, in Terror and Trauma the key issue is absence as presence, i.e., what in the cinematic self-representations of Germany from the 1970s was also absent, or rather what was present in its persistent absence. It is in this sense that this is my third attempt to “read” the cinema of this most turbulent period of Germany’s post-war history, principally to register the after-shocks of the non-representation of the “missing” (i.e., Germany’s Jews, but in the twenty-first century also other victims), but then to pursue the consequences of this absence into their oddly overemphatic presence since the 1990s. If Terror and Trauma is the third volume of a trilogy of sorts around the New German Cinema, after New German Cinema A History (1989) and Fassbinder’s Germany (1996), it is also a retrospective revision of the earlier books, with the benefit of a hindsight that nonetheless cannot afford to claim to be the view from outside, or of a detachment that comes with age.

Nor is my aim to make new discoveries of hitherto overlooked films and filmmakers. I return to some canonical figures (Alexander Kluge, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Konrad Wolf), and include other, in this context less often cited, but by no means unknown names (Harun Farocki, Herbert Achternbusch). Of some of their films I offer readings that are not exactly counter-readings or symptomatic readings, but perhaps qualify as sympathetic interlinear readings— between the lines, across the gaps, with and against the grain—also in view of the aforementioned abundant literature on the subject.16

The Politics of Representation

Most studies of films dealing with the Nazi period and the Holocaust in German post-war cinema tend to operate within a classical concept of representation, which is to say, they either imply a realist epistemology, or take a constructivist position. Representations are judged as to their “accuracy” and veracity, or are evaluated in relation to the ideological assumptions they hide or disguise, and the rhetorical tropes deployed to this end. Specific films are praised for their realism and authenticity, or regarded as symptomatic, which is to say, ideological. This ideology tends to be indicative of “repression,” “disavowal,” “bad faith/bad conscience,” and the films are generally judged to be incapable of speaking “the truth” about the Nazi crimes. To the more responsive (analytically troubled or theoretically versed) critics, other options have presented themselves: the “allegorical” hermeneutics of a Walter Benjamin, for instance, or Siegfried Kracauer’s decoding of a filmic text’s social hieroglyphics are frequently emulated models.(footnotes: 17)

The readings I am proposing differ from these approaches. They respond to the special challenges posed by the controversially debated “limits of representation” when addressing the overabundance of images of Nazi rule and the corresponding lack of images documenting the Holocaust. The latter’s “unrepresentability” is not to be confused with the paucity of first-hand photographic evidence, but pertains to the enormity of the crimes to which no representational medium, mode or genre could be adequate or appropriate. Thus, rather than espousing either realist or con structivist perspectives, which might identify (positive or negative) “representations of …”, I draw attention to the distribution of roles inherent in the images that have come down to us and through whose eyes do we see what we see, what role—witness, bystander, secret sharer—is assigned to us (chapter 2). Elsewhere I take another “limit of representation” as the specific dilemma of films made in (West) Germany about the recent past, summed up by varying Samuel Beckett’s dictum: “it can’t be represented, it must be represented.”(footnote. 18) Not that many filmmakers have risen to this challenge, but the ones who reflexively double this paradox of representation itself are singled out in the case studies of this book. There, I identify specific examples of how the Nazi period and especially the Holocaust are “present” in the films, even when and where they are “absent,” implied or referred to in oblique and hyperbolic ways. I ask what different representational strategies are available, when it is not a matter of “truthfully” representing the historical disaster, but when aftereffects, deferred reactions, as well as unanticipated or unintended consequences (and thus other forms of “presence”) emerge or manifest themselves, to which neither the term representation nor the usual meaning of “effect” (as in “cause-and-effect,” or as “special effect”) actually apply—although I am tempted to consider the evidence of parapraxis that I am highlighting as a sort of “special effect” in the semantics of representation.

In order to place this trope of “absence as presence” within the broader context of the politics of representation, chapter 2, “Memory Frames and Witnessing: The Burden of Representation and Holocaust Films” complements an earlier publication (not included here) “Subject Positions, Speaking Positions: From Holocaust, Our Hitler and Heimat to Shoah and Schindler’s List,” in which I specifically address the issues of representation (and its limits) with respect to the Holocaust.19 One aspect of the latter chapter had to do with melodrama as a genre of excess, but in “Memory Frames and Witnessing” I try to provide a perspective on remembering and representation by pointing to the successive transformations of the “politics of representation” in films that allude to Auschwitz in post-war German cinema from the late 1940s to the 1990s. The focus is less on what aspects (e.g., the lives of German Jews in Hitler’s Germany, the camps, the post-war trials) or which protagonists (victims, perpetrators, survivors, returning exiles) are depicted and have their stories told, but on the possible spectatorial positions implied or solicited by the films. I have divided the variations of witnessing into categories: the forensic mode and the “witness,” “the interview as testimony,” and “the bystander as implicated observer.” These categories suggest that there are distinct phases which overlap with but also diverge from other kinds of periodization: for instance, the one that sees German cinema and German society progress from the “repression” of the Holocaust (in the 1960s), to “trauma” (the 1970s) to “self-incrimination” (the 1980s), to “victim-culture” (1990s) and “normalization” (2003 and beyond). Common to both schemes, however, is a concern with identification which oscillates between identification through exclusion of the other, to identification with the victim; it also extends to overidentification and self-identification as victim. Within this broader perspective, the parapractic mode of spectatorship of the New German Cinema, analyzed in the different case studies, presents another possibility that sometimes amounts to a distinct counter-strategy.

To this one needs to add another feature that singles out the New German Cinema. Given its peculiar institutional nature as a largely state funded and thus “official” art form, the question that had already intrigued me in 1989, namely how did the filmmakers respond to this difficult and contradictory mandate? has returned in this book in a different guise. Instead of asking how did they represent (in the political sense) the new, that is, democratic Germany in the eyes of the world? Terror and Trauma examines how some of the films testify to the dilemma of representation itself (official representatives, answerable to the world/critical artists, responsible only to themselves) by staging a “post-traumatic” public subjectivity that shows itself “accountable” rather than “responsible,” in a textual mode that is neither realist nor allegorical, neither constructivist nor postmodern, but parapractic. This parapractic mode, I argue, performs (in the mode of failure) the necessary but impossible, the desired but also demanded mandate imposed on both filmmakers and the films, always already answerable to the unspoken question of an imaginary other.

On this question of representative representation, then, the introduction of the idea of performed failure/failed performance (and the associated neologisms of parapractic politics and parapractic poetics) designates the way some of the films discussed respond to this (implied) demand, also by a gesture of resistance, while acknowledging the demand’s existence and legitimacy. “Performed failure” thus establishes another dimension—hypothetical, counterfactual or virtual (an “as if” mode)—by which the films communicate with the spectator who is asked to recognize (in the “as if ” and in the “not seen”) the presence of something that is necessarily absent.

This is why parapraxis, in its expanded sense sketched above, holds the chapters together as a common thread. It best captures what, as just mentioned, made the period of the 1970s and 1980s so unique, i.e., the intersection of cinema, national identity and the politics of representation. Parapraxis figures the often contradictory and “thwarted” relations that the films entertain with the political sphere and official Germany (i.e., state-sponsored dissent, representative unrepresentative ness), as well as the no less self-divided relations the filmmakers had with their (often hostile) German audiences and critics, where a current of misunderstanding and distrust ran in parallel with a counter-current of understanding each other only all too well, but either disavowed or expressed in highly polemical language.

Since parapraxis is a term with, to my knowledge, no previous currency or pedigree in film studies or German studies, it is described and analyzed separately in chapter 3, hopefully strengthening the case made in some of the chapters merely en passant, for the notion’s import and potential usefulness. Expanding on what has been said so far, chapter 3 on parapraxis gives a fuller account of its original Freudian use, as well as its special aptness as it relates to the body in discourse, and how it establishes a circuit of communication and feedback that gives rise to something as apparently paradoxical as “successfully failed communication.” I also suggest how parapraxis differs from (but helps to refigure) latency, repression and disavowal, so often associated with memory and trauma.

Finally, chapter 3 also touches on the role of trauma in the general context of the conditions that allow a “working through” in so-called post-conflict situations that are inherently divisive and recriminatory, after a civil war, or to overcome ethnic rivalry and religious schisms. Such post-conflict situations are often paired automatically with trauma, in order to chart a therapeutic path towards truth and reconciliation. What a “politics of parapraxis” suggests is that such processes of healing, closure or of a national dialogue are possible and thus successful only when their parapractic elements, i.e., unintended consequences, unspoken resentments, slips, missteps and other blockages enter into the “speech situation” itself, rather than become excluded or remain repressed.20

Parapraxis and Trauma: Successfully Failed Communication

It is important to remember that Freud introduces Fehlleistung in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901/English translation 1914) to demonstrate that we are connected to the world and each other across seemingly accidental occurrences and trivial errors. Parapraxis in the way deployed in this study may be a term imported from psychoanalysis, but Freud used it more broadly, as a particular inter- as well as trans-subjective form of communication. Building on this extended meaning, parapraxis can be considered a type of speech-act, where performativity and its failure are intertwined, implicating but also energizing each other. It becomes the porous and dynamic interface between public and private discourse, but it also maps out a terrain where actions and utterances are interpreted symptomatically, as speaking louder or ringing truer than intended or suspected. Parapraxis also makes room for contingency, error and coincidence in a manner that today will strike a much more familiar note than it would have done to Freud’s contemporaries around 1900, although probably not in the 1920s when the Surrealists rediscovered the powers of chance.

However, the occasions for unintended consequences and successfully failed speech acts that interest me about German cinema and the media-sphere of public life are historically more specific, insofar as many of the parapraxes I am tracking derive from the pressure to attest to and commemorate recent history, the Nazi period and the Holocaust, become “traumata” precisely because of the parapraxes their persistent return gives rise to. Successfully failed communication is what ties this history to its violent rejection as reenactment in the events surrounding the RAF episode (the months of “terror”), as well as to its subsequent periodic visitations. In this situation, both “terror” and “trauma” have often been invoked rather loosely or metaphorically, trying to fit a volatile and combustible reality into categories not made for it. This, too, would be an effect of parapraxis (which thus becomes the category that encompasses both terror and trauma).

In chapter 1 “Terror and Trauma: Siamese Twins of the Political Discourse,” I expand on the notion of terror in order to clarify these contexts, and to show how terror, too, establishes a circuit of communication that both fails and succeeds, dependent on the perspective one takes. It is important to note that these perspectives do not divide between victims on one side and perpetrators on the other. The remarkable persistence of conspiracy theories concerning the RAF prisoners’ deaths at the Stammheim high security detention facility in 1977, or even around cases as apparently clear-cut as the attack on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, suggests not only deep suspicion of government and the authorities, but uncertainty over motive and result on both sides. Concerning 9/11, suspicion of conspiracy is also indicative of the sense that, apart from the thousands that lost their lives, the losers and winners of this terrorist act are not necessarily the ones the public is made to believe are so, especially when the attack is used as an excuse to wage a war justified as retaliation, but is in fact a preemptive strike against an entirely different enemy. Terror is parapractic precisely to the extent that its “success” and “failure,” as propaganda by deed and as a war of images, cannot be measured by quantifiable criteria of intent and effect, but may be asymmetrical and counter-intuitive in its extended or unintended consequences.21 The politics of fear as described above render almost any calculus of gain and loss jejune and invidious, especially when arch enemies converge in their tactics or even copy from another without being any less antagonistic in words or overt actions.22

Chapter 11 returns to trauma theory in order to examine its improbable appeal in the humanities, and to evaluate the criticism and reassessments that have been offered of its ever-growing use in the decade following the 1990s in which trauma theory first made its appearance. Here, my main argument is that I do see advantages in translating the clinical term trauma, as a definable psychiatric condition, into the realm of culture, as a many-sided metaphor: of an altered relationship to linear temporality, of a reversal or “disconnect” between cause and effect, and as a challenge to the demand for resolution and closure, when attending to symptoms and latency, to repetition and false memory might be the more honest as well as productive responses. Interpreting signs and symptoms—as well as their absence—are important challenges in the humanities, for which trauma theory can provide a counterintuitive, but conceptually rewarding focus that has the benefit of suggesting (historical) reasons why absent presences should preoccupy us today. Trauma also alerts us to the prevailing trend that seeks identity in an originary hurt or wound, as if it was special signs, symptoms and stigmas that make us human and confer the right to personhood, respect or compassion within our respective peer groups.

For the absent presences that preoccupy me, however, trauma would seem to be a misnomer, or even worse, a euphemism, since I examine the afterlife and memory left by the perpetrators. Yet parapraxis is not the opposite of trauma, as if the former was the symptom of the perpetrator and the latter that of the victim. As argued above, I locate parapraxis at another level of generality, where the opposition victims and perpetrators is not the one that defines or divides the nature of the affects or the actions involved: as the manifest effects of an afterlife, parapraxis might be the trauma of the perpetrators, in situations where everyone who has “survived” or merely “comes after” is prepared to embrace victim status. In other words, the conceptual lack of contour and definition that troubles the critics of trauma theory seems to enhance trauma’s role as a cipher for refounding one’s identity and self-worth in the paradoxically empowering narrative of psychic injury and possible recovery. By putting parapraxis alongside trauma I am thus signaling a shift away from this narrative of redemption, without thereby abandoning either the historical associations, or Freud’s own evolving concept of trauma.

For Freud, trauma initially formed part of the dynamic of symptom formation due to repression. It manifested itself in repetition compulsion and somatic symptoms, which Freud, in Studies in Hysteria, still traced back to real events in the past, unavailable or unacceptable to consciousness. At a certain point in his clinical practice, he abandoned this theory, accepting that trauma might be the result of conflicting desires and fantasies, rather than of actual, life-endangering events. However, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), trauma was recast once more, as he came across or treated World War I combat soldiers who suffered from recurring nightmares or war-related phobias and anxieties. But here, too, he wondered whether such compulsive repetition was not ultimately a manifestation of the need of any organism to reduce tension and stimuli, what he came to call the death drive.

In Totem and Taboo (1918), aligned to universal as opposed to individual guilt feelings, engendered by the collective murder of the tribal father, a traumatic act both remembered and exorcised in the revered totem, trauma had already taken center stage, not as either a specific historical event or a balancing of conflicting desires and drives, but aligned to an Ur-trauma of guilt, engendered by the collective murder of the totemic father. But it is in Moses and Monotheism (1939) that one finds a theory of trauma closest to the one as now generally understood among psychoanalysts and literary or cultural theorist: thanks to the concept of latency, the lost memory of a traumatic event can return in the form of symptoms when recall is triggered by either witnessing or experiencing a (structurally) similar event. At the same time, Freud extends trauma to apply to a people or nation, where the trauma of a national calamity can shape an entire history, and bring forth narratives of identity and destiny.23

An important point is that Freud here associates trauma also with guilt, and thus trauma, together with its consequences of latency, screen memory and trigger event, can apply to perpetrators as well as to victims, indeed prioritizes perpetrators. I shall come back to this, but it is especially significant in the case I am dealing with — Germany’s coming to terms with the Nazi past — that this past can have traumatic dimensions in a given present, even when its main victims are not represented, or indeed present at all, and when trauma, rather than tending towards a therapeutic “working through” for the victim, retains its ethical power for the perpetrator community primarily in the form of parapraxis.

Trauma Theory: Unrepresentability and Melodrama

An argument that envisages the possibility of perpetrator trauma evidently differs from the trauma theory as developed in the United States in the wake of Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s seminal book Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (1992). They, too, take up important aspects of Freud’s theory, notably his change of mind around the reality of the traumatic event, and its subsequent significance. Freud’s ambivalence on this point gives an opening to the philosophy of deconstruction, and it is the peculiar immaterial materiality of the traumatic event that led to one of the core tenets of subsequent trauma theory, most influentially in the writings of Cathy Caruth. The fact that Felman and Laub had done their research and writing at Yale, where Paul de Man, Harold Bloom and Jeffrey Hartman had been the intellectual figureheads within the humanities gave trauma theory its distinctive pedigree of psychoanalysis, Jewish studies and deconstruction. Caruth, a PhD student at Yale, added to this mix a critical reappraisal of feminism, its embroilment in the recovered memory, childhood abuse and “seduction thesis” debates, all of which “trauma theory” took to another level, just as her books were able to acknowledge, while also taking their distance from identity politics around victimhood and group victimization as powerful subject-effects and enablers of various forms of activism.

While these theoretical moves and their wider implications are discussed in more detail in chapter 11, I nonetheless want to briefly indicate which aspects of Caruth’s trauma theory have been most relevant for my conception of parapraxis: trauma and (un)representability, trauma and temporality, trauma and therapy, and finally, trauma as a hermeneutic tool for interpreting cultural texts across genres and disciplines, i.e., her readings of novels, opera and movies in light of trauma theory as she had defined its most salient aspects.

In the field of cinema, trauma theory has intervened most strongly in the argument around representation and unrepresentability, one of the key theoretical problems raised by Holocaust memory (with reverberations in narrative theory, art history, modernism, postmodernism, deconstruction) and its cinematic/ media representations. I have already commented on the issue of representation, which is discussed also in chapter 2. This chapter does not have parapraxis as its main concern, but engages with questions of genre and representation, touching on melodrama, which in chapter 10, “From Mastering the Past to Managing Guilt: Holocaust Memory in the New Century,” returns as the recto to the verso of parapraxis, both involving excess, contradiction and incommensurability, but each figuring differently the task of achieving either some kind of narrative closure, or altogether eschewing symmetry and equivalence.

Melodrama was a major concern in my earlier essay “Subject Positions, Speaking Positions: From Holocaust, Our Hitler and Heimat to Shoah and Schindler’s List” because in debating the unrepresentability of the Holocaust, those who challenged the prohibition against representation were either accused of resorting to a defense of melodrama, or they actively championed melodrama (and other popular modes of representation) as an adequate, if not predestined genre for a narrative-therapeutic “working through” of trauma.24 Even though often counted among the defenders of melodrama, in the present study I take a slightly different, and hopefully more nuanced view, arguing that in the case studies I analyze the choice need not only be between (critical) realism and melodrama, but should include the parapractic poetics that I try to recover in certain key films as a third way.

Chapter 5 on Konrad Wolf ’s STERNE (1959) argues this possibility. Wolf, a communist filmmaker, is usually associated with a style identified as East Germany’s version of neo-realism, somewhere between socialist realism and Brecht’s critical realism, but in Sterne he was accused of having failed to give a convincing depiction of the Holocaust because he resorted to an overly melodramatic plotline. My reading emphatically argues against such a verdict, by showing how the melodramatic elements are embedded in a parapractic poetics that makes Wolf ’s film a unique intervention in the debate on the temporality of memory when considered in the context of representability. In the way that a future perfect informs and transforms the narrative present, Sterne becomes one of the touchstones of my argument, and therefore Wolf was included, even though he falls outside the general time frame of the study, and his is the only film not made in West Germany.

Caruth’s trauma theory also provides a subtle and sophisticated vocabulary for thinking about cinema’s temporal registers, since trauma signals temporalities that deviate, disrupt or reverse the linear flow of time. Trauma can induce a shattering or dissolution of chronology, but it also manifests itself in shock-like suddenness, impacting the subject with unexpectedness and immediacy. In particular, Caruth reaffirmed the importance of Freud’s Nachträglichkeit, deferred action, now generally translated as “belatedness,” both in the sense of the “too late” of a missed opportunity, and as a moment that reveals itself only through the insistence of its repeated appearance. Trauma is what takes hold of the subject, rather than the other way round, thus reversing agency: “The pathology [of trauma] consists […] in the structure of its experience or reception: the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it.”25 Time and timing are central also to the film experience, as are the deviation from the linear norm in certain genres, such as melodrama (“bad timing,” “if only”), film noir (flash backs as the symptom of belatedness) and what elsewhere I have termed “mind-game films.”26

A poetics of parapraxis, too, highlights time in the forms of simultaneity and coincidence, as mistiming or by showing how separate events reveal an inner logic by a temporal convergence. Chapter 9, on Harun Farocki’s Respite, details the several different dates and parallel time frames that give the Westerbork camp footage its almost unbearable poignancy.

With regard to trauma and therapy, and associated narratives of healing, one influential theory of trauma in relation to history is that proposed by Dominick LaCapra. He regards any inquiry into the past that involves contested memories as producing transference, defined by him as the affective investment and moral implication one has in this past, as well as a tendency to repeat—in the study of such events—the very elements associated with that event. Transference thus brings the past into the present, and vice versa, raising the question as to the proper distance to, one’s self-implication with, as well as the degree “mastery” of the events. LaCapra suggests that there are two ways of dealing with transference — “acting out” and “working through” — terms taken from Freud’s analysis of morning and melancholia. Sometimes, these two modes are juxtaposed by LaCapra, sometimes they are complementary phases of a single process. Each stage or mode is seen to have wider implications, and is reflected in theory as well as politics: “there has perhaps been too much of a tendency to become fixated on acting-out, on the repetition-compulsion, to see it as a way of preventing closure, harmonization, any facile notion of cure. But also, by the same token, to eliminate any other possibility of working-through, or simply to identify all working-through as closure, totalization, full cure, full mastery, so that there’s a kind of all-or-nothing logic in which one is in a double bind: either the totalization or the closure you resist; or acting-out the repetition-compulsion, with almost no other possibilities. […] And this very often links up with a kind of apocalyptic politics.”27

Parapraxis has something in common with LaCapra’s scheme, insofar as it, too, can be understood as transferential and to resist closure. It would evidently be more on the side of “acting out” than “working through,” but ultimately offers another possibility. For the double bind identified by LaCapra points to the inadequacy of the model itself, even if we see “acting out” and “working through” as consecutive stages in a process of integration and narrativization, which is how trauma is generally treated in therapy. By starting with failure as the pre-given of a transferential situation, parapraxis (as a critical concept) overcomes the good/bad, either/or divide and leaves room for defining success within failure, rather than against it. Instead of the “acting out” of the traumatic event, or the transferential situation becoming indicative of the failure to acknowledge the emotional involvement and personal stakes, parapraxis as performed failure/failed performance would be the very manifestation of these conflicted investments and thus their acceptance would become part of the reality of the event and the authenticity of the response.

The difference between my position and that of LaCapra also reflects the respective shift in perspective. Throughout, my argument from parapraxis is envisaging the point of view of Germany, the perpetrator nation, or perhaps more accurately, the “perpetrator-legacy” nation, seeing that any discussion of cultural memory and collective trauma must include also the second or third generation after World War II, having to “master the past” as a trauma of guilt, half-assumed and half-disowned, half felt from the inside, half insisted upon from the outside. This implies a necessary dividedness for which parapraxis might be one of the appropriate ethical stances, rather than therapy, whether as “acting out” or “working through.” Chapter 11, the “Postscript to Trauma Theory,” elaborates this further with reference to the debates and critical points raised, following the positions taken by Caruth, LaCapra and others.

To briefly indicate just one of these points that recur, which also has a bearing on my understanding of parapraxis as a critical, if double-edged concept: first, the legitimacy (or lack of it) of transferring a psychoanalytic vocabulary (aimed at understanding the individual psyche), to trans-individual, historical and generally collective phenomena. This charge is by now addressed to a century of humanities scholars working with psychoanalysis, and is similar to the one that has dominated a considerable part of the trauma-as-cultural-metaphor debate, already alluded to above. My own position is that I continue to regard psychoanalysis as a sophisticated form of hermeneutics, especially valuable in the retrospective reconstruction of motive, intent and consequence, whether individual or collective. At the same time, I have deliberately opted for a term that is quite marginal, if not irrelevant, to psychoanalysis as a therapeutic practice, and has often been debunked as lacking any kind of verifiability. Precisely because of its proximity to other forms of “meaningless meaning,” such as chance, coincidence and contingency (i.e., phenomena that appear meaningless at the moment they occur, but to which meaning is attributed retro actively), parapraxis seems to me especially suitable as a bridge between matters of high emotional charge, involving ethics and values, but also possesses formal attributes, such as reversibility, internal contradiction, asymmetry and nonsynchronicity, organized around the energized negativity that is “failure.” Parapraxis is thus both a way of performing in the world, and a hermeneutics for analyzing this performance.

Parapraxis, Perpetrator Memory and Guilt Management

Ultimately, however, parparaxis makes most sense perhaps within a historical situation such as the one that Germans have confronted since the war. While there was discussion in the 1960s and 1970s about “acting out/working through” the symptoms of trauma or transference, notably thanks to the wide reception of Alexander and Margarethe Mitcherlich’s The Inability to Mourn (which made so-called Trauerarbeit an integral part of Vergangenheitsbewältigung), the 1990s have seen a shift of paradigm, where “mastering the past” is being redefined (so I claim) as a matter of “managing (the symptoms of) guilt.” In 1997, the German public intellectual and political scientist Gesine Schwan published Politics and Guilt, in which she argues that “the question of guilt in politics plays an important role in public discourse all over the world, especially in the task of establishing and maintaining democracies following the collapse of dictatorships.”(footnotes: 28) Schwan goes on to discuss the relation between guilt and democracy in some detail, citing South Africa’s “truth & reconciliation” commissions, tribunals in The Hague, and the confessions of Argentine military officers and doctors who pushed people out of planes over the open sea. She also passes in review the “three-step approach” to guilt advocated by the Catholic Church of contritio cordis (contrition, repentance). confessio oris (public admission) and satisfactio operis (restitution through works), asking if any of these steps still apply, while wondering whether politicians’ admissions of guilt, in the form of public apologies on behalf of their nations are merely calculated ploys, or actually serve to reaffirm basic democratic values of accountability, solidarity and trust, in order to right historical wrongs after periods of unchecked state power.

The major part of Politics and Guilt, not unexpectedly, deals with the legacy of guilt after National Socialism in West Germany, a dictatorship supported by the vast majority of the population, defeated by outside powers and not internal resistance or a civil war. The crux of the question for Schwan, however, is whether one can obligate someone to feel guilty: “What is the necessary condition before we can speak of guilt? Is it a subjective feeling or consciousness of guilt? Is it an objective factual situation? Are there rules that are timeless and valid in all cultures? If a person does not feel guilty, am I permitted to talk him or her into feeling guilt or to simply impose it? Would I not be violating that person’s autonomy […]? Most societies, following a change of political regimes, choose the path of keeping silent to themselves and others about guilt. Is this perhaps the right path to take because it is the most successful way of lifting a heavy burden and opening the future to something new?”(footnotes: 29)

Schwan concludes, as the subtitle of her book indicates, that silence in the end is a destructive force, by which she means it is detrimental to fostering democratic values and citizenship.

In chapter 10, “From Mastering the Past to Guilt Management,” I propose a somewhat different analysis. As with LaCapra’s “acting out” and “working through,” Schwan’s “keeping silent” and “speaking out” poses as stark alternatives what might be viewed as a relational equation, in which silence can be obdurate and resistant as well as a silence that speaks louder than words. What in chapter 3 I discussed as “absence as presence, presence as parapraxis” can also apply to the relation between silence and speaking out. On the other hand, I agree with Schwan that guilt is a political issue, and one not simply to be left to individual conscience. For guilt, shame, and accountability have public as well as private dimensions that touch the core of our democratic understanding of citizenship as well as patriotism. I may not feel personally guilty for something that my ancestors did, but I may feel (private) shame, as well as public accountability. But guilt can also be seen in formal or—dare I say—poetological categories: formal, as it is before a court of law, where a guilty verdict demands both proof (beyond a reasonable doubt) and punishment for the sake of justice, and poetically, when justice can be seen as a restitution of equilibrium and (mutual) exchange — “poetic justice.” I try to consider the different facets in my discussion of German politics after the war, where Schuld (responsibility) was never publicly admitted, but converted into the quantifiable entity of Schulden (guilt into Geld [money], one might say) in a process of uneven, but politically stabilizing exchange. This corresponds, but also contrasts with the formal resources of balance and exchange in the cinematic genres I discuss, where melodrama tries to extract an equitable exchange out of excess, while the poetics of parapractic cinema balances failure and performance on a tightrope, stretched between the poles of paradox and mimicry, self-contradiction and self-effacement.

Conclusion and Summary

If this is a book about a small sample of films made in Germany from the 1970s to the present, on a common set of themes, and with related stylistic traits and strategies, then the analyses I offer are nevertheless embedded in several larger socio-historical and cultural contexts. One such context is the afterlife of two very different historical crises (Nazi rule and the Holocaust and the violent interventions of the Red Army Faction and 9/11), whose discursive identifications as “trauma” and “terror” are tracked in the cinema, politics and society across several decades.

Another context is the tendency, not confined to Germany, to understand (traumatic) history and cultural memory in terms of generations, regarded as distinct entities, with particular values and ambitions, and therefore possessing group coherence and a collective identity. From this follows a more personal context, in that the book is the third attempt to “come to terms” with the New German Cinema, and by extension, to reflect on the mentality of a generation: my generation. Born near or just after the end of the war, and bearing the brunt of the knowledge of the Nazi period, of Hitler and the Holocaust, this generation saw how such knowledge evolved (or metastasized) into guilt. The process took place during this generation’s most active decades, the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, and thus the same period when German cinema was a major ethical manifestation and creative expression of the state of mind, where many did ask themselves: “after such knowledge, what forgiveness.”(footnotes: 30)

The most obvious and persistent context, therefore, besides that of Germany’s “mastering the past” is that of the 1968 generation (referring to the student movement of that time) more generally. But the book also means to make a contribution to the “history and memory/history as memory,” and the “memory-and-trauma/memory-as-trauma” debates all over Europe and beyond. The politics of the ’68 generation had the overthrow of capitalism as its political goal, but as such aspirations faded or were seen to have failed, the 1980s saw (in almost every Western country) the Holocaust become the central reference point, as the universalized symbol of man-made historical catastrophe in the twentieth century, with Germany as the perpetrator nation, and the rest of Europe suffering the traumas of persecution and occupation. A connection offers itself: as capitalism has become the “untranscendable horizon” of our thinking and our experience, might it be that in recent years, the victim-perpetrator divide has also undergone a gradual recalibration? I mention this merely as a suggestion, since it is not what the present study is primarily about. It is focused more on the consequences closer to home; the shift from political activism to cultural memory in Europe, begun with the consolidation of the European Union and sustained since the end of the Soviet Union, when the formerly Communist countries, as condition of entry into the European Union, have also been enjoined to undertake their own “mastering the past,” owning up to anti-Semitism, discrimination of minorities as well as undertaking to end past or persistent ethnic conflicts.

This implies that the memory-trauma debate around the Holocaust quite generally has a secondary source as a “trigger” moment, which appears to vary from country to country. In the United States, it was the Vietnam War and 9/11 that fuelled the “trauma” discourse; in France, it was the belated acknowledgement of widespread collaboration with the Nazi/Vichy regime, and second, the no longer silenced memories of the Algerian war; in Yugoslavia, it was the ethnic-religious wars that pitted the former parts of the federation against each other, which necessitated a new reckoning with older memories. In the countries of Eastern Europe (Hungary, Rumania, Slovenia, the Baltic States), the end of Soviet rule brought the revival of (neo-fascist) nationalisms, while the “trauma” of free-market capitalism defined the terms of the memory-trauma debate in Poland and the former GDR. And finally, in (West) Germany, it was the RAF episode in the mid-1970s, and the aftereffects of unification in the 1990s that gave the Holocaust and the memory debate a new urgency and direction.

The memory-trauma debate thus feeds on these sedimented historical layers and different genealogies, and it is in this sense highly symptomatic, or as some would say, a wholly ideological debate, asking all the wrong questions. In other words, it always stands for, covers up, disguises and displaces other elements that are also present and relevant to the contemporary moment. Therefore, it is not surprising that “memory-trauma” has polarized commentators and has proven quite divisive also within the academic community. The emergence of “memory” as a supposedly valid or authentic relation to knowledge of the past has incensed many historians; the idea of empathy and embodiment as the road to understanding and solidarity is also contested; the introduction of “trauma” into the debate has clinicians shaking their heads in disbelief, and cognitivists pity anyone who clings to the disproven and discredited concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis.

The “elephant in the room” in some of these polemics, I submit, is the cinema and the popular media, such as television. Although films are often cited alongside works of literature, theory and history, cinema and television are rarely discussed (as opposed to accused) concerning their role as root causes for the slippages between history, memory, trauma (and the proliferation of competing terminologies). The sound-and-image media have, over the last half-century, so thoroughly altered our relation to the past and to memory that it is still hard to get a conceptual grip on the full implications of this change, however much we may feel its effects or even know of its consequences.

What used to be called “historical knowledge” is, thanks to photography, the cinema and to factual and fictional television, a smorgasbord of heritage films and costume drama, of reenactments and docudrama, of combat film blockbusters and television series, of compilation films using archive material, often altering its documentary status by remixing (or adding) sound and even colorizing black and white footage.31 Memory, which by many definitions is personal recall, and therefore discrete and unknowable to others, as well as subjective and therefore subject to the pressures of psychic life, now consists of the photographs we or previous generations have collected, and increasingly, is made up of the home videos that have come down to us from earlier parts of our lives, now substituting for personal recall. In both cases, it is visual material usually taken by others, with agendas of their own, and so already from the outset, a sort of outsourced memory of ourselves. Or memory is what we remember seeing on television, about the great events or calamitous moments that happened in the world during our lifetime. The movies we watched as children or young adults have also become our personal memory, but a memory we actually love to share with others. Groups now define themselves by their common memories of favorite television shows and their taste in music: a mark of adherence almost as important as belonging to a particular nation, or showing allegiance to an ethnicity or a religious affiliation.

Once it is evident that the visual media are to a large extent responsible for having made the boundaries between history and memory, as well as between memory and trauma so porous and permeable, then it is not difficult to comprehend why the Holocaust stands as a potent, but also problematic emblem for the confluence and overlap of these once (and for some, still strictly) separate categories. After all, the Holocaust is the very negation of the medium that lives by images and visual evidence. Yet the controversy over whether the true way to remember the Holocaust is to understand its multiple and complex causes, in order to ensure that genocide must never happen again, or whether one must “feel the horror” and get as close as possible to an “embodied memory” of the victims, remains an abstract debate, unless one factors in technologically assisted affect, empathy and emotional intensity, such as experienced in the cinema: the medium that has become the default value for all manner of experience, whether of love, sex or of the sublime, horror, fear or disgust.

If “images” and “Holocaust” borders on a contradiction in terms, then the very insistence on the unrepresentability — and incomprehensibility — of the reality of the camps, by one the part of prominent Holocaust survivors (the examples of Elie Wiesel and Claude Lanzmann are discussed in chapter 2) is part of the paradox. While it excludes any kind of witnessing, whether ocular or affective, the stance is itself highly emotional in its negativity. Conversely, there exists a school of trauma theory also relying on the argument from unrepresentability, that regards “proper” Holocaust memory (especially for those now distant in time from the events, but nonetheless moved to some form of witnessing) to require an affective and trauma-like understanding of the Holocaust through empathy, embodiment, reenactment and overidentification: forms of imaginative and bodily appropriation, for which the cinema (and television) has been the prime medium.

The case I am putting forward goes one step further with respect to the cinema and with regards to the Holocaust. My first presupposition is that this empathetic emulation must be (marked as) a failure, and I cite a number of examples of how it can and did go amiss both in German politics and German cinema. But rather than consider the case against such affective approximation proven and closed, I actually see the failure, under certain conditions, as an achievement, and even a necessary part of “mastering the past,” at least as long as this past has the power to reach into the present, or when the present feels the need to actively recall and reclaim this past. As pointed out, the German term for mastering this past semantically contains the element of struggle and possible defeat (a Bewältigung), while the Freudian term for a lapse, a slip or a failure of intent acknowledges that it might be an achievement, a Leistung.

Furthermore, I argue that the cinema in general, and the particular films and filmmakers I take as my case studies, not only are aware of the degree of necessary failure in this collectively attempted mastery of a past that will not pass, but they appear to have developed narrative and stylistic strategies in order to emphasize achievement and failure, achievement in failure. The entire work, for instance, of Werner Herzog (to whom I only refer in passing) and of Alexander Kluge (to whom I devote a chapter) could be summed up in this last phrase. Thus, while the general term I settled on, for describing these achievements in failure, i.e., parapraxis, does not convey the subtle paradoxes encapsulated in the German word, it does give me the opportunity to identify both a politics and a poetics of parapraxis.

The additional step that I take concerning the Holocaust derives from the necessary perspective from which I write, namely Germany, the perpetrator nation. The whole memory-trauma debate in and about Germany has been skewed by the impossibility of speaking of perpetrator-memory or perpetrator-trauma without seeming to be provocative or insensitive. Mastering the past was therefore often foreshortened to mean “admitting guilt,” or implied watching suspiciously for signs that Germans, too, considered themselves as victims. In either case, “failure” was once more written into the very terms of the proposition “coming to terms with the past.” Hence my suggestion to think of parapraxis as referring to this implicit failure, while at the same time recognizing its performative side, which I call “guilt management.” It follows from this that parapraxis serves as both strategy and metaphor for a situation in which “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” not only prevails but persists, and thus parapraxis can be the name for a trauma — perpetrator-trauma — that I argue should be analyzed without provoking the charge of insensitivity.

Yet here, too, there are two sides to parapraxis: the failed performance and the performance of failure. It would be too easy to say that the first generation (the Täter-Väter, i.e., the perpetrator-fathers) are parapractic by enacting the former, while the second generation (the majority of the filmmakers I deal with) are parapractic in the sense of performing their (knowledge of) failure: the latter a typical trait of Wim Wenders’ melancholy protagonists (a filmmaker I could have included, but didn’t). Parsing parapraxis in this way, by assigning the more negative version to one generation and the more positive to the other, is too neat, not only because it merely repeats the (sometimes fatal) self-righteous superiority appropriated by the second, i.e., the ‘68 generation (with the RAF very much part of this generation, and ample proof of “failed performance”), but it also leaves out of consideration the next generation, who have inherited the same traumatic mandate of mastering the past, but now so removed from first-hand experience of the events, and the guilt they are expected to internalize, that their Holocaust memory, as civic duty and part of the national identity, has to reconstruct itself within an even more complex set of allegiances and sensitivities. On the one hand, they know what to think, the Holocaust being part of the school curriculum, on the other, they—like members of their generation elsewhere in the Western world—have to overcome their remoteness in time by seeking some form of affective engagement or empathetic investment, in order to “remember” the Holocaust in the proper way, which is to identify with the victims. Equipped with the same default values I mentioned above, they watch films, go to Holocaust museums or attend commemorative events and expect to be moved by the means and in the manner they are accustomed to, which are inevitably cinematic.

This brings me to my final two points: if the means of today’s affective engagement are those of television and mainstream cinema, then my supplementary argument, which I make only in the margins of this study, because I am not primarily concerned with either television or blockbusters, is that it is the media themselves that produce memory as trauma through “breaking news,” the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the permanent repetition of images of disasters whenever and wherever these strike, and above all, when reporting on wars as well as of natural catastrophes, putting the focus solely on the victims as victims, who are then harvested for their expressions of shock, grief and trauma. Such a scenario—which also includes reporting on politics increasingly concerned with catching politicians catching each other out on gaffes and Freudian slips, i.e., parapraxes, failed performances—makes for a form of spectator ship/spectator-sport that can only navigate between trauma and disaster-fatigue, between overinvestment in the many kinds of wretchedness in this world, and underinvestment, that is, coldness and numbness to any sort of feeling other than cynical withdrawal. Spectatorship thus returns us to the pathological affectivity of trauma itself: between feeling too much and feeling nothing at all.

It is almost impossible, in these circumstances, not to see oneself as victim, by empathizing with victims “out there,” but also because one cannot but experience one’s own helplessness and disempowerment as a form of victimhood. Yet at the same time, who can avoid in such a situation to not also feel guilty: guilty in the face of the misery and pain of others, guilty by having it so (relatively) good; guilty even, because suspecting that we carry some of the responsibility for the persistence of suffering and injustice. In short, such a form of spectatorship may require its own kind of guilt management and may itself show symptoms of perpetrator trauma. To a traumatogenic television corresponds a parapractic cinema, as two sides of a crisis in agency, in the face of a generalized sense of guilt, with nowhere to go, not even the confessional, unless it’s a television talk show.

Thus, if I feel obliged to devote a book to the cinematic and political consequences of Germany’s cross-generational guilt management, negotiating between perpetrator-trauma and perpetrator-memory, across denial, disavowal, overidentification and victim-status, then the German example of (not) mastering the past by means of the many metamorphoses of parapraxis holds another lesson: a “coming to terms” and a reckoning with (our) guilt in the West is surely yet to come.



Adam Curtis, “The Power of Nightmares” (BBC, 2005). It was followed by “The Trap” (2007). See his BBC home page and blog:


Curtis cut the series to produce a feature-length documentary, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005. See Stuart Jeffries, “The film US TV networks dare not show,” The Guardian, May 12, 2005 ( cannes2005.cannesfilmfestival4).


A similar, and possible more convincing argument, because it was more detailed, was made by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).


Introductory voice-over, The Power of Nightmares, Part I: “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”


Thomas Elsaesser, Terror und Trauma: Zur Gewalt des Vergangenen in der BRD (Berlin: Kadmos, 2007).


The longer period encompasses the history of the RAF (Red Army Faction), the hardcore terrorist organization made up of three (successive) generations, responsible for 34 violent deaths and whose de facto existence is usually dated from May 17, 1970 to April 20, 1998.


Books in German dealing with the RAF, the German Autumn and its consequences fill several shelves. Among the most cited: Stefan Aust: Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (Hamburg: Hoffmann & Campe Verlag, 2008); Gerd Koenen: Das rote Jahrzehnt. Unsere kleine deutsche Kulturrevolution 1967–1977 (Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch Verlag, 2001); Wolfgang Kraushaar (Hrsg.): Die RAF und der linke Terrorismus, 2 vols. Edition (Hamburg, 2006); Butz Peters: Tödlicher Irrtum. Die Geschichte der RAF (Berlin: Argon-Verlag, 2004); Bernd Rabehl: Linke Gewalt. Der kurze Weg zur RAF (Albersroda: Edition Antaios, 2007); Ulf G. Stuberger: Die Akte RAF — Taten und Motive. Täter und Opfer (Munchen: Herbig Verlag, 2008); Willi Winkler: Die Geschichte der RAF (Berlin: Rowohlt Verlag, 2005); Nicole Colin, Beatrice de Graaf, Jacco Pekelder, Joachim Umlauf (Hrsg.): Der “Deutsche Herbst” und die RAF in Politik, Medien und Kunst. Nationale und internationale Perspektiven (transcript, Bielefeld, 2008); as well as several bibliographical guides, such as Peter Hein: Stadtguerilla und bewaffneter Kampf in der BRD und Westberlin. Eine Bibliographie. Edition ID-Archiv im Internationalen Institut für Sozialgeschichte (IISG), Amsterdam 1989 (with supplement, 1993) and http://www.


Wolfgang Kraushaar, for example, has published no fewer than six books on topics related to the RAF and its individual members.


See Joan Copjec and Mark Sorkin (eds.), Giving Ground: The Politics of Propinquity (London: Verso, 1999), 267–302 and


Thomas Elsaesser, “Postmodernism as Mourning Work,” Screen 42(2), (2001): 193–201.


The term is used, following Pierre Nora, by Jay Winter, Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 2.


Zygmunt Bauman, “Survival as a Social Construct,” Theory, Culture and Society, 9 (1992), 1?36 and Alain Badiou, Ethics—An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (London: Verso, 2002).


Elie Wiesel had in the 1970s warned against identifying oneself as a survivor: “Suddenly everybody declares himself a ‘Holocaust survivor,’ reasoning that everybody could have become one [simply because Hitler] waged war on all Jews, all liberals, all non-Aryans.” E. Wiesel, “A Plea for the Survivors,” in A Jew Today, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 238–39.


Thomas Elsaesser, New German Cinema — A History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989).


Thomas Elsaesser, Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996).


I want to single out two of the more recent titles dealing with “mastering the past” in post-war German cinema that posed similar questions to the ones that prompted me to write this book: Sabine Hake, Screen Nazis: Cinema, History, and Democracy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012) and Tobias Ebbrecht, Geschichtsbilder im medialen Gedächtnis: Filmische Narrationen des Holocaust (Bielefeld: transcript, 2011). While neither engages with the RAF and its afterlife, each of the authors touches on one part of the issues I discuss, though reaching different conclusions.


Some of the best work, Eric Santner’s for instance, can be characterized as inspired by the former, while Anton Kaes has commendably extended Kracauer‘s critical practice by introducing the methodology of New Historicism to the study of key films.


According to Samuel Beckett, the situation of the writer is that “there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Samuel Beckett, Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit (London: Calder and Boyars, 1965), 103. A similar and similarly self-contradictory but enabling paradox stands as the final words in The Unnamable: “I can’t go on, I will go on.” Samuel Beckett, Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (New York: Grove Press, 2009), 407.


See Vivian Sobchack (ed.), The Persistence of History (New York: Routledge, 1996), 145–83.


Speech Situation is a term introduced by J.L. Austin to indicate not only the context-dependence of an utterance but also how it comments upon itself: “to indicate the circumstances in which the statement is made or reservations to which it is subject or the way in which it is to be taken.” J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), 3.


A forthcoming book of mine, Melodrama Trauma Mindgames: Affect and Memory in Contemporary American Cinema does engage with the issues of representation of history and memory, using some of the same conceptual tools. It is a companion volume to this one and focused on the films made in the United States, mostly prior to 9/11.


There is the often noted fact, for instance, that both Al Qaida and Hamas, two of the United States’ most implacable political enemies engaged in acts of terror, are at least in part the creation of the U.S. government and its secret services.


Sigmund Freud, Studies in Hysteria, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1955) 2: 1–306; Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Standard Edition 18: 7–64; Moses and Monotheism, Standard Edition 23: 1–138; Totem and Taboo, Standard Edition 13: 1–161.


For an early polemical intervention in this debate on the side of more popular forms of representation, see Andreas Huyssen, “The Politics of Identification: Holocaust and West Germany,” New German Critique 19 (1980): 117–36. See also Huyssen’s more recent statement: “When acknowledging the limits of representation becomes itself an ideology, we are locked into a last ditch defense of modernist purity against the onslaught of new and old forms of representation, and ethics is in danger of being turned into moralizing against any form of representation that does not meet the assumed standard.” Andreas Huyssen, Lecture on ‘Resistance to Memory: The Uses and Abuses of Public Oblivion’ (Porto Alegre, 2004), quoted in Marcelo Brodsky (ed.), Memory under Construction (Buenos Aires: La Marca, 2005), 266.


Cathy Caruth, “Trauma and Experience: Introduction,” in Cathy Caruth (ed.), Trauma: Exploration in Memory (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1995), 4.


Thomas Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film” in Warren Buckland (ed.), Puzzle Films (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 13–41.


Amos Goldberg, “An Interview with Professor Dominick LaCapra,” June 1998, Shoah Resource Center, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem (


Gesine Schwan, Politik und Schuld. Die zerstörerische Macht des Schweigens (Fischer: Frankfurt am Main, 1997), 5; here cited from the English edition Politics and Guilt. The Destructive Power of Silence (University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 4.


Ibid., 7.


I am alluding to T.S. Eliot’s lines in his poem Gerontion: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now/History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,/Guides us by vanities.” T.S Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems (Toronto: Broadview Press, 2011), 42.