Post-Wall German Cinema and National History

Post-Wall German Cinema and National History

Utopianism and Dissent

Mary-Elizabeth O'Brien

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German history films that focus on utopianism and political dissent and their effect on German identity since 1989.
Since unification, a radical shift has taken place in Germans' view of their country's immediate past, with 1989 replacing 1945 as the primary caesura. The cold-war division, the failed socialist state, the '68 student movement, and the Red Army Faction -- historical flashpoints involving political oppression, civil disobedience, and the longing for utopian solutions to social injustice -- have come to be seen as decisive moments in a collective history that unites East and West even as it divides them. Telling stories about a shared past, establishing foundational myths, and finding commonalities of experience are pivotal steps in the construction of national identity. Such nation-building is always incomplete, but the cinema provides an important forum in which notions of German history and national identity can be consumed, negotiated, and contested. This book looks at history films made since 1989, exploring how utopianism and political dissent have shaped German identity. It studies the genre - including popular successes, critical successes, and perceived failures - as a set of texts and a discursive network, gauging which conventions and storylines are resilient. At issue is the overriding question: to what extent do these films contribute to a narrative that legitimizes the German nation-state?

Mary-Elizabeth O'Brien is Professor of German and The Courtney and Steven Ross Chair in Interdisciplinary Studies at Skidmore College.

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Table of Contents

Amnesia, Nostalgia, and Anamnesis as Reactions to the Wende
In the Shadow of the Wall: Political Oppression and Resistance in the GDR
The Wild West and East of Eden: The Red Army Factionand German Terrorism
History Lessons: The Enduring Appeal of Utopianism and the Specter of Violence
Works Cited


O'Brien successfully points to cinematic trends and shifts and highlights the thematic interplay between individual historic events and their cultural conversions. . . . O'Brien's study of post-Wall cinema provides thorough and thought-provoking readings of history films and convincingly presents utopianism and dissent as core concepts in the current debates about German national identity. GERMAN STUDIES REVIEW

[S]ituates itself at the heart of contemporary debates about recent German history . . . . O'Brien's thematic and contextualist approach allows for an inclusive inquiry that overcomes binary models . . . . [W]ith its analyses of previously unexplored films, solidly rooted with a diverse set of critical responses . . . the book does great service to contemporary German film studies and offers some very suggestive socio-political insights. FILM CRITICISM

Examining how Germany's divided past shaped its present, this study focuses on contemporary films that look back to the legacy of the postwar period. O'Brien argues that utopianism and dissent, as practiced in both German states, have emerged as a model for imagining German identity in the present. . . . [H]er close readings of 12 significant films are well written and accessible, providing a convincing overview of how contemporary cinema engages with Germany's contested past. Recommended. CHOICE

16 powerfully expressive screenshots awake interest, a detailed index . . . makes locating things easy, the copious notes free up the discourse, which offers a convincing analysis of the corpus of the "history film" genre. Looking back at the Wende, the trauma of the Wall, and the Red Army Faction, the films appear as seismographs of the time. The recalling of then-topical conflicts opens broad perspectives. GERMANISTIK

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Skidmore College

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