Friday, 22 January 2010

Examining German Identity After The Holocaust by Looking at Margarethe von Trotta’s Die bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters), West-Germany 1981

Over the course of the 20th century Germany started two world wars. Moreover, an estimated eleven million people -among whom six million Jews- perished in the Holocaust, which was committed by Germany and the Germans. For the post-war generation of Germans, their country’s past instilled in them not just feelings of aversion at the crimes committed in their name, but it also resulted in a sense of inherited guilt. And it was precisely this baggage of Germany’s onerous past which, ‘in the words of one German conservative philosopher, refuses to become history’ (Fulbrook 1999: 5), that abetted the rise of a counter-culture in 1960s-West-Germany. Furthermore, the fact that West-Germany employed vast numbers of former Nazis -thus exonerating them- was seen as a failure to eradicate the Nazi past and to come to terms with Germany’s history. To quote Heilbut, 'the 1951 General Act of Clemency (which saw the release of all war criminals interred at Landsberg Prison), implemented by the US High Commissioner for Germany, John J. McCloy, was a sickening assault'(Heilbut 1997: 328).

Adding insult to injury in the eyes of APO (Ausserparlamentarische Opposition/ Extra parliamentary Opposition), were West-Germany’s close ties with the US, particularly after it had invaded Vietnam. To many young West-Germans, predominantly students, it seemed almost as if their country was slipping into yet another dictatorship without having ever atoned for the previous one. This conviction led to the rise of left-wing terrorism and eventually contributed to the formation of the Red Army Faction (RAF). To put it in Alexander Kluge’s words, ‘what was not redeemed in 1945 had to erupt in 1968, and will return until it is redeemed’ (Kluge in Malcolm 1982: 20). Margarethe von Trotta’s film Die bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters) seems to me a good example of a film that illustrates the problem of what it means to reject and abhor Germany’s past, yet involuntarily being part of Germany’s society, by contrasting the lives of two sisters who each chose a different path to come to terms with their country’s history: one, who opted for a peaceful way by working for a Women’s Lib magazine, and the other, who decided that ‘violence is the only way to answer violence; This is the Auschwitz generation and there is no arguing with them’ (Ensslin in Wright 1991: 110), and thus became a terrorist.

The title of von Trotta’s film, Die bleierne Zeit (which literally translates into The Leaden Times), refers to a poem by the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), Der Gang aufs Land (The March into the Countryside): Trüb ists heut, es schlummern die Gäng' und die Gassen und fast will mir es scheinen, es sei, als in der bleiernen Zeit(Gloomy it is today, sleepy are the pathways and lanes and it seems as almost, we are, in the leaden times. The original, German, title of von Trotta’s film seems so relevant, so significant, to the story, that henceforth I will refrain from using the English one (The German Sisters) and stick to the German one instead (and to its exact English translation), for it symbolizes two things: first, ‘the leaden times’ of the 1950s, where ‘parents wouldn’t talk about the war, the guilt, the burden of awareness’ (Trotta in Insdorf 1982: 19) and second, to a glorious German past that has been (and continues to be) overshadowed by the Holocaust – the Germany of Novalis, Droste-Hülshoff, Schiller, Kleist, Hoffmann, Lessing, Heine, Goethe, Eichendorff, or Hölderlin, whose lines aptly illustrate this point: in a gloomy, leaden and motion-less environment art cannot flourish, nor does it foster self-reflection; thus, what remains are the recollections of a glorious, bygone past. This is mirrored by a scene where we see Marianne and Julianne meeting up in what appears to be a museum, ‘the long row of grand statuary busts that lines Juliane’s route to Marianne (is) like a florid wreckage of the grand German past…’ (Koenig Quart in Linville 1998: 96). Further, more direct, references to the ‘other’ Germany are made in a flashback where Juliane, as a teenager at school, refuses to recite Rilke’s Herbsttag (Autumn Day), preferring to read Bertolt Brecht’s Die Ballade von der Judenhure Marie Sanders (The Ballad of the Jew Whore Marie Sanders) -in which a woman is punished by having her head shorn for loving a Jew- or Die Todesfuge (The Death Fugue), a poem that was Paul Celan’s answer to Theodor W. Adorno’s claim ‘that poetry after Auschwitz was a barbaric act’ (Heilbut: 1997: 487), prompting the former to write a hauntingly beautiful poem about Auschwitz itself. But these are not just references to Germany’s past and its reputation of being the ‘land of poets and thinkers’, these are also references to Juliane’s and Marianne’s growing awareness of Germany’s past as being the country of murderers - particularly the murderers of Jews. In one of the film’s key scenes we see Juliane and Marianne attending a screening of Alain Resnais’ Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, France 1955), to which, it should be noted, Paul Celan wrote the German dialogue. It is certainly no coincidence that the clip of Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog) von Trotta picked for her film is the one where the gates of the concentration camps are being thrust open, ‘all gates’, we hear the narrator say, and we see the camp guards marching out, heads down. ‘I’m not guilty, says the Kapo, I’m not guilty, says the guard, Who then, is guilty ?’, asks the narrator. The answer -the German people- is clear to both, Marianne and Juliane, who, overwhelmed by the images, storm out to run to the bathroom to throw up. It is interesting to note that although it is Marianne’s and Juliane’s father -a Protestant pastor, echoing Gudrun Ensslin’s real-life- who is showing the film to what looks like a group of schoolchildren, he seems to be distancing himself from it. As if what is shown on-screen would not have anything to do with him, when, clearly, judging by his age, he must have been a man in his thirties during the time of the Third Reich. Although it is never shown, we must assume that Marianne and Juliane took their parents to task about what they did during those twelve years. And even though she ‘sat on her father’s lap when she was fifteen’, something Marianne is reminded by Juliane during a prison-visit, if her subsequent rejection of her father -not to mention her decision to turn to terrorism- is anything to go by, his involvement in the Third Reich can not have been entirely insignificant. Writes Fulbrook: '…after the aftermath of the Eichmann and Auschwitz trials, with the massive public spotlight on Germany’s past, youth revolt was refracted through a particular prism in Germany. Again and again in the later
1960s, young West Germans confronted and challenged their parents’generation about what they had done, or failed to do, during the Third Reich'(Fulbrook 1999: 171).

In a similar flashback-scene later in the film, Marianne and Juliane are watching a documentary about the Vietnam war. Marianne says, ‘I’ll never agree that nothing can be done about it’, underlining my earlier point that ‘what distinguished the RAF from the thousands of ‘anti-Vietnam marchers was its linkage, through its ideology, with the West German state’ (Wright 1991: 111). Von Trotta dedicated her film ‘to Christiane’, meaning Christiane Ensslin, the sister of Gudrun Ensslin, the real-life terrorist and RAF member whose life was the chief inspiration for von Trotta’s film. Von Trotta and Christiane Ensslin met on the set of Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, West-Germany 1978), a film made by a group of German film-makers as a direct response to the alleged suicides at Stammheim -dubbed the most secure prison in eth world- of Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Raspe and Gudrun Ensslin, and ‘the government’s handling or mishandling of the Stammheim suicides, which left an aura of doubt and myth’ (Wright 1991: 178). It is easy to see how Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn) -and the events leading to the making of the film- would have inspired von Trotta to make Die bleierne Zeit (The Leaden Times), a film ‘about Germany, and about our past’ (Trotta in Insdorf 1982: 19). In the mid/ late 1970s, the German Left was at odds if violence was the right way to respond to the path the FRG was taking. As a result, the RAF had a lot of opponents but also a large number of sympathizers, among whom were Heinrich Böll and Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre famously even visited Andreas Baader in prison. The RAF and its members were fought tooth and nail by the government, which consequently was accused of ‘over-reacting to a group whose theories sound more violent than they actually are’ (Böll in Wright 1991: 84). Or to put it in Susan Linville’s words: 'The West German government’s overreaction to terrorism laid the groundwork for the kind of sadistic voyeurism von Trotta represents, and as her film portrays it, this voyeurism is repugnantly reminiscent of Nazi surveillance, which had aimed to create a sense of its ubiquitous inescapable presence in everyone’s lives (Linville 1998: 103).

In that respect the West-Germany of 1977 foreshadowed the US of 2002, when after 9/11 President Bush decided to introduce the controversial Patriot Act and the whole country was in a general state of hysteria, suspecting terrorists to be everywhere and to strike at any moment. Furthermore, the FRG, not unlike the US of today, was a divided nation – those who sympathized with the RAF, and those who did not. In another parallel, West-Germany, like three decades later the US, chose to combat terrorism with all its democratic might, which, many claimed, was not democratic at all, and although there was no Guantanamo, ‘the RAF began to complain about the conditions they were held. These conditions were undoubtedly severe, although the state claimed they were necessary’ (Wright 1991: 115). Needless to say, this soon gave rise to liken the still relatively young Republic to the Third Reich and Ulrike Meinhof, a fellow-traveller of Ensslin, did not shrink from comparing her prison cell to Auschwitz. Whether this may or may not have been true is beside the point. But what is ironic, yet sad, is that all this should have occurred in a time when the FRG was, for the first time since its existence, run by a left-wing government. And by one, that had a relatively clean war-record. Although Helmut Schmidt -who was chancellor between 1974 and 1982- was not entirely untainted by the war (he was a lieutenant and subsequently a prisoner of war), Willy Brandt -who was chancellor between 1969 and 1974- certainly was (he fled Germany and became part of the Norwegian resistance movement). His predecessor, however, Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, -who was chancellor between 1966 and 1969, and who, it must be said, was part of the CDU (the Conservative Party)- not only was a member of the NSDAP, but he also worked for the propaganda ministry. Knowing this, puts the actions of the RAF in a new context, considering that Kiesinger was in power while the student protests were in full swing, resulting, for instance, in the ‘accidental’ killing of Benno Ohnesorg, a student, who was killed by the police while protesting the visit of the Shah of Iran in Berlin. In the eyes of the German Left, Iran was seen as yet another dictatorship put in place by the US to defend its vested interest. In a not dissimilar fashion, no sooner had WWII ended, that the US declared Germany to no longer be an enemy but an ally instead, simply to turn it into a bastion of Capitalism and use it in its fanatical battle against Communism. Says Hauser: 'the German intelligentsia, including those with first-hand experience in America, do not believe in many of the foremost American tenets, such as that the US is a free country or a genuine democracy(Hauser in Ermarth 1993: 114).

Barbara Sukowa and Jutta Lampe in von Trotta's Die bleierne Zeit

How intellectuals in Germany wrestled with their beliefs becomes apparent, for instance, in Deutschland in Herbst (Germany in Autumn) where we see an ardent R.W. Fassbinder defending the terrorists to his boyfriend and his mother. However, three films and one year later (this being Fassbinder), he already denounces terrorism by portraying terrorists in his film Die dritte Generation (The Third Generation, West-Germany 1979) as a bunch of bored, self-absorbed idlers who perform their terrorist acts for the sake of it without any ulterior motive or purpose. But this struggle -whether to approve or disapprove of violence- is also palpable in Die bleierne Zeit (The Leaden Times) where we can not quite shake off the feeling that although Juliane openly disagrees with Marianne, inwardly there are feelings of guilt and remorse for having opted to work for a Women’s Lib magazine (‘No fashion, no recipes’) instead of joining her sister in an active, hands-on fight against their country. It seems, Juliane is quietly second-guessing herself if her -non-violent- way will bring about the changes she so desires. Juliane’s inner struggle is highlighted by the sisters’ frequent arguments, in which both fervently defend their viewpoints. Interestingly, when Juliane comes home to her boyfriend, Wolfgang, the roles are reversed – suddenly it is Juliane who becomes Marianne, defending her along with her actions to him, which simply accentuates Juliane’s inner turmoil. This is an impression shared by Thomas Elsaesser, who claims that it ‘is a film that leaves von Trotta open to charges of sympathizing with terrorists’ (Elsaesser in Linville 1998: 89), whereas for Charlotte Delorme, ‘the result is a politically reactionary film that equates the right and the left’ (Delorme in Linville 1998: 89). To me, it simply signifies von Trotta’s wrestling with herself over how best to address what she and many others thought to be wrong with their country, indicating that von Trotta/ Juliane and Gudrun Ensslin/ Marianne are just at opposite ends of the same political platform. Clearly, while there are traces of a certain admiration for their strong resolve, von Trotta is not flatly endorsing the actions of the terrorists, for otherwise she would have given more room to Marianne’s story. In that, it can be said that Die bleierne Zeit (The Leaden Times) marks a departure from her earlier, perhaps angrier, more polemical, films, such as Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, West-Germany 1975), in which a country, that is increasingly perceived as fascist, drives a woman into the arms of a terrorist – literally.
The terrorists’ strong resolve, which Juliane appears to be impressed by, is a double-edged sword, as we come to realize in an argument between the two sisters over an article Juliane wrote for her magazine, disclosing details about Marianne’s childhood. Marianne claims that her personal facts do not have any bearings on her political cause and that her ‘story only begins with the others’, accusing Juliane of taking advantage of her. A verbal fight erupts, resulting in Juliane’s claim that ‘had she, Marianne, been born one generation before she would have joined the BDM’ (Bund Deutscher Mädchen, the female equivalent to the HJ, or Hitler Youth), obviously referring to the fervour with which she pursues her political aims, which is not without resemblance to the fanaticism of the Nazis. And although Marianne is outraged and slaps Juliane, we can not help thinking if there might not just be a hint of truth to it. This, of course, brings to mind Horst Mahler, the former RAF terrorist, who even participated in Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn) -for which he was interviewed while serving a prison-term for bank-robbery- but has since gone over to the – NPD! (National Democratic Party of Germany, which in reality, has little to do with democracy; in fact, the party has been under surveillance by the German government for years for suspicion of being unconstitutional). In another example of people moving from the political left to the political right, although, in this case, it is not the far right, in Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (The Edukators, Germany/ Austria 2004) a conservative businessman unexpectedly reveals details about his decadent, rebellious youth in a left-leaning commune to his kidnappers, a group of latter-day, albeit strictly non-violent, terrorists. But just when we are beginning to trust and actually like him, do we realize that he was either telling a lie or else, has been so corrupted by Capitalism that all traces of his -alleged- former self have been eradicated, with money and what it can buy being his only concern. How uncomfortably close right-wing and left-wing extremism are linked sometimes is also brilliantly illustrated in Andreas Veiel’s Blackbox BRD (Black Box FRG, Germany 2001), when, over the course of the film, the viewer realizes that Alfred Herrhausen -the powerful chairman of Deutsche Bank and former HJ member- and Wolfgang Grams -the RAF terrorist, who was gunned down in a mysterious shootout- have more in common than one is led to believe. Indeed, von Trotta contrasts Marianne’s fierce, fanatical methods of coming to terms with Germany’s past and her attempts at changing German society with Juliane’s quiet, intellectual approach. This is shown in a scene where Juliane is conducting research for an article on Hitler’s high regard for children and how the NSDAP sponsored and fostered large families, forever encouraging people to ‘produce’ more children, obviously not without an ulterior motive. Prior to that, we see her participating in a march to support § 218 (in Germany, the law for the right to choose), which evidently is the direct opposite of Hitler’s demands on the previous generation. Conversely, it is her sister, Marianne, who not only has a child, but who is also married, both options Juliane steadfastly rejects, as they seem to be her way of quietly, peacefully, freeing herself from the shackles of the past. The fact that Germany has the lowest birth-rate in Europe today, I believe, deserves to be mentioned here. Both, von Trotta and (Gudrun) Ensslin, were born in the early 1940s, which made them part of the first generation after the war, growing up in the ‘the leaden time’ -meaning the 1950s- in which raising questions about Germany’s past was taboo and, as far as the FRG was concerned, all that counted was working hard in order to make lots of money, so as if by amassing and accumulating economic wealth and subsequently things, the past could somehow be tucked away under the new, sparkling, kidney-table. Von Trotta captures the prevailing atmosphere of those days very accurately when we see the family gathered around the dinner table in what looks like a prim, uninviting and certainly unglamorous household that is dominated by an authoritarian father. On the other hand, von Trotta does not fall prey to glamorising the life of the terrorists. I agree with Palfreyman who says that
'The German Sisters (sic), while adopting some of the conventions of family melodrama, goes out of its way to drain the film of glamour, colour and a fast narrative pacing' (Palfreyman in Clarke 2006: 39). The same, however, cannot be said, for instance, of Stammheim (West-Germany 1986), a film based on the Stammheim trial of four RAF members and their subsequent suicides, for what we see are a bunch of good-looking terrorists (Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe), fashionably clad, sporting Ray Ban sunglasses, who give the judges and attorneys a hard time and always come out on top. However, I suppose that in the West-Germany of the 1960s/ 70s -a world bereft of any glamour, beauty or usable past- terrorism was indeed as glamorous as it got, and Reinhard Hauff can be understood, if not forgiven, that '…a sober look back is sometimes undercut by a clear fascination
for the glamour and excitement of terrorism in a grey and bland society' (Palfreyman in Clarke: 2006: 14).

In conclusion, I would argue that the question of a German (national) identity is a tricky one indeed. However, Mary Fulbrook says that there is ‘no such thing as an essential national identity’ (Fulbrook 1999: 15), but although that may be true on a strictly rational level, I believe that everybody, whether they like it or not, does indeed have a national identity, starting with the passport. Even if people claim to have no national identity whatsoever, the minute they travel abroad it will be forced upon them as the questions invariably will arise, ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Where is that accent from?’. I have known Germans who now overcome this ‘problem’ by simply claiming they are Europeans, thus assuming a European, in lieu for their -tarnished- German, identity. Reunification has, if anything, added fuel to the dilemma, for not only has the face of Germany changed entirely, but the country’s problems have also dramatically increased, among which are a sharp rise in neo-Nazism and an unemployment rate that hovers around the ten-percent mark, to name only the most drastic ones. This makes it even less desirable for young Germans to identify themselves with their country, resulting in a huge number of emigrants and consequently, according to OECD, in a population that is shrinking. If von Trotta suggested, when making Die bleierne Zeit (The Leaden Times) 25 years ago, that the subsequent generations -or in the film’s case, Marianne’s son, Jan- is 'the bearer of the future: since he is aware of his history, he will be able to protect the future against the mistakes of the past’ (Hehr 2000: 30), she is of course correct: Juliane rectifies Jan’s image of his mother by promising to tell him ‘everything – everything I know’. She begins by telling him that his mother ‘was an exceptional woman’. With that, the frame freezes in a close-up of Juliane’s face -a reference to Truffaut’s Les 400 coups (The 400 Blows, France 1959)- and the film’s title appears again -Die bleierne Zeit (The Leaden Times)- subtly reminding us that identity begins with history, but that in order to have a history it is crucial to remember the past.


Clarke, David (ed. 2006): German Cinema since Unification, London: Continuum
Ermarth, Michael (1993): America and the Shaping of German Society, Providence, RI: Berg
Fulbrook, Mary (1999): German National Identity after the Holocaust, Cambridge: Polity
Heilbut, Anthony (1997): Exiled in Paradise, London: University of California Press
Hehr, Renate (2000): Margarethe von Trotta, London: Axel Menges
Insdorf, Annette (1982): By Sisters Obsessed, New York, NY: New York Times
Linville, Susan E. (1998): Feminism-Film-Fascism, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press
Malcolm, Derek (1982): German Chiller Hits the Mark, Manchester: Manchester Guardian
Wright, Joanne (1991): Terrorist Propaganda, London: Macmillan


Fassbinder, R.W., Die dritte Generation (The Third Generation), West-Germany 1979
Fassbinder, R.W., Kluge, Alexander, Reitz, Edgar, Schlöndorff, Volker, etc., Deutschland in Herbst
(Germany in Autumn), West-Germany 1978
Hauff, Reinhard, Stammheim, West-Germany 1986
Resnais, Alain, Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog), France 1955
Truffaut, François, Les 400 coups (The 400 Blows), France 1959
Veiel, Andreas, Black Box BRD (Black Box FRG), Germany 2001
Von Trotta, Margarethe, Schlöndorff, Volker, Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum), West-Germany 1975
Von Trotta, Margarethe, Die Bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters), West-Germany 1981
Weingartner, Hans, Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (The Edukators), Germany/ Austria 2004