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July 16, 2008

Women and New German Cinema: The Institutional Marginalising of Women

Women and New German Cinema:

The Institutional Marginalisation of Women Film Makers

Margarethe von Trotta

Margarethe von Trotta: Perhaps the most internationally well known
woman director emerging from New German Cinema

Return to New German Cinema Directors


The history of women directors in Germany is not only interesting for its own sake but because for a time there many more women directors working than in other European countries they lead by example and many are still active in cinema today. This is a brief overview of their trials, tribulations and achievements. Individual entries will be developed in due course. It is important that this history does not become "hidden"  as Sheila Rowbotham a feminist historian pointed out in her social historiography of the exclusion and / or marginalisation of women from much history. As will be seen these women film makers still had severe difficulty accessing the funding to make full length feature films. Arguably this institutionalised sexism still exists today across all nations with women film directors still being very much in the minority of directors. This phenomenon needs continous study to examine the factors at work vitiating the success of women film directors. Only then can policies be developed which ensure that this institutionalised sexism ceases.

Much of what follows is based upon the seminal book on this subject by Julia Knight Women and the New German Cinema (1992) which is still in print. By 1979 the rebuilding of a national German cinema which amounted to what is described as New German Cinema had reached another turning point since the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962. This was expressed in the Hamburg Declaration a manifesto produced at the Hamburg Film Festival of that year. Knight comments that it was a s though the directors had wanted to declare a new National cinema existed finally which was a cinema marked by diversity in both style, form and content. Despite this assertion, Knight points out, German cinema had been largely forced down the path og traditional narrative structures in a feature film format.

Even more tellingly despite the assertions of solidarity amongst film makers there was a marked sexist split between a mainstream cinema that was predominantly male and a marginalised but very active feminist film culture. The names of directors evoked by the term New German Cinema mean for many of us in the UK at least Fassbinder, Herzog, Kluge,Reitz, Schlöndorff and Wenders. Having produced several films each by the early 1970s they had become established both at home and on the art cinema circuit in the rest of Europe at least. Knight points out that under the Kuratorium funding system from its beginning to 1973 it funded 46 films, however of these only 8 were made by women and of these 8 only one was a full length feature film. This was despite the fact that many women were working in both the film and TV sectors at this time. women filmamkers didn't really start to come to the fore in feature film making until after 1976.

The Hamburg Declaration fudged over this marginalisation of women film makers. The feeling of dissatisfaction at this marginalisation lead to a group of women film makers establishing an Association of Women Filmworkers (Verband die filmarbeiterinnen) to promote the work of women film and TV makers.

Some Institutional difficulties Facing Women Film Makers

For women there was another difficulty to overcome which was that there were few role models of women film makers from the past in Germany. Many of these male directors such as Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau and Siodmak had made successful careers in both Germany and Hollywood. Although there were exceptions such as Lotte Reiniger who made animations in the silent period and of course Leni Riefenstahl of Mountain film and Nazi propaganda infamy. There was also Leontine Sagan who was Austrian and made only one highly controversial film Mädchen in Uniform / Maidens in Uniform (1931).

Film maker Helke Sander certainly argued that this was a significant disadvantage. Many women who became film makers at this time entered into it via acting or else originally having ambitions to act. This included Helmer-Sanders Brahms, Margarethe von Trotta, Doris Dörrie, Elfi Mikesch, May Spils, Dorothea Neunkirchen and Marianne Lüdcke.

Helke Sander in her film All round Reduced Personality

Helke Sander starring in her own film All Round Reduced Personality / Redupers 1977. Her films are available on DVD from her own website with English subtitles at : Helke Sander

At a more general cultural level it wasn't recognised that women wanted and had a right to proper full-time careers. As a parent Helke Sander also pointed out that childcare still remained largely the responsibility of women. for single parents this problem was of course exacerbated as Heidi Genée pointed out:

...but if the film does not turn out the way it should, I cannot apologise because I had my three children with me during the shoot. (cited Knight 1992 p 44)

Of course these were problems common to women filmmakers in all countries and many German women film makers felt an international solidarity with other women film makers rather than with their male German counterparts. This led to them promoting a new femist film culture rather than prioritising a new national cinema. Not only was the more informal working culture and set of associated work expectations male dominated in its thinking but the funding regimes were also patriarchal. women had an extra level of distrust to overcome.

The Insitutional Structures Restrictions Upon Women Film Makers

There was a reliance upon public money to be invested in New German Cinema and this restricted all the directors both male and female however, it acted in a disproportionate way by limiting the oppportunities for women film makers far more by 'virtually excluding women directors from feature film production during its first ten years'. (Knight 1992 p 45)

Women were always being confronted with their lack of technical abilities even though none of the original signatories to the Oberhausen manifesto all of whom were male had directed a full feature film. Yet the ability of these men to create a new cinema was accepted unquestioningly despite the fact that they had only ever directed short films. However when women who had a similar history of film making in shorts came to apply for feature film funding they were rejected on the self-fulfilling prophetic grounds that they needed to have experience first. Women film makers like Heidi Genée who had alreadyextablished themselves as editors and who found the transition to film making relatively straightforward always felt that they were being expected to prove themselves "with women of course we have to be twice as good. That's the way it is." (Genee cited Knight 1992 p 45).

Jutta Brückner was given a lot of criticism for choosing a woman cameraperson for her film Laufen Lernen / Learning to Run (1980). She was accused of making an ideological decision to employ a woman cameraperson rather than an artistic decision. This patriarchal structure acted like another level of censorship on women's film making throughout the 1970s.

Jutta Bruckner 1

Dr. Jutta Brückner film maker and lecturer at the Berlin Art Academy

This patriarchal approach had effects upon the types of films being made and a restriction upon artistic development. Sander for example has stated that she wanted to work in an essayistic form which would have blurred the boundaries between documentary and fiction film. But trying to workoutside of traditional formats and generic boundaries proved impossible to fund. This was partially due to a very defensive attitude from documentary traditionalists like Klaus Wildenhahn who also taught at the Berlin film school. Men like this were in a position to influence funders. Overall then women film makers of the 1970s were operating in a very hostile environment.

Women film makers at this time were more successful in persuading funders in the documantary field as well as shorts and TV work. Where there was much lower financial risk there was more equality. Funding for more ambitious feature film projects was a different matter. The Kuratorium when it first started was able to award up to 300,000 Deutsch Marks (The pre Euro currency in Germany). Many complained that this was a totally inadequate sum however when Ulrike Ottinger received an award to make her first feature it only amounted to DM 80,000 to make Madame X - eine absolut Herrsherin / Madam X an Absolute Ruler. This was ten years after the fund was started and therefore the figure was eroded by inflation. This continual underfunding lead to the creation of a DIY culture for women film makers who were forced to be very adaptive as Dagmar Beiesdorf director of die Wolfsbraut / The Wolf Girl (1985), recalls:

We were a small team of six people. No production manager, no extra people for make-up and costumes. So, one is, of course responsible for the bulk of the work oneself. For instance I needed a piano for three days but had no properties manager...when I eventually got something agreed, it was 'but you have to collect and load yourself'. So at five in the morning....I set off...collected two sleepy friends...When we unloaded the thing where we were filming shortly before nine o'clock we were of course completely worn out...If I hadn't had such a patient and helpful team several days filming would have fallen through. (Cited Knight 1992 p 47)

Other issues which emerged were problems of editorial interference as Jütta Brückner found after being commissioned to make a series of films on women in mid-life crisis:

The producer and TV editor - both men - had their own ideas about how a film about a woman, written and directed by a woman, should look. Their interference began with the script and became even worse. (Cited Knight 1992 p 48)

This kind of attitude lead to self-censorship in order for women to increase their opportunities for gaining work.

Going Commercial

Given the partriarchal structures of the film industry in general in Germany at the time male directors woring within New German Cinema had the opportunity to 'go commercial'. Some Oberhausen signatories like Peter Schamoni were able to make commercially oriented films in order to trigger state subsidies for projects they were personally interested in. some such as Schamoni headed production companies making sexploitation films to do this. (What is new about that you might ask!)

Women, Work & the Mass Media

The institutional sexism of the German mass media at the time meant that women often had long periods of unemployment. This was even more demoralising in an industry which was skewed against women furthermore this excluded them from developing their skills just as thier confidence in their existing ones was beginning to wane. The story of Ula Stöckl is a case in point. When the critic Renate Mörhmann was interviewing Stöckl about her work in the 1970s Mörhmann had assumed that Stöckl who had many productions under her belt had no difficulties in finding work. In fact Stöckl burst into tears of frustration at this point reporting that she had had no work for months and felt she was '...vegetating. I've simply been forgotten' (Knight , p 49).

Ula Stoeckl 1

Ula Stöckl now a film professor & film maker

When women film makers resorted to working in video and other cheaper mediums such as 16mm film the work didn't have such high production values and this was then turned against the women who were accused of making 'shabbier' products and not capable of making better products - yet another Catch 22. This catch 22 also translated into criticism and journalism and public perception. Despite their heroic efforts to participate in the new developments in German cinema women by the end of the decade of the 1970s largely considered as working in peripheral areas of moving image production and making little contribution to mainstream developments.


More work will be developed on New German Cinema and the relationship of women to this national rebirth of cinema and the gender issues arising from this. hopefully this will encourage and stimulate readers to do their own research as well.

Return to New German Cinema Directors


The German Sisters. Lisa DiCaprio. Jump Cut

Helke Sander. The All-Round Reduced Personality - Redupers. Review  Lisa Katzman

Helke Sander. Redupers: Contradictory reality. Review by Uta Berg-Ganschow translated by Ramona Curry

Sing Iris Sing. Review Gretchen Else-Sommer. Jump Cut

The Association of Women Film Workers. Jump Cut.

October 02, 2006

From Expressionism to Neue Sachlichkeit: Two Weimar ‘Art’ Cinema Styles

Recently film critics and historians such as Thomas Elsaesser , Pam Cook and Sabine Hake have laid down a strong challenge to the way in which cinema of the Weimar years has been represented as one of the ‘golden-ages’ of world cinema. Canonical films of the period are usually cited as:The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919), The Golem (Paul Wegener, 1920), Destiny , (Fritz Lang, 1921), Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1921), Dr. Mabuse, (Fritz Lang, 1922 ), The Last Laugh, (F. W. Murnau, 1924), Metropolis _( Fritz Lang, 1925 ) _Pandora’s Box (G. W. Pabst, 1928). They have an importance which is within the canon of cinematic achievements but there is a cult mythology attached which has grown up around these films in which they are parodied, subjected to pastiche and recycled in post-modern video clip style as Elsaesser points out.

As a counter to the spectacular, psychologically inflected and highly subjective expressionistic film the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) film developed. It was an outreach of the New Objectivity artistic current running through Weimar cultural output at this time. This period is mainly associated with what are sometimes erroneously described as the ‘Golden Years’ of the Weimar Republic. This period lasted from 1924 after the Dawes Plan was instituted and lasted until 1929 and the dramatic economic collapse triggered by the Great Depression’ in the autumn of that year.

Economic crisis in the Weimar

The late Weimar period coincided with the coming of sound and the concentration upon Hollywood style genre cinema. More or less concurrently with the coming of sound was the massive economic depression which hit Germany following the collapse of the US stock market.

This depression deepened until late 1932. Ironically although the first signs of an economic upturn could be discerned, Hitler became Chancellor at the end of January 1933. This depression period saw the production of socialistic films such as Kuhle Wampe and The Threepenny Opera. The former was scripted by Brecht and the latter came from his reworking of John Gay’s highlty satirical ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ and both involved elements of epic theatre. The production of the latter disappointed Brecht and he started a law suit against Nero-Film who were the producers. For Brecht the intended political message had been de-politicised.


Lil Dagover & Conrad Veidt inThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Werner Krauss as Dr Caligari

Many of the canonical films form the core of cinematic output which is described as a film movement called ‘ Expressionism’. The term Expressionism with a capital ‘E’ comes originally from painting and theatre. It is extremely stylised in terms of its mise-en-scene; in other words the settings, camera angles and lighting. The lighting is strongly chiaroscuro (sharply contrasting areas of light and shade), and the settings strongly distorted version of reality as usually experienced.

Nosferatu: The Vampyr is killed by the light

The acting is highly stylised and the subject matter is macabre and or concerning ‘lowlife’ issues. Frequently analyses of these films have concentrated upon the idea the films of a nation reflect its ‘mentality’. This type of criticism or commentary often ignores the conditions of industrial production and slips towards notions of the auteur. As Cook points out Siegfried Kracauer, whose work ‘From Caligari to Hitler’ was to provide a benchmark of criticism for these films did start out from commenting on the industrial situation.

“… the German film industry was of course anxious to experiment in the field of artistic achievements “ Since in those early days the conviction prevailed that foreign markets could only be conquered by aesthetically qualified entertainment. Art ensured export, and export meant Salvation.”

Sabine Hake notes the gradual historical revision which has been taking place within academic writings about German cinema of this period. This writing has risen to challenge Kracauer’s analysis arguing that it is a psychologically teleological construction of German society. Teleology states the Penguin Dictionary of Sociology is “The attempt to explain social processes of social change by reference to an end-state to which they are alleged to be working, or to an ultimate function which they are said to serve”. (Penguin Dictionary of Sociology 4th Edition).

It is argued that Kracauer implies a situation of direct cause and effect between film and society and that the state of German society can be ‘read off from the films’. One critical task for course members will be to evaluate Kracauer’s work in the light of these arguments measured against their own readings of the films.

The other seminal contemporary critical work of this period comes from Lotte Eisner who identifies expressionist films as strongly romanticist and therefore deeply anti-modernist as well as being very ‘German’ foregrounding problems of identity as well as metaphysical aspects of space. Below Bocklin’s Tomb by Ferdinand Keller.

This is an argument which leads into concerns about the ideology of the sublime. There is a danger in Eisner’s approach that there is an underlying essentialism related to ‘national characteristics’ which divorces these characteristics from culural, social and economic circumstances. One possible task for the course team will be to explore the links with anti-modernism and romanticism more closely. The Old National Gallery in the Berlin State Museum is a useful site to visit where I obtained an image of. Bocklin’s Ilse of the Dead


As the introduction to the recent edition of Kracauer’s book makes clear, he was working under limited conditions and at the time had to focus upon a narrower range of films than perhaps he would have liked. It is also the case that he was being funded to search for explanations of Nazism.

Not all the films mentioned above were made in the Expressionist mould. Hake describes Murnau’s output as ‘poetic realist’ a movement usually associated with French directors like Renoir, during the mid to late 1930s. It has been suggested that the films of F.W. Murnau acted as a form of bridge between the Expressionist movement and Neue Sachlichkeit suggest Martin Brady and Helen Hughes . These seemingly diametrically opposed cultural influences are clearly present within Metropolis as Andreas Huyssen has noted.

A recent book Expressionist Film New Perspectives

Neue Sachlichkeit

Metropolis by George Grosz

The origins of Neue Sachlichkeit emerged in 1924. It erupted out of the left-opposition within the Expressionist-utopian Novembergruppe. This group was called the Red Group associated with what is frequently known as ‘Verism’. Painters associated with the ‘verists’ were Otto Dix and George Grosz & Max Beckmann. They were highly critical and used satire to attack the evils of post-war Weimar German society exposing the devastating effects of World War I and the consequent economic climate upon individuals.

A second term, ‘Magic Realists’, has been applied to diverse artists associated with Neue Sachlichkeit, including Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Alexander Kanoldt, Christian Schad, and Georg Schrimpf.

Rudolf Schichter depicting cafe society

These works are usually taken as opposing the aggressive subjectivity of German Expressionist art but avoiding political criticism. Some of the work by Schad was close to being pornographic. Unlike many of the artists from the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, who had their works displayed in the infamous degenerate art exhibition, Shad’s works were apparently celebrated by the Nazis.

The movement thus incorporated a range of political commitments and techniques whilst marking a shift in representational values. Art historion Paul Wood points out that Otto Dix, although critically aligned with the left, moved away from the subjects of war and marginalisation in an expressionist mode to a ‘meticulous even obsessive painting technique …...he applied successive layers and then erased all marks of manufacture. In doing this he was directly refusing the discredited subjectivity of Expressionism.’

Neue Sacklichkeit 1

Otto Dix describes his attitude to Neue Sachlichkeit: ‘For me the object is primary and determines the form. I have therefore felt it vital to get as close as possible to the thing I see. ‘What’ matters more to me than ‘How’. Indeed ‘how’ arises from ‘What’. Above the more non-political aspect of Neue Sachlichkeit whilst below there is a political edge. These differing approaches to ‘realism’ open up a vast and important area of aesthetics which cross-cut the left intelligentsia within Germany, with Brecht, Adorno, Benjamin, Bloch and Lukacs engaged in intense debate. These concerns are beyond the scope of this review.

Neue Sacklichkeit 2 The Political Edge

How far New Objectivity was an acceptance of the status quo derived from a ‘detached enchantment’ is open to challenge. Here it is useful to note the comments of the painter and artist George Grosz who strongly defended himself against what he described as the ‘Hurrah Bolshevism’ which wanted to see the proletariat presented as ‘always neatly brushed and combed in the old hero’s dress ’. Seeking to represent the conditions of the working classes as accurately as possible, Grosz derided the ‘false idealisation of the propaganda,’ which was emanating from the German Communist Party (KPD) of the time. This was the time socialist realism was becoming the dominant aesthetic form in Soviet Russia.

Paul Wood argues that paradoxically, that the more ‘realistic’ the art the more its social criticism appeared to be blunted. Rather than a social strategy ‘it represented an attitude of alienation from the actual lived reality’. It is in this sense that_ Neue Sachlichkeit_ can be seen as representing the truth underlying the superficial aspects of reality. The alienation represented within it can be seen as a critique of the contentment and new consumerist values of the stabilised German society through the hyper-realism which generated a sense of ‘unreality’ Wood emphasises. Wood also notes that Neue Sachlichkeit became strongly associated with photography. In the field of left wing aesthetics we find that for Brecht and Benjamin the pretence of documentary photography to represent reality needed to be undone through montage such as the work of John Heartfield compared with the photography of August Sander below.

Neue Sachlichkeit Phot by August Sander Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photomantage by John Heartfield

The film director most associated with New Objectivity or Neue Sachlichkeit and its celebration of technological progress is Georg Wilhelm Pabst. Hake suggests that New Objectivity also accepted the status quo in society. [This is an issue which can be researched in more depth on the course.] Pabst’s works deal with a range of social problems such as; prostitution, labour disputes, inflation and marital problems, as well as revolutionary politics argues Hake: ‘Significantly the same principle of detached enchantment guides the visual representation of women, interiors, and the objects of everyday life. Yet the realism that distinguishes Pabst’s approach to camerawork and mise-en-scene also accommodates more voyeuristic and fetishistic scenarios.’ Bearing the last part of this comment in mind it may be useful to compare Pabst’s voyeurism with the work of people like Schad. Below images from Pabst’s Joyless Streets & Pandora’s Box.

Greta Garbo & Grigori Chmara in Pabst

Hake sums up the contribution of Pabst as one who was committed to the progressive spirit of the stabilisation period. But through striving for technical perfectionism Pabst favoured the beauty of appearances through the creation of surface effects: ’Pabst during the Weimar period contributed to the new style of objectivity and factuality that was both provocatively materialist and profoundly consumerist in orientation.

Louise Brooks & Franz Lederer in Pabst

Hake’s emphasis ssems very different to Bergfelder and Carter who note Pabst’s independent productions in the last years of the Weimar republic including Westfront 1918 (Western Front, 1930), Kameradschaft (Comradeship, 1930), _Dreigroschenoper _(The Threepenny Opera, 1931).
Certainly at this stage Pabst seemed to be clearly antiwar. Given Brecht’s disappointment with The Threepenyy Opera this is a film which is worthy of a special case study and will be another possible task for the course team.

From Pabst West Front 1918

Pabst’s Die Freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street, 1925), whilst depicting the bad conditions of the working class had been criticised for a depoliticised individualism from the left. For the left it was deemed as a ‘pessimistic’ film. Whilst Hake notes an eroticism of the filmic image in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), Bergfelder notes the presence of the Jack the Ripper character in both Pandora’s Box and as ‘Mack the Knife’ in The Threepenny Opera seeing the Ripper as representing male insecurities ‘ that seems to suggest a German masculinity torn apart by the social and psychological legacies of world War 1’.

Bergfelder also notes the representations of misogynist aggression in the paintings of Dix and Grosz and in that sense the concern with crime can be seen as a representation of the chaos under the surface of contemporary Germany. Perhaps re-reading the films of Pabst through the ironic lens of the hyper-real, reveals Pabst to be more critically concerned with the mechanisms of capitalism than Hake allows. Yet Pabst chose to remain behind to work under the Nazi cinematic regime perhaps it was Hitler’s populism which seduced him perhaps it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. The reason is still an enigma today. It is a tension which will be explored during the course and through this space.

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