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Inner Realities/Outer Spaces in New German Cinema

By Alonso Díaz de la Vega


Queen of the Desert

Around the late 1960’s something happened in Germany. It happened along the droning sound of spinning celluloid and light turned into narratives that can divert or change their audience’s perception of the world and of themselves. It was the New German Cinema. Echoes of it were heard at the 65th Berlinale, where the movement’s most prominent members, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, premiered their new films in competition. Wenders was honored with a Honorary Golden Bear and a masterclass he gave for the young filmmakers selected to attend Berlinale Talents. Space was the main theme of this encounter with the next generation of creative professionals, and it’s also the main connection between these two legendary German directors.

Space is also strongly related to the New German Cinema. Arising from the necessity to make sense of the tragedies the country was still resenting, this cinematic current was desperate to examine the madness, shame, and defeat experienced by the German people during two world wars; both started and lost by the most recurring lure for irrationality: faith. Criticism, the foremost expression of the rational mind, had to confront passion and resentment in order to sculpt a new nation from the ashes of the past still floating across the land. It had to create a new German space.

Humiliated, the Germans found in novelist Günter Grass’ “The Tin Drum” atonement with their imperialistic past and a chance to move on. In Heinrich Böll’s novel “The Clown” the divisions between East and West, left and right, Catholicism and Protestantism were recreated to show the need for union and a common identity. Film also had to face these issues and young directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe von Trotta, and Harun Farocki decided to find unity amidst the polarization of their land. Among them were Herzog and Wenders, who would, through their exploration of space and movement, create some of the most exciting filmographies in history. Both men were since the start of their careers fascinated by the idea of travel as a way to expand the soul. They decided to explore, redeem and enlarge the German spirit on highways, in foreign countries and exotic landscapes.

Wenders and Herzog seem to fight the nationalism of the past by setting their films abroad and by infusing foreign thought into their characters. Many of Wenders’ films find it irresistible to mention America and its strange icons: the music, the rock stars, the eccentricity of the Hollywood system, and the endurance of its rebels. Directors Sam Fuller and Douglas Sirk would make special appearances in Wenders’ films. Herzog made his contribution by leaving Germany to face the natural world and explore the megalomaniacal mentality that had guided his country toward disaster. Yet Herzog’s greatest tragedies still retain the mythological resonance of composer Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Iseult”, as well as a fascination with Expressionism that manifested itself most clearly in his version of the famous German silent film by F.W. Murnau: NOSFERATU (Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, West Germany, France, 1979). “Longest way round is the shortest way home”, wrote James Joyce. By attempting to explore the world beyond German borders, Wenders and Herzog were actually returning to their fatherland, incapable of leaving their history and traditions behind. The space beyond German borders became a source for epiphany and redemption.

Of the two, Wenders was the most interested in recreating the German struggle for identity. During this year’s Berlinale Talents, Brazilian director Walter Salles said at the “Road, Movie: Films in Motion” panel that Philip Winter, the protagonist of Wenders’ Road Trilogy, is a symbol of a whole generation trying to understand itself. In ALICE IN THE CITIES (Alice in den Städten, West Germany, 1974), Philip, languidly portrayed by Rüdiger Vogler, is a tormented German writer in America whose life changes when he meets a countrywoman and her little girl Alice as he buys a ticket to fly back home. Unable to perform professionally and socially, he tries to capture the country through Polaroid pictures that fuel his nostalgia and help him elude his malaise. He is an emotional conservative; a man dwelling on what reality was, rarely embracing what reality is. His reluctance to take Alice back with him to Germany when her mother disappears suggests the indifference and the confusion of a society unwilling to come out of the comfort of paralysis. To Wenders, neither Philip nor the Germans would come out of the past until they had no choice but to mature and provide care for the next generation.

In THE WRONG MOVE (Falsche Bewegung, West Germany, 1975) and KINGS OF THE ROAD (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1977), Philip would find similar challenges. In the former, he discovers himself among a strange troupe that includes an old Nazi athlete, and in the latter he explores the German countryside to fix film projectors. KINGS OF THE ROAD is a masterpiece that emphasizes Philip’s choice of an uncertain life. None of the films in the trilogy show a conventional denouement, but this one embraces the mystery of the days to come; the desperate relationship between man and fear becomes both the origin of confusion and the desire to step out of it. In this German odyssey that runs through villages, cities and nature, space becomes the hub for national identity to define itself, but also a place of rebirth for the human soul.

Despite its German peculiarities, Wenders’ cinema reflects on the beauty of everyday life. There is a scene in KINGS OF THE ROAD in which Philip defecates in the open. Neither humorous nor disgusting, it shows man reunited with nature like any other creature. This universality might be the reason why his latest film, EVERY THING WILL BE FINE (Germany, Canada, Norway, France, Sweden), which premiered in this year’s Berlinale Competition, features three women from different nationalities in an unspecified town. The German space has been expanded, transcended; nations vanish when their wounded societies heal and join others in a grand communion.

Similarly to Wenders, a phrase from QUEEN OF THE DESERT (USA, Morocco), Herzog’s latest film, is revealing of his approach to space: Gertrude Bell, played by Nicole Kidman, says: “The deeper I go into this labyrinth, the deeper I go into myself”. Herzog’s characters often dissolve into the background, like the protagonist of STROSZEK (West Germany, 1976), whose face, and a shot of his trailer home being towed away, captures the disillusion of a stranger in a strange land. The outlandishness of these worlds estranges Herzog’s characters from themselves and either helps them form a stronger personality, like in Gertrude Bell’s case, or reinforces the thoughts that will destroy them.

Although rarely concerned with addressing contemporary German issues like Wenders, Herzog’s debut, SIGNS OF LIFE, captures a fascinating moment of realization and regret about joining the German army during World War II. A young soldier is watching the windmills spinning on the Greek plains; like a modern Quixote he starts shooting them making manifest his madness. The landscape stimulates and stages his mutilated psyche just like the jungle has trapped the protagonist by the ending of AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD. Played by the extraordinary Klaus Kinski, the treacherous, ambitious, and destructive Lope de Aguirre leads an expedition to a city of gold into disaster. With the jungle as his witness and a reflection of his psyche, Aguirre declares himself the Wrath of God to a group of disinterested monkeys, his only subjects left alive.

The worlds in which these characters walk, come not but from themselves, like in Wallace Steven’s poem “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”. There they strive to find an otherness that will allow them to contemplate their inner selves, or, in the tragic cases, it helps the audience understand the fall that awaits them. Whatever their end, the space they exist in makes them find themselves “more truly and more strange”.



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