German Cinema Confronts the Past and Frets Over the Future


The specter of the 20th century hangs heavily over this edition of MOMA’s annual series celebrating recent films from Germany, now in its 25th year. (A program beginning November 16 showcases highlights from the past, including classics by Fassbinder, Ottinger, and others.) The formal inventiveness that marked new German cinema in its heyday seems largely to have faded, replaced by earnest explorations of the nation’s fate.

Among directors, the lightest touch belongs to Bernd Fischer, whose documentary, Hello Dachau!, captures the cheerily macabre ambience of his hometown, which is both a “picture-book Bavarian city,” with its cobblestone streets and celebrations of Turnip Week, and site of the infamous Nazi death camp. Lively interviews with a Carmelite nun, a camp survivor, a tour guide in folkloric costume, and a local politician testify to the still strained (and strange) relationship between Dachau’s natives and the town’s notorious reputation.

On the big screen, Germans yet again save Jewish lives (think Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Aimée & Jaguar) in Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosenstrasse, part of the veteran auteur’s four-film retro (November 6 through 30). The film’s central, at times quite moving story is based on a true incident, in which Aryan wives stood outside the Berlin prison holding their German Jewish husbands for two weeks during the winter of 1943. But the framing narrative—a contemporary drama about a New York Jewish family whose daughter (Maria Schrader) returns to Germany seeking her mother’s roots—strikes one false note after another.

German media baron Axel Springer, one of the most puzzling and controversial figures to emerge from the rubble of World War II, receives the full biopic treatment in The Publisher. Writer-director Bernd Bohlich’s three-hour odyssey (adapted from Michael Jürg’s biography) follows Springer from his salad days selling pulp novels on the black market, and through his numerous marriages, meetings with European statesmen (Adenauer, Khrushchev) to promote the cause of German reunification, trips to Israel, and later confrontations with student radicals. The film has the cheesy, gossipy appeal of one of Springer’s tabloids, yet its tour of post-war German history (and portrait of an arch manipulator) is compulsively watchable.

Fascism’s ghost also rattles its chains in Führer Ex, Winfried Bonengel’s debut feature. Set during the waning days of the former East German state, this portrait of a lost generation follows two young friends who are imprisoned after a failed attempt to cross the border into the West. During the confusion of reunification, Nazism steps in to fill the gap left by the crumbling ideologies of the left. “The world is ugly/and the people are sad”—that refrain from a Wallace Stevens poem seems an apt description of the universe depicted in this grim melodrama.

Finally, the 21st century gets a hearing in September. Director Max Färberböck (Aimée & Jaguar) co-wrote the ambitious script, a wild mosaic featuring the responses of eight people, native Germans and Muslim immigrants, to September 11. The film lacks a coherent perspective—undoubtedly, that was Färberböck’s point, though it also feels like an evasion. All the narrative fireworks mean that only a few characters—a Pakistani pizza entrepreneur and an haute bourgeoise German housewife—achieve anything like depth.