Mightier than the Sword, Films of Helma Sanders-Brahms

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‘Salo’ fame Italian director Paolo Pasolini was filming a dream sequence. A stud of horses drive into the sea against the harsh wind. Their hooves, smacking the waves, are glittering in the sunlight. As they gallop into the ocean of green, gathering all of their bounding energy into one, the lethal array of waves are turned into roaring spills. With a gigantic leap, the stallions lash the invisible realm and rocket into the water. Their passion to race the wind is juxtaposed to serene sunset. Helma Sanders-Brahms, who then was a Television presenter, witnessed this mind-boggling scene and decided to pursue film making as her career.

Helma’s approach towards cinema was searing and virulent. She pushed the limits of creativity and redefined the new German film movement. In her films, the interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and the material. While talking about the material, to one’s surprise, she did not ‘write’ a script during her entire career. As mentioned by Anne Sanders, daughter of Helma, she would just turn on the movie theater in her head. She visualizes and executes them instantly. Every detail, every dialogue! She was capable of being everything in filming locations. Incredible!

I would firmly argue that she is the best film director Germany has ever seen, placing R.W. Fassbinder second. As an ardent film lover, I am also certain that she deserves a predominant place alongside other masters of cinema like Bela Tarr, Vittorio De Sica, Masaki Kobayashi, Robert Bresson and Zoltan Fabri. She frequently collaborated with her husband Thomas Mauch, an impeccable cinematographer who developed a style admirably suited to the semi-documentary material being made at that time. The arresting images were poetic and emotions were handled with utmost maturity which unveil as a result of dramatic conflicts. Commenting on her uncompromising cinema of emotions, the director said “Every film scene has to mean more than merely what it depicts, it has to reach into the soul like a tremendous funnel”. She explored the psychological depth of human minds and transcended its emotional intensity onto the screen with ease. A feminist-cum-socialist, Helma laced her films with sharp political comments too. Discovery, creativity and fierce execution to reach an understanding of patriarchal society and humanity are the hallmarks of her art.

Most of her films are either auto-biographical or excerpts from rich literary contexts. Her individual memories became a profound reflection of German history. Thanks to the country’s archives, Helma made use of those preserved footage to the fullest possible extent to add great authenticity and intervene the fictional encounter with their true past. Rich historical detail embedded in highly empathetic charm added beauty to the eccentric output. Detaching herself from the usual strings, her films remain as the rarest of beasts, depicting the female mental illness – its various manifestations and ramifications wholly. She blends the unconventional dramatic scenarios, nightmarishly symbolic hallucinations and actual footage to shake her audience out of any lingering complacency at every possible opportunity. These various techniques deployed gave nuance to the realist elements and resulted in a subtly unsettling film.

It’s a revelation that universal resonance is discovered in deeply personal stories. Casting the unknown faces provided startling results as they create a natural environment yet brutally evoke the passion spawned over the source material sprouting in her mind. She daringly broke the barriers and presented them with pride. For that matter, Helma was not just a film director, but an auteur. Unfortunately, what is different is what’s at stake. The emblematic quality of her films received less enthusiastic response. Though she was miles ahead from many of her peers in terms of her choice of subject matter, stylistic approach and use of mises-en-abyme, critics panned them. Forgotten at the homeland, the felicitation or the acknowledgement garnered by her films across the globe is skimpy. Just few months before her death Helma whimpered, “Before I die, I would like to make one last attempt to rescue my films from oblivion in my country and say: at least have a look at them.” It is evident, and could be preferably argued that because of her aloofness and refusal to cater the prevailing conventional film techniques, her films earned hostile reception within and outside Germany.

A country which embraced the brilliance of various artists like Beethoven, Goethe, Hegel and Thomas Mann turned blind towards an equivalent genius. It’s sickening to know that out of sixteen feature films directed by her, only eight are available in DVD/Blu Ray/Internet. I’m still on hunt for Shirin’s Wedding (1976), Heinrich (1977), Laputa (1986) and Apple trees (1992). If somehow I could fetch these movies, my burning desire to write a detailed book about Helma Sanders’ films would come true. So, within my limitations, I consider “Germany Pale mother” as her crowning achievement.

Borrowing the title from Bertolt Brecht’s poem, Germany Pale Mother is an auto-biographical self-exposure reflecting the sensitive changes that post-war Germany has undergone. From her keen wish to alter the traditional way of hailing Germany, popularly known as Deutschland (Fatherland), traces of feminism could be noticed in the director. According to Leonie Naughton, “By contrasting the family life to war, the film accentuates the process of historical recovery and combines the personal memories with collective conscience.” Reconstructing the fictionalized biography of her mother, it unravels through political dimensions of private life as well. Narrated in voice-over by Sanders-Brahms herself, the after effects of Nazism & Fascism is portrayed in a grotesque way. Ironically, the history did not repeat itself in the case of German film movement. Though it took another forty years for a female director to come up with dynamic imagery and technical shimmering to surpass Leni Riefenstahl, who was obsessed with Nazi sentiments and made propaganda films for Hitler, this time the director was an anti-Nazi.

The body and face of Lene (compelling performance by Eva Mattes) is allegorically alluded to the nation and anything more I say would end up as spoilers. I shall rather save it up for the upcoming book! To admire an iota of Helma’s creative skills, let us have a look at some of the most iconic scenes ever made in world cinema history.

In the first clip, Lene and her daughter Anna wander the despondent landscape of Germany during the halcyon days of post-war. The snippets of surgical aerial shots from archival footage are injected into the fictional narrative heightening the disastrous hardships and ruins of wartime. Then it radically jump cuts to a lengthy sequence where Lene is reciting a macabre fairy tale to Anna which could be interpreted in multiple ways. While struggling to safeguard and shelter her, Lene is also educating Anna amidst devastation. She is being raped by American soldiers in the presence of her daughter and after this tragic act, Lene tells her that she was abducted as they are allowed to do so. She accepts what had happened in a soothing manner and is almost fine with it. In the later scenes, a group of women rebuild their homes, (another intersection of stock image of war) and those American soldiers behave courteously towards the grown-up Anna.

The second clip, too, inter-cuts the fictionalized memoir with actual documentary footage, where the protagonist engages in a conversation with a young boy who is in search of his parents. He had been roaming around the rubbles of Berlin for almost six weeks resulting in vain. The brimming soundtrack is woven together from the extracts of archival recordings and imagined enhancements. A detailed analysis could be made about the use of soundtracks, manipulation of the soundscape to adhere the spectators and transport them to the past. Throughout the film, newsreels and radio sounds of various speeches – rallies – propaganda is incorporated to highlight the inextricability of private and public life during wartime. Say, Nazi regime made well use of radio and other means of communication to sustain its course and the director intended to overpower using the same but implying a critical re-calibration of historical upheaval.

Original DVDs of Helma Sanders-Brahms’ films are available only in E-com sites of United States / Germany. It’s a boon to watch her films in high resolution, thanks to my friend, and the links available to download are of poor quality. Oh, my! She is the most under-rated director in the entire cinema history.


  1. https://www.goethe.de/ins/au/en/kul/mag/20397223.html
  2. https://deadline.com/2014/05/r-i-p-helma-sanders-brahms-736717/