New German Cinema: ‘When we behave, nobody cares, but when we are bad, nobody forgets.’

I took a class called “New German Cinema” at the end of my freshman year of college. It was designated as a “seminar” credit, and I enrolled because I knew I was interested in becoming a film major at that point. I think I saw the words “cinema” and “German” and thought I’d get a nice overview of European film, or actually, any film that was ever set in or around Germany.

Those were my naive expectations going into it. What New German Cinema turned out to be was a movement from the 1960s to the 1980s aimed at creating “quality” film, almost like a German version of the French New Wave. What constituted as quality varied, but was predominantly quieter, more challenging, more artistic-oriented, and much, much more “on the outskirts” than mainstream film.

The professor, a wickedly smart but brutally bitter and jaded man, set out to unnerve and stir us with films by Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The teacher being a a firm hater of all things Hollywood (with choice words for Spielberg), the “New German Cinema” seminar took me in as an impressionable 19-year-old who thought movies were generally cool and magical, and then spit me out as a doubtful and suspicious film school kid, scarred for life in ways good and bad, for now movies would never look the same again, would never serve the same purpose as previously believed.

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) was the first film I ever saw of Werner Herzog’s, shown in this class. I laughed and laughed, and felt bad and crude for laughing, but kept doing so, couldn’t help it, and then there came a distinct moment where I stopped suddenly as it hit me, sucking in air to cease the laughter: Oh, wait, it’s not funny, and it never was supposed to be. In fact, it’s disturbing, fucking frightening.

I cannot think off the top of my head of another film that got this reaction out of me. Whatever you thought it was, you were wrong, and Herzog had the last laugh, as he usually does.

When we behave, nobody cares, but when we are bad, nobody forgets.

The little people in Even Dwarfs shout this during their rebellion against their ominous superiors. Perhaps the filmmakers of the New German Cinema movement were shouting this at all of Hollywood, to all mainstream audiences, trying to violently shake us awake.

‘La jetée’ (1962) and the Power of Words and Images

He says something. She doesn’t mind, she answers. They have no memories, no plans. Time builds itself painlessly around them. As landmarks, they have the very taste of this moment they live, and scribbling on the walls.

I rewatched one of my favorite films since school the other night – La jetée, a 28-minute French film from 1962. Director Chris Marker tells the story of time travel in post-nuclear Paris almost entirely through a series of still photos. (There’s one scene with just a few seconds of motion.) In under 30 minutes, the plot unravels a Paris in ruins, with the survivors divided up into a hierarchy. One group is experimenting in time travel to the past and present to improve their situation; the others are lab rats. The protagonist proves a successful candidate for their experiments, but his past, present, and future collide in an eerie tragedy. In my very first film class, my professor showed us this movie to teach us the power of words and images, how they can stick with you for a lifetime, how you can tell a story without flashy gimmicks or superfluous material.

Whether it’s the French version with subtitles or the English voice-over version, it is one of the most poetic things I’ve ever come across. While it most obviously inspired the Terry Gilliam movie 12 Monkeys, watching it recently made me think of how it must have inspired other recent films; Christopher Nolan’s Inception came to mind the most. The sweeping string orchestra soundtrack, the imagery, and the distant but observant narration all come together to make romance out of dystopia and sci-fi. While it’s been done since and also before the film came out, watching it always feels like watching something brand new and revolutionary. So many filmmakers and storytellers choose overkill to get their story across, but La jetée remains there in the film school archives, just waiting to be watched, just waiting to remind you how to tell a story and how to tell it well.