An Eye Toward the Past
Probably no other country has walked a path as complex as that of postwar Germany. After World War II it was divided, occupied, and directly ruled by four countries (the US, the UK, France, and the Soviet Union), ultimately forcing it to be a partitioned nation. After the formation of East and West Germany in 1949, the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, and the state of division seemed to have solidified. And yet, the wave of perestroika in the Soviet Union progressed into a democratization movement in East Germany, leading to the unexpected developments of the collapse (opening) of the wall in 1989, and then the reunification in 1990. This year’s Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival presents that complex path of postwar Germany by way of fifteen films. They are all excellent works with serious content, and I am duly happy and grateful to have the opportunity of seeing all of these films together in one program.
There are three “pasts” that are dealt with in “Facing the Past.” Two of those refer to an “overcoming” of the past: the past of the 1933–45 Nazi Third Reich (Program A) and the past of the 1949–1989/1990 former East Germany (Program C), in each of which a dictatorship was overcome. The former concerns a nation that may have boasted to be the “Thousand Year Reich” but ended after only twelve years. Still, it involved the whole of Germany, and the impact of its consequences and influence has far from disappeared even after five times as many years have passed; on the contrary, at times it becomes even bigger than before. On the other hand, the latter only affected a part of Germany, but it existed for forty years, and that long period caused grave problems in a different sense. The two systems left behind different mountains after their collapses: a mountain of corpses (by the former) and a mountain of documents from informers (by the latter). The shock of a system of violence that is clearly visible as it is, and the very different psychological shock of hidden distrust of one’s fellow humans, born from a system of secret informants and surveillance.
The third past is the postwar history of East and West Germany (Program B). Of particular note here is the issue of extreme-left and extreme-right terrorism in West Germany. In West Germany, with the slogan “Bonn is not Weimar,” a “fortified democracy” has been instituted keeping in mind the experience of the Weimar Republic, which had weakened and collapsed through party splintering and the growing power of extreme political parties on both the left and the right. So, on the assumption that they must bravely fight the powers that threaten democracy, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution carries out surveillance activities targeting the extreme right and extreme left, as well as extremist groups comprised of foreigners living in Germany.
I’d now like to elaborate a bit on each program, remarking on the films themselves. In Program A, I’d like to note The Unknown Soldier and Winter’s Children (discussed below). The former depicts the commotion about the exhibition Crimes of the German Wehrmacht, which has been held in cities around Germany, Austria, and elsewhere since the mid-nineties. In Germany it is generally assumed that acts of atrocity like the Holocaust (the mass killing of Jews) were the doing of the Nazis, and the standing interpretation is that ordinary Germans may hold responsibility but bear no guilt. Precisely because the majority of ordinary Germans were soldiers of the Wehrmacht, the regular army, the postwar myth of the Wehrmacht as “soldiers of honor” was established. If you’re curious about the effect of an exhibition denying that, please watch this film.
The Program B films all show originality, in their themes as well as in their cinematic depiction. The Rebel, which deals with an unknown neo-Nazi terrorist, is an impressive film, while My Life as a Terrorist gives a realistic illustration of what Germany is about today. It features a current member of the European Parliament and the German Foreign Minister (at the time of the filming), former comrades of the protagonist Klein. It shows us how the leaders of the student rebellion of the late sixties have followed two paths since the seventies: some chose the armed struggle of the extreme-left Red Army Faction (RAF), while others became politicians in parliament.
In Program C, both Last to Know and Locked Up Time deal with the so-called Freikauf (purchase of freedom). About 33,000 political prisoners who had been considered anti-establishment and arrested by the East German authorities were exiled to the West side, but on those occasions they were actually paid for in cash by the West German authorities. This kind of behind-the-scenes dealing by the German authorities on both sides only came to light after 1989. Until then the people involved had been forced to keep silent.
The question that came to my mind when seeing all these films in a row is: How does a different generation understand, how do they inherit, these experiences under a different system? Winter’s Children is set in a period that lasts only from winter to summer, but in the background we can easily see that this was preceded by years of distress for the parents as the children grew up. Undoubtedly this kind of struggle took place in countless German families. In closing, I’d like to affirm that only documentary films are effective enough to provide us a glimpse of such things, and only the thoroughness of the Germans could make it possible.
Born in 1947, Sato is a specialist in contemporary German history. He attended the doctoral program in history at the Graduate School of Sophia University. A professor at Takushoku University, he is coordinator of the continuing project “Paths to Reconciliation” at the Goethe-Institut Japan. He also has an interest in the filming of history, with “overcoming the Nazi past” as a central theme.