Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Berlin School films and other globally recognized cinema with similar qualities is the relationship between the text and the audience. Because the nature of these films is often distant from the, arguably, “traditional” sense of cinema (classical Hollywood cinema, or CHH), viewership can be challenging, and sometimes even isolating. However, the basic foundation for many of these texts is the exact opposite of isolation: because they often take considerable steps to encourage audience interaction and interpretation. The filmmakers closely associated with this school of thought employ definitive cinematic techniques to achieve and deconstruct the way in which we—as viewers—understand art, and more specifically, film. One way to differentiate between this type of filmmaking in comparison with more traditional cinema is to understand the difference between affect and emotion, or rather how affect influences emotion.
In his essay titled “Post-Cinematic Affect,” Steven Shaviro draws upon Brain Massumi to describe this very differential. He states: “Emotion is affect captured by a subject, or tamed and reduced to the extent that it becomes commensurate with that subject. Subjects are overwhelmed and traversed by affect, but they have or possess their own emotions.” (3). In other words, affect is universal; feelings that are commonly shared among human existence. An affective trait, such as sadness, is then manipulated by a person who has a very distinct perspective and that same sadness transforms under the influence of an individual. These differences in handling affect are informed by the subject’s background, history, and experiences. Emotion, for arguments sake, is individualized and personal under this logic. By separating affect from emotion, Berlin School films place emphasis on the viewer’s own experience—or emotional resonance—with the text by rejecting the structure of mainstream, or Hollywood, cinema, and refusing to employ the techniques closely associated with those styles of filmmaking.
The fact that both Hester Baer and Shaviro’s essays discuss the political environment is crucially important, as well. They both argue that under the current system—neoliberalism—that widespread acceptance for anything other than capitalism doesn’t exist primarily because it’s impossible for the culture to think of an alternative. If one is to list the benefits of capitalism, particularly in America, I imagine that the primary response would be “freedom.” The freedom to do as you please, to go where you want, and to live the “American Dream” are all characteristics that one associates with this understanding of American culture. The dominant style of filmmaking (copy-paste structure, emotional manipulation) upholds the status quo, and thus upholds the neoliberal order. Now, Berlin School films don’t always explicitly oppose the status quo, but by rejecting traditional filmic techniques they automatically oppose the status quo on some fundamental level.
Baer discusses a few of these cinematic tactics that Berlin School films and other global texts use to juxtapose the mainstream in her essay, “Affectless Economies: The Berlin School and Neoliberalism.” She explains the key differences between Berlin School style and traditional techniques in one passage:
Yet in contrast to those mostly affirmative hits, the Berlin School’s largely noncommercial films work to disorganize contemporary reality by adopting an affectless aesthetic, as seen in their use of dialogue, acting styles, and refusal of closure as well as their technique of ‘representing emotions without emotionalizing.’ This affectless aesthetic is a central vector not only of the films’ mode of production (using lay actors and a minimalist style reduces production costs) but also of their representation of everyday life and ambivalent appeal to the spectator. (75)
While it may seem odd initially, the appeal of the spectator is a crucial aspect for Berlin School films and their companions because, as Baer explains, many of these films don’t rely on logical, or traditionally sound, narrative structure. Thus, the engagement from audiences isn’t a result of entertainment but from contemplation and close analysis; the audience forms the connection between the affect and emotion. To what extent this happens is up for debate, and of course, changes from film-to-film. Nonetheless, the cinematic experience one has with a mainstream film, such as James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is considerably different from an Angela Schanelec or Christian Petzold film. Of the techniques that the Berlin School favors, the most effective of them is the decision to separate the audience from the perspective of the primary protagonists and avoid emotionalizing situations while in their perspective. However, that does not mean that Berlin School films are without conflict—as to be without conflict is to be without story—rather, the weight of the story isn’t dependent on the conflict or the characters, but the situation surrounding them; the means of production itself.
The Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta (1999) provides excellent insight into this distinction in filmmaking. Rosetta opens with the title character frantically pacing the hallways of what looks to be a factory of some sort. Fluid camera motions make it nearly impossible to get a fully established shot of the protagonist. When we learn that Rosetta has been fired from her job, the initial sympathy is immense. However, her rage never allows for the audience to empathize with her and ultimately is the reason why there is a gap between what we see and what we feel. Even after learning of her poverty and her mom’s substance addiction, she keeps making substantial mistakes and maintains her character flaws. Rosetta ultimately sabotages her only friend’s job so that she can take the job for herself. The situation (in Rosetta, this is the state of the economy) has more of an effect on the story than the characters do. While this is one of the more dramatized films, there are still deterrents in filmmaking that distinguish the style: how are the POV shots used? Are they even used at all?
A more extreme example of this separation outside of Berlin School cinema is Ming-liang Tsai’s Stray Dogs (2013), in which a poverty-stricken family struggles to make do in Taipei. Baer’s assessment that one of the primary goals of the Berlin School and its global counterparts is to “disorganize contemporary reality” can be supported when analyzing Stray Dogs. For one, the film doesn’t adhere to the typical format of filmic structure or time. A single frame can last anywhere from 4-7 minutes, without any sort of camera motion. The static camera and long-takes will test the viewer’s patience and, in essence, break the immersion one has within the story, or what little story there is. In the final moments of the film, the camera centers on a woman who looks to something off-screen. This shot lasts approximately 13 minutes, just enough for one to question what exactly they are watching, especially because the average shot length was considerably shorter beforehand.
As if that wasn’t enough, the final shot, which shifts from a medium close-up of a woman to an overhead crane shot that shows her looking at a large mural on the wall, lasts another 7 minutes; during this shot, the woman walks off-screen and the audience is left alone staring at the mural. The affective substance of these shots back-to-back is comparable to Immanuel Kant’s understanding and perspective of the sublime; that is, incomprehensible to the human senses, and thus, heightened in affective resonance due to the degree of distance one has from the art or the image itself. This is often predicated by mother nature (staring at a tornado as it twists towards its undefined target or looking outwards into the vastness of the ocean), at least in Kant’s perspective, however, in Stray Dogs it is the nature of the setting which carries the affective weight. Atypical, though, is how the characters respond to this sublimity defined in the mural; non-expressive, as if they don’t have any definitive feelings towards it and because of this directional choice, it is hard for the viewer to recognize anything inherently emotional in the shot. Yet, these two shots are characterized by their sublimity and what that means for the person watching. Perhaps one feels something at this very moment in the film, but it most likely isn’t attached to any one specific emotion.
Up to this point, the focus has been primarily on affect and how that corresponds to Berlin School films without much emphasis on de-dramatization. David Bordwell, in his essay “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” details exactly how these films are defined with regards to characterization. He asserts:
The art cinema is classical in its reliance upon psychological causation; characters and their effects on one another remain central. But whereas the characters of the classical narrative have clear-cut traits and objectives, the characters of the art cinema lack defined desires and goals. Characters may act for inconsistent reasons or may question themselves about their goals. Choices are vague or nonexistent. Hence a certain drifting episodic quality to the art film’s narrative. Characters may wander out and never reappear; events may lead to nothing. The Hollywood protagonist speeds directly toward the target; lacking a goal, the art-film character slides passively from one situation to another. (58)
Firstly, while some critics have debated defining Berlin School film as “art films,” Baer writes: “…the films of the Berlin School present a challenge to the contemporary tendency to reject art cinema as a nostalgic enterprise that reflects an outdated production scheme, and one whose strategies of engaging spectators are anodyne relics without political currency.” (74). She argues that, indeed, Berlin School filmmaking has an artistic style. This isn’t at the expense of predominately disguising itself as a neo-realistic, expressionist art form. In a way, there’s nothing radically different, at least to the eye of a casual film fan, between Hollywood and the independent cinema of the Berlin School when examining framing choices, camera movement, and compositional consistency. It’s just different. However, where one can find the deviations between mainstream cinema and art cinema, more specifically Berlin School films, is in structure and how they handle character progression.
In Valeska Grisebach’s Longing (2006), Markus, a metalworker, firefighter, and husband, must overcome obstacles when he is deployed to a nearby town and quickly falls in love with Rose, a waitress. During the dinner scene, in which only three women were involved (the servers), typically would have been a pivotal scene involving an initial interaction between the Rose and Markus. Instead there are only a couple shots of Rose in the background serving the firefighters. The very next time we see her, she is in bed with Markus the next morning. Just like the viewer, Markus isn’t entirely sure how he got there either. Ella, Markus’ wife, has been trying to reconnect with him for a while and it seems like the moment they reconnect is the moment that he finds Rose; he finds his love again. Yet, one cannot simply forgive or even align themselves with Markus in this situation because of a defined morality. It’s important to note that the film isn’t asking the viewer to do such things, either.
A very consistent quality throughout the movie is precisely what the audience can’t see. The sex scenes are often naturally lit in low lighting and are subsequently difficult to watch. Markus’ face is blocked during most of the sex scenes, as well. In such intimate moments, the technique and decision to restrict the frame and characters is a literal representation of the distance between the viewer and the characters. This is true for many other Berlin School films as well. Angela Schanelec is even on record saying that shooting an actor from the front is “brutal.” Thomas Arslan, another Berlin School film director, says that: “You have to leave the viewer with some leeway to participate. That doesn’t happen if the actors perform every emotion.” And it’s true, casual viewers are trained for this type of classical engagement with film: where everything is meant to be seen and to be felt because the structure, or the character, demands it. Within the context of de-dramatization and affect to enhance the role of the spectator, it makes sense to separate the perspective of the audience from the protagonists, and protagonists from the frame itself; Laura Mulvey discusses this in further detail in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which analyzed pleasure in the cinema through the lens of feminism.
She claims: “There are three different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion.” (843). Berlin School films and their international counterparts give the viewer the opportunity to step back and examine the bigger picture. The role of the critical viewer is to be able to discern between Mulvey’s three defined looks and how they relate to post-cinematic affect. These looks, if given the opportunity, have the capability to mold an autonomous reaction to a piece of art and assist in perpetuating a perspective that may not be authentic to the individual who digests the piece. This is true, not only for film, but across all written and visual mediums.