Germany Pale Mother: a rediscovered classic of New German Cinema

Widely acclaimed on release in 1980, Helma Sanders-Brahms’ wartime drama disappeared from view in the decades since. Its release on Blu-ray is a chance to reappraise a vital work of feminist cinema.

Erica Carter
Updated:

Germany Pale Mother (1980)

Germany Pale Mother (1980)

When Helma Sanders-BrahmsGermany Pale Mother premiered at the February 1980 Berlin Film Festival, the film sparked lasting critical controversy. Praise for Sanders-Brahms’ arresting images of a German mother and daughter enmeshed in larger histories of fascism and war, or for Eva Mattes’ compelling performance as the film’s protagonist (she won best actress for the role at the 1983 Munich Film Festival), sat alongside widespread hostility to the film’s supposed sentimentalism. Although nominated in Berlin for the top film prize, the Golden Bear, Germany Pale Mother raised hackles, in particular among German critics, who found Sanders-Brahms’ autobiographical self-exposure simply “embarrassing”.

International audiences were more forgiving. The film garnered first and second prizes respectively at the 1980 Prades and Sydney international film festivals, and attracted its warmest reception at the Créteil International Women’s Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix for the year’s best film. After its cinema release, the film’s international success continued with extended runs in Tokyo (18 weeks), London (16 weeks), New York (12 weeks) and Paris (an unprecedented 72 weeks). But the initial negative reviews had left their mark on Germany Pale Mother. Released to cinemas in abridged form, with 30 minutes of footage excised, the film was not to resurface in full until 2014, when it was digitally restored by the Deutsche Kinemathek and Bundesarchiv, and rereleased at the Berlin Film Festival.

Germany, Pale Mother (1980)

Germany, Pale Mother (1980)

The director’s cut, available in the BFI Blu-ray/DVD release, confirms Sanders-Brahms as a brilliant cineaste with a keen eye for the gender dimensions of German historical memory. Germany Pale Mother reconstructs in fictional narrative the very personal story of Sanders-Brahms’ mother Lene (Eva Mattes). The film is narrated in voiceover by Sanders-Brahms herself, who charts shifting memories of her mother through three historical sections which are also stages in an unfolding mother-daughter dynamic. The narrative moves from Anna’s fantasies of her parents’ early marriage in the first years of the Third Reich, through memories of an intimate wartime mother-daughter bond, to that bond’s unravelling in the domestic warfare triggered at the level of personal memory by Hans’ return from war, and, historically, by the postwar restoration of the nuclear family as social norm.

History as autobiography

In its autobiographical rendering of a national history, Germany Pale Mother takes an obvious cue from 1970s and 1980s feminism, which similarly emphasised the political dimensions of private experience and domestic life. The film achieves this feminist conjunction of the personal and the political through a mise-en-scène that locates the family melodrama visually and aurally in a larger national space.

In the first section, the status of the film image as a daughter’s fantasy is underlined by a rendering of Nazism not as realist historical setting but through compelling audiovisual spectacle: the grotesque red swastikas that populate the film’s opening sets, or the voracious crunch of SS teeth on meat at the party where Hans first invites Lene to dance. Fascism is rendered in the opening sequences, then, as a political system that penetrated private consciousness as much through powerful imaginary and sensory engagement, as through ideological manipulation of the popular mind.

Germany, Pale Mother (1980)

Germany, Pale Mother (1980)

In the film’s second part, the intersection of politics and personal life is differently conceived. This is the period of the daughter’s first coming into consciousness, and the narrator’s imaginary fiction of her parents’ early marriage gives way to infantile memories of an inalienable bond between mother and daughter. Ironically, the destruction of the house in a bombing raid marks the beginning of halcyon days for Lene and Anna. Stripped of material possessions, Lene grows in stature as a mother fighting to feed and shelter Anna, while educating her daughter – including in a scene where she is raped, in Anna’s presence, by American soldiers – in the immoralities of male violence.

Anna’s instruction occurs obliquely, in two extended allegories, one a fairytale narrative, the second an allegorical recasting of Lene’s body as an image of nation. The fairytale is introduced in a lengthy sequence that sees Anna and Lene wandering desolate German landscapes, chancing as they go upon the ruined emblems of Nazi aggression (a decaying and unidentified building, ominously equipped with ovens and chimney) and military defeat (a rotting soldier corpse). Lene recites as they walk the fairytale of a robber bride fleeing a murderous husband, reprising in the process the role of generations of women who used the fairytale to transmit a specifically feminised history of cultural experience: here, the experience of violence at the hands of murdering men.

The fairytale’s magic is accentuated by a mobile camera whose sweeping tracks and pans underscore the strange exhilaration of Anna and Lene’s journey. Historical ironies are never far from the surface, especially in intercut documentary sequences in which surging aerial shots of ruined cities heighten the tragedy of wartime devastation, while also echoing the euphoria of Lene and Anna’s untrammelled flight.

Germany, Pale Mother (1980)

Germany, Pale Mother (1980)

‘A true German woman’

Viewers of Germany Pale Mother will judge for themselves where the balance falls between the film’s occasional glimpses of Lene’s ideological complicity (when she shuts the window to screen out the screams of a Jewish neighbour, for instance, or plunders a ransacked Jewish shop for embroidery thread), and its more affirmative images of Lene and Anna’s vagabond wartime life. As a survivor against all odds, Lene certainly embodies the perceived strengths of a generation of mothers who entered the feminist, and indeed the larger West German postwar popular imagination at worst as bit-players in Nazi crimes.

But there is a further, darker, allegory in this film that circulates around Lene’s body. It begins with Hans’ opening introduction of his future wife as “a true German woman… pure Aryan”. The conflation of Lene with German womanhood tout court continues in regular moments of narrative stasis: extended close-ups, or affecting visual tableaux that interrupt plot development, and invite contemplation of Lene’s face and body as symbolic figures for a disfigured and traumatised German nation.

One early admirer of the film, the French critic Françoise Audé, compared Germany Pale Mother stylistically to Weimar Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), citing artists including Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann as antecedents for a visual mode that refuses the psychological depth of traditional portraiture, and explores instead in allegorical idiom the capacity of body and face to exemplify collective social states. That emblematic quality of the body’s surface is explored most centrally in Germany Pale Mother’s third part, the years of the “living-room wars” between Lene and Hans that culminate in her suicide attempt towards the end of the film. The silence stifling family interaction contrasts with the eloquence of Lene’s face, when she is struck down for instance by a disfiguring facial paralysis, or at the end of the film, when a majestic close-up of Lene suggests an ambivalent, but perhaps a liveable future.

Sanders-Brahms and the New German Cinema

Audé is right to name Otto Dix as a possible influence here, especially his 1922 Wounded Veteran, the portrait of a soldier whose facial mutilation suggests, like Lene’s, a metaphorical scar borne by a whole German generation. But Germany Pale Mother is more centrally a child of its own time. Cinematically, the film bears all the hallmarks of the New German Cinema, the 1970s and 1980s German New Wave associated most often with male auteurs including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, but spawning also a new generation of female cineastes including, alongside Sanders-Brahms, the likes of Helke Sander (Redupers, 1978; The Subjective Factor, 1981); Margarethe von Trotta (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, 1975; The German Sisters, 1981; Hannah Arendt, 2012); or Jutta Brückner, whose Hungerjahre was released, like Germany Pale Mother, in 1980, and mirrored, in its autobiographical exploration of a bulimic 1950s childhood, Sanders-Brahms’ preoccupation with the female body as the unheard voice of gender repression in West Germany’s first decade.

Germany, Pale Mother (1980)

Germany, Pale Mother (1980)

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.

Germany, Pale Mother (1980)

Germany, Pale Mother (1980)

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.

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