The so-called “Berlin School” has gone from strength to strength in recent years. This new wave of precise, formalist cinema has been noteworthy for several reasons, one of them being the fact that most of its practitioners are currently making their best, most fully realized works to date. Despite a critical tendency, across virtually all media, to make a fetish of the “early work,” there appears to be a consensus that these German auteurs are working at the height of their powers.
This certainly accounts for the significantly heightened profile of several of the Berlin School filmmakers in recent years. In a rare conjunction between critics and the film business, more and more of these films are being distributed in North America and being seen by not-inconsiderable groups of viewers. Thus far, the highest profile film from the “movement” over here has been Maren Ade’s oddball comedy Toni Erdmann, which premiered in Competition at Cannes (a Berlin School first), and was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
But other major films from Germany have also made their debut at Cannes, in the Un Certain Regard section. (The festival seems to be a bit behind the curve in fully embracing Berlin School cinema.) These include Valeska Grisebach’s reverse-immigration tale Western, and last year, Ulrich Köhler’s unclassifiable riff on the end of the world, In My Room. These directors, along with their somewhat older colleagues Christian Petzold and Angela Schanelec (whose latest film I Was at Home, But… has just been picked up by Cinema Guild), have managed to break through the clutter and noise of the international film scene, securing the attention they so richly deserve. Perhaps in the next couple of years, we will have all finally caught up with Thomas Arslan as well. We shall see.
Even though one can strongly sense these filmmakers getting better and more accomplished as they go along, it’s instructive, not to mention enjoyable, to explore their earlier work. One of the things that strikes a viewer almost immediately is how confident these early films are. The fundamental components of the so-called Berlin “style” are already present, if not fully formed. Viewers who want the chance to catch up with some of the key filmmakers currently working in Germany right now are in luck, since TIFF Lightbox and Toronto’s Goethe-Institut are showcasing the first features by two directors, Köhler and Grisebach, and the second feature by Ade.
As many of its practitioners have expressed, not without a touch of dismay, the Berlin School is so diverse in its aims and approaches as to complicate, if not dismantle, the very idea of a school or movement. Heck, several of the directors are not even from Berlin. Köhler studied in Hamburg, Ade in Munich, and Grisebach completed her film school study in Vienna. At the same time, critics in both Germany and elsewhere did not invent the notion of a Berlin School out of thin air. There are stylistic commonalities among these three filmmakers, partly owing to similarities in taste and approach.
Although Petzold, Schanelec, and Arslan are usually cited as the three key originators of the Berlin School, the lineage goes back a bit farther. Many of these filmmakers have expressed admiration for the work of film and TV director Dominik Graf, as well as the experimental documentaries of the late Harun Farocki (who was Petzold’s frequent collaborator). From these sources, it is not difficult to extrapolate backward, finding connections between the Berlin School and such makers as Romuald Karmakar, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Robert Bresson, and even such classicists as John Ford and Howard Hawks.
What these films do sounds deceptively simple. They employ a crisp but unshowy rigor to depict human interactions at specific crisis points. That’s to say, much of the Berlin School filmmaking assumes a dialectic between formal order and emotional liminality, wherein passages of interpersonal change, ambiguity, or reorganization are examined with an almost forensic precision. Whether we are examining the consequences of an impulsive decision, the breaking point of a long-term relationship, or the onset of sexual maturity, the films provide a sturdy container for the volatile reactions on display, throwing their broader ramifications into stark relief.
We can see this process at work in Köhler’s debut film Bungalow (2002), the story of a young man, Paul (Lennie Burmeister), who suddenly decides to go AWOL from his military service. Köhler stages the instigating act with great care, producing a set of circumstances wherein Paul can momentarily fool himself into thinking that fate had some hand in his decision. At the start of the film, his transport convoy pulls into a Burger King for a quick lunch. As Paul sits at an outdoor table drinking a coffee, he watches as his platoon load back up in the truck and head out. Later, when his brother Max (Devid Streisow) figures out what Paul has done, he drops Paul at the railway station to return to the barracks. But instead of boarding the train, Paul watches it pull away, halfheartedly wrestling with an uncooperative cigarette machine as though this meaningless act were detaining him.
Bungalow explores the way that Paul’s foolhardy decision exacerbates tensions between himself and Max that were clearly already present. Max, arriving at his parents’ house with his Danish girlfriend Lene (Trine Dyrholm), is surprised to see Paul there, and once it is clear that he does not have permission to be away, Max shifts from an easy, casual manner to a sort of authoritarian loco parentis. Paul, for his part, makes a move on Lene, partly because his own girlfriend (Nicole Gläser) just dumped him, but also as a kind of macho fraternal one-upmanship.
Köhler uses deft visual cues to underscore the dissolution of identity and family bonds, the sense that the brothers are pieces of a puzzle that no longer fit together. In addition to positioning the still camera with Paul as vehicles depart the frame (taking Paul’s options with them), we see Paul break into his parents’ house by kicking in a glass door. Afterward, he uses medical tape to “repair” the huge crack in the glass. The multiple, concentric fissures in the door, highlighted by white tape, form a kind of centripetal transit map, with lines of movement exiting the center and venturing out into nothing.
This combines quite nicely with Bungalow’s subtle approach to depicting the landscape around suburban Marburg, with long shots over the rooftops tracing character movement in cars and on bikes. In the distance we hear an explosion, which turns out to be the result of a broken gas main. But almost all the characters follow the large plume of black smoke into town to have a look at the scene. This contrasts with the sequences around the home and by the pool, implying an encroaching doom circling this pocket of banal familiarity.
Articulating these interpersonal disturbances in miniature, Köhler’s early short film Rocket (co-directed by experimental filmmaker Nina Könnemann) zeroes in on ten minutes at the end of a party, where a young man appears to be languishing in a relationship with one woman while drawing the attention of another. A fourth guest, an Eastern European guy speaking English, is hovering around as a kind of irritant. Rocket mostly takes place on the stoop, working quite literally with the theme of boundaries and liminality. The group is neither inside nor outside, still fraternizing even though by all appearances, the party’s over.
Hemmed-in, circumscribed exterior spaces are a frequent site of Berlin School narrative action. Bungalow’s modest but well-appointed middle-class setting, complete with swimming pool and deck, also defines a significant portion of Maren Ade’s film Everyone Else (2009). Its focus is a young couple, Chris (Lars Eidinger) and Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr), who are on staying at Chris’s parents’ place. They end up spending time with another, slightly older couple, Hans (Hans-Jochen Wagner) and Sana (Nicole Marischka), whose complications appear to be a harbinger of what awaits Chris and Gitti in a few year’ time. The title has a dual meaning. Chris and Gitti pride themselves on being anti-bourgeois and unconventional, unlike “everyone else.” But their resolve is tested when they make contact with the larger world—“everyone else.”
The start of the film finds Chris and Gitti caring for two children, a seven-year-old and a babe-in-arms. We discover that they are Chris’s nieces, as their mother (Carina Wiese) comes to pick them up. As she sees her younger brother holding the baby, she says to him, “looks good on you.” Meanwhile, Gitti is having a rather inappropriate argument with the older child, Rebecca (Paula Hartmann). Gitti demands to know why Rebecca doesn’t like her, and ends up coaching the girl on how to express her hatred. From the start, Ade shows us the presumed trajectory of heterosexual coupling—reproduction—together with clear evidence that Gitti, at least, is in no way prepared to engage with children.
Later, we see the couple alone, playing around. Chris has fashioned a two-legged horse out of a ginger root and some matchsticks, while Gitti disrupts Chris’s reading by putting lip gloss and rouge on him. Ade is spot-on in defining these characters as an identifiable type—self-consciously goofy post-collegiates who take obvious pride in behaving in unconventional ways. As most of us know from personal experience, these are the free, unfettered hippies who inevitably settle into the most ordinary possible lives. But for now, they act like overgrown kids. For example, when their parents’ neighbor comes by, they run and hide like children in trouble.
But Ade has something else up her sleeve. Chris is at a crossroads. He is an architect, and is hoping to win a design competition to move his career to the next level. He conflates this success with being “manly,” asking Gitti if she sees him as masculine. She playfully calls him “pretty,” which aligns with his full face of makeup. But it is clear that we are beginning to witness a crisis of confidence that will serve as the fault line along which all other cracks fall. (When Chris and Gitti have their first argument in the film, over Gitti’s TV watching, they make up in a bedroom which features a noose draped over the back of a chair.)
Everyone Else has the couple staying at a villa in Italy that, one can sort of glean from context, belongs to Chris’s family. Ade uses the villa in much the same way Köhler uses the family home in Bungalow. Confined quarters ramp up already existing fears and irritations. The cheesy décor of the place, with one room completely festooned with ceramic birds on branches, is like a physical manifestation of everything to which Gitti and Chris feel superior. Gitti prods Chris into dancing around the room to the tune of Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias’ “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” even as Chris declares the song to be “shit.” This scene is paired with a later one, during which Chris and Gitti cringe through an on-the-nose love song by Herbert Gröenmayer. (This is a move that Ade will reprise, after a fashion, in Toni Erdmann, when the lead character takes control of a drab domestic get-together by crooning “The Greatest Love of All.”)
During a key argument, Gitti tells Chris, “in theory you’re free, but you have to do something.” She is addressing Chris’s anxieties about his work, but more than this, his fear of “settling down,” or even just “settling.” Ade orchestrates Everyone Else as a tightly wound tango, with two people who clearly want more from each other than they are receiving, but both afraid that making a commitment to one another is a form of “growing up,” or worse, “selling out.”
This problem is given added poignancy, ironically, in Ade’s short addendum film, A Summer Without Gitti. Comprised of outtakes and excerpts from Everyone Else, the short film removes Gitti from the equation, and shows Chris at loose ends, trying to figure out what to do with himself. In this film, he is “free,” has all the time in the world, but accomplishes next to nothing.
In a sense, there’s a whole lot of “nothing” going on in Grisebach’s Be My Star (2001). But this is only because the film is set within a teenage milieu, where a lot of time is spent just hanging around and learning the social ropes. Of course, simmering within all this down time, one finds the complex gestures and baffling struggles of young adulthood, in particular the early stirrings of romantic love and the vicissitudes of heterosexual coupling. Be My Star is a bit like an emotional prologue to films like Bungalow and Everyone Else. And in fact, Grisebach’s lead actress, Nicole Gläser, who was a young unprofessional at the time, went on to co-star in Bungalow.
Grisebach’s film work is somewhat different from Ade’s and Köhler’s in that she has consistently worked primarily with non-professionals. This provides Be My Star with another layer of complexity. Thematically, the film grapples with the transition into adulthood and adult desires. As with other Berlin School films, it organizes this social ambiguity within a relatively austere formalist framework. But along with these aspects, Grisebach also explores the limits of conventional movie acting. Her subjects, while not “representing themselves” exactly, are nevertheless walking a balance beam poised between performing and being, deliberate expressivity and an uninflected, youthful working-class habitus.
Be My Star centers on Nicole (Gläser), who breaks up with one boy as the film begins and soon takes up with another, Christoper (Christopher Schöps), with whom she will have a stop / start relationship over the course of the film. Nicole and Christopher form the hub of the film’s social universe, orbited by Nicole’s girlfriends, Chris’s mates, and especially Nicole’s younger sister Monique (Monique Gläser). She closely observes the Nicole / Chris relationship, partly because she is nosy, but above all because she is looking for some sort of guidance for how to conduct her own nascent relationships with boys.
Where Everyone Else and Bungalow center on the domestic, that space is only one part of Be My Star. As Grisebach articulates things, the private realm is a place where Chris and Nicole can be both amorous and silly, awkwardly discovering each other and their feelings. It is in the larger world—the schoolyard, the park, the atrium of Nicole’s apartment block—that the perceptions of other people must be negotiated. After some stilted interactions between Chris’s friends and Nicole, Chris suddenly dumps her. Then, almost immediately, he realizes he has made a mistake.
When we see Nicole and Chris separately, it is usually because the world of grown-up life is encroaching on their precious youth. Both kids end up getting apprenticeship jobs, Nicole at a bakery chain, Chris with a master plumber. These passages are notably distinct from the rest of the film in their lighting, framing, and in the sense that what happens within them does not affect the larger plot. We are seeing the start of compartmentalization, the discrepancy between youth, driven mostly by intuition, and adulthood, which imposes stability.
These early efforts by Köhler, Ade, and Grisebach all share a concern with transition, boundaries, and the realignment of human relations. Each of these directors has maintained this focus, continuing to refine their unique visions of existence in the uncertain twilight of liminality. Köhler’s In My Room explores the evolution from a world replete with humanity to one virtually emptied of it. Toni Erdmann, by Ade, examines the malleability of identity, along with the ever-shifting relationships between family members as kids become adults and adults become seniors. And Grisebach’s Western provokes a set of literal boundary crossings, as German laborers working in Bulgaria struggle both to bring their identity with them, and to leave their own cultural baggage behind.
Whether or not we want to consider them a “school” or a movement, if anything serves as a common touchstone among these filmmakers, it is this consistency of intellectual approach, the sense that the very elements that most films take for granted—who characters are, where they are, and where they belong—are in fact the richest possible site for creative intervention. In this regard, it almost doesn’t matter that these Berlin Schoolers are not in fact from Berlin. Their work demonstrates the fundamental tension between where we’re going and what we’ve left behind, and the fact that you’re never the same as when you began.
"Past Forward: Directors Before Cannes" screens May 7, 9, and 14, 2019 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto