Academic journal article German Quarterly

Rubble Canyons: Die morder sind unter uns and the western

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Rubble Canyons: Die morder sind unter uns and the western

Article excerpt


The premiere of Wolfgang Staudte's Die Murder sind unter uns on October 16, 1946, was a cinematic event unlike perhaps any other in German film history. It was not only the opening act of postwar German filmmaking and the first feature film of the newly founded DEFA, it was a test of the medium.2 The cinema was rightfully subjected to the controlling gaze of the occupying forces in Germany who were at best skeptical of Germans' relationship to film. What stories Germans would seek to tell in film and how they would go about doing so were topics of considerable interest and debate among the Allied censorship authorities, filmmakers, and the press.3 While all these players disagreed on the scope of influence German cinema should assume in the wake of its misappropriation by the National Socialists, they did agree on at least one point: that filmic narrative was compelled to provide moral guidance.

The idea that cinema should assume a functionalist character was not novel. Certainly, during the war, cinematic production everywhere mobilized itself in the service of one national narrative or another. But narrative cinema had played such a notorious role in the Nazi regime that Germans more than others had to interrogate their relationship to filmmaking. Many of cinema's generic and narrative codes had been so thoroughly delegitimated, it was unclear what cinematic language filmmakers would be able to call upon once they were in a position to resume production. Harald Braun, a filmmaker in the Third Reich whose career would blossom in the postwar years as well, noted sarcastically in November 1945 that German film had "den fragwirdigen Vorzug gehabt, sick der besonderen Aufmerksamkeit and 'Betreuung' der diktatorischen Stellen zu erfreuen."4 Braun goes on to propose making a virtue out of this "Filmpause" imposed on German cinema for over a year. "Die Ordnung des freien kunstlerischen Spiels will erarbeitet sein [...] die Selbststandigkeit der Entscheidung will neu begriindet sein."5 Braun is exemplary of many in the film industry who posed the primary question that Die Morder sind unter uns had to address, namely "How does one make a film in postwar Germany?" In many cases it was accompanied by a moral query such as, "How can one redeem this tainted medium?" As Braun put it, "niemand kann heute so tun, im Leben nicht, im Theater nicht, im Film nicht, als habe es die Schuld, die Wirrnis, den Tod and die Angst der letzten Jahre uberhaupt nicht gegeben."6

Braun's commandment begs a question for us over fifty years later when approaching the first German film of the postwar era: How would a German filmmaker address the crimes of the Nazi past? What is the film's response to the questions of guilt and responsibility for the crimes committed during the Third Reich? These are questions its original audience was also asking of the film, questions that constituted a crucial part of public discourse in 1946.

I will argue that Die Morder sind unter uns seeks a solution to these problems through cinematic generic structures, among others, the narrative outlines of the Western. The presentation of the landscape, the hero, the heroine and much of the plot are analogous to Western codes. A lone, troubled man is lost in a wasteland. He struggles against his own troubled past as well as against his lawless surroundings. These are conventions with which, as I will show, Staudte would have been familiar. However, Die Morder sind unter uns is obviously not a Western. It works with another familiar genre, the domestic melodrama, in which the drive is toward the subject's integration with community values and social harmony. This conflict, namely a counter-narrative creating internal narrative tension, often occurs within Westerns. Understanding the complex interplay of the Western with the domestic melodrama will go a long way towards explaining the film's relation to the Nazi past.

The Story

A young woman, Susanne, returns to Berlin from a concentration camp at the end of the war to find a man living in her apartment. …

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