Deutschland im Herbst
Alf Brustellin, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus, Maximiliane Mainka, Peter Schubert, Bernhard Sinkel, Hans Peter Cloos, Edgar Reitz, Katja Rupé, Volker Schlöndorff
Review by Evan Kindley
Posted on 09 June 2010
Source World Artists VHS
Germany in Autumn was made in reaction to a series of events in the summer and autumn of 1977, beginning with the assassination of Dresdner Bank chairman Jürgen Ponto in late July by the Red Army Faction, a German radical terrorist organization. On September 5, 1977, members of the RAF kidnapped businessman and industrial representative Hanns Martin Schleyer and forced him to communicate their demands for the release of imprisoned RAF members Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe. On October 13, a German airplane was hijacked by RAF members in cooperation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; on the 18th, Baader, Enslin and Raspe were discovered dead in their cells, apparent suicides, though many speculated that their deaths were in fact reprisals for the hijacking. The RAF then shot and killed Schleyer in response, dumping his body in the north of France where it would be discovered and identified a day later.1
This rapid succession of violent acts was in some ways only an intensification of an ongoing struggle. Even before 1977, the RAF was infamous in Germany for previous acts of terror and violence against the state and industrial capitalism. Essentially a radical splinter group of a larger student left that had coalesced around protest of the Vietnam War in the late 60s, they were demonized by many in politics and the press but also had a broad base of support among Germans, particularly young people. They had also already inspired at least one cinematic response, 1975’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, based on a novel by Heinrich Böll and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Volker Schlöndorff and Margaretha von Trotta.2 In September of 1977, as the events of the “German autumn” (a description that the film itself helped to popularize) were unfolding, Schlöndorff once again responded, this time enlisting his fellow New German Cinema directors Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz, Alf Brustellin, Bernhard Sinkel, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The idea was to record and respond to the political and culture climate as instantaneously as possible—and, one assumes, intervene as well and possibly even influence it.
To this end, Germany in Autumn inserts us into the German Autumn in medias res; it’s light on explication and heavy on atmosphere, not out of a commitment to obliquity but because it assumes that its audience already knows what’s going on. Political movies tend to either spell things out didactically or let things unfold dialectically, plunging you into the maelstrom of successive events and leaving you to sort it out yourself. In Germany in Autumn, by contrast, everything important has already happened, but nobody knows yet what to make of it—if only because they don’t know what will come next. It registers as few other films have the difficulty – actually, impossibility – of coming to terms with very recent history.
Omnibus films are notoriously uneven, and while Germany in Autumn is no exception, it does flow better than most examples of this genre, perhaps because of the unifying constraints imposed on the material by the theme and time frame. Much of the film is taken up with documentary footage by Schlöndorff and Kluge that shows us actual events: a state funeral for Schleyer, and the arrest of a Turkish man carrying a gun in the vicinity; memorial services at the Daimler-Benz corporate offices where Schleyer had been a board member; a Social Democratic Party meeting in Hamburg where center-left orators thunder against “the young left in the colleges, mad for theory and to the working classes incomprehensible”; and, finally, a student vigil for Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe at a cemetery in Stuttgart. Schlöndorff and Kluge borrow the neutral “fly on the wall” style of American documentarians like D.A. Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman, showing not only the official pomp of the state functions or the romantic solidarity of the young radicals raising a few fists against the autumn foliage but also the preparations of the funeral caterers and the bored restlessness of the mostly foreign assembly line workers made to observe three minutes of silence at the Daimler-Benz plant. Another purely documentary section presents a television interview with one-time RAF member Horst Mahler, shown in a tiny prison cell filled with books. Denouncing the hijackers and former comrades like Ulrike Meinhof from his new Maoist position (he would subsequently move to the extreme right), Mahler theorizes that “a murderer departs from the moral value system, a revolutionary reinforces it.”
Other episodes take fictional approaches to the situation. Brustellen and Sinkel’s segments follow avant-garde filmmaker Franziska Busch (not to be confused with the yet-to-be-born German ice hockey player in her attempt to make a film about the events modeled on 1920s radical Soviet cinema, of which we see brief excerpts. In their section, Hans Peter Cloos and Katja Rupe offer a brief Postman Always Rings Twice pastiche in which a fugitive terrorist asks for help from a lonely housewife. In Edgar Reitz’s segment (the film’s weakest), a young couple crossing the Franco-German border are harassed by an authoritarian policeman who dreams of being a military pilot. These scenes are all rather slight, though they have the virtue of suggesting how history can be refracted through multiple genres and forms: Eisensteinian montage, film noir, realist character study. More substantial is the segment directed by Schlöndorff from a script by Heinrich Böll, which shows a meeting of television executives who have commissioned a filmed play of Sophocles’ Antigone. While satisfied with the result, they’re worried that the story – which involves “terroristic women,” a refusal of burial, and ends in suicide – could be misinterpreted as a political statement, even an ambiguous one: “Irony is one thing we can do without right now.” Ultimately they decide not to scrap the film but to “put it on ice until quieter times”—the exact opposite strategy as that undertaken by the makers of Germany in Autumn.
Still, Germany in Autumn really rests on the contributions of its two most famous participants: Alexander Kluge and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The sections directed by Kluge alone are fascinating palimpsests of fictional and historical material, still images from paintings juxtaposed with yellowed Nazi-era archival footage and glimpses of Gabi Teichert, a German history teacher troubled by the events of 1977 who would reappear in Kluge’s next film Die Patriotin. Here we have an in nuce example of what Kluge is up to in 2008’s News from Ideological Antiquity, recently discussed by Fredric Jameson in “Marx and Montage.”3 Gabi is also the closest thing Germany in Autumn has to a protagonist (certainly more so than the RAF themselves, seen only in the dissident figure of Mahler and a few images of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe provided only toward the end of the film). She is a searching German conscience, not convinced of the truth of the revolution the RAF are offering, but equally unconvinced of the official refutations of that story, premised as they are on an equally strident denial of the Nazi past: “What fairy tales my people tell.”
Finally – or rather, first; it leads off the film – there is Fassbinder’s segment, one of the most intense, intelligent, and affecting things he’s ever done. While much of the rest of Germany in Autumn is shot outside, perhaps to emphasize the sense of engagement in the public sphere as well as the natural beauty of the titular season, Fassbinder uses only interiors. Using his usual cameraman Michael Ballhaus but restraining the sumptuous visual genius of the feature films he was making at that time (Despair and In a Year of 13 Moons were both shot the same year, The Marriage of Maria Braun the next), he stage-manages a claustrophobic environment reminiscent of 1972’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Here Fassbinder plays himself – the first words of the section are, in fact, “It’s me, Fassbinder” – in one of the most revealing performances any director has ever put himself through (both emotionally and anatomically). Applying the paratactic logic of Germany in Autumn as a whole to its own construction, the short cycles through four more or less equal recurring situations: Fassbinder at work (giving an interview on the institution of marriage, dictating the script for Berlin Alexanderplatz into a tape recorder), Fassbinder in love (fighting with his boyfriend Armin over the political situation and about his propensity for bringing home strange men), Fassbinder doing drugs (snorting cocaine, drinking amidst a forest of empty Coke and liquor bottles), and Fassbinder en famille (arguing with his mother, apparently in a restaurant, about Schleyer’s murder and the proper response of the German public and the government). Threaded through all of these are the events of the German Autumn, which come to light gradually throughout.
What’s astounding here is the way Fassbinder balances a sensational, even prurient portrait of the artist as a frightening mess with a belief and commitment to free, open discussion—even in the face of the real at its most confusing and depressing. With his wide expressive face, beer belly, slovenly wardrobe, and bad skin, the director looks like an overgrown unhealthy child, and he seems almost comically underprepared to handle the stress of the catastrophes that confront him. Watching the film you feel both that Fassbinder was in no state to respond to the events of the German Autumn – his personal and professional life were so troubled and chaotic it’s a wonder he noticed anything happening at all, let alone managed to make a 26-minute film about it – and also that he couldn’t but respond. No aspect of the director’s life, the film implies, was unaffected by the political situation in Germany; but, by the same token, no aspect of it was completely consumed. His ties to the national crisis, the so-called “outside world,” are always mediated by his personal neuroses: in a striking composition, a fully nude Fassbinder learns about the deaths of Baader, Enslin, and Raspe while holding the telephone at crotch-level, and occasionally reaching down and touching himself. Masturbation and communication, Fassbinder suggests, are both comforts inadequate to the purpose of confronting politics in its worst forms.
The other star of the segment is Lilo Pempeit, Fassbinder’s real-life mother and an actress in many of his other films. Her performance is, in its way, every bit as revealing as her son’s more spectacular self-display: over the course of a series of long takes she opposes political action against the state, confesses her anxieties about “this hysterical situation” and admits “it reminds me a lot of the Nazi times, when people simply were quiet, to avoid falling into the fat.” She worries that “the masses really aren’t democratic” and, anyway, “in such a situation you can’t get by simply with democracy.” When Fassbinder presses her for what would be a better response to the national situation than free democratic discussion and protest, he extracts an astonishing statement that says much about the generation gap between those with a living memory of the Third Reich in Germany and those, like the makers of Germany in Autumn, who came of age in a postwar, vehemently anti-fascist period.
Fassbinder’s segment, for all its realism, is not a documentary, but an almost instant re-enactment of a visceral reaction. Where much of Germany in Autumn conveys a kind of flat, emotionally numb affect – and also, it must be said, a sense of ideological confusion and reassessment, particularly in the scenes with Mahler and with the student mourners in Stuttgart – Fassbinder’s episode is passionately articulate in feeling as well as in thought. While it would have made a powerful and effective film all by itself, it unquestionably gains from being placed in the richer context offered by his fellow filmmakers’ responses. Germany in Autumn should be seen by anyone interested in the history of twentieth-century Germany or of terrorism, but also by anyone interested in the complex responses politics and history can elicit from us, or fail to elicit.
Along with Red Channels and Goethe-Institut New York, Not Coming to a Theater Near You is co-presenting a rare screening of Germany in Autumn at 92YTribeca on Thursday, June 10th at 8pm, with a discussion after the screening.