Broncos at Bears Game Preview: A Rumination on Rubble Films, with Minimal Football Discussion

| September 29th, 2023

Why Do I Like the Chicago Bears this Week?







Into the Rubble

(The following is a work-in-progress introduction for a longer piece I’m developing about a fascinating period of cinematic history. And it seems quite fitting to be writing about rubble right now on a Chicago Bears blog.)

 “Let’s go up to my apartment. It’s only a few ruins away from here.”

-Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich), A Foreign Affair (1948)

Robert Shandley, in his book Rubble Films, argues that “the end of World War II not only brought with it the destruction of the genocidal German nation state, but it also signified the end of an entire people’s understanding of itself.” (Shandley 1) This existential crisis not only permeated the psyche of the post-Hitler German citizenry, grappling with the innate evil of their actions and the questionable morality of their inaction, it was also pervasive in the nation’s once proud film production industry which, spearheaded by Joseph Goebbels during the war, had been relegated to a propaganda tool for the Third Reich’s vile notions of “a master race.” The national cinematic machine responsible for influential expressionist works such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was now enlisted to produce contemptible, antisemitic detritus like The Rothschilds and The Eternal Jew, both in 1940.

The work produced in Germany in the period immediately after the war (1946-1949) is referred to as trümmerfilme, or rubble films. These pictures, created as “Germany lay in physical, political, and moral chaos” (Shandley 2), were shot directly on the ruins of major cities like Berlin and Munich; their mise-en-scene providing an immediate historical reminder for the spectator and a sociopolitical context for the action depicted. The “rubble” of rubble films suggests that while the war may be over, the German people will be attempting to excavate a postwar identity from the landscape for years to come.

But categorizing this period of German cinema as exclusively German ignores an essential nuance of its production structure. One must navigate beyond a formalist investigation of the texts and engage in a broader historiographic approach. Cultural historian Mary Rizzo, analyzing representations of Baltimore in her book Come and Be Shocked, provides a framework for such an inquiry:

Understanding how a film or TV show shapes and reflects society requires more than examining its depiction of a place. We understand the political economy by asking, Who gets to produce culture? Who has access to funding? Whose work is circulated? How does the meaning of text change as it circulates? Culture is a space of struggle over power, politics and place. (Rizzo 13)

It is Rizzo’s “space of struggle” that applies to any properly considered discussion of the trümmerfilme period. As the allies came to occupy German territory, and specifically German cities, they sought to limit cultural and religious activity, “passing laws such as Law 191 of the Military Government, Germany…which transformed the German film industry from an industrial superpower to a cottage industry in a matter of weeks.” (Shandley 10) In the year immediately following the German surrender on May 7, 1945, no films were produced in Germany; a period historically known as the “Filmpause”. As the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union apportioned sections of these cities, cinema production was slowly resumed, with the allies installing their own censorship guidelines and insisting that German cinema in the aftermath of the war be an antidote to the poisonous cinema of the war.

Another emerging dynamic of the period was the blossoming ideological hostility between the Americans and the Soviets, portending the Cold War that was to define the remainder of the 20th Century. The American sector was frequently visited by emissaries from Hollywood, including German émigré Billy Wilder, and it was believed the primary focus of these tours was to “seek ways for the Americans to establish a monopoly in Germany.” (Shandley 13) The American motivation was unsurprisingly driven by economics while, by contrast, the Soviet motivation was politically driven, as they sought to “establish ideological control” over those they now occupied. (Shandley 17)

Understanding this context, the trümmerfilme period should not be considered an explicitly German one, but instead a transnational artistic, commercial – and perhaps most importantly – moral collaboration between a defeated Germany and the colonizing forces that had stripped the nation of its sovereignty. While there is a collection of films written, directed and produced by Germans, including the period’s seminal work, Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are among Us (Die Mürder sind unter uns), these films were produced under the strict moral “guidance” of the allied occupiers. Subsequently, the period’s most commercially and critically popular efforts were not German at all, instead reflecting an international intervention in postwar morality by Hollywood and two young, immigrant directors: Wilder (A Foreign Affair, 1948) and Austrian-born Fred Zinneman (The Search, 1948).

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