Film - Resistance - History

Media representations of anti-fascist resistance in German and Dutch post-war cinema

1945 – 1965

My doctoral thesis focuses on representations of anti-fascist resistance in German and Dutch post-war movies in the context of negotiating processes of the Civil Society in respect to the ‘collective memory’ of resistance during the Second World War in both countries. Negotiating processes refer in this context to the communicative exchange on the one hand as well as to the regulation of traumatic experiences of conflict and shaping national identities on the other.

As early as 1945, the beginning reformation process of the Dutch and German civil societies marked the starting point for particularly forceful public debates in both countries concerning the commemoration of resistance to national socialism and fascist occupation. Results were two national, but comparable myths of resistance which constituted important legitimating beliefs in both post-war societies. Anti-fascist resistance as a national ‘lieu de memoire’ is of crucial importance to the collective memory in both countries until today.

Similar to more recent successful TV-series like World at war (1973), Holocaust (1978), early movies like the Dutch Niet te vergeefs (Engl.: Not in Vain 1948 by Edmond T. Gréville) or Es geschah am 20. Juli (Engl.: It happened on the July 20th 1955 by Georg W. Papst) have exposed the public to a formerly unfamiliar type of history, which we now call ‘visual history’. It is designed to convey its evidence by mediating the feeling of first hand contact, instead of arguing through reason.

Both as a formative agent for European history of war memory as well as an element of civil society’s remembrance culture, motion pictures influence one’s imagination, one’s very personal archive of imagery, and the way by which we perceive history. Papst and Greville’s pictures are ideal case studies in this respect. Both movies provoked highly emotional reactions in both countries’ publics inasmuch as they broke with dominant memorial narratives of anti-fascist resistance and thereby contributed to a novel discourse of common war images.

The underlying thesis of my inquiry is that resistance-movies and other audiovisual materials dealing with this topic played an important role for the discursive construction of history on a personal as well as on a collective level. On the personal level ‘visual history’ can serve as point of reference for the evaluation of personal experience in a historical context. On a collective level it is apt to catalyze civil society’s memory discourses. Thus the study of audiovisual memory offers valuable insights to collective mentalities and memory processes of its time.

The research project seeks to analyze the iconographic discourse of a selected set of early Dutch and German resistance movies in a comparative and interdisciplinary approach in which they are regarded as ‘cinematic segments of cultural memory’. Firstly, the analysis will focus on the aesthetic and narrative representation of anti-fascist resistance used in Dutch and German cinema as well as on the depiction of characters as victims, antagonists, heroes, or outcasts. Secondly, this thesis will contextualize these cinematic memory segments in the socio-cultural milieu and relate them to other dominant social and political trends of national cultures of remembrance and amnesia.

The analytical framework of my thesis has been seldom used before and represents a new and promising approach to shed light on the ways in which film can modulate a society’s remembrance culture in post-conflict situations and may determine coherences in this respect on a supranational level. The interdisciplinary design of my research project combines the scientific perspectives of history, media- and cultural studies in a synergetic manner in order to avoid analytical distortions occasionally arising from the omission of social reality in more mono-perspective approaches. In addition, the project follows a methodological comparative approach. The focus is on two neighbouring countries the Netherlands and Germany as two post-war societies, traumatized by defeat, occupation and above all collaboration. Both countries are very similar, but at the same time characterised by salient differences.

By this means I hope to contribute to a better sense of how audiovisual memory is presently acting as formative agent in moulding future perceptions of history and according to what interests critical sources of our future documentation of history and conflict are created.

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