Zeitgeist: the spirit of Portland’s German Film Festival

Portland State students need not commit to several months abroad and a lifetime’s worth of student loan debt for authentic foreign cultural experiences. “Warum ist das?” (Why is this?) The sixth annual Portland German Film Festival screened a panoply of Deutschland-made movies spanning the full film-genre spectrum, from avant-garde to Westerns, Sept. 25 through 29.

Sponsoring directors Yvonne Behrens of cultural nonprofit Zeitgeist Northwest and Oregon State University Associate German Professor Sebastian Heiduschke expounded on the highly misunderstood canon of German movies and their relevance to the cultural seasoning of PSU students.

“Often there is not enough credit given to the wide variety available within German cinema,” Heiduschke explained. “A lot of people know the classics, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that many of the traditions of cinema originated in Germany. Science fiction, the horror genre—a lot of that is based in the films that came out of German cinema of the 1910s and 1920s.”

The PGFF addresses the issue by faithfully including at least one or two gems from the classics era. This year’s nugget was a rare find indeed for the history enthusiast: “ Die Morder Sind Unter Uns” (The Murderers Are Among Us), the first post-war German movie, produced in 1946.

Heiduschke described the production as the first of what are called “the Rubble films” (Trummerfilm); film noir, but set and shot in the bombed-out cities of post-war Germany.

“Murderers” was significant because no one knew what was going to happen to German cinema after World War II; film production was heavy-handedly controlled by the four allied powers, and they made the decisions regarding what could and could not be shown in their zones of occupation.

“There was no room for German cinema anymore,” Heiduschke said.  

Such was the case until a group of German producers came together and determined to address the issues of Germany’s Nazi past. The filmmakers were not affiliated with the Nazi party and wanted to give German cinema a new beginning, a new start, a zero hour for German film production.

“So,” Heiduschke said, “the fact that this film was allowed to be made in 1946 is just amazing.”

The festival also enlightens viewers about the unusual, unpredictable zeitgeist that is German cinema today.

“For the last three years, the contenders for the Foreign Language Oscars always include [a film] that was produced in Germany,” Heiduschke said. “There is always a German film among the five finalists.”

American festival goers are often surprised to find they recognize actors in German video from films produced by American directors such as Quentin Tarantino.

“Til Schweiger, Franka Potente, Christoph Waltz,” Heiduschke said. “These and many others are familiar to the American audience.”

Behrens and Heiduschke expressed the rich opportunities of cultural immersion and networking available to students of German language and culture, all within the borders of the City of Roses.

“It’s a huge opportunity having this in town, not just the organization [Zeitgeist Northwest] but the film festival,” Heiduschke said. “There are a lot of native speakers here, and students always look for native speakers with whom to engage in conversation. There are a lot of cultural events, all right here—opportunities for networking.”

The festival has grown exponentially over its first six years, from a single-film screening outside the Northwest Film Center to the five-day extravaganza inside Cinema 21.

“We don’t keep an exact count of students or viewers,” Heiduschke said. “We had a nicely filled house opening night, and even 100 people on a Sunday afternoon.”

Zeitgeist Northwest was founded eight years ago in Portland with the idea of bringing German language and culture to the Pacific Northwest. The organization decided to do the German Film Festival as a part of that mission.

Fans of German cinema, language and culture can get involved year-round through monthly film screenings offered at the Clinton Street Theater. The next scheduled showings are Oct. 14, Nov. 11, Dec. 9 and monthly throughout 2016. PSU students are also encouraged to follow Zeitgeist Northwest on their Facebook page and seek out opportunities to volunteer with the organization.