Q&A with Seth Peabody: Exploring German Film History

Q&A with Seth Peabody, author of the book Film History for the Anthropocene.

Could you briefly describe what your book is about and how you came to write it?

Film History for the Anthropocene: The Ecological Archive of German Cinema explores German film history from an environmental perspective. The idea began from a desire to include my interest in “nature” in my studies, since I had worked in various outdoor industries before starting graduate school. But of course, ideas of “nature” are quite fraught in German films. Weimar-era mountain films provided the starting point for Leni Riefenstahl’s career and are widely seen as displaying proto-fascist sentiments, while the idyllic landscapes and intact traditional communities of Heimat films are largely viewed as escapist fantasies that served to distract Germans from guilt and trauma in the wake of the Nazi era. My initial, rather naive interest in “nature” led me to a number of complicated issues within German political and social history, no less than within film and environmental history. That overlap is where I found the content for the book.

Were there any major turning points in your writing process?

One turning point arose through a symposium called “Ecological Archives,” hosted by Caroline Schaumann and Paul Buchholz at Emory University. I wrote my chapter about Fritz Lang’s Metropolis based on that symposium. Everybody talks about Lang’s trip to Manhattan and the film’s skyscrapers, but the film places equal focus on underground spaces. Seen as an “ecological archive,” the film records ideas about infrastructure and environmental management at the time of its production. When I applied this idea to other chapters, I saw that film is also “ecological” in the sense that it functions within a web of interactions between artists, films, and physical environments. Weimar-era mountain films, for one, created a visual language that was adopted by the bourgeoning ski industry, so that environments on film contributed to environmental change in the non-filmic world. I had thought through some of these individual film analyses before the Emory symposium, but the notion of film as an ecological archive helped me to bring them together as a book.

Another turning point arose through my decision to engage with the idea of the Anthropocene. The conversations and research leading to this shift happened during a 2019 summer fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich. I had some misgivings, since the Anthropocene is such a buzzword in recent environmental scholarship and is seriously fraught in terms of environmental justice concerns. But I agree with Jennifer Fay, who calls film “the aesthetic practice of the Anthropocene” (4). Without ignoring the problems of the Anthropocene idea, this approach yields new insights about human-environment interactions by focusing on an aesthetic medium that has always involved the manipulation of a world by humans.

What is unique about the medium of film and how it functions as an archive and aesthetic practice of the Anthropocene? What is particularly rewarding about considering these issues in German film?

Filmmakers attempt to control the environments shown on screen with a degree of intensity that has few parallels outside of film. You might compare the control of light, air, and physical bodies in a film studio to the meticulous exclusion of pathogens in a surgical operation room. Some very interesting research has come out in this regard from scholars focused on cinematic infrastructures and studio environments—I’m thinking especially of Paul Dobryden and Brian Jacobson.

Regarding German film in particular, I see my approach as an important supplement to that of Jennifer Fay’s book Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene, which analyzes films from around the world, matching the global scope of environmental changes of the Anthropocene. I argue that some environmental implications of film come into focus only when viewed within the context of national film history. German films have continually reimagined and reflexively commented on the political as well as ecological legacies of past filmic environments. My epilogue provides an example of this approach, discussing how Christian Petzold’s 2014 film Phoenix responds to the legacy of both rubble films and Heimat films.

What parts of the book stand out to you as particularly entertaining or surprising?

I learned about vultures! I was surprised to find that in past scholarship about Die Geierwally (The Vulture Maiden), a well-known title of the Heimatfilm genre that has been remade numerous times over the course of German film history, nobody had bothered looking at the bird in any detail, despite the fact that it occupies half of the title.

In the movie, a vulture is seen as a threat because it’s a very large bird and farmers worry that it will kill livestock. But of course, vultures prey almost entirely on animals that are already dead or very sick. Their impressive wingspan allows them to soar over long distances with very little effort in search of carcasses, and their large bodies allow them to live on stored fat for long periods of time after eating. Far from making them a threat, their impressive size is an evolutionary alternative to the strength and agility that would be needed to hunt prey. Moreover, they are social animals: they use their keen eyesight not only to look for carcasses, but to spot other vultures who have found dead meat. As a group, they clean up the mess within an ecosystem. This research into vultures provided a new interpretive angle for the film: Die Geierwally is about a strong female character who is cast out of her rural farming community for resisting patriarchal norms. She takes on a baby vulture as a companion; the vulture’s parents have been killed because local farmers fear that the birds will harm their animals. After studying the vulture in more detail, I realized that the human and nonhuman sides to this story have much more in common than had previously been recognized.

SETH PEABODY is Assistant Professor of German at Carleton College, MN.

Work Cited

Fay, Jennifer. Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Image Caption: Griffon Vulture by Juan Lacruz, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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