A collage of New German Cinema film posters.

The Interesting History of the New German Cinema Movement

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his crew getting ready to film a scene. All are behind the camera
Rainer Werner Fassbinder directing behind the camera. Source: Empire

The New German Cinema Movement was a period in the German film industry that lasted from 1962 until 1982. During this period, several directors made important and innovative films. Based on the attention their films garnered, several of the directors pursued Hollywood careers, some achieving fame and fortune while others struggled for recognition.

Generally, New German Cinema does not receive the same status and celebration as other famous cinema movements, such as the French New Wave or New Hollywood movements. This is unfortunate, because New German Cinema not only revitalized the German film industry, the movement created bold, engaging, and groundbreaking films as well. This article will examine the history of New German Cinema as well as list some of the important films of the movement. Hopefully, this article will make the case for the New German Cinema movement to get more recognition in its place in film history.

Beginnings of the Movement

The rise of Hitler and the Nazi party to power in the 1930s effectively ended the emerging German film culture of the time. Hitler banned many films he believed did not mesh with the Nazi ideology. In its place, the Nazis filled German theatres with propaganda war films and escapist dramas.

After the Nazis were defeated in the Second World War, the German film industry struggled to rebuild. Early post-war films reflected on the country’s dark history from 1933-1945. However, many Germans wished to forget this dark period. So, escapist, romantic movies were mass produced and became popular with the public.

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The New German Cinema movement arose as a reaction to the West German film industry of the early 1960s. While the majority of German audiences flocked to the movies, there was a group of filmmakers that rejected the types of films being churned out at the time. This group regarded West German cinema as dull and of poor quality. In essence, the group believed West German films had stagnated, both economically and artistically. The declining German film industry resulted in a slew of conventional, conservative movies. This bland cinema left a new generation of young filmmakers wanting more.

Alexander Kluge presenting the Oberhausen Manifesto to a group of men at a press conference.
Alexander Kluge presenting the Oberhausen Manifesto at a press conference. Source: Artforum

In 1962, a group of West German filmmakers signed a manifesto expressing their dissatisfaction with German cinema. It was called the Oberhausen Manifesto. In it, the group declared “The old film is dead. We believe in the new one”. With this manifesto, the New German Cinema Movement was born. The Oberhausen Manifesto signatories had one goal in mind: create an innovative cinema that unnerved and educated mainstream audiences.

Early Struggles

Initally, the New German Cinema movement faced financial difficulties. The German government had established the Kuratorium Junger Deutscher Film (Young German Film Committee) in 1965 to financially support young German filmmakers. However, New German Cinema filmmakers rejected cooperation with the existing film industry. Therefore, young directors depended on television productions to make money. Many future German film directors got their start directing German television shows or documentaries.

In 1974, the Film-Fernesh-Abkommen (Film and Television Accord) was signed between the German Federal Film Board and T.V. broadcasters ARD and ZDF. The accord allowed television companies to provide filmmakers with an annual sum to produce films. The film had to be suitable for theatrical release as well as television broadcast. With the signing of the accord, New German Cinema directors now had a stable revenue stream which enabled them to make their films. The accord continues to be extended to this day.

Characteristics

As noted above, New German Cinema intended to go against mainstream German films. The movement’s directors rejected the old ways of filmmaking and instead filled their movies with their own ideas and artistic visions. These ideas and visions were heavily influenced by leftist political ideology. Therefore, many New German cinema films mix politics and art to critique bourgeois institutions.

A German film crew preparing a scene. One man is holding up his hands, presumably directing his actors or setting up a shot.
German directors explored cultural issues in their films. Source: WNYC

New German films also commented on the cultural upheavals West Germany experienced at the time. Some of these issues included high unemployment rates, coming to terms with Nazism, fear of the militant Red Army Faction, and a widening generational gap. Again, the depiction of these cultural issues served to undermine and critique the West German establishment. New German Cinema directors used cultural issues to advocate for a new way of life in Germany.

Critical acclaim

Throughout the 1970s, New German Cinema thrived. It was in this decade that the most important and celebrated New German Cinema films were made and released. Directors like Werner Herzog and Rainer Werne Fassbinder produced their greatest movies. German films started to get noticed internationally as well. Many films garnered international acclaim and critical approval. The films were lauded for their stark and realistic tone.

The critical success of the New German Cinema movement brought the German film industry back to international significance. It had not held that status since the Weimar Republic of the 1920s. However, critical acclaim alone would not help New German Cinema.

Box Office Struggles and Rebirth

The outside of a German movie theatre. A crowd is queuing outside.
New German Cinema films garnered lukewarm success at the box office. Source: University of Warwick

The majority of New German Cinema films did not find success at the box office. In fact, a 1977 New York Times article reported that most of the movement’s films were commercial failures. Furthermore, the films “were greeted with apathy by the German public”; New German films were often recognized internationally first, rather than their home country Germany.

With box office failures and hardly any support at home, the New German Cinema movement slowly declined. By 1982, the movement had all but ended. As a result, New German Cinema never received the attention and recognition it deserved. For many years, this unrecognition persisted. However, several New German Cinema films became cult favourites. As time passed, the New German Cinema movement garnered more attention. Critics and audiences began to see the movement as an important part of film history. Film distributors like the Criterion Collection have preserved and released many New German Films on Blu-Ray. A whole new generation of film fans can now watch classic films in high-definition.

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New German Cinema Films

Now that we’ve looked at the history of the New German Cinema movement, let’s examine some of the important films in the catalogue. The following films differ in artistic tone, style, and themes. However, each is an essential piece in the New German Cinema movement.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God: 1972

The film poster for Aguirre, The Wrath of God. The poster is a drwaing of Aguirre and the other chracters in the mountains.
The poster for Aguirre, The Warth of God. Source: IMDb

Directed by Werner Herzog, Aguirre, The Wrath of God the film follows a group of Spanish conquistadors on a quest to discover the mythical city of gold, El Dorado. The group is led by the soldier Lope de Aguirre, who becomes insane with power as he pursues El Dorado. The film depicts the hardships that envelop the expedition. The Spanish must face the unforgiving climate and terrain of the Amazonian jungle, such as torrential rains, flash floods, and fierce river currents. The expedition also contends with Indigenous tribes, who often attack the soldiers from the cover of the jungle. These attacks occur without warning and often catch the Spanish by surprise. As the film progresses, the viewer is left wondering what catastrophe the expedition will face next.

Herzog’s film is harrowing in tone. Viewers witness the madness that slowly overtakes the expedition. Men are killed by Indigenous warriors, food and water eventually run out, and Aguirre rules over the expedition with an iron fist. The unnerving atmosphere of the film is enhanced by the jungle setting; shots of the dark vegetation accompanied by noises of the jungle create a foreboding feeling. The atmospheric soundtrack by German band Popol Vuh also adds to the film’s dark nature.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God opened to widespread critical acclaim. Critics and audiences lauded the film for it’s minimalist storytelling technique and unique visual style. The film quickly developed a cult following, and it remains one of Herzog’s best-known films. Francis Ford Coppola’s famous 1979 film Apocalypse Now was influenced by Herzog’s film, chiefly in visual style and narrative elements.

Paris, Texas: 1984

A shot from Paris, Texas featuring Harry Dean Stanton in the desert.
Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas. Source: Roger Ebert

Even though this film falls beyond the timeline of the New German Cinema Movement, Wim Wenders’ film is still considered a crucial film in the movement’s library. Paris, Texas tells the story of Travis, who returns to his family after wandering the desert aimlessly. Upon returning, Travis attempts to reconnect with his older brother and seven-year-old son. After Travis and his son reconnect, the two embark on a journey through the American Southwest in a quest to find Travis’ long-lost wife.

Paris, Texas tackles many themes; for example, the nuclear American family, personal identity, and codes of masculinity. Wenders’ film is also noted for it’s striking imagery; the vast Texas landscape perfectly fits the film’s overall tone. The film’s score, by blues musician Ry Cooder, adds to the vast imagery. Lastly, actor Harry Dean Stanton is outstanding in the role of Travis. His performance adds even further to the film’s tone. As the Criterion Collection states, Harry Dean Stanton has a face which “has a landscape of its own”.

Wim Wenders’ film may be the most critically acclaimed film in the New German Cinema library. Famous film critic Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars, and the film won the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or.

Since its release, Paris, Texas remains a favourite of critics and film buffs. The performances, story, soundtrack, and visual style of the film ensure it will continue to be an important work in the New German Cinema Movement.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul: 1974

This film was directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a prolific figure in the New German Cinema Movement. Wassbinder directed 40 feature films, three short films, and over 20 plays in his career. Fassbinder was an openly gay man who was also anti-capitalist and a political dissident. The director took inspiration from his identity and beliefs and explored the treatment of marginalized and oppressed groups in his works. This is certainly the case in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.

A shot from Ali: Fear Eats The soul. Emmi and Ali are seated at a table eating.
Emmi and Ali at the table in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Source: Roger Ebert

The film concerns an unlikely love story between two people. Emmi, a 60-year-old widow, begins a relationship with Ali, a young Moroccan mechanic. Both Emmi and Ali are ignored by the larger German society. Emmi’s children do not pay attention to her, while Ali feels alienated from his family by the xenophobic culture he encounters. Their mutual isolation is what draws the two together.

Emmi and Ali’s relationship comes under scrutiny by everyone: grocery store clerks, co-workers, waiters, neighbours, and even from Emmi’s children. When Emmi introduces Ali to her kids, her son angrily kicks a television set. Despite these adversities, the love between Ali and Emmi survives. Arguably, this is the theme of the film: the love between two people can survive in a hostile, lonely world.

With its progressive themes of tolerance, prejudice, acceptance, and the legacy of Nazism, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul arguably is the most socially important film in the New German Cinema catalogue.

I’m An Elephant, Madame: 1969

Directed by Peter Zadek, this film explores the impact Nazi Germany had on post-war Germany. Zadek, like many of his generation, rejected Germany’s collective post-war apathy. He recognized that many ex-Nazis reintegrated into society with minimal to no punishment for their affiliation with the evil regime. This act allowed many Germans to suppress any memory of the dark past. This suppression inspired many acts of rebellion in younger Germans. I’m An Elephant, Madame captures this revolutionary spirit.

The basic plot of Zadek’s film follows a group of German high school students in their protest and private lives. Main character Rull is the main focus, as his protest methods upset older Germans, the school administrators, and young leftists. Among Rull’s protest tactics includes painting a swaistika in the town square, which garners a whole range of emotions: from admiration to shock and disgust.

I’m An Elephant, Madame deals with many themes, and Zadek does not side with one ideology. Rather, he equally criticizes the older and younger generations in the tense post-war German society. Zadek’s film is significant for it’s commentary on the lasting legacy of Nazism. It demonstrates that German society as a whole must come to terms with their country’s disturbing history from 1933 until 1945.

Nosferatu, the Vampyre: 1979

This entry is unique because it is a stylistic remake of an earlier German film, the classic Noseferatu from 1922. The new version is directed by Werner Herzog, and stars his frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski. Nosferatu, the Vampyre is a retelling of the Bram Stoker story Dracula. The film is set in the 19th century in Wismar, Germany and Translevania.

Klaus Kinski in character as Dracula.
Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula in Nosferatu the Vampyre. Source: Time Out

The film follows the same plot as Stoker’s novel, although there are some differences. Estate agent Johnathen Harker travels to the Translevania home of Count Dracula; the count wishes to purchase a property in Wismar. Harker eventually becomes trapped in the Count’s castle as Dracula makes his voyage to Wismar. During this time, Dracula becomes envatuated with Harker’s wife, Lucy. Once Dracula reaches Wismar, he spreads death throughout the town. It is up to Lucy and Doctor Van Helsing to stop Count Dracula’s reign of terror.

Herzog’s film is similar to Aguirre in terms of visual style and tone. The film has a dreamlike look, which is enhanced by the film’s soundtrack by Popol Vuh. The restrained performance by Kinski as Dracula also lends to the atmospheric, other worldly quality of the film.

Herzog’s Nosferatu, the Vampyre both celebrates past German cinema and contributes to the new era. This is why it continues to be an essential part of the New German Cinema Movement.

An Important Cinema Movement

A film poster for a New German Cinema festival. Still from various films are featured, along with a list of the films to be shown
A poster for a New German Cinema festival. Source:Pinterest

From 1962-1982, the New German Cinema Movement produced countless films which are considered classics. The movement resulted from a rejection of mainstream German cinema; many young directors believed German cinema had become stale and formulaic. The New German Cinema Movement wanted to make movies that challenged audiences emotionally and intellectually. To achieve this, German directors dealt with various difficult issues: prejudice, totalitarianism, generational tensions, and the legacy of Nazism.

This article looked at the history of the New German Cinema Movement. Significant films in the movement were also explored. Hopefully, this article demonstrates why the New German Cinema Movement should be held in the same light as the French New Wave or New Hollywood movements. And maybe the article will inspire you to check out some of the film’s listed above.

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