Academic journal article Film & History

Good Germans, Humane Automobiles: Redeeming Technological Modernity-In Those Days

Academic journal article Film & History

Good Germans, Humane Automobiles: Redeeming Technological Modernity-In Those Days

Article excerpt

"Progress literally keeps people apart. . ."

-Max Horkheimer & Theodor W. Adorno

Dialectic of Enlightenment

Helmut Käutner's i? Those Days Qn jenen Tagen, 1947), one of the first German productions of the postwar period, begins as a rubble film. Amid a destroyed German city, two men salvage a ruined automobile for parts. While Willi goes about his work jovially, Karl cannot stop thinking about the past: "No human beings... there are no human beings anymore," he complains. "Just like there were none in all those damned years. That's why we've hit bottom." "What is a human being [Was ist ein Mensch]?" Willi asks, somewhat confused. Lost in his nihilism, Karl does not respond. But then something remarkable happens: as the two men continue to work on the car, we hear tremolo strings and a voice that apologizes for intruding into their discussion. Inaudible to the characters onscreen, it is the voice of the very car they are salvaging. After a lengthy monologue the car reveals: "I've seen it all-even human beings. And maybe a couple of them were the kind Willi asked about, and about which Karl was silent." The film that follows consists of seven flashback episodes that depict the car's various 'humane' owners throughout the course of its life, from 1933 to 1945. The recuperative project of In Those Days is clear: the film strives to construct an alternative (if fragmentary) history of the Third Reich in which humanity persisted. It very consciously hopes to salvage a usable past from the rubble of the present and thereby establish a humanistic foundation on which Germany might be rebuilt. If this cannot be done, "everything that we do" is "meaningless," as Karl says. Ironically, it is a dead machine (not a human being) that provides an answer to the postwar nihilism embodied by Karl.

Good Germans

As the title of one review of the film put it, In Those Days focuses on "Humans in an inhumane time." In accordance with the need to construct a usable past, the film again and again refers to historical events or persons of the period from 1933 to 1945 that were important for the rehabilitation of German national identity in the first postwar years. The first flashback, which takes place in 1933, deals with an upper-class woman who decides to emigrate. In postwar Germany, emigres were crucial to the nation's political and cultural reconstruction because of their clean political background. The film points to the 'other' Germany that had been abroad in 'those days' and thus could not be implicated in the inhumanity of the time. In the second episode two years later, the owner of the car is a modernist composer named Grunelius whose music is labeled 'degenerate': "I am banned... first Hindemith, and now all of us. My music is being burned. They're calling it degenerate, what I do. I am degenerate." In the postwar desire to resuscitate the notion of German Kultur, artists (exiled or not) whose work had been banned under the Nazi regime found renewed interest. Such artists' works were among the first exhibited and performed after the war. The music of Paul Hindemith, banned by the Nazis in 1934, was played widely in concert halls and on the radio as early as 1946. In Those Days thus references an alternative cultural tradition that was forced into hibernation (or exile) under the Nazis4.

The third story depicts a case of German-Jewish solidarity against the backdrop of the Kristallnacht (1938). After witnessing the pogrom, two petitbourgeois shopowners - an ethnic German man and his Jewish wife - commit suicide. In the postwar years, stories of solidarity between ethnic Germans and German Jews were recalled as examples of humanity in inhumane times. The most prominent case was that of Joachim Gottschalk, a film actor who committed suicide in 1941 along with his Jewish wife, actress Meta Wolff, and their son. The Gottschalk case was picked up in Hans Schweikart's novella Es wird schon nicht so schlimm ("It won't get so bad"); Kurt Maetzig's film Ehe im Schatten (Marriage in the Shadows), produced by DEFA in 1947, was based on Schweikart's book. …

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