Watching Germany II: Contemporary Films on German History
Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program
Dr. Eric Langenbacher is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.
Dr. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown University’s Government Department in 2002. His research interests include collective memory, political culture, and electoral politics in Germany and Europe. Recent publications include the edited volumes Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany after the 2017 Bundestag Election (2019), The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (2015), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), and From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010). With David Conradt, he is also the author of The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (2013, 2017).
Dr. Langenbacher remains affiliated with Georgetown University as Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government. He has also taught at George Washington University, Washington College, The University of Navarre, and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. Since 2005, he has also been Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. Dr. Langenbacher has also planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy.
Here in Washington, DC, we are into week six of the pandemic shutdown. Universities and public schools will not reopen until the next school year. Regular businesses might only (partially) reopen in June. The situation is a little different in Germany and elsewhere in Europe where a partial reopening seems to be happening. But, we will certainly still be spending a lot of time at home for the foreseeable future.
Last week, I shared some German television recommendations for you to consider as you while away the time. This week, I will share some of my personal recommendations for more contemporary films that depict German history or historical themes. Future posts will look at recent films with a contemporary focus and classic German cinema. I have decided that reunification will divide contemporary films from “classics.” Of course, this is a bit of an arbitrary date—and certainly combining the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder with those of Fritz Lang into one category is problematic. Nevertheless, some sort of periodization is necessary. I have also grouped various films into thematic categories or genres. I suppose I also need to forewarn you that there are some spoilers ahead.
One of the most evocative films about the Holocaust in any language is Agnieszka Holland’s Europa, Europa (1990). Based on the memoir of Solomon Perel (I was Hitler Youth Solomon), the film chronicles the boy’s survival during the Third Reich and WWII under an assumed “German” identity, Josef Peters. His journey takes him to a Soviet orphanage, the front lines of the Wehrmacht, and a Hitler Youth academy. He reunites with his only surviving family member at the end of the war and emigrates to Israel. One of the many reasons I like this film is that I think it more realistically captures how people actually survived—through luck, chance, quick thinking, and cleverness—than films like Schindler’s List. One weakness is that the true horrors of the Holocaust are only depicted peripherally.
Downfall (2004) is one of the most famous and best films of the last thirty years. With a narrative woven together from various memoirs—such as one of Hitler’s secretaries, Traudl Junge—this film depicts the end of the Nazi regime mainly from the confines of Hitler’s bunker. The fanaticism of the Nazi leadership and many average Germans during the Endkampf is clear, but also the suffering that many Germans experienced in April and May 1945. The acting and production are outstanding—one can almost feel the bombs dropping on the city and the scene where the Goebbels children are murdered by their parents is bone-chilling. Of course, there is some criticism: the depiction of Hitler is quite humanized at times; the many, especially Jewish, victims of the Nazis are not foregrounded; some have seen undue sympathy for Germans-as-victims, juxtaposed with the few guilty top Nazis—an Adenauer era trope.
The Counterfeiters and Nowhere in Africa
Mention should also be made of the two excellent films that won Academy Awards for best foreign-language films. The Counterfeiters (2007, actually Austrian-German) is the fictionalized account of an actual Nazi plan (Operation Bernhard) in which Jews enslaved in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp forge Allied currency. Caroline Link’s Nowhere in Africa (2001) tells the story of a German-Jewish family that escaped to Kenya during the Nazi dictatorship and WWII. It is a story about the effects of persecution, difficult interpersonal relationships, especially between the husband and wife, and a growing love for Africa.
Once a staple of American television, miniseries or Fernsehfilme are still rather popular in Germany. Perhaps the most renowned in recent memory is Generation War (2013). This work follows the fates of five friends from 1941-1945 with two dying in the last phase of the war—one in battle, but to save his troops, and one by the Gestapo for speaking negatively about the war effort. Some writers lauded the production for portraying the crimes of the Nazis and Germans in an unflinching manner. Critics, however, pointed out the Germans-as-victims trope and the anti-Semitic portrayal of Polish partisans. Three other series about the suffering of Germans, with a heathy dose of melodrama, also bear mention in this context. March of Millions (Die Flucht, 2007) starring Tatort’s Maria Furtwängler, chronicles the flight of Germans from East Prussia to the West as the Red Army attacked in 1944-1945. One of the first mainstream attempts to depict the flight and expulsion of 10-14 million Germans from then-eastern Germany, critics pointed out an overly narrow historical focus and little depiction of German crimes. Dresden (2006) thematizes the fire-bombing of that city in February 1945 (replete with a love story between a German nurse and a British air force pilot trying to survive). Finally Die Gustloff (2008) tells the story of the sinking of a ship in which over 9,000 refugees fleeing the Red Army died.
The Lives of Others
In this section, I will recommend recent films that retrospectively depict the period of German division. First and foremost is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s magisterial The Lives of Others (2006). A playwright and his girlfriend are ensnared in Stasi surveillance in 1984. The Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler (played perfectly by Ulrich Mühe) develops sympathy for them and evades his commanders to help the writer escape detection after he writes a letter in the West condemning the high suicide rate in the GDR. Nevertheless, the girlfriend commits suicide and Wiesler is demoted. After unification, the writer finds out about the surveillance and the role of the Stasi agent in protecting him. Widely acclaimed for the acting and directing, as well as for the depiction of goodness in the midst of an evil system, some critics believed that the reality of East Germany and the Stasi was downplayed.
Good Bye Lenin!
A more light-hearted, but still heart-wrenching, film is Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! (2003). East Berliner Alex’s mother, Christiane, has a heart attack and falls into a coma, just as the Berlin Wall is falling. Waking months later, the doctors warn that any further shocks could lead to a relapse. Alex and his sister shield Christiane from all the rapid changes by only serving Eastern German products and even re-creating television news programs. Eventually she learns the truth—as does Alex about his wayward father, who did not abandon the family a decade before to live with a mistress in the West, but rather left in disgust with the communist system. Family members are reunited, but Christiane dies just days after reunification. Wonderfully acted—especially Daniel Brühl’s Alex, the film touchingly depicts the human toll of communism, while also (not unproblematically) fostering a kind of nostalgia (Ostalgie) for East Germany.
Another outstanding film is Barbara (2012), starring the wonderful Nina Hoss (of Homeland fame). This story set in East Germany in 1980 follows the titular character, a doctor, who is exiled to a remote and rural hospital for daring to file a permit to leave for the West. As she interacts with patients and the head physician Richter, she is also planning an escape. On the appointed night, she actually lets a pregnant former patient take her place, deciding to continue to treat the needy and perhaps to pursue a relationship with Richter. The film vividly evokes the GDR reality and the psychological effects dictatorship has on the characters.
Baader Meinhof Komplex
Turning to the West, the Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008) looks at the infamous left-wing terrorists, the Red Army Faction. Starting with the student protests of the late 1960s, the film depicts the radicalization of main figures such as Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin, and Holger Meins. We see the escalation of violence—from robberies, to bombings of police stations, to abductions and murders. The film ends with the suicides of the criminals in 1977 at the end of the “German Autumn.” There is much action and violence, but the terrorists and their ideology are not glamorized. It is also a thought-provoking depiction of gender issues, given the leading roles that several women took.
I will end this installment by mentioning three final films that do not quite fit into any of these previous categories. The Nasty Girl (1990) is a tense look at the real-life efforts of a woman (Anna Rosmus, who eventually moved to Maryland) during her high school and graduate school years to uncover the actual Nazi past of her hometown, Passau in Bavaria. Despite stone-walling, death threats, and a bombing, she persists in her quest for truth, revealing how implicated her town’s average Germans were in the crimes of the Nazis. Michael Haneke’s brilliant, multiple award-winning The White Ribbon (2009) tells the story of a dour north German Protestant town in the months before the outbreak of WWI. The plot revolves around a series of eerie crimes and disappearances (never solved), but it is really a portrait of a rigidly hierarchical, religious patriarchy and the damage such a society can bring. It has been widely interpreted as a portrait of an authoritarian culture that prefigured the Nazi regime a few decades later.
Finally, one of my favorite films of the last decade is Look Who’s Back (2015), a truly unique and haunting dark comedy. The basic premise is that Hitler suddenly wakes up in the middle of Berlin in the present. As he wanders the streets, no one takes him seriously, thinking that he is some kind of crazy impersonator. What he learns about modern Germany enrages him, and after being “discovered” by a filmmaker, he tours Germany making short films and eventually gets his own TV show. Although everyone thinks Hitler is an impersonator and he is constantly framed as a satirical, comedic act, the film shows the degree to which Hitler’s worldview resonates with contemporary Germans. As we look past the comedy, a deadly serious political and cultural point is made—although some critics took issue with a comedy about the worst murderer in human history.
Where to Watch
Many of these selections are available through a subscription to Netflix or Amazon Prime. There are also some options to pay individually for streaming. Also quite useful is the Telescope Film website: telescopefilm.com/germanfilms.