Teaching “German” Film in the 21st Century: Critical Media Literacy

September 17, 2020

Most programs in German Studies or German Language offer some form of “German” survey film courses, often taught in English and with high enrollments. These courses often reinforce a limited understanding of what “counts” as German film production and ignore the transnational realities of filmmakers, film production, and film theory. Occasionally theory is even limited to pieces from the German aesthetic tradition. We suggest a different approach: to consider teaching media and film in part in relationship to critical media literacy. The approach is very much in line with cultural studies’ emphasis on relationships of power, but we borrow this term from research on education, which uses it to refer to “how the print and non-print texts that are part of everyday life help to construct knowledge of the world and the various social, economic, and political positions they occupy with it” (Alvermann, Moon, & Hagood, 1999, pp. 1-2)”.  Yet we also teach that artistic text may create new visions of the world, or even new worlds. We do not dismiss discussions of aesthetic form and filmic traditions, but in our teaching, we do situate them explicitly in relationship to power.

Our book, Precarious Intimacies: The Politics of Touch in Contemporary European Cinema (2020) approaches film and media from political-analytical perspectives – both analyzing aesthetic strategies and the power of imagination to construct intimacies, but also thinking through how we approach the filmic text. We focus on moments of touch and intimacy in order to trace the politics of representations, but also to construct new politics of readings from transnational perspectives. Moving forward from our project, we are beginning to think about how the insights of disability studies and critical race studies may challenge us to actually question the notion of sense and perception in our teaching. Our perspective in the book suggests we pay attention to touch, but in teaching film, we may also attend to the broader problems and concerns of vision and visuality, considering the characters and viewers as embodied, refusing to disarticulating the sense of sight from other senses, drawing attention to broader political implications of representations, beyond sight (see Elizabeth Davis or Laura Marks, for example).

The films we chose all have some production connection to Western Europe, which allows us to build on our own training and expertise. Nevertheless, it is crucial for us to explore the broader transnational contexts, while of course recognizing the national regimes that also impact the experiences of precarity we explore. Due to EU film funding structures, the category of what counts as a “German” film becomes increasingly complex (see Randall Halle, The Europeanization of Cinema, 2014). But filmmakers have never operated in a strictly national context, nor in a monolingual one. A range of books that have similar strategies have been published in recent years. Claudia Breger’s new book Making Worlds: Affect and Collectivity in Contemporary European Cinema (2020), for example, focuses on empathy and solidarity and advocates that film has the power to foster new political, ethical sensibilities.

In order to teach critical media literacy, it remains important to teach about the politics and economics of the film industry, the relationship between film and nation, the impact of national and transnational funding structures, and about nationalist cinema and image production. German cinematic history offers countless examples of ideological attempts to control media and film production, as was certainly the case in Weimar Germany, under the Nazi regime, and in the GDR. The demand for national film funding for independent film in 1960s and 70s West Germany unveils other aspects of what state funding can mean for art and cinema and the current neoliberal economic reality poses yet other challenges (See Hester Baer, German Cinema in the Age of Neoliberalism, forthcoming with Amsterdam UP). Funding structures, marketing, and commercialism, in national and transnational contexts, are key aspects of teaching film in historical and economic perspective. But so are white supremacy, heteronormativity, and ableism. 

Our argument is not to ignore history and the history of film. On the contrary, more focused classes, such as classes on DEFA (for readings, see, for example, Mariana Ivanova’s Cinema of Collaboration (2019)), Weimar Cinema, or Nazi Cinema but also on the New German Cinema or the Berlin School allow for broader historical depth and teach students to deeply contextualize their analysis. Teaching for critical media literacy thus can mean: to interrogate the ways that gender, race, regimes of nationality, and other circuits of power inflect the production of the film as well as how the film makes meaning (and to whom), to teach the economics of film, to explore the multiple meanings and ways to understand film, to learn from or even be inspired by modes of resistance or new imaginations expressed in film. Topical courses whether specifically on film or that incorporate other media further allow for a red thread that guides discussions and inquiries and creates points of relatability, dialogue and conversation for our students (for topical approaches, see, for example, Barbara Mennel Women at Work in Twenty-First Century European Cinema (2019) or In Permanent Crisis: Ethnicity in European Media and Cinema (2015) by Ipek Çelik Rappas). 

In short, we seek to free our pedagogy from the restrictions enacted by centering the nation and allow the films, filmmakers, and media we teach to reflect the diversity and transnational realities that have always existed, though ever-transforming, in Germany and Europe. Inclusion is not enough; if film is about world-making, we need a shift in perspective that allows new narratives and images to take shape. This means our classes not just include but centrally feature filmmakers, theorists, and critics who are women, queer, or artists and scholars of color. It means to draw attention to the economics and politics of film and of representation; and it means to introduce multiple perspectives and ways of analyzing, comprehending, and feeling film.

Maria Stehle, University of Tennessee, Knoxville / Beverly Weber, University of Colorado Boulder

From the Editors: We invite readers to visit the digital film sources in the Collaboratory such as The Deutsche Kinemathek Digital Collection or German Films.