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Cinema Subconscious: The Berlin School’s Power of Reference

Ich war zuhause, aber… (Angela Schanelec, 2019)

A quick read-through of varying synopses—and even titles—of the films to come out of the Berliner Schule of the early 1990s would yield a rich collection of cinematic references and interpolations, an inarguably European answer to the American West Coast enfants terribles the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. Of course, the Berlin School (as it’s known in English) as a veritable movement has been contested, its title only being bestowed after films by Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec caught more festival attention in the mid-2000s, even after an already rich history not just of filmmaking, but of criticism as well, as evidenced by the magazine Revolver. Now, the Berlin School has come to define a certain visual rigor exemplified by any German director, even adopting those who were only satellites to the initial ‘scene’, such as Maren Ade, Ulrich Köhler and Valeska Grisebach.

So even as the Berlin School may be the ostensible successor to New German Cinema, it is altogether more mutable and loosely categorized, not having the benefit of the Oberhausen Manifesto and its champions, and never hinting at such a desired united front anyways, even amidst an aesthetically uniform quality. But like their predecessors—Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jean-Marie Straub especially—Petzold, Ade, Köhler, Grisebach and Schanelec are fiercely comprehensive of the history of cinema. Each of them builds otherwise unique singular films around indisputable allusions, whose initial elusiveness in deployment manages to acknowledge influence without cheapening the resultant impact of a recognizable homage. These aren’t stray callbacks or cheeky visual analogs, but minute details that exist as inextricable governing factors of the narratives at hand. In lieu of calling more undue attention to the ‘sterility’ or overwhelming ennui of the Berlin School (which detractors cite as inherent turnoffs), one of the most rewarding throughlines is the subconscious acknowledgement of these directors’ forebears, whose influence manifests within the mise-en-scène, mingling with the circumstances, rather than standing independent of them.

For a filmic style that spins its own sort of muted realism—which itself isn’t entirely immune to encroaching elements of opaque fantasy—directors such as Grisebach, Köhler and Schanelec still posit a world shaped by the cinema and other forms of popular culture. With characters who live out facsimiles of the best genre pictures within grounded settings, or who even turn to movies for the simplest of comforts, this last decade has seen the films of the Berlin School both reflecting back and internalizing the ever-growing accessibility of film’s past. Petzold established a template for this judicious application of influence, repeatedly returning to a German present and past reinterpreted through the lens of Edgar G. Ulmer (1995’s Cuba Libre) and Alfred Hitchcock (2014’s Phoenix), and such a working method has only grown headily more atomized since.

Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)

Grisebach’s 2017 film Western represents a cumulative point, straddling the implicit genre expectations embodied by the very title and the explicit temporal and spatial parameters it operates from: the director recasts the framework of the most American of styles in contemporary rural Bulgaria. The titling is both apt and something of a MacGuffin, so thoroughly absorbing the tropes of the interloping—and essentially—waylaid drifter, the isolated town and the wary locals that less discerning viewers may be itching for a straightforward gun duel at high noon by the film’s close, not detecting Western’s fulfillment of the title in its very construction (as Daniel Witkin said in less words in his review for Reverse Shot, “it’s an act of projection [Grisebach] cannily encourages and exploits”). Grisebach at least teases violence, modulating a throbbing, masculine tension that threatens that the penned-up aggression will break out at least once.

The craggy-faced and strikingly taciturn nonprofessional Meinhard Neumann—his character shares his name—is the ostensible wanderer, already compounding a host of contrasts between him and the rest of the German construction crew he’s unceremoniously joined, on assignment building a hydroelectric dam in an unspecified village in rural Bulgaria. Meinhard’s towering figure is reminiscent of Gary Cooper or James Stewart (Grisebach has cited Anthony Mann’s 1950 Winchester ‘73, of which Stewart is the star), although his personal mannerisms suggest the former, reticent is he to speak of his intentions and his past. He intimates time spent with the Foreign Legion, but there’s no way to confirm the veracity of this admission; like many a western protagonist, Meinhard is a man to be taken solely on his word and actions.

Meinhard finds a subtly drawn enemy to butt heads with in the foreman Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) and a local friend in Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), a mayor of the block type who at least seems to be beloved within the town. From this network of relationships, Grisebach evinces the sundry dichotomies that populate the genre: modernization vs. provinciality, the transient vs. the tight-knit, the ostensible hero vs. the ostensible villain and the burgeoning, insidious specter of capitalism that looms over still-developing communities. Grisebach hasn’t just tapped into the western, but the unnamable sensations inherent to watching one, her film itself functioning as something like a palimpsest. Meinhard’s openness to the people and customs of the village provides a foothold in a film that’s otherwise governed by these barriers—but, it should be mentioned that Meinhard himself, despite his geniality, makes no real attempt to try and learn and participate in the native language. Grisebach maintains an outsider’s perspective, as she observes the German workers’ fumbling—and occasionally agitated—interactions with the Bulgarian locals, and thus brings forth site-specific qualities that are cracked open at behest of the expectation stoked by the title.

Our subconscious connects the dots of the incidentally reference-coded images—wide-open vistas, a horse of pure white, Vincent’s offhand brutishness, which is fitfully reminiscent of that of Ward Bond in Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage (1946)—and meets Grisebach in the middle, where her own film can still retain elusiveness, all the while maintaining its healthy allusiveness. Even though a reference in itself, the generality of the title is simultaneously too nondescript to really graft another film’s arc atop it. This is an acknowledgement bereft of omniscience, allowing the evoked, half-formed thoughts of the American West to form a bedrock for an altogether different kind of film.

I Was Born, But… (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

The subconscious referentiality that Grisebach so effortlessly incorporates is just as present in the work of Schanelec and Köhler as well. Compared to the way in which Grisebach courts a universal cinematic language from within a hyper-specific set of conditions, Schanelec zeros in on specific documents—from film, to literature, to theater—that become re-appropriated as narrative devices, such as Afternoon (Nachmittag, 2007), which reworks Anton Chekov’s The Seagull. Grisebach can qualify as a ‘realist’, as can Schanelec, but the latter eschews conventional linearity for an end product that’s much more inscrutable. There’s the same goal of imparting secondhand sensations, instinctive reactions to what’s on screen that may still stump our abilities to verbalize exactly why such scenes impact us in the way they do.

Much of Schanelec’s 2019 film I Was at Home, But… (Ich war zuhause, aber…) finds characters experiencing their own lives through this blurry cause-and-effect model in what’s essentially a drama refracted through varying layers of reference and personal experience. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Straub-Huillet, Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu (whose 1932 silent film I Was Born, But… provides Schanelec her own title) intertwine with two representations of the family unit in modest peril: middle-aged mother Astrid (Maren Eggert) is coping with the offscreen loss of her husband, and the return of her 13-year-old son Phillip, who has been disappeared for a week prior to the film’s start; Claudia (Lilith Stangenberg) and Lars (Franz Rogowski), a young couple whose relationship is at the precipice of dissolving, lest the former accept the fledgling domestic ideals of the latter (these two occupy less screen time, but are just as important to the film as Astrid and her family).

Like Grisebach, Schanelec teases numerous readings out of her otherwise puzzle-box-like film with a reference to an unassailable influence, as made plain by the very title. Ozu’s film (which, interestingly enough, has a history of reference for its own director, who lifted the plot for 1959’s Good Morning) provides the most decipherable impact. In I Was Born, But…, two young boys have trouble accepting their father’s hitherto unbeknownst-to-them subordinate status at his job, after they’ve bragged to the local bullies-cum-playmates that their father outshines all. The boys’ stubbornness soon resolves itself, but Ozu’s film—humorous as it is—is too sober a family portrait to dole out easy closure. Schanelec transposes this undesired reckoning with one’s family to a more adult realm in I Was at Home, But…, which in title alone already ramps up the home life representation quotient. The boys in Ozu’s film were born, but still have a lifetime of destabilizing realizations ahead of them; Astrid herself is occasionally glimpsed in her own apartment, but therein resides the memory of her husband, as well as the most agitated and fraught exchanges with her children. Schanelec posits that Ozu’s film captured a universal anxiety, that which her own film so thrillingly subsumes in the idiosyncrasies of its own director.

The Bridges of Madison County (Clint Eastwood, 1995)

If one understands the Berlin School as being solely attuned to the auteurist streak of the halcyon days of the American studio system or that of the international arthouse, such misconceptions could gleefully be dispelled by Ulrich Köhler’s 2018 film, In My Room. Although insinuating strands of science-fiction in its premise—a schlubby, middle-aged news cameraman, Armin (Hans Löw), awakes one morning to find he is the only man left on earth, following an unexplained rapture—Köhler is more fascinated in how the mundane routines and tokens of society carry over into his bifurcated ‘last man’ narrative. Armin can’t be bothered to achieve any sort of self-betterment, fumbling through his work, personal and family life with such an attitude that can really only be described as pathetic miserabilism. Only after a botched suicide attempt—his response to the total evaporation of civilization is one of reasonable terror—does he strive for self-sufficiency, cultivating a little middle-class aspiring Eden for himself, replete with farm animals, an environmentally powered modernist bungalow, and his own, now-toned physique. Like the Beach Boys song that the film uses for its title, Armin is alone, but he’s now no longer afraid.

Solitude isn’t guaranteed however, as Armin’s path crosses—or, considering the injuries sustained, crashes with—Kirsi’s (Elena Radonicich), an Italian ‘survivor’ who has taken this unprecedented opportunity to satisfy her own wanderlust. Kirsi and Armin begin something of a start-stop relationship, their incompatibility buffered by sex, and the fact that they are the only two humans left, embodying an Adam and Eve mythos, whether they like it or not. This relationship is where Köhler extracts the most subconscious interpolation from, in two precise moments: one of post-breakup malaise, which sees Armin vaping teary-eyed to the emotional, rain-slicked climax of the ultimate impossible-romance movie, Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County (1995), after Kirsi has left presumably for good; and another of unadulterated romantic feeling, where Armin explodes with balletic ecstasy after Kirsi has returned, turning an overgrown gas station into his dancefloor as Tiësto’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ bellows from a military-grade RV’s speakers.

Whereas his peers shoulder influence via their films’ very own aesthetic makeup, Köhler does so precisely with his characters, who consume literal cultural detritus for purposes both equally balming and validating (The Bridges of Madison County is lifted from an expectedly abandoned video store, Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Later Tonight’ is chosen to soundtrack a disastrous attempt at intimacy). In My Room is arguably the most superficial exemplar of this underlying thread of subconscious reference, but that’s only because the director has so generously provided a stand-in, rather than obfuscating intent at the intersection of form and narrative. Armin is the receiver for all these referential tributaries, and we see him respond believably, in an almost paradoxically unremarkable manner considering In My Room’s conceit (tenets of the genre dictate that one of two known survivors in a technically post-apocalyptic landscape should be up to something more exciting than getting misty-eyed to an Eastwood weepie). According to Köhler, the realized effect of a piece of art’s reverberations throughout a film can be as banal as bullshitting about Ryan Gosling with a lover.

Films that tease their own self-enclosed, oneiric qualities can occasionally arrive at their own hermetic endpoints. That’s why Petzold—who, like the rest of the Berlin School acolytes, is a proven keen student of cinema history—interpolates Hitchcock instead of attempting to one-up the director. This intertextual approach preserves the singularity of the likes of Grisebach, Schanelec and Köhler, while also demonstrating thoughtful acknowledgement of the culturally omnipresent, as embodied by these moments of unimpeachable referentiality. So as the Berlin School weathers accusations of obliqueness and noncommittal emotionalism, naysayers can be directed towards the subtly openhanded cinematic and generally artistic insets—referenced, interpolated, influencing, and otherwise—which act as open doorways for these films’ creators and audiences to burrow even further into the mediums we all so eagerly participate in.