Maria Stehle | The University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Depictions of Children in German Terrorism Films
The online version of the British paper Daily Mail calls the US American film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) “the worst film ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars” and tries to explain this nomination by the fact that the film addresses one of the most traumatic events of our times, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, by following the search of a boy for traces of his father who was killed in the attacks. The main complaint in this particular review does not refer to the way in which the film addresses the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks; it focuses on the portrayal of the child, which the reviewer calls “obnoxious,” “contrived,” and “trivializing.” Two years prior to the premier of this film, the critically acclaimed film by Austrian director Michael Haneke, Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon, 2009), was released. Set just before the outbreak of WWI in a small German village, the town’s children are the “terrorizers.” Most popular media reviews read these abused and suppressed children as representing a generation of Germans that would later support Nazi Germany. The subtitle of the film, “eine deutsche Kindergeschichte”—“a German children’s story,” further emphasizes what makes this film exceptional: it is a children’s story in that it depicts the lives of children but tells a very brutal, frightening tale full of mystery and suspense. These two contemporary and popular films offer rather different representations of children and terror and/or terrorism. Nonetheless, both films choose children as central protagonists to address the topics of terrorism and terror in a broader sense. In both films, the children also appear to be somewhat uncanny and unpredictable; at the same time, the child character(s) are clearly nationally coded and intricately tied to national histories and futures, be it in a search for national healing and recovery in post 9/11 America or as a foreboding sign of Germany’s Nazi atrocities.
National codings of child-characters in terrorism films pose a more general question about what roles child protagonists play in cinematic depictions of violence, trauma, and terrorism. More specifically of interest to this essay are depictions of children in films about political terrorism and its aftermath in the German context. While scholarly discourse has grappled with German terrorism films in general, especially following the international success of the film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (Baader Meinhof Complex, 2008), not many researchers have addressed the appearance of children, in spite of the fact that children are rather prominent in German films that depict the effects of left-wing terrorism. In this essay, I argue that children in terrorism films are the embodiments of different kinds of Schieflagen, a term taken from the title of a short film from the collection Deutschland 09. I use Schieflagen to describe the “askew positions” that child characters take in the context of these narratives; the term also allows me to explore how, through such child characters, films address the difficult situation that terrorism and violence create in twentieth and twenty-first century Germany. The films interpret these Schieflagen—and their implications of Germany, German history, and national identity—rather differently. After first discussing three films that link child characters directly to Germany’s national past and identity, the second part of this essay focuses on the collaborative film project Deutschland 09, which complicates the connection between representations of children and national history in its depiction of children as detached from Germany’s past. This detachment means that rather than symbolizing a national past, present, and future, the child characters in Deutschland 09 pose questions about belonging and progress that go beyond the national perspectives suggested in previous terrorism films.
I understand “terrorism films” as German films that negotiate the legacy of West German terrorism, mainly left-wing terrorism in the 1970s and early 1980. The early twenty-first century saw a wave of such films, most famously Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008), but others include Baader (2002), Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I am In, 2000), the docu-drama Todesspiel (1997), and the documentary Black Box BRD (2001). In parts, this renewed interest in the mainly home-grown terrorism that shook West Germany in the 1970s and into the 1980s is a result of the discussions surrounding global terrorism and the kinds of politics it produced in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. These films about the legacies of German terrorism are also part of a wave of so-called “heritage films” (Koepnick, 2002, 2004) that renegotiate the German past in the aftermath of unification in—in some cases Hollywood-style—fiction and non-fiction films of the 1990s and early twenty-first century.
In this context, Deutschland 09—13 Filme zur Lage der Nation (Germany 09—13 Films About the State of the Nation), released in 2009, plays a special role. Neither heritage film nor explicitly a film about left-wing terrorism, the film-project positions itself in the historical context of German terrorism films by directly referencing one of the most ambitious German film classics, Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978). As a collaboration between filmmakers of the New German Cinema, among others Kluge and Fassbinder, Deutschland im Herbst explored the effects of left-wing terrorism in West Germany in an essayistic format. While in Deutschland im Herbst, the contributions by the different filmmakers are interconnected and edited together to create one artistic product, Deutschland 09 presents thirteen distinct short films that set out to survey the state of the German nation in the aftermath of 9/11. In both film projects, the appearance of children is highly loaded with meaning; however, the two films use children to create rather different kinds of national trajectories.
To offer a critical examination of the role of child protagonists in German terrorism films, I first contextualize my more detailed discussions of four German films about terrorism within a more general discussion of child protagonists in film. Then I survey images of children in two West German films, Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978) and Die Bleierne Zeit (Marianne and Julianne, 1981), and in a more recent German film, Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I am In, 2000). The following, more detailed, discussion of Deutschland 09 (2009) allows me to argue that some of the films in this collaborative film project offer new interpretations of the Schieflagen terror and terrorism produces. In the films from the 1970s and 1980s as well as in Petzold’s Innere Sicherheit, children are the ultimate victims of terror; at the same time they embody—and are burdened with carrying—a national hope for a better, more peaceful and democratic future. Child protagonists are a melodramatic device that creates a sense of fear and tragedy, and nostalgia for a kind of “innocence” as well as a nationally coded sense of hope. Similarly, the children depicted in Deutschland 09 are heavily loaded symbols. But rather than presenting this peculiar mixture between melodramatic victim or symbol for a (potentially) better national future, they are the curious faces of a German present: a wealthy country that nonetheless struggles with poverty; a multicultural country that emphasizes integration and education, but struggles with violence and racism; a country that searches for its histories while struggling to get away from it.
Deutschland 09 aims to depict, rather generally, “the state of the nation,” which means that the connection between childhood, terrorism, and trauma in Deutschland 09 is much more tenuous than in the other films I am discussing in this essay. But the question of national and global terrorism serves as a permanent undercurrent, because most of the short films understand Germany’s current “state” in close connection to twentieth century history, a history that could be told as a story of violence and terror. The films also situate Germany in a global context, which includes the 9/11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath. The children in Deutschland 09 do not appear as victims of terror or as the potential agents who could overcome a violent or terrorist national past, rather they function as reminders that questions of social justice and inclusion matter in a globalized world.
What unites the rather different depictions of children discussed in this essay is the fact that children and young adults play important roles in films about terrorism and/or national trauma. In her essay on children in film, following psychologist Adam Phillips, Karen Lury states that “the child is […] perhaps the essential ‘subject’ in contemporary culture, romanticized and pathologized” (Lury,307). In this reading, what is often coded as symbolizing “innocence” in the figure of a child, comes to stand for a certain kind of essentialism (see also Lee Edelman, No Future 2–3). The romanticizing depiction of children on the one hand and of childhood as pathology on the other hand is directly related to this essentialism. Children can stand for something pure and, at the same time, for something fundamentally evil and threatening. The child contains an essence that one cannot understand; something about the child remains uncanny. When such childhood images are combined with trauma, they produce images of children as victims, potentially so severely damaged by the past that they become uncontrollable and dangerous. In the face of trauma, however, children can also symbolize hope for a better, innocent and untainted, future.
This tension in the depiction of children in cinema relates to a further point Lury stresses: namely that images of children and childhood often serve an inherently conservative and normative agenda (see Edelman). Children symbolize a heteronormative understanding of time and progress, of humanity and reproduction. Judith Halberstam follows a similar logic in In a Queer Time and Place when she argues that developing a queer sense of time and place means to position oneself outside of the heterosexual reproductive cycle, which places parenthood and the tasks commonly associated with being a parent at the center of a logic of time, progress, and a “cycle” of life. Childhood, then, signifies a stage that leads to maturity and childbearing/rearing. Lury insists, however, that at the same time as the child embodies a conservative understanding of life, progress, and time, something about the image and the figure of the child remains uncontainable, especially when it comes to cinematic representations of childhood. This often has to do with a rather vague construction of the agency of the child on screen—and I might add intention—that turns the child into something “disruptive, impossible, unintelligible” (Lury 308). Further, while the child stands for a normative cycle of life, he or she, especially when traumatized, under threat, or otherwise in a compromised position, also always signifies the disruption of such a cycle and the threat to normative understandings of order that comes with such a disruption.
Further, and this is crucial for the following discussions of childhood and trauma, the disruptive quality of the child is often enhanced by the fact that child protagonists remain largely silent (see Trnka, 9). When the child on the screen does not speak, his or her agency and intention is a blank screen for projection. The image of a silent, but traumatized or hurt child triggers strong emotional responses in the viewers: parental protectiveness and sadness but also fear of what might become of such a child. Rather than affirming a sense of a predictable life cycle the gaze of these silently staring children creates a looming sense of instability. Children in German terrorism films embody this tension between progress and hope and a feeling of instability and uncontrollable danger. The films discussed in the following negotiate questions of national history and national belonging via this very tension.
The main historical reference point for most German terrorism films is the culmination of left-wing terrorist violence in West Germany in 1977. Paul Cooke summarized the so-called “German Autumn” as
a period of three months in 1977 that saw an increase in violent attacks by the urban terrorist group Rote Armee Fraktion, or Red Army Faction (RAF), culminating in the deaths of its founding members Jan-Carl Raspe, Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader in their high-security prison Stammheim, as well as one of the group’s high-profile kidnap victims, the industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer. (Cooke 328)
In her more detailed account of the events and developments leading up to this culmination of violence, Nora Alter stresses the international context that influenced the actions and the perception of left-wing terrorism in 1970s West Germany (Alter 46-48). She further describes an “atmosphere of paranoia and self-censorship” that “grew dramatically, with the media playing fully into the hands of the government” (Alter 50). This atmosphere is crucial for any attempt to understand what Alter describes as “cultural responses” of the time. In order to examine the discourses in the aftermath of the events of 1977, “a thorough analysis […] ought to examine the interplay between unconscious trauma and conventional taboo” (53), which includes the complex relationship between understandings of the German Autumn and Germany’s Nazi past. Eric Kligerman, summarizing Miriam Hansen, points out that “the German Autumn operates in the crevices of historical consciousness, where a ‘collective work of mourning ensues’ (18)” (15), and suggests that visually, the “the iconic images from the death camps […] are repeatedly reinscribed in these films’ narratives,” which “function as the trigger for both left-wing activism and political enlightenment” (15). German terrorism films, therefore, are—even when they do not directly reference the Holocaust—always also cultural responses to a discourse about Germany’s violent past and Germany’s potential for a democratic future. In addition to this national discourse, in a post-9/11 world, films about terror and terrorism participate in global discussions about political violence, terror, and security.
Many film scholars have described the film project Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978) in detail and, generally, credit it for its innovative conceptual approach as well as the ability to capture a certain cultural and political atmosphere. Cook summarizes:
Framed by documentary footage of the funerals of Schleyer and the RAF terrorists, the film utilizes a range of forms, from World War II newsreels, melodramatic narrative sequences, real and staged interviews, stills of paintings and poems, voiceover commentaries, and fragments of classical and popular music, in an attempt to capture what its creators perceived to be a collective hysteria that had taken hold of society at the time. (Cooke 329)
While, according to Cooke, the film argues for collective mourning, he also stresses that it offers a rather complex picture of the political questions at hand and that it contains moments of irony and self-reflexivity. This is also achieved through the “hybridity” of the film, its meandering between fact and fiction (see Alter 56). This hybrid form allows the film as a whole to present the German Autumn as a series of “unresolved events” that remain open and ambivalent (see Alter 59).
Alter further emphasizes the ambivalent message that the film sends in regards to gender (68–71). Women are depicted as revolutionary victims of the state; at the same time, their suppressed violence is used in the gory service of the state. This prompts Alter to restate one of the questions the film asks: “Is it equally important for new generations to question their mothers as well as their fathers?” (71). The question of mothers and sons, of generations and memories, is a thematic thread that weaves itself through the film. The terrorists are the sons and daughters of a generation that came of age under the Nazis. This historical fact is stressed from the beginning of the film, when it opens with a letter Hans-Martin Schleyer wrote to his son while he was a prisoner of the RAF. This letter is followed by a quote from a “mother,” who, during wartimes, simply calls for the violence to stop. The next, and by far the longest, sequence is Fassbinder’s contribution, which prominently features a conversation between him—or his screen self—and his mother.
The only instance of a child protagonist featuring somewhat prominently on screen is the boy who attends the funeral of Raspe, Baader, and Ensslin in the final segment of the film (fig. 1). As Alter points out, the child seems vulnerable, threatened, and “always alone,” and he is “never identified” (72). The assumption that viewers can make is that the child is Ensslin’s orphaned son. The film, according to Alter’s reading, does not suggest that the “bad mothers” are to blame, but that they can be understood as a symptom of a nation in crisis. The final image of the film is of a women who leaves the funeral with a little girl, trying to catch a ride with one of the many cars leaving the graveyard through the autumn forest—a forest filled with police surveillance (fig. 2). Alter reads the shot of the anonymous mother and child who walk away from the funeral as a symbol of “nurturing motherhood” (Alter 74). This reading is supported by the image that precedes the funeral segment: a drawing of an unborn child in the womb. In this reading of the final section of the film, children, in need of nurturing motherhood, point to the necessity and maybe urgency for the creation of a better future. At the same time, there is something uncanny about these children since they, once again, witness violence, oppression, and death. It is not clear at the end of the film whether this cycle of violence can and will be broken by this new generation of (German) children and their mothers.
Just like their mothers, these silent children appear to be lost. They observe, but their faces do not only project a sense of innocence; they also show pain, hurt, and loneliness. In either case, the film stresses the importance of these silent, anonymous, children by giving them a prominent place in the ending sequence. This places them in the center of the melodramatic mood with which the film concludes, emphasized also by the final song’s prominent but ambivalent line: “the last and final moment is yours that agony is your triumph.” The boy who is leaving the funeral in a car (fig. 1)—a scene depicted in black and white, presumably from actual documentary footage—contrasted with the child walking away with her mother in her bright red sweater and long, floating pink skirt, are the two poles that symbolize the national Schieflage that Germany finds itself in and they set the final tone of the film: fear and tragedy and a very vague sense of a stubborn grasp for hope for a better future.
Compared to the brief appearance of children in Deutschland im Herbst, film scholars have discussed the role of children in Von Trotta’s rather conventionally melodramatic fiction film Die Bleierne Zeit (Marianne & Juliane, 1981) in much greater detail. The film tells the story of two sisters, Juliane, a journalist and feminist activist, and Marianne, who decides to leave her family and join a terrorist group. The film is, maybe first and foremost, a film about questions West German feminists faced in the 1970s. Rather than relating the images of childhood to the treatment of German terrorism in the film, scholars mostly focus on the relation of children to the feminist message of the film.
Von Trotta’s film connects her complex discussion of terrorism to questions of feminist activism and social responsibility in general. The film’s narrative further combines the fight for legalization of abortion (as made explicit in an early scene in the film, where Juliane participates in a demonstration against “paragraph 218,” the law against abortion), one of the main agendas of West German feminists in the late 1970s, with a discussion of (feminist) motherhood. Marianne leaves her son Jan with his father when she decides to go underground. Her husband, in turn, leaves the child with Juliane, claiming he has to go abroad for a temporary job assignment. Rather than departing for his assignment, however, he commits suicide and Juliane has to decide what to do with the child. Juliane, feminist journalist and activist, had made a conscious decision not to have children herself. Much of the dramatic tension of the film then results from the tension between the two sister’s life choices, as a consequence of both their strict Christian upbringing in 1950s West Germany and their political convictions. Juliane, for example, suggests that the turn to violence in her sister’s activism can be explained as a reaction against her previous choices to have a child and a rather traditional family and marriage. The silent child in the film is not only depicted as the victim of his terrorist mother and of other children who attack him once they find out who his real mother is. He also converts his feminist aunt to a committed mother and thus becomes a conveyor of hope for a different, both less violent and more nurturing future. Nonetheless, the boy’s gaze is the gaze of a hurt, traumatized, and sad child.
Hofer further points out that Juliane’s choice to take care of Jan is triggered by his attempted murder. In the final scene, Marianne is back in her study, but as Hofer describes, “set in contrast to the opening sequence, Juliane is last seen not alone in her study but with Jan. She sits behind her desk, the typewriter in front of her, suggesting that she has resumed her work as a journalist” (Hofer 51). Susan Linville offers a similar interpretation: “If Jan is a metaphor for his generation […] then Juliane's care for and exemplary guidance of the boy would also seem a paradigm of women's larger roles in enabling the culture to remember, grieve, and evolve” (108). Throughout the film, the shots of the mainly silent child protagonist emphasize his role as a victim, as an accuser, and as a challenge for the (female) protagonists. His gaze asks for explanations of the past and insists that he deserves a better, more secure and more peaceful future. In this way, the silent boy plays a rather similar role to the children at the end of Deutschland im Herbst. He is a melodramatic victim who forces Juliane to both confront the past and work towards a better future. The image of the child ripping apart a mug-shot of his mother and the prolonged shot of a train ride illustrate these two functions of the child protagonist (figs. 3 and 4). This turns Jan into a rather ambivalent carrier of hope: a deeply hurt and traumatized child that needs to be protected and nurtured in the hope that he can overcome the trauma. Jan embodies the Schieflage of the German nation in that he remains an uncanny child: he does not laugh or play, rather he sulks and stares. The question of whether Juliane’s decision to care for the child can “heal” him and, in effect, help to create a future for Germany, remains unanswered.
In contrast to the two films discussed above, where children present obstacles for the main characters or serve as symbols in an overarching argument, Petzold’s Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I am In, 2000), released twenty years later than Bleierne Zeit, makes an adolescent child, the daughter of two former terrorists, the central protagonist. Her parents are former left-wing terrorists who live underground and—unsuccessfully—try to create a secure future for their daughter Jeanne. Since the parent’s plight drives the plot of the film, the film is often read as a critique of the legacy of the 1968ers. The teenager Jeanne is portrayed as a victim of her parents’ life choices and her agency is constructed only in tension with and in response to her parents. Stefanie Hofer focuses on this reading of the film:
The State I Am In cinematically scrutinize[s] the life of an adolescent girl, Jeanne, who must come to terms with her parents’ terrorist past. At the film’s outset, we find the fifteen-year-old girl in Portugal. She is on the run with her parents—the ex-terrorists Hans and Clara—who dream of a bourgeois life in Brazil. Unfortunately for the trio, the money required for their transatlantic travel is stolen, and the family must return to Germany. (39)
Hofer reads the symbolism of the film as suggesting “that it is Hans' and Clara's [the parents’] past-life fights for political freedom that have isolated their daughter from society and the real world” (39). Hofer’s reading focuses on Jeanne’s choice to create a future for herself either by severing the ties with the past/parents or by developing a constructive relationship to this past (Hofer 39–40). Hofer concludes that “Petzold's portrayal of generations and generational conflict is highly paradoxical” (40). Jeanne “walks with hanging shoulders as if afflicted with the burden of her parent's past, doomed to suffer what one might consider a transgenerational trauma that Jeanne has unwittingly inherited” (Hofer 41). Especially towards the end of the film, when Jeanne is subjected to what she perceives as “questioning” by her parents, her parents are aligned with Nazi tactics and the family is depicted as the smallest terrorist unit (Hofer 41–42). This means that the film could also be read as a film about the terrors of the nuclear family unit. In the case of this family, the terror they experience is heightened by their situation in the “underground,” but the conflicts between parents and adolescent child are much more generally applicable. The emotional intensity of the film lies in its ability to destabilize the security of the family unit.
While this interpretation makes the film rather timeless and not specifically German, Petzold does locate his protagonists very explicitly within a German context. In using clips from Night and Fog, for example, “Petzold shows the Holocaust to be the centerpiece for the formation of the 68er's generational identity” (Hofer 43). The ending, according to Hofer, signifies freedom for Jeanne (52), freedom from her interdependency and loyalty to her corrupt and corruptible parents. Not looking at the car-wreck that presumably killed both of her parents, she stares off into an unknown future (fig. 5). This freedom, so Hofer, is not coded positively. Jeanne will become a poor orphan, similar to her boyfriend Heinrich in the film (Hofer 52–53). With this bleak ending, Petzold’s film shows that Germany remains haunted by the violence of the past and the silence around it (Hofer 53). The child is a victim of this past, carries this burden within her, and serves as a symbol for the (im)possibility of a better future.
Even though Jeanne is the main protagonist, she does not speak much and when she talks she usually conceals more than she reveals. When her father confronts her and calls her strange and closed off, she responds with a question: “liebt ihr euch wieder?” (“do you love each other again?”) The film turns silence into an actual theme on screen. The father suggests to Jeanne that if you find yourself questioned by the authorities, all you have to do is remain silent and it will drive them mad. Jeanne uses this strategy, rather successfully, with her parents. This means that silence in the film not only creates images of a lost, lonely, and disturbed adolescent, silence is also scrutinized as a political strategy.
Jeanne’s presence on screen creates similar questions to the films discussed above. She often stares in an accusatory, but also searching, vulnerable, and in some scenes, desperately hopeful way (fig.6). Die Innere Sicherheit does, as the English title might suggest, depict the “state” Germany is currently in as stuck between an unresolved past and—possibly as a result—an unclear future. The teenager, who is starting to develop an interest in relationships and sex and struggles with her dependence on her parents, is a symbol for unstoppable change. She is growing up (fast) and she wants to grow up, but, due to her parents’ life underground, her growing up, i.e., going out and meeting boys, puts the whole family unit in danger. This leads to a conclusion that echoes Hofer’s interpretation of the film as paradoxical, however, this paradox, or Schieflage, as I call it, appears to be a trope in German terrorism films that depict children: children embody the disruption of security and stability; at the same time their presence signifies the urgency for a secure family unit and the need for a more peaceful future.
The films discussed so far deploy images of childhood and children to address questions about Germany’s past and future. In that sense, their lives are understood within a rather conventional temporal matrix: the hetero-normative timeline of coming of age is transposed onto a national sense of progress and history. The uncanny child serves as a reminder of the violent past and as a vague, questionable sign of hope for the future. They use child characters as driving forces in violent and (melo)dramatic national narratives. The children signify lives and, by extension, a nation, in an askew position, a Schieflage. This Schieflage is depicted as a result of a national context: Germany’s Nazi past and of the violent political situation in the 1970s.
The children depicted in Deutschland 09, a collaborative film project that consists of thirteen short films, do not occupy a clear position in a linear, national history; rather, their uncanny presence marks a disruption of a national, historical perspective. This is particularly noteworthy since the idea of the film project, and its assignment for the participating filmmakers, was to depict Germany’s, i.e., a national “state.” While the short films do not focus on one specific political context, as a “remake” of Deutschland im Herbst, the film project as a whole offers a complex picture of the effects of global terrorism and, with vague references to German terrorism, Germany’s current “state.” Paul Cooke describes the project itself:
In August 2007, Tom Tykwer and the German television channel NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk) brought together a group of well-known filmmakers to discuss an omnibus film project that would explore the state of the nation in the first decade of the new millennium, years in which the industry has enjoyed levels of success at home and abroad it has not experienced for decades. (327)
Cooke notes that while in direct reference to Deutschland im Herbst, Deutschland 09 is clearly a very different film, “most obviously in structural terms”:
While the former interweaves the work of its various artists, the latter consists of a series of self-contained short films, each identified by an individual title and filmmaker. However, critical reception of Tykwer’s project failed to notice the thematic links between the two films, as well as the numerous aesthetic echoes which allow us to explore key continuities as well as important differences between these two moments in the development of German cinema. (328)
Cooke insists that “despite its structural difference to the earlier film, on a thematic level, Tykwer’s Deutschland 09 similarly presents a German society in crisis, provoked by numerous factors, not least of which, the film suggests in its strongest echo of Deutschland im Herbst, is the government’s perceived overreaction to the threat of terrorism” (Cooke 332).
Cooke’s reading of the film reveals that its different contributions have a much more shaky relationship to the past than the other films discussed above. They display, as Cooke describes it a “lack of faith … in the certainties of the past, even as they are nostalgically invoked” (340). Cooke understands the film’s politics as postmodern, but with an optimistic twist: “while the film evokes the tradition of the New German Cinema, it fails to maintain the political certainties of the previous generation, highlighting important differences between these two moments in film history. Most obviously, Deutschland 09 points to the potential for a more positive interpretation of German society’s present direction in its inclusion of voices that were either excluded or spoken for in Deutschland im Herbst” (341). The films do indeed include voices that the other films discussed here do not include, and while the overall image that the films create of German society is cautiously hopeful, its message remains utterly confused and somewhat cynical. Such confusion and cynicism surface in the representations of children. The children in Deutschland 09 are not inserted into the life-cycle of the family or their nation. In most films, they appear as parent-less, searching, arguing, floating (even literally so), or lost. They embody rather contemporary askew positions, Schieflagen that result from the fact that linear historical narratives and causalities appear to have lost their power to explain “the state of the nation.”
The short film that opens the collection, “Erster Tag,” (First Day) shows a child waking up in her home alone in the morning. The girl talks to her mother, who is already at work, on the phone briefly before she heads out to school. This short film mainly depicts a reality of many children in Germany today, a reality far from the traditional family where a stay-at-home mother has prepared breakfast before she sends her child off to school. Aside from offering a rather neutral, almost documentary-like treatment of a social reality, the shots of the window and the early morning sky do invoke a sense of nostalgia and loneliness (fig. 7). These feelings, however, are not connected in any way to historical or national events. The film, therefore, remains an attempt to show the mundane cycle of every-day-life of many children, not just in Germany, today.
“Gefährdeter” (Endangered) tells a story based on the case of Andrej Holm, a university professor in Berlin who was accused of participating in vandalism of luxury cars in 2007 and was prosecuted as being a member in a terrorist organization. “Gefährdeter,” offers one of the most direct references to Germany in Autumn. The topic of this short film is state-surveillance, state-terror, and in general, the treatment of people who are considered to be a threat to the state. In “Gefährdeter,” the interactions with his children show that the main protagonist, who is taken into custody under false accusations, is a compassionate and loving father who deeply cares for his children. In this sense, the injustice and brutality of his unjustified incarceration is enhanced by the fact that he is taken away from his harmonious domestic life, his wife and his children. The depiction of the domestic as a space of harmony under threat by the state stands in contrast to Germany in Autumn, where the domestic has become a space of suspicion and psychological as well as physical violence.
Fatih Akin’s contribution to Deutschland 09, “Der Name Murat Kurnaz,” (The Name Murat Kurnaz) tells the true story of a young Turkish man who was captured and taken to Guantanamo Bay as a terrorist-suspect. Denis Moschitto plays Murat Kurnaz who is interviewed by a journalist (fig. 8). The closest comparison to Deutschland im Herbst would be the interview with Horst Mahler, the former RAF attorney, in his prison cell. The interview Akin shows, however, is staged and takes place in a hotel room. Further, rather than getting lost in pseudo-philosophical ramblings like Mahler, this interview is a straight forward conversation about the young man’s experiences, his interpretation of the action (or missing action) that German politicians took, and his outlook into the future. An important part of the interview addresses Murat’s petition of German citizenship. This creates the most interesting tension in the film between, on the one hand, Murat’s sense of belonging in Germany and his deep disappointment with the German state, especially then foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who refused to free Murat from Guantanamo, in spite of the fact that “Steinmeier muss gewusst haben, dass ich gefoltert wurde” (Steinmeier must have known that I was tortured). The film, similar to “Gefährdeter,” shows an innocent victim. It addresses the pressing humanitarian issue of torture in the post 9/11 context, and it involves a conversation about religion and the role of Islam in Murat’s survival of extreme psychological and physical torture. While the content of the interview is bleak, the sense of hope comes from the fact that Murat is speaking, that he is speaking up and has vowed to do that in the future.
This fictional interview, which is in large parts based on a real interview, does not feature a child protagonist but rather a young man. His depiction as vulnerable, soft-spoken, and innocent, however, alludes to images of traumatized children on screen. Aside from the depiction of Germany as a state that closes its eyes even when knowing about torture, but at the same time as the country that Murat wants to belong to, the film contains a second tension: while Murat appears to be a peaceful, religious man, the question of whether such measures vis-à-vis perceived terrorists create more terrorism is an undercurrent in the interview. How could one not emerged scarred and angry from such an experience? This turns him into a “child” as defined above—innocent and vulnerable, but potentially so severely harmed that he could turn into a threat, to himself and or others. Murat Kurnaz’ place within German national history, however, remains contested.
The contribution by Nicolette Krebitz, “Die Unvollendete” (The Unfinished) features Helene Hegemann, a sixteen-year old German author, who landed a surprise success with her novel Axolotl Roadkill (2010) last but not least due to the accusation of plagiarism. In the film, Helene arranges a meeting with (the ghosts of) Susan Sontag and Ulrike Meinhof in a rather empty Berlin apartment (fig. 9). In her conversation with her two dead (potential) heroes, she quickly becomes disillusioned. She is looking for a purpose, for a political calling, for energy that will allow her to “mal echt versuchen Politik zu machen, die Welt zu retten, was weiss ich” (to really get into politics, save the world, I don’t know). In a collage from real texts and interviews by Meinhof and Sontag, both characters fail to offer Helene any guidance and both get lost in their own wordy and lofty discourses, Meinhof is talking about class struggle and patriarchy and Sontag about the power of art and soul and wisdom. Helene feels that they should have met since they might have been able to learn from each other, possibly made the right combination. In the morning, both characters simply vanish and Helene is left where she started, without guidance or orientation.
Helene embodies a current state—she is not depicted as a victim, but as a teenager looking for guidance that the older generation cannot offer her. Helene is not placed in a specifically German context. Rather, her attempt to bring Meinhof and Sontag together aims to place Germany in a transnational frame of reference. Helene in the film does not pose questions about the future. In her post-punk appearance and attitude, she rather looks like a proponent of a “no future” attitude. Her attempt to connect to the past and, possibly derive a plan of action for herself based on these figures from the past, fails. As Sontag and Meinhof vanish, Helene mumbles “ich glaube nicht, dass ich mir aus irgendetwas etwas mache […]. Aber es ist einfach eingesperrt in seinem Kinderzimmer zu leben” (I don’t think that I care about anything. But it is easy to live locked away in ones children’s room).
Helene shares some characteristics with Petzold’s fictional character Jeanne. However, rather than depicting this adolescent teenager as unable to envision a life for herself that is untainted by her parent’s past, Helene misses any kind of familial attachment. She is looking for a connection to her “mothers,” to her (feminist) history, but fails to find it. The Helene Hegemann character embodies a Schieflage that comes from a disconnection to the past and to (feminist) politics.
Sylke Enders’ “Schieflage” (Askew Position) the film that gave this essay its title, follows a journalist, herself mother of two children, on her visit to a children’s soup kitchen. The journalist wants to do a report on the children and Rolf (presumably a social worker) who runs the facility, but the interview somehow falls short of her expectations. Rolf struggles to find words to describe what he is doing and cannot answer more probing questions about how he makes sure that the children who show up in fact need his help. He ends the conversation by insisting that everything is a lot more complicated than he just made it sound.
As the journalist is about to leave with her team, she cannot find her wallet and accuses one of the children, a boy named Jo who lives with his psychologically disturbed and possibly addicted mother, to have stolen it. The child runs away as Rolf and the journalist run after him only to find out later that the journalist had simply left the wallet in her car. This scene could be read as a reference to Andreas Dresen’s film Nachtgestalten (Night Figures), where a businessman accuses an African boy to have stolen his wallet only to find he had left it behind at the counter himself. Instead of the racial profiling that underlies the businessman’s perception, “Schieflage” shows a form of social profiling. The child, however, by running away as if he was a guilty thief, plays with or into the adult’s perception. The shaky camera pans over the faces of the children, often shows Jo, an approximately twelve year old boy with dyed, black hair, and Rolf, who looks tired and tense except when he is with the children. The film also offers a glimpse into the life of the journalist and her two children as they fight in the car and as they fail to express gratitude for an expensive birthday party their mother organized for them.
The children in this film address an often-marginalized issue in contemporary Germany: the gap between rich and poor in Germany. Beyond simply contrasting the realities of the children, the film also makes a comparison: while Jo is depicted as a silent, introverted, and sensitive child (fig. 10), the journalists’ children are obnoxious and loud (fig. 11). The children, however, share a sense of sadness. Children in this short film embody the disconnection between the social realities of children growing up in Germany today. What connects these children, who seem to live worlds apart, to each other, however, is the sense that they themselves are—or at least feel—lost.
The short film “Eine demokratische Gesprächsrunde zu festgelegten Zeiten” (A Democratic Discussion Group at Set Times) might be one of the most interesting contributions to Deutschland 09. In what could be read as a nod to Fassbinder’s episode in Germany in Autumn, where the Fassbinder character discusses democracy with his mother, or other parts of the 1978 film that address the failure of West German democracy, a group of children come together to make decisions in a democratic way. This conversation is facilitated and structured, and, to a certain extent choreographed by their teacher, which indicates the second frame of reference here, the school film. What might be most notable in the context is that similar to many school films, the teacher is a white female who teaches a class with a majority of children with migration backgrounds.
The goal of this roundtable conversation is to educate the children about democratic processes, to teach them how to argue, how to reach a compromise, and to decide what is fair. The idea is that every child can “entscheiden, stimmen, abstimmen” (decide, vote, elect). The first issue is settled quickly: the children find it unfair that their Turkish peers get to take a day off for Bayram (a general term for a national or religious holiday), while the others have to attend school. The compromise is that the class will go on an excursion that day.
The second issue up for discussion is the suggestion that the class never play dodge ball again since it always seems to lead to fights; a long conversation with various suggested solutions follows. The class reaches what seems to be a fair consensus only with the very active participation of the teacher, who suggests that one of the boys, who most children accuse of being the instigator of the fighting, should get another chance. In this sense, what sets out as a democratic conversation, turns into adult intervention, mainly because the children seem to be inclined to agree on rather harsh sanctions for one of their peers. In addition to this interesting twist in the conversation and in what was supposed to be a democratic process, the camera work of the film is most noteworthy. The camera often lingers on the faces of the children and captures their very subtle facial expressions as the discussion takes place (figs. 12 and 13). The children’s faces express both, an earnest attempt to resolve the issues at hand and boredom and frustration with going through the motions as the teacher dictates them.
Aside from a rather ironic depiction of the democratic process, the fact that many of the children in this democratic conversation, presumably, come from a Muslim background, adds another political dimension to the film. The film, possibly unintentionally so, asks the question of whether in a post-9/11 world, such a deliberate education to democracy should be a model or if teaching democracy is, as it appears at certain moments of the film, an illusion. The question of whether these children can or should be Germany’s democratic future is implicit in this film. What becomes clear, however, is that regardless of their “education,” these children change the face of Germany.
Dani Levy’s “Joshua” is probably the most complicated film of the collection since it plays with film genres like the absurd comedy, references other films and filmmakers—most notably to Woody Allen, and chooses a humorous approach to a serious issue: the bleak mood that many Germans find themselves in, the fear that drives them, and the question of what kind of “therapy” might help to develop a more positive outlook on the future. In choosing a Jewish protagonist—similar to Fassbinder in Germany in Autumn, the filmmaker appears to play himself—and thematizing the awkwardness with which that non-Jewish Germans react to their Jewish Mitbürger (fellow citizens), other than the other films in this collection, this film does directly reference the German past. Levy places his screen self in a country haunted by its past; however, this awkward relationship to Jewishness and the issue of bleakness is very much framed as an issue of contemporary Germany, it is Germany’s state in 2009. The psychologist Levy sees prescribes a pill, “ein deutsches Heilmittel,” (a German remedy), that leads to what Levy perceives as hallucinations. Levy experiences a Germany where everyone is friendly and happy, but eventually, this Germany turns into an absurd nightmare: as Levy twirls his son around when he picks him up from school, the boy starts to float away (fig. 14). Levy complains to the psychologist, but he insists that Levy does not suffer from hallucinations but rather that he sees a “andere Wahrheit” (a different truth). The psychologist insists that the pills are not drugs, since you don’t even need a prescription for them; Levy’s mind is the drug.
On his search for his child, Levy ends up in trouble with the police, and, escaping the police van, he runs past a group of men, marked as Muslims, who plan a terrorist attack on Berlin’s central train station as they sit around in the park. All the while, his son is floating high above the city, past most of Berlin’s major landmarks.
During one of his stops, the child lands on Angela Merkel’s lap during a meeting. At the end of the film, as Levy storms into his psychologists’ office, he interrupts a session with Angela Merkel. The psychologist tells Merkel that “Deuschland ist mehr als die Summe seiner Einzelteile. Deutschland ist eine Idee” (Germany is more than the sum of its parts. Germany is an idea), upon which Merkel asks, with a sad face, “was für eine Idee?” (what kind of an idea?) .
The floating child could be read as a metaphor for the future that escapes Levy’s grasp, for a future that he cannot have or certainly not control, especially since at the end of the film, his son lands in the midst of a Neo Nazi gathering, in “the first National Socialist village in Germany,” where he is crowned the new leader of the movement. As part of the meeting, the camera shows a group of children, most notably a young girl with blond braids, singing a macabre song about death (fig. 15). While Joshua remains innocently clueless throughout his journey, this singing child depicts the uncanny, evil child in a combination between sweet innocence and uncontrolled violence and death. Obviously, this scene in the village references Germany’s past and expresses the fear of a return of history in the future. However, more than a symbol for the future, the child floating away and the Jewish child crowned as a Nazi leader signifies the father’s fear of and distrust in the Germany he finds himself living in and the Germany that his child is growing up in. Germany in Levy’s film is in a Schieflage between the wish and hope for a more cheerful, friendly, country that allows for child-like dreams and happiness and a Germany full of somber, psychologically disturbed people haunted by their past and their presents. History in “Joshua” is not a point of orientation that determines the trajectory of a nation. History mingles with the present and becomes a tangled mess in Levy’s hallucinations about the state of the nation.
The children in Deutschland 09 give a face to what Russian-German writer and cultural commentator Wladimir Kaminer has suggested, namely that Germany in the twenty-first century is “eine wunderbare Illustration des menschlichen Scheiterns” (a wonderful illustration of human failure). Kaminer describes Germany as a country that is in a constant state of trying to improve and reinvent itself, but continuously fails at this very attempt. The children in Deutschland 09 embody these attempts and their “wonderful” failures. Childhood in these films is not a symbolic state that connects the past with a longing for or promise of a better future; rather, the children embody the failures of normative understandings of (nationally coded) reproduction and progress. Deutschland 09 addresses pressing questions like racism, poverty, neo-Nazism, political fear and paranoia in a 9/11 world, and the future of feminism. The children who give faces to these issues, however, do not offer any answers. They stare at what they experience as a German present, as the state of things. This interpretation does not imply that Deutschland 09 presents a pessimistic picture of “the state of the nation,” but it refrains from offering any suggestions for an optimistic outlook. Beyond that, taken together, the films question whether a national perspective makes sense to begin with, since national histories and contexts do not appear to offer any sense of orientation.
Eric Kligerman asserts that by “juxtaposing and blurring the borders between different traumatic images and distinct moments of history,” filmmakers like “Alexander Kluge, Rainer Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe von Trotta, and, most recently, Christian Petzold submit […] unique histories to a series of problematic yet illuminating distortions” (13). While Kligerman mainly examines the films’ relationships to the Holocaust and the Nazi past, the above discussion about depictions of children begs the question of what role images of children might play in further illuminating such problematic distortions between traumatic pasts and presents. The image of the child on screen lends itself to depictions of Schieflagen, because, as stated above, while child characters project a sense of hope, something about the silent child, the traumatized child, or the confused child remains uncanny and uncontrollable. Children in Deutschland im Herbst, Die Bleierne Zeit, and Die Innere Sicherheit represent a nexus between past and future. At this nexus, the silent children embody a Schieflage between national melancholia, despair, and hope. These representations are problematic in that the children embody national progress; they become essentialized symbols of historical time and national progress. At the same time, similar to the terrorizing children in Das weiße Band, something about these traumatized children remains uncanny. It is not clear if, because they are children, they can or will break with what the films construct as a German historical trajectory or if, for the very same reason, this historical trajectory will inevitably continue.
Deutschland 09 depicts children as disconnected from any kind of historical trajectory, which relieves them of this problematic burden of historical, national representation. Detached from clear family structures and from any sense of what national and historical progress might mean, the children in Deutschland 09 give a face to an askew and unstable present. In that sense, the images of children in Deutschland 09 offer a potential for a less normative and more diverse perspective on “Germany’s state.” Rather than employing the uncanny child as a tool to refer to a specifically German burden of history that problematically mingles past and present, the films use uncanny and in some cases playful elements of images of children and childhood to pose questions about poverty, racism, and social and political exclusion. In Deutschland 09, Germany’s Schieflage is not primarily or only caused by a specifically national problem, but by global imbalance.
Discussions about Germany’s relationship to its violent past, national identity, and nationalism are ongoing. While, for rather different reasons, some claim that it is time that Germany and Germans develop a “normal” nationalism and move away from claiming a special status based on its past, others warn against such normalizations since they might resurrect dangerous (German) nationalisms and/or allow for revisionist understandings of history. A selective discussion of depictions of children in terrorism film and their relation to debates about Germany’s past and national identity reveals subtleties and problematic aspects in visual and narrative negotiations of Germany’s history and national trajectory. My discussion of Deutschland 09 further shows that attempts to create cinematic narratives of Germany that do not follow a linear, historical trajectory do not necessarily create uncritical depictions of a Germany that has “overcome” its past and has developed a more positive attitude towards national identity. Rather, Deutschland 09 shows that a visual survey of Germany’s “state” in 2009 can produce a complex set of images that embeds discussions about national identities, violence, and social injustice in a global context.
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Figure 1: Various Directors, Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn), 1978 Filmverlag der Autoren
Figure 2: Various Directors, Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn),1978 Filmverlag der Autoren
Figure 3: Margarete von Trotta, Die Bleierne Zeit (Marianne and Juliane),1981 Bioskop Film
Figure 4: Margarete von Trotta, Die Bleierne Zeit (Marianne and Juliane),1981 Bioskop Film
Figure 5: Christian Petzold, Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I am In), 2000 Schramm Film
Figure 6: Christian Petzold, Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I am In), 2000 Schramm Film
Figure 7: Various Directors, Deutschland 09: 13 Kurze Filme zur Lage der Nation, (Germany 09: 13 Short Films about the State of the Nation), 2009 X-Filme
Figure 8: Various Directors, Deutschland 09: 13 Kurze Filme zur Lage der Nation, (Germany 09: 13 Short Films about the State of the Nation), 2009 X-Filme
Figure 9: Various Directors, Deutschland 09: 13 Kurze Filme zur Lage der Nation, (Germany 09: 13 Short Films about the State of the Nation), 2009 X-Filme
Figure 10: Various Directors, Deutschland 09: 13 Kurze Filme zur Lage der Nation, (Germany 09: 13 Short Films about the State of the Nation), 2009 X-Filme
Figure 11: Various Directors, Deutschland 09: 13 Kurze Filme zur Lage der Nation, (Germany 09: 13 Short Films about the State of the Nation), 2009 X-Filme
Figure 12: Various Directors, Deutschland 09: 13 Kurze Filme zur Lage der Nation, (Germany 09: 13 Short Films about the State of the Nation), 2009 X-Filme
Figure 13: Various Directors, Deutschland 09: 13 Kurze Filme zur Lage der Nation, (Germany 09: 13 Short Films about the State of the Nation), 2009 X-Filme
Figure 14: Various Directors, Deutschland 09: 13 Kurze Filme zur Lage der Nation, (Germany 09: 13 Short Films about the State of the Nation), 2009 X-Filme
Figure 15: Various Directors, Deutschland 09: 13 Kurze Filme zur Lage der Nation, (Germany 09: 13 Short Films about the State of the Nation), 2009 X-Filme
 See for example the New York Times Review by A.O. Scott “Wholesome Hamlet’s Horror Sends a Jolt to the System”: “Do the math: it’s 1914. In 20 or 30 years, what do you suppose these children will be up to?” http://movies.nytimes.com/2009/12/30/movies/30white.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
 I would also suggest reading these kinds of representations of children in reference to the tradition of fairy tales, another form of often uncanny and violent children’s story. Further, of course, an analysis of horror films would be very fruitful in this context. In films of the New German Cinema, children often play crucial symbolic roles, see for example Wenders’ Alice in den Städten or his later film Himmel über Berlin that repeats Handke’s poem “als das Kind Kind war…”.
 See Trnka, 2007. This film also offers an interesting depiction of children and motherhood; however, in the context of this argument, the mainly individualized perspective of this film does not add much to the discussion.
 For more discussions on childhood and film/TV Lury refers to the Screen conference in 2004, see: http://tech.dir.groups.yahoo.com/group/thedinosaurabyss/message/1779
 A very good contemporary example for such an uncanny child is the depiction of Carl, the child in the TV drama “The Walking Dead” (AMC, 2010- ongoing).
 In order to make this point, Lury quotes Lee Edelman’s Queer Theory and the Death Drive.
 In reference to Thomas Elsaesser, New German Cinema 260.
 A further reference to children can be found in Schlöndorff’s Die Stille nach dem Schuß (The Legend of Rita, 2000). Towards the end of the film, Rita gets pregnant and this pregnancy seems to suggest that she might be able to finally enter a “normal” life. In this film, however, any such hopes are disappointed.
 The song “Here’s to you” by Joan Baez.
 See, for example, Silberman, Linville, or Hofer.
 See, for example the Hollywood film Dangerous Minds, the German TV production Ghettokids, or the French film The Class, discussed in Stehle Ghetto Voices, 90–91.
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