1945–1960 Reconstruction

1945–1960 Reconstruction

Amidst the devastation of the Stunde Null year of 1945 cinema attendance was unsurprisingly down to a fraction of its wartime heights, but already by the end of the decade it had reached levels that exceeded the pre-war period.  For the first time in many years, German audiences had free access to cinema from around the world and in this period the films of Charlie Chaplin remained popular, as were melodramas from the United States. Nonetheless, the share of the film market for German films in this period and into the 1950s remained relatively large, taking up some 40 percent of the total market. American films took up around 30 percent of the market despite having around twice as many films in distribution as the German industry in the same time frame (Schneider 1990:35, 42 & 44).The occupation and reconstruction of Germany by the Four Powers in the period immediately after the end of World War II brought a major and long-lasting change to the economic conditions under which the industry in Germany had previously operated. The holdings of Ufa were confiscated by the Allies and, as part of the process of decartelisation, licences to produce films were shared between a range of much smaller companies. In addition, the Occupation Statute of 1949, which granted partial independence to the newly created Federal Republic of Germany, specifically forbade the imposition of import quotas to protect German film production from foreign competition, the result of lobbying by the American industry as represented by the MPAA.

Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator"
Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”

Many of the German films of the immediate post-war period can be characterised as belonging to the genre of the Trümmerfilm (literally “rubble film”). These films show strong affinities with the work of Italian neorealists, not least Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist trilogy which included Germany Year Zero (1948), and are concerned primarily with day-to-day life in the devastated Germany and an initial reaction to the events of the Nazi period (the full horror of which was first experienced by many in documentary footage from liberated concentration camps). Such films include Wolfgang Staudte’s Die Mörder sind unter ins (The Murderers are among us) (1946), the first film made in post-war Germany, and Wolfgang Liebeneiner’s Liebe 47 (Love 47) (1949), an adaptation of Wolfgang Borchert’s play Draußen vor der Tür.

Wolfgang Staudte's Die Mörder sind unter ins
Wolfgang Staudte’s Die Mörder sind unter ins

Despite the advent of a regular television service in the Federal Republic in 1952, cinema attendances continued to grow through much of the 1950s, reaching a peak of 817.5 million visits in 1956. The majority of the films of this period set out to do no more than entertain the audience and had few pretensions to artistry or active engagement with social issues. The defining genre of the period was arguably the Heimatfilm (“homeland film”), in which morally simplistic tales of love and family were played out in a rural setting, often in the mountains of Bavaria, Austria or Switzerland. In their day Heimatfilms were of little interest to more scholarly film critics, but in recent years they have been the subject of study in relation to what they say about the culture of West Germany in the years of the Wirtschaftswunder. Other film genres typical of this period were adaptations of operettas, hospital melodramas, comedies and musicals. Many films were remakes of earlier Ufa productions shorn of the nationalistic Blut und Boden traits of those Nazi-period films.

Richard Walther Darré addressing a meeting of the farming community in Goslar on 13 December 1937 standing in front of a Reichsadler and Swastika crossed with a sword and wheat sheaf labelled Blood and Soil (from the German Federal Archive)
Richard Walther Darré addressing a meeting of the farming community in Goslar on 13 December 1937 standing in front of a Reichsadler and Swastika crossed with a sword and wheat sheaf labelled Blood and Soil (from the German Federal Archive)

Rearmament and the founding of the Bundeswehr in 1955 brought with it a wave of war films which tended to depict the ordinary German soldiers of World War II as brave and apolitical.  The Israeli historian Omer Bartov wrote that German films of the 1950s showed the average German soldier as a heroic victim: noble, tough, brave, honourable, and patriotic while fighting hard in a senseless war for a regime that he did not care for.  The 08/15 film trilogy of 1954–55 concerns a sensitive young German soldier who would rather play the piano than fight, and who fights on the Eastern Front without understanding why; however, no mention is made of the genocidal aspects of Germany’s war in East.  The last of the 08/15 films ends with Germany occupied by a gang of American soldiers portrayed as bubble-gum chewing, slack-jawed morons and uncultured louts, totally inferior in every respect to the heroic German soldiers shown in the 08/15 films.  The only exception is the Jewish American officer, who is shown as both hyper-intelligent and very unscrupulous, which Bartov noted seems to imply that the real tragedy of World War II was the Nazis did not get a chance to exterminate all of the Jews, who have now returned with Germany’s defeat to once more exploit the German people.

German Soldier, Ardennes, (1944)
German Soldier, Ardennes, (1944)

In The Doctor of Stalingrad (1958) dealing with German POWs in the Soviet Union, Germans are portrayed as more civilized, humane and intelligent than the Soviets, who are showed for the most part as Mongol savages who brutalized the German POWs.  One of the German POWs successfully seduces the beautiful and tough Red Army Captain Alexandra Kasalniskaya (Eva Bartok) who prefers him to the sadistic camp commandant, which as Bartov comments also is meant to show that even in defeat, German men were more sexually virile and potent than their Russian counterparts.  In Hunde, wolt ihr ewig leben? (Dogs, do you want to live forever?) of 1959, which deals with the Battle of Stalingrad, the focus is on celebrating the heroism of the German soldier in that battle, who are shown as valiantly holding out against overwhelming odds with no mention at all of what those soldiers were fighting for, namely National Socialist ideology or the Holocaust.  This period also saw a number of films that depicted the militaryresistance to Hitler. In Des Teufels General (The Devil’s General) of 1954, a Luftwaffe general named Harras loosely modeled after Ernst Udet, appears at first to be cynical fool, but turns out to an anti-Nazi who is secretly sabotaging the German war effort by designing faulty planes.  Bartov commented that in this film, the German officer corps is shown as a group of fundamentally noble and civilized men who happened to be serving an evil regime made up of a small gang of gangsterish misfits totally unrepresentative of German society, which served to exculpate both the officer corps and by extension Germany society.  Bartov wrote that no German film of the 1950s showed the deep commitment felt by many German soldiers to National Socialism, the utter ruthless way the German Army fought the war and the mindless nihilist brutality of the later Wehrmacht.  Bartov wrote that German film-makers liked to show the heroic last stand of the 6th Army at Stalingrad, but none has so far showed the 6th Army’s massive co-operation with the Einsatzgruppen in murdering Soviet Jews in 1941.

Géza von Radványi's "The Doctor of Stalingrad" (1958)
Géza von Radványi’s “The Doctor of Stalingrad” (1958)

Even though there are countless film adaptations of Edgar Wallace novels worldwide, the crime films produced by the German company Rialto Film between 1959 and 1972 are the best-known of those, to the extent that they form their own subgenre known as Krimis (abbreviation for the German term “Kriminalfilm” (or “Kriminalroman”). Other Edgar Wallace adaptations in a similar style were made by the GermansArtur Brauner and Kurt Ulrich, and the British producer Harry Alan Towers.

Edgar Wallace
Edgar Wallace

The international significance of the West German film industry of the 1950s could no longer measure up to that of France, Italy, or Japan. German films were only rarely distributed internationally as they were perceived as provincial. International co-productions of the kind which were becoming common in France and Italy tended to be rejected by German producers (Schneider 1990:43). However a few German films and film-makers did achieve international recognition at this time, among them Bernhard Wicki’s Oscar-nominated Die Brücke (The Bridge) (1959), and the actresses Hildegard Knef and Romy Schneider.


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