The BFI Companion to German Cinema

Thomas Elsaesser (ed.), The BFI Companion to German Cinema (London: B Film Institute, 1999), 220 pp.

book coverThe BFI Companion to German Cinema is a concise and authoritative source of reference. Over two hundred entries on film actors, directors, producers, cinematographers, critics, film industry, film movements and festivals covers the entire spectrum of German-speaking cinema from the 1890s to the popular comedies of the 1990s.

In-depth articles consider the artistic peaks of Weimer cinema, the émigré directors, film politics, and the star system of Nazi cinema, women and film, the New German Cinema and the revival of genre cinema since. Entries evaluate such notables as Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, Erich Pommer, Conrad Veidt, Wim Wenders and R.W. Fassbinder, as well as popular genres (the "Heimat" film, literary adaptations, musicals) alongside the major studios (UFA and DEFA) and international personalities such as Klaus Kinski, Wolfgang Petersen, and Michael Ballhaus. Thomas Elsaesser also contributes an introductory essay on developments in post-unification German cinema, placing it in the context of its recent history and of general relations between Hollywood and European cinema.



At last, the British Film Institute has published a reference guide on German Cinema to join others in their series covering diverse national cinemas. In alphabetized and cross-referenced format, this compact encyclopedia lists not only major directors, actors, composers, camera people, and producers, but also significant genres, journals, theories, distributors, schools, and festivals within the German-speaking countries. Editor Thomas Elsaesser commences the volume with an overview of the post-wall media industry in the context of deregulation and globalization - a daunting task in light of the array of phenomena surfacing on the German-speaking film landscape. Given the lack of historical distance towards this past decade, Elsaesser's remarks have proven remarkably prescient.

It is difficult to know whether certain lacunae bear a deeper rationale or should be attributed to the constraints of space or sheer oversight. With regard to contemporary star culture, why include entries for Til Schweiger and Katja Riemann and none for Maria Schrader? Despite Schrader's limited acting range she has been as visible a presence in the 1990s as Schweiger or Riemann, even heralded by some (arguably misguided) journalists as the next Hanna Schygulla.

Which brings me to ask why Schygulla has been included and yet Margit Carstenson, Eva Mattes, and other cast members of the New German Cinema still surfacing in more recent screen fare have suffered a peculiar occlusion. And why include Karl-Heinz Böhm while Brigitte Mira, an actress of equal longevity and recent cameos, remains glaringly absent? Inevitably, any reference guide renders performative the process of canonization, in which certain cultural icons stand the test of time while others suffer death by scholarly amnesia. In this context, the omission of composer Peer Raben, who not only composed signature soundtracks for the majority of Fassbinder's films but also went on to write music for major Hollywood productions, is particularly mystifying.

The BFI Companion also evinces the difficulties in rewriting German film history as the history of two diverging cinemas whose trajectories preceding and following unification have traced confusing trails that defy a rationalized historiography. The extensive entry "DEFA films" offers an overview, but should not serve as a replacement for an integrated indexing of representative elements of that cinema. Reinscription of GDR cinema might have been achieved, for example, by including its most popular film series, the "Indianer Film," under the entry "Popular Genres," which otherwise encompasses such categories as the Musical, Ausstattungsfilm, Arztfilm, and Trümmerfilm. Here, again, what can we say about the politics of inclusion giving alphabetized entries for Frank Beyer, a director who has stood the text of time, but not for more contemporary directors Helke Misselwitz or Heiner Carow? Alternately, why is Manfred Krug considered more noteworthy than Katharina Thalbach?

Such omissions seem to contradict the "General Introduction," which asserts the intention "to redress the balance of established film history [...I towards popular traditions [and ...I towards 'other voices': women, gays and lesbians, postcolonial communities" (viii). With these guiding principles, why withhold entries on Turkish-German directors Tevcik Baser and Thomas Arslan (who, I hasten to add, are acknowledged in Elsaesser's comprehensive introduction), or alternately on Swiss director Xavier Koller (whose 1991 production of Journey of Hope even garnered an Oscar and led to a Hollywood career)? Budgeting another 25 pages of material to the volume would have permitted more thorough justice to the diverse key players. These concerns aside, the volume's strength lies in its highly useful conceptual and institutional categories (e.g., "Exhibition," "Film Awards," and "Censorship") that offer an urgently needed overview of the more unique determinants of the German-speaking film industries. This is a reference work that will remain indispensable, accompanying scholars and students alike in the quest to understand the agents and institutions at work in German film history. - Angelica Fenner, German Studies Review 25/2 (2002), 383-5

From GfL, 2 (2001), 112-13, by Daniela Berghahn


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