Cinema guide from within

The BFI Companion to German Cinema
January 12, 2001

Even within the relatively brief compass of some 250 pages, The BFI Companion to German Cinema will undoubtedly commend itself to the specialist and the lay reader with the wealth of information that is on offer. The Companion consists of a large number of short entries and it achieves remarkable coverage. The majority of the entries deal with individual people - directors, actors, actresses, writers, cameramen, producers. And the criteria for inclusion are notably generous: there is, for example, no shortage of entries on popular actors and film-makers. In addition, there are articles on key concepts - such as Autorenfilme, Heimatfilme and Literaturverfilmungen . Moreover, particular attention is paid to institutions, hence we find entries on archives, cinema and the state, exhibitions, export companies, studios, and so on. The standard of the documentation is extremely high; I found no errors, and the amount of information presented in accessible form is amazing.

Inevitably, a few niggles remain. Some conceptual entries on, for example, Heimatfilme and Mountain Films and remakes do not offer a great deal beyond useful lists. Particularly in respect of the former, there are some weighty cultural-political issues that could have been more resolutely unpacked.

On certain occasions, particularly with the articles concerning the major talents, I wished that greater critical sophistication was in evidence. No one reading the entry on Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have much idea why (apart from his voluminous productivity) he was a film-maker of the very first rank. This is a pity. Not least because, as Thomas Elsaesser stresses in his introduction, the New German cinema has had formidable international resonance "compared to the slight impact that postwar German literature has made on the international image of Germany".

One would also like to know more about the specific forms of creativity that have travelled so well. Perhaps the reluctance of the Companion to take this particular bull by the horns has not a little to do with the fact that most of the writers are German nationals and hence, as the general introduction acknowledges, there has been a tendency to present German cinema "from within". That perspective pays rich dividends in terms of the sheer volume of information assembled; but, just occasionally, one longs for the more adventurous interpretative voice that a view from outside might be able to provide.

Martin Swales is professor of German, University College London.

The BFI Companion to German Cinema

Editor - Thomas Elsaesser with Michael Wedel
ISBN - O 85170 750 5 and 751 3
Publisher - BFI
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 259

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