A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
As its title of this collection makes clear, The Berlin School and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art Cinema (Wayne State University Press, 2018, edited by Marco Abel and Jaimey Fisher) looks far beyond the small group of German filmmakers behind the movement’s origins. While many chapters focus on the “big names” of the Berlin School (namely, Christian Petzold, Maren Ade, and Angela Schanelec), others travel far outside of Germany and analyze such far-flung auteurs as Derek Cianfrance, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Lucrecia Martel. The movement, then, is not so much about a particular place or even a unified political stance as it is about a common aesthetic. The oft-cited Marco Abel (one of the co-editors) defines such shared traits as “‘long takes, long shots, clinically precise framing, a certain deliberateness of pacing, sparse usage of non-diegetic music, poetic use of diegetic sound, and, frequently, the reliance on unknown or even non-professional actors’” (qtd. on 5) in his and Fisher’s introduction.
With this broader definition in mind, it should come as no surprise that many of the essays explore the intersections between the Berlin School and other film schools around the world. Robert Dassanowsky’s “Countercinematic Reflections and Non/National Strategies” compares the movement to New Austrian Film, while Gerd Gemünden’s “The Making of Now” explores similarities to New Argentinian Cinema. Other entries focus on directors whose works fit into the Berlin School model; Roger F. Cook’s “New Global Waves” does so by connecting Abbas Kiarostami and Michael Sicinski’s “Bifurcated Time” with Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Several chapters, especially Hester Baer’s “The Berlin School and Women’s Cinema” and Lisa Haegele’s “Gender, Genre, and the (Im)possibilities of Romantic Love in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010) and Maren Ade’s Everyone Else (2009),” focus on gender norms and inequalities. Baer points out that “[i]n Germany, women compose nearly half of film school graduates annually, but they direct only about one-fifth of feature films” (40). As a result of this gross disparity, female artists have banded together to create collectives like Coop99 and Komplizen-Film (Baer 45-46). Haegele’s piece addresses “postromance” (59) narratives, specifically how characters in Blue Valentine suffer because of their adherence to strict gender roles while those in Everyone Else find hope because of their experimentation with such norms.
While it is sometimes difficult to find a logical progression among the articles’ order (the collection, somewhat like the movement itself, is hard to classify and sort of all over the place), some of the adjoining pieces complement one another in interesting ways. For example, Chris Homewood’s “Politics in, and of, the Berlin School” examines bodily (and political) inertia while the following chapter, Brad Prager’s “Running Images in Benjamin Heisenberg’s Films,” concerns physical movement and exertion. Both pieces, however, address figures of resistance; in the former, Bobby Sands’ nonviolent hunger strike in Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008) and in the latter, professional runner/bank robber Johann Kastenberger’s crime spree in The Robber (Heisenberg, 2010).
Though the articles are uniformly well-written and incisive, Lutz Koepnick’s “East of Berlin” is a standout. Like Sicinski, Koepnick explores the many parallels between the Berlin School and Asian arthouse cinema; his focus, however, is on stylistic blandness, its philosophical roots, and its application to cinema. Blandness constitutes an “absence of flavor, a lack of marked distinctions and hierarchies of taste, a state of undifferentiated continuity and contiguity” (Koepnick 219). One cinematic example is Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs (2013), which includes a 14-minute static shot of a couple looking at an off-screen painting; such shots, Koepnick suggests, blur the line between narrative feature and art installation (224). The knee-jerk response to this aesthetic would be that it refers to long, boring shots in which nothing much happens, but Koepnick sees this technique “as an antidote to the agitation and sleeplessness of contemporary visual culture” (221) and as a radical rewiring of how audiences define (and consume) the moving image.
If blandness defines many Berlin School entries’ stylistic approach, then the concept of “worldlessness” figures prominently in many of their thematic preoccupations. “Worldlessness” refers to the paradox of how our technologically-advanced, transnational world has simultaneously brought us closer together and alienated us more than ever (Végső 313). The final chapter, Roland Végső’s “Toward an Aesthetics of Worldlessness,” focuses primarily on three worldless films: Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011), Angela Schanelec’s Marseilles (2004), and Thomas Arslan’s Gold (2013). Despite their many differences, the films all end with main characters literally or figuratively disappearing into a barren environment.
The Berlin School itself is arguably “disappearing” in the sense that its characteristics are now bleeding into genre fare. Examples like Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (2014) experiment with classical Western tropes, while the aforementioned The Robber and Petzold’s Yella (2007) are largely indebted to Hitchcock. This evolution may be written off as selling out, but Végső’s declaration that “Berlin represents a potentially universalizable tendency today” (329) is far more optimistic in its suggestion that the movement’s aesthetic can help take mainstream media into a different, more contemplative direction.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.