‘Bitte, nicht Hollywood’: The Berlin School invades New York’s MOMA

A crowd of Germans is coming to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and I don’t mean the European tourists who pack the MOMA lobby day and night. Today through December 6th, MOMA’s film program is hosting a two-week tribute to the “Berlin School,” a loose grouping of German-language filmmakers whose work has been lowering the temperatures in German art houses since the year 2000 or so.

police on her backThe movies have earned respectful attention at film festivals around the world, but little distribution in the U.S. until now; thus far Christian Petzold’s Cold War drama Barbara, a Golden Globe nominee last year, has been the most visible exemplar of “die Berliner Schule” on these shores. (It’s also among the best of these movies, based on my having seen about half the entries in MOMA’s series; click here for a review.)

“The Berlin School” is a snappy, buzz-friendly tag, but as is often the case it’s more a term of critical convenience than any kind of banner the filmmakers have chosen for themselves. You could call the MOMA series a survey of recent German indie cinema, minus the “Berlin School” brand, without really missing anything. This isn’t an insurgent band of young auteurs like the New German Cinema of the 1960s and ‘70s, firing off manifestos and declaring “Grandpa’s Cinema” to be the culture of reactionary fogies.

One could say the Berlin School films are too muted to raise a ruckus: it’s not a movement, more a rubric for German-language directors working a step or two away from the mainstream, whose films share stylistic affinities and an interest in soberly exploring the nuances of 21st-century German society. While many of the films are set in Berlin, don’t expect to see the world capital of techno grooviness that a travel agent might pitch. (Run Lola Run covered that territory pretty well back in 1998.)

Critics outside Germany who write about these films en masse may be stymied by the way they resist glib summarization — and by the lack of handwringing about German identity in them. By necessity, the filmmakers of the New German Cinema had to wrestle with painful national questions, whereas, the odd film like Barbara aside, the concerns of the new generation of auteurs could just as easily be characterized as “European” rather than specifically German.

An understated cosmopolitanism informs these movies; the narratives may be small scale, almost anecdotal, with non-heroic protagonists. But a recognition of globalization’s effects and burgeoning multiculturalism (yes, even in Germany) is key to the sense of up-to-the-minute modernity the filmmakers seek to evoke.

If there’s anything archetypally ‘German’ about these films, it’s their creators’ cerebral approach. These aren’t film school grads dying to pay homage to the movies they loved growing up — most of the directors here didn’t make their first film until they were 30, and they came out of other disciplines before they trained at Berlin’s Film and Television Academy.

What the films really share is a faintly chilly emotional register, and a bone-dry approach to drama: nothing too heated, nothing too obvious, and nothing that suggests the directors are too concerned with entertaining audiences. The storytelling tends to be patient, rooted in observation — please, no Hollywood for us. It’s as if the filmmakers are vigilant about keeping sentimentality at bay in their work, and any expression of melodrama is as inherently suspect as the CGI artifice of a blockbuster.

This all might sound fairly de rigueur for 21st-century art-house films. The Berlin School can sometimes feel like a variant of the real-time aesthetic of recent Romanian cinema, minus the Romanians’ conceptual audacity, and you might also detect a whiff of Michael Haneke’s cerebral-undertaker approach to anything resembling cinematic pleasure (i.e., it’s verboten). For all their film festival laurels and German Film Award nominations, the products of the Berlin School often barely break even at home —  which is true for indie films everywhere, of course.

All of which might incline MOMA culture vultures to approach this series cautiously. But adventurous viewers happy to forgo ADD editing for 90 minutes will find real rewards here.

After Barbara (whose star Nina Hoss is the closest thing to an icon the Berlin school has produced), a good place to start is The State I Am In (a.k.a. Die innere Sicherheit, 2000), also directed by Christian Petzold. It consciously serves as a bridge back to that earlier New German Cinema, as it follows a middle-aged couple, former left-wing terrorists still on the lam from the Bundespolizei 15 years later, whose cause seems increasingly vague and distant to the teenage daughter they drag around with them. I saw this movie 12 years ago, and still recall the force of the shock ending. (Petzold plays rough with the audience here.) In retrospect the symbolism of the last few shots feels prescient, given how The State I Am In stands as a kind of unofficial kickoff to the first wave of Berlin School films.

Another talent to note here is Maren Ade, who has distinguished herself as a clinician — or should I say a connoisseur? — of embarrassment with her 2003 debut The Forest for the Trees and Everyone Else (2009), the rare Berlin School film to find distribution and good reviews in the U.S. (Click here for my review.)

The “Berlin School” is a broad enough appellation to include not just the subtle comedy of Everyone Else, but even a couple of quasi thrillers. Highly recommended in MOMA’s series is Thomas Arslan’s neo-noir Im Schatten (In the Shadows), about a taciturn ex-con (Misel Maticevic) who gets back into the Berlin criminal underworld, only to find himself enmeshed in nebulous double- and triple-crosses. Maticevic’s resolutely stoic and disciplined thief is like a rough-hewn homage to Alain Delon’s iconic smoothie in Melville’s Le Samourai, and the movie is brutal and fatalistic in the manner of Robert Bresson’s L’argent, to cite another French auteur. (Bresson feels like a distant but unmistakable forefather of the Berlin School style, though you won’t find much grace among these latter-day narratives.)

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If only this were a Region 1 DVD…

The oblique narrative of Im Schatten requires patience from the audience. But the unexpected payoff is a sensationally suspenseful final 10 minutes, with gun violence that is both credible, in terms of realism, and extremely well staged.

(I saw Im Schatten in Berlin three years ago. Since then the lack of U.S. distribution has occasionally left me wondering if I hallucinated seeing this great little crime movie at the Hackesche Höfe Kinos one night. So I was happy to find this review, courtesy of MUBI, that corroborated my impression. Will someone in the U.S. please get around to releasing this movie on disc or streaming already?)

The Berlin School also includes director Benjamin Heisenberg, who is the grandson of the famed physicist. Heisenberg is also co-editor of the German film journal Revolver, which is a sort of think tank in print for Berlin School filmmakers. Heisenberg and fellow auteur Christoph Hochhäusler will appear at MOMA to discuss Revolver and their films on November 25th, and Heisenberg’s best-known work The Robber (2010) screens as part of the series. (Click here for a review.)

The Berlin School is becoming increasingly well known internationally just as its leading lights are widening their focus, becoming more dispersed. Petzold made his first period piece with Barbara, set in 1980, while Arslan’s follow-up to Im Schatten was Gold, about a group of German prospectors on the Oregon Trail circa 1898. It’s no wonder if the filmmakers tend to roll their eyes by now when asked about “die Schule.” As Christoph Hochhäusler writes in the MOMA catalog, “School is out, and I am curious to see what comes next.”

Click here for a complete list of screenings and events in MOMA’s two-week Berlin School series.

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