The 'Sensibilismus' movement in Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976) compared to The American Friend (1975/76)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

19 Pages, Grade: B


Table Of Contents

The 70’s in Germany - The “Author” against the “Issue”

The development of ”Sensibilismus” in Germany

‘Sensibilismus’ in Wenders’ Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976)

Sensibilismus in Wenders’ “The American Friend” (1975/76)


The 70’s in Germany - The “Author” against the “Issue”

“Never before and in no other country, were pictures and language in general treated with fewer consciences than here [in Germany].” Wim Wenders wrote in an article about Joachim Fest’s documentary Hitler- Eine Karriere (Hitler – A Career). “I don’t think, that anywhere else has been such a loss in terms of confidence in the own pictures, the own histories and the own myths, than with us.” (Novell-Smith, p.566)

These lines, which Wim Wenders wrote in the article, stand for the situation of the German film during at least 30 years. The heritage of the film of the Third Reich – the instinctively mistrust against all pictures and histories, which concern the German identity – was the main goal for the German directors of the 60s and 70s to work on. The new German cinema saw itself as part of the political public education system. After the Manifest of Oberhausen in 1962 several German filmmakers decided to make independent productions of film.

“[…]We declare that our ambition is to create the new German feature film. This new film requires new freedoms. Freedoms from commercial influences. Freedom from the dominance of interest groups.” […] (Excerpt of the Oberhausen Manifest in Pflaum, Hans Günther. Cinema in the Federal Republic of Germany. Trans. Timothy Nevill. Published by Inter Nationes. Bonn 1993, p.9)

Although not mentioning the question of financial support, the young enthusiastic filmmakers hoped to get money from the government in order to be able to work as “authors”. The government saw the cultural advantages of a strong national cinema and found 1965 the Kuratorium Junger Deutscher Film (Board for the New German Film). “Debuts by directors such as Alexander Kluge, Peter Fleischmann and Werner Herzog were assisted by awards from the Board.”[…] Little was changed by the law regulating assistance for the German film which came into force in 1968. With the conditions of production prevailing in this country in the mid-Sixties, it was basically impossible to implement the “new language” postulated in the Oberhausen Manifesto.” (Pflaum, p.10) The state-funded German cinema seemed so to have a secret, special cultural order from the government to present Germany to the rest of the world as a cultural motivated and especially self-critique country.

The fact that production of films at that time in Germany was of course determined of the state’s subventions “indicated that the German Cinema had not found its identity as an art cinema. The designation of the author as the contractual partner and addressee of the funding system meant film-makers had to legitimate themselves as ‘artists’.” (Elsaesser, p.52) But they also needed to legitimate themselves with the audience. And in fact that search “provides the most obvious key to the apparent heterogeneity of the general output of the German cinema.” (Elsaesser, p. 52)

One group of filmmakers saw themselves as artists, whose emphasis was mainly on self-expression and made their films either for themselves as an artwork or for a rather international art house audience and made their films “resemble those […] of the nouvelle vague.” (Elsaesser, p.52) Therefore they aimed more on originality. Other directors mostly were working with genres and their typical contents, in other words more mainstream. Similar to the authors, they also try to reach a more international audience, in order to legitimate themselves of the commercial film industry lobby and of their sponsors. Thus they rather accept, that “the cinema lives from repetition and recognition as much as from originality and uniqueness”. (Elsaesser, p.52) So both streams of German Directors seam to be unified in the final question to “seek active ways of adjusting themselves to what they perceived to be particular audience expectations.” (Elsaesser, p. 52)

But the group of filmmakers, which later was named The New German Cinema, was different. What they had in common “were their critical attitudes towards society rather than an aesthetic platform. Authenticity took precedence over perfection or stylistic strivings. The great part played by documentary elements in these works is characteristic.” (Pflaum, p.10) These directors didn’t follow “[…] the logic of self-expression nor that of genre, but is intensely concerned with social and political questions.” (Elsaesser, p.52) That is the reason why some critics divided the New German Cinema finally in two groups of filmmakers: The author-oriented and the issue-oriented.

The issue-oriented filmmakers were mainly dealing with social and even sociological problems, but also with controversial contents. Their audiences especially were the people of their home country, which means in the German cinema but also in the German television. The German television was very popular and therefore powerful at that time compared to the cinema. Beginning at the mid 50s the cinema market lost 75% of its audience to the television. While the number of the Television screens arose from 700.000 in 1956 to 7,2 millions in 1962 the number of the cinema’s visitors broke down from 800 million to 180 million per year. (Novell-Smith, p. 567)

Because the state-funding system got more and more complicated - with the result that independent productions got more and more dependant, not of the audience but of the judgment of the “Filmbeauftragten” (representative of the government in terms of film) – the television with the beginning of the 70s became more and more important as financial aide in the production of films. Of course the television concerns – such as the ZDF, the second German television – didn’t give their money away without having the goal to use the films also for their television. The new German directors and their friends of press and media understood themselves as “conscience of the nation” and therefore wanted to have a better Germany and a better German film. (after Novell-Smith, p.586)

But by the mid 70s it was clear “that film production in West Germany would be decided by those filmmakers who could either command an international following […] or at least address at home two kinds of audiences with the same film: those of television and those of the communal cinemas and noncommercial outlets, exploiting rather than ignoring the differences between the cinema and television.” (Elsaesser, p.52)

Those filmmakers, who were successful on both sides at the same moment, mostly were far away to be part of the art cinema or of the goal being an international auteur. As example, Elsaesser mentions here Das Brot des Bäckers (The Bakers Bread, 1976) by Erwin Keusch. Only a few German filmmakers succeeded in combining the interests of the film industry and the Oberhausen Manifesto, which meant being independent and to fulfill being the “conscience of the nation”.

Elsaesser mentions several possibilities in which these filmmakers produced their films. The first one is “the seriousness and the didactic or pathos-filled stance of much of New German Cinema during the 1970s” (Elsaesser, p.54), which is the result of the combination of the television-orientation and the constraints of the state’s funding system. Directors like Syberberg, Herzog, Fassbinder, Sander-Brahms and von Trotta used the fact of a granted audience on the television to form the conscience of their audiences to reach one day their so to speak “cinema of the future”. […] “It was a ‘poor cinema’ not ashamed of thinking big.” (Elsaesser, p.55)

Another advantage in using the issue-orientation “may have been the desire to break out of the confines that the institutional pressures of public funding and broadcast television imposed on filmmakers.” (Elsaesser, p.55) Hereby the directors saw themselves as artists, who can combine an engagement with sexual politics or the movement of women with a certain conception of film form, to open up spaces for social minorities.

A further way of breaking out of the institutional constraints was concentrating on issues which were not so popular on the small television screen, but made for the bigger cinema screens. An example for such an area - where television couldn’t damage to style and form - was a stream of films, which “tried to capture the youth audience by blending the American road movie with issues of truancy, juvenile delinquency and the temptations of drugs.” (Elsaesser, p.54) But against the nature of the subject of road movies which demand rather big screens to present the wide open spaces, these films again had a bigger success on television, apart from some exceptions like Die Abfahrer (On The Move, 1978) by Winkelmann, or Ob’s stürmt oder schneit (Come Rain or Shine, 1977) by Dörrie.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


The 'Sensibilismus' movement in Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976) compared to The American Friend (1975/76)
Concordia University Montreal  (Mel Hoppenheim School For Cinema)
New German Cinema
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ISBN (Book)
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Sensibilismus, Wenders, Alice, Cities, Kings, Road, American, Friend, German, Cinema
Quote paper
Oliver Schill (Author), 2003, The 'Sensibilismus' movement in Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976) compared to The American Friend (1975/76), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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