New German Cinema: ‘When we behave, nobody cares, but when we are bad, nobody forgets.’

I took a class called “New German Cinema” at the end of my freshman year of college. It was designated as a “seminar” credit, and I enrolled because I knew I was interested in becoming a film major at that point. I think I saw the words “cinema” and “German” and thought I’d get a nice overview of European film, or actually, any film that was ever set in or around Germany.

Those were my naive expectations going into it. What New German Cinema turned out to be was a movement from the 1960s to the 1980s aimed at creating “quality” film, almost like a German version of the French New Wave. What constituted as quality varied, but was predominantly quieter, more challenging, more artistic-oriented, and much, much more “on the outskirts” than mainstream film.

The professor, a wickedly smart but brutally bitter and jaded man, set out to unnerve and stir us with films by Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The teacher being a a firm hater of all things Hollywood (with choice words for Spielberg), the “New German Cinema” seminar took me in as an impressionable 19-year-old who thought movies were generally cool and magical, and then spit me out as a doubtful and suspicious film school kid, scarred for life in ways good and bad, for now movies would never look the same again, would never serve the same purpose as previously believed.

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) was the first film I ever saw of Werner Herzog’s, shown in this class. I laughed and laughed, and felt bad and crude for laughing, but kept doing so, couldn’t help it, and then there came a distinct moment where I stopped suddenly as it hit me, sucking in air to cease the laughter: Oh, wait, it’s not funny, and it never was supposed to be. In fact, it’s disturbing, fucking frightening.

I cannot think off the top of my head of another film that got this reaction out of me. Whatever you thought it was, you were wrong, and Herzog had the last laugh, as he usually does.

When we behave, nobody cares, but when we are bad, nobody forgets.

The little people in Even Dwarfs shout this during their rebellion against their ominous superiors. Perhaps the filmmakers of the New German Cinema movement were shouting this at all of Hollywood, to all mainstream audiences, trying to violently shake us awake.