We are excited to kick off our week-long celebration of our Camden House German Film Classics series with this post by our series co-editor Johannes von Moltke, who talks about the scope and aims of our thriving list.
German Film Classics. The series title rolls nicely off the tongue. And yet, each of its terms begs a question: How German? What films? Whose classics? And perhaps: Why now?
Our new series proposes some answers, but it aims also to keep those questions alive and relevant as we explore different titles, learn from our authors, hear from readers. In the meantime, here is some of what we were thinking as series editors when we proposed the project to Camden House, where we’d already been cooperating for several years in a wonderful partnership with Jim Walker on the German Screen Cultures series.
German: What does that even mean these days, and why devote a series to German films in the age of international co-productions, transnational cinemas, and globalization writ large? Some might even argue that scholarship has moved on from the “national cinemas” paradigm that was so central to the foundation of film studies from the 1970s on. While we hope that such arguments might in fact find their way into some of our volumes, we also note the persistence of the nation as an organizing category for film production, distribution, exhibition, and curation. Just think of the festival circuit, for example, where the emphasis on national provenance is matched only by the centrality of that other ostensibly outdated reference point, the auteur: countries are invited or hyped, directors’ latest films eagerly anticipated.
Still, some might ask, why specify “German” when the “BFI Film Classics” already provide a far more ecumenical venue? As you can certainly tell the minute you pick up any of the ten titles to appear in our series to date, we’re great admirers of the BFI’s pioneering set, whose slim volumes have become a staple on film scholars’ and aficionados’ bookshelves. And they’ve included a number of films from the German canon, to be sure – Eric Ames’s Aguirre,Thomas Elsaesser’s Metropolis, Tony Kaes’s M, S.S. Prawer’s The Blue Angel, among others. It’s no secret that we took inspiration from this marvelous series. But where the BFI’s remit is world cinema broadly conceived, we wanted to provide the opportunity for deeper dives into films across the full history of German-language cinema, from its early days to the present day, from its recognized heights to its notorious depths, from global successes to hidden gems (” Classics).
Film: What is the place of film in our ever more rapidly changing media environments? What, indeed, is the future of cinema in the streaming era? And how to draw the line between film and television as both money and aesthetics flow indiscriminately across platforms? The BFI has long since spun off a “TV Classics” series. Here, our aim is not so much to argue with current technological change but to document and to help ground that change in the media history of the 20th century, which saw both the rise and many profound transformations of cinema, cinephilia, and film cultures writ large. “Weimar” in many respects became synonymous with “cinema,” not just for later film historians but also for the contemporaries who battled for cinema’s position in the Kinodebatte of the early 1920s. For all the importance of newsprint and the radio, it remains impossible to understand Nazism without attention to cinema in both its fictional and nonfictional forms. And how to account for the development of postwar “German culture, of its new social movements and its halting attempts to address the Nazi past, without revisiting the standout films of the era by Alexander Kluge (as we do in our volume on The Patriot), Helke Sander, and all those who followed?
Classics: This is perhaps the most loaded term of our series title. What makes a classic? Who decides? What does it take to be admitted to the pantheon? Doesn’t a “German Film Classics” series run the risk of replicating and cementing the processes of canonization that we all know to be contingent, linked to institutional gatekeeping and entrenched cultural hierarchies? Pantheons are powerful. We think the best way to address that power is head-on, by keeping those processes of canonization front and center, and by keeping the concept of a classic deliberately malleable. It is our hope that authors will take such a reflexive stance in dealing with easily recognizable films that might have been included in earlier collections of greatest hits, or in coffee table publications on this or that “golden era” of German film (a concept that has lent itself all too easily to Weimar silent and Nazi oldies-but-goldies alike): what accounts for the staying power of those titles? And what is obscured by the long afterglow of anything from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Münchhausen to Sissi to The Tin Drum to…? What, in other words, does canonization exclude? Some of the titles we have so far published look at unequivocally classic films such as The Golem, How He Came into the Word, Fitzcarraldo, or Wings of Desire, but they do so from a new angle and with a new interest. Others, such as Warning Shadows, make a strong case that the canon has its blind spots.
Another question is how quickly particular films become anointed (the BFI created a “Modern Classics” spin-off for this purpose): how close to the present can we get with a series like ours? Very close, we’d like to think: see our volumes on The White Ribbon, Phoenix, and Toni Erdmann. By the same token, we hope that the series can also help in some modest ways to reshape the existing canon by focusing on its powers of exclusion and opening it up to new questions about the relationship between film culture, politics, and identity. German-language ” Film, after all, has been a key driver not only of fascism and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, but also of subcultures, synergies, and social movements. In this vein, we look forward to the imminent appearance of volumes on The Cat Has Nine Lives and Coming Out, and to adding further titles that explore the intersections of politics, aesthetics, identities and (in)visibilities as they contribute to our evolving definition of what makes a German film…classic.
This guest post was written by JOHANNES VON MOLTKE, Professor of German Professor of Film, Media & Television at the University of Michigan and series co-editor of our Camden House German Film Classics series.