Germany Pale Mother (Deutschland bleiche Mutter) Review
Let others speak of their disgrace. I speak of my own. O Germany, pale mother! How you sit defiled amongst the people. How you stand out amongst the besmirched. (Bertolt Brecht, 1933, quoted at the start of the film)
Germany, 1939. Helene, known as Lene (Eva Mattes), meets Hans (Ernst Jacobi) and they are married. With the outbreak of World War II, Hans is conscripted into the army, leaving Lene alone at home, bringing up their daughter Anna...
When we look back at what was called New German Cinema (from roughly the mid-1970s to the late 1980s) many of the names we think of are male: in no particular order other than the alphabet, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff. Wim Wenders, who were all arguably at their peak in that time. Fassbinder died in 1982, and the work of the other three, in dramatic features at least, was not at their best post 1990. Yet this movement, such as it was, like other such movements in other countries, had its women filmmakers, including Margarethe von Trotta, Helke Sander, Jutta Brückner and Helma Sanders-Brahms, all well spoken of in cineaste circles in the 1980s, now all somewhat neglected. Sanders-Brahms died in 2014, while the present restoration to full length of her 1979 film Germany Pale Mother was under way, and this Blu-ray release allows us a chance to see this film, long unshown in the UK after its cinema release and a TV showing on Channel 4 in the 1980s.
While the film is made as fiction, it's presented as a testimony by Sanders-Brahms (born Helma Sanders in 1940: she later double-barrelled her name by adding her mother's maiden name) and a portrait of one woman very important in her life: her mother, Helene Sanders. She blurs the lines between fiction and memoir by narrating the film herself, in the persona of the screen daughter, called Anna here – and the youngest of the three girls playing Anna is the director's own daughter Anna Sanders, two at the time of filming. The film begins before her own birth, with the meeting of her parents just before the War. It's that War which hangs heavily on this film. Hans is called up but never joins the Nazi Party. Unlike his fellow soldiers, he turns down a provision of condoms as he wishes to remain faithful to his wife...and he is traumatised when he has to execute prisoners, including two separate women who are the spitting image of his wife at home (and are both played by Eva Mattes). Meanwhile, at home, Lene gives birth to their daughter during a bombing raid and the film centres on her efforts to survive. While history passes during the course of the film, the emphasis is clearly on the story of a mother and her daughter. With the war over, Lene and Hans are back together again, with a growing daughter, but the damage that has been done to both of them is profound. Violence, especially male violence (which includes rape, not just warfare), has a widespread and malignant effect. A long sequence where Lene tells Anna the Brothers Grimm story of "The Robber Bride" while walking through a devastated postwar landscape contributes to this theme.
Eva Mattes dominates the film. Born 1954, she was a familiar figure in German cinema of the Seventies and Eighties, working for Herzog (winning a Cannes prize for her performance in Woyzeck) and Fassbinder. In 1984's A Man Called Eva, she played a male film director clearly modelled on Fassbinder, complete with leather jacket and beard. While the film is less about him than it is about her, Ernst Jacobi is fine as Hans. Sanders-Brahms makes good use of archive footage, including a scene where Lene (in new footage) has a conversation with a young boy (archive) in the ruins of Berlin.
Germany Pale Mother premiered at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival. It was badly received by German critics and as a result was shortened from the full length of 151 minutes to 123. In the UK it was shortened still further, to 109:23 according to the BBFC database. The film had a successful run on the UK arthouse circuit but, as mentioned above, has not been easy to see at all since then. The present restoration is the first time it has been available in its director's cut since its premiere.
Germany Pale Mother is released in Blu-ray and DVD by the BFI. The former edition was the one provided for review. Both include the director's cut (151:13 including restoration captions) but the theatrical cut (123:00) is not available on the DVD, which is otherwise identical in contents.
The film was shown in cinemas at a ratio of 1.66:1. The present restoration, approved by Sanders-Brahms and DP Jürgen Jürges, is in the slightly wider ratio of 1.78:1. As the negative was re-edited when the film was shortened, this restoration is made from a 35mm print of the director's cut. The results speak for themselves. Earlier scenes use colour filters while later ones are more naturalistically lit, but colours are strong, blacks solid and grain is natural and filmlike. I had been aware of the film from when it came out but hadn't seen it before now, but I'm not in any doubt it looks as it should on this disc.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and is clear and well-balanced. English subtitles for this German-language film are optional.
Other than the theatrical cut, the main extra on the disc is a documentary Sanders-Brahms made for television in 1987, Hermann mein Vater (Hermann My Father, 56:17). In this, she accompanies her father, Hermann Sanders (called Hans in the film) back to Normandy where he served during the War. There, he visits locals whom he knew at the time, who clearly bear him – a member of the occupying army, after all – no ill-will. Sanders-Brahms gently probes her father for his memories, clearly trying to understand rather than condemn, though there are clearly contradictions at hand: Hermann claims he never shot anyone, which is counter to the dramatisation of his wartime service in Germany Pale Mother. The film was shot in 16mm colour, with some use of black and white archive and is presented in 1.33:1. The dialogue is in both German and French, with English subtitles available. I spotted one error, where Hermann is subtitled as referring to his daughter as "Emma"...though to be fair to the subtitler, it does actually sound that way from the way he says it.
Finally, on the disc, is the trailer for Germany Pale Mother (3:10).
The BFI's booklet runs to twenty-two pages. There is a spoiler warning near the front, so best read the contents after seeing the film. They begin with clearly the most personal available perspective of all, that of Anna Sanders, who talks about both Germany Pale Mother and Hermann mein Vater, as both her grandparents and her mother have both passed away. Erica Carter contributes a longer, more detailed piece about Germany Pale Mother, elucidating it in terms of its links to the work of other New German Cinema directors (female and male), the use of stylistic devices (such as melodrama) as Brechtian alienation effects as part of the film's mise en scènema, and the film in the light of its director's own history and that of 70s second-wave feminism. Margaret Deriaz talks about Hermann mein Vater and Caren Willig contributes a biography of Helma Sanders-Brahms. The booklet also contains credits for both films, transfer notes and stills.