Deutschland im Herbst juxtaposes differing narrative styles in order to confront audiences with Germany's crises that stemmed from present-day terrorism and the weight of history. Melissa Ursula Dawn Goldsmith looks back at this classic omnibus film.
The 2002-2003 cusp marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most fascinating omnibus films ever made: Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn) was completed in 1978, only months after the Rote Armee Fraktion's (RAF) murder of Daimler-Benz Corporation President Hanns-Martin Schleyer. Different directors divide the film, an omnibus project from the start, into several segments without titles. The directors responsible for filming the segments were Heinrich Böll, Hans Peter Cloos, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Maxmiliane Mainka, Edgar Reitz, Katja Rupé, Volker Schlöndorff, Peter Schubert and Bernhard Sinkel. Kluge and Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus edited the film and were responsible for the film's large-scale montage.
Despite the film's segmented nature and montage, Deutschland im Herbst possesses a clear introduction and conclusion: the funeral of Schleyer at the beginning of the film and, respectively, the funeral of RAF leaders Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Jan Carl Raspe at the end. Both segments appear to be documentary coverage of what went on in West Germany in 1977 and what followed in 1978.
One may watch this film knowing little about West German history of the 1970s and learn to understand both sides of the story. A number of segmentation and narration issues, however, emerge from the fact that Kluge provides the voiceover narrative both in his own segments and at other times in the film, from the apparent division of a few individual segments (resulting in fragmentation) and from the employment of the same actors in different segments.
An interrupted narrative
Fassbinder's segment, followed by Kluge's first piece on Gabi Teichert, appears to interrupt Schleyer's funeral service. Fassbinder's footage features the director, his boyfriend Armin Meier and an interview with his mother. Kluge's footage features Teichert, a German history teacher struggling with teaching German history and her country's past (as well as her own). The funeral service returns, followed by the next segment, featuring the song "What's Going to Happen to our Dreams?" and Franziska Busch. In it, Busch rescues and helps a woman beaten by a man in a parking lot. Horst Mahler's interview follows. Towards the end, it becomes clear that the interview is being seen in a theatre and that Busch is a member of the small audience.
Although the segment seems to come to a close, it is, in fact, interrupted by the next section—Katja Rupé's portrayal of a pianist who lets a suspicious stranger into her apartment. The pianist's story, a combination of melodrama and psychological thriller, comes in between Busch's viewing of the Mahler interview and the segment focusing on the filming of the television production of Antigone. As this draws to a close, Busch is revealed as an actress with her own leftist political agenda.
Kluge's second Teichert fragment follows, joined by Reitz's piece on military maneuvers and border guards. More film segments follow, focusing on television documentaries commenting on Germany in the 1970s, beautiful shots of the German countryside in winter, a couple being alarmed by the police who stop them and inspect their car, more images of Schleyer and of the SPD convention in Hamburg discussing what to do with the terrorists. Schlöndorff and Böll's segment on the television executives' rejection of Antigone and their comical paranoia precedes Kluge and Schlöndorff's final footage of the funeral service and burial of the terrorists. The final shots show Germany's autumn foliage, the families and supporters of the terrorists and children who have no idea why they are there.
Death, Angst and Deutschland über Alles
The letters read by an actor portraying Schleyer at the beginning of the film tell of his excruciating hours with the RAF. He appears to be a family man rather than a successful industrialist with a Nazi past. He writes to his son about seeing him again. Those words, in the hindsight presentation of the film, are strikingly ironic as the funeral and memorial service for Schleyer take place before the audience's eyes. Again, nothing is divulged about Schleyer's own haunting past. One of the very few allusions made to his Fascist connections is, perhaps, the Riefenstahl-like imagery of the Mercedes-Benz banners waving in the wind. They appear extremely large as they are shot upwards from a low camera angle; the industrial banners are far larger in size and number than those of West Germany at both funerals.
Adding to the monumental character of the Mercedes-Benz banners and automobiles is the use of Mozart's Requiem Mass at the memorial service for Schleyer. Visual and sound imagery are combined here partly to make the audience comprehend that one of the noblemen of the German economic miracle is dead and at the same time to reveal how odd it is that this man was so important in the first place. In the middle of the film, the audience must endure a few moments of silence imposed on the foreign assembly line workers at Daimler-Benz. Of course, we know that none of these workers could have been acquainted with the industrialist at all. These awkward moments can also be perceived as funny, since the workers' homage is wooden.
Serving as closure, the memorial service and burial of the RAF terrorists is also a spectator's ceremony. However, so many aspects of this conclusion are different from Schleyer's service. The people attending the funeral of the RAF terrorists seem to either know, or wish they had known, Ensslin, Baader and Raspe, whereas the people who went to Schleyer's service were generally anxiously awaiting the lavish reception. Instead of observing the banners of a corporation, the audience sees several clenched fists held high for the terrorist trio. The people arrive at and leave the service not as a motorcade of Mercedes-Benz automobiles, but rather independently in their Volkswagen minibuses and Beetles, by foot, or on horseback.
The music heard by the audience at the end of the film may be perceived as either diegetic or extra-diegetic sound. In contrast to Mozart's Requiem heard at the beginning, the audience hears a protest song that is relevant to West Germany in the late 1970s. The music informs the audience that this service is far more personal than the service for Schleyer. The introduction and the conclusion can be perceived as a way to emphasize the meaning of the title Deutschland im Herbst, Germany in autumn, because autumn can allude to death.
In his 1983 essay, "Life with Fassbinder: The Politics of Fear and Pain," Eric Rentschler explains the juxtaposition of Fassbinder's more personal story told in his segment and in the conclusion:
As an explicit antithesis to Fassbinder's torpor, the film concludes with a scene in the Dornhalden cemetery which dramatizes not melancholy, but rather the difficulty of mourning. Masked faces replace Fassbinder's naked body [in reference to Fassbinder's segment of the film], balled fists in the funeral crowd provide a defiance as the director's idly masturbating hand does not, and the omnipresent police surveillance forces take over for a self-indulgent camera. Public manifestations of sadness under these impossible conceptions supersede the filmmaker's private bathos. The final scene incorporates the vulnerable, consternated, and yet still contrary reactions of expressions of a not-yet operative public sphere in search of appropriate and effective ways to channel its feelings...
Fassbinder's segment, as Rentschler discusses, adds depth to this omnibus film because the director shows what is happening to him. Reduced to seeking shelter in his own apartment, Fassbinder becomes paranoid about being ruined by the media and by the police. His only contacts with the outside world are aware of the film director's trauma, which is both self-inflicted and real. As a film director, Fassbinder is unable to find work in Germany because of the news and media blackouts and mass hysteria. This recalls the element of chaos present in Weimar cinema. Everyone in Fassbinder's segment perceives that there is a murderer among us.
The director appears ill for all these reasons. As he keeps up with the events of 1977, Fassbinder feeds his own melancholy. He becomes self-absorbed and infantile because he cannot control his situation or change his own past. What the media has said about him cannot disappear for his convenience. What the audience sees of him in the film cannot be changed. Rentschler makes the conclusion of this film appear to be some kind of tension release, and what occurs in Fassbinder's segment builds up the tension.
Generally, Fassbinder's footage has been understood as incongruous in the context of the film. But there is a direct contextual relationship with the segments that surround it: similar to the funeral and to Teichert's search for German history and self-questioning of her own past, Fassbinder's segment is personal. He is not a member of a terrorist party and he is not a supporter of the government in power in the late 1970s. All he cares to understand is the insanity of the time and how he cannot escape it.
A completely different fragment of the film is also rather effective. It is the segment that shows archival documentary footage of Rosa Luxemburg before her murder. A shot following this scene is of hanged corpses accompanied by "Deutschland über Alles." These images are extremely powerful, because they reveal a marred past from the very beginning of the country's existence. The national anthem accompanies many beautiful and ugly scenes in the film as the mind finds a way to comprehend the montage presented.
Digging up the past while burying history
The directors who collaborated in creating Deutschland im Herbst wanted the audience to leave the theatre with an understanding of more than one perspective of this string of crises taking place between 1977 and 1978. They remind the audience that history is a way of discussing and describing past events. These directors had to face their history in order to make this film. Above all, they make the audience understand that a country cannot hide its past. Germany's history hovers over its country—like the hanging corpses, or the waving Mercedes-Benz banners, or the branches of tall trees losing their leaves on an autumn day.
Melissa Ursula Dawn Goldsmith