Described as a neglected classic of New-German Cinema, Germany, Pale Mother (1980) is being re-issued and remastered by BFI on Blu-Ray. It is a film which explores women’s experience during and after the Third Reich.
Narrated by Hanne, daughter to Lene and Hans, the film begins in the lead up to war. Lene and Hans meet, fall in love, and marry. The backdrop is of an emerging social divide between civilian membership or non-membership of the Nazi party. Hans, a non party member, is conscripted and stationed in France as the war begins. Lene, who is now pregnant, is left to give birth and raise their young child. Her husband now absent, Lene survives the harsh brutalities of war. Living in Berlin mother and child are subject to the devastating air raids. They take refuge with a well connected uncle, but soon have to leave Berlin, negotiating an all but collapsed German infrastructure, traveling under cover through forested landscapes, to seek refuge with distant family living in the Hanover region of Germany.
The film’s story further unfolds, relentless episodes of fear, abuse and dejection take their toll on Lene. The war ends and Hans returns, but Lene is a broken woman, spiralling into an acute depression with somatic symptoms of facial paralysis. Hans is dealing with his own inner turmoil, but also trying to support a wife who is now verging on catatonia. The final part of the film covers the devastation of post-war Germany with some exploration of how families coped and negotiated this harrowing and impossible time.
Not the most cheerful film, it somehow achieves a realism, and a pace, that if not entertains, somehow intrigues. Germany, Pale Mother explores some of the themes which have plagued the identity of post-Nazi Germany, and to an extent allows a voice for those civilians who were not members of the Nazi party. The film in part addresses the terror experienced by the Jewish, but this is in no way the central concern of the film. At the film’s heart is a message about the opposing forces of masculine and feminine. The masculine is deemed as weak, craving recognition, and destructive. The feminine is strong, selfless and life giving.
The German New Wave Cinema was in part a reaction to the artistic and economic stagnation of post war Germany. Films were made on a low budget, sometimes with state support, but with a fierce value base of anti-commercialism. To an extent German New Wave cinema blended other more established European art house genres such as the French Nouvelle Vague and the Italian Neo-Realism.
In Germany, Pale Mother, the lead actors provide strong and convincing performances. The dominant tone of the film is realism, with some actual footage of Berlin’s devastation after the air raid bombings. There are some scenes which employ a dream like feel, which mirror the unreal experiences of the characters.
The disk includes an extra, which is a documentary, Hermann My Father, made by the director, where she accompanies her father to Normandy where he was posted in the war. It offers a great insight to the actual feature, and it becomes clear the story of the film’s central characters is very much the story of the director’s childhood.
Although this film is harrowing and bleak, it is a masterful piece of cinema. Worth seeking out if you are a fan of German cinema, and have an interest in the social history of the Third Reich and the foundation of post-war Germany.
Germany Pale Mother is released on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK on 25th May by the BFI.
Review by Alex Porter