New German Cinema:
The displaced image

by Jan Mouton

from Jump Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, pp. 62-68
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1988, 2006

New German Film: The Displaced Image by Timothy Corrigan (Austin: U. of Texas Press, 1983), 213 pp. HB $19.95/PB $8.95

West German Film in the Course of Time by Eric Rentschler (Bedford Hills, NY: Redgrave Pub. Co., 1984), 260 pp. PB $14.95

The signing of the Oberhausen Manifesto in 1962 marked the beginning of a new era in West German film. However it was not until Völker Schlöndorff's YOUNG TORLESS and Alexander Kluge's YESTERDAY'S GIRL were screened at the New York Film Festival in the fall of 1967 that moviegoers on this side of the Atlantic began to see examples of New German Cinema. In the ensuing years a great deal of interest at film festivals, art houses, and campus film societies has been directed toward New German Cinema; and a few directors from the German Federal Republic have managed to break into the commercial distribution circuit here as well.

During the course of the past year, two excellent histories of New German Cinema have appeared, providing U.S. viewers with extremely perceptive textual analyses (Corrigan's New German Film) as well as invaluable discussions of contextual material (Rentschler's West German Film). Furthermore, both Corrigan and Rentschler are, in effect, introducing their American readers to the theoretical system of Hans Robert Jauss as this applies to film history.


In Germany Jauss's work, especially his "aesthetics of reception," is generally considered the most significant contribution to the field of literary theory in the last twenty years, and a collection of his works in translation recently appeared in the University of Minnesotas "Theory and History of Literature Series."[1][open notes in new window] Corrigan and Rentschler have taken important first steps in applying Jaussian theories to the study of film.

Jauss deals with literature's relation to history. His system attempts to overcome the old Marxist/Formalist dichotomy by "satisfying the Marxist demand for historical mediations while retaining the Formalist advances in the realm of aesthetic perception."[2] Jauss situates literature within a larger process of events and focuses attention on the perceiving subject.

In his aesthetics of reception, Jauss uses as a "methodological centerpiece" a notion of the horizon of expectations, a mediating device which enables the reader/ viewer to participate in a process-like relationship with any given literary/cinematic work and with its author. With film the horizon of expectations resides in a viewer's head, so to speak, and is formed by all the films he or she has seen (the diachronic or historical aspect) and by his or her socio-historical surroundings (the synchronic or simultaneous aspect). Any viewer, of course, goes through a process of continuously establishing and altering horizons as he or she continues to view media and to experience life. Filmmakers, too, participate in this same diachronic/synchronic process, and engage in multidimensional dialogues — with film history, with their socio-historical surroundings, and with the audience. According to Jauss:

"The historicity of literature as well as its communicative character presupposes a dialogical and at once process-like relationship between work, audience, and new work that can be conceived in the relations between message and receiver as well as between question and answer, problem and solution. The closed circle of production and of representation within which the methodology of literary studies has mainly moved in the past must therefore be opened to an aesthetics of reception and influence."[3]

In his brief introduction, Timothy Corrigan tells how he restricted the scope of his study. He considers films made between the 1962 issuance of the Oberhausen Manifesto and the 1977 filming of GERMANY IN AUTUMN. (In fact, all the films he analyzes were made within an even narrower time period, the five years between 1972 and 1977.) In terms of aesthetics, the films all demonstrate the director's ability to manipulate, challenge, and dislocate established codes. This means that each of the films "manifests in the work of its text the historical conflict and exchange which describes its defining context," and each "addresses the problem of opening alternative avenues of communication while still operating within the usually closed communication system established by … Hollywood" (p. xii).

Corrigan's first chapter, "A History, A Cinema: Hollywood, Audience Codes, and the New German Cinema," describes his critical methodology, and the second chapter, "Wenders' KINGS OF THE ROAD: The Voyage from Desire to Language," skillfully applies this theoretical apparatus to a specific film. Subsequent chapters refuse to fit so neatly into the schema, and this makes for a less-than-unified book, but does not necessarily diminish the value of any given chapter.

Due to a combination of factors growing out of United States' policies toward West Germany after World War II — including economic regulation and political censorship  —  the postwar generation of German movie-goers grew up on a steady program of Hollywood products (many coming from the huge backlog of films which had been banned during the Nazi period). Since film distribution lay in the hands of the Allied Powers and since the under-financed and decentralized domestic industry produced works altogether inferior to the Hollywood imports, for many years little in the way of German film was being exhibited in Germany.

When a new generation of directors began to emerge in the 1960s, their works were inevitably created in response to the dominant Hollywood model. Informed by Jaussian theory, Corrigan shows how the filmmakers attempted to create a new cinematic discourse — a discourse directly challenging traditional filmic language and reflecting their own social reality and historical past. The New German Cinema directors made films with open texts which called for active viewers. These viewers, from their own horizons of expectations, were expected to confront the films in a participatory, dialogic manner. Although Corrigan consciously privileges the filmic text as the center of the exchange between audience and screen, he uses the term "text" in the inclusive sense of "an intertextual surface infiltrated by specific extra-filmic dimensions —historical, ideological, and psychological" (p. 17).

In his discussion of Wender's KINGS OF THE ROAD, Corrigan proceeds from Metz' theory of cinematic signification and coding. He expands Metz's position to include Jaussian notions of the dialogical and process-like relations between the work and its antecedents, on the one hand, and the work and its audience, on the other. The film has a much-quoted line,

"The Yankees have even colonized our unconscious."

This line foregrounds the confrontation between the ubiquitous U.S. cultural presence in Germany and the Germans' attempts to come to terms with this presence both in their films and in their lives. In Corrigan's excellent analysis of the film as two intertextual voyages — one narrative, one cinematic — he shows how Wenders' variations on the traditional cinematic voyage, the U.S. road movie, bring the spectator, as well as the two characters, to a radical awareness of a context or field of action outside the route of the voyage. The short-circuiting results in the realization that the voyager is not just a participant in the voyage but a watcher outside and independent of the journey itself. In the film, this realization entails dissatisfaction, isolation, and finally the possibility of action for the audience … the possibility of a new relationship between the spectator and the screen (pp. 36-7).

Corrigan follows the chapter on Wenders with a brilliant analysis of Fassbinder's THE BITTER TEARS OF PETEA VON KANT. He begins by locating the film in Jaussian terms: its exaggerated isolation is

"a function of a complex horizon of historical expectations which have their center in the Hollywood subject but which also include a number of social formulations of a specifically German kind" (p. 47).

As the argument of the chapter develops, however, it seems increasingly informed by the theories of Metz and Jacques Lacan, and in its final section, by feminist film theory.

What Corrigan shows is that Fassbinder has created a film about desire (which includes nostalgia, theatrics, dreams, images, oppressors, victims). Yet the dynamics of Fassbinder's treatment of space (especially planar interactions among the three major surfaces in the film) enable him to demystify the conventional mechanics of representation and subvert the passive structure which the emotional force of the film experience imposes on the spectator (p. 67). Fassbinder thereby reveals the connections between patterns of exploitation in a patriarchal society and the tyranny of the film image in conventional cinema.

The next two chapters, one on Völker Schlöndorffs COUP DE GRACE, the other on Alexander Kluge STRONGMAN FERDINAND, are competent but less interesting than the Wenders and Fassbinder chapters. I find the films themselves are less interesting. It would seem that THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM might have served as a more fruitful subject for a Schlöndorff study, or Kluge's THE PATRIOT would have fit well within the theoretical framework of Conigan's study, although it appeared after GERMANY IN AUTUMN, placing it outside his time limits.

The next chapter on Werner Herzog's THE MYSTERY OF KASPAR HAUSER is excellent. Corrigan sees Herzog as trying to make "radical seers" Out of his commercial audiences — audiences that have been wrongly conditioned to see things a certain way. Rejecting Hollywood's prefabricated entertainments, Herzog reaches back to film's historical origins (Griffith or Murnau) for inspiration. The pristine, naive qualities of early film hold a special fascination for Herzog who often imbues his own characters and films with something of the same.

Corrigan points to an especially interesting connection between the "wild child" character, Kaspar Hauser, who must learn a language which challenges his own perceptions (though if the child were to fail to do so he would be forever unable to communicate those perceptions), and Herzog himself, who stands in a similar position vis-à-vis traditional cinematic language. Among the other linguistic connections Corrigan deals with, the most fascinating is between Kaspar's name, planted and growing in watercress (a "verbal and visual sign of the individual's bond with the energies of the world — a bond that is, however, always ephemeral when subjected to those energies" [p. 133]) and Herzog's own communicative goals.

"The blooming of Kaspar's name … becomes the verbal sign and symbol of the imaginative penetration into the world that Herzog aspires to himself with the language of his cinema, as it works to see the world with infant eyes. Like Kaspar's name, this vision and its language are singularly unconventional, holistic, and resistant to narrative patterning, and more than the language of any other commercial German director, it remains a struggle toward an effacement of a homocentric perspective" (p. 133).

In the remainder of the chapter, Corrigan discusses the nature of this cinematic language of Herzog's as "a logic of space, spectacle, and linear development."

The next chapter, on Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's HITLER, A FILM FROM GERMANY, begins with a characteristically aggressive quotation from the filmmaker, claiming that his films are:

"a declaration of war against the present forms of cinema dialogue and of boulevard-type cinema in the tradition of Hollywood and its satellites … A declaration of war against psychological chitchat, against the action film, against a particular philosophy endlessly linking shots and reverse shots, against the metaphysics of the automobile and the gun, against the excitement of opened and closed doors, against the melodrama of crime and sex." (p. 147)[4]

Given the rigorously oppositional stance Syberberg takes in his position and practice, one might question the decision to include him in this book, especially when Jean Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet were excluded as "militantly singular directors," others because they were not "significant presences on the American film circuits." The book concludes with a short chapter entitled "Other Courses in Time." It deals briefly with Werner Schroeter, a filmmaker who Corrigan says has cared more for the honesty of his conceptions than for the avenues of distribution, and whose work consequently has had little impact on critics and audiences.

The real "absent presence" in the book, however, are women filmmakers. Films by three of the most important West German women directors were released between 1972 and 1977: Helma Sanders-Brahms's THE BEACH UNDER THE SIDEWALK, Helke Sanders's THE ALL ROUND REDUCED PERSONALITY, and Margarethe von Trotta's THE SECOND AWAKENING OF CHRISTA KLAGES. These films, as well as others by Jutta Brückner or Ula Stöckl for example, offer extremely interesting instances of an alternate film discourse that would lend themselves especially well to a Jaussian analysis. Corrigan perpetuates the unfortunate pattern of phallocentrism among New German Film critics. Particularly for U.S. readers, located as we are within the Hollywood culture of the Father, the It otherness" of a film culture within which feminist filmmaking plays an important role would have great interest.

Whereas Corrigan's book is divided into chapters on individual films, Rentschler organizes his around certain social and aesthetic structures. He, too, systematically passes over the work of women filmmakers. While Corrigan completely ignores the topic, Rentschler on several occasions refers to feminist filmmakers. He even accuses other critics of overlooking them (p. 161) and goes so far as to point to the problem of their being "ghettoized and ignored by the mainstream of German film culture" (p. 164), but he never discusses their work. From among Rentschler's chapters, whose titles are very clever appropriations of New German Film titles ("History Lessons," "American Friends and the New German Cinema Patterns of Reception," "Calamity Prevails Over the Country," "The Subjective Factor in the Course of Time"), one title is conspicuous by its absence. It should have been called "The All Round Marginalized and Ignored Personalities: Feminist Filmmakers in the Federal Republic."

Although the two books by Corrigan and Rentschler share this lack — and it is a serious one — in many other ways the books are different and complementary. Rentschler, too, bases his study on the theories of Hans Robert Jauss. However, in contrast to Corrigan's detailed analysis of works by a few "major" directors (or to the introductory surveys by Sanford and Franklin who deal with essentially the same chosen few),[5] Rentschler sets out to write a "counterhistory" which presents alternative images and which, he says, has been shaped by a decided bias in favor of the "rougher edges" of West German filmmaking (p. iii).

Rentschler makes a strong case for the appropriateness of following a Jaussian model for a history of New German Cinema when he writes that

"the impetus at hand in a good number of Young German films and the insight central to reception theory is a common one: history is a process engaging the subject in a dynamic relationship" (p. 8).

Jauss's program also parallels Young German Film's rebellion against Papas Kino (Grandpa's cinema) in that it grew out of a period of opposition to previous socio-cultural models during which challenging the whole conservative intellectual heritage became a political issue. In fact, 1967, the year when New German Cinema made its appearance at the New York Film Festival, is also the year when Jauss delivered his famous lecture, "What is and for what purpose does one study literary history?" That lecture announced the end of the old regime and called for revolution in the field of literary scholarship.

Rentschler begins his "counter-history" by specifying the ways in which he will use Jauss's theories "to combine both social and aesthetic structures with their historical dimensions in a discussion of West German film since 1962" (p. 16). This project includes:

Outlining the expectations behind the Oberhausen Manifesto and the subsequent development of Young German Film.

  1. Viewing West German films within a historical continuity beyond simply film-based considerations.
  2. Discussing West German directors' relation to tradition in their attempt to fashion a viable alternative national cinema.
  3. Describing the precarious situation faced by West German filmmakers within a complex of public institutions and showing how socioeconomics have conditioned the making of images in the German Federal Republic.
  4. Explaining the key role of international criticism and reception in fashioning public images of West German films—and the consequences of this.

Following the outline, Rentschler devotes the next section of his book to what he calls "West German Film's Precarious Course in Time: Misère-en-scène in the Federal Republic," a chronological sketch of the postwar film situation in the FRG, beginning with a debunking of both the "we had to begin from zero" notion as well as an "enfant terrible" explanation for the existence of New German Cinema. The sketch continues with a characterization of the socio-cultural context of the fifties: the functioning of the Group 47, the collapse of Papas Kino, the growing influence of the ideas of the Frankfurt School, and the Wirtschaftswunder (postwar economic miracle). Within this context, Rentschler describes the struggles of the new generation of filmmakers.

Rentschler is extremely knowledgeable about the significant structures in Germany during these decades, and he points to ways in which they affected filmmaking and film viewing. The first landmark of the 1960s was Oberhausen, followed by the founding of the Institut fur Filmstaltung (Institute for Film Design) in Ulm, and subsequently, the film academies in Berlin and Munich. During the Sixties, too, the Kuratoriumjunger deutscher Film (Board of Curators of the Young German Film) was established as a film subsidy granting body, and the Filmforderungsgesetz (Film Subsidy Law) was passed. It was in this decade as well that such films as YESTERDAY'S GIRL and YOUNG TÖRLESS began to appear.

With the 1970s came the fragmentation and ultimate collapse of the student movement, the organization of the Filmverlag der Autoren (an independent filmmakers' group concerned with both production and distribution), the appearance of the first works of Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders, international attention for the New German Cinema at festivals and in art houses, the making of GERMANY IN AUTUMN, and in 1979, the signing by sixty filmmakers of the "Hamburg Declaration."

Having thus given the reader a basis for understanding the context out of which German film culture arose over the past decades, Rentschler continues by focusing on particular aspects of the filmmakers' practice and on the reception of their films. In the next chapter he argues that what began in Germany "as a counter-cinema dedicated to alternative modes of representation, to views of the present not found in the established media" (p. 65), was transformed in the U.S. into a commodity. It became an "in" item at film festivals and art houses and tended to be understood as the personal expression of a few eccentric genius-directors. He blames this reception in part on U.S. journalists, film critics, and scholars still held in thrall by a narrow auteurism, and in part on the vagaries of the distribution system.

"In the U.S. critics end up in the position of 1) stressing the finished product and disregarding the process, 2) concentrating on the formal attributes of films without taking into account the socio-historical setting they reflect or issue from, and 3) enshrining a few privileged directors in the auteurist pantheon, thus fostering an extremely narrow view of West German Cinema as a whole as well as an often inaccurate image of the canonized luminaries" (p. 83).

The enthusiasms, distortions, and gaps in U.S. reception patterns stand in interesting contrast to the reception of these films in their own country, where they tended to be ignored or were reviewed solely on the basis of their ideological assumptions and socio-political messages. Few German critics showed an interest in cinematic form or visual/aural style. New German Cinema directors continued to make films in part as a response to their reception. To restate the Jaussian point, "the manner in which a nation's films are received can have a lot to do with the formation of present images — and the making of future ones" (p. 92).

In his next chapter Rentschler turns his attention to the odd topic of the Heimatfilm (roughly, the Homeland film), a uniquely German genre, in some ways parallel to the U.S. Western — but with an important difference. Outside the Heimat relatively few are interested in Heimatfilme. Even with Rentschler's insights on the new Anti-Heimatfilm as a type of sub-genre, this chapter remains something of a curiosity in a reception history of West German film written for U.S. readers.

The Heimatfilm discussion is followed by one of much greater interest, given its far-reaching political implications. This is the so-called Literaturverfilmungskrise (literary adaptation crisis) of 1977. Although Germans seem to have forgotten about this phenomenon rather quickly and U.S. viewers never saw it in the first place, what is important to realize — and Rentschler makes this very clear — is that the structures which caused the problem are still intact today. At the heart of the matter lie questions of politics and economics. Who decides which films are to be financed? And how is this decided? During 1977 when filmmakers faced an escalating intolerance toward dissident points of view, only "safe," i.e. non-controversial and easily legitimated, films became funded. "Safe" films were looked upon favorably — ones that promised box-office success. And it was the safe films, too, which were chosen to represent Germany at festivals and which were awarded the government prizes. Jan Dawson sums up the dilemma:

"The life, shape and future of that elusive dream, 'the alternative cinema,' lie in the hands of a non alternative Establishment, and even radical self-expression needs conservative endorsement and commercially produced technology" (p. 151).[6]

Rentschler finishes this appropriately unsettling chapter with a discussion of Schlondorff/Böll's "Antigone" sequence from GERMANY IN AUTUMN, and concludes by saying,

"The Literaturverfilmungskrise demonstrates how successfully government-sponsored institutions can stifle creative and critical filmmaking… "(p. 153)

Finally, Rentschler discusses subjectivity and is careful to locate it in its proper socio-historical context rather than let it float as a kind of idiosyncratic auteurism or as the expression of self. He approaches this theme of the problematic and problematized subject from a perspective developed by Michael Rutschky in his book, Erfahrungshunger: Ein Essay über die siebziger Jahre, (Hunger for Experience: An Essay on the 1970s). He sees the films he discusses as communicating "a profound social experience, a more encompassing historical contest" (p. 166), despite their extreme privileging of the inner self.

Here, Rentschler's political reading of Peter Handke's THE LEFT-HANDED WOMAN is extremely interesting. Contrary to the way in which this film is usually understood, he shows how

"there lies a more subversive potential, indeed a crucial historical experience behind this defiantly under-narrated, elusive, and impenetrable film" (p. 167).

He applies insights drawn from works by Theodor Adomo and Walter Benjamin as well as Rutschky to gain access to its social and political content. Rentschler can then read THE LEFT-HANDED WOMAN as a dramatization of a contemporary paradox: the individual's

"desire to remain undefined by social mechanisms and organizational frameworks … in a society which on the one hand promotes a public ideology of individual fulfillment and yet on the other hand increasingly creates conditions that stifle real self-actualization" (p. 171).

THE LEFT-HANDED WOMAN is thus seen as opening itself up to a larger historical discussion and as providing a critique of modernity.

"The film in this sense portrays a private rebellion at whose center lies a defiant attempt to assert one's own gaze, to pose personal discourse in the face of more uniform modes of experience" (p. 173).

West German Film in the Course of Time provides the reader with two very useful appendices: a year-by-year listing of West German films made since 1962, and a bibliography of readings in English on New German Cinema. Unfortunately the book has no general index (it has an index of films, English titles only) nor glossary. One further comment must be made about this book, and that in regard to Rentschler's English. In addition to many non-standard usages ("the country's believed-for-dead cinema," or "directors ceased fears that…"), there are outright errors ("a tact often pursued" or "suffice to say that…"). Worst of all, Rentschler uses the word "one" to excess, which is not just tiresome and awkward, but ultimately confusing. Who, for example is this "one" in the following passage — the subject of the previous sentence? the author? the reader? people in general? Reader beware.

"The time machine is all askew for American critics who perforce speak of Fassbinder in the perpetual present with no clear sense of his stylistic evolution. One considers West German cinema as a whole even though one only has access to a few bits and pieces…" (p. 72).

As a final remark I must describe the patriotic/patriarchal look of these two books: one in tones of schwarzrotgold (the black, red, and gold of the German flag), each with double male images (Ganz/Hopper and Vogler/Zischler respectively) and, of course, the male names of their authors. Nevertheless the books' virtues vastly outweigh their weaknesses; they complement each other very well and are essential reading on New German Cinema. Perhaps even their phallocentrism will prove useful. I hope that the lack of a female presence here will encourage some reader to produce a much-needed book on West German women filmmakers.[7]


1. Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982).

2. Robert C. Holub, Reception Theory: a Critical Introduction (New York: Methuen, 1984), p. 57.

3. Jauss, "Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory," in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, p. 19.

4. The quote is from Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, Syberbergs Filrnbuch (Hunich: Nymphenburger, 1976), p. 11.

5. John Sanford, The New German Cinema (Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1980) and James Franklin, New German Cinema, (Boston: Twayne, 1983).

6. Jan Dawson, ed., The Films of Heilmuth Costard (London: Riverside, 1979), p. 6.

7. Readers are referred to three special sections on German women filmmakers in JUMP CUT. Nos. 27, 29, and 30; as well as Camera Obscura No. 6 (Fall, 1980) and Marc Silberman, "Cine-Feminists in West Berlin," Quarterly Review of Film Studies 5, No. 2 (Spring, 1980), pp. 217-232.