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Germany in Autumn

The time is October 1977. The film is "Deutschland im Herbst" (Germany in Autumn). In the kitchen, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the prolific director-actor and enfant terrible of the New German Cinema, heatedly confronts his mother. She has been trying to persuade him not to speak out about the fearful political atmosphere surrounding the death of three German terrorists in their prison cells and the kidnapping-murder of Hanns Martin Schleyer, president of the Federation of German Industries, and wartime Nazi economic administrator in Czechoslovakia.

Fassbinder: "Democracy is the most human form of government, isn't that right?" Mother: "It's the least of all evils. At the moment, it's really an evil." Fassbinder: "The least of all evils. What would be better if it's the least of all evils?" Mother: "The best thing would be a kind of authoritarian ruler who is quite good and quite kind and orderly."

The argument between Fassbinder and his mother is the highlight of a new German feature which had its world premiere at the recent Berlin Film Festival. Nine of Germany's leading directors and the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Heinrich Boll dared to breach a wall of silence to produce a compilation film that tried — as director/novelist Alexander Kluge put it — "to examine the question of what kind of country are we living in? Are we all living in our separate Robinson Crusoe islands?"

Volker Schlondorff had suggested the joint venture after an executive of Filmverlag der Autoren, a Munich cooperative, proposed that Schlondorff direct one about the atmosphere in Germany on the day Schleyer was kidnaped. Schlondorff — whose "Lost Honor of Katharina Blum," based on Boll's novel, dealt with the political and media pressure on a young woman following her accidental meeting with a political terrorist — declined. He frankly admitted that he was afraid to make such a picture alone.

"There was so much political hysteria," he told a reporter. "Everybody was talking about repression, and the end of democracy. It was dangerous for one person to speak out when everybody else shut up. The subject of the terrorists was taboo. The film is not sympathetic to this or that but just tries to show the atmosphere. It is an expression of democratic attitudes. Our picture helped to break through the taboo."

The project by directors of different styles and politics was attacked as "terrorist" before production even began and it was hailed in advance as the most controversial entry at the Berlin festival. It turned out to be a major disappointment: self-indulgent, confusing, turgid, sometimes direct, but more often circumspect to the point of obscurity.

Fassbinder stunned the audience with his contribution: a devastating self-portrait that reveled in exhibitionistic despair at the rapid escalation of events. He shows himself quarreling with his male lover about the terrorists, sniffing coke, fearing a police search - scenes eerily cut across the generation gap of the conversations with his mother.

None of the directors had incisively tackled the complex relationship between the terrorists and their society, nor had they even acknowledged the existence of the problems a democratic or parliamentary system faces in dealing with terrorism.

Instead, going off in all directions, they produced a grab-bag collage of documentary materials, news clips, dramatic reenactments and highly subjective reactions to the national trauma induced last October by the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane to Somalia, the purported suicides of three West German terrorists in their maximum security cells and the murder of Schleyer. The film opens and closes with newsreel shots of all those funerals: the pomp at the final rites for Schleyer with flags flying and officials arriving in a long line of Mercedes-Benz autos; the red flags, clenched fists and masked faces at the burial of the terrorists. That trio had a decent interment only because of a unilateral, quick decision by Stuttgart Mayor Manfred Rommel who remembers the hypocritical state funeral for his father, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, after the Nazis gave him a "choice" of death by poison or dishonor in a trial for treason in the 1944 bomb plot to kill Hitler.


The controversy about the terrorists' funeral has an ironic counterpoint in one of the film's most effective scenes, written by Boll and directed by Schlondorff. Satirizing last year's widespread self-censorship of German television executives, the segment portrays the discomfort of some TV officials as they watch the screening of a new production of Sophocles' "Antigone." Antigone tells Ismene of her plans to defy Creon's order to leave their brother Polynices unburied and unwept. The rebellious women of ancient Greece finally cut too close to the bone of contemporary Germany so the TV executives shelved the production.

There is a muddled attempt to relate the atmosphere in Germany today to the fact that fascism was never decisively repudiated by the Germans themselves. Instead, they were plunged from defeat to occupation to the Cold War atmosphere. "Germany in Autumn" seems to charge that the Germans have failed to accept responsibility for their past, but it also sidesteps the question of contemporary responsibility on the subject of terrorism and new repressive legislation , to judge from the phrase that opens and closes the film: "When cruelty arrives at a certain point, it's no longer important who initiated it; it should only stop."

That comment had been made by a woman after the fire-bombing of Hamburg. It was her answer to a question by an American psychologist who was trying to understand why the Germans didn't cry out for revenge. In a voice suddenly charged with emotion, Kluge talked about her remark at a packed , standing -room-only but almost totally uncritical press conference.

Kluge's explanation didn't really answer the question that had been put to the assembled directors by another director, Marcel Ophuls, whose film, "Memory of Justice," about the Nuremberg trials, was finally shown to Germans at the festival. In the documentary, Ophuls explores the central question of the Nuremberg trials: the individual's responsibility for war crimes. The question Ophuls asked his fellow directors was: "But who is to be blamed for the cruelty?"

The Los Angeles Times March 29, 1978