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Lost in the Rubble

The vibrant German film industry, which boasted a cinematic tradition and star system

relatively independent from Hollywood, found itself in shambles in the aftermath of World War

II. During the Third Reich, cinema served as Goebbel’s most powerful propaganda instrument.

Nationalistic films celebrated nationalism and militarism and entertainment movies projected

images of immaculate social stability. For its role in disguising the unpleasant realities of the

fascist regime, Nazi cinema has earned itself the name, “Dream Factory.”1 If Third Reich film

was the era of dreams, then the postwar era was a rude awakening to a rubble-strewn reality,

punctured by recurring nightmares instead of blissful dreams. It was this new state of mental

being that the German Trümmerfilme, or “rubble films,” attempted to reflect. Made mostly from

1946 to 1949, the rubble films only constituted a brief period in German film history in a short-

lived attempt to cultivate a new sensation of space.

The Germans’ experience with space was hardly pleasant. For a set, rubble filmmakers

could use the real tragic ruins of actual German cities. This close connection between diegetic

space and the actual space in which Germans found themselves stressed the fact that, unlike the

Nazi Dream Factory, the Trümmerfilme dealt with the real tangible problems of the here-and-now

in order to locate meaning in the cold hardships of everyday existence. These hardships actually

brought more Germans to the cinema. The theater was a warm place with comfortable seats in a

time of chronic heating and housing shortages. For a populace with few resources, it was the

most economical form of entertainment and provided the promise of temporary escape from the

miseries of everyday life.

Robert R. Shandley, Rubble Films: German Cinema in the Shadow of the Third Reich (Philadelphia: Temple
University Press, 2001), 9.
Initially, German film demand went unfulfilled, for cinematic infrastructure had largely

been destroyed and the Allies initially prohibited German films. Before long, the Allies realized

that film could be a useful medium for entertaining and pacifying a destitute and antagonistic

occupied people. Since German film demand could not be filled by current production, the

British and Soviets took up previously produced German films that the occupation censors

deemed appropriate for viewing by the German public. The Americans, on the other hand, chose

to mostly import Hollywood films to Germany. In addition to Hollywood’s commercial ambition

of infiltrating the German film market, the Americans also had cultural and political purposes.

As Roger Manvell describes in The German Cinema, “In the American Zone these films were

considered to be carefully chosen for their ‘escapist’ value and for their gradual infiltration of

new, more ‘democratic’ values. The result was an initial release of about fifty Hollywood films

prepared by the Motion Picture Export Association of America with sub-titles in German.”2

For the time being, the films fulfilled the logistical purpose of providing cheap

entertainment and escapism for an impoverished and war-stricken German people. These films

facilitated the occupation by redirecting the energies of German frustration away from the streets

and into the domesticating sphere of the theater. The Allies avoided showing anything

controversial or “which might appear to be propaganda or to hint even at the recent war in

Europe,”3 for their main concern was keeping the general peace.

In contrast to the other occupation powers’ approach to films, the Soviets quickly seized

film as a medium for active political reform and cultural engagement. Rather than using the

cinema simply as a means of distraction from the current state of affairs, the Soviets wanted to

make the Germans face their past and address an ignominious history of fascist abuses. It should

Roger Manvell, The German Cinema (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971), 102.
Manvell, 102.

be noted that almost all of the politically ambitious rubble films were made under the auspices of

Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA), the centralized state-owned East German film

company inaugurated by Soviet occupation authorities. DEFA’s purpose was to “reeducate” the

German citizens, which involved confronting the wrongdoings of the recent past and eliminating

fascist ideology in favor of socialism. With the production and screening of the rubble films,

audiences that retreated into theater space to avoid the berubbled exterior would only be

confronted again by rubble on the interior film screen. Those seeking a few hours of escapism

would be sorely disappointed.

Initially, the rubble films produced in DEFA studios met with critical and popular

success. The 1946 films, The Murderers Are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns, Wolfgang

Staudte) and Somewhere In Berlin (Irgendwo in Berlin, Gerhard Lamprecht), did well amongst

international critics and at the box office. However, by 1947, “rubble film” had become a

derogatory term. As Heide Fehrenbach remarks, “The gritty realism of Trümmerfilme soon wore

thin, and German audiences began to demand films that corresponded more to their fantasies

than mundane social realities. By early 1948, the genre was bust.”4 Initially, international critics

and filmmakers mistakenly imagined that the rubble films would play the role of unearthing and

addressing repressed memories of a Nazi past. However, German audiences, who considered the

rubble films excessively preachy and somber, were more interested in retreating to glamorous

fantasies than dismantling the Nazi Dream Factory. Rather than facing the past, people preferred

to be entertained or distracted away from it. Especially in West Germany, the people were

forward-looking; the rubble was being cleared and the economy was picking up. Before long,

West Germany would enter a new era of prosperity, outpacing both of its West European

Heide Fehrenbach, Cinema in Democratizing Germany: Reconstructing National Identity After Hitler (Chapel Hill:
The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 149.

occupiers, France and Britain. With a bright future, full of the diversions inherent in a capitalist

consumer economy, no one wanted to look back.

Indeed, by 1949, few German films were being produced for the sake of hashing out the

nation’s contentious past. Most films shied away from political topics altogether.

Chart 1: German films completed or in production but

not yet released at beginning of 1949

cal films political
5% 15%

entertainment deals
44% w/contemporary
issues but not

Even films that did attempt to confront political or contemporary issues often tried to soften its

bite by applying humor to otherwise serious problems.

Chart 3: Breakdow n of film s dealing w /contem porary

Chart 2: Breakdow n of political film s
humorous or

The dark, menacing shadows of the rubble films, and its struggle with sobering questions of war

guilt and responsibility, were rarely welcome on German screens by 1950.

Critics complained that German film “betrayed its initial promise,”6 for the general

feeling was that “the talents which had shown their initial strength during the three years of

social adjustment were soon to be stifled, unless they turned wholly in the direction of escape.”7
Number of films in each category from Manvell, 112-113.
Fehrenbach, 148.
Manvell, 113.

In a sort of final judgement on the film of that era, Fehrenbach says, “Some of the best postwar

German films had been the earliest”8 – the rubble films.

Rubble films, as their name suggests, dealt with the horror of the devastated German

cityscape and the project of reconstruction. They involved a break with previous ways of

representation and expressed a desire to distinguish themselves from the classical continuity and

linearity of the Ufa film system’s style. Rubble films experimented with the emotionally charged

mise-en-scéne of the Weimar Expressionist tradition, borrowing from detective thrillers and film

noir. German filmmakers believed that a new way of looking at history required a new cinematic


Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns, 1946) was

the first film made by DEFA and is considered by many to be the finest and most characteristic

rubble film. In it, Dr. Hans Mertens, a recently returned veteran from the German army,

occupies an apartment with a former concentration camp victim, Susanne Wallner, with whom he

eventually develops a romantic relationship. During the film, he encounters his former army

captain, Ferdinand Brückner. Brückner, who had ordered the liquidation of Jewish civilians

during the war in Hans’ presence, is now settled comfortably back into civilian life as the owner

of a factory. Hans, haunted by guilt, attempts to kill Brückner but is stopped by Susanne. In the

hands of the law, Brückner eventually ends up behind bars.

Fehrenbach, 148.


Above is the first shot of The Murderers Are Among Us. A large piece of rubble obstructs

our view and confines us to a shallow and claustrophobic space, but the camera slowly rises out

of the mire to orient us with the larger environment. However, it is a muddled orientation, with

canted framing. Throughout the film, a lack of establishing shots results in this indeterminacy of


The camera appears as tipsy as the drunk protagonist, Hans, shown in image 2. Throughout

much of the film, Hans wanders and meanders through the rubble landscape. Just as the wrecked

streets are no longer arranged in neat straight lines, Merton’s motion through these streets is

similarly irregular. Having lost his control over space, the rubble exerts sway over Hans’


Mirroring Hans’ psychological turmoil and confusion, most of the film is characterized

by oblique camera angles and destabilizing viewpoints. The composition of elements on the

screen is frequently at odds with the limits of the frame, as in image 2, where the ground and

buildings appear slanted. Gravity no longer acts as the centralizing force that pulls towards the

bottom of the screen. This spatial tilt indicated by much of the camera positioning, and the

disorientation of the entire German nation, is made explicit by a poster of Deustschland hanging

crooked on a crumbly wall:

Having lost its moral compass, the nation must, in a manner of speaking, “set things straight.”

The opposition between the screen’s composition and its frame are accentuated by scenes

with strong diagonals:

4 5

Like image 3, both of the above scenes are shot with oblique angles. Image 4, shot from a low

angle, pictures a passing train and image 5, shot from a high angle, shows Hans ascending the

stairs. In both cases, people are traversing diegetic space within a screen space slashed with

diagonals. Train tracks or railings obstruct our view. The shot in image 4 is taken almost right

below the tracks, inducing a sense of claustrophobia.

The film’s constant refusal to give the viewer a neat, satisfying visual composition

indicates that German sight has been badly damaged. Only now is the nation’s blindness during

the years of the Nazis being revealed. Mirrors and windows, which are common metaphors for

the cinema, appear cracked and broken throughout the film. Thus, cinema has registered the

trauma of the war era, during which time Nazi propagandists usurped the screen and inflicted

blindness upon the populace. In one scene, a lady takes her broken eyeglasses to be fixed by a

local eyeglass repairman. He says, “I’ll see if I can find another frame that fits.” Indeed, this

statement could be a manifesto for the makers of rubble films – searching for a new cinematic

frame to counteract the distorting lens of the Nazi Dream Factory. He goes on to say, “This junk

here is giving me a new start in life.” Similarly, German filmmakers were taking the rubble, the

utter devastation and seemingly worthless trash left by the war, and reappropriating it towards

building a new cinematic spatial orientation and repairing Germany’s sight.

Image 6 illustrates the brokenness and fragmentation of German vision. Throughout this whole

scene of dialogue between Hans and Susanne, one of the windowpanes bisects Hans’ face. The

uncanny effect of viewing Hans’ divided face underscores the neurotic divide within Hans’ inner

being. Visual reinforcements of this tortured psychological fragmentation appear throughout the

film. The low-key lighting characteristic of film noir casts Hans’ face in high contrast, indicating

his torn feelings. Below, Image 7 features a shadow of Hans cast upon the ceiling, shot from an

unusual angle. The shadow, representing the demons populating Hans’ mind, is upside-down and

signifies the overturning of Hans’ being.

Hans’ overturned being, torn between dualities of dark and light, is the result of

witnessing the liquidation of Jewish civilians during the war. In a flashback to this traumatic

moment, numerous juxtapositions intensify the horrific quality of the scene. As the sound of

gunfire during the liquidation rattles outside in offscreen space, this sound mixes with the cheery

singing of German officers during a holiday party. The décor of the room is that of bright

holiday cheer. One shot shows a crucifix, with a helmet hung on one side of the cross and a

bayonet laid on the other side. This militarized crucifix depicts the contradictions that rack

Hans’ mind throughout the film. Joy, suffering, religion, and violence are all joined together in

one unholy cacophony.

The literal absence of harmony is signaled in the beginning of the movie through

discordant jazz music. Later, Hans breaks up a chess game in a fit of drunken rage. Chess,

which divides up the board space and playing pieces into the two neat binaries of black and

white, jars with Hans’ experience with ambiguity and the mixing of seemingly irreconcilable

notions, such as the crucifix and bayonet, during the war. Hans verbally expresses his rejection

of simplistic moral binaries and abstractions with the statement, “Only in fairy tales is there a

choice between good and bad.” Another time, Hans says, “It depends on your viewpoint.”

Indeed, the entire film attempts to capture multiple viewpoints in a fragmented and destabilized

way of discerning space.

Hans’ comment on viewpoint is even more striking in light of the fact that, regarding the

most traumatic and important scenes of the film, we are given no view at all of the action. The

intensity of the scenes lies in the tension between offscreen and onscreen space. In the climax of

the film, Hans prepares to kill Brückner, the army captain who ordered the massacre. Here,

Hans’ offscreen presence is indicated only by a ghoulish silhouette that overshadows the terrified


The shadow, again, represents Hans’ inner demons and ghosts of guilt and responsibility.

Brückner, who also symbolizes the inner demon of both Hans and Germany, is visually interior

to Hans’ shadow. Hans’ desire to kill Brückner is thus an attempted exorcism of his own

darkened soul. In this scene, the viewer hears Brückner narrate Hans’ actions rather than seeing

it firsthand. Brückner first comments on Hans’ ominous facial expression and then exclaims in

alarm that Hans is taking out a gun. Hans’ shadow grows larger and larger in contrast to the

captain, soon engulfing the captain in darkness. The audience must fulfill the phenomenological

role of imagining rather than seeing the tortured face and soul of Hans as he prepares to commit

murder. In this scene, Hans is nothing more than a shadow, a ghost of a man.

Offscreen space is also connoted by Hans’ stares toward the direction of the camera.

Usually, he is not staring at anything in his immediate surroundings, but rather, into his inner self

or into the past.

9 10

A gradual zoom to close-up of Hans’ face heightens the intensity of the scene and challenges the

viewer to look through Hans’ eyes and into his psychological space. In image 9, Hans initially

appears to be staring frontally at us, but he is actually staring through us and into the past. The

blurred edges of the screen space signal to the viewer a shift in space and time to a flashback in

Hans’ mind, and the scene is accompanied by a sonic flashback to nonsimultaneous sounds of

war. In image 10, Hans is listening to the captain’s Christmas speech. He stares offscreen to the

right, presumably watching the captain, but is concurrently looking into the past and begins

flashing back to the time of the massacre. Thus, offscreen space establishes both spatial and

temporal tensions.

During the massacre flashback, the viewer initially assumes that the screen shows Hans’

visual memory. However, to our surprise, Hans walks onto the screen from the offscreen left.

Since Hans could not possibly remember seeing himself from a third-person point of view, he

must be imagining the memory, or reconstructing a traumatic moment. He is thinking of how he

must have or would have looked. Hans is horrified to view his own powerlessness through this

imagined memory. The third-person point of view expresses the introspective desire to see or

represent one’s self. All of the rubble films are obsessed with scrutinizing and representing

Germany, the collective “self.” Thus, Hans’ imagined memory represents the rubble films’

attempts to re-imagine the role of the German people during WWII atrocities.

Introspection is figured again in image 11, which features the windows to Hans and

Susanne’s apartment. Hans, a former surgeon who has now lost his will to practice medicine,

uses his old x-rays to seal up the broken windows. He tells Susanne, “Here you see a day out of

my past,” and begins to recollect memories of himself. Ironically, rather than using these

windows to look into the present exterior space, Hans and Susanne use these windows to look

into the past and the interior. The x-rays symbolize the film’s attempt to introspect, to look

inside a human being. Hans finds it necessary to first confront his past and himself before he can

become outward looking.


Juxtaposed with these introspective images is the house of Brückner, who ordered the

liquidation of civilians during the war. Feeling neither guilt nor remorse, he has re-entered

civilian life with confident vigor. Décor emphasizes the difference between Brückner and Hans.


Above is a conventional shot that neatly establishes the comfortably open space of the room.

The verticals of the walls and horizontals of the windowpanes are parallel and perpendicular to

the edge of the frame, thus leaving the viewer with a satisfying sense of order. Brückner’s

resettlement into civilian life is trim and well organized, mirroring his clean conscience. Hans’

chaotic and cluttered apartment, which echoes the confusion of his guilt-ridden mind, stands in

complete contrast to Brückner’s bright room. Brückner’s room has already been repaired from

the damage of the war. He says, “Even got real glass in the windows.” This clean and clear view

onto the outside world offered by Brückner’s new windows contrasts with Hans’ x-ray window,

which communicated Hans’ need to first examine the past and the interior soul.

The Nazi cinematic aesthetic, what Eric Rentschler called, “the cinema of clear lines and

straightforward answers,”9 is a major source of criticism in The Murderers Are Among Us. The

décor of Brückner’s room is only instance when Staudte attempts to portray the “Nazi aesthetic.”

In his films, Staudte reinterpreted three spatial figurations in Nazi cinema: rotation, seriality, and

verticality. To see how Staudte dealt with these spatial formations, we must first examine two

films by Nazi propagandist Leni Reifenstahl: Triumph of the Will (Der Triumph Des Willens,

1935) and Day of Freedom (1935).

Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and its Afterlife (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1996), 53.

Triumph of the Will, a documentary of the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi Party rally, starts out

with a shot of a flying plane, thus establishing the spatial sensation of loftiness or height. Within

this plane is Hitler as he flies towards the masses of faithful followers at Nuremberg. A shot-

reverse-shot sequence between the airplane and the enthusiastic masses on the ground establishes

a dialogue between Hitler and his subjects carried out in a relationship based on vertical spatial

difference. Later in the documentary, this relationship is further reinforced by angle of framing.

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When giving his speeches, Hitler is viewed through low-angle shots, exaggerating his size and

stature and elevating him to a semi-religious figure of power and excellence. The crowds, on the

other hand, are shot with high angles, rendering them small and dependent. As Hitler delivers

his fiery speeches, the spectators are almost in a position of worship, with their necks arched as

they raptly look up at his figure and listen to his words.

Various tracking shots across soldiers’ helmets, belts, boots, and weapons furnish the

sensation of spatial repetition. Serial images appear on one side of the screen and exit on the

other in seemingly endless succession. These tracking shots celebrate uniformity and sameness.

With the swelling crowds, the soldiers represent limitless unanimity and solidarity. The endless

repetition conjures up the idea of infinity, which in turn suggests the infinite might of Germany.

Seriality also invokes the idea of mass production, which characterizes industrial efficiency. The

industriousness of the German people is represented in a scene in which soldiers awaken and

immediately fall into their respective roles in the army like a swarm of bees. Some are in charge

of serving rations, some are in charge of washing the uniforms, and others prepare the jeeps. The

dynamic army is a massive and well-oiled social machine. Each solider is a devoted cog in the

spinning wheels of this war engine.

In Day of Freedom, a documentary about the readiness and power of Germany’s armed

forces, seriality and uniformity is again a main visual theme. The opening shot of Days of

Freedom is shown below in image 15. The corridor of bayonets seem to go on into deep space

forever, communicating the endless might of the German army.


Staudte would later mimic this composition of serial visual elements extending into deep space.

For example, image 16 shows a scene from Staudte’s The Kaiser’s Lackey (Der Untertan), when

a group of young men carry out mindless and conformist rituals to gain membership to an

exclusive club.


This unquestioning conformity is what allows the German army to operate with machine-

like efficiency. In a military exercise in Day of Freedom, the soldiers are perfectly in sync with

the military machines, operating with fantastic coordination. The spatial movement of rotation is

omnipresent in the functioning of these machines, with frequent extreme close-ups of the

spinning propellers and wheels of military planes and vehicles.


Circular motions do not imply circular paths – the rotating wheels of a German tank hurls the

vehicle forward in a linear motion of conquest and progress. Each cog in the wheel of the

German military machine spins tirelessly for the forward advancement of the nation. The

soldiers constantly spin the wheels and gears of large artillery guns in order to elevate the angle

of the guns.


The artillery guns, lined up in a row, again recall the concept of seriality and repetition. Indeed,

repetition is the inherent in the motion of rotation. In regards to verticality, the upward oriented

cannons of the guns make them seem as if they are aspiring to loftiness, or as if these machines

are glorifying their leader with the infamous upward pointing Hitler salute.

Vertical height in Day of Freedom, just as in Triumph of the Will, is again symbolized by

airplanes. The final sequence of the documentary is a montage of warplanes. The superimposed

images of the warplanes, as one image fades into another, makes it appear as if they are flying in

all directions at once. Their access to space is expansive, limitless, and infinite, communicating

the spatial “freedom” stated by the title of the documentary. On the ground, soldiers also appear

to be moving in all directions at once; soldiers marching across the screen from the bottom right

to the top left then dissolve into another image of soldiers marching across the screen from

bottom left to top right. In one instance of Day of Freedom, there is a low-angle low-level shot

of an approaching tank. The tank rolls over the viewer’s entire field of vision, totalizing the

space in a display of enormous might.


The constant rotation and repetition around and across the screen is mesmerizing,

hypnotic. The near-magical powers of these spatial figurations become targets of criticism in

The Murderers Are Among Us. Near the end of Staudte’s film, Brückner delivers a highly

nationalistic Christmas speech to the workers at his factory. He says that, following the

devastation of Germany in the war, they must unite to build a “brighter” Germany. The vertical

dimension of space is again manipulated to define the relationship between a superior, Brückner,

and his underling workers. Brückner, who sports a Hitler-like mustache, is shot from a low-

angle while the factory workers are shot from a high-angle. The crowd looks up at him,


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The sense of hypnosis induced by the crowd’s vertical relationship to Brückner can also

occur with rotational motion. In a bawdy cabaret, close-up shots of a spinning phonograph and

of twirling skirts associate rotation with two forms of culture, music and dance. The rotation

emphasizes culture’s hypnotic powers and its ability to spin lies and fantasies. The cabaret is

associated with moral corruption and sexual lewdness, especially since Staudte chooses to shoot

some of the sequence of spinning skirts from beneath the dancers’ legs:


The lewd captain agrees to meet the dancers in the dressing room, saying, “I always wanted to

get a look behind the scenes.” The implication is that he wants to get a look under the dress, just

as the viewers were offered earlier in the scene.

Rotational motion in space corresponds with cyclical movement in time. Much has

already been written on the erratic temporal quality of rubble films, mostly from a

psychoanalytic perspective on memory and trauma. Drawing from Julia Kristeva, Erica Carter

says that “Memory-time is cyclical, repetitive, ‘hysterical’ in the Freudian sense.”10 Many rubble

film protagonists are subject to uncontrollable recurring nightmares about the traumatic war.

Their temporal dislocation is manifested in the films through numerous flashbacks and a non-

linear narrative, all indicating that the rubble films are dealing with the question of a tortured


Of relevance to this paper is the question of how this temporal quality of the rubble films

is figured spatially. The film Rotation (Wolfgang Staudte), as the title suggests, centralizes the

Erica Carter, “Sweeping up the Past: Gender and History in the Post-war German ‘Rubble Film,’” Heroines
without Heroes: Reconstructing Female and National Identities in European Cinema 1945-51, ed. Ulrike Sieglohr
(London and New York: Cassell, 2000), 100.

issue of rotation, both temporal and spatial. Released in 1949, Rotation was the most expensive

DEFA production up to that point. The story, which spans from 1925 to 1945, focuses on the life

of a fictional character, Hans Behnke. Hans is an average man who is simply trying to provide a

comfortable lifestyle for his wife and son. When the Nazis come into power, Hans tries to stay

away from politics, but joins the Nazi party simply for economic reasons, since he cannot keep

his job at the printing press or get promoted unless he is a party member. As the film progresses

and the evils of the Nazi regime become more clear, Hans reluctantly helps his Communist

brother-in-law set up an underground printing press. When his naïve son, Helmut, finds out,

Helmut reports his father’s treason to Nazi officials. Hans goes to jail and Helmut goes off to

fight the war for Germany. By the end of the film, the war is over. Hans’ wife has been killed by

the war and Helmut, having discovered the error of his ways, is reconciled with his father.

The opening shot of Rotation features a large spinning roller, which we soon discover is

part of a printing press rolling out newspapers. It is thunderous, relentless, and impersonal. Like

the indifferent hand of fate, it recounts the unstoppable tribulations of history, declaring

headlines like “4 MILLION UNEMPLOYED!” and “WAR!” The mechanical and repetitious

reproduction of culture is featured again in a fade from the printing press to spinning record

player in Hans’ home. The record player is playing happy and upbeat music that, beyond

anything else, conveys a sense of middle-class complacency when juxtaposed with the previous

monumental headlines.

Staudte shows that Hans is part of this mechanized process of rotation and repetition, the

end product of which is cultural reproduction. During the Weimar era, which was plagued by

high unemployment, Hans takes a variety of odd jobs to earn money. In one instance, he is one

of about a dozen men pushing a large wheel. It is uncertain what the wheel is intended to

manufacture – it is simply one wheel in a larger capitalist machine. Similarly, Hans, like the

undifferentiated men around him, is just one cog in the wheel of a faceless sociopolitical

machine that he makes no attempt to understand. In another instance, Hans is explicitly used to

in the project of cultural reproduction. He, along with several other men, walk the streets with

signs that feature pictures of scantily clad women to advertise a local cabaret. During these odd

jobs, Hans is always accompanied by several other men performing the same exact task.

Seriality, or visual repetition, emphasizes the workers’ lack of individuality.

In this film, rotation signifies endless repetition, especially the repetition of historical

tragedies. Therefore, rotation leads to nothing but stagnation, a state in which humanity turns

round and round in the same circle, never going anywhere. In contrast, rotation in Day of

Freedom leads to forward motion and progress rather than stagnation. It is the rotation of the

wheels of military vehicles that will allow the German army to surge forward and cut new

ground, in linear rather than circular motion. Staudte, clearly, has a more pessimistic view of

rotation. In his films, rotation implies fixation around a rigid locus or center, or rather, an

imagined center based upon illusions of national destiny and ethnic superiority.

At the end of Rotation, Hans’ son Helmut appears at a railroad crossing, looking exactly

like his father did at the same railroad crossing in one of the first scenes of the movie. The

similarity between Hans and Helmut’s situations at the beginning and end of the film suggests

that history is repeating itself. However, contrary to rotation, the railroad implies linear motion.

The crossing at the railroad suggests a transition from one space to another. Indeed, as Helmut

and his fiancé approach the same fork in the road that his parents once approached some twenty

years earlier, he takes the path on the left whereas his parents took the path on the right. Here,

Staudte maps political space onto filmic and physical space, with the right path representing the

rightist fascists and the left path representing the leftist Communists. The implication is that

Helmut has made the critical political choice to break out of history’s tragic cycles.

Similarly, Staudte’s mission as a filmmaker was to break the calamitous cycles of

historical violence by exposing the false discourses of fascism and nationalism. He aimed to

counteract the Nazis’ degradation of German culture and to revive or rescue the German people

from false texts. In one of the first scenes of Rotation, a long tracking shot depicts a train station

that has been converted into a makeshift hospital. This scene takes place near the end of the war,

so Germany’s loss is already imminent. The radio is on, enthusiastically recounting the war and

confidently forecasting ultimate German victory. A poster says, “We shall never surrender!” The

confidence and exuberance of the radio and poster, both forms of mechanically mass-produced

culture, stand in stark contrast to the mood exuded by the listless and despondent nurses and

wounded soldiers. The almost-complete silence of the passive and dejected people speaks the

volumes of truth that the bombastic radio and poster attempt to conceal – that Germany is losing

the war and that its people have already resigned to a state of defeat and misery. This tension,

especially between the aural radio and the visual image of the tattered people, exposes the

hypocrisy and lies disseminated by the fascist government.

The honesty of the visual image is sometimes accompanied by genuine text. When Hans

is thrown in prison, his scribblings and the scribblings of prisoners jailed there before him are

etched onto a barren wall. It lists friends that were executed, days imprisoned, and other

statements that embody a stark and spare honestly, in complete contrast to the embellished

posters and radio announcements. At the end of the film, the camera tracks down a list of names

– soldiers killed during the war. This internal military document, again with great restraint,

speaks the horrible truth that laid behind the confident discourse of the Nazi regime. This list

and the etchings on the prison wall are private texts, not produced for public mass consumption.

As such, they lack embellishment, and are naked and raw in conveying the horrible fates of

individual people.

Because the walls in berubbled German cities have fallen, the boundary between interior

and exterior dissolves. The terrifying truths that laid hidden in private interior spaces, both

physical and psychological, are exposed to the public. The rubble reveals the lies propagated by

fascist cultural texts, often through juxtaposition. The juxtapositions often operate through

tensions between the sound and the image, as in the case with Rotation’s scene of miserable

people listening to the confident radio. In Roberto Rosselini’s Germany, Year Zero (Germania,

Anno Zero, 1947), the camera tracks along the city’s rubble while a recording of one of Hitler’s

speeches plays in the background. We hear Hitler say, “We shall succeed! Victory shall be

ours!” in the context of the rubble, the embodiment of Germany’s utter failure and defeat. In

Staudte’s The Kaiser’s Lackey, the main character stands upon a podium and delivers a militant

nationalistic speech in a prewar setting. The next scene is set after the war in the same location,

which has been reduced to rubble. The main character’s speech is repeated again, but this time,

the visual accompaniment of rubble exposes the folly of his speech. If the spiring towers and

majestic architecture of Triumph of the Will represents lies, then the rubble is the truth laid bare.

In the permeable spaces of the rubble, hidden lies and hypocrisies are exposed. The facades of

the buildings are gone – all that is left is the naked truth.

Rubble space is the chaotic antithesis of the straight lines and orderly formations that

figure so largely in Leni Reifenstahl’s films. Ironically, the background of the opening image of

Somewhere in Berlin is that of a gridlike map, delineated in neat geometric blocks and lines.


The contrast with the following image of rubble reveals how every cognitive map the Germans

once utilized to grasp, understand, and navigate their landscape has been rendered useless. The

title itself, Somewhere in Berlin, indicates the Germans’ inability to definitively place themselves

in space. German loss is accompanied by the sensation of being spatially lost in the midst of the

confusing and unmapped rubble. Rubble is characterized by lack of seriality or repetition since it

cannot be reproduced. It portrays regression instead of progress; it is the endpoint – “year zero.”

In contrast to the openness, expansiveness, and freedom of Riefenstahl’s films, the rubble

films are characterized by claustrophobia. Whereas the tanks and planes appear to have

commanding access to all spaces in Day of Freedom, Hans in Rotation is constantly excluded

from or confined to designated spaces. Hans frequently finds himself excluded from bourgeois

spaces, as in one scene when Hans’ face is pictured behind the fence of a wealthy family. During

a scene set during the war, bombing makes space unlivable. Civilians seek refuge by hiding in

the sewers of a city. Germany military officers decide to set of an explosion that floods the

tunnel, consequently drowning the civilians, who are trapped in a space that contracts as the

water encroaches. The flooding of the tunnel is shot from a low level, such that the water filling

up the physical space of the tunnels is figured by greater filmic space allocated to the water as it

creeps up the screen. Earlier in the film, Hans and his family live in a dingy basement due to the

bad economic conditions of the Weimar Republic. Hans’ inability to control the space in which

his family lives is his greatest frustration, and he throws a tantrem bemoaning the fact that his

family has to live in a basement, a “rathole.” These subterranean spaces, the sewers and Hans’

basement, represent the “subaltern” or working class people, who are suppressed both politically

and spatially. Once Hans starts earning more money during the rise of the National Socialists,

his family moves to a more comfortable middle-class home. There, they are constantly cleaning

and trying to acquire commodities for the house.

In The Murderers Are Among Us, Susanne is also constantly cleaning and trying to create

order in the apartment she shares with Hans. However, Hans complains bitterly about the

neatness of the apartment. The orderliness of that space is too much for Hans to endure, for his

psychological being is characterized by chaos and ambiguity. Repulsed by the contradiction

between the neat apartment space and his inner turmoil, Hans repeatedly retreats to the

empathetic rubble.

The rubble space is as dangerous and unpredictable as it is disorderly. Marked by

instability, pieces of rubble could collapse at any moment. Before Susanne fixes up the

apartment, water leaks in through cracks and wind sweeps debris through the broken windows.

Porous boundaries allow a flow or flux between interior and exterior. In The Murderers Are

Among Us, this breakdown of boundaries is a positive circumstance, for the neat lines drawn by

the Nazis have been dissolved so that the contradictions within fascist culture can be revealed.

The reduction of Germany to rubble, though horrifying, is simultaneously a cleansing process

that reveals the terrible truth of the German past and allows the nation to redefine itself by

building a better cultural edifice.

However, in films like Germany, Year Zero and Somewhere in Berlin, the rubble is a

much more irredeemable and negative force. Violence created the rubble, and thus the rubble is

only capable of propagating more violence. In the final scene of Germany, Year Zero, there is a

shot-reverse-shot sequence between Edmund, the child protagonist of the film, and his nemesis,

the rubble. Then, he jumps off the rubble and commits suicide. The next shot is that of

Edmund’s body, which eventually exits the bottom of the screen as the camera tracks upward

until finally, all we see is the rubble.

Similarly, in Somewhere in Berlin, a young boy dies by falling off rubble. Throughout

the film, the rubble is a menacing space. Though adults find it difficult to navigate and control

the rubble, children run rampant throughout it in a state of near-anarchy. The adults cannot

manage to discipline their children no matter how hard they try. Thus, the rubble is a primitive

and uncivilized space. The militaristic children run wild; they enjoy playing war games by

shooting fireworks throughout the rubble, destroying property and hiding from adults with

impunity. In the end, the savage rubble must be tamed and order must be reestablished. Adults

demolish the rubble and begin rebuilding in an effort to reclaim the space for civilization.

Underscoring most of the rubble films is this belief that order must be reestablished, an

order that is possible only with the resurrection of male agency. Much has been written about the

role of gender in rubble films; here, I will only summarize the main points briefly. One of the

major results of Germany’s defeat was “a collective loss of belief in the dominant fiction of ideal

masculinity.”11 Many of the rubble films portray passive males that find themselves aimless and

impotent amongst the rubble. Deleuze’s traditional SAS’ framework is no longer applicable; the

male lead, instead of acting upon or transforming the setting, is engulfed by the rubble.12 It is the

James Fischer, “Deleuze in a Ruinous Context: German Rubble-Film and Italian Neorealism,” Iris: A Journal of
Theory on Image and Sound, No. 23, Spring 1997 (Coralville, IA: University of Iowa), 57.
Fischer, 58-60.

females that are actively engaged with the environment, constantly sweeping up the debris. The

adult German male, who had been featured with such aggressive confidence in Nazi films, is

reduced to dependence upon women and children. In Between Yesterday and Tomorrow

(Zwishen Gestern und Morgen, Harald Braun, 1947) and StraBenbekanntschaft (Street

Acquaintance, Peter Pewas, 1948), the customarily authoritative male narrative voice is replaced

by a female voice, indicating a subversion in gender hierarchy.13

The potential of the rubble to overturn previous cultural and cinematic traditions was,

however, not fully exploited. Though the rubble films acknowledged the toppling of male

dominion as a result of the war, German filmmakers viewed this circumstance as a wound that

must be healed. In other words, the previous patriarchal social system should and must be re-

instituted. In Somewhere in Berlin, the children conspire to make the father return to his role as

active head of the household. The father is the only person that can rebuild the family’s garage,

and by extension, Germany. The film’s climax arrives when the father reassumes his rightful

role by ascending a mound of rubble and working away. His central position and the screen and

higher spatial level indicate his dominance over the project of reconstruction. Similarly, in The

Murderers Are Among Us, the role of the female lead, Susanne, is to rejuvenate the male lead and

restore his wholeness. Though Susanne is supposedly a concentration camp victim, her history

and memories go completely unmentioned. Most rubble films only explore the traumatic

experiences and war guilt of German males rather than focusing on the actual victims

themselves. Women and Jews appear to be ahistorical – the promise of a future for Germany

lays in the re-masculinization of Germany’s men.

In The Murderers Are Among Us, Hans eventually regains the will to act and aggressively

pursues Brückner. In Somewhere in Berlin, the film’s triumphant ending features the father
Carter, 94.

retaking his rightful place as the head of the family and of the community. Indeed, only

Rosellini’s Germany, Year Zero fails to offer the hope of restoration of the previous social order.

In Germany, Year Zero, masculinity fails completely. In a family with two men, one dies while

the other refuses to find work. The women and a little boy, Edmund, must provide for the

family. In the final shot of the film, after Edmund had committed suicide, the menacing rubble

fills the screen space as an enduring symbol of despair. There is no indication that the rubble

will be cleared away, or that Edmund’s family can ever be restored.

Though Rosselini worked closely with DEFA to produce the film, Germany, Year Zero is

more frequently classified as an Italian neorealist film than as a rubble film. Despite notable

similarities, such as the rubble mise-en-scéne and the destabilizing of gender and social

hierarchies, the rubble films attempt to resurrect and justify the old social order whereas

Rosselini tried to reveal its inadequacy. The German rubble films never garnered the

international acclaim enjoyed by Italian neorealism. Though the rubble films initially looked as

if they could rival Italian films in the arena of international postwar cinema, they quickly faded


Replacing rubble films were Heimatfilme, or “homeland films,” which celebrated

traditional German purity and greatness. Gone was the anxious self-doubting introspection of

the rubble films. The rubble films were meant to reconcile Germany with the rest of the world

community, and international critics’ initially positive reception of the rubble films suggested

that they could help reintegrate the nation into the global landscape. The Heimatfilme, however,

was produced for a domestic audience and found little positive reception outside of Germany.

The difference in spatial settings underscores the change in focus, from international to domestic,

for the urban settings of the rubble films are socially nearer to international cosmopolitanism

than the rural countryside of the Heimatfilme. Whereas the Trümmerfilme were based upon a

fundamental loss of center or rootlessness, the Heimatfilme was a return to imagined German

roots, based in the primitive and unadulterated soil of the rural homeland. Whereas the urban

spaces of the confrontational rubble films induce claustrophobia, the rural spaces of the escapist

Heimatfilme are wide and open. The spatial expansiveness of the Heimatfilme indicates a relapse

into the Nazi spatial aesthetic. Indeed, films about the heimat was common during the Nazi era.

Thus, “rotation” or repetition can serve as a theme for this brief period of German film

history. The Nazi cinematic aesthetic, though briefly interrupted by the rubble films, returned in

the 1950’s in a different form, as Heimatfilme. The rubble films were fairly ambitious, but the

“return of the repressed” or frank dealing with gruesome war memories would not truly occur

until decades after the war. The fact that the rubble films were produced at all can be partially

attributed to the ideological goals and commitment of the Soviet-controlled DEFA. In the end,

the dark and unstable rubble spaces of the films proved unappealing to an audience that had to

deal with real rubble space outside the theater. Nonetheless, the rubble films have left a legacy

of images – images of destruction and folly. The rubble of Germany was a contested space that

begged for some sort of meaning, and postwar filmmakers struggled to respond. Whether a

symbol of despair over history or hope for a better future, the rubble image struck postwar

Germany with its stark honesty both inside and outside of the theater.


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