Ghosts Are Good Company
AFS Essential Series: The Third Wave: Contemporary German Cinema
There are two of them in the car, a man and a woman. The woman, Yella, is a mousy thing, two wary eyes peering out from behind a mop of thin hair. She's on her way to the train station to take a job in the western part of Germany, two hours but a world away from her small hometown in the economically despondent East. Before she gets on that train, however, her estranged husband, Ben, is going to have his say – about her leaving, about her leaving him, about her abandoning him. First he pleads with her, then he threatens her, and then he grabs her in a fit of rage. Yella demands he let her out of the car, but he refuses. "I love you," is all he says. And then, as the car crosses over a bridge, Ben turns the wheel and crashes through the guardrail. The car falls silently through the air, plunges into the river below, and gradually sinks, sinks, sinks to the bottom.
Bubbling up from the wreckage, Yella pulls herself out of the water and drags herself to the shore, collapsing in the mud. Moments later, Ben collapses next to her. Improbably, they have both cheated death. But it's clear, even as Yella picks herself off that muddy bank and begins the long walk to the train station and her new life, that her old life won't be leaving her alone anytime soon. Not after it already tried to kill her once and then refused to stay dead itself.
The movie is Yella, German director Christian Petzold's 2007 award-winning supernatural-psychological drama, which will have its Austin premiere on Sept. 9. Like most of the films screening this month as part of the Austin Film Society's latest Essential Cinema Series program, The Third Wave: Contemporary German Cinema, Yella is about the ghosts of the past: the personal past, the political past, the economic past, and cinema past. Whether drowned in a river, drowned in alcohol, or drowned out by the sound of gunfire, these ghosts continue to linger in Germany, remnants of a 20th century that was cinematically triumphant but socially plagued, a 20th century that refuses to let the country, its people, or its filmmakers transition blithely into the 21st.
We see this refusal in Yella's own attempt at a new life: Upon arriving in her new hometown, she learns that not only is there no job waiting for her as she had been promised but the man who had done the promising has been fired from his own job for attempting to cheat the company he worked for. Immediately, Yella gets a crash course in this brave new world economy, an economy not based on shared labor and self-sacrifice – as old-German communism, for all its dehumanizing flaws, was – but rather one based on self-satisfaction, self-indulgence, instant gratification, and getting the better of one's neighbors – as new German capitalism, for all its triumphs, is.
It doesn't take Yella long to adjust to this new system; it turns out she has a gift for ruthless moneymaking. Meeting a handsome, manipulative young businessman, she begins to realize her own potential as a player in the new German economy, where the old notions of morality and fair play mean absolutely nothing. She is a natural capitalist. Unfortunately for her, just when she begins making something of her new life, her old ghosts decide to come back to haunt her, appearing out of the past in the sound of wind in the trees and in the sight of improbably unlocked doors and lingering shadows around corners. The personal, the psychological, and the economic become inextricably intertwined as Yella sacrifices more and more of herself to the pursuit of financial success and a bright future.
It's a parable playing itself all over modern Germany – all over post-communist Eastern Europe – a parable about the alienation endemic to the capitalist system, to the worship of economic success – casualties in the battle between money and morality, between the brave new dog-eat-dog, every-woman-for-herself future and the forced interconnectedness of the past. And its lessons are hiding in closets and behind closed doors everywhere, just waiting to drag people down into the dark waters.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the German film industry was the pride of Europe, second only to mighty, glistening Hollywood for prestige. Back in the early part of the 20th century, the Weimar years, directors such as Robert Weine, Friedrich Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Ernst Lubitsch were in the vanguard of a new kind of filmmaking, expanding the vocabulary of the medium into the realm of expressionism and art-deco abstraction. Stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre were nearly as famous as Norma Shearer and Douglas Fairbanks, and studios rose and fell throughout the country as they vied with the legendary industry powers of the New World.
But then the Nazis came to power, and the national film industry became a propaganda tool, and Germany's great loss became America's great gain, as future heavyweights – such as Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk, Richard Siodmak, and countless others – made their way across the ocean to Hollywood, where they would be responsible for some of the greatest cinematic achievements of the coming Golden Age.
Back in Germany, the golden age would have to wait. Wait out the Nazis; wait out World War II; wait out the early, terrible years of Communist rule; wait until the early Sixties, when a new group of young filmmakers, out to create what they called "the new cinema," would burst onto the scene as the German New Wave. These young directors – Rainer Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, among others – like their French and Italian counterparts before them, breathed new life into German cinema with their artistic restlessness, their youthful arrogance, and their devotion to finding a new cinematic language.
The new third wave of German filmmakers, those highlighted by the AFS this month, followed in the footsteps of those giants as children of their country's reconciliation, souls that came to artistic fruition after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the collapse of communism, during the age of the free market, free media, and free and open borders.
One of the leading lights of this new movement is Fatih Akin, the portrait both of modern German cinema and modern Germany in general. A Hamburg-born, first-generation German of Turkish descent, Akin explores the cultural malleability and dissonance at the heart of the "new Germany" and the "new Europe," a world of colliding religious, social, and political traditions that is at once an ocean of potential artistic and social revolution and a powder keg of potential political and racial disaster. (Akin's latest film, The Edge of Heaven, played recently at the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival and opens in Austin this month.)
Akin's excellent Head-On, from 2004, is a glorious example of the artistic possibilities that have arisen out of the disputatious atmosphere of simultaneously rivaling and complementary cultural traditions, both on a cultural scale and a personal one. Its story of Turkish-Germans Cahit (played with Klaus Kinski-like abandon by Birol Ünel) and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), each caught between the temptations of their native modern Germany and the inexorable pull of their cultural heritage, is as old as the tale of the Hebrews in Egypt: the tension between cultural tradition and new, displaced sociopolitical identity.
Cahit confronts this tension the way any reasonable person would: He drinks. A lot. He indulges himself and debases himself, and he lashes out at the world before the world can lash out at him. Drowning his feelings of displacement in any bottle he can get his hands on, Cahit is anger personified, smashing bottles and living in squalor and castigating his own people as "fucking Turks" in fits of self-loathing and confusion. His reconciliation with his past, his identity, and his disappointment and dissatisfaction finally begins when he opens his home to Sibel, a young Turkish woman herself seeking respite from the crushing weight of history and tradition the only way she knows how: through the cool, ahistorical numbness that can only come from physical degradation and indulgence.
Sibel, like Cahit and Yella and so many of the other heroes of the new German cinema, will come to know eventually that in Germany, as everywhere else, one's past can only be ignored, forgotten, abused, despised, drunk away, snorted out of memory, or drowned out by loud music and sex for so long. Inevitably it will appear again to demand its due acknowledgment and have its day.
Ghosts, they say, will only stay quiet for so long.
All screenings take place Tuesdays at 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. For more information, visit www.austinfilm.org.
Sept. 9 Yella
Sept. 16 The Farewell
Sept. 23 The Legend of Rita
Sept. 30 Rosenstrasse
Oct. 7 Love in Thoughts
Oct. 14 Head-On