Schoolwork Repurposed: German Film Essays

The lags in productivity on this blog are almost always caused by school work.  This semester, though, I am enrolled in my final two film studies classes to complete my minor (and graduate in May, thankfully).  So when I have to write things for these classes, Contemporary German Cinema and Latin American History at the Movies, I’ll simply post them here for your perusal/approval.  This is my midterm take-home essay exam for German Cinema.  The prompt was as follows:

Owen Evans points to the popularity, among international audiences, of German films that “represent the totalitarian past” and argues that such films might “comprise a specific genre that proves very attractive to cinema goers: the German totalitarian thriller, we could perhaps calls it” (New Directions 58-59). Using Downfall and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days as sources of evidence and examples, create your own description of “the German totalitarian thriller.”  What are its characteristics?  Is that label too reductive, or does it get at important psychological components of these films?  Feel free to draw upon the class texts as well as the movies.

Is there such a thing as a “German totalitarian thriller,” as suggested by Owen Evans in New Directions in German Cinema?  The answer to that is not definite.  Rather, the most confident reply one could have to that question is, “Partially.”  Films like Downfall and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days feature elements inherent in thrillers of all stripes—seemingly constant peril awaiting the characters at every turn, central characters who represent a semblance of “the common (wo)man,” a strong focus on the psychological impacts of the characters’ predicaments, among others—but these two movies lack the fictional plot thrust, the action-adventure qualities common in more traditional thrillers in the Alfred Hitchcock mold.  These examples are character studies not quite masquerading as thrillers, given the features listed above, but still they fail to reach thriller status all the same.

To enter that Hitchcock mold, one must first understand the fundamentally artificial idea that is suspense.  This is not to say being artificial or contrived is necessarily bad, but simply put, it must be created.  To paraphrase Hitchcock himself, suspense is the audience knowing a bomb is hidden, ticking away underneath a table while the characters onscreen remain oblivious.  The suspense lies in the waiting, the moments of not knowing how the characters in whom the audience has conceivably placed their empathy will get out of the situation.

Both Downfall and Sophie Scholl run into a severe problem here: History.  Even (especially?) foreign audiences know that Hitler spent his last days hiding in a bunker before ultimately committing suicide.  Perhaps a little more obscure, but still widely available knowledge is the fact that Sophie Scholl and other members of the White Rose resistance movement were captured and put to death as traitors to the German state.  Without the element of surprise—“What will happen to them?”—provided by fictional plots, suspense in the traditional sense is nearly impossible to achieve in these films.

What make these movies “thrilling” are their introspective looks at the ways these characters deal with the situations in which they find themselves.

Downfall does not have much plot, per se, as most of the typical rise-and-fall story structure happens before the start of the film.  From the film’s beginning, the audience—and most Nazi members—knows Hitler is finished; the Allies are practically knocking on the bunker door.  What follows is a character study in self delusion.  Seeing Hitler not only appear almost fatherly to Traudl, his secretary, but have moments of weakness is engrossing.  It’s an intimate look at someone who has reached mythical status in the eyes of so many.  In its own way, its sense of discovery, of tearing away the artificial, terrorizing cloud that surrounds the man is thrilling.  But it is not suspenseful.  It has no way to be.  There is no way for Hitler to get out of the situation—furthermore, nobody would want him to avoid his fate—and the first moments of the film show an elderly version of the empathetic Traudl reflecting on her time serving the Fuhrer, so the audience knows she survived the downfall of the film’s title.  Because of the historical restraints, there can be no gripping, “What will happen next?” moments like the attempted-assassination-by-airplane in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest or the classic sewer showdown in Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive.  The only scenes to approximate a similar “pulse pounding” nature in Downfall all exist in the quieter moments, when Hitler allows himself time to think critically, to contemplate his inevitable defeat.  The wait for him to snap back into howling denial is frightening, to be sure, but it exists as an internal character trait, not a plot-driven moment; for the context of the film, this is better than an external event, but it still avoids what makes a thriller, well, a thriller.

Sophie Scholl succeeds to a larger degree than Downfall in fulfilling the requirements of a thriller, but those are quickly spent in the film’s inciting incident: The anti-Nazi flyer distribution at a college that leads to the arrest of Sophie and her brother.  Once the siblings have placed what would be a sufficient amount of flyers at strategic spots in the university’s main hall, they are left with a couple stacks of leftovers.  The decision to go back and push the remaining papers from a balcony is the film’s only true “thriller” moment, an instance of cinematic contrivance: A plot device included to heighten the drama.  From there, the film falls into a similar character study style as Downfall, in which director Marc Rothemund shows Sophie’s youthful courage—some might say stupidity—in standing up for her beliefs against the totalitarian regime in which Evans situates his argument.  It peels away layers of the Nazi ideology through Sophie’s arguments with her captors, and that is more important than artificially stimulating the audience with thriller trappings anyway.  But again, it lacks what is classically understood as filmic suspense.

For there to be a true “German totalitarian thriller,” filmmakers would need to worry less about historical figures, biopics, and the like, and focus on the themes and lessons present during the reign of the Third Reich.  These rhetorical screenwriters and directors should conjure their own characters, fill them with their own personal obsessions—much like in any imaginary story—and plug those people into the Nazi era, free to do whatever they want with those characters.  That way, the storytellers can concentrate on crafting a yarn, inviting the audience to participate in the more “fun” aspects of filmmaking by scaring them, making them laugh, and awing them with the exploits of someone they do not know.  This would provide the taste and texture of the more staid productions mentioned in this essay, but without the restrictions of adhering to the truth of history.  Historically accurate films like Downfall and Sophie Scholl cannot accomplish that because they are not free to play with true-life figures the way a filmmaker would with a created character.


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