ZDFs Das Kleine Fernsehspiel

As far as the European cinema goes, the 1970s belonged to Germany, or more exactly, to the "New German Cinema." Breaking through the commercial and critical twilight of the post-war period, a handful of internationally well-exposed star directors - mainly Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders and Syberberg -briefly illuminated a notoriously bleak filmmaking landscape. Looking back, however, one realizes that this blaze of light left much territory underexposed, not least by obscuring the ground on which some of these talents grew. For besides the New German Cinema of auteurs and festivals, to which we owe The Marriage of Maria Braun, Agumre, Hitler - A Film from Germany or Kings of the Road, there existed another New German Cinema that functioned almost exclusively within West Germany itself, and which, in its own terms, was as successful as its better-known half.

Both New German Cinemas have in common one very material fact: a radical change in the way films were made and financed in West Germany. From the late 1960s onwards, the Bonn government had stepped in with grants and subsidies, distributed by the "Gremien" of the Filmförderungsanstalt in Berlin, which opened up a chance to projects and personalities that no commercial producer would have risked. But this federal funding system, which Herzog once called his life-support machine, was a mere drip-feed compared to the blood transfusion and oxygen boost given to the patient after the so-called "Television Framework Agreement" of 1974. It obliged the various West German broadcasters to co-produce feature films and to set aside additional funds for transmitting independently made films first shown in the cinemas. With one stroke, independent filmmakers had gained access via television not only to a breed of producers and co-producers who wouldn't go bankrupt in mid-production or run off to the South of France; they had also acquired the next-best thing to a distribution and exhibition guarantee: audiences. This was especially important in a country whose cinemas were either controlled by the American majors, or owned by people convinced that a German-made feature film emptied seats more quickly than a colony of mice released at a children's matinee.

While both kinds of New German Cinema benefited from television, the auteur cinema was understandably anxious to play down this helping hand, pre ferring to attribute the films' existence to individual genius. The other, less well-known New German Cinema, by contrast, actually seemed to thrive on the possibilities as well as the limitations presented by being partnered with television. One can see why, when this partner turned out to be ZDF's Das Kleine Fernsehspiel.

Yet what made German television decide to pump some 17 million Deutsch Mark into feature films, especially when so many of the projects were either submitted by directors with little previous fiction film experience, or had no wide public appeal? The answer has partly to do with the structure of West German television, which in those days was still wholly publicly owned, funded by a license fee and thus under political control: when their paymaster spoke, the broadcasters had to listen. But they put up little resistance, because the deal also promised them some tangible benefits.

To start with, German television, which in the previous decades had desperately tried to find forms of programs and types of drama that distinguished it from both theatre and the cinema, had hit on the "Fersehspiel" as its cultural flagship, and from the mid-1950s onwards, invested substantial amounts of money and prestige in this particular form of live drama. However, there had always been a shortage of good in-house-produced drama, and by the late 1960s, the flagship had more or less run aground when it was abandoned by its audiences because of relentlessly high-brow aspirations, and it had been pushed, because of its minority interest, further and further into the late night schedules. Perhaps, television executives argued, a generation of young, ambitious filmmakers might well have the new ideas so sorely needed.

Secondly, certain regional broadcasters, notably Westdeutsche Rundfunk, were looking, as a consequence of taking quite seriously its public service obligations, for more topical and socially relevant material, but also for programs, which did not fall neatly into either documentary or fiction. The chance to make feature films appealed on both these counts, revitalizing the Fersehspiel by new formal approaches, and allowing more controversial issues to be given fictional treatment. The latter was especially important. By claiming a filmmaker's authorial right to self-expression, producers could bypass the stipulations of political balance and neutrality which usually attached itself to factual programs dealing with socially or politically contentious issues. To this bold move, the New German Cinema owes, for instance, the so-called "Arbeiterfilme (workers films)" of Ziewer, Fassbinder, Ludcke, and Kratisch which the WDR produced in the early 1970s.

Finally - and this brings us closer to Das Kleine Fernsehspiel - the Second German TV Channel (ZDF) was set up in order to commission much of its programming from outside producers, thus keeping overheads low and schedules flexible. This meant that independent filmmakers could, in principle, join other freelance or commercial producers in the queue for ZDF commissions. A system was thus already in place that allowed the Framework Agreement to be implemented on the back of an existing production structure. Last but not least, ZDF's Head of Drama and Film during the period in question, was Heinz Ungureit who himself began as a film critic and was a staunch supporter of the New German Cinema. He, in turn, had the good sense of putting in charge of Das Kleine Fernsehspiel an equally committed champion of independent cinema in general, Eckart Stein. Stein recognized early on that the twin directions agitating the debate about the future of cinema and television - convergence of the two media and self-differentiation - had also exposed certain niches and gaps in the scheduling policy which his department at ZDF was ideally placed to exploit.

According to Stein, the idea behind Das Kleine Fernsehspiel was to create a "forum for witnesses to the age" and a showcase for new talent who would be given the opportunity to express a singular vision, without being bound by either issues or format. The intention may have initially been to build up a kind of filmic archive of the Zeitgeist, but Stein also knew that the films had to address two kinds of audiences at one and the same time:

maybe half our audience watches regularly to see what this week's program is like, and the other half has a group interest in what we are doing. A film about homosexual teachers will attract primarily a homosexual public or viewers involved in education; or take the women's films ... we might have a mainly female audience.

In Stein's hands, Das Kleine Fernsehspiel not only became a precious source of finance for first-time filmmakers, it also proved the most fertile ground for new narrative forms: "the small TV play" became a double misnomer, since the films could be as long as three hours, and they were rarely confined to television. Given its late broadcast slot, time was less critical, and given Stein's brief to make unconventional programs, the films were often more formally innovative than the idea of the "single play" encompassed, but they could also be unconventional solely thanks to their subject matter, using a documentary or semi-fictional approach, which again, redefined the old label "Fernsehspiel."

It was these niches and open spaces which formed the basis of a sort of tacit agreement between filmmakers and commissioning editor where, at least for a while, each party's needs worked hand in glove with the other. For the director, the chance to do a film falling right outside the commercial cinema's range proved attractive, especially since Das Kleine Fernsehspiel could offer budgets and production facilities somewhat above the finance raised when one is depen cias kleine fernsehspiel nachtstudio mittwochs im ZDF

Das Kleine Fernsehspiel dent on family, friends and a bank overdraft. Knowing that there would be an audience, and furthermore, an audience who might never go to the cinema, seemed to outweigh the knowledge that this audience was small: it might just include a critic who would write a glowing review, giving the film a chance for a follow-up in the specialized cinemas, or another tv showing at a slightly better time.

For the ZDF, on the other hand, getting a director of unlimited enthusiasm and perhaps a talent to match, was a good investment. If the film was exceptional, as many of the films made for Das Kleine Fernsehspiel undoubtedly were, the network acquired cultural capital and a reputation for being a patron of the arts: over the years the weekly programs comprised documentaries and feature films, by first-time filmmakers and established ones, both German and foreign. Directors known for their avant-garde fiction films such as Raoul Ruiz, Steve Dwoskin, Jean Pierre Gorin, Theodore Angelopulos, and Jim Jarmusch all made films for the ZDF, and by all accounts were given virtually carte blanche. Often, the films could be sent to international film festivals, and many came home, showered with critical acclaim. Even if the film did not quite come off - which also happened from time to time - the network still managed to fill its slot at a cost below the average opera transmission or drama commissioned from a professional writer.

Furthermore, with Das Kleine Fernsehspiel the ZDF was able to legitimate itself socially, too. During the politicized 1970s, the insistence of minorities or special interest groups to benefit from the principle of Öffentlichkeit as defined in the statutes of German broadcasting, and to have their views represented in a public medium, grew louder than ever before. It gave rise to an enormous demand for films on a whole variety of social issues, films which by their very nature were needed by television, but which, when "signed" by a director-author, could nonetheless count as part of the (by then, famed) New German Cinema. Titles that would normally form part of television's factual or current affairs output, often had, thanks to Das Kleine Fernsehspiel, the status as authored, personal works. In other words, films dealing with social issues such as racism, juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, the yellow press, the penal system, state surveillance, prostitution, urban redevelopment, or unemployment would be directed by auteurs such as Helma Sanders-Brahms, Ulrike Ottinger, Michael Klier, Sohrab Saless, Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz.

One "minority" which might be said to have especially benefited from this compromise between giving new talent a chance and fulfilling a social or cultural brief, were women - both women as filmmakers and women as target audiences. In a very real sense, Das Kleine Fernsehspiel marked the first time that women had more than a token presence among Germany's leading directors. For them to gain access to television, in order to do a feature film required a very precise conjunction indeed, since as long as women directors were typecast, and assigned only to do documentaries on women's issues, they found it virtually impossible to obtain a comparable space for feature film projects. The turn to autobiography in the women's movement generally provided for many a point of entry into the fiction film, allowing feminists to respond to a demand for self-expression as self-representation, and thus combining the "personal" with the "political." Das Kleine Fersehspiel welcomed this autobiographical approach.

Women turning to the ZDF, even with very little experience in filmmaking, also had carte blanche, as Jutta Brückner was to find out: "I am completely self-taught. I had never been to a film school or been an assistant. When I decided to make my first film ... I just wrote a script outline and sent it off to all the TV stations, and ZDF - one of their departments, that is, Das Kleine Fernsehspiel said they wanted to do it. I was so surprised, I really didn't know what to do and I just phoned some friends and said 'I'm making a film' - they all thought it was a good joke. I said, 'No, really, I already have the money' and they were dumbfounded."

The result was a film which fused the autobiographical impulse so strategically important for the women's movement with a formal structure as innovative as it was ingeniously simple. Tue recht und scheue Niemand consists of photographs from August Sander 's "Menschen des XX.Jahrhunderts," matched on the soundtrack with Brückner's own mother's hesitant and muted narrative of her life. The film becomes the story of an older woman, whose personal reminiscences, anxieties, and deeply melancholy disappointment with life underline the ideology of her class. It makes her, for the spectator, a representative, indeed a historical document of the German petit-bourgeoisie of the 20th century. At the same time, this very realization modifies our view of her as an individual, while sound and image powerfully fix her as unique and particular. From the tension between these two conflicting perceptions the film derives its pathos, freeing the look to embrace the banal and even treasure it, under the aspects of its imminent disappearance. Hovering between historical document and personal reminiscence, Brückner is able to generate the kind of emotional intensity one associates with fiction films.

Tue recht und scheue Niemand is a good example of the paradox which made Eckart Stein's experiment so valuable to women filmmakers because, whereas in the case of documentaries and current affairs, television usually controls quite tightly the forms such programs take, Das kleine Fernsehspiel, especially in the area of feminist filmmaking, commissioned subjects which, on the strength of Das Kleine Fersehspiel's reputation, could enter film distribution, thus giving television, usually the grave of feature films, the role of acting as a preview theatre for cinema films. On the other hand, the fact that films such as

Brückner's Tue recht und scheue Niemand, or Elfi Miekesch's Ich denke oft an Hawaii (about women in an old people's home) originated from within a television program that covered the whole spectrum from avant-garde experiment to social case history, from American independents to Herbert A^tem^C^ Tue Recht und scheue NiemaND made it easier for female directors to escape the sort of ghetto implied by a term such as "women's film." Das Kleine Fernsehspiel thus did much to democratize not only the distinctions between the sexes in filmmaking, it also democratized the differences between formal avantgarde and fictional narrative, and finally, it helped demystify the difference between artistic and technical input, giving those whose project Stein liked the practical training or assistance needed to bring about its realization.

What is clear is that the Das Kleine Fersehspiel recognized the potential and the need for new kinds of narrative feature films, and by sponsoring them in an international context, it allowed women filmmakers such as Brückner, Mie-kesch, Ottinger, and Sanders-Brahms to find a forum as well as a form. The role that radical subjectivity has in these filmmakers' worlds of fantasy, trauma and violence furthermore belonged to a recognizable tendency within feminist film generally, where excess, display, masquerade and spectacle became the political stances of a new cinematic investment in the female, the maternal, the aging and the androgynous body. This might be said to be one of the aesthetic legacies of Das Kleine Fernsehspiel, even if the extent to which the signature of Das Kleine Fernsehspiel had an impact on the Frauenfilm as a genre is impossible to decide.

The director, however, whose work most fully epitomizes the complex dynamic implicit in Das Kleine Fernsehspiel is undoubtedly Werner Schroeter, the New German cinema's greatest "marginal" filmmaker. Schroeter's "total cinema" is one which devoted itself to the areas where painting, music, dance, narrative and performance intersect, making him one of the most unlikely filmmakers ever to be officially recognized. While it was television which alone had the financial power, the organizational base and the programming niches to support (but in a sense, also to exploit) his unique talent, Schroeter also had to keep his distance from television's promiscuous pluralism as well as its ephem-erality: he did so, not so much by any "Brechtian" distance, but by presenting "beautiful" images, while at the same time undermining the very aestheticism of the beautiful by obstinately beautifying marginal and discarded phenomena. Obliged to almost always work for Das Kleine Fernsehspiel and its late-night slots, Schroeter thrived more than other filmmakers in, but also suffered more, from the spaces Eckart Stein managed to keep open. Often uncredited, films

such as Willow Springs, Der Tod der Maria Malibran or Der Bomberpilot, however, became the prototypes not so much for television programs, but for almost all the varieties of experimental feature film practiced in Germany in the 1980s, whether feminist, gay, avant-garde or as in the case of Syberberg, the historical film essay. It makes Schroeter the "secret" or "missing" link between the one kind of New German Cinema - the authors' cinema - and the other, in which minorities and marginal voices moved center-stage. While ZDF and Stein signaled Schroeter's importance as a filmmaker to the cinema, he in turn highlighted the importance of Das Kleine Fersehspiel: proving that television can provide the possibilities of forging a chain not between film and television, but between cinema and cinema.

Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment