German Film Studies Draw Students Across Disciplines

Story posted January 16, 2007

Film has long been considered a student-friendly tool for teaching culture and language, but in the hands of professors in Bowdoin's German department, it becomes high art.

German Dept. Faculty
Among German department faculty are, l to r, Helen Cafferty, Birgit Tautz, Steve Cerf.

Bowdoin's German department has an unusually rich depth of expertise in film. German film is, in fact, a sub-specialty of most professors there. Beginning with early, silent classics such as Metropolis and Nosferatu, through the propaganda films of Nazi Germany, to the post-war greats that created the New German Cinema of the 1970s — students can study the turbulent history of Germany and its people through film and filmmakers.

It doesn't hurt that Tricia Welsch, chair of the Film Studies department, also has a specialty in German expressionist film, considered to be the beginnings of art cinema.

Filmmakers Come to Bowdoin
Bowdoin's German department has brought several prominent German filmmakers to campus, among them Frank Beyer, director of Jacob the Liar (1975), and Wolfgang Kohlhaase, screenwriter and collaborator with Oscar-winning director Volker Schlöndorff for The Legend of Rita.

In Spring 2007, the department will sponsor two film events: poet, novelist, and stage/radio dramatist Esther Dischereit will show her film, A Dress from Warsaw, in March; and Andreas Dresen, one of the most celebrated directors of the post-Berlin wall generation of filmmakers will discuss his work in April. Contact the German department for more details, 725-3357.


"It makes a lot of sense to enhance a literature and culture program with the most popular form of culture that people in the country themselves espouse and pay for," notes Welsch. "But in the German department it's not just language instruction: Their own scholarship is intimately involved in film."

Department Chair Helen Cafferty, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of German and the Humanities, is a noted scholar of post-World War II and post-unification cinema. In the 1980s she was one of the first Bowdoin professors to bring cinematic scholarship into the German classroom, when she teamed up with Kathleen O'Connor to teach "Gender and German Cinema."

"The teaching of film has changed tremendously," notes Cafferty. "When we first taught film at Bowdoin, we had a film canister and a projector. You rented the movie on 16mm and you tried to keep it long enough so you could show it a second time in a classroom, then you had to send it back. You did not have the luxury of study copies. We owned very few films outright."

Technology has now allowed the College to own or have access to an enormous selection of films; Smith Auditorium and other screening venues on campus have been outfitted with sophisticated projection equipment. Bowdoin has the most extensive library of German films in Maine. One of the recent additions is a collection of newly mastered East German films, which the College was able to acquire from the Defa Film Library at the University of Massachusetts.

Cafferty, who teaches a course on post-World War II German film, says: "Cold War films are important because they give a unique sense of how compelling German history and culture was in a divided world. Social and political tensions are addressed explicitly in many German films, which challenge the Hollywood model. Since the wall has fallen, this tradition has continued in popular film — with exploration of minority discourses, East-West tensions, and Berlin as a contested site."

"Social and political tensions are addressed explicitly in many German films, which challenge the Hollywood model."

Each semester there is at least one German course devoted to some aspect of German film studies. The courses are designed to attract students from other majors and disciplines as well. "We want to serve the campus at large," says Cafferty. "Courses taught in English are a way to have German culture accessible to those who are not studying the language. Students gain insights into German history as well as into the aesthetics and cultural meaning of film."

"These are courses we really hope many students will take whose majors are not necessarily in the humanities," echoes Assistant Professor Birgit Tautz, whose 2006 course, "Nazi Cinema," was among the most popular new courses in the department's curricular offerings.

"I think [students] initially become excited about the forbidden object," says Tautz, "getting into the films that seemed to break so many taboos — like being really anti-Semitic, fascist, really over-the-top."

The challenge in studying Nazi cinema, she says, is to understand its broader political and even aesthetic contexts:

"I taught the course with a lot of film theory, and it was quite shocking to understand the ways in which policymakers in Germany looked toward Hollywood, trying to incorporate its effective tools to become entertaining, all the while propagating a unique, monumental German cinema to promote the Nazi cultural policies of the time."

German Professor Steven Cerf brings a different perspective to the discussion of Nazi Germany with a course on "The Literary Imagination and the Holocaust," which focuses on literary accounts of Holocaust victims, including film.

Seen as a cluster, these courses "isolate a crucial period in 20th-century European history and explore it from interdisciplinary perspectives," observes Cafferty.

"Film has become the medium of our day. Not to critically address something that is so central to culture worldwide would be an omission."

Because it is a popular medium, film has sometimes been dismissed as light entertainment, but the professors avow that cinema is to the 20th and 21st centuries what literature was to the 19th century; it is both popular and high art.

"Film has become the medium of our day," says Cafferty. "Not to critically address something that is so central to culture worldwide would be an omission. I think of film as a text — it's as if we're reading a book for the week ... students view it, they write comments, we discuss it as a unique art form; we analyze how it is constructed, and how it participates in social and political discourses."

This blending of cultural studies, visual art, history, personal aesthetics, even economics, is something Tricia Welsch says is "so eclectic that it's endlessly interesting."

Once studied, students often report a shift in the way they view films — or even television. "People can't be passive viewers anymore," notes Welsch. "When they learn to be more investigative viewers, students sometimes mourn that passivity a little bit. Then they start watching a lot of things differently. Getting people to look more carefully at what they are seeing is a big step toward getting them to think more carefully."

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