The Pedestrian: post-war Germany without the chewing gum

Maximilian Schell’s 1973 investigation of West Germany’s relationship with its Nazi past wishes away the American cultural trappings that so informed the better-known works of his New German Cinema peers such as Wim Wenders, R.W. Fassbinder and Werner Herzog. It’s the sort of failure from which cults are made.

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The Pedestrian (Der Fußgänger, 1973)

The Pedestrian (Der Fußgänger, 1973)

Traditional criticism tends to judge films according to how successfully they realise their creators’ intentions, taking a negative view of works in which a noticeable gap exists between ambition and achievement. Yet films which stubbornly pursue goals that remain just out of reach have a peculiar fascination. It may well be that most cult movies are imperfect, their gaps, flaws and errors creating spaces into which viewers can insert themselves – meeting the filmmakers half-way, as it were – thus becoming active collaborators rather than passive consumers. This process is literalised by The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), in which gaps in the soundtrack are filled by members of the audience.

There is, so far as I’m aware, no substantial cult following for The Pedestrian (Der Fußgänger, 1973), one of nine films directed by Maximilian Schell. Despite having received an Academy Award nomination (for best foreign-language film) and several glowing reviews, The Pedestrian was never released in the UK (though an English-dubbed version was screened by ITV in 1985), and is only available on DVD in Germany. Yet The Pedestrian is a remarkably illuminating work, revealing a great deal about not only West Germany in the 1970s, but also about the more obviously successful German films of this period.

The plot focuses on Heinz Alfred Giese (theatre director Gustav Rudolf Sellner), a German industrialist whose Nazi past is exposed by the press, but whose responsibility for a massacre in Greece remains ambiguous to the end. In its attempt to deal with the relationship between modern Germany and the Nazi era, The Pedestrian sets out to tackle Germany’s central dilemma in the 1970s, and if it ultimately proves incapable of reaching a conclusion, this suggests the sheer enormity of the trauma experienced by Schell’s generation, a trauma incompatible with neat narrative or artistic solutions.

The Pedestrian (Der Fußgänger, 1973)

The Pedestrian (Der Fußgänger, 1973)

When it appeared in 1973, The Pedestrian could have been viewed alongside many better-known examples of the New German Cinema; the previous year had seen the release of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Wim Wenders’ The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God. Yet Schell seems to be operating in complete ignorance of this movement, attempting to find his own answers to the questions that obsessed his contemporaries.

The end result, however, is hardly unmediated by cinema, owing a clear debt to the work of several prominent auteurs. Costa-Gavras and Francesco Rosi are perhaps the dominant influences, but there are also traces of Michelangelo Antonioni (particularly in Giese’s meeting with his young mistress), Alain Resnais (the use of flashbacks), Ingmar Bergman (two monologues about death) and Miklós Jancsó (a communal dance). The film even plays itself out via a lengthy television debate, as if this televisual form might be just as adequate as any of the more obviously cinematic models for resolving Schell’s dilemma.

What is signally lacking from this list, however, are the names of any US filmmakers, an absence all the more surprising given that Schell was primarily known for his collaborations with such directors as Edward Dmytryk (The Young Lions, 1958) and Stanley Kramer (Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961). This was surely a conscious choice on the part of Schell, who may well have associated Hollywood with precisely the kind of sentimental approach he was determined to avoid, but it ironically proved to be precisely what separated him from those directors who would soon define German cinema for the world at large.

Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders – whose oeuvres are replete with references to American cinema and music – were in possession of the secret which eluded Schell; that Germany’s postwar history could only be understood through the prism of American culture. According to Wenders [in Jan Dawson’s 1976 interview collection named after the director], “The most dominant effect (of growing up in postwar Germany) was the tendency to stick to other histories or to become involved in other cultures. In the early 50s or even the 60s, it was American culture… the need to forget 20 years created a hole, and people tried to cover this… in both senses… by assimilating American culture… the fact that US imperialism was so effective over here was highly favoured by the Germans’ own difficulties with their past… because of that guilt feeling and the need to cover that hole. We covered it with chewing gum.”

The Pedestrian (Der Fußgänger, 1973)

The Pedestrian (Der Fußgänger, 1973)

If the eclecticism of Schell’s stylistic borrowings confirms Wenders’ observation that Germans needed to “become involved in other cultures”, American culture nonetheless figures in The Pedestrian as a structuring absence.

One might compare the scene in which Giese’s politically active son Hubert (played by Sellner’s real-life son, Manuel Sellner) watches a television screening of Jorge Sanjinés’s Blood of the Condor (1969) – an explicitly revolutionary work about a Bolivian community rising up against American imperialism – with that moment in Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons (1978) when the protagonist, Erwin/Elvira (Volker Spengler), is forced by property tycoon Saitz (Gottfried John) to imitate a musical number from the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis vehicle You’re Never Too Young (1955), playing on a television in Saitz’s suite. A critique of imperialism underlies both scenes, but whereas Blood of the Condor figures in Schell’s film as an idealised object of desire – the product of a culture in which resistance to imperialism can be seen as a pure act, untainted by any suspicion that the oppressors may be morally purer than the oppressed – You’re Never Too Young functions for Fassbinder as both an artefact of American cultural imperialism and a reminder of this particular imperialism’s defining role in postwar Germany; the manner in which Saitz bullies his subordinates into recreating You’re Never Too Young’s onscreen action suggests fascism is being resuscitated not by returning to the assumptions of the Nazi era, but rather by assimilating the products of a democratic ideology that is supposedly fascism’s polar opposite.

The Pedestrian seems to be simultaneously aware and unaware of how 1970s Germany has been shaped by US influence; a scene in which ageing actor Norbert Schiller (playing himself) compares the classical roles he was once known for in Germany with the small parts has more recently been taking in commercial American films hints at this without ever bringing it into focus. In his need to interrogate Germany’s past, and his inability to find a language in which to do so, Maximilian Schell might well be the most purely German director of this period.

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