2002, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
by Ramona Curry
Review of Robert R. Shandley, Rubble Films: German Cinema in the Shadows of the Third Reich (Rutgers University Press, 2001). 248 pp. 20 b&w photos.
In Fall 2001, following broadcast of myriad television reports shot against the backdrop of the collapsed World Trade Center, the key title word of Robert R. Shandley’s Rubble Films: German Cinema in the Shadows of the Third Reich likely evoked vivid meanings for a much wider range of potential readers than anticipated when the book went to press. The primary title aptly addresses scholars of cinema and history (and their students) who recognize the phrase as distinguishing a small group of German films (so-called Trümmerfilme) produced in the first years after World War II. But the book will now interest other media critics and readers to whom “rubble” may have signified little until recently, for its focus extends beyond a narrow slice of national film history. In particular, the book insightfully examines how movies may encapsulate and visualize national political trauma as entertainment.
Through an analysis of selected features produced between 1946 and 1949, Rubble Films traces the gradual revival of German movie-making and explains its functioning under Allied occupation. The seventeen films considered in detail range from the comparatively well-known (The Murderers Are Among Us, 1946, and In Those Days, 1947) to the rare (Long is the Road, a 1948 Yiddish/German production promoting emigration to Palestine) to the evidently bizarre (the scandalous 1948 biblical allegory The Apple is Off!, one of several “lampoons” of the war’s aftermath.) Shandley persuasively argues historical and political importance of that comparatively short period in bridging between the unified Nazi dream and propaganda machine that UFA (a major German studio also in the 1920s) had become and the eventually divergent post-war movie producers: the Soviet-sponsored (East) Berlin film studio DEFA and the new private companies organized by veteran film professionals in Munich and Hamburg.
Unlike many other accounts of Nazi-era or post-war German film (a number of which have appeared over the past decade), Shandley’s approach finds in the films he analyzes more commonalities than distinctions. Significantly he looks at this period of film history across the usual historical dichotomies, especially Nazi versus post-war cinema, and later, DEFA versus U.S. and British-occupied sector productions. Only the book’s concluding filmography gives an easy overview of who produced each of the films and where they were produced. The book’s organization instead establishes a chronology of key productions throughout the three-year transitional period; six chapters document pre- and post-1945 continuities in film genre conventions, in the political practices of individual film directors and producers (including surviving Jews), and in the rubble films’ essential characteristics and shared ideologies. This was the case until Cold War struggles playing out across German territory enforced aesthetic differences in film along with larger scale economic and political divergences.
While Shandley does not explicitly assert that all 50-plus feature films reportedly made in Germany during the period equally evince such continuities with the past and across occupation zones, neither does he argue for any fundamental distinctions among the works. Except for the occasional mention of Hollywood, (e.g., It’s a Wonderful Life, p. 64), Italian Neorealist, or Nazi productions that he finds somehow parallel to a given German film under discussion, Shandley focuses resolutely on the one-third of the productions which he classifies under the “rubble” rubric, and which thus come to stand, as the book’s secondary title suggests, for all of immediate post-war German cinema.
Which, then, are these rubble films? Happily, the author avoids reifying the term as a genre (which he notes appeared in contemporaneous criticism as first a descriptive, then a pejorative label), instead pointing to detective tales, melodramas, and satiric comedies all within its span. (He thus neatly circumvents unproductive debate about “style” versus “genre” such as long dominated discussion of film noir; but he also regrettably stops short of engaging what could have been an insightful metadiscourse around his organizational category, such as Marc Vernet, James Naremore and others have recently brought to noir analyses.)
Shandley instead defines “rubble films” as a short-lived but important production “cycle.” It is recognizable in recurrent narrative and visual motifs of “the returning solider/coming home” theme and settings that register the aftermath of massive war: rubble-strewn streets, collapsed hotels, crumbling apartment houses (all usually studio-constructed sets, as Shandley reveals). He goes on to offer perceptive close readings of the chosen films’ “berubbled mise-en-scène,” casting, genre conventions, and character construction. One might quibble over the particular film selections or their parameters; for example, the strict and not fully justified insistence on 1949 as an end point precludes discussion of such a striking film as the 1951 German production Der Verlorene [The Lost One], directed by and starring Peter Lorre. But overall Shandley cogently argues the legitimacy and intellectual value of the “rubble film” category, taking thereby an approach that many instructors of German film and history may find a useful complement to other media research on the period (much of it available only in German.) Especially Shandley’s careful formal analysis of the films’ visual and audio construction adds a welcome and somewhat rare perspective to nationally-delineated cinema histories. He also provides some details about each film’s production and reception, essentially presenting the selected films as a series of historical/cultural case studies which, he argues, record rubble films’ “important role in the formation of a collective attitude toward the past, one that shaped many public debates in German in the decades thereafter (p. 4).”
That is a promising and engaging thesis, but regrettably the book fails to argue it cogently. Indeed, one of the book’s strengths ultimately contributes to its major weakness since the author does not sufficiently link the detailed formal analyses to the assertions made about the films’ social and historical impact. Certainly, Shandley discusses the occupying powers’ divergent interests in and policies governing local media production. He also notes other circumstances determining which films got made and when and to some extent which films got seen most broadly and why. But he inadequately explains the “collective” German response to these films or even to the past as constructed in part through them; the historical record could indicate that kind of response both through contemporary public discourse or movie attendance as might be indicated or reconstructed from published accounts. In lieu of clear documentation needed to support his claims about popular responses to specific films and also in lieu of a theory or at least a consistent approach to film reception which could have supported this intriguing argument, the book relies on bald assertions which sometimes even contradict its fundamental thesis. For example, Shandley reports that Helmut Käutner’s The Apple Is Off! “failed miserably at the box office (171).” How, then, did that film (and a number of others for which reception data is only sketchily presented) contribute to the formation of attitudes in the populace?
Occasional careful phrasing suggests that Shandley struggled with questions of film reception crucial to his stated project: “Yet much about the construction of [And the Heavens Above, 1947] compels a reading of it as at least an attempted projection of collective fantasy (161-2).” Yet rather than then limiting his claims to what his acknowledged primary reliance on textual interpretations can support, Shandley seeks corroborating evidence from a German media scholar, whose citation only further undercuts the central argument: “As Thomas Brandlmeier puts it, ‘Even if we take into consideration the public’s preference for foreign films and films made during the Third Reich [many of which also played in German movie theaters in 1947-48], the rubble films are just as much an essential source of contemporary self-understanding (162).” [Italics are my explanatory insert.] Whether or not Brandlmeier’s essay (printed in Zwischen Gestern und Morgan, eds. Hilmar Hoffmann and Walter Schobert, 1989) proves that point, Shandley’s book does not.
Such a lapse in theorization and argumentation, although regrettable, is not fatal to the book’s value, for Shandley offers a wealth of material along with a more modest and successful argument that he clearly spells out in his thoughtful conclusion. There Shandley offers an overview of how “the rubble filmmakers…shared a common understanding of the project of putting the issues of the recent German past on the screen” through representing and thus offering German audiences the opportunity to experience what he alliteratively deems “Seven Rs”: redemption, reconciliation, redefinition, restabilization, reintegration, reconstruction, and reprivatization (182). With reference to the last-named crowning aim, Shandley elaborates, “[T]he narrative drive of postwar German filmmaking was to present political discourse as a disruption of a sacred private realm (188).” This, Shandley argues, was as much the case under the emergent DEFA as in the West and happened largely independently of genre or maker. To the extent that we can accept Shandley’s insistence on this film cycle’s importance for the German populace, it may be because we believe his argument that the rubble films offered a meaningful (“more favorable”) “rearticulation of who Germans were under Hitler (183).” Specifically, most of these films worked to “reaffirm the spectator’s image of him or herself as a private resistor to a public injustice (62).” Thereby the films “often conflate the wrongs committed during the Third Reich with the German’s own postwar suffering (4).
The last two excerpts point to further aspects of the book worthy of mention. First, it considers gender fairly extensively and astutely as a key facet of the rubble films’ narrative formulation and their possible readings by German audiences which as Shandley points out at that time were predominantly female. Second, it maintains a conscious “outsider” retrospective in consistently implying and sometimes stating how the post-war German filmmakers should have narrativized and visualized their immediate past history: namely, with a greater focus on their guilt for the Holocaust as the primary issue with which German films needed to deal. Against any suggestion that such a position may seem narrowly instrumental or teleological, Shandley might conceivably point to his own 1998 edited volume Unwilling Germans: The Goldhagen Debate, documenting the initially resistant German critical response to Harvard historian Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Like Goldhagen’s book and much of the debate about it in Germany which Shandley anthologized, Rubble Films resonates with a moralist tone, calling Germans to account, less for their past actions than for their subsequently enacting, here through feature films, a too self-serving image of the past. Despite occasional convoluted prose and logical gaps, on balance Shandley’s new book offers a fresh authorial voice and rich material that arguably can elucidate how nations other than Germany have attempted to mediate national trauma.