Berlin School Glossary is the first major publication to mark the increasing international importance of a group of contemporary German and Austrian filmmakers initially known by the name the Berlin School: Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan, Christoph Hochhäusler, Jessica Hausner and others. The study elaborates on the innovative strategies and formal techniques that distinguish these films, specifically questions of movement, space, spectatorship, representation, desire, location and narrative. Abandoning the usual format of essay-length analyses of individual films and directors, the volume is organized as an actual glossary with entries such as bad sex, cars, the cut, endings, familiar places, forests, ghosts, hotels, interiority, landscapes, siblings, surveillance, swimming pools and wind. This unique format combined with an informative introduction will be essential to scholars and fans of the German New Wave.
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About the Author
Roger F. Cook is Professor of German Studies and Director of the Film Studies Program at the University of Missouri. He co-edited The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition (Wayne State University Press, 1996) and has written extensively on New German Cinema and contemporary German film, with a current focus on the Berlin School. His work engages research in neuroscience and media theory to investigate issues of embodiment and affect in film viewing.
Lutz Koepnick is professor of German film and media studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
Kristin Kopp is associate professor of German studies at the University of Missouri–Columbia.
Brad Prager is Associate Professor of German and Film Studies at the University of Missouri. He has authored two monographs: Aesthetic Vision and German Romanticism: Writing Images (2007) and The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth (2007). His articles have appeared in New German Critique, Modern Language Review and Art History. Most recently he has co-edited the collections The Collapse of the Conventional: German Film and its Politics at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (2010) and Visualizing the Holocaust: Documents, Aesthetics, Memory (2008).
Roger Cook is professor of German studies and director of the Film Studies Program at the University of Missouri.
Lutz Koepnick is professor of German film and media studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
Brad Prager is associate professor of German studies and a member of the Film Studies Program at the University of Missouri.
Read an Excerpt
Berlin School Glossary
An ABC of the New Wave in German Cinema
By Roger F. Cook, Lutz Koepnick, Kristin Kopp, Brad Prager
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
At one point in Passing Summer, the protagonist's lover, Thomas, having just returned from Paris, meets with his business partner at a café. They talk about an interview Thomas conducted with an elderly, well-known artist or perhaps photographer. In keeping with Schanelec's usual practice of not providing supplementary information about the characters or events in her films, the viewer knows nothing about why Thomas went to Paris, except for what is revealed in this short exchange with his partner, who only appears in this one scene and is only identified as a business partner in the closing credits. Thomas plays for him an 18-second excerpt from the recording he made of the interview to illustrate what he had said to him as they were walking to the café — namely, that the interview had produced nothing. The only speech on the recording is of the interviewee, saying in French: 'There's nothing to say. I can't tell you anything. There's nothing to say. Nothing.' However, in the background there is a constant chorus of what sounds like a large group of birds. When he stops the tape, his partner asks, 'What's with the birds?' Thomas, who seemingly had not given them much thought, explains that they were in the trees outside the apartment window even though he could not actually see a single bird.
There is no other mention in the film of the interview or its role in Thomas's work. This scene has no connection to any other part of the film, with one exception. The last shot of the film is a 20-second stationary view of a single vertical row of apartment windows with trees in full foliage filling the right half of the screen. On the soundtrack we hear the same chirping of birds as on the tape along with the ambient sound of street traffic. As occurs often in Berlin School films, the sound from the final scene continues as the credits roll over a blank screen.
Only through the audio link back to the earlier scene can the viewer apprehend the significance of the final shot in the film — that is, it shows the apartment building in Paris where the interview took place [Fig. 3].
But what is the significance, we might be inclined to ask? Except for the simple fact that Thomas is in it, the episode at the café plays no role in the plot's already thinly woven web of characters and events. Moreover, as we hear on the tape, the interview provided Thomas and his colleague nothing for their project, of which we also know nothing. The remainder of the scene after the exchange about the birds concerns even more trivial matters that have nothing to do with the rest of the film. After the colleague asks Thomas about a bottle of syrup he had asked him to buy in Paris, the scene closes with a quick exchange about the rain in Berlin while he was away.
The complete lack of connection to any storyline notwithstanding, this scene is not merely an exercise in antinarrative aesthetics for its own sake. The point of including these banalities is precisely to highlight the nonsignificance of the dialogue and events with respect to the narrative and to direct attention instead to the film's alternative sound design. Employing the tape recording as a soundtrack-within-a-soundtrack, Schanelec emphatically foregrounds the role of ambient sound in her filmmaking. The return of the chorus of birds at the end of Passing Summer is also indicative of an alternative sound design typical of the Berlin School. Rather than follow the mainstream practice that relegates audio to a supporting role for visually constructed film narrative, Berlin School filmmakers give more autonomy to sound and direct the viewer to audio and visual signals that lie outside the normal regime of cinematic attention.
Once freed from its service to narrative, sound is able to assume a whole array of thematic and affective functions while in the guise of purely ambient noise. In Windows on Monday, for example, sounds related to the remodeling of the house reinforce both Nina and Frieder's affective state of mind associated with the project. Rather than addressing their foundering marriage directly, Frieder attempts to regenerate his relationship with Nina through their shared work on the renovation.
Apathetic about her marriage and child, Nina becomes irritated by his obsession with the remodeling. Early in the movie, we see her hanging out upstairs in the bathroom to avoid being a part of it. After Frieder comes to get her, we watch the two of them scraping wallpaper off the entrance walls. Within a few minutes she has had enough and leaves, telling him that she is going to pick up their daughter. Frustrated by her departure, he moves over to where she had been working and continues to scrape and rip wallpaper off the walls [Fig. 4]. In the virtual absence of other sounds during this scene, the scraping stands out dramatically. It not only symbolizes the tension between Nina and Frieder, it also conveys it physically to the viewer.
Later, on the Monday referenced in the title, and after Nina and Frieder's relationship has further disintegrated, a construction crew is working feverishly to install the couple's new windows. As the manager explains that they could not get the particular wooden frames he wanted, Frieder walks around mum, clearly unappeased by the attempts to satisfy him with an alternative. During their conversation, the workers are drilling, hammering, and clawing at an industrious pace to remove the old windows, even though there is no agreement yet on the replacements. The racket caused by the renovation overshadows the other incidental noise on the soundtrack. The sounds of renovation again act physically to generate in the viewer Frieder's affective state of mind, which, in this case, stems not so much from the thwarted plan for the windows as from the project's confirmed failure to regenerate their marriage now that the windows have arrived.
Some ambient sounds appear so frequently in Berlin School films that they serve as recurring motifs. The chirping of birds or the rustling of tree leaves (in Passing Summer, This Very Moment, Longing and Vacation) and splashing or lapping water (in Bungalow, Marseille, Hotel and Vacation) are prominent examples. The ambient sound encountered most often is that of street and highway traffic. As a common part of our modern lifestyle, noise from motor vehicles is prevalent in many feature films, often contributing to the intensity of action or dialogue. In the work of Berlin School directors, this noise adheres more to a naturalistic sound perspective and is, at the same time, tied more integrally to the central, if not explicitly articulated, themes in their films. In Bungalow, the rumbling of truck engines punctuates the otherwise relatively tranquil environs of a nondescript provincial region somewhere in Germany. From the military convoy in the long opening shot, to the trucks on the two-lane highway visible from the bungalow's patio, to the tractor-trailer that pulls up in the film's final scene and then pulls away apparently with Paul in the cab, the reverberating sound of powerful vehicles signal that the protagonist's return to the mid-size town where he grew up cannot lead to contentment.
In I Am Guilty, Armin takes occasional walks along the autobahn to the restroom at a rest stop not far from his house. These escapes from his protected but stifling home environment are accompanied by the ambient noise of the traffic roaring past. The blaring sound from the intermittent scenes along the autobahn imparts to the viewer a sense of Armin's tenuous hold on respectable society as strongly as any narrative events or dialogue. In the course of the film, he begins inexplicably to slip into a quasi-criminal path outside the normal world of family, friends and socially acceptable employment. The tension surrounding his eerie withdrawal builds in concert with the cumulative noise from the autobahn, eventually erupting into the piercing and squealing electric music that accompanies his surreal fantasy of having sex in his own bedroom with the leader of a biker gang from the rest stop.
As the Berlin School filmmakers' experience working with ambient sound has evolved, its integration into the alternative narrative style of their films has also become more intricate. The incorporation of ambient sound into the thematic structure of the story reaches perhaps its peak in Yella. There, Petzold employs both ambient sounds that are used frequently in Berlin School films, such as chirping birds, rustling leaves, lapping and splashing water, as well as more dramatic sounds to convey the complex subjective world of his protagonist. The natural sounds common to Berlin School films mark and sustain Yella's imagined vision of the course her life might take in the West. For example, as long as the sound of birds is audible, Yella remains completely caught up in the long subjective vision that begins just before Ben drives off the bridge into the Elbe River. When the chirping suddenly stops, the silence arouses an eerie feeling in her, and the fantasy starts to lose its hold. It is restored and sustained when the silence is pierced by a cawing crow, followed by lapping water or the wind rustling the leaves on a tree — sounds she heard at the beginning of her fantasy.
At the same time, whenever the sound of water, rustling leaves or the cawing of a crow returns during her vision, it portends her death on the shores of the Elbe. After the second, actual and fatal crash, Yella's body is pulled out of the river and laid in the same position on the same spot on the shore that she had assumed when she dragged herself out of the river in the earlier scene. Now we first hear from off-screen a crinkling noise and then see its source, an aluminum foil blanket that is being laid over her lifeless body. As the blanket comes to rest and the sound fades, the film cuts to its final image, a shot of leaves rustling in the tree above her [Fig. 5]. This is the same image and same accompanying audio that we saw and heard after the first crash. There, it was a subjective shot showing the first thing that Yella saw and heard when she awakened. Now, as she lies dead on the shore, this image is linked back to Yella not by her looking up at the tree, but rather by an eerie similarity between the crinkling of the aluminum foil blanket and the sound of the rustling leaves. The association produced by these two final sounds in the film confirms that the sight and sound of rustling leaves that had initiated her imagined account of her life in the West and appeared at crucial junctures during her fantasy were a premonition of her impending death.
In Yella Petzold takes this set of sounds that had become almost a trademark of Berlin School films and deploys them to mark the caesurae between the virtual and the real in Yella's experiences with venture capital. The film's most compelling piece of sound design contributes to the same thematic point by expanding the viewer's sensory engagement with the image. Yella's shift to — and then back from — her vision is triggered by the vibrations of Ben's car bouncing along the cobblestone road leading up to the bridge. As we watch the exchange between Ben and Yella intensify in the first version of the scene, the car and the film image begin to shake. The camera cuts to a shot through the windshield [Fig. 6], in which we see and hear the front of the car bouncing along the cobblestone road.
The shaking continues for approximately 30 seconds, until Ben turns the steering wheel hard to the left and Yella tries in vain to stop him. The switch back to this point in the film, after almost 70 minutes of uninterrupted subjective scenes, occurs when Yella is in the back seat of the taxi, head turned to the side, distraught over the outcome of her attempt to make a business killing and forge a life together with Philipp. The reverberating sound of Ben's car on the cobblestone road begins while Yella is still in the taxi. Serving as a sound bridge, it jars her out of her fantasy as the film cuts back to a shot of her sitting in the passenger seat of Ben's car, head turned to the side in the same manner [Fig. 7].
This time, as the shot switches to the front of the car and the cobblestone road, and then back to the interior, Yella sits passively as Ben swerves and crashes the car through the railing and into the Elbe. The sound and vibration of the car literally shake the viewer out of the subjective world of Yella's vision, which, until then, had likely not been perceived as such. Shaken along with Yella out of a trance-like vision, the viewer also experiences with her the resigned realization that the world of finance capitalism cannot provide her the life about which she fantasizes.
Another moment of sonar penetration had already prefigured her sound-induced premonition of the eventual failure and resignation. When Ben appears at her house, unsolicited, just as she is leaving, and asks, 'Can I give you a ride to the airport? Just to the airport?,' there is a sonic boom overhead. Yella turns her head toward it, and the camera pans quickly across the sky following the roar of the fighter jet, without catching sight of it. When the camera returns to Yella, her face reveals that she already senses and is resigned to her fate without knowing it [Fig. 8]. Here Petzold deploys the nature of aural perception to signal that the story we are about to see is a belated vision of this awareness. Because sound travels through space as vibrating waves, the identification of its source usually lags behind the perception, coming only after the sound has penetrated the ear or, in the case of a loud blast, the whole surface of the body. Sound thus poses the question for sight to answer: 'Where is it coming from?' The sonic boom penetrates Yella in a dynamic fashion, divesting her of the hope she clings to futilely of a successful life supported by the high-stakes world of finance. She only becomes cognizant of its effect after the whole scenario of her career in finance capitalism has played out in the few seconds before Ben drives the car off the bridge. The ambient sound of the sonic boom, which is then echoed in the sound and vibration of the car traveling over the cobblestones, penetrates the body of both Yella and the viewer and prefigures the belated audiovisual account of the whole story.CHAPTER 2
Family country houses, road trips, suburbs, forests, France, vacation islands. With few exceptions, the films of the new wave in German and Austrian cinema betray a decided ambivalence toward iconic urban space and often take place in more vaguely defined national terrain or in transnational border zones. One might consider, for example, spaces of transit in Ulrich Köhler's Bungalow, Maria Speth's Madonnas, and Christian Petzold's films The State I Am In and Yella; or the house and forest cabin in Köhler's Windows on Monday; the rural village in Valeska Grisebach's Longing; and the vacation homes in Thomas Arslan's Vacation or Maren Ade's Everyone Else. Certainly, this mixture of mobility and stasis beyond — but also occasionally within — Berlin reflects spaces of action made possible through globalization, through the changing contours of Europe, through Germany's East–West integration, and through geographic and economic relationships between characters' places of origin (their Herkunft) and current lifestyles, whether urban, rural, or suburban. But the preoccupation of these films with what can be termed the Anti-Hauptstadt, an avoidance both of Berlin and of clearly visible markers of place, is not only thematic; it is reinforced in numerous formal choices available to the filmmakers. A case in point is the work of Angela Schanelec, whose films Passing Summer and Afternoon, both stories of quotidian malaise, convey the region of Berlin-Brandenburg as an all but anonymous backdrop for slow-paced lives and narrative stagnation.
Excerpted from Berlin School Glossary by Roger F. Cook, Lutz Koepnick, Kristin Kopp, Brad Prager. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
List of Berlin School Films
Introduction: The Berlin School – Under Observation
Seeing and Saying