From her New German Cinema contemporaries Sanders-Brahms borrows the literary anchorage of Germany Pale Mother. Like Fassbinder in Effi Briest (1974) or Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), Sanders-Brahms had moved into feature filmmaking via literary adaptation, shooting a version of Kleist’s Erdbeben in Chile in 1974, followed by a biographical reconstruction of Kleist’s life in Heinrich (1977). Germany Pale Mother had no literary source; but the production company, the film department of the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, had been established with the express purpose of supporting film as a modernist form of direct visual ‘writing’: a purpose realised by Sanders-Brahms when she both scripted and directed Germany Pale Mother.
A second, more literal New German Cinema borrowing is visible at the level of cast and crew. The film’s cinematographer, Jürgen Jürges, had contributed, for instance, to the portmanteau film, Deutschland im Herbst (1978), a collective response by West German filmmakers including von Trotta, Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff, Fassbinder and others to West German state repression in the face of left-wing terrorism from the early 1970s on. Jürges would go on to film Uli Edel’s iconic 1980 story of the Berlin teenage drug scene, Christiane F. (1981), and would collaborate in so doing with Jürgen Knieper, the musical director whose piano score for Germany Pale Mother provides leitmotifs to underscore the shifting moods of the voiceover narration throughout the film.
History as melodrama
The list of New German Cinema professional links could continue. But there is arguably a more significant feature rooting Germany Pale Mother in 1970s and 1980s New German film, which is the film’s recasting of national history as melodrama. The clearest comparison is with Fassbinder, most centrally with his BRD Trilogy, three films that narrated postwar West German reconstruction through emotionally heightened melodramas. The first of the three, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) was closest in plot terms to Germany Pale Mother, centring as it did on the story of a marriage, and on the 1950s as a repressive period of bourgeois restoration and sexual-political constraint.
Stylistically too, Sanders-Brahms’ film echoes Fassbinder’s preoccupation with historical memory as an entity always already mediated through photographic images. The 2014 restored version of Germany Pale Mother includes a lengthy sequence in the Berlin Zoo that is first filmed by Lene’s party-official uncle and amateur filmmaker Bertrand (Fritz Lichtenhahn), then recapitulated in a family screening after the war. The film-within-a-film recalls Fassbinder’s similar use of multimedia mises-en-abyme (radio broadcasts, mirror images, television films) to splinter filmic illusion, and to underscore in so doing the fallibility of the film image as a source of emotional veracity and historical truth.
A feminist classic
But the links to Fassbinder and his male contemporaries are not infinite. It is important to stress, in conclusion, the particularity of Germany Pale Mother’s production context, as well as the film’s embedding in 1980s gendered film politics. Sanders-Brahms’ film emerged from one of the liveliest of Europe’s 1970s women’s filmmaking movements. In 1973, her contemporary Helke Sander had launched the first West German women’s film festival; a year later, Sander founded Europe’s only film journal dedicated specifically to women’s cinema, Frauen und Film; and in 1979, both Sander and Sanders-Brahms became founding members of the Verband der Filmarbeiterinnen (Association of Women Filmmakers), an organisation founded to lobby for 50 per cent funding quotas for women filmmakers, and for enhanced financial support for the distribution and exhibition of women’s film.
Germany Pale Mother bears numerous traces of the film’s rooting in second-wave cine-feminism. The film’s stylistic tendency to Brechtian estrangement reveals its debt to debates on counter-cinema that exercised both Sanders-Brahms’ feminist contemporaries, and the filmmaker herself in her own later critical writings. The 2014 version’s nuanced counterbalancing of Hans’ and Lene’s war experiences recalls the feminist commitment to exploring the distortion wrought by fascism as much on male as female psyches and bodies; and a restored sequence charting Lene’s sympathetic encounter with Soviet soldiers underlines Sanders-Brahms’ political rooting in a West German feminism that was in turn indebted to the post-1968 student left.
This is certainly, then, a film of its feminist moment. But it also confirms Sanders-Brahms – as have previous accolades, including the 1991 award of Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France – as an outstanding cineaste whose posthumous legacy includes the major contribution to our understanding of German fascism that she made with Germany Pale Mother, and that is appropriately acknowledged with the film’s release on DVD and Blu-ray.