Berliner Schule is dead – long live Berliner Schule

Art, Film
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Berliner Schule 1From November 20 to December 6, MoMA will host The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule. These films were created in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, during the unification process of East and West Germany. Beyond presenting a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of independent filmmaking by Berlin based auteur filmmakers, the films of the  Berliner Schule give an insight into contemporary German cultural identity.

The Berliner Schule or Berlin School is probably easier to define by what the filmmakers and their films do not have in common versus what they do. None of the directors of the Berliner Schule are from Berlin but hail from much smaller West German towns.

The emphasis on Berlin is also puzzling when one takes into account that most of the films of the Berliner Schule do not even take place there. And only three of the filmmakers, Christian Petzold, Angela Schanelec and Thomas Arslan actually studied at the Deutschen Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB). So what actually is the Berliner Schule? The term “Berliner Schule” was coined by film critic Rainer Gansera in 1995.  Gansera observed a style of filmmaking that emphasized the experience of seeing and space. The subject matters are very diverse, and it is therefore very difficult to classify the films of the Berliner Schule unless the filming of “everyday life” could be considered a genre. What the films of the Berliner Schule have in common are certain stylistic characteristics, such as long takes, sparse dialogue, a sobering realism and an analytical approach to story telling. Realism is the keyword – stylistically as much as narratively.

Berliner Schule 2
Film still of Geschwister by Thomas Arslan

S2S was especially curious about the two films of the Berliner Schule in MoMA’s program that actually do take place in Berlin: Angela Schanelec’s Mein langsames Leben (Passing Summer) from 2001 and Geschwister (Brothers and Sisters), 1997, by Thomas Arslan. Both filmmakers are considered members of the first generation of the Berliner Schule but their films couldn’t be more different. The city of Berlin serves as a beautiful backdrop in Schanelec’s film, while in Arslan’s Geschwister, the mean streets of Berlin, particularly of Kreuzberg (a quarter populated by Turkish immigrants) are so prominent that they become crucial to the plot.

In contrast to the cramped quarters, dank youth club and graffiti covered streets in Geschwister, the protagonists in Mein langsames Leben relax in stylish cafés, dwell in luminous apartments, and drift through a Berlin defined by the lush nature scapes found in city parks reminiscent more of Paris than Berlin. Yet, as aesthetically pleasing as the exteriors and interiors are in Mein langsames Leben, the protagonists seem to suffer from middle class malaise. On the outside very little happens but Schanelec’s single shot scenes instruct the audience to slow down and pay attention to the inner tumult the actors reveal through small gestures. Intimate and maybe slightly voyeuristic, this very meditative portrait of the post-1989 generation exposes that material comfort alone is not enough. Although several years older than the working class Turkish-German kids in Geschwister, both groups are in search of a new German identity.

The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule at MoMA will continue for another week. For a schedule click here.

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