The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from Germany, Scandinavia, Finland & Austria list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
From the New German Cinema, which addressed contemporary issues and Germany’s right-wing past, the first outstanding West German films emerged. Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl (1966), whose protagonist is Jewish, was the first of these. Surpassomg it, his Artists at the Top of the Big Top: Disoriented would remain among the movement’s most brilliant entries.
Inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s methods, Kluge’s film is a collage juxtaposing fictional, documentary and pseudodocumentary elements. Its protagonist is Leni Peickert, who runs a political circus. She is the anti-Riefenstahl Leni, whose aim is, through entertainment, to urge Germans to confront the recent past that most Germans would sooner forget. Because this is also Kluge’s aim, the circus-within-the-film and the film enrobing it, a kind of bigger circus tent, combine to direct our attention to a consideration of the political role of art in general. But Kluge is unsettled as to what this role should be. His film weighs possibilities.
A point of departure is how Germany’s Nazi past influences current art. The past is simply there, so Kluge juxtaposes the circus operation with shots of a Hitler rally. The fact that performers actually die in this circus, as in any other, reflects on the discussion that Leni’s team encounters at a writer’s convention: “Can there be art after Auschwitz?” Kluge’s answer would seem to be: there must be—if for no other reason than to honor the dead. Moreover, by assisting audiences in confronting the past, art provides a therapeutic means of dealing with national trauma.
The film opens with footage of a Nazi “festival of the arts”—something Riefenstahl might have devised—and, later, achieves its symbolic apotheosis recollecting zoo elephants that died in a fire: the past that “won’t forget” and won’t let us forget, either.
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