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Germany has endured a turbulent and fractured social and political journey. Profound shifts in her political complexion; repeated alterations in territory along deep-seated ideological lines, and the long and penetrative shadow of fascism naturally mark out the country from one such as Britain where the pervasiveness of pragmatic incrementalism has resisted radical change.

For me, one of the key tenets in recent German cinema has been the attempt to exorcise some of the more turbulent strains of the nation’s memory through a rich and diverse array of films. Where some, such as The Lives of Others, Downfall, The Baader Meinhoff Complex, and Goodbye Lenin have used period settings to critically reframe divisive historical moments, others, like The Wave and The Edukators have engaged with political subtexts within contemporary settings, more explicitly underlining the indelible influence of Germany’s recent past on its present.

Dennis Gansel’s The Wave focuses on Rainer Wenger’s attempts to teach his class about the notion of autocracy. The students don’t respond to his conventional methods and are unconvinced that a movement such as Nazism could ever again flower in Germany. Wenger thus sets in motion a dangerous experiment, forming his own fascist group within the confines of the class: ‘The Wave’. What starts out as a noble attempt to highlight the subliminal allure of blind faith and uniformity results in a tragic conclusion. What is charming about The Wave, and the films I mention above, is the way in which vital issues of national consciousness are enveloped within palatable and commercially viable narrative models.

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For example, rather than attempting a biographical investigation of the ‘Red Army Faction’ and its members, The Baader Meinhof Complex weaves an engrossing (if over-long) thriller narrative. However, this doesn’t preclude a thorough treatise on the significance of the group: there is a consistent underpinning of the cut-and-thrust of the film’s action with an attempt to dramatise and interrogate the ideological basis of the protagonist’s actions. At times, the film seems to indulge in a fetishisation of its subjects’ iconography and surface glamour, yet I see such a focus as intentional in underlining the facile pursuit of style over substance in the activities of the group. Indeed, this type of understanding of the film’s subtler aspects justifies the more contrived elements of its taut construction.

What is clear is that German cinema is by no means a slave to a genre; using a variety of means it is critically interrogating a turbulent national memory, showing how narrative film can be tool of catharsis as well as reflection.

David Forrest

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