Beyond Constructivism Commemorating a Common Past

There is another, at first glance quite different way in which a more top-down version of re-instating the "national" as a valid and even vibrant incarnation of the idea of "Europe" seems to work. It could be seen as the reverse side of the tendency towards "heritage history" with local color or regional accents, discussed above, insofar as it, too, deals with the past, and with memory. To some extent, it also refers to how European cinema can assert its difference from television, important for its cultural status but, as we saw, difficult to sustain in practice, when considering that the vast majority of films made in (Western) Europe are either initiated, co-funded or co-produced by television.

The trend I am trying to describe that complements "heritage", historical reconstruction and the nostalgic look at the national past has to do with the increasing Europeanization of what previously were national days of commemoration, as well as adding to the calendar anniversaries with a distinct European dimension. The day of mourning, for instance, for the victims of the Madrid railway bombing on 11 March is now widely reported in Europe's media, and 10 May has been mooted as a European day for commemorating slavery. But looming large in this enterprise is the period of fascism and the Second World War, a deeply troubling legacy for Germany, but out of which, it would seem, the whole of Europe is gradually fashioning a common past, in order to project through it an identity and historical "destiny-as-legacy." The moral and perhaps even emotional center of this common past as common identity program is the Holocaust. While thirty years ago, Auschwitz and the persecution of Jews was still very much a catastrophe that the Germans had to show themselves repentant and accountable for in the eyes of the world, the anniversaries of the so-called "Kristallnacht," or the (belated) resistance to Hitler by some of his officers and generals, as well as the liberation of the camps or the end of the war have since become European days for joint acts of reflection and solemn commemoration, where Europe can affirm its core values of democracy and commitment to human rights, while condemning totalitarianism in all its forms. The very negativity of the Holocaust as a human disaster and the lowest point of civilization turning into barbarism, is now the moral ground on which European nations can come together to affirm the statement "never again," but also to admit to a common responsibility for the events that happened more than sixty years ago, by investigating the extent to which all of Europe to a greater or lesser extent colluded with anti-Semitism and the destruction of the Jews in Europe. Hitler, the war and the Holocaust are never out of the news and the media, and Europe has many recurring anniversaries and special dates to draw on: the D-Day landing, the bombing of Dresden, the Nuremburg trials as precursors to the truth and reconciliation commissions or the International Court of Justice. In these commemorations a historical as well as a symbolic Europe are forming themselves, where Eastern Europe shares similar experiences with the West, and where this shared past promises a joint future. It even seems that on such occasions, victims and perpetrators, collaborators and survivors may come together in gestures of reconciliation and mutual recognition.22

The cinema has contributed its part to this commemorative Europe, but had to be given a lead - some say regrettably - by Hollywood. Already in the 1970s, German filmmakers complained that the Americans, by making a television series called Holocaust (1978) had appropriated their history. Fifteen years later Steven Spielberg was accused of trivializing the death camps with Scrnndler's List (1993) and appropriating WWII with his Saving Private Ryan (1997). Both films were big successes with the European public, while not faring well with the critics. Yet Spielberg's iconography of death, destruction, loss and suffering can now be found in almost every television reportage on a war or a human disaster. The series Holocaust, it is often pointed out, allowed the German Cinema to reinvent itself in the mid-1970s around films dealing with fascism

(Syberberg, Kluge, Fassbinder, Schloendorff, von Trotta, Sanders-Brahms), thereby for the first time attaining an international public. Similarly, in France (Louis Malle, François Truffaut, Joseph Losey) and Italy (Luchino Visconti, Bernardo Bertolucci, the Taviani Brothers), directors have made major contributions to "mastering the past" in ways that had often less to do with "writing history" and more with the formation of a common European "memory." Films as different as Claude Lanzman's Shoah (1985) Lars von Trier's Europa (1991), Roberto Benigni's La Vita e bella (1997), Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002) and many others have, irrespective of their specific aesthetic merits, put in place an imaginary of European history that lends itself to pious gestures of public commemoration at one end, and to clamorous controversy and scandal at the other. The German cinema, for obvious reasons, is prone to produce both, ranging more recently from Margarethe von Trotta's well-intentioned but embarrassing Rosenstrasse (2003) and Schloendorff's stiff The Ninth Day (2004) about a resisting priest, to films like Enemy at the Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001, about Stalingrad) and Der Untergang (Oliver Hirschbiegel 2004, about the last days of Hitler), where historians rather than film critics find themselves called upon for media comment, earnestly discussing whether Hitler can be depicted as human being. Next to these commercial productions, there are more oblique, often politically risky and "incorrect" works, such as Romuald Karmaker's Das Himmler Projekt (2000), Lutz Hachmeister's Das Goebbels-Experiment (2004), Oskar Roehler's Die Unberùhrbare (2000), Christian Petzold's Die innere SiCherheit (2000) - the last two titles not directly about fascism or the Holocaust, but showing how the ghosts of each nation's past haunt the present, and how important the cinema as the medium of different temporalities can be in showing Europe "working on its memories."

There is, of course, no inevitable congruence between the official calendar of commemoration - often acts of state - and the cinema, re-articulating the national past around different markers of the national. Among these markers, general period settings - Edwardian England, France under the Occupation, Berlin in the early 1930s - are more prominent than specific historical events, and even then, the period often figures in the context of negotiating other issues, such as class, gender or sexual identity. This is the case with some of the films just mentioned, such as Visconti's "German Trilogy," James Ivory's The Remains of the Day, and includes the filmed novels or biographies of Jane Austen, E.M. Foster, Edith Wharton, Henry James and Virginia Woolf. But the new cultural studies or popular memory agendas also change the perspective we now have on the cinema of the 1940s and 50s. Films that according to the traditional canon were previously dismissed as routine and commercial, have become the classics or cult films of contemporary movie lovers, rediscovering the popular culture of their parents (Jean Gabin, the films of David Lean) or even grandparents (BrieF

Encounter, Zarah Leander), and making these films the veritable lieux de mémoire of the nation and of national identity. In Germany, a film from 1944 called Die FeueRzangen-bowle and featuring the hugely popular Heinz Rühmann, has become just such a rallying point for the retroactive nation. Not only is it broadcast every Christmas on television; university students show it on the big screen in specially hired halls, with audiences dressing up and miming favorite scenes in the Rocky Horror Picture Show manner. The extraordinary revaluation that the British cinema has undergone in the past two decades is also partly based on such a revision of the criteria applied to the films rather than the choice of films themselves. Coupled with the incessant memory work done by television, through its documentary output (which is, of course, often in sync with the state's policy of commemorative history), media memory is now one of the major ways in which the nation is "constructed," but also spontaneously "re-lived": not least because so much of this tele-visual media memory draws on eyewitness accounts, personal reminiscences, family photos, home movies and other forms of period memorabilia accessible to all. In this respect, television does work from the "bottom up," weaving together a new synthetic and yet "authentic" fabric of the past, which corresponds to and yet inverts the "quilt" of the nation that Anderson mentions in Imagined Communities as patched together by the bureaucratic-pedagogic establishment.23

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