Somewhere between the extremes of the Third Reich propaganda films and the 1960s confrontational New German Cinema, German film had a deserved identity crisis. "After the War, Before the Wall: German Cinema 1945-1960," a new series at the Museum of Fine Arts, focuses on this therapeutic postwar era, when the country was rebuilding its deflated self-esteem and considering its culpability in the holocaust.
Postwar German films are loosely divided into two flavors: the Trummerfilme, or rubble film, shot in ruined cities and marked by a sometimes surprisingly frank reflection on the Nazi legacy; and the Heimatfilme, or homeland film, a type of denial film that celebrated the greatness of Germany before the war in period pieces such as Sissi. The postwar period is often remembered solely for this latter genre.
Both of these styles were destined for box office success -- with a German public that was famished for both answers and distraction -- but were failures with film critics and historians, who saw them as melodramatic or populist. Richard Peña, program director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and one of the organizers of the series, says he has learned to be "skeptical about 'black holes' in film history; there's almost always more than immediately meets the eye."
Much racier than their American counterparts of the time, many of these films inspired notoriety or even protest for their blatant sexuality and scandalous content. There's The Sinner, about a young woman who survives as a prostitute after the war (there's even a lesbian kiss in this one!); The Hooligans, about middle-class kids gone bad; and A Call Girl Named Rosemarie, about the unsolved murder of a high-society hooker. All three films turn a subtly critical eye to the so-called wonder years of capitalist-driven economic recovery, documenting the rampant materialism of the time.
Other films questioned the reassimilation of Nazis into German society. The Murderers Are Among Us, the very first postwar production, recounts the story of a former German army captain who ordered the murder of women and children in Poland, and the doctor who witnessed his crimes and wants to make him pay.
On the postwar-lite side is the popular comedy I Often Think of Piroschka, a love story about a German student and a good-looking village girl that takes place in the bucolic Hungarian provinces. A curious but noteworthy theme in many of these postwar films is the female lead's Eve-like power over men. Are the filmmakers alluding to their distrust of the "mother"-land, or just engaging in 1950s gender stereotyping? You decide.