What Makes a Democrat? Staging Political Transformation in 1950s West German Film

German film scholar Jennifer Kapczynski finds a reflection of West Germany’s postwar project of democratization in the films of the era, such as Der 20. Juli. Her book-in-progress, “The Subject of Democracy: 1950s West Germany and the Politics of Film,” explores the state’s evolving ideologies.

Scholars often characterize West Germany of the 1950s as period of political consolidation, as the country moved from the volatile conditions of the immediate postwar toward the beginnings of a stable democracy,” says Jennifer Kapczynski, associate professor in Germanic Languages and Literatures. “But actually, if we look more closely, the effort to ‘consolidate’ — to develop a coherent sense of national identity and purpose, to create a working political and economic system, and to cultivate public investment in democracy and align with the West — was effortful, contested and also seen by many Germans at the time as quite precarious.”

Kapczynski, a Faculty Fellow in the Center for the Humanities, studies films of the 1950s to see how that effort unfolds. “Television only made deep inroads in the Federal Republic in the late 1950s, and cinema constituted the most significant popular art form of the decade,” she says. “In addition to providing welcome entertainment, it was a prime forum for working through any number of burning social issues of the period: the legacy of the Second World War, the conflict with the Soviet Union, the rise of rebellious youth movements.”

“It’s easy to forget in hindsight the intense fear that came with being at the geographic heart of Europe during the height of the Cold War,” Kapczynski says. “Cinema also provided an important site for competing with American influence as it filtered through Hollywood. And as my project suggests, a lot of this was bound up with how the films of this period imagined their lead characters in the context of democratization.”

Below, we ask Kapczynski a few questions about her current book project.


What is idea behind your book project, “The Subject of Democracy: 1950s West Germany and the Politics of Film”?I hope to make clear how popular film in 1950s West Germany engaged with the project of postwar democratization. It was a tricky business: Democracy was initially more or less imposed on the Western zones by the Allied occupiers, and that fueled a lot of resentment in the postwar population. And at the same time, by the 1950s it was more or less accepted that democracy would have to be West Germany’s way forward, particularly if it wanted to forge stronger alliances with Western Europe and differentiate itself from the Communist East. I’m especially fascinated by how thinkers and filmmakers of the early Federal Republic attempted to achieve this “domestication” of democracy –– and, particularly in the case of 1950s film, how they sought to render democracy visible through characters’ words as well as through their postures, actions and surroundings. To great extent, as I show, this project was connected to the contemporaneous effort to rethink the terms of masculinity along lines that differed from those of the preceding fascist era — which emphasized physical and ideological hardness, rigidity and violence.


Jennifer Kapczynski, associate professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures.Does it build on earlier work, or is it a new direction for you?
I’ve wanted to write a longer study of 1950s West German cinema for a long time. Although there has been some excellent research in the area, the topic is still quite underexplored, in part because there is a longstanding academic prejudice about the quality of the filmmaking from this period (which was overwhelmingly profit-oriented and genre-driven rather than artistically ambitious). My interest in the cinema’s connection to democratization is relatively new, but in many ways the project grows out of work I did for my first book, which explored how, in the very first years after the war, postwar thinkers and artists used metaphors of collective illness to try to explain the nation’s relationship to National Socialism and to try to come up with possible cultural “cures.”

How will your analysis in this book affect our understanding of West Germans of this era? And contemporary Germans?
One of the inspirations behind my decision to focus more strongly on how 1950s West German cinema grappled with democratization has been the current migration crisis in Europe. I’m struck by how, in many ways, Germany finds itself at a parallel political crossroads today. With the massive influx of refugees, Germany has begun the process of trying to educate newcomers about cultural norms and expectations. While none of the teaching efforts are directly trying to instill principles of democracy (and some of the attempts have been painfully clumsy), they communicate a great deal about the contemporary German vision of life in a free and open society. At the same time, Germany has seen the most significant rise in far-right political movements since the end of the Second World War, which is really straining the limits of political discourse and tolerance. West German culture of the 1950s was marked by deep fear about whether its new democracy could withstand threat — whether from anti-democratic forces within or Soviet influence from across the border — and in some ways, it seems to me that the current crisis constitutes one of the country’s biggest tests since that period.

Can you give an example that illustrates this project of visualizing democratic sensibilities?
There’s a moment in Falk Harnack’s 1955 film Der 20. Juli — which tells the story of the failed 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler by a group of military leaders — when the figure of Count von Stauffenberg readies himself to initiate the coup. Stauffenberg enters a church, and as he stares up at the apse, he “sees” a vision of war that the audience is meant to understand provides the final justification he needs to overcome the bonds of traditional military hierarchy as well as the loyalty oath (and, of course, gird himself up to risk his life).

Stauffenberg’s vision is not comprised of recreated material, like the rest of the film. Instead, Harnack assembles it from WWII-era newsreel footage: scenes of battlefield carnage, bombed out cityscapes, and, most strikingly, a shot of the barbed-wire fence of a concentration camp. Although the sequence is inserted into the film as though it constitutes Stauffenberg’s personal flashback, in using actuality footage, Harnack structures Stauffenberg’s “memory” in a way designed to trigger shared medial memories of the war — drawing on the recollections of moviegoers of what they once witnessed firsthand.

Harnack doesn’t use the footage to generate nostalgia for the Hitler years or encourage self-pity at the spectacle of collective defeat. Instead, for a moment, the viewer is invited to share the mind of a man in moment he undergoes a foundational change in his beliefs — that is, they are asked to share in the emergence of his conscience and transforming consciousness.

Harnack, through the material he selects, edits and focalizes through the eyes of the resister in the precise moment of his transformation, encourages audiences to see the war anew, to recognize its destructive force and, following Stauffenberg, to turn away from any residual attachment to National Socialist Germany and toward an alternative political path.

The historical Stauffenberg was hardly a committed democrat, but for the purposes of 1950s West Germany he was a more than adequate symbol of German resistance to Hitler, and in that decade the July 20 plot more generally came to stand in for the possibility of an alternative political past and, hence, a different future. Harnack plays into that here, creating Stauffenberg as a kind of visionary martyr — a revisionist account, to be sure, but one that illuminates with particular clarity how popular film tried actively to reshape postwar political consciousness, retooling it to meet the needs of postwar democracy.