(Germany in Autumn)
West Germany, 1978
Directors: Alf Brustellin, Hans Peter Cloos, R. W. Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Maximiliana Mainka, Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus, Edgar Reitz, Katja Rupé, Volker Schlöndorff, Peter Schubert, and Bernhard Sinkel
Production: Project Filmproduktion/Filmverlag der Autoren; color/black and white, 35mm; running time: 116 minutes. Filmed October 1977. Released in West Germany, 17 March 1978.
Producers: Project Filmproduktion/Filmverlag der Autoren/ Hallelujah Film/Kairos Film Munich; screenplay: Heinrich Böll, Alf Brustellin, Hans Peter Cloos, R. W. Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Maximiliane Mainka, Edgar Reitz, Katja Rupé, Volker Schlöndorff, Peter Schubert, Bernhard Sinkel, Peter F. Steinbach; photography: Michael Ballhaus, Günter Hörmann, Jürgen Jürges, Bodo Kessler, Dietrich Lohmann, Werner Lüring, Colin Mounier, Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein; editors: Alexander Kluge, Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus, Heidi Genée, Mulle Goetz-Dickopp, Juliane Lorenz, Tania Schmidbauer, Christine Warnck.
Cast: Mario Adorf ( TV committee member ); Wolfgang Bächler, Heinz Bennent, Joachim Bissmeier, Joey Buschmann, Caroline Channiolleau, Hans Peter Cloos ( "Foreigner" ); Horst Ehmke, Otto Friebel, Hildegard Friese, Vadim Glowna ( Freiermuth ); Michael Gahr, Helmut Griem ( Mahler's interviewer ); Horatius Häberle, Hannelore Hoger ( Gabi Teichert ); Petra Kiener, Dieter Laser, Lisi Mangold, Enno Patalas ( TV committee member ), Lila Pempeit, Werner Possardt, Franz Priegel, Leon Rainer, Manfred Rommel, Katja Rupé ( Franziska Busch ); Walter Schmidinger, Gerhard Schneider, Corinna Spies, Franziska Walser ( Ismene ); André Wilms, Angela Winkler ( Antigone ); Eric Vilgertshofer, Manfred Zapatka. Appearing as themselves: Wolf Biermann (radical poet/singer/songwriter exiled from DDR in 1977), Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Horst Mahler, and Armin Meier.
Awards: Film Strip in Gold for Outstanding Individual Achievement: Film Conception (for the entire film team), German Film Awards, 1978.
Elsaesser, Thomas, New German Cinema: A History , New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1989.
Kaes, Anton, From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film , Princeton, New Jersey, 1989.
Corrigan, Timothy, New German Cinema: The Displaced Image , Bloomington, Indiana, 1994.
Elsaesser, Thomas, Fassbinder's Germany: History, Identity, Subject , Amsterdam, 1996.
Hansen, Miriam, "Cooperative Auteur Cinema and Oppositional Public Sphere," in New German Critique , no. 24–25, Fall/Winter, 1981–82.
Silberman, Marc, "Introduction to Germany in Autumn ," in Discourse , no. 6, 1983.
Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jurgen Habermas, and Heiner Muller, "Germany in Autumn," in Documenta X: The Book: Politics Poetics , edited by Catherine David and Jean-Francois Chevrier, Ostfildern, Germany1997.
* * *
Germany in Autumn is a politically engaged combination of documentary, media footage, and fictional and autobiographical episodes that covers the emotional gamut from concern, to irony, to despair. A landmark film for the New German Cinema, this collaborative effort between nine acclaimed directors and several prominent writers, songwriters, and poets protests the political oppression of West Germany in the late 1970s. The film's nine vignettes document the rise of urban terrorism, police militancy, and the resurgence of fascist tendencies in postwar Germany.
In the fall of 1977, Germany was almost a nation under siege by its own police, security, and military forces. The headlines told of a plane hijacking and the kidnapping and subsequent murder of German industrialist Hans-Martin Schleyer. Schleyer's kidnappers, the Baader-Meinhof group, were a left-wing terrorist offshoot of the notorious Red Army Faction (RAF). Schleyer had been kidnapped in an effort to negotiate the release of the RAF's most prominent members, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Enslin, and Karl Raspe, who had been imprisoned for terrorist acts. After the failed kidnapping effort resulted in Schleyer's murder, the leaders of the RAF were found dead in Stammheim, a maximum security federal prison. The suspicious circumstances of their deaths led many to conclude that they were murdered by the state, although officials declared and still maintain otherwise. In any case, the treatment of the Baader-Meinhof group confirmed the fears of the political left that the state was willing to use extreme violence to silence its critics.
With these events as its historical backdrop, the film takes on three urgent tasks for the postwar generation: a protest against censorship and political repression; a confrontation with the persistence of fascism reflected in current events; and facing their parents' lack of accountability for the Nazi period. The films sections address these issues from various perspectives and diverse styles, and are marked by the signature styles of their directors. One sees the overall influence of Alexander Kluge, who together with Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus edited the nine hours of material into a 134 minute film.
According to Kluge—social theorist, filmmaker, author, and one of the most prominent directors of New German Cinema—the contradictions in the film "belong to one nation: only if the contradictions are together, can one accept this history and understand it." Although there is no real plot, the footage is sequenced around various themes: the role of the media and the importance of debate in the public sphere, confronting the Nazi past, and the necessity to resist police brutality. At a time of official government news blackout, this acclaimed team of filmmakers offered a counter-history, an unofficial response to the official absence of reportage. The experimental montage of short fictionalized pieces even mimics the look of television, with its collection of interviews, documentary, fiction, and autobiographical pieces.
Several of the film's sections explicitly address the theme of state and media censorship and the lack of open debate. Other sections illustrate the political power wielded by those who control the media. The section by Schlöndorf and Heinrich Böll offers an ironic sketch of a contrived meeting of TV officials who ban the dramatic production of Sophocle's Antigone. The classic drama's portrayal of siblings in defiance of the state is seen as advocating a pro-terrorist view too analogous to recent events. This segment's satirical yet pointed testament to the political power of the media demands a public sphere in which debate is encouraged and allowed.
On a thematic level, several sections of Germany in Autumn addressed Germany's difficult recent history and the burden of the historical memory of the Third Reich. Kluge based his critically acclaimed feature film The Patriot on his short section about Gabi Teichert, a high school teacher intent on (literally) digging up Germany's past with a hand spade; in this film, however, the past is not about the extermination of the European Jews in Europe, but about the losses and deprivation of the immediate postwar period; that is, it is about German suffering.
Fassbinder's 24 minute episode, the most personal and emotionally charged of the sections, also addresses the weight of the past but from a different perspective: he confronts the effects of the generational conflict between parents and children. In a staged but highly convincing and seemingly realistic interview with his mother, he elicits the statement from her that what Germany needs today is another "benevolent dictator." Interspersed with this interview, spectators witness the historical transmission of violence on a domestic, private level. Fassbinder alternately abuses, rejects, caresses, and rants with his lover in a dark claustrophobic apartment filled with booze, drugs, and misery. The message seems to be that history is accountable for interpersonal problems as well as political and governmental ones.
Germany in Autumn is also about collective mourning. Funeral scenes frame the various episodes; indeed, the opening and closing of the film documents the funeral of Hans Martin Schleyer as well as the burial of the Red Army leaders. Lastly, the film explores the fine line between patriotism and nationalism. The film uses the national anthem as an ironic leitmotif, underlining the filmmaker's distrust of the government as a result of police brutality directed at so-called leftist sympathizers. The rich texture of the images and the densely layered scenes of Germany in Autumn skillfully merge the terrorism of the present with the fascist totalitarianism of the past. The film remains both an artistic achievement and a statement of the political efficacy of film-making.