Modern Europe Journal: “Trummerfilme” and Postwar German Memory

As final entries in the Modern Europe Journal series, we’ll be sharing three blog posts written by students on the basis of their research projects…

For that assignment, students got to choose both their topic and how to go about presenting their findings. (Each option required some kind of written paper or essay and some other kind of communication.) Six students chose to teach twenty-minute class sessions; five others proposed new works of public history (e.g., museum exhibits, living history, memorials). The remaining eight opted for the more traditional research paper, then some of those students — for the public presentation of their findings — agreed to write a 750-1000 word blog post in place of doing a poster session.

Here’s our first entry, from History and Social Studies Education double-major Annie Berglund, who commenced this series by reflecting on ideological bias in historiography. She chose to investigate an interesting subgenre of German film after World War II, the “Rubble Films,” and what they revealed about a society struggling to come to grips with its recent history.

Broken after the death of loved ones, struck by a loss of identity and the imposition of Allied occupying forces in their former nation, and facing the task of rebuilding a ruined environment, German citizens also bore the guilt of six years of European warfare. The German genre of “Rubble Film,” or Trummerfilme, created during the immediate postwar years of 1946-1948, allows 21st century audiences to view how the war was remembered collectively by German citizens and the way this impacted their understanding of history under Nazi rule. Most Trummerfilme contain some common themes that depict life in the wake of the horrors of war:

    • Backdrop of rubble: Films feature destruction of German cities, showing the prevalence of warfare’s effect on civilians. This backdrop depicts that everything is in shambles and needs to be built up again.
    • Returning soldiers: Another major theme encompasses the issues facing returning soldiers. Many characters are veterans constantly re-experiencing horrific scenes of war in dreams, but also haunted by their waking memories. These characters also bring dialogue about what justice should be served for those who were lost by the hands of soldiers, especially the suitable punishment for Holocaust involvement.
    • Collective guilt: Trummerfilme characters also illustrate the responsibility of much of Germany for the atrocities of World War II. No one was completely innocent, and these films convict the nation with guilt, showing how everyone was aware of the progression of National Socialism and its disturbing programs.
    • Hope for the future: Even when remembering the events of German war involvement that resulted in a multitude of innocent deaths, these films also explained the importance of moving on. Correctly remembering what took place brings hope for subsequent generations, since they will learn from the suffering of earlier times. Many times, characters in Trummerfilme face the daunting but valuable task of leaving behind their hurt and shame to pursue new lives in work, at home, and in their community.

An example of this is found in this movie clip from Die Mörder sind unter uns, or The Murderers are Among Us by prominent Rubble Film producer Wolfgang Staudte. The presence of rubble is made obvious within the first scene, as the main character Hans walks through the street. The former urban landscape is riddled with debris. Bombed out buildings and apartments are no longer stable or usable, while children play on the side of the road in the dirt. The only sign of carefree life is inside a cabaret hall, which men and women enjoy as a form of escapism. Even an old Nazi propaganda poster with an image of a beautiful, hopeful, and promising “Deutschland” is ironic as wounded passersby glance at its message.

The future of veterans and deportees is also a major theme in The Murderers are Among Us. Hans had recently come back to war, succumbing to a continual state of drunkenness to forget his visions of the liquidation of Jews on Christmas day. These images haunt him throughout the film, exposing his guilt and responsibility until he can move on with the help of his love Susanne. However, this film, and specifically this clip, also show the hope for the future. Susanne, the main female protagonist, returns from deportation to a concentration camp. Though she explains that she was “afraid of freedom…Afraid of people…Afraid to return here”, she is willing to start life over again, even amidst lasting memories and rubble.

Photo from The Murderers are Among Us

Image from The Murderers are Among Us

 

Trummerfilme would come to an end soon after it began, largely due to the encroaching presence of Cold War tensions and the use of film as propaganda for the USSR and their opposing western democratic powers.Despite being short-lived, Though historians can not measure how an individual in the audience responded, whether they simply watched the film without being moved by its deeper meaning or viewed its scenes in a morally and psychologically transforming situation, it still illustrates the concerns and values of the collective postwar German experience.

– Annie Berglund

For further reading related to Trummerfilme:

  1. Baker, Mark. “”Trümmerfilme:” Postwar German Cinema, 1946-1948.” Film Criticism 20 (1995): 88-101.
  2. Shandley, Robert R.. Rubble Films: German Cinema in the Shadow of the Third Reich. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001.

Resources about German cinema in general:

  1. Brockmann, Stephen. A Critical History of German Film. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2010.
  2. Niven, Bill. “On the use of ‘Collective Memory’.” German History 26 (2008): 427-36.
  3. Wollenberg, Hans H. Fifty Years of German Film,. New York: Arno Press, 1972.

For further viewing – a sample of immediate postwar German films:

  1. Käutner, Helmut. Seven Journeys. Occupied Germany: DEFA, 1947.
  2. Maetzig, Kurt. Council of the Gods. East Germany: DEFA, 1950.
  3. Maetzig, Kurt. Marriage in the Shadows. Occupied Germany: DEFA, 1847.
  4. Staudte, Wolfgang. The Murderers Are Among Us. Occupied Germany: DEFA, 1946.
  5. Staudte, Wolfgang. Rotation. East Germany: DEFA, 1949.

<<Read the previous entry in the Modern Europe Journal series                       Read the next entry in the series>>

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