A Beginner's Guide To New German Cinema

An overview of one of film's most riveting movements.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder & Hanna Schygulla

An overview of one of film’s most riveting movements.

“The old film is dead. We believe in the new one,” declared a group of young, radical West German filmmakers in the 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto. With the signing of this brief and fervid manifesto, the New German Cinema was born.

Filmmakers like Alexander Kluge, Haro Senft, and Edgar Reitz were among the signatories who rejected the kitschy, dull films dominating West Germany and advocated for an innovative vision of cinema that unnerved and educated mainstream audiences. Their bold ambitions reflected both the artistic and political stagnation of mid-20th century West Germany. With the German film industry in severe decline, the output of conventional and politically voiceless films was perpetual, leaving the aspiring filmmakers yearning for a new film language. Also, while sometimes thought of as an emblem of democratic idealism and capitalist success, West Germany experienced massive cultural upheaval throughout the mid-century. Generational tensions, widespread grappling with the legacy of Nazism, the terrifying Red Army Faction, high employment rates, new lifestyles, and protests all challenged the capabilities of the divided nation’s established and bourgeois political institutions.

With this artistic and political dissatisfaction came filmmakers like Kluge, Senft, and Reitz, as well as a phalanx of other talents: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Margarethe von Trotta, and Helke Sander. These leaders of New German Cinema — which flourished from the late 60s into the early 80s —  rebuffed the standard film production process; they requested financial state support to alleviate their creative visions from the aching constraints of a commercially driven film industry. Many New German Cinema projects did receive some funding and distribution from subsidy laws, The Federal Ministry of the Interior, and Kuratorium Junger Deutscher Film (Young German Film Committee), which prompted the filmmakers to experiment with evocative subject matter and the potentials of cinema itself.

In their mission to create a new insightful film language, the young German filmmakers reflected their own (often leftist) political stances and radically confronted contemporary issues in their work. This intermingling of art and politics often criticized bourgeois institutions and commented on attempts to reconcile a brutal past, marginalized groups, alienated youth, the limits of a liberal democracy, and journalistic integrity — themes which still resonate 50 years after the signing of the Oberhausen Manifesto.

Sadly, New German Cinema’s intent to create the new German film was never quite achieved. As reported in a 1977 New York Times article, most of the movement’s films were commercial failures and “were greeted with apathy by the German public.” Thus, New German Cinema never truthfully met its demands or gained the attention it deserved. However, in a  short documentary about New German Cinema,“The Heirs of Daddy’s Cinema” (1968), filmmaker Peter Schamoni remarks, “We established a certain fixed place for ourselves in German cinema” — a declaration as true in 2018 as it was in 1968. Ultimately, the leaders of the movement produced an insightful, acclaimed body of work and restored the international reputation of German cinema along the way.

New German Cinema comprises of dozens and dozens of films, which all vastly differ in style, themes, and scope. The most ideal way to experience the movement’s richness and allure is to simply watch some of the following films listed below, which include some of the main representatives of the movement, as well as lesser-known gems.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

Ali Fear Eats The Soul

Fassbinder has been often labeled as the quintessential figure of the New German Cinema. He certainly left his impact on the movement given his prolific output alone — he made 40 feature films, three short films, two television films, and over 20 plays in his short career before abruptly dying from an overdose at the age of 37. As an openly queer man, anti-capitalist, and political dissident, Fassbinder unsurprisingly explored the treatment of oppressed and marginalized groups in society.

Inspired by Douglas Sirk’s classic and silky melodramas, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul tells the unlikely love story between Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a 60-year-old building cleaner, and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a younger Moroccan mechanic. Emmi’s children ignore her, and Ali is alienated from his family in xenophobic post-war Germany. The two lonely souls love and care for each other in the distant, hostile world around them.

In one striking scene, Emmi introduces Ali to her children after ostracizing reactions from neighbors, grocery store clerks, waiters, and co-workers. As viewers, we beg for the children’s acceptance, if only for the love they have for their mother. Fassbinder pans across each of their silent reactions, and the boiling tensions finally burst when Emmi’s son angrily kicks the TV. These heartbreaking moments pervade the progressive film, which intertwines themes like socially dictated roles, ingrained prejudices, tensions between the private and the public, a legacy of Nazism (Emmi: “You know Hitler?” Ali: “Hitler? Yeah.”) in West Germany, all the while incorporating an uncanny and often claustrophobic aesthetic.

I’m an Elephant, Madame (dir. Peter Zadek, 1969)

Like many of his contemporaries, Peter Zadek was apart of a generation too young to be personally impacted by Nazi Germany, but old enough to reject the nation’s collective post-war apathy. Several former Nazi members seamlessly re-integrated into society with minimal punishment for their active engagement or complicity in a evil regime, thereby allowing most Germans to repress any disturbing memories of a very recent past. This ubiquitous suppression encouraged a variety of onscreen rebellions, which is gloriously on display in I’m an Elephant, Madame.

The film follows the protests and private lives of a group of high school students during their last year of school, with a particular focus on the apolitical provocateur, Rull (Wolfgang Schneider), whose protest methods upset the school administration, older Germans, and young leftists.

I’m an Elephant, Madame is a dense movie crammed with all sorts of ideas, and Zadek does not identify with a singular ideology; instead, he showcases the generation tensions in post-war Germany and criticizes both younger and older groups. The teachers condemn the students’ nonconformity and rebellious spirits while the solipsistic students’ underlying motivations for their protests are never articulated with any clarity. Zadek’s ambivalence concerning younger/older generations surfaces in one of the film’s most interesting scenes, where Rull’s paints a swastika in the town square and garners different reactions — ranging from fascist, to thoughtful, to radically left — from the public.

In addition to its examination of generational conflict, I Am an Elephant, Madame is also worth seeing for Zadek’s combative and personal directorial style. The aforementioned swastika scene employs stark black-and-white photography and a documentary-style realism, whereas the rest of the film relies on a garish color palette. The opening montage is especially memorable, which plays late 60s counterculture anthem “I’m Waiting For The Man” by The Velvet Underground to accompany the vibrant images of hazy blue windows and odd paint imagery. The film’s allure and energy noticeably slows down after this sequence, but I Am an Elephant, Madame offers more than enough intriguing and shocking moments to make up for it.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (dir. Werner Herzog, 1972)

Aguirre

During New German Cinema’s heyday, the provocative Herzog operated — and continues to operate — on a grand scope, depicting his protagonists as troubled men in unpredictably chaotic situations with a biting dread and ambiguity. Roger Ebert was one of Herzog’s greatest admirers, once praising, “he [Herzog] has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular,” an apt sentiment that has been shared by many moviegoers, critics, and filmmakers over the years.

The extraordinary Aguirre, the Wrath of God follows Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), a volatile conquistador who descends into madness during a treacherous search for El Dorado. Herzog invokes an eerie, detached mood with his use of the artificial “choir organ,” a hypnotic and slow-burning pace, a noticeable dubbing, and — of course — Kinski’s spine-crawling performance as Aguirre. Through his cold, wide blue eyes, thick pink lips, and lopsided stride, Kinski’s physicality embodies Aguirre’s menace: he has an unhinged presence and appears as though he could explode at any unprompted moment.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is full of harrowing images — from a raft getting caught in a whirlpool, to a man continuing to speak after being decapitated, to Aguirre’s chilling declaration of his new empire in the film’s famous finale. Capturing these images, though, was not a cake walk; the film is notorious for its nightmarish production. The crew lived on rafts and nearly starved to death, the negatives disappeared after a few weeks of shooting, Herzog had to endure the enmity between him and Kinski, and some of the plot and dialogue was improvised.

Luckily, the film is neither plot nor dialogue driven. Rather, Aguirre’s greatest achievement lies in its atmosphere and the subdued illustration of destructive colonial ambitions and human susceptibility to delusion. 

The American Friend (dir. Wim Wenders, 1977)

The American Friend

Throughout the 1970s, Wim Wenders often piously integrated American pop culture and the Americanization of Germany as major plot points or critical themes in his films. The American Friend deploys Wenders’ cinematic nostalgia in full force; he cast Dennis Hooper as the malevolent but captivating villain, adapted a Patricia Highsmith novel into a film noir, and featured beloved American filmmakers Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller in cameo roles.

The American Friend stars a quiet but effective Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Zimmerman, a terminally ill West German picture framer who lives a sedentary, domestic life with his wife and little boy. His “American friend” is Tom Ripley (Hooper), an immoral “cowboy” in Hamburg who speaks minimal German. Tom cons Jonathan into becoming a cold-blooded murder, with the action sweeping from one expressionistic, picturesque landscape/cityscape to another in New York, Paris, and Hamburg.

Because it has a striking color scheme, features a big Hollywood star, and is largely in English, The American Friend doesn’t challenge viewers like some Fassbinder and Herzog films do, which makes the film an ideal entry point for those new to New German Cinema. Regardless of its accessibility, The American Friend masterfully imbues enigmatic streaks within the two clearly isolated protagonists. The film’s central theme, the displaced man at home, is also well realized, with numerous scenes of men aimlessly driving cars, riding trains, wandering cities, sitting at home — all hoping for some sort of deeper purpose or fulfillment.

The All-Around Reduced Personality (dir. Helke Sander, 1978)

All Around

Helke Sander was one of many talented female directors of New German Cinema, along with Margarethe von Trotta and Helma Sanders-Brahms. In her groundbreaking essay, “Feminism and Film,” Sander dismisses the essentialist idea of “feminine art” and encapsulates the motivations behind her work with, “To put it in other terms: women’s most authentic act today — in all areas including the arts — consists not in standardizing and harmonizing the means, but rather in destroying them. Where women are true, they break things.”

Sander applies these notions of authenticity and destabilization of normal, patriarchal practices to the group of fiercely committed female artists in The All-Around Reduced Personality. Sander herself stars as Edda, a photographer who (alongside her colleagues) seeks to truthfully depict an unfiltered Berlin and disrupt standardized, oversimplified assumptions of the city in her next subversive project. Along the way, she and her fellow photographers endure faux-progressive forces, from an arts council to the dismissive director of an advertising agency that believes the Edda should just focus on “women’s issues.”

Tedious, sardonic, and intelligent, The All Around Reduced Personality manages to render the universal struggles experienced by female artists, the irrefutable similarities between East and West Berlin in spite of its separation, and the corrupt institutions who exploit feminism for financial gain.

The Marriage of Maria Braun (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978)

Maria Braun

Like Zadek, Fassbinder took interest in the relationship between the past and present while reflecting the effects of Germany’s fascist history on the post-war profitable, bourgeois public. These themes permeate The Marriage of Maria Braun, one of Fassbinder’s greatest international box office and critical successes.

The film opens with Maria Braun (played by the captivating Hanna Schygulla) marrying a WWII soldier Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch) amidst chaos, fallen bombs, a crying baby, and a wedding party desperately searching for safety. The rest of the film follows Maria as she thrives in post-war Germany, all the while remaining fiercely loyal to Herman, a man she barely knows. Maria is cruel and calculating; she refers to herself as “the Mata Hari of the economic miracle” and uses her sexuality to get exactly what she wants without ever hiding her perverse motivations from her victims.

With Maria Braun, Fassbinder pointedly attacks a society trying to forget its past. Maria’s devotion to Herman metaphorically reflects her loyalty to a defeated nation, and her pragmatic, forward-thinking disposition reflects the typical post-war German mindset — which wanted to freely move on from a calamity on its own terms. Fassbinder glimpses into Maria’s humanity when she returns to a shambled, dilapidated area that was once her old school. Perfectly dressed and in high heels, she stumbles through the ruins with her sister, while laughing, crying, and singing together. The scene illuminates how Maria can profit from the post-war economic miracle, but this escapism is not absolute: the lingering effects of WWII carnage are real, haunting, and irresponsible to ignore.

After completing your viewing parties of these six films, have no fear — there are plenty New German flicks to check out. Some further recommendations: Marianne and Juliane (1981), Yesterday Girl (1966), Germany, Pale Mother (1980), The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), Young Törless (1966), and Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).

Darby is a student who loves Jack Black and Nastassja Kinski's pink sweater in Paris, Texas.