Some of the earliest forms of film criticism, especially in the German context, focused on film psychosociological texts. Then the early decades of the field of film studies as an academic discipline, especially in the Anglo-American world, scholars fixated on a certain kind of aesthetic formalism, making arguments about mise en scene, camera work, or film music. In the 1990s, theories of spectatorship and film reception expanded the work on the cinema’s role in the public sphere, all the while insisting as did Siegfried Kracauer at the beginning of the century, that films are important historical artifacts. Verfilmte Trümmerlandschaften is heir to that intellectual history.
Though it reflects a misunderstanding of the medium, documentary filmmaking has had an easier path to acceptance as a source of historical argumentation than has feature filmmaking. But, as Margit Szöllösi-Janze argues in her chapter “Spielfilme als zeithistorische Quelle,” feature films have begun to enjoy legitimacy as historical sources. The chapter makes a compelling argument for the notion that a feature film, as a collective project historically collectively viewed, captures a broad spectrum of truths about the era in which it was made. While cultural critics have embraced this notion for decades, historians have often been less receptive. Szöllösi-Janze suggests that the resistance is rooted in a concern that the historian is ill-equipped to “read” a film in the same way they read an archival document. The chapter provides a quick overview of a variety of film studies approaches to making meaning out of a narrative film, in an attempt to assuage these concerns. It ends with a plea to accept feature films as ,,empfindliche Seismographen des historischen Wandels, auf welche die Zeitgeschichtsforschung nicht verzichten sollte” (p. 30).
The book is divided into four sections, “Vergangenheiten”, “Persönliche Beziehungen”, “Identitäten”, and “Religionen”. The subsequent chapters accept that challenge through studies of individual films made in the immediate aftermath of World War II in Germany, France, Italy, England, Japan, the United States, and the Soviet Union. German filmmaking receives the greatest attention, with five chapters dedicated to films from both Deutsche Film AG (DEFA) and West German studios, with films that were both relatively successful as well as ones that fared poorly at the box office. The discussion of Hollywood concentrates on two canonical films from 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life and The Best Years of Our Lives, both productions of the short-lived Liberty Film Studio. Japanese film is treated more diversely with three films from different years and with varied subject matter. Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette, perhaps the most canonical of the films under discussion, receives treatment as a discourse on Italian identity, though the discussion is really one about socio-economic mimesis. The history of filmmaking in immediate postwar Soviet Union is quite complicated, thus making the chapter on the subject more contextual than it is an argument for any particular film as historical source material.
Most of the authors offer box office data to argue for a film’s success or failure. In immediate postwar Germany, especially Berlin, ticket sales can be a misleading indicator. Almost anything playing in the cinemas could expect a few million in ticket sales. As Peter Pleyer put it “Der Kinobesuch war bis zur Währungsreform für viele Deutsche das einzige der im Bereich ihrer Interessen liegenden Vergnügen, das erschwinglich war”. Moreover, DEFA productions often enjoyed longer runs and rereleases in the East, simply by virtue of the fact that, especially after currency reform, there were fewer films in distribution there than in the West. Most German films made before currency reform enjoyed box office success, even when they were panned by critics.
Almost all of the chapters in the volume proceed with a similar methodology. They present historical tendencies of the postwar years and suggest how the feature films in question narrate them. James Jones’ chapter on 1947 British film, The Years Between, makes the best case reading a feature film as animating the myriad tensions of the life of a Heimkehrer. It succeeds in imagining how a returning soldier may have used the film to explain to himself the great societal transformations that occurred while he was at war. Thomas Raithel’s chapter on the Jour de Fête goes beyond a mere narrative analysis of the film, considering a greater array of aesthetic factors as important elements of its historical reference.
If Szöllösi-Janze argued for a rich consideration of a film as historical evidence, the chapters restrict their arguments mostly to film narration and contextual background. While this does yield some productive insights, it also leads to a methodological flatness in some of the chapters that might have been overcome had the authors considered a wider array of ways in which films construct meaning. This limits the readings much in the same way as if I were only willing to read what was within the margins of an archival document and not consider the marginalia, means of its transmission, or intended audience. While this may stem from the disciplinary limitations that Szöllösi-Janze mentions, certainly more attention to the archival material that exists for all of these films would have yielded richer arguments. As it is difficult not to consider Poland a main combatant in World War II, the volume might have also been better served had it included consideration of the rich contributions of Polish cinema in the immediate aftermath of the war.
These few shortcomings notwithstanding, the contributions to Verfilmte Trümmerlandschaften paint a fascinating picture of how the primary combatant nations of World War II imagined and narrated their post-war realities. The war upended lives, economic systems, gender and racial politics, and much more. Feature films, often ignored by professional historians, often reflect and reflect upon their own historical moment, and as such reveal historical truths that can be difficult to find elsewhere. They are in many ways, as Siegfried Kracauer asserted, the collective daydreams of a society. Hopefully, this volume will be one of many that expands the way historians approach the medium.
 Peter Pleyer, Deutscher Nachkriegsfilm 1946–1948, Münster 1965, p. 196.