Visions of Defeat
At the end of World War II Germany’s cities were in ruins, its people shattered by 6 years of “Total War” and vilified as guilty monsters around the world. Curt Reiss, returned German émigré and American War Correspondent, described the streets of 1945 Berlin as “endless ruins, [...]bombed out tanks, the ubiquitous machine guns and helmets shot to pieces” (Barnouw, 2008, 49). This fantastic landscape and guilty citizens fascinated filmmakers. They produced films which tried to depict the implications of defeat for Germany and for the victors. The backdrop to these films was the endless ruins and in the foreground the questions of guilt and redemption.
This essay will examine three films which present Germany’s defeat, and how filmmakers dealt with questions of guilt, responsibility, Germany’s possible redemption and the affect of victory on Allied soldiers. The films are: Die Mörder sind unter uns, 1946, Wolfgang Staudte, Germany, DEFA, A Foreign Affair, 1948, Billy Wilder, US, Paramount , and The Third Man, 1949, Carol Reed, UK, London Films.
Elsaesser says that cinema describes its times calling it a “colourful chronotope, [which] provides an easily recognizable but also superficial time/space iconography” (Elsaesser, 2003, 33). Neorealism is suggested by Ezra as the main Post-War genre used to describe the destroyed cities, shattered lives and the difficulties of re-integrating former soldiers back in to society, saying “the privations suffered by populations of Europe were both captured and transformed into the first great genre to emerge at the end of the war, Italian Neorealism” (Ezra, 2004,9). It is clear however that in the films under discussion this is not the principle style used by Staudte, Wilder and Reed. They produced films that were more expressionist in style and do not present a bleak neorealist reality.
Staudte’s 1946 Die Mörder sind unter uns is the first Post-War German movie and began the tradition of the Trümmerfilm described by Ezra as “a hard edged look at the difficulties of reconstructing Post War Germany” (Ezra, 2004,9). Trümmerfilme used the catastrophic ruins as an oppressive backdrop and lean on interwar film techniques such as expressionism and melodrama, Pinkert comments ”postwar DEFA films drew on a cinematic memory of expressionist and Weimar Film, which...had explored madness, psychopathology as a source of social anxiety, escape and criticism” (Pinkert, 2008b, 22). She also notes that Trümmerfilm used post 1933 UFA melodrama to provide diversion and continuity “the kitschy UFA films were loved by a postwar audience hungry for distraction and a sense of continuity.” (Pinkert 2008b, 20)
Wilder produced a black comedy with a message, described as, “waver[ing] between educational program, an overwrought history lesson and a comedy of very dark humor” (Gemünden, 2008, 110). Wilder’s film education had been in pre 1933 UFA and Paramount in the US. Zolotow described A Foreign Affair as having “the authentic look of a Berlin Street picture of the 1920’s” (Zolotow, 1977, 154). Gemünden comments that the film is “ a synthesis of Wilder’s American sexual comedies[...]and the classic Weimar cinema of the 1930’s[...]at the same time it alludes to German Expressionism of the 1920’s and Film Noir of the early 1940’s (Gemünden, 2008, 114). Reed’s 1949 The Third Man is also seen as a Film Noir, in which the action takes place “not in a domestic city but the chaotic continental theatre of war, often viewed through Robert Krasker’s tilted lens, chiaroscuro effects[...]” (Evans, 2005, 94).
In using elements of expressionism the directors present a representative vision of the defeated Germany and Austria, rejecting both the direct assault of neorealism and the upbeat spectacle of Hollywood film making. Elsaesser comments on the effect of choosing Weimar over Hollywood film techniques saying,”
“[...]in the latter, voyeurism is motivated by action, spectacle and a linear narrative drive, in the German films by contrast, sight and seeing emerges as a troubled uncanny, unstable relations of the characters to the posers of vision and filmic representations itself, often “feminizing” the men[...]” (Elsaesser, 2003, 39-40)
Elsaesser sees Expressionist film as an attempt to create modern fairy tales (Elsaesser, 2003, 43-44). Kracauer points out that expressionism was a way of selling German films abroad(Kracauer, 1947, 65) and Eisner saw the style as a reminder of a “good” Germany(Elsaesser, 2000, 422). In effect Post-War Expressionist films had the same role as those films made after World War I, they told allegorical stories in a style that would be acceptable to International and German audiences.
The Expressionist style, beginning with Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligaris , 1919, Wiene, Germany, Decla-Bioscop AG, has been summed up as having narratives about “father/son relationships and the dangers of female sexuality; […] doppelgängers and perceptions; […] types, not characters; […] chaos, dementia and destruction.” (Bould, 2005, 26-27). Its style uses “foreground oblique objects, unbalanced compositions, irregular spatial arrangements, chiaroscuro lighting with heavy shadow, emphasis on oblique and vertical lines [and a] fascination with reflection and reflective surfaces” (Bould, 2005, 25).
Each director employs expressionist forms to present the defeated Germany. They examine German guilt, physical and psychological destruction, retribution, denazification and management of dystopia. The essay will now turn to the films in the following order Die Mörder sind unter uns, A Foreign Affair and The Third Man.
Die Mörder sind unter uns
Die Mörder sind unter uns was made when,” denazification, re-education and democratization were catch words for ...all four occupied zones of Germany” (Silberman,1995, 99). Rejected by the British and the Americans, Staudte’s script received permission to start production with a change in title and ending from the Soviet Occupation forces, where,” cinema was regarded along with the schools as the preferential means for re education...” (Silberman,1995, 101).
Staudte’s film shows a vision of a crushed and berubbled metropolis, in which the physical destruction and collapsing ruins reflect the psychological ruins of the protagonists. He seems to believe that internal rebuilding must precede external reconstruction. The film is set in 1945, Susanne Wallner, a Concentration Camp victim, returns to Berlin. Her flat is occupied by the psychologically scarred Mertens, a former Wehrmacht doctor. While stationed in Poland, he witnessed the execution of hostages and children. His attempt to save the women and children failed and results in him suffering from shell-shock. After the war he drowns his sorrows in alcohol and wastes his time in a night club rather than fulfilling his calling as a doctor.
Wallner and Mertens, grudingly share the flat and a friendship develops. As they fall in love Mertens slowly comes to himself. In the flat Wallner finds an old letter addressed to the wife of Merten’s former commanding officer, Hauptmann Brückner. This is a final letter to Brückner’s wife, which Wallner attempts to deliver. On seeking out Frau Brückner, Susanne discovers that Brückner survived and is a successful businessman with a factory making cooking pots. He has forgotten the war and is moving on. He enjoys the bieder comforts of a pleasant flat, a loving wife, and happy family. It makes no difference whether he produces cooking pots or steel helmets. Mertens is reunited with Brückner, but reveals that Brückner ordered the executions in Poland at Christmas. Mertens swears to get revenge and on Christmas Eve 1945 goes to Brückner’s factory in order to shoot him. At the last moment Susanne prevents Mertens, she insists that war criminals must be brought to justice and that the people can only accuse not condemn. The film ends with bars on the gate of Brückner’s factory becoming the bars of a prison and a montage of the National Socialism’s victims, including women, children and soldiers passing in front of him. The camera finally rests its view on a field of crosses.
Staudte’s film attempts to address three highly pertinent issues to the Germans in 1945/46; how,” to develop a cinematic language[ …]to confront the recent German past[…]” (Pinkert, 2008b, 20); how to,” restore the injured male subject through the healing love of a woman” (Pinkert, 2008b, 21); how to understand the difficulties of seeing the truth. This is set against a background of the ruins of Berlin which tower above all the characters threatening to crush them. They are an external indication of the enormity of the characters’ internal ruin.
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- visions defeat Post War German Film Wolfgang Staudte Billy Wilder Carol Reed Die Mörder sind unter uns A Foreign Affair The Third Man Trümmerfilm Rubble Film DEFA SBZ Occupation of Germany