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2— Straub/Huillet, the New Left, and Germany
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Straub/Huillet's Germany

Three concerns of the New German Cinema connect recent critical works on its relation to postwar German culture: its role in Vergangenheitsbewältigung , coming to terms with the past, and the quest for a "usable" past as the foundation for a German national identity; its attempt to define itself and its audience against or in relation to American cinema (Hollywood) and popular culture; and the Left project of the student movement to break with the domination present in both of the other two—the guilt of the World War II generation and the "colonization" by the American culture industry.

Mourning, melancholy, loss, and numerous related terms mark both the New German Cinema and the general relation to history in West Germany in recent years.[48] Santner and Kaes especially have connected this emphasis with the role of film as "mourning work." The purpose of the mourning process, as Santner puts it, is "the construction of a viable, empowering legacy."[49] Evocations of the past certainly predominate in the films Kaes and Santner focus on, and the challenge to a "viable legacy" posed by the Nazi past is seen by Elsaesser to be at the core of the "German identity" that has emerged in the period of the New German Cinema.

The nature of this empowerment and the definition of this subject or identity are problematic, however. Santner, Kaes, and Elsaesser all make clear that the mourning work going on in New German Cinema is not for the victims of Nazism but for the legitimacy of the German identity itself. The images and emotions that are evoked are thus connected to the experiences and memories of the Nazi era that have been tainted by guilt. The individual psychological metaphor of mourning work suggests that Germany needs to work through the damage to its collective ego caused by the exposure of the "evil" of Nazism and the removal of its object of identification—particularly the father figure Hitler. The goal of such a process for individuals, as Santner points out, is "empowerment" and the ability to live on without being debilitated by guilt.

The problem with the collective version of this process as seen in film is that it accepts the "biographical continuity" between Nazi Germany and "Germany" as such. It also accepts as right the identification of the collective emotions and ideologically charged images of Nazism with the collective memory of present-day Germany. In other words, it accepts the colonization of memory by Nazism. There is no other alternative.

Since this is not just memory, but mourning, the quality of loss is also


necessary. But the "loss" of the carefree identification with Germany through Nazi images of it is an aesthetic one; the "loss" of the power associated with Nazi Germany has not taken place. Indeed, Germany is today more powerful than ever in its history. So to see a collective need for mourning in order to achieve some kind of "empowerment" can only exist in the realm of aesthetic identification with the state and not with the "power" of the state in itself. Straub/Huillet's approach to Germany is the inverse to this. Whereas there we see the problem as a cultural rupture in the face of political and economic continuities, Straub/Huillet propose cultural continuities as a form of resistance to political continuity. Whereas the New German Cinema's love of Germany is abstract and mediated by images, the love of Germany present in all of Straub/Huillet's German films is a concrete, experiential one.

In their interviews regarding Germany, they have always woven together these aspects of culture, memory, and everyday life. For instance, when questioned about the sources of their interest in German culture, they rejected the importance of early education (as Roud had stressed) in favor of their experience of living in West Germany for ten years. Before that, Straub's only relation to Germany had been the Nazi annexation of his hometown of Metz, which had engendered mostly resistance to the language and the conviction that the Bach film could only be shot in Germany. Beyond that, Huillet stresses, "The relations to Germany, they came mostly afterward, as we were living there."[50]

These relations to Germany, in contrast to the centrality of cultural images to other New German filmmakers, arose out of their particular practical and political struggles of living there.

HUILLET: The relation to Germany is not a cultural one. But in Germany, because we lived there, and because the violence in Germany is perhaps greater or more open . . .

STRAUB: . . . and we had to fight for ten years to get together the financing for the Bach film. Those are the relations we have to Germany! Much more than the so-called cultural ones.

HUILLET: And to the class struggle. Germany is a good school for that.[51]

However, Huillet and Straub polemically refer to a continuity with German cinema and culture before the Nazis, partly as a foil to the Young German Cinema's claim to originality and the notorious break between the New German Cinema and German cultural role models. For instance, the following cat-and-mouse game between Straub/Huillet and an interviewer asking for opinions on contemporary filmmakers:

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: . . . Just which contemporary film makers do you admire?


STRAUB: I don't know, Mizoguchi. No, I mean it, but he's dead.

PETER GIDAL: Does that answer for both of you?


STRAUB: Then at the other end of the ideological scale, it would be John Ford. Of course there is Renoir and lots of people, Fritz Lang.

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: I was thinking more about film makers now.

HUILLET: He means the living. Lang is still living, Renoir too.[52]

Straub goes on to speak of his continuing admiration of Godard, but the point of diverting the question from contemporary innovation to past models is telling. Similarly, he spoke of his polemical exchange with Alexander Kluge in the context of the Young German Cinema and Kluge's "caricature of Brecht":

Kluge always goes on about the film which is created in the minds of the spectators; I don't believe it. Then I react like Rivette and state that film—let's not quibble over the words—is only based on fascination, and that it only touches people, and touches them deeply, when it is based on fascination, i.e., the opposite of distance or participation or some such thing, that the traditional attitudes of people . . . one never invents very much, Renoir said, not like Kluge, with whom I quarreled in Mannheim. He climbed onto the stage and said, well, what we are doing is new. We make films which are going to be created in the minds of the spectators. That is completely new and nobody has done it before. My films are like—and then he saw me down in the audience—my films are like those of Straub, for instance—then I was furious and stood up and said, the things I do are not new at all, they are traditional.[53]

We will look at the different Brechtianism of Kluge later on, but for the moment, the central aspect here is Straub/Huillet's respect for the institution of cinema against that of politics and its mystification of history. It was in the same interview that Straub asserted, citing the end of Fort Apache , that "John Ford is the most Brechtian of all filmmakers, because he shows things that make people think, damn it, is that true or not."[54] This contrasts sharply with the Young German Cinema's contempt for the audience that had been lost by the collapse of the German film industry, an audience that Fritz Lang had still addressed in the 1950s. For the lived experience of this audience, Straub has not contempt but great warmth and sympathy.

Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal are the only films that are superproductions without being superproducts, which are made with all the


money that he had at his disposal without creating a smokescreen. And which nevertheless are not made against money; because now, that's easier to do: Godard, in his evolution, has discovered that it is necessary to make oppositional films. But for a man of Fritz Lang's generation, this wasn't possible, an idea like that. And yet he succeeded in making these two films, where he really gave something to the Germans who had been dying of hunger for so many years—since '33 and even before '33, up to the Currency Reform for which the leftist intellectuals had so much contempt, until the moment when the people would begin again to be able to know a little what it meant to live: this is what has been called the German economic miracle. For a good many people, this was the first time that they finally revived, that they were eating normally—of course there was the speculation and all the rest, okay. (The arrival of the consumer society, that's the negative aspect of it.) But Fritz Lang, at this moment, made something for the people which was a gift, let's say, of gold. . . . The producer was really eager to make a golden calf. Fritz Lang made a film.[55]

This attitude to the audience separates Straub/Huillet from the avant-garde more than anything else, since they expect the audience to understand their films without the mediation of specialists.

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