The Place of Rubble in the


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The Place of Rubble in the Trümmerfilm

Eric Rentschler, Harvard University

Shots of devastated German cities provide stirring vistas in postwar rubble films (Trümmerfilme). As low-angle compositions frame monuments of destruction against the vastness of cloudy skies, the shattered expanses of a depopulated metropolis assume the countenance of natural landscapes. At times the jagged shards of broken buildings bear an uncanny resemblance to the craggy contours of Alpine peaks. It is therefore surprising that discussion of these often-studied works has rarely granted their most conspicuous shapes and spaces sustained or close attention.i In fact, rubble plays a prominent role in the rubble film. The Trümmerfilm, particularly the seminal exercise in this vein, Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns, 1946), also figures in a much larger history of rubble representation.


The rubble of post World War II Berlin had a different appearance than that of Frankfurt, Hamburg, or Dresden. Modern Berlin, notes Wolfgang Schivelbusch, was less a conventional city than a city machine in which advanced technology did not simply work over old structures, but rather constituted the urban space’s prime substance. Unlike other German cities, Berlin was in great part a product of the 19th and 20th century and, for that reason, steel skeletons girded much of its architecture. The capital’s buildings (even its conventional edifices from the Barock to the Wilhelminian eras) possessed such massivity that they more readily withstood bombing during World War II than those in other cities. The metropolis, reported Isaac Deutscher in September 1945, had been pulverized, but not flattened.ii Decimated Berlin maintained two visages: a vertical one in which towering ruins stretched into the sky and a horizontal one of vast open fields, the so-called steppes.iii In The Murders Are Among Us, it is the former that dominates.

Strictly speaking not a genre, the rubble film is rather a series of feature films produced in Germany between 1946 and 1949 which confront postwar realities. Spanning a number of narrative formulas and employing a variety of styles, Trümmerfilme share a historical situation, a production context, and a political mission. With Germany’s film industry out of commission, its studios demolished or seized, and many of its key figures compromised by their Nazi era activities, the first movies after a year’s hiatus (the so-called “Filmpause”) bore the mark of material shortcoming and artistic uncertainty. Shot to a great extent on location with only restricted amounts of film stock, these films came about under the close control of the Allied occupiers, with different approaches at work in each of the four military zones.iv Rubble films took stock of a shattered nation and registered a state of physical and psychological ruin.v

Exercises in the management of shattered identity, the first German features after World War II have an uneven blend of constructive initiatives and critical agendas. They try to envision a better future and work beyond (if not through) the experiences of the Third Reich, a past that, in crucial regards, refused to go away. New designs for living responded to the otherwise grim outlooks of demoralized and homeless people. Regardless of the genre format, Germans usually appear as victims or rescuers and only rarely as Guilt belongs to the parties reponsible for the misery of average German citizens and the desperate postwar situation. Although Hitler is referred to on occasion, his name is never expressly mentioned in any of the rubble films. Despite his striking absence, the former leader’s legacy is everpresent. Exercises in moral rearmament for a population jaded by years of Nazi rule, these tales offer refresher courses in abiding verities and virtues.vii Above all, argues Gertrud Koch, the rubble film seeks to foster reconstruction by reinstilling a work ethic and reaffirming the importance of diligence, honesty, punctuality, moderation, and the belief that human beings should recognize and serve a higher power.viii

Previous commentators as a rule link the Trümmerfilm to various period styles, to expressionism, neorealism, and on occasion film noir, suggesting formal affinities and historical relationships. The influence of expressionism marks a departure from the polished mannerism of Ufa productions under Nazi rule and a recourse to the venerable legacy of Weimar’s “haunted screen”ix with its lighting effects, animated objects, and eccentric angles as well its fixation on the mute world of objects and fascination with city streets. To be sure, one does find stylistic correspondences in a select gathering of late Hitler era features, exemplars of aesthetic resistance such as Helmut Käutner’s Romanze im Moll (Romance in a Minor Key, 1942), Große Freiheit Nr. 7, (Great Freedom No. 7, 1944), Unter den Brücken (Under the Bridges, 1945), and Peter Pewas’s Der verzauberte Tag (The Enchanted Day, 1943), somber mood pieces atypical of the period in which disaffected individuals seek a better life outside of the community.x Neorealism would seem to add an international dimension to what we might otherwise think of as the cycle’s German Sonderweg. There is a common penchant for location shooting (this is also the case for many early films noirs that probe the subterranean reaches and nocturnal haunts of urban spaces) as well as shared emphases on the facts of empirical existence, and the importance of human solidarity. Both rubble films and neorealist productions bear out the persuasion that a changed world demands new ways of seeing and different means of representation.

Contemporary debates repeatedly contrasted the Trümmerfilm with the Traumfabrik, pitting a cinema grounded in reality versus a cinema of illusion. The designation rubble film, lamented Helmut Käutner, all too quickly became an epithet. This, he elaborated, was the sorry result of unwillingness among German audiences to accept films that probed the aporias of their history.xi Already on 4 January 1947 an article appeared in Der Spiegel with the title, “Voices from the Orchestra and the Balcony: People Don’t Want to See Ruins.” With such an abundance of grim prospects in daily life, it was said, why should depressing images also occupy the precious few spaces reserved for German art? Postwar filmgoers eschewed rubble films and instead favored Hollywood features (both reprises and new releases) as well as evergreens from the Nazi era. In Film ohne Titel (Film without a Title, 1948), a scriptwriter describes the iconography of a rubble film (“Dusk. Ruins from below. Pan. A bar in the ruins”) as we see the obligatory askew angles, harsh lighting contrasts, and rundown spaces. The passage, based on Käutner’s script, affords a self-conscious parody. By 1949 commentators declared that the age of the Trümmerfilm had passed. During the subsequent decade, rubble would all but vanish from the screens of German cinemas.


Even though a host of documentaries made in East Germany right after 1945 had chronicled life amidst the rubble,xii Staudte’s film was the first postwar German feature to do so. “Berlin, 1945,” reads the opening image of The Murderers Are Among Us. “The city has capitulated.” The narrative depicts a broken man in a broken city and relates his slow homecoming. The shell-shocked former soldier Mertens lacks desire to resume work as a physician and to get on with his life. How can a landscape of rubble become a site of Heimat for this depleted Heimkehrer? Mertens shares an apartment with Susanne, who has spent time in a concentration camp, but has emerged with a fresh outlook. Unlike Mertens, she seems all but unburdened by her past experiences. In a series of flashbacks, the source of his malaise becomes initially audible and in the end fully visible. He cannot forget the brutal murder of innocent men, women, and children in Poland on Christmas 1942, an act of violence which he protested, but ultimately witnessed in silence. When he learns that the superior responsible for the massacre, Captain Brückner, is in fact alive and thriving as the prosperous owner of a factory, he reacts with rage and despair. The spectre of the past, in the form of traumatic memories and the tangible presence of a murderer, debilitates Mertens and also prevents him from finding happiness with Susanne. Only his lover’s last-minute intervention will prevent him from taking revenge on his former tormentor.xiii

Staudte's scenario stemmed from a wartime experience. An SS-officer had called him a “Communist pig” and threatened to kill the filmmaker. What would happen, Staudte wondered after the war, if he were to meet the man now? Staudte circulated his scriptxiv among the cultural attachés of the four occupying powers. After mixed successes with officials in the British and American zones, Staudte finally found support from the Soviets. Even though he was not a Communist, his unabashed hatred for the Nazis echoed Russian antifascist resolve.xv As a result, the first postwar German film would be made in the Eastern Zone, the SBZ, and bear the imprimatur of the DEFA studio. It premiered in Berlin on 15 October 1946, fourteen days after the convictions of 22 major war criminals in Nuremberg and a week before the resulting twelve executions were to be carried out.xvi Over six million people saw the film; it would go on to be screened in 23 countriesxvii--an exception insofar as most rubble films did not travel abroad and, when they did, they did not travel well.

Many German critics lauded the film as a pathbreaking endeavor, as a work that brought the viewer face to face with “German reality, our reality” and offered a tour “through our clouded psychic landscape.”xviii Commentators also praised the film for its return to the classical legacy of Weimar cinema.xix Cameraman Friedel Behn-Grund received repeated commendation for his stunning compositions and chiaroscuro lighting touches. Most reviewers granted that the film was a noteworthy effort even when they found reasons to fault it. According to Wolfdietrich Schnurre, it was a failure. Instead of directly confronting reality, Staudte diverted attention from the true state of things with heavy-handed symbols. Nonetheless, the critic concluded, Mörder marked a bold start. xx Subsequent commentators, especially since the 1960s, have faulted the Trümmerfilm for its fuzzy universalism and maudlin self-pity, its feeble response to the question of German guilt with sentiments of good will and humanistic slogans. The majority of German features (East and West) from 1946 to 1951, submits Thomas Brandlmeier, are more successful in disclosing mental and spiritual residue than they are in probing German history.xxi That is not to say that these films fail to confront the past. A large number of them in fact flash back to the years between 1939 and 1945. (Outside of Staudte’s Rotation, however, there is next to no reference to the prewar phase of the Third Reich.xxii) These acts of retrospection are very selective in their terms of remembrance; more often than not they beg questions of responsibility and pay little attention to the true victims of German violence.xxiii By and large, the rubble film is more concerned with moving forward than looking back, with reconstructing the nation rather than reconsidering its past.

In crucial regards, the rhetoric of Trümmerfilm criticism anticipates W. G. Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur, particularly his objection that German authors aestheticized the aftermath of aerial atttacks instead of carefully registering “the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself.”xxiv The remnants of destruction from the closing years of the war, rather than being fathomed directly and palpably, filtered through the “half-consciousness or false consciousness” of writers primarily concerned with resuming their careers. Sebald celebrates exceptions to the rule like Hans Erich Nossack and Alexander Kluge, whose work focuses on the cataclysmic results of what he terms “the natural history of destruction.” The latter notion is, without question, strangely at odds with Sebald’s own call for a dispassionate chronicle of “real conditions.” xxv For all his insistence on soberly attending to signs of violence, Sebald’s natural history of destruction turns away from a national history of violence and fixes on a state of annihilation that appears to be the working of natural forces instead of human agents. This diversion of the gaze resembles what Sebald in another context castigates as “looking and looking away at the same time.”xxvi Such a shift of focus is, as we shall see, quite common in the rubble film.

One film produced right after the war scrutinized the rubble of Berlin at length and spared the viewer metaphorical contrivances. Ein Tag im Juli (A Day in July), a silent 50-minute documentary made in Kodak color during the summer of 1945, offers a symphony of a bleak city.xxvii It was, however, the work of US Signal Corps personnel rather than a German crew. Extended tracking shots capture ground-level panoramas of wasted residential buildings before which lines of women clear away debris. A long take traverses the Kurfürstendamm, passing by the shells of former businesses and checking out pedestrians dressed up for an afternoon walk before stopping in front of a Cafe Kranzler that has seen far better days. We glimpse a clock in front of the Bahnof Zoo stuck at two minutes to twelve. Protracted aerial views, from a camera placed where bombs once rested, reveal a former capital that resembles a phantom zone. The American plane soars over streets and buildings just as Hitler’s machine had a decade earlier in its approach to Nuremberg at the start of Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935). The Allied camera claims this landscape for the victors, reworking German documentaries from Walter Ruttmann to Leni Riefenstahl and in the process updating German history.

The opening minutes of Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948) also mimick Hitler’s descent from the clouds to the Nazi Party Congress. We even see a plane, like the Nazi leader’s, cast a shadow over the city. The sequence takes stock of German destruction, reviewing a barren landscape while American politicians discuss the alternative futures of the Morgenthau and the Marshall Plan. “They ought to scrape it plumb clean, put in some grass, and move in a herd of longhorns,” says one congressman. “I say build up their industries and get those smokestacks belching again,” responds his colleague. At once looking back and looking ahead, Wilder, an emigrant from Germany and an American occupation officer, self-consciously mimicks the celestial prologue of Triumph des Willens, replacing Riefenstahl’s camera and Hitler’s gaze with a regard that is in equal measure awestruck (“That’s sure rough doin’s”) and constructive.xxviii

Nazi Kulturfilme celebrated architectural grandeur and hailed Germany’s cities of the futures; the era’s features only very rarely included footage of war ruins. Trümmerfilme would frankly exhibit what movies of the war years by and large had sought to conceal: the level of destruction caused by Allied aerial attacks. Die grosse Liebe (The Great Love) was singular for a film of 1942 in that it acknowledged nocturnal air raids and showed the workings of bomb shelter communities. The protagonists of Käutner’s musical, Wir machen Musik (We’re Making Music, 1943), turn to viewers at the film’s end and remind people to darken their windows. In Die Deggenhardts (1944) a North German family closes ranks and stands steady as the war takes its toll on the homefront. The final sequence contains elaborate images of destroyed buildings and churches in Lübeck after a particularly severe bomb raid of March 1942.

More typical for the time, however, was a film like Veit Harlan’s Opfergang (Ride of Sacrifice, 1944), which begins with picturesque prospects of an intact and picturesque Hamburg which stood in dramatic contrast to the shattered city in which the film would be screened. Gerhard Huttula, an Ufa studio technician responsible for back projection, found his services increasingly in demand. If German filmmakers wanted to do a scene in a train compartment against an urban background, Huttula would be called upon to provide special effects in the form of “Rückprobilder” which might sustain the illusion of an intact world. “The more that war devastated Germany, the more Huttula’s division became important for Ufa.”xxix

In the final phase of the war, Joseph Goebbels commissioned an Ufa production on an immense scale, which was to be modelled after Gone with the Wind (1939) and Mrs. Miniver (1942). The only way to mobilize a shell-shocked populace, believed the minister at this desperate moment, was to bring people face to face with the harsh facts of reality. Das Leben geht weiter (Life Goes On) would celebrate the unbroken will of German families despite the horror and devastation of daily air attacks. From the fall of 1944 into the spring of 1945, director Wolfgang Liebeneiner worked on what was to be an epic paean for total war. Although no footage remains, the existing storyboards offer vivid tableaux of vast destruction. The closing sequence of the script relates how “from these ruins, life will begin anew.” We see burned tramcars, torn electicity cables, collapsed bridges, and a bombed out train station. People clad in torn and shredded clothing walk down the street wearing googles and gas masks. In this endeavor Gerhard Hottula was sent out to capture location footage of the immense damage. According to cameraman Günther Anders, Liebeneiner would seek to hide the exposed footage of Goebbels’s grand rubble film so that after the war it might be transformed into an anti-Nazi production.

Many years later, Alexander Kluge and Peter Schamoni would make Brutalität in Stein (Brutality in Stone, 1960), a 12-minute short that contrasts the decayed remnants of Nazi structures in the Nuremberg Zeppelinfeld with the pomposity of Sperr’s edifices and the giganticism of Hitler’s architectural The Nazi garbage pile of history provides a testimony in stone: the heroic style, monumental appeal, and large scale of depleted and unfinished structures bear witness to misguided grand illusions. This short documentary recollects shards and reflections of a collective dream, juxtaposing the fragments of today with the immodest designs of Nazi city planners, refashioning historical debris into a deconstructed museum of memories. Kluge’s rubble film is a parody of a Nazi Kulturfilm; it begins with a shot from Kurt Rupli’s Das Wort aus Stein (The Word of Stone, 1939) and concludes with images of building material, rocks, and ruin. These views reveal what is left of the fascist legacy and, in so doing, poignantly enact Theodor W. Adorno’s project of dealing with memories of offense and catastrophe by working through them.

Adorno’s famous radio lecture of 1959 (“Was bedeutet Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit?”) reflected on Germany’s still unresolved relation to the legacy of National Socialism. Have German attempts at public enlightenment, he asked, truly succeeded in addressing a legacy of shame? Or has the insistence that one revisit history only met with stubborn resistance?xxxi The German survivors of World War II faced the formidable task of refurbishing themselves and the national community. As agents and symptoms of this reinvention of Germany, rubble films remain historical artifacts, cinematic counterparts to the postwar era’s philosophical “panoramas of cataclysm,” particularly the influential interventions of Friedrich Meinecke and Karl Jaspers.xxxii These cinematic scenarios, in keeping with popular sentiment, reaffirmed Meinecke’s belief that fate had brought upon Germany a great catastrophe. They surely did not support Jaspers’s conviction that Germans needed, with all due rigor and integrity, to acknowledge and atone Nazi misdeeds.

German culture, maintained Meinecke, had emerged from the war fundamentally intact, despite “the monstrous experiences which fell to our lot in the twelve years of the Third Reich.”xxxiii The central project of postwar reconstruction would be to revitalize the venerable heritage of Geist, to restore culture and religion, to create Goethe Communities that might convey “the most vital evidences of the German spirit” (Meinecke, 120). Meinecke tells how a “frightful catastrophe” (Meinecke, 1) burst upon a noble nation. In Hitler, an “unholy man,” “there lay something foreign to us Germans and very difficult to understand (Meinecke, 58). Precisely because Hitler and the Nazis represented an “extraneous factor in the course of history” (Meinecke, 57), Germany still retained, for all that had happened, a sound culture that could not be held responsible for the misdeeds of a small circle of criminals. As in the rubble film, Meinecke’s emphasis rests on German vicissitude that came in the wake of apocalyptic events. Here, too, we find a contrast between the many who have suffered and the guilty few who have caused the suffering. Indeed, Meinecke distinguishes between the healthy “we” and the murderous “they”--in other words, the murderers were among us.

Speaking from a quite different perspective, Karl Jaspers declared that Germans could not simply banish the shadow of the past.xxxiv How, though, might a “pariah people” revive itself, particularly if all that Germans now have in common are negative features? How is a gathering of helpless and atomized individuals ever to become a community (Jaspers, 18)? People in distress, he noted, want to find hope and comfort, not to hear about the past and be burdened with guilt (Jaspers, 27). Jaspers represented a rare voice of the times in his insistence that all Germans pose the question of their guilt and answer it forthrightly. During the war virtually everyone suffered losses of family and friends, acknowledged Jaspers, but how one lost them--“in front-line combat, in bombings, in concentration camps or in the mass murders of the regime--results in greatly different inner attitudes.” Contrary to the Manichaeism of Meinecke, Jaspers saw substantial distinctions between who had suffered and under what conditions. Nonetheless, he posited a community of victims who, despite the different terms of their suffering, were equivalent in that they shared a common situation and faced a similar challenge. How is one to remake the world, and on what basis, when everything seems tainted and poisoned (Jaspers, 114)? There was a catastrophe (here too Jaspers’s perspective is fundamentally at odds with that of Meinecke) and for it Germans bear the greatest responsibility. As individuals, he maintained, “we should not be so quick to feel innocent, should not pity ourselves as victims of an evil fate, should not expect to be praised for suffering. We should question ourselves, should pitilessly analyze ourselves: where did I feel wrongly, think wrongly, act wrongly--we should, as far as possible, look for guilt within ourselves, not in things, nor in the others; we should not dodge into distress” (Jaspers, 114-115).

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