Deutschland, bleiche Mutter is a film by New German Cinema director, Helma Sanders-Brahms, released in 1980. It has recently had a release, in the UK, on BFI-sponsored Blu-ray DVD, giving a much wider audience the chance to see a film that has been considered a neglected classic.
Deutschland, bleiche Mutter intertwines the events of the war with the filmmaker’s own personal history. As such, its feminism and its political reassessment of the past is shaped by its German context. The story is based on Sanders-Brahms own parents’ war experiences. Lene (Eva Mattes) directly represents the director’s mother, Helene Sanders and the director’s own daughter, Anne is cast as Lene and Hans’ (Ernst Jacobi) daughter, Anna. The film focusses on three separate movements: courtship, marriage, war and motherhood, post-war family reunion. It is an ambitious blend of allegory and naturalism, creating a complex meditation on the war generation’s experience and culpability, especially in relation to Nazism. The layering of story and symbol is part of its action of vergangenheitsbewältigung, of ‘mastering the knowledge of the past’ which became intensely associated with New German Cinema. Formally, the film effects a very complex intertwining of documentary footage of the ravaged country with drama, which itself moves from realism to Brechtian detachment. Its family-centred narrative deals directly and self-reflexively with the complexity, in late 1970s Germany, of one generation looking back at another. Sanders-Brahms succeeds in sustaining the emotional naturalism, even with the film’s strong visual symbolism. She creates a moving and intimate family history; and even whilst the film focusses on the relations of mother to daughter, her portrait of Hans is sympathetic and rounded. The DVD release contains a film of Sanders-Brahms journey with her father back to France, where he was stationed during the war. She adopted the matrilineal surname of Brahms and, whilst the story is centred on the journey of mother and daughter across a war-torn Germany, her father’s emotional experience is not ignored.
The importance of intergenerational exchange is clear from the film’s title sequence, where we hear the voice of Brecht’s daughter reading his poem, ‘Deutschland, bleiche Mutter’ (written in exile, in 1933). Sanders-Brahms’ film is itself a daughter’s; it is her voice which addresses Lene in voice-over, merging the identity of director with a fictional adult daughter looking back. Fellow NGC director, Margarethe Von Trotta characterised the circumstances in which they were trying to write their own stories: ‘We felt that there was a past of which we were guilty as a nation but we weren’t told about in school. If you asked questions, you didn’t get answers’ (Knight, 2004, p.62). Von Trotta’s film, Die Bleierne Zeit (1981), creates a counterpoint to Sanders-Brahms’s film, because of her more direct engagement with her contemporary political history as part of a story of family, through the relationship of sisters Marianne (Barbara Sudowka) and Julianne (Jutta Lampe).
On its release Deutschland, bleiche Mutter received criticism for being too personal for a political film and too political for a personal one. Peter Hasenberg of film-dienst : “If it were a purely personal film one could not refuse it one’s sympathy. What makes it problematic is that the director does not limit herself to personal memories.” (quoted in Bammer, 1985). This was an uncomfortable blend in post-war Germany. The sympathy evident in Sanders-Brahms’ representation matches the filmmaker’s view that ‘I don’t live any differently from my parents; I just live in other times’ (Kaes, 1989, p.142). She describes another kind of inheritance regarding the ‘strength’ that their mothers had learnt they had during the war: ‘After the war, that strength in many cases was suddenly worthless. But we, children of that generation, who were born during the war, inherited it’ (quoted in Kaes, 1989, p.160).
Sanders-Brahms’ ability to deliver an affecting melodrama at the same time as critical dialectic – Lene’s face in the mirror will become symbolic of the greater ravages of war – shows that her work deserved greater acknowledgement. Her debut feature, Heinrich (1977) (the literary subject of Heinrich von Kleist), received the highest national film award, the ‘goldene Schale (‘the Golden Bowl). She had trained on set rather than at film school, her mentors consisting of Sergio Corbucci and Pier Paulo Pasolini. She then worked in television successfully before moving into film production. She talks with great passion about her career and life at a filmed seminar event here. Her work is intriguing because of its range, and its defiance of categorisation. She is, arguably, a European auteur very much in the mode of Chantal Akerman; a filmmaker who might be called feminist or written as a female filmmaker, but whose work ranges across forms and themes with a much wider perspective in her exploration of women and history. Chantal Akerman has adopted her own kind of ‘daughter’s gaze’ in certain of her films, such as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and, more recently, No Home Movie (2015). Sanders-Brahms left Paris, where she found the critical acclaim she lacked in Germany and offers of funding in the early 1980s, to return to Berlin because her young daughter was so unhappy living there. At the film event she commented: ‘movie is wonderful, but compared to a child, it’s nothing…your answer to the world will always will be your child and not your film.’
Leading German scholar Erica Carter’s brilliant and detailed notes on the film to accompany its DVD release can be found here.
These notes are adapted from the presentation for Reel Solutions Saturday School: War Babies: Women in Berlin in 1945 Information for future events can be found on the website.
Bammer, Angelika (1985) ‘Through a Daughter’s Eyes: Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Germany, Pale Mother’, New German Critique, No. 36 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 91-109.
Kaes, Anton (1989) From Hitler to Heimat. The Return of History as Film, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press.
Knight, Julia (2004) New German Cinema. Images of a Generation, London and New York: Wallflower Press.
I was fortunate to attend the recent Day School, “War Babies:Women In Berlin In 1945”,where you introduced this fascinating film.I hadn’t seen the film before or even anything by the director.For me the film was both political and personal and worked on both levels.The first part of the film is a kind of nostalgic recreation of Lene and Hans courtship and marriage,as imagined by the unborn Anna.However,in the wartime sequence we get Anna’s first hand account of the strong bond between mother and daughter. At this time,Lene and German women in general are able to break the bonds of pre-war male/Nazi authority (an authority she had already challenged,when asking Hans if he was a Nazi on their first meeting).She and Anna escape the male urban domain and journey to the more safer rural landscape of Mother Nature/Mother Germany. Here the bond of mother and daughter are strengthened, as Lene narrates the tale of “The Robber Bridegroom “to Anna,amongst the corpses and ruins of Mans making.At the end of the war,they return to the city where Lene is immediately raped and although for a time the women of Germany can clear the rubble and help build a new country. Soon the men return from the war and the authority of men/de-Nazified bureaucrats are reinstated.The wife serves her husband and male guests first at the dining table and the young girls push their dolls about in prams.The status quo is restored.Later,half of Lenes face becomes paralyzed and veiled,just as Germany has been disfigured and divided.Both Germany and Lene have been beaten and put through Hell,but we know after seeing Lene emerge from the bathroom,that Mother Germany is not broken yet and will return stronger.A very interesting and thought provoking film. Hopefully,more of Helma Sanders-Brahms films,will become available for general viewing.
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This sensitive reading really captures the difficult movement the film was able to effect – between allegory and naturalism. Eva Mattes’ performance, its emotional development, enabled stylised sequences to remain completely emotionally believable. Sanders-Brahms definitely deserves some kind of restorative restrospective – I agree!