Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2004, Volume 24, No. 3
<www.dsq-sds.org>
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


No Longer Unreasonable: Disability in German Cinema

Elizabeth C. Hamilton
Dept. of German Language and Literatures
Oberlin College
Email: elizabeth.hamilton@oberlin.edu

"Nicht zumutbar"

Until recently, German culture has accepted centuries-old Western views of disability without a great deal of skepticism. Disability, so it goes, was a private and individual problem to be suffered, the result of a tragic strike of fate or punishment for a moral shortcoming. Thus seen, disability is a symbol of otherness, a starting point in cultural narratives toward wholeness, or an ending point in cultural narratives of failure. German films have played a pivotal role in cementing disability as an abstraction or concept within these discursive structures.

My discussion here examines the historical and social circumstances in which disability is appropriated to represent something other than itself, and in turn considers the impact of disability imagery upon the lives of people with disabilities. In a country currently witnessing a rapid expansion of rights and opportunities for people with disabilities, it is worthwhile to examine how representations in film have historically both hindered and advanced public understanding of what it means to be disabled. Because so many cultural definitions of disability begin with an image, I have turned to the cinema as that cultural forum that deals primarily with the creation and meaning of images. Narrative and historical analysis will provide a gauge of disability in German cinema, track the changes in the function of disability within films from different eras, and mark the turning points in cinematic representation that culminate in disability's being recognized as an aspect of human identity in its own right. In the foreground of this study are several exciting recent developments in film representation and exhibition; key moments from German film history then provide a background for appreciating these newer innovations.

No fewer than six different political states of Germany have existed in the 20th century, the century of cinema: the Wilhelmine Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the divided Federal Republic or West Germany, the German Democratic Republic or East Germany, and the now fourteen-year old unified Federal Republic of Germany. Neither the experience nor the definition of disability remained constant throughout these eras, yet despite often wildly divergent national approaches to disability, one trend has proved resilient, whether on the silver screen or off: to look at disability has meant to look at a problem.

Most scholars working in Disability Studies today are aware of the horrific treatment of people with disabilities during the Third Reich. The Nazi program to eliminate "life unworthy of living" marks the most extreme national policy within the global history of people with disabilities. Also fairly well known is that cinema was instrumentalized by the Nazi leadership in order to mobilize public support, disseminating disparaging public images of disabled people and others who did not meet the Aryan ideal. The notion that disability mars the social landscape, however, is not limited to the Nazi era or to the cinema. Disability as an affront to national standards is deeply rooted in the pre-fascist era and also has counterparts extending well into the post-war era.

Several shocking court decisions within the last 25 years, for example, fell in favor of non-disabled plaintiffs who sued various hotels and vacation sponsors for damages. Their charge? That the mere sight of disabled vacationers diminished their enjoyment and relaxation. In explaining their decisions, German judges pondered what the public—meaning apparently people without visible disabilities—can reasonably be expected to tolerate. They found that the sight of disability was "nicht zumutbar," or not reasonable for a person on vacation. Disability was viewed unquestioningly as a condition of suffering, and therefore non-disabled people should be protected from the mere sight of disability so as not to be reminded of life's adversity while on holiday. Legal judgments were made in Frankfurt in 1980, in Flensburg in 1992, and in Cologne in 1997 in favor of non-disabled litigants according to the "principle" that disabled people should remain out of sight (Poore, 1982; Ubensis, 1998). These judgments, the current euthanasia debates, and the surge in right-wing radical violence toward foreigners and people with disabilities in the early 1990s all bear clear traces of hostilities of earlier eras. Justification for the elimination of disabled people, through sanctioned or through vigilante means, still depends on a narrow definition of disability that is usually ascertained through sight.

Questioning the look

A very successful public exhibition on the cultural history of disability, for example, was held in 2001 in Dresden and in 2002 in Berlin. "The (Im)Perfect Human Being: On the Right to Be Imperfect" was the first major exhibition to provide differentiated historical views of the experience of disability. In 2003 Germany and other European Union member states celebrated the European Year of People with Disabilities. Under its auspices, Germany's Federal Representative for Matters of Disability sponsored literary contests, art exhibitions, and a film festival, including a major screenplay award of 30,000 Euros to be put toward filming the winning screenplay. Rainer Benz of that office explains that these events were organized to offer a new public view of disability, necessary since disability in the German public consciousness was usually relegated to the "social [problems] drawer" but not the "cultural [or artistic] drawer" (telephone interview, April 1, 2004).

Finally, major disability-centered film festivals have taken place in past eight years. Berlin has seen three "Gaga Film und Medienfestivals" devoted to disability in film. Munich's Task Force on Disability and the Media, a non-profit organization dedicated to "inform, enlighten, and sensitize" the public about media portrayals of disability, has hosted four festivals titled "How We Live." These individual and collective efforts represent public views of people with disabilities that do not spring from a medical model or consider disability to be a social pathology. They are instead the work of activists dedicated to taking disability out of the "social problems drawer" to show and to see people with disabilities in all of the complexity that human life entails.

To what degree have positive, varied images of disability found a foothold in the public at large? Two popular films, Beyond Silence (Jenseits der Stille; Caroline Link, 1992) and Crazy (Hans-Christian Schmid, 2000) challenge the notion that disability should remain out of public view. These films are not the products of activists, but noteworthy nonetheless (or perhaps precisely for that reason), for they conceive of disability in a manner far removed from the exclusionary principles of the past. Disability here is no longer a condition to be stared at, but a perspective from which individuals view their lives and the world. Moreover, these films found appreciative audiences and garnered critical attention because they portray life with a disability to be appealing, purposeful, and without a doubt, worth living. To be sure, neither Beyond Silence nor Crazy will ever rank among Germany's great art films, yet their sensitive reworking of formerly stereotyped characters, their challenge to tiresome narratives of "overcoming" disability, and their overall resonance with the public merit discussion here.

Beyond Silence is an engaging film in which the main character, Lara, grows to love music. As the hearing daughter of deaf parents, young Lara is often called upon to provide sign language interpretation for in-laws, a banker, and even for Lara's teacher during a school conference. At home, a dormant sibling rivalry between Lara's father and his sister awakens when Lara's beloved Aunt Clarissa presents her with a clarinet for Christmas. Lara is very close to her father, yet her deepening passion for music stirs resentment within her father that escalates as Lara grows. He cannot hear her play the clarinet and remembers his sense of exclusion from his own family in deference to Clarissa's much-applauded musical talent. Although none of the family's conflicts are neatly resolved, the film weaves threads of personal narratives into a warm story of communication and love.

Deaf actors Howie Seago, from the United States, and Emmanuelle Laborit, from France, play Lara's parents. Tatjana Trieb and Sylvie Testud, the two actresses who play Lara at different stages of her life, learned sign language for the film. Director Caroline Link also began to learn sign language as shooting started, yet she quickly realized that the signing members of her international cast all used different languages, so she gave up trying to learn them all. Sign language on screen reveals itself to be a beautiful and captivating means of communication, a visual, moving language perfectly enmeshed in the medium of the moving picture. In this regard, Link smartly employs the capacity of film itself to contemplate the limitations of spoken language and the vitality of visual language. Unfortunately, poorly conceived musical performances compromise the equivalent function of music within the story: barely passable minor-keyed tunes are offered up as melancholy Klezmer music, and syrupy melodies stand in for conservatory-level audition pieces. Combined, these interludes diminish the film's otherwise serious efforts to communicate through non-verbal means and to champion those who do. Despite such substantial detriments, critics and audiences alike welcomed Beyond Silence as a worthwhile topic amidst a sea of banal romantic comedies. Critic Karl-Heinz Schäfer was not alone in labeling it the best film to emerge in Germany in a long time (1996).

A final drawback was not widely perceived by audiences or critics, yet is significant for the study of disability: Beyond Silence was understood as a cross-cultural story in which the world of the deaf was more or less introduced to hearing audiences via a character who knows both worlds and translates between them. Although Lara's deaf parents are admirably complex people, the film allows them to remain inherently different from people who hear. The deaf world is "explained" to hearing viewers and shorn of its mystery, yet the presumption of deaf peoples' essential otherness persists. Link misses several opportunities to link physical impairment with the eminently changeable dimensions of the built world. The figure of Lara's boyfriend, Tom, for example, teaches at a school for the deaf and accepts an overseas internship at Gallaudet University. His character would have insight into the many barriers that deaf people routinely face, yet he never communicates any sense of the unfairness of those barriers. Here, as in several other sequences, Link could have expanded her portrayal of disability to examine its social and cultural dimensions more explicitly. Granted, she also does not yield to the historical imperative to remove disability from public view. Ultimately, Link deserves credit for a far richer portrayal of deafness than has appeared in any German film to date.

Crazy is a popular coming-of-age movie. Director Hans-Christian Schmid adapts the autobiographical bestseller by then-sixteen year old author Benjamin Lebert, who also assisted in the writing of the screenplay. The film introduces Benni as his parents drop him off at an elite boarding school where he is to prepare for college entrance exams. In a voiceover, Benni explains "a diploma from a Hauptschule would be embarrassing." Instead of a "Hauptschule," the most general high school that German students can select, Benni's boarding school is a "Gymnasium," offering a rigorous academic education leading to study at a university. This marks therefore one of many moments that deviates from conventional representations of people with disabilities: from the outset, it is clear that Benni's parents and teachers expect him to achieve at the same level as his non-disabled peers.

Entering his foreign language classroom for the first time, Benni introduces himself in French, then switches to his native German to identify himself as disabled. He is partially paralyzed on his left side and has difficulty with fine motor skills on that side of his body. In practical terms, this means that Benni needs only a little extra time and modest assistance as he goes through his day. He is able and welcome to join his new buddies whenever they slip away from the boarding school, drink beer around a campfire, secretly visit a strip club, and make their first attempts at dating and sex. The frank and sensitive portrayal of Benni's sexual development marks a rare look among film portrayals of disabled characters.

Real information about living with a disability is intertwined with exposure of its many stereotypes. On Benni's first night at the boarding school, thinking his roommate is asleep, he begins to masturbate. Janosch is not asleep, however, and bluntly asks whether Benni's penis isn't also paralyzed. In other instances, characters use stereotypes knowingly. These moments reveal them giving in to their worst natures. Most all of the boys in Benni's circle of friends, for example, are attracted to their very pretty, mature classmate, Malen. They compete for her attention and discredit one another ruthlessly. Janosch's words to Benni sting: "She is only nice to you because you're a spastic!" Benni defends himself quite adequately and Janosch is forced to apologize.

Benni is also not above using stereotypes to garner sympathy when he needs it. Talking with his sister, Paula, during his family's visit to the boarding school, Benni bemoans his situation and expects her to be more lenient with him: "I am a cripple!" Seeing through his transparent manipulation of her emotions, she retorts "Oh, stop pitying yourself." Benni must concede that he is not particularly troubled by paralysis, but by the pressures of school and the uncertainty of their family's future. The film's title does not refer in any way to Benni's intellectual state, but is instead his common refrain, borrowed from his new roommate Janosch. "Crazy" signals their appreciation for any action or attitude that is off-beat, subversive, or funny. Benni's biggest problem in life is coping with the demands of school and the breakup of his parents' marriage. His paralysis is simply a fact of life.

The newness of disabled identity: why visibility matters so

Lara and her family and Benni are shown to live with disabilities and are not compelled in the films' narratives to overcome disability through medicine, science, or education. The disabled characters are played by attractive actors and do not undergo politicized change in the films. Audiences will not find themselves confronted or challenged in any appreciable way, for no character ever perceives a need for or demands greater access to the built world of education, employment, recreation, and so on. Missing from these films is any conscious distinction between bodily impairment and socially created barriers. As Lennard Davis explains, "An impairment is a physical fact, but a disability is a social construction. For example, lack of mobility is an impairment, but an environment without ramps turns that impairment into a disability. In other words, a disability must be socially constructed; there must be an analysis of what it means to have or lack certain functions, appearance, and so on (50)."

"Non-political, yet visible" thus characterizes the new perspective that these films bring to the big screen. American or British scholars of disability will perhaps find this wanting, yet it must be understood within the context of German history and culture. Until now simply living with a disability has not been a topic of cinema. Moreover disability has only recently entered German public discourse as a subjective identity, overturning its prior configuration as a strictly medical or social problem. The attendant political liberation efforts bear similarities to other identity-based political movements of feminism and sexual orientation, yet at this stage, German disability activists still maintain a distinction between disabled people and non-disabled people instead of locating disability at the crossroads of other identity factors such as gender, race, economic class, or sexual orientation. Oppositional identity construction, now commonly deemed passé, is in Germany surely traceable to the treatment of disabled people during the Third Reich and justified by contemporary legal endorsements of looking away from disability. Such reverberations from Nazi eugenics render the need for visibility all the more acute, for the German history of being removed from public view was not merely figurative, but murderous. The "good" disabled people portrayed in Beyond Silence and Crazy can be understood in the context of this legacy. Their very appearance constitutes a historical risk, one their directors undertook by characterizing them as good, positive, and normal, without problematizing those qualities at all in the films.

Although disabled characters have rarely spoken from this type of subject position, it is not true that disability itself has been absent from German cinema. As a metaphor, symbol, or cipher, disability appears as a stock feature of an astonishingly wide array of film genres. Although it might be tempting to dismiss these instances as examples of stereotyping, a closer look at the function of disability within given film narratives will reveal it to be a discursive system through which issues other than disability are articulated. It is apparent that disability is regularly appropriated to articulate deviance, aberrance, failure, and flaw. Examination of specific films will show that these tendencies result from naturalized concepts of embodied human "wholeness," a naturalization that cinema itself has the power to effect.

Though disability is an ever-changing concept (people can acquire impairment from one day to the next, after all, just as barriers can be removed from one day to the next), German films have often portrayed impairment and disability as though they were one and the same: permanent indicators of damage. Yet this rigid characterization has been employed in a wide variety of films, to varying ends. Disability is the "floating" trope of these otherwise unrelated films, at times enlisted for aesthetic or political reasons, at other times to shape a narrative, and rendered in yet other instances symbolic. That disability could function so broadly in cinema suggests that for nearly a century, it was more useful as a pliable, metaphoric entity than as a topic to be investigated in its own right. In other words, disability was brought to the screen, yet its appearance there has ironically been a device for looking past those very concrete social and cultural barriers that create disability from impairment. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder term this phenomenon "narrative prosthesis," arguing that "disability has been used throughout history as a crutch on which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and social critique. Yet, at the same time, literature avoids designating disability itself as a source for derisive social myths that need to be interrogated. Instead, disability plays host to a panoply of other social maladies that writers seek to address" (as cited in Mitchell, 2002, p.17). As the following discussion will demonstrate, narrative prosthesis is as applicable to film as to literature.

If filmmakers and audiences were not looking at disability per se, then what were they seeing? My purpose from this point on is to show how many German film narratives have rested on some notion of bodily impairment and to offer historical explanations for this tendency. Finally, I show how filmmakers who were aware of the tacit imperative to instrumentalize disability as a narrative device challenged the accepted standard and brought disability to the screen as a fact of life worthy of reflection.

Disability in feature films from the Wilhelmine era to the present

The earliest silent films of the Wilhelmine era relied on disability for its perceived entertainment value. From the start, disability was a vehicle for movie stars. Henny Porten's portrayal of the "blond blind one" in The Love of the Blind [Woman] (Das Liebesglück der Blinden; Curt A. Stark and Heinrich Bolten-Baeckers, 1910) catapulted her from director's daughter to national icon. Her debut so riveted the audience that on the basis of this performance, she received a contract at Messter's studio and became an international star. Other fictional films incorporated disability as an instrument of slapstick humor and vaudevillian drama. Short films harnessed images of the physically exotic, and culled humor from the infirm or grotesque. Heinrich Bolten-Baeckers' short film, Short-sighted Willi Gets Married (Der kurzsichtige Willi heiratet, 1913) plays on the figurative and literal meanings of "shortsightedness" for its humor. The New Desk (Der neue Schreibtisch, 1914) features Karl Valentin as an astonishingly tall, thin businessman taking delivery of new office furniture. A dwarf and another average-sized man deliver a ridiculously oversized desk, whereupon Valentin's character begins to shorten the legs of the desk to size them to suit his chair. A one-man physical comedy of errors ensues, as Valentin repeatedly misgauges the cut he is to make until he has completely removed the legs of the desk and must now sit on the floor. Valentin's disproportional height and unruly motions create a caricature of middle-class struggles in silhouette form, recalling the illustrated broadsheets of Wilhelm Busch. Valentin's head and feet graze the outer edges of the frame, and his stark black suit against a light background forms a light show mocking the simple-minded, but self-important office worker. Apart from the broad implication that human beings are increasingly unable to adapt their environments to suit themselves, disability per se is not present in The New Desk. The point of the film was admittedly not to raise public consciousness, but to make viewers laugh. Visible physical difference was a viable basis for early film comedy.

Other films from the volatile Weimar era incorporated disability to create intrigue, mystery, or fantasy. Orlac's Hands (Orlacs Hände; Robert Wiene, 1924), for example, is a horror story in which a wounded pianist receives through transplant the hands of an executed murderer. This very popular film asked viewers to ponder whether morality was transported in the body and what danger ensued from dismemberment. Orlac's Hands interweaves psychological thrills with systematic detective work. A threatening spirit of Vasseur, the executed murderer, appears to Orlac during his recovery from the terrible train wreck. Frightened by the foreboding image, Orlac is doubly troubled by his new practical problems: with these hands, he can no longer play the piano. He and his wife face financial ruin. His miserly father refuses to loan them money, and is then surprisingly murdered. Inexplicably, the fingerprints of Vasseur are all over the crime scene. If Orlac now possesses Vasseur's hands, has he somehow killed his own father?

As Orlac roams the dark streets of the city in search of his father's killer, he hovers between rational knowledge and fear, believing that the forces of good and evil are now wrestling within his own body. The genuinely thrilling drama comes to a jolting conclusion: This is all the carefully orchestrated work of an extortionist. The real murderer knows of Orlac's susceptibility to the suggestion that evil now dwells within him, and the success of his crime rests upon the meaning that he believes Orlac will attach to his newly disabled body. The audience's susceptibility is presumed as well. In other words, Orlac's Hands plays on the fear that the body might in fact have power over the mind, that the disabled body might truly be dangerous. The film also includes a provocative portrayal of psychology as a seductive system just as likely to confuse Orlac's emotions as clarify them. Through sustained Expressionist gestures, settings, and lighting, the film taunts the audience to fear the worst, then it exposes the spell that those fantastic notions cast and lays bare the rational explanation. The forces at work are not demonic, but criminal.

The hero is in the hospital

Film from every German period has elevated the knowing, trustworthy doctor and subordinated people with disabilities. In the World War I propaganda film, The Diary of Dr. Hart (Das Tagebuch des Dr. Hart; Paul Leni, 1918), the heroic German doctor serves wounded soldiers on the battlefield and humble townsfolk near the Polish front. The derogatory portrayal of tsarist Russia was deliberately set against the noble German army, the doctor the crowning ambassador of Germany. Though it was explicitly made to promote the war effort, one reviewer was sure that the film's artistry surpassed its political intentions: "The Diary of Dr. Hart by Hans Brennert is supposed to be foremost a propaganda film; it should let us see the blessings of the physician's help and work in the field (...) but no one has even for a moment the sense that propaganda is being made. (...) the viewer's excitement is maintained by clever interweaving of the lesson" (Argus, 1918). The very timing of the film betrays its true purpose, however. The Diary of Dr. Hart premiered on January 21, 1918, eleven months before Kaiser Wilhelm's abdication and the end of the First World War. It is a propagandistic film to win over Poles, to be sure, but certainly also a last-ditch effort to convince war-weary Germans at home of the basic goodness of the war despite its unexpectedly long duration.

Glorification of medical authority was carried to heinous extremes in Nazi Germany, when disability was deemed a liability to the nation as a whole. Actual physicians were employed as film consultants during the Third Reich. Doctors on screen and behind the scenes were to convey Nazi ideals of health to the public at large. Films justified the forced control of psychiatric patients or physically disabled people via physical restraint, sterilization, medical experimentation or killing. Propaganda for Nazi euthanasia had begun in documentary form in the mid 1920s, yet by the late 1930s, Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels himself called for more gripping melodrama that would disguise its propagandistic intentions and persuade the public instead via emotions: "The best propaganda achieves its effects invisibly, so to speak; it penetrates public life without the public's taking any notice of the initiative of propaganda" (as cited in Roth, 138).

In the most infamous example, the very popular I Accuse (Ich klage an; Wolfgang Liebeneiner, 1941), a beautiful young wife Hanna Heyt learns that she has multiple sclerosis. She begs her husband, pathology professor Thomas Heyt, to help her to die if he is not able to find a cure. He lovingly administers poison, inducing a sublime death that is likely only possible in the movies. Thomas is accused of murder and undergoes a trial in which the ethics of so-called mercy killing are debated. Although the film announces no clear verdict, the narrative arguments tilt in Thomas's favor. A mutual friend, Bernhard, also a physician, had objected to enabling her death, but explains his conversion at the dramatic climax of the trial: he has been confronted with a sick child, whose death he ultimately rationalizes to be as merciful as Hanna's. Disability and childhood are thus linked and simultaneously silenced. Hanna's becomes the face of those who are to be killed for the greater good, the killing itself rendered sanitary and beautiful. In this way, National Socialist eugenics were made palatable, taking up the tradition of the benevolent film doctor and positing the heroism of assisted suicide. A screen doctor could thus deliver the incurably ill from suffering while simultaneously alleviating the "burden" that disabled people placed upon the nation.

Though a world war was fought to defeat this thinking and the crimes that come of it, the idea that life with a disability is unbearable pervades on German film screens to this day. The drama of Blueprint (Rolf Schübel, 2003) also springs from multiple sclerosis and problematizes drastic measures undertaken in the absence of cure. Here the doctor is a more ambiguous figure, part dashing hero and part mad scientist. In a truly horrifying scenario, his paternalism approaches actual paternity. Iris, a talented and arrogant concert pianist, decides to clone herself upon diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in order to preserve the perfect self that she believes she is losing. The film abandons the possibility of living with MS as quickly as its main character does, exploring instead the frightening consequences of human cloning. Despite its troubling premise, Blueprint does contemplate disability in a surprisingly worthwhile, though roundabout way. Siri, (Iris spelled backwards) is of course both the daughter and the cloned self of her mother. She chafes against her mother's constant repetition of the phrase "you are my life," which Iris utters to reassure Siri of her devotion. Siri, however, understands this as the negation of her own life. Iris's pure egotism precludes any possibility of living with disability, and so she projects onto her unwitting daughter/clone the burden of perfection.

Consciousness-raising of the 1970s: "Auch im Rollstuhl ein ganzer Kerl"

A slate of disability-themed films appeared in the 1970s. Many were made for television and directed at young audiences. They promoted tolerance based on the assumption that disabled people were innocent victims of forces beyond their control and therefore did not deserve punishing ostracism by the "healthy." These films had therapeutic overtones and basically viewed people with disabilities as sufferers to be pitied, but not feared. Josef Rödl's Albert, why? (Albert, warum?; 1978) exposes the prejudices of petty townspeople and implicates hostile attitudes toward a man with mental illness. Wolfgang Becker's Suburban Crocodiles (Vorstadtkrokodile, 1979) implores "healthy" youth to accept a wheelchair-user as a friend. When Kurt is allowed to join the crime-solving gang of "Crocodiles," his particular point of view proves invaluable to catching the thief. Critics appreciated the film, shown now only on television, as proof that "even in a wheelchair one can be a real man" (B., 1979). Wolfram Deutschmann's The Fidget (Der Zappler, 1982/83) asks the disabled character to change his attitude. Here, 12-year-old Stefan casts off his docile demeanor and breaks out of the hospital where he has awaited an operation to cure paralysis and seizures. Partly autobiographical (Deutschmann has used a wheelchair throughout his life), the story encourages Stefan to act in his own interest even at the risk of being considered obstinate or confrontational.

Less earnest representations of disability are scattered throughout the cinema of unified Germany. Vaguely defined disability appears as a trope in the "West returns East" or "inheritance" movie, contemporary genres in which a West German citizen returns to the former East Germany after the opening of the border in 1989. The Western character often displays stereotypical attributes of physical or cognitive impairment, symbolizing stunted moral growth, tiredness, cynicism, or loss of energy that is rekindled upon the prospect of new opportunities in the East. We Can also Make Trouble (Wir können auch anders; Detlev W. Buck, 1993) features two vaguely "mentally challenged" figures in a buddy movie where simple men outwit better respected citizens, only to find that their hopes for grand inheritance prove unfounded. Matulla and Busch (Matulla und Busch; Matti Geschonneck, 1995) similarly accompanies two elderly West German men from their nursing home en route to East Berlin. This television movie attempts a whimsical wheelchair ride across the country toward the men's reconciliation with young East Germans, yet reveals Matulla's deep psychological pain and despair. His death in the final scene implies that there is no living with these psychological wounds.

Documenting disability: seeing the individual

Where narrative feature films have long relied on the symbolic potential of disability to conjure emotions, documentary films, in contrast have historically featured differentiated and analytical portrayals. The cultural division of the UFA studios sponsored many educational films that "explained" sickness or disability, but continued to locate it firmly within the body of the "afflicted." Secrets of a Soul (Geheimnisse einer Seele; G.W. Pabst, 1926), for example, incorporates highly stylized dream sequences to dramatize psychosexual phobias and make a case for psychoanalytic treatment.

The imperative of healing is decidedly not present in Werner Herzog's Land of Silence and Darkness (Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit, 1970), a complicated film that attempts to document a disabled person's inner life. Herzog wagers entry into the private world of Fini Straubinger, a woman who is both deaf and blind. Hoping to reach the human soul, Herzog casts deaf-blindness as a sensual and spiritual phenomenon that he deems a liberation from harried life in society. For scholar Gertrud Koch, the film enacts Herzog's search for the auratically unique, his quest for the unmediated and the sacred. Enlisting Walter Benjamin's notion of the aura, Koch shows where Herzog glosses over Straubinger's actual experiences, concluding that "the auratic sequences of the film are thus unmistakably the subjective constructions and world views of Werner Herzog, who, precisely in these sequences, transposes the otherness of a sensual realm of experience hardly accessible to us into cultural models of the aesthetically sublime" (79). Koch ultimately identifies serious flaws in Herzog's artistry without explicitly claiming a disability-studies perspective.

From a disability studies perspective, however, it is easy to see that Fini Straubinger's disability is not unique, but frustratingly common. She is disabled through isolation, institutionalization, and exclusion, yet Herzog insists on the sacredness of this. He praises her great distance from the corrupting influences of language and society. This recalls the rhetoric used to describe Helen Keller, who was commonly held to be perfect because she was supposedly also untouched by society. Keller, however, longed for more contact with others and even acknowledged her desire for sexual intimacy. Viewers of Herzog's film can only presume that Fini Straubinger shares the same human desires. What the film makes abundantly clear, despite Herzog's efforts to the contrary, is that for her, the "unmediated" life is not desirable. She has been involuntarily removed from social interaction and refused access to activities that would mediate her own life for her. When Herzog "discovers" this pure and untouched human being, and proceeds to relay –or mediate—her "unmediated" existence to the film viewer, he exploits uniqueness that Straubinger did not ask for in the first place. She furthermore undermines Herzog's intent by referring to the "land of silence and darkness" as an objectionable destination: "even this group must be looked after, so that it is not cast overnight into the land of silence and darkness." She reminds Herzog and the viewer that this group risks being cast into a near-foreign land by being outcast. This is a social process, yet Herzog makes it an individual phenomenon and elevates her exclusion to a higher spiritual plane.

Peter Stephan Jungk's Dark Light (Dunkles Licht, 1992) departs radically from Herzog's imposed vision by allowing his subject to articulate his own. Jungk's documentary chronicles the work of his friend Eugen Bavcar, a photographer who is blind. Bavcar demonstrates in practical and conceptual terms the implications of his blindness on photography and on his life. Viewers learn about the mechanics of photography as well as about the friends, fellow artists (including Jungk, author Peter Handke, and actress Hanna Schygulla), places, sculpture, and philosophy that appear in or otherwise influence his work. Bavcar collaborates with another artist, Slovenian photographer Tonis Stoiko, in the development of his photographs. Stoiko describes to Bavcar exactly what appears on the proofs, then, Jungk relays, "in detailed discussions, they both decide, sometimes on the phone, which of the pictures will be enlarged. Neither during development or during the editing does Tonis change or manipulate even the smallest thing."

Dark Light's scenes and backgrounds are elegant and beautiful without appearing to be overworked or fastidiously composed. The lilting pace of the interview and editing is also deceptively simple, creating a gentle journey with warm and cultivated hosts. Jungk's camera and voice move with ease from observation to conversation to reflection, just as Bavcar's camera and voice carry the viewer seamlessly from the practical to the aesthetic to the historical. Though a film about a blind photographer could easily deteriorate into a curiosity or a gimmick, Dark Light never falls below the level of genuine illumination. Jungk shows throughout the film that mutual regard, friendship, and collegiality are the most fruitful components of an artist's life.

Documenting disability: seeing (as) a group

Disability documentaries have generally served as corrective responses to fictional films, directed on rare occasion by people with disabilities themselves. The 1932 film, Misjudged People (Verkannte Menschen, Wilhelm Ballier and Alfred Kell), testifies to a group identity and class consciousness among deaf Germans. The film was designed to correct the assumption that the deaf were inferior human beings and stave off their forced sterilization then justified by Nazi eugenics. By showing deaf individuals taking part in athletics, reading newspapers, and conversing with their children, the film insisted that deaf people were in fact desirable citizens and true members of the human race. It was banned after the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases.

Totalitarian ideology in East Germany also rendered the disabled body a burden to the social whole. An anomaly within the prescribed aesthetic of socialist realism, which elevated the strong, youthful worker, disability rarely appeared on the East German film screen. Helke Misselwitz's documentary interviews with women from the GDR, Winter, goodbye (Winter adé; 1988), includes one of the very few sustained discussions of disability in East German cinema history. An unusually frank and unguarded discussion ensues with Christine Schiele about being the mother of a mentally retarded daughter, Ramona. She feels she has been implicated in Ramona's cognitive disability and ostracized because of it. Christine confesses disappointment with her town and disenchantment with socialism, describing her life as a struggle to survive. The entire segment is an unsentimental disclosure of being looked down upon, a direct refutation of socialist ideology's claim to raise people up. Misselwitz captures Christine's quiet despair on film, yet also witnesses, without comment, the very ostracism that is at the heart of the matter. Ramona never appears on screen, but her agitated voice is heard above the television playing loudly behind a closed door. For painfully long minutes, Christine stares silently while Ramona yells.

Though the German Democratic Republic was dissolved before the type of critical self-reflection begun in Misselwitz's project could be more fully developed, scholars, filmmakers, and activists in unified Germany are now especially well poised to undertake comprehensive reflection of disability in history and culture. The Pannwitz Stare (Der Pannwitzblick; Didi Danquart, 1992) has begun this rigorous examination. Taken from Primo Levi's account of his imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, the film recalls the Nazi doctor Pannwitz, whose mere gaze at Levi selected him for medical experimentation and for later execution, which mercifully did not come to pass. Taking up the theme of the consequential gaze, The Pannwitz Stare problematizes the history of looking at disability, showing continuities in public understanding of disability as well as concerted efforts to dispel longstanding stereotypes. Danquart interviews long-time German disability activist Udo Sierck regarding the role of imagery in the development of the disability-rights movement in Germany. Together they examine three primary examples of representation of disabled people: National Socialist films, an advertisement for an arm prosthesis for children of Thalidomide, and video promotion of assisted suicide. Real disabled people then confront these media images and refute the myths of their helpless and pitiable lives. Demonstrating that violence against people with disabilities begins with a selective look, The Pannwitz Stare makes the need for further examination vitally clear.

Although the German cinema has undeniably been a source of some of the most egregious stereotypes of disability, German films have also served and continue to serve as sources of truth and insight. The documentary films and newer feature films discussed here are a few of the many positive developments that deserve recognition.

Indeed, films like The Pannwitz Stare, Beyond Silence, Crazy, and Dark Light enable viewers to imagine a truly pluralistic society that includes people with disabilities as they are, not predicating their full participation in society on normalization or cure. Instead of rendering impairment a narrative figure by erasing the contours of disabled life, these films dispel myths and counter stigma point for point. They expose the fallacious equivalencies of health, beauty, and happiness vs. disability, ugliness, and despair that give rise to the concept of the narrative prosthesis.

The disabled body no longer categorically serves as the reflection of an unstable mind or a spirit in decline, nor does it function exclusively as a metaphor for something other than itself, a crutch for other stories. Disability is at last present on the German screen as a fact of life that is neither appropriated nor effaced, but finally reasonable to see.

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Copyright (c) 2004 Elizabeth Hamilton



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