This talk was given on December 3rd, 2014 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) during a campus visit. The talk is on contemporary German Horror Film and its relation to national history and international genre conventions.

Here are the notes for the talk:

I would like to express my gratitude at the invitation to this wonderful campus and your interest in my research, which derives its objects from a diversity of media forms, especially visual forms, and a wide field of popular culture, specifically that which is generally referred to as the fantastic. As such, I have chosen as topic for today’s talk the peculiarities of contemporary German genre film, which I would like to elucidate in an overview of recent horror film production, before delving into an exemplary analysis of the 2011 film Hell, a brilliantly evocative directorial debut by the 28-year old Tim Fehlbaum.

Fehlbaum’s film is part of a recent wave of horror film productions of the 2000s and 2010s that on the one hand continues trends of social critique established in the 1990s by the under­ground horror films of Buttgereit, Boll, Schlingensief or Schnaas. On the other hand these films noticeably raise the genre from its underground status, take into account current trends in globalized production and bring it into dialogue with its Hollywood counterparts as well as with other German filmmaking such as the Berlin School or the heritage film. The post-millennial horror film is thus both firmly rooted in its own genre and medial history as well as adhering to a „transnational aesthetic“. 

My talk thus picks up on a recent growing interest within German Studies, which according to Kata Gellen sees German Film Studies as „one of the most vibrant areas of inquiry“ (vii) of the field today. In fact, in 2012 German Quarterly even dedicated a special issue to the topic. In it Gellen argues, that German Studies is sparking with interest, realizing that films ideally transport contemporary cultural and social issues such as questions of urban culture, politics of Otherness, European identity formation and the effect of trans­nationalism and globalized culture. 

In fact, German film is probably the one area of German studies that epitomizes the developments of globalization and transnationalism. As Randall Halle has pointed out in his study of German Film after Germany, we are witnessing a radical transformation of the world’s film industries due to globalization: „Globalization affects all film production; it inflects all aspects of the film apparatus. No film, indeed most broadly speaking, no audiovisual object is now produced outside of global systems, and by this I mean big-budget mega-block­busters as well as film-school debuts, from the work of the most dogmatic art-house independent director to the amateur wielding his or her first discount digicam, indeed all forms of audiovisual production. Film is globalized“ (4).

With issues of transnationalism and a globalized production system, categories such a national cinema become, as Jennifer Kapczynski and Michael Richardson claim in A New History of German Cinema, „construed as shifting and porous“ (6), yet remain critically relevant nonetheless. How does one define German cinema and not encounter problems – Nationality? Language? Audience? Production conditions? Financing? None prove reliable and heterogeneous enough to be used in academic inquiry. But as German film production of the 1980s and ’90s has emphatically proven, the relevance of specific markers of national identity in relation to a transnational production system and its consumer expectations, which are „created and fostered by the conventions of Hollywood cinema“ (630), are important for their success.  As Kapczynski and Richardson note, by 2000 at the latest, „[i]n order for German cinema to survive ­– to flourish – it would need to square the circle, to manage the tensions between these two impulses of the cinema“ (630), between national and transnational.

Historically speaking, post-millennial German film is thus a reaction to the international failures and nondescript productions of the late 1980s and 1990s, a period of filmmaking that Eric Rentschler has dubbed the „Cinema of Consensus“. That period in itself then marks a historical reaction to the changed conditions of production in the post Cold War era and a departure from the avant-garde of the auteur movement of New German Cinema.   

New German Cinema – coming into existence in the 1960s and defining German national cinema through international renown was marked by auteur-directors engaging in cinematic critique. Objects of critique were Germany’s past, its lack of a will for revolutionary change and a tendency within film production to gloss over a problematic past by producing escapist fantasies and idealized visions of domestic bliss. According to Rentschler, New German Cinema produced a „programmatic endeavor“, which saw the purpose of films „not just [in telling] stories and orchestrat[ing] effects; they interrogated images of the past in the hope of refining memories and catalyzing changes“

In terms of the „Cinema of Consensus“, Rentschler argues that by the 1980s both audience interest in and financial support for critical art cinema had dwindled and that this marked a turn towards popular appeal and a shift of state subsidies towards productions with sound economic considerations. The filmmaker’s interests shifted towards lighter entertainment, away from critique and moralizing towards self-discovery and „close to home stories“ of urban life. Rentschler argues, that Cinema of Consensus „did not sell abroad because it was perceived as both too German and yet not German enough. It had stars familiar only to German audiences and generic designs that were not readily exportable because they were done better and more effectively elsewhere.“ But it is important to note that during this time, production conditions became globalized and that German cinema needed to address transnational concerns in order to survive. 

It is during this phase that transnationalism first shows in terms of actors and directors migrating to the US. This is when Roland Emmerich turns from bad German imitations of Chucky in Joey (1985) to blockbusters such as Stargate (1994) and the over-the-top American-ness of Independence Day (1996). It is when US-audiences are introduced to Til Schweiger, whose successes of Manta Manta (1991) or Der bewegte Mann (1994) led to his Hollywood debut in the action movie The Replacement Killers (1998) and subsequent appearances in Driven(2001), Tomb Raider (2003) or King Arthur (2004) – so sorry! More talented, successful, and well-known to US viewers is probably Franka Potente, whose breakthrough came as Lola in Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola, Run (1998) and who has since starred in Blow (2001), Bourne Identity (2002), Dr. House (2009), and American Horror Story(2012) – you’re welcome!

Luckily, globalized markets and transnational production have also brought with them an infusion of German cinema with new talent and radical ideas resulting in a diversification of post-millennial German cinema. There is for example the talent of directors that migrated to Germany, a return towards a critique of German realities and a negotiation of the recent past in the Berlin School, successful German heritage films revisiting German history, a trend in filmmaking to aim for larger international audiences with the incorporation of generic conventions and aesthetics from Hollywood and of course an internationalization of production conditions leading to transnational cooperations in many films. As such, post-millennial German cinema could be said to fulfill what Eric Rentschler has mourned as lacking in the Cinema of Consensus: „New German auteurs [who] might mediate between the personal and the popular, the radical and the accessible, the alternative and the mainstream“.

Interestingly, when taking stock of German Film Studies, the post-millennial film is lauded for its international achievements and especially its diversification of approaches. Yet, almost all of the critical attention remains on films with a strong realist agenda and as Paul Cooke notes with an emphasis on German history: „when it comes to the types of films produced, the best way for German product to be successful abroad is clearly to tell stories that foreground its national specificity, and nothing does that better, it would seem, than films which present images of the nation’s problematic past.“ (199f.) The German heritage film, as it is sometimes called, is the most shining example of successful transnationalism and post-millennial German Cinema – proven in its Oscar success. 

In fact, a specific stance towards German history is what distinguishes two trends of contemporary German cinema films as identified by Kapczynski and Richardson: They argue that German film either takes a pastist or a presentist stance. Pastist films center on history and renegotiate specific historic events, rewriting contemporary understanding of historical progress and finding neglected aspects of counterhistory. Films in this mode include the historical drama or heritage film as much as a recent surge in historical documentaries and as a third noticeable trend the restorational work on damaged film classics such as the 2010 restored version of Lang’s classic Metropolis.   

Presentist films on the other hand concentrate on contemporary society and its relationship to the past. History here becomes a reflective screen for a commentary on the present, a consideration of impact on society today. History becomes a direction of movement from past to present to future. This younger generation of filmmakers, German-born or migrated to Germany, has embraced the German present in its diversity and critically negotiates existing dichotomies past/present, here/there, us/them. Where then, the question remains, does on situate a genre such as horror and how does the contemporary German horror film reflect these trends? It is interesting that a cursory overview of critical works of contemporary German cinema or even German cinema history reveals an astonishing lack of genre fiction beyond the scope of the expressionist films of the Weimar Republic. 

In fact, Randall Halle has been one of very few scholars to point out that, the horror film has been „largely disregarded“ and that it should become a focus of inquiry as „[g]enre studies are a central aspect of the analysis of popular films and popular culture, given that films produced as genre occupy the center of popular film production“ (281). Steffen Hantke goes even further, arguing that the „conspicuous absence of the horror film“ from accounts of German cinematic history is due to what he calls „a rhetorical and argumentative strategy“ (xiv) that presents a specific narrative about German cinema – one in which dubious genre films have no large role to play. 

Hantke proposes that an alternative history of German cinema could be written, in which genre film would not be marginalized and fragmented but rather be seen as an integral part of the diversity of German film production. This alternative history, understanding the horror genre to encompass as larger variance of films and moods, would then move from The Weimar period and its expressionist experiments with psychic states towards the 1950s and 60s with their suspense driven films such as the Edgar Wallace series that ran close to 40 films of delightful terror between 1959 and 1972.

Shifting in the 1970s towards exploitation movies on the one hand and New German Cinema associated films such as in  „The Tenderness of Wolves“ by Ulli Lommel on the other before delving into underground productions of gore and splatter with Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik films in the 1980s and his Schramm in the 1990s, as well as Schlingensief’s Germany trilogy, the German Chainsaw Massacre a key installment of what Randall Halle calls „unification horror“.  

In his essay of the same name Halle makes clear that there is much to be gained from such a reframing of film history, showing the increase in horror film production over the course of the 1990s – an increase so significant as to represent „5-6 percent of the total production“ of film in Germany. During the early post-Wende period, Halle shows, young, self-taught, independent, and subculture affiliated filmmakers made use of aesthetics of abjection and uncanny in order to represent their social realities. Taking genre conventions of the splatter film from Hollywood and infusing it with acts of sexual transgression (such as necrophilia or sodomy) these films push the boundaries of taste and propriety. Halle argues that the films are a reaction towards the chaotic and disorientingchanges wrought on Germany because of the unification process. And here I would like to quote him in more detail: 

„Production for the horror genre (re)emerges during periods of social turmoil. Horror film produces a particular and popular form of mass space that both emerges out of a historically chaotic period and further offers its audience a pointed experience to address that chaos. Generally speaking, the visions of monstrosity, the uncanny, the abject in horror films create for individual spec­tators a nexus of social context and mass psychology. Specifically speaking, the German Underground Horror films do not only mark a new figuration of cultural anxiety, they mark general points of transition in culture, cultural labor as such.“

And here it is important to remind oneself that this Cinema of Abjection is a parallel development of the end 1980s, early 1990s vapid Cinema of Consensus. Whereas mainstream production of the time dealt with a superficial identity crisis in the urbanite lifestyle, with the stress of shifting relationships and finding one’s position in consumer society, filmmakers such as Buttgereit or Schlingensief celebrated the expulsion and exclusion of the undesirable and explored the depths of the corroded German social psyche.  

But of course the social turmoil and anxiety of a disorienting reality has not ceased in the new millennium – if anything it has grown with globalization. European identity is in flux and Germany as a key figure in Europe has had to face unique challenges: the war on terror, a clear position against US military interests, the financial crises, refugees at the doorstep, the Easter European integration and now conflicts and on and on … the new millennium is chaotic and disorienting as a default. This then, I want to argue, is the reason for the continued surge in horror film production that can be found in the 2000s and 2010s. 

This post-millennial horror film, I want to argue, is marked strongly by the diverging forces of tradition and innovation. These filmmakers are part of the young generation that sees their films produced in a globalized market and influenced by internationalized consumer expectations. Thus, they adhere to generic formula and organize their narratives according to the desires of Hollywood-fed audiences. But on the other hand, they also innovate generic conventions – some more, some less successfully. They infuse the commodity of the genre film with elements and aspects of German tradition and German distinctiveness. They continue, for example, the tradition of German horror film, nodding their head towards the aesthetics and ideas of expressionism, remembering the social radicalism of the underground, and are in awe of the highly stylized art forms of New German Cinema. They mix into the generic convention a knowledge of history (that prototypical German topic). They produce films that balance transnational appeal and German heritage, both in terms of political history and German cinematic history. 

Let me give you a few examples before I continue with my analysis of Hell. Stefan Ruzowitzky’s film Anatomy makes use of the generic formulas of both the medical thriller (think Michael Crighton’s Coma [1978]) and the teen slasher (think Wes Craven’s Scream [1996]) by setting the film at a medical college and having a scalpel wielding mass murder amidst the student population. But Ruzowitzky also addresses German culture and history – by promoting the body worlds exhibit of Gunter Hagens and linking it to medical experimentation of an old secret society and the part it played during the Third Reich. References to Joseph Mengele and the Nazis abound as much as patriarchic structures and the hubris of scientific experimentation. The film clearly points out the historic path leading from Nazi experiments to the present structures in the renowned university and the scientific community.

Christian Alvart’s 2005 film Antibodies re-imagines the serial killer narrative of Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) and places it in a community in bleak and demographically threatened rural East Germany. When the psycho killer Gabriel Engel hunts for innocent children and thus robs the small village of its future, the narrative becomes infused with the distrust and laying blame that can only be understood with a historical background of Stasi-guilt. The simple-minded, local cop is tempted by media attention, career moves and the Babylonian metropolis of Berlin, before returning to his roots and the family values represented in his home. 

Andreas Prochaska’s Dead in 3 Days from 2006 and even more so the sequel from 2008 are remarkable for their use of the Austrian dialect and the slasher film treatment based in the confined mental space of the Austrian Alps. What international audiences connect to the Sound of Music is here deconstructed as debased, backwoodsy and claustrophobic. The first film still adhering to the teen slasher formula lets a group of graduates pay the price for the narrow-minded Austrian rural mindset. In the second film Prochaska turns things around and innovates the genre by shifting it into rape revenge fantasy and having his protagonist slash through a degenerate Alpine farm family that keeps its son’s rape victims for nourishment.  

Marvin Kren’s 2010 debut film Rammbock probably owes as much to genre staple Day of the Dead as it does to Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Kren sets his zombie apocalypse in a Berlin apartment complex and its closed off back courtyard and refuses the conventional violence and gore. The result is a commentary on close-quarter living and anonymity in an urban center such as Berlin, staged as a chamber piece with need of very few horror effects. The despair of urban life seeps through the beautiful, dark and gentle photography without any need for zombie bloodshed.  

In The Depraved, Andy Fetscher’s 2011 film, a group of students explores the underground ruins of Berlin – seeking an old Nazi Bunker and some thrills. The film’s first part thus enacts the exploitation of gruesome history as tourist attraction and thrills its audience with genre conventions of underground tunnels and Neonazi thugs threatening violence. But then the film decidedly shifts into a torture porn fantasy like Hostel by introducing the old Stasi border patrol officer Armin. Mad as a hatter he sees multicultural Berlin and its tourists as a threat to the old regime and kidnaps and tortures the group for insurgent information. Markers of a recent history here functioning as reminder of unresolved tensions of a GDR past and the rapid developments of Berlin to become an international hot spot. 

And lastly, in Marvin Kren’s Blood Glacier, creature horror is invoked as a genre to comment on global warming and the Austrian provinciality in dealing with such a global event. When confronted with an ancient life-form found in the melting glaciers that mutates indigenous species into monsters, Austrian scientists and politicians are depicted as helpless and infighting bureaucrats. The once picturesque Alpine landscape has become an inhospitable wasteland, and threatened nature – Austria’s most precious resource – actively fights back against its exploitation by media, science and politics.   

My final example, and the one film I would like to spend the rest of this talk on is, Tim Fehlbaum’s Hell from 2011. In my opinion, Hell is the epitome of the post-millennial German horror film in that it finds the perfect mixture of heritage and convention, of German and transnational elements. On the surface, the film evokes clichéd Hollywood conventions, moving from the premise of the post-apocalpytic road movie in the first half of the film into the generic conventions of the backwoods slasher or cannibal horror film in the second half. 

The film takes place in 2016 after the earth has been scorched by massive solar flares. Nature has died, the sun is brutal and water has become the most valuable resource. The film follows Marie, her sister Leonie and her boyfriend Philipp as they drive towards the Bavarian mountains in the hope of finding food and water. They are ambushed and taken to an old farmhouse, where a backwoods family survives by feasting on passers-by. Marie has to fight for her and her sister’s life … as one can see, the synopsis leaves little to be desired in terms of fulfilling Hollywood-nourished expectations. 

It is also interesting to note that production and financing are transnationally infused. Fehlbaum is Swiss, but he studied in Munich, where the film’s primary production company is located as well. Both German and Swiss film subsidies provided partial financing. His local producers are well-known in Germany for their work on transnational films such as Anatomy or Krabat, financed for example through Sony’s national branch. But the film’s executive producer is Roland Emmerich who brokered the deal with Paramount and got the final bit of money needed as well as a distribution deal to bring Hell to theatres worldwide.  

Fortunately, Fehlbaum did not listen Emmerich’s suggestion to film in English and for a distinctly international audience. Instead, the film remains strongly rooted in Germany and its traditions of German cinema and theatre – not in the least because of its German all-star cast. In contrast to many genre productions, especially the German underground horror film, the film wants the best of both worlds, as one critic argues: „The film is both a genre shocker full of cannibalism in a post-apocalyptic landscape, […] and a real actor’s drama.“ Both Hannah Herzsprung and Stipe Erceg have had successful lead-roles in German films such as The Edukators or The Baader Meinhof Complex and might be internationally recognizable for their supporting roles in US-films such as The Reader or Unknown. On the other hand, Lars Eidinger and Angela Winkler are renowned theatre actors at the famous Berlin Schaubühne, where they starred in plays from Shakespeare to Ibsen. But Winkler is probably best known for her work in the New German Cinema, where she famously had the lead in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or as Oskar Mazerath’s mother in The Tin Drum.   

Fehlbaum further chose close-to-home German locations, such as the all too familiar Tankstelle around the corner or the Autobahn. He also provides simple examples of ordinary German life by casually dropping cues of regional access such as the Ja! brand food in the trunk of the beat up old Volvo or the Mr. Tom peanut bar and the Süddeutsche Zeitung that Marie finds. Further, Fehlbaum evokes a historicity that is distinctly German. Leonie finds a self-made CD marked ABI-Mix (a music mix for a graduation party) on which the only real song of the film is Nena’s 99 Red Balloons in its German version. The song provokes a specific German history of the 1980s that reverberates with the setting and theme of the film, while at the same time being one of the most recognizable German songs for international audiences. Further, the films two main locales are thriving with historical connotations that warrant a detailed analysis. Both the German forest and the German Bauernhof are deeply engrained with a cultural history that is evoked in the movie without it ever being expressly discussed on the thematic level. 

And I believe this is where the film’s „presentist“ agenda plays a strong role. A symbol such as the German forest – which has cultural meaning in the sense of fostering nationhood and German identity cannot be evoked and decon­struc­ted as it is in Hell without reverberating with a historical past that produces meaning for the present … on the one hand, the German forest is, as Jeffrey Wilson argues, „a flexible, malleable symbol“ that „served as a metaphor for the nation itself, linked together across both time and space. Woodlands rested like a symbolic green blanket over the entire landscape, physically uniting the nation.“ (19)

As a national symbol the German forest resounds with the Roman mythology of Germans born from tree spirits and vanishing into the woods to loose their enemies, it resonates with the Romantic ideals of Waldeinsamkeitand finding oneself, of being akin to nature – which of course other nations were not. Here Caspar David Friedrich depicts the lost French Chasseur trying to navigate the dense German forest. The forest was thus a source of safety, it provided for the nation both shelter and resources – and it became a symbol for all of Nature. In itself the forest here is reflective of a deeply felt individualism and non-con­formity found in the non-uniform matter and steadfastness of the German oak.  

These ideals are then appropriated for national identity and an ethnic ideology, „völkisch“ in German, which argues the German tribe intricately connected to its land and forest – the idea of the ‚eternal German forest‘ structures the nation in its metaphorical power. Wilhelm Riehl thus sees the German nation bound to its forests, making its preservation key to the survival of the German people. During the Nazi period of Blood and Soil – more on which in a minute – the preservation of the woods and its national character even became a matter of state policy. 

That nation and forest were deeply entwined during history – and in fact still are for most German’s today – becomes even clearer in the recent past. For most viewers today, the film’s images of a scorched forest must be reminiscent of a debate during the 1980s, which saw a dramatic media output on the death of the German forest. Images such as these dominated news programs during much of the 1980s. A public outcry against acid rain, industrial spillage and other environmental hazards at the time brought with it not only the rise of the Green party but also a strong sense of the forest as German national heritage. As Jeffrey Wilson argues: „The discourse about the impending death of Germany’s forests in the 1980s seems to bear this point out, demonstrating a sig­nificant public attachment to the forests, accompanied by national sentiment, with images of iconic German landscapes denuded of forest raising the alarm.“ (225) 

When considering all of these aspects of a cultural history, the layered meanings embedded in this identification with the German forest and the trajectory of past to present to possible future – the film’s images of a scorched and completely destroyed forest shockingly visualize the point of both environmental and social collapse – no order remains, a staple in post-apocalyptic films that here is implicitly transported through the historicity of the connotation. The national symbol – that which rallied the populace a mere 30 years before under the banner of Umweltschutz (saving the environment) – has been completely wiped out. The 1980s megahit 99 Red Balloons underlying the images then drives home the point entirely – the song deals with the industrial-military complex and the destruction of the earth because of trigger happy powers-that-be: „Ninety-nine dreams I have had /
Every one a red balloon
/ It’s all over and I’m standin‘ pretty
/ In this dust that was a city / If I could find a souvenir
/ Just to prove the world was here
/ And here is a red balloon
/ I think of you and let it go.“ – Whether through nuclear war or ecological disaster, the 1980s omni­present threat of a complete devastation of the earth has come true: The warnings of the past unheard and bleakly realized in the film’s present. 

But the film evokes another historical cultural marker that further challenges the idea of a functioning society. The shift from post-apocalyptic science fiction to backwoods horror within the film is also present in its changed locality – the German forest is exchanged for another moment of cultural heritage: that of the Bauernhof, roughly translated as homestead or farmstead. It is here that the film situates its horror, in the form of a Bavarian family of farmers that have turned into cannibals. As Robin Wood famously argues, horror is a sublimation of something deeply repressed within a society. The image of the Bauernhof – to reverse the chronological order of connotations – has recently been that of an idyllic haven, a touristic reprieve from the stress and pressures of urban life. Trends in German society have idolized the rural, to be witnessed in the success of a diversity of cultural products, from magazines such as Landlust (meaning Pleasure of Rural Life) to the fifteenth edition of the Farming Simulator – a video game in which you take on the job of a professional farmer. 

Historically speaking though, the Bauernhof and rural life with it, has had an ambivalent association within German culture. During the 1950s and 1960s a wave of cultural depictions of idyllic fantasies of a simpler and friendlier life helped German society to cope with the realities of the recent Nazi past and to escape into a better, pastoral utopian world. That this was escapist fantasy then led to the New German Cinema’s critique of Heimatfilm – in its films rural life became claustrophobic, repressed and a grotesque veneer hiding hate and ugliness. In Jagdszenen aus Niederbayern (Hunting Scenes from Bavaria) – a village sets out to destroy non-conformity by hunting down a suspected homosexual, a promiscuous maid and foreign migratory workers. The film is Angela Winkler’s debut film, who here takes on the role of the rejected maid. Hell plays with this lineage, both of the critical Heimatfilm and of Winkler’s position – by giving her the role of matriarch of the cannibalistic farm family.  

But the Bauernhof carries with it an even stronger connotation that has its historic roots in the time before the 1950s – in Nazi Germany and its Blood and Soil propaganda. Here, the Bauernhof plays a central role for racial ideology and the shaping of a German heritage. Walther Darré, the main agrarian ideologue of the Nazis, discusses the difference between peasantry (farming because it is in your blood) and agriculture (as farming for profit). With this distinction in mind, he establishes several rules that make a farmstead part of a bloodline heritage, allows – even forces – the peasant to set his tribe first in dire times, and makes pure blood lineage an important criterion for keeping the farm in peasant hands. The farm and the tribe are blood bound and need to be kept alive – no matter what.

In Hell this complicated historical trajectory of the Bauernhof is used to evoke the blood and soil past and infuse it into the idyllic images of contemporary rural idolization, thus connecting the film to the artistic and critical program of New German Cinema. By showing the reality of a dilapidated and burnt farmstead that only houses a cannibalistic grotesque of the peasant ideal, the film implicitly situates the horror in the origin of that specific ideal, in the blood and soil fantasy of the racial ideology of Nazism and its purity of lineage.

We have not come far enough, the film seems to suggest. When material survival is threatened the old ideals resurface. The film reveals this in a intense scene that is full of terror, because it is jarring with our expectations. Marie and the other survivors that get captured and consumed are ignorant of the historical trajectory of the argument and are a blinded by a image of a peasant utopia that never existed – seeking the farm for their survival, and trusting the nurturing image of the matron, they fall prey to a deception that ultimately reveals the familiar as uncanny. 

What is interesting here is that the film reveals the trajectory from a historical „blood and soil“ to its diegetic present in a scene that is both an unveiling of the familiar figure of the nurturing mother as uncanny grotesque, and at the same time a prime example of the kind of generic reimagining that the post-millennial German horror film so effectively uses to thwart Hollywoodian expectations just enough to give the film its edge.

Elisabeth is not the crazy and barbaric cannibal matriarch but a mother seeking to secure a future for her sons and her farmstead. In fact, her son is not a brutal red-neck with a chainsaw – instead he is gentle, caring of his kid brother and too shy to make eye-contact with Marie. Marie on the other hand, who is the central focal point of the film, in her practicality assumes the final girl stereotype and then defies it by confidently using her sexuality to achieve security for her sister and herself and in the end frees the hero-type Tom from imprisonment. She is not a hyper­feminine action-hero in the cast of Alice from the Resident Evil films, but she is not a scream queen either. In all, the film’s biggest plus is its rejection of a male gaze – so common in genre film – and its strong, versatile and believable female characters. To ensure this, the film breaks its generic mold by refusing the spectacle of blood and splatter effects. Instead, the horror is sublimated into the human – into the believable, if extreme, reaction to scarcity and survival. The only violence ever to be depicted is the finale – when the emasculated prisoners escape the farm and are recaptured by the family. Its depiction is short and brutal, but film’s editing leaves more room to the imagination than to its special effects. 

As I hope to have shown, the post-millennial German horror film has left behind the genre’s obscure underground status and exchanged it for a hybrid position of being „simultaneously political and entertaining“ – of finding a larger audience and remaining true to its subversive possibilities. Films such as Hell by Tim Fehlbaum prove that they are connected to and aware of both a diverse German heritage and a transnational aesthetic dominated by Hollywood conventions. As Steffen Hantke says, in an article on Anatomy, but easily adapted to all post-millennial horror films: „German film can operate comfortably within the parameters of US horror film. Even more, it must operate within these parameters, eschewing the leaden gravity of many German problem films, if it wants to reach a large audience.“ (124) The post-millennial horror film is aware of its heritage, makes use of its cinematic and genre history, implicitly comments on German culture and its conflicted history while remaining rooted in a perspective on the present situation. It is deeply aware of generic conventions, carefully exploiting audience expectations and infusing them with innovative ideas. It is „German enough“ to warrant critical debate but not „too German“ to reject audience interest. It simply is a cinema on the fault line of heritage and Hollywood. Thank you very much for your attention. 

Zitieren wie folgt:

Schmeink, Lars. “Illusions of Genre: Post-Millenial German Horror Film between Heritage and Genre and Hollywood,“ Talk given at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 03 Dec 2014,