Released in the spring of 1978, Germany in Autumn countered the suppression of dissent and debate in a West Germany that had been shaken to the core by radical left-wing terrorism.
In today’s reunited Germany, the principal threat comes from the far right, which has a much larger political base than its leftist counterparts in the 1970s ever did.
But from a structural standpoint, the same problem that faced the state back then also faces it now. It’s hard to reinforce the centre without simultaneously destroying what makes it valuable.
This is what makes the example of Germany in Autumn so important. In both form and content, it encourages a complex response to extremism.
The project was conceived by directors identified with the New German Cinema after a series of shocking events the previous fall: the Red Army Faction’s kidnapping of Daimler-Benz executive Hans Martin Schleyer; the highjacking of a Lufthansa flight by allies of the RAF, who demanded the release of imprisoned members of the group; the storming of that flight by a German counter-terrorism team after it had landed in Mogadishu, Somalia, successfully freeing the hostages; the deaths of three incarcerated RAF members, including the notorious Andreas Baader, in the aftermath of that raid; the subsequent execution of Schleyer in retaliation; and the funerals for him and the three RAF members.
Although there were significant political and aesthetic differences among the contributors to Germany in Autumn, they shared an ironclad commitment to the project’s primary goals: providing context for the radicalisation exemplified by the RAF and showing how the government’s response to it recalled the totalitarian police state of the Third Reich.
No one involved in the production endorsed the extremism of groups like the RAF. Even overtly leftist participants like the director Alexander Kluge were committed to the peaceful pursuit of democratic ideals.
What worried Germany in Autumn’s contributors most, regardless of their political convictions, was that this traumatic period would be banished from public memory, just as the Nazi era had during the nation’s Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle) of the 1950s.
While it might be understandable to prioritise security over liberty in emergencies, the risk is that temporary measures end up outlasting the conditions that made them necessary. The more this happens, the less free a society becomes.
This wrongheaded approach derives from overreliance on reductive binary oppositions, such as the friend-enemy distinction developed by the reactionary ideologue Carl Schmitt during the Weimar Republic.
So long as a threat is conceptualised as coming from outside of mainstream society and is demonised on that basis, as the RAF clearly was, it becomes far more difficult to perceive the conditions that permitted its development.
It’s impossible to disentangle the roots of Germany’s left-wing radicalism in the 1970s from the refusal to confront the Third Reich’s lingering influence in postwar society.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s lengthy opening section of the film, in which we see him berating both his working-class lover and his own mother, provides a framework for the shorter segments that follow.
Fassbinder plays an exaggerated version of himself, more paranoid and domineering than he actually was – which is an impressive feat – in order to show us how even a free-thinking defender of democratic ideals can turn into an authoritarian figure under pressure.
Germany in Autumn goes on to make this point over and over, whether directly – as is the case with Alexander Kluge’s short segments about the history teacher Gabi Teichert – or obliquely.
As valuable as this insight is, though, what makes the film most rewarding are the moments when it deviates from this script.
The narrator tells us that Teichert has been reprimanded by a superior for trying to teach history in a different manner. She responds that she is simply trying to see things in context.
However, when we see Teichert outdoors, using her trusty shovel to dig up the past, the impact of the sequence is intensified by flocks of birds moving across the sky and lovely winter twilight as solo piano music from the Romantic era plays.
This suggests that it is not enough to dig for secrets. We must also appreciate the beauty that surrounds us, no matter the circumstances.
At the same time, we must be wary of being distracted by aesthetics or forgetting that the celebration of art for art’s sake is every bit as political as work that is self-consciously engagé.
Germany in Autumn also makes use of still images from artwork to complicate the audience’s response. The implication is that there is a meaningful connection between German artistic genius and the madness demonstrated by someone like Andreas Baader.
In a sense, these montages subtly reproduce the message of Fassbinder’s opening section. What makes him great is also what makes him terrible.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Germany in Autumn is how well its different components work together.
The extravagantly heterogeneous material may have alienated audiences back in 1978. But it feels natural today when moviegoers are used to the montage effects that come about when someone is rapidly cycling through different social media platforms.
A sequel to this anthology film concerning contemporary Germany would have to confront the fact that reunification resulted in new forms of repression.
Former East Germans pretended that life under actually existing communism had little lasting impact on them, that it could be erased as easily as a computer file.
Former West Germans, by contrast, smugly revelled in the superiority of their system, conveniently forgetting the savage critique levied against it by the left.
Even three decades later, it’s hard for Germans to reconcile positive feelings towards their homeland with the realisation that it has been responsible for the most horrific deeds imaginable. That’s why Kluge went on to make Gabi Teichert the protagonist of a subsequent feature film entitled The Patriot.
Maybe the most surprising thing about Germany in Autumn is that, for all the ambivalence the film conveys, it radiates a love for country independent of toxic nationalism.
Goodness knows we need something similar right now.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.