The Berlin & Beyond Film Festival, this year in its first online incarnation, marked the April release of the second edition of The German Cinema Book with a panel discussion featuring three of the book’s editors: Erica Carter, Professor of German and Film Studies at King’s College, London; film historian and filmmaker Claudia Sandberg, currently Senior Research and Teaching Fellow at the University of Melbourne; and our own Deniz Göktürk, Professor of German Studies at UC Berkeley and Coordinator of the Multicultural Germany Project. In conversation with moderator Jaimey Fisher (UC Davis) and their respondent J. Hoberman, longtime film critic for the now defunct Village Voice, the panelists take stock of the paradoxical status of national cinema in the age of transnational, intermedial cultural production and consumption.
The COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly accelerated virtually every dominant social and economic trend already observable as the consolidation of global capitalism continues apace, hurtling seemingly inexorably towards a climate catastrophe that will dwarf the destruction of the coronavirus. In the United States, where the number of COVID deaths recently hit the grim benchmark of 300,000, the pandemic has already led to massive movie theater closures, with many smaller, independent theaters shuttering permanently and global multiplex chains like Regal and Cineworld closing down all of their locations across the US and UK in October.
Meanwhile, streaming platforms in the mould of Netflix are booming: Disney, in particular, sees almost limitless potential for expanding their monopoly on lucrative blockbuster franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel Comics films decried by Martin Scorsese and others as the death of cinema. As Hoberman notes in his remarks, while France’s Cannes Film Festival banned Netflix productions from competition in 2018, the festival itself may be forced to take place virtually in 2021. At the same time, Netflix has introduced global audiences, including the US market, to a burgeoning German-language television industry premised on international consumption in the mode of streaming platforms, with all episodes released simultaneously to enable the “binge-watching” of series like transatlantic pioneer Babylon Berlin and the nostalgic sci-fi hit Dark.
“Our lives revolve around screens these days,” Göktürk begins her remarks, observing that while modernist new wave cinema and other quirks have fallen by the wayside in recent decades, the distinctiveness of experience that informs the specificity of national cinema can be seen reborn in the work of Turkish-German filmmakers like Fatih Akin, albeit in reference to a less homogeneous national imaginary. Sandberg discusses the renewed interest in East German cinema, highlighting the continued centrality of DEFA archives and film festivals in the process of integrating this alternate German cinema into a more polyphonic conception of national cinema as such.
In her comments, Carter pays tribute to the legacy of Lotte Eisner and Siegfried Kracauer, whose Haunted Screen and From Caligari to Hitler, respectively, remain foundational texts of German film history. Carter situates the German Cinema Book in terms of the project of reframing national cinema away from the conservative insularity and essentialism of its inheritance, but sees in this contemporary effort a sort of return to German cinema studies’ roots in Eisner and Kracauer and the vibrant, journalistic accessibility once universally acknowledged as their signature.
All three featured editors of the German Cinema Book, while touching on different moments in their staggeringly comprehensive volume, point towards the continued urgency of film history. Perhaps now more than ever, festivals and archives perform an essential function of contextualizing and narrativizing media that is not, contra the Zeitgeist, at the fingertips of most consumers of digital media, due in part to massively asymmetrical funding and distribution structures as well as to the specificity of expertise required for reception.
Noting the irony that an era of unprecedented transnational connectivity has seen the pointed exacerbation of nationalist antagonisms once thought rendered increasingly obsolete by the cross-cultural identification of global citizens, Hoberman observes in his response that the “Netflixization of festivals is a greater loss than movie theaters for a film journalist.” Original, independent filmmaking remains as inaccessible as ever, a problem compounded by the difficulty of navigating various streaming platforms and the oversaturation of audiences with an endless redundancy of content.
It was only in the culturally and geographically specific reception of his work through the confluence of the indie outfit New Yorker Films, the New York Film Festival, and the pages of the New York Times, Hoberman recalls, that “Fassbinder became Fassbinder” as we know him canonically today. The difficulty of writing about art cinema for a larger audience mirrors the paradoxical challenge of an accessible modernism, or more contemporarily, a radically polyphonic articulation of the national imaginary filtered through global platforms that flatten their specificity without the historical context of the stories only German cinema curation and scholarship can tell.