The concept of parallel universes is a fascinating topic in science fiction, but in this year’s Berlinale Retro, “Germany 1966 — Redefining Cinema,” audiences get to experience a unique nexus of the twin worlds of East and West Germany in a defining year for both.
It began in 1962, when the new generation of West German filmmakers declared at the Oberhausen Film Festival that “the old cinema is dead,” and vowed to create a new one, which would become the New German Cinema. Meanwhile, on the other, communist-run side of the Wall, another declaration was made: The Party Congress of 1963 was calling for a new freedom in society and the arts in East Germany.
On both sides, explains Retro director Rainer Rother, “there were conflicts that were smoldering in society. A post-war generation was re-examining how their lives should look, a culture (was) in transition, trying to modernize itself. The young people had different ideas and they were searching for a way to define them.
While certainly responding to their collective past, Rother continues, “the new filmmakers were reacting very strongly to the present. You notice it particularly how the films looked.
He notes that it was an aesthetic decision “to go out of the studio and into the streets, with young characters and unknown faces, sometimes they were even non-actors. So it was no longer the big star cinema, no longer genre cinema, they were seizing on the world of their own experience — in East and West — and were trying to present it in a more authentic and spontaneous way.”
And in 1966, things started to hit. In the West, Volker Schloendorff’s first feature, “Der junge Torless” (Young Torless) won the film critics prize in Cannes, while Alexander Kluge won the Silver Lion in Venice for his debut, “Abschied von Gestern” (Yesterday’s Girl). Meanwhile, Ulrich Schamoni’s “Es” (It) cleaned up with five prizes at the German Film Awards, and his brother Peter got a Silver Bear in Berlin for “Schonzeit fur Fuchse” (No Shooting Time for Foxes). Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog were making their first short films.
In the East, however, the bottom fell out. In the Soviet Union, the Leonid Brezhnev era had begun party line was reversed, now calling for an end to works that portrayed “the evil desire for doubt.” Half of that year’s productions from the state-run DEFA studio were banned. Some, like “Berlin um die Ecke” (Berlin Around the Corner), by Gerhard Klein, or Frank Beyer’s “Spur der Steine” (Traces of Stones), were forbidden outright. Others, such as “Jahrgang 45” (Born in 45) by Jurgen Boettcher, and “Karla” by Hermann Zshoche, were reworked in an attempt to make them acceptable and then banned anyway — these two films will be shown in the Retro in both original and censored versions, with discussions with the filmmakers.
But there was plenty of activity on both sides, with their own take on similar issues, like a searching for self as in “Jimmy Orpheus” by Roland Klick in the West, and Heiner Carlow’s “Die Rise nach Sundevit” (Journey to Sundevit) in the East. The emerging role of women in society was the focus of “Playgirl” by Will Tremper in the West, while Kurt Barthel’s “Fraulein Schmetterling” (Miss Butterfly) showed the life of a socialist women through a combination of documentary realism and fantasy.
Program coordinator Connie Betz concludes, “the films have a big connection to contemporary subjects, and also a lot of questions about self determination in young people. I find the films astonishingly fresh, and they still have much to say to us today.”