Film activists in reflection of history – Brief notes on Oberhausen Manifesto

Chow Sze Chung (Farmer of Sangwoodgoon, Part-time Teacher)

It happened that...

Early in January fifty years ago, a group of young German filmmakers gathered to discuss a manifesto in a restaurant called “Hong Kong” in Munich. They wanted to take the opportunity of Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen (International Shortfilm Festival Oberhausen) scheduled in February to make a declaration on new German cinema by organising a press conference.

Why International Shortfilm Festival Oberhausen? Certainly it was not simply about films.  International Shortfilm Festival Oberhausen was one of the significant cultural feasts in Post WWII Germany, where the international media would gather. And yet, it was not the selection of short films that attracted the reporters from around the world. The manifesto was first published in 1962, the year after the construction of Berlin Wall that separated East and West Berlin.  International Shortfilm Festival Oberhausen was one of the few occasions where films from East Germany and other so called Iron Curtain countries were shown under the nerve-racking atmosphere of Cold War. The international media were just eager to see another cold-war scene in the world of cinema. These new German directors were meaning to use the occasion for an insurrection against mainstream film industry. This scene alone might have already implied the movement's inevitable entanglement with a complicated matrix of history, politics, mainstream consciousness and economic interests.

How father was killed

History of German cinema is certainly not restricted to those Neuer Deutscher Film (New German Film) directors with familiarized names such as Werner Herzog, R.W. Fassbinder and Wim Wenders. The list does not even end with the likes of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau from the 1920s. It is known that there were already German inventors who had successfully premiered a six-second “movie” two months before the Lumière Brothers' first screening in Paris in December, 1895. A 1897 catalogue published by Oscar Messter, also a German, had also enlisted over eighty works. In fact, with Lang and Murnau's early explorations of film aesthetic and language, German cinema was built on very solid foundation. Yet, the signatories of the 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto paradoxically called themselves as “fatherless generation.”

With the fall of Weimar Republic in 1933, National Socialist German Workers' Party or the Nazi took over. As known, Hitler and Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels heartily believed in the use of cinema in propaganda. Immediately after they took power, they invited Lang to head the film division of the Ministry – upon which Lang fled to Paris the very same night. In fact, there were numerous film practitioners such as directors, producers, cinematographers, script writers and arts persons who fled Germany. Indeed, this wave of exile of film practitioners from Germany and across Europe had intricate relationships with the prominent German Expressionism element found in Hollywood's so called Film Noir in the mid-1940s.

After WWII, Hollywood films were dumped to West Germany without quota as ideological vehicle for “Freedom” and “Democracy” values under strict control of the victorious allied nations. The passing of laws to dissolve the film industry further broke down the once predominating state-owned film studios. The local film industry was left with some small, dying companies. Their repertoire of sentimental home country films, Austria-Hungary Kingdom period dramas, entertainment driven adventure, love or comic productions were in no way to compete with Hollywood productions. The young directors of Oberhausen Manifesto deemed it merely old wine in a new bottle without Goebbels, even with a revival of German film industry. Local German productions would remain escapist in nature - telling of the grim reality in which they claimed “Papas Kino ist tot” (Papa's cinema is dead).

Reflecting on history, or declaring war against reality

One of the demands made by the signatories of Oberhausen Manifesto was to urge the government to launch aid policy for new directors. One of their proposals was to establish a foundation to subsidise young directors' film productions without any preconditions or censorship. As a result the Oberhausen Manifesto had brought forth some young filmmakers supporting foundations. Within a few years, dozens of new directors released their works. However, due to the disjunction with distributors and screening networks, the box office sales for most of these films had been insufficient to make further productions sustainable. Some of these filmmakers subsequently turned to Germany's various developing TV channels – if not disappeared all-together from the cinema world. Was it all about selfish motives, like spoiled children asking daddy for toy money?

The case of Alexander Kluge, the spokesperson for the twenty-six signatories, might provide hint. Kluge was among the few signatories who continued to make films, more importantly, he had been engaging in the reform of film industry supporting policies. His multiple identities as filmmaker, lawyer, university professor in sociology, fiction writer and scriptwriter perhaps explain a lot. He was also closely related with the Marxist philosophers of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, who migrated to New York when the Nazi took power in 1930s.

In an interview conducted soon before the fall of Berlin Wall, Kluge repetitively referred to the concept of “Public Sphere” and considered film-making as a means for intervention or even the rebuilding of the public sphere. If the cinema halls had already fallen, image production in TV channels would be the battleground to seize. As Kluge's philosopher friends Adorno and Max Horkheimer opined, contemporary capitalism was not restricting its dominion at the factories, it had already taken over cultural industries such as the media. Either one surrender, or fight. For Kluge, regime could be overthrown, but corporations and the world they had created would not be overthrown with the change of regime. The escapist cinema market supported by Hollywood and old cinematic institutions is the living proof.

German cinema had risen from a more privileged background than many other places. And yet, the political and social factors since the 1930s have nearly wiped out its heritage. Although the cinema is not solely and entirely curbed by the political sphere, the government is duty bound for supportive policy measures if we consider that politics has indeed played a key role in the matter. To reflect on contemporary history and the reality was for them not just a matter of opinion, rather, reflection and expression should have become something substantial in the society. From another viewpoint, demanding government resources and policies for freer and more diversified cinematic expression was nothing but compensational actions to re-establish a productive and communicative public sphere in spite of the disrupted years.

Summary: Significance of an instant

The works of the Oberhausen Manifesto signatories have not much in common in terms of thesis, genre and aesthetics, but they have shared the common ground of confrontation since the destruction of cinema by politics. These directors refused escapism, they refused a return to apolitical entertainment, and they even refused to make only “progressive” films. Instead, they looked into the political and social functions of cinema and used cinema to deal with the political unconsciousness of post war Germany. Stepping out of film-making, they even went as far as the realm of policy framework. They might not turn out to be the most famous German directors and was outshone by the Neuer Deutscher Film (New German Cinema) in the 1970s. It seems that they talk in each one's own script, but think about their pledge for a rebuilding of a public sphere and their reflections on the production, history and politics of cinema, or even their integrated approach in policy claims and public sphere participation. Isn't it fitting with Godard's notion, “Cinema is not a bad school”? The forbidding reality always entails the ephemeral nature of activism, and yet it is the explosive power of such instantaneous light that illuminates the reality's monotony and boredom.