“Die Angst Des Tormanns Beim Elfmeter”; an essay on Wim Wenders and post-war Germany
Updated: Aug 27, 2019
An academic essay
In the shadow of war, how does a nation process the idea of future? “New German Cinema” filmmakers sought to “..challenge the Nazi past by revealing its impact on the present but also to speak a new cinematographic language.” (Schindler, 2000). In 1971, the filmmaker Wim Wenders joined the distribution and production cooperative, “Filmverlag der Autoren”, leading to the subsequent formation of “New German Cinema” (Kroon, 2014). This term describes the movement of filmmakers that emerged from West Germany, as authors and intellectuals digesting their cultural inheritance. As a key figure of “New German Cinema”, Wim Wenders will be the focus of this text. I will be exploring his portrayal of emotional detachment, violence, and dissolution of narrative within his second feature film “Die Angst Des Tormanns Beim Elfmeter” (1972), adapted from a novel of the same name by his repeated collaborator, the writer Peter Handke (b. Austria, 1942). The questions that “Die Angst Des Tormanns Beim Elfmeter” raises throughout the sequence of the film’s events are intentionally unresolved, suspending the viewer in a state of moral disquiet. The expression of melancholy within this film resonates with my perspective on post-war German sentiment. I acknowledge in this text that I am exploring Wenders’ work through my own biased perspective as a young woman, and am peering into German culture from the outside. Despite this, through my analysis, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of why the film was constructed this way, and what connections can be drawn between Wenders’ film and the German perspective as a whole in the aftermath of the war.
Germany in the year 1945 was a country drawn and quartered between East and West. As a nation, they were experiencing the repercussions to the atrocities committed by the National Socialist party during the Second World War. In the city of Düsseldorf, 93% of buildings were rendered uninhabitable. The German people faced mass displacement, as the British Diplomat Ivone Kirkpatrick illustrates in this quote: ‘hundreds of thousands of Germans on foot, trekking in all directions … as if a giant ant-heap had suddenly been disturbed.’ (Knowles, 2014). The intergenerational trauma felt after the war shattered architectural, personal, and national identity within Germany, and created the idea of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in its wake, translated as “working through the past”, (Fuchs, 2006). Of the many mediums Vergangenheitsbewältigung expressed itself through, the language of cinema opened up a unique space for a direct and experiential method of “working through the past”. “New German Cinema” is defined as beginning in the 1960s, and continuing through to the 80s (Chatterjee, 2018). It’s key figures were Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Jean-Marie Straub (Criterion Collection). Their shared vision was rooted in the Oberhausen Manifesto, penned on February 28, 1962 by a group of young male filmmakers (Schindler, 2000). “We declare our right to create the New German feature film. This new film needs new freedoms. Freedom from the conventions of the established industry.” (Rentschler, 2012).
In the context of The Oberhausen Manifestos' rebellious gesture, Wim Wenders (after various attempts at studying medicine, and studying painting in Paris) eventually found himself as a filmmaker, graduating from the Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film in Munich in 1970 (Wenders, 1991). As a young man emerging into the German film industry, his initial works explored the influence of American culture on West Germany, detached male characters, meaningless violence, and the aesthetics of melancholy (Brady and Haapala, 2003). A defining mark of Wenders’ authorial presence is the idea of Meandering; “a meandering story is one that loses sight of its end goal.” (Florschutz, 2016). Wenders’ unique method of constructing a film’s arc relies on the idea of contingency. Wenders’ seeks to represent on screen the way life unfolds in reality, rather than the presentation of narratives as predictable, explainable, and constructed. Wenders’ offers his perspective on the dominant, “Hollywood” narrative in these two quotes: “I think that individual situations are unrelated to each other, and my experience seems to consist entirely of individual situations; I've never yet been involved in a story with a beginning, middle and -end.” and “I totally reject stories, because for me they only bring out lies, nothing but lies, and the biggest lie is that they show coherence where there is none.” (Wenders, 1991). His second feature echoes this sentiment, and perhaps served as a starting point for the cinematic wandering that would come to define his vision as a filmmaker. “Die Angst Des Tormanns Beim Elfmeter” explores a lack of narrative coherence through the cold aesthetic lens of which he illustrates Handke’s novel.
The plot of the film is as follows: Josef Bloch is a Goalie who has been fired from his job. His sense of direction in life is lost, and begins to drift. He stays in a cheap hotel and frequents a local cinema. His attempts to connect to others falls short, as is illustrated by his transient relationship with women. He has a one-night stand, and later goes on to pursue a woman who sells tickets at the cinema who’s peaked his interest. He follows her home after her shift, and they sleep together. In the morning, the camera illustrates a series of claustrophobic and slightly grotesque objects within her apartment, flies in a sugar jar, closeups of the woman’s face putting on makeup, and banal conversation. This is when the direction and perception of Bloch as a main character pivots. In an attempt to seduce him again, she uses a tie to playfully strangle him, and in response he strangles her to death. He then cleans the apartment of DNA, departs, and shows no feeling. He leaves the region of which he was staying, and heads to a familiar town from his youth, where an ex-girlfriend lives. The rest of the film accompanies him throughout his mundane interactions. The film ends with Bloch departing from the town after a police sketch is released to the newspapers. The final scene features Bloch attending a football match, where he begins talking to a travelling salesman about the role of the goalie on the field (IMDb, n.d.).
It’s significant to the story itself that the main character, Bloch, is a failed Goalie. The role of the Goalie is to be intune to the actions of the players on the field, and to pre-empt the direction the ball will be kicked in at the crucial moment. Action and reaction define the role of which Bloch occupies, but he is out-of-sync, hence why he is fired. He is a character who is alienated from his surroundings, and who, almost animal-like, simplistically reacts to his environment or the actions of others without consideration. “I remember I had a theory about the absence of suspense creating a whole different, more truthful kind of tension. The ‘empty frame’ was a key element of this hypothesis.” (Wenders, 2017).
Robby Müller was the cinematographer, making each frame painting-like, carefully composing and presenting the scenes with a methodical eye to detail, colour, and movement. The movement of the camera traces the passage of Bloch through various landscapes, but remains static within the interior, watching within perfectly composed frames.
The aesthetic of this film is seductive due to it’s considered presentation, and this in itself adds a disturbing aspect to the content presented. While watching, the knowledge that he’s committed this crime remains throughout. No-body other than you and him can access the knowledge of what he has done, and each interaction with a woman thereafter is embroiled with a sense of apprehension, due to unpredictability of his character. To process this film through the context of German culture and history, I ask following questions: Is it significant that Bloch’s murder victim was female? What does this film express through its lack of narrative resolution? How does this film relate to German culture and the idea of Vergangenheitsbewältigung?
“One finding that begins to emerge: along with capitalist relations of production, a specific male-female (patriarchal) relation might belong at the center of our examination of fascism, as a producer of life-destroying reality.” (Theweleit, 1986). In the book, “Male Fantasies” (1986), Klaus Theweleit draws connections between the concept of misogyny in the development of Fascism leading up to the Second World War. Originally, upon watching “Die Angst Des Tormanns Beim Elfmeter”, I had been driven to examine Bloch’s character as a misogynist, illustrating his motivations for the murder within a larger context of German masculinity. However, on reflection and further study of the film, I began to reach an alternative conclusion. Perhaps for Wenders, as a young man growing up in the rubble of war, the representation of violence against women on screen would purely be a reflection of the realities of war that Wenders’ was born into. German women suffered the incomprehensible consequences of their war, as they were raped en mass by the Soviet army. “..the events of 1945 reveal how thin the veneer of civilisation can be when there is little fear of retribution. It also suggests a much darker side to male sexuality than we might care to admit.” (Beevor, 2002). This historical backdrop makes sense of the emotional detachment expressed through Wenders’ early work. In times of war, the structures of society collapse, and the individual must exist purely in the present moment in order to survive. Without law and order, humanity descends into a non-moral state. Meaning and reason fly out of the window, because they are concepts that arise from hindsight and reflection.
The lack of narrative resolution could also relate to the collapse of society and of structure in times of war. How can there be a meaning to life when the number of deaths during war is beyond any individual’s concept? When the environment of your upbringing is both responsible for, and receiving of, senseless acts of mass violence- how can you trust in the future? It follows suit that the characters in “Die Angst Des Tormanns Beim Elfmeter” remain unattached from one another. The idea of sex within this context poses a problem; the desire for that intimate connection remains, but the foundation and trust in building a future is gone. In order to have a narrative, or to build a relationship, you must have a beginning, a middle, and an end (or shared future). When Bloch seduces the woman, there is the potentiality of his becoming attached to her. This potential is cut short by her murder, and his own future is cast into a state of moral collapse and bleak uncertainty. This act is doubly disturbing as he takes her future from her; all possibilities for her life are snuffed out. The murder is the critical moment that casts the film into a state of purgatory. Perhaps this reflects the feelings of the German youth coming to terms with their own histories, and this directly relates to the concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. If you take away the future; you have a much darker sense of the world.
I speculate that Wenders’ communicated the German perspective in the aftermath of the Second World War by observing the character of Bloch as a man with no future, who purely reacts to his environment without processing the repercussions of his actions. To end again at the beginning; this is how “Die Angst Des Tormanns Beim Elfmeter” concludes. The final scene of the film finds Bloch sat amongst a crowd of spectators at a football match. Restaging the first scene at the end of the film makes an almost cyclical narrative, but in this revisitation, the position of the main character is altered. Bloch no longer plays on the field but watches, from a distance, as a spectator. How does the individual within a collapsed society find or define “Meaning”? (Alexander, 1997). In this film, the character does not. Over the duration of the film, Bloch’s character hasn’t evolved, found “Meaning” or developed a future. By offering no conclusions, the audience becomes freed from preconditioned expectations of a conventional narrative. Wenders’ developed a unique and modern film language, independent of American cinema culture. This realisation proved formative, as he found his own method of challenging audiences to engage with cinema in a whole new way. In “Die Angst Des Tormanns Beim Elfmeter”, he achieves the freedom that the Oberhausen Manifesto established as their goal. Alongside the filmmakers of New German Cinema, Wenders forged a new German national identity. This redefinition helped develop a new culture and future for young Germans, ironically in contrast to the sentiments of “Die Angst Des Tormanns Beim Elfmeter”. Looking backwards helps understand the present and shape tomorrow for the better.
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