Political filmmaking is a rich catalogue in the history of German cinema. As far back as the Weimar era, political concerns find a revolutionary outlet in the Expressionist masterpieces of filmmakers like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. In Nazi Germany, filmmakers like Leni Riefenstahl spear-headed a wholly different kind of filmmaking – the propaganda aesthetic.
And finally, in the postwar era, we have the New German Cinema (1960s-80s), whose more political proponents contended with the crimes of the past, portraying a country seeking to rebuild and redefine its national ontology. Bolstered by the revolutionary musk of the 1968 spirit, German films finally caught up to other European national cinemas of the time by introducing contemporary talking points in their films, while striving to revolutionise the cinematic form itself.
Moreover, filmmakers of this period – like Margarethe von Trotta (Marianne and Julie, Rosa Luxembourg), Helma Sanders-Brahms (Germany Pale Mother) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Third Generation, Berlin Alexanderplatz) – produced work that reflected the social unease of their time, in particular the series of bombings and assassinations conducted by the left-wing military group Red Army Faction (RAF).
Founded by key elements within the student protest movement in West Germany, the RAF’s chief complaint was the government’s ineffectiveness at carrying out ‘denazification,’ with many former Nazi members having retained higher positions of power at the time. Tangled in a web of violent recursions, the RAF became the extreme symbol of a generation at odds with the sins of their parents.
The escalation of their activities would peak in 1977, labelled the “German Autumn”. After a bloody hostage crisis, an ultimate crackdown would follow, leading to a barrage of convictions on faction members. As portrayed in the anthology film Deutschland im Herbst, this concluded the tragedy of the May ‘68 generation in West Germany – a narrative which had become mired in blood and failure.
And now? Despite the brew of this turbulent past, the political concerns of German cinema as a whole have been somewhat muted. Over the last 30 years, the rampant gains made by international co-productions have arguably pushed political cinema to the side, and transformed many national cinemas into production hubs with global entertainment appeal.
The films of Tom Tykwer or Sebastian Schipper are indeed gripping and technically innovative. But the radical fervour of the “new wave” bug that bit German postwar cinema has been oddly quiet. With far-right populism attempting to re-instate itself on the European political landscape, it’s possible that we may on the cusp of a new wave of a political response in the cinema. But don’t quote me on that.
One bright spark in this emerging narrative is the growing career of Julia von Heinz. After making Katharina Luther (2017) – a film about a nun who abandons her vocation to join Martin Luther’s reform movement in the 16th century – von Heinz gives us And Tomorrow the Entire World, her finest and most prominent release to date.
Based on von Heinz’s own experiences as a member of Antifa two decades ago, we are introduced to Luisa (the brilliant Mala Emde), a first-year law student in Mannheim, who joins the city’s Antifa chapter. Through her, we explore their activities – communal living, canvassing, and the disruption of right-wing demonstrations.
However, escalation is a sensitive fuse that can be lit at any moment. In-fighting is presented early on between those that believe in a militant approach (led by Noah Saavedra’s character Alfa), and those that are striving for a more strategic one, represented by Luisa’s best friend Batte (Luisa-Celine Gaffron) and Lenor (Tonio Schneider).
“But please, only a peaceful protest against these assholes, okay?” Batte pleads before a rally. Right after we see various members body-building and training in another room. The threat of discordance is an important element throughout, but the film uses Luisa’s outsider position as a platform to investigate its own values, with no easy answers at hand.
“The Federal Republic of Germany is a democratic and social state. All Germans have the right to resist any person who seeks to abolish this constitutional order, if no other remedy is available.” This article from the German constitution opens and closes the film, and the group’s motivations are continually probed under its rubric. Does youthful angst and exuberance guide this movement, or is there really a more unified set of political ambitions at play that are hiding under the surface? The suppression of fascism is fundamental, but is there a consistency to the effort?
Luisa’s ‘normal’ life also becomes an overt parallel to the central narrative. On top of a comfortable existence with her parents, who support her financially, Luisa’s university life begins to fall into a state of disenchantment, as she becomes further embroiled in Alfa’s increasing antics and their mutual attraction. “What’s the point of laws nobody believes in?” Luisa asks in the classroom. The question may locate itself in the midst of her plight, but it also speaks to an overriding mood within our culture: that of a fundamental distrust of higher institutions operating under the banner of social democracy.
One night, after a violent close call with a group of right-wing demonstrators, Luisa meets Dietmar (Andreas Lust), a former RAF member and ex-convict, who treats her injured leg. Both a mentor and a symbol of radical failure, the central trio confide and seek refuge in his house. But as we spend more time with him, it becomes apparent that Dietmar’s jaded outlook is well-deserved.
“Back then, it was about the big picture… In the end, we also only had a few simple answers. To complex problems. That’s what appeals,” he says. With a direct callback to the Baader-Meinhof era, this becomes the key reference point to von Heinz’s argument.
With the growth of right-wing populism, and a disorganised approach to combating it, we risk repeating the treacherous mistakes of the 20th century, where even the anti-fascist effort fades out from its own exhaustion. Within the poverty of a healthy public discourse of contemporary social problems, we are starving for the proper words, and instead settling for inconsequent actions.
By understanding this, von Heinz seeks to dramatise the issue by underscoring the physical gap (or proximity) between Luisa and an environment she perhaps doesn’t fully understand. After a traumatic encounter with a right-winger, Luisa spends the majority of the film at a distance from the enemy. Indeed, her sheltered existence becomes her impetus for getting more involved, but a lot of the time, we see the central trio observing and infiltrating Nazi activities through remote means.
Finally, in a sequence in the third act, Luisa attends a makeshift Nazi-organised concert. The scene is astonishing – presented as a joyous community event attended by muscled skinheads and ‘normal’ families alike, it becomes something of a breakthrough for her. She makes her way right to the front, as if to breathe in the air of the enemy, to understand it, camera all shaky and confused.
But as we listen in, the on-stage performers’ words pierce like daggers, expressing everything we’d expect: absolute hatred. She leaves, at clear odds with what she’s seen and heard, returning to the Antifa hub in the midst of a police raid. This coupling of sequences results in a follow-up which, depending on your experience of the film thus far, either works or doesn’t.
To sum up, von Heinz doesn’t pretend to know the answers. Instead, by giving us a perspective melded from a deep knowledge of German history and her own personal experience, she at least asks the right questions. It’s an engrossing affair, imbued with a sense of control and intelligence that further elevates the film’s unmistakable sense of urgency.