Moving Memories. Erinnerungsfilme in der Trans-Nationalisierung der Erinnerungskultur in Deutschland und Polen

Großmann, Rebecca
Beiträge zur Geschichtskultur (42)
Göttingen 2021: Böhlau Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
401 S.
€ 55,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska, Deutsches Historisches Institut Warschau

There are books that one reads with great pleasure because they include ideas that one has thought of many times but has never managed to develop into a publication. Rebecca Großmann has indeed put such ideas to paper in her Moving Memories: Erinnerungsfilme in der Trans-Nationalisierung der Erinnerungskultur in Deutschland und Polen (Moving Memories: Films of Remembrance in the Process of Trans-Nationalization of the Culture of Memory in Germany and Poland), which grew out of her dissertation and in which she reconstructs the shaping of the contemporary cultural memory of the Second World War in Poland and Germany – at first glance, a topic that does not seem under-researched. The novelty of Großmann’s approach, however, is her methodology rather than the topic of her research.

The author looks at the cultural memory through the lenses of three films: Philipp Kadelbach’s German television miniseries “Generation War” (“Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter”, 2013), Jan Komasa’s Polish film “Warsaw 44” (“Miasto 44”, 2014), and the Polish-German “Summer Solstice” (“Unser letzter Sommer”, 2015) by Michał Rogalski. In 400 pages, Großmann provides an extremely detailed, thorough, and well-structured analysis in which she juxtaposes two high-budget productions from Poland and Germany, namely “Generation War” and “Warsaw 44”, with a mid-budget Polish-German co-production. All three films tell stories of young people who – more or less willingly – take part in a brutal war. The characters from “Generation War” are five German friends separated by the war due to deportations, call-ups and voluntary decisions to join the army. “Warsaw 44” is about young Poles fighting in the Warsaw Uprising in summer 1944. Finally, “Summer Solstice” focuses on an unusual friendship between a Polish teenage boy and a German soldier of about the same age, garrisoned in a Polish town. The films represent thus not only the genre of war films but are also coming-of-age dramas.

Großmann considers the three films as ‘memory films’, following the concept by Astrid Erll and Stephanie Wodianka. They argue that only films that affect the viewers and provoke further reactions in the public sphere can be considered media of memory. “It is not the subject of what is remembered in the film that makes it a ‘memory film’; rather, it is the memory that is triggered by and ‘around’ the film that decides its status as a ‘memory film’”[1]. Although many scholars agree with this claim, its empirical implementation has remained a desideratum. Studies on history films have mostly focused on semantic analyses of narratives and images, and only occasionally have scholars combined memory studies with production and/or reception studies. The most relevant strength of Großmann’s monograph is therefore filling the concept of ‘memory film’ with empirical content.

The book is divided into three parts focused on clearly selected topics. The author skillfully combines her material – the three films and the additional sources – with a reflection on transnational (mainly Polish and German) politics of memory. In the first part, Großmann discusses the production processes of all three films; she also focuses on the biographies of the films’ authors in order to consider the relationships between their views on the past and their biographical backgrounds. In the second part, she analyses narrative structures of the films with a special focus on the strategies of authentication. Here, Großmann takes into account numerous previous films that have shaped the Polish and German imagery of the Second World War. This approach enables her to reconstruct the viewers’ possible expectations towards the three films under analysis. The third part covers the films’ public reception, i.e. reviews, public comments, prizes, etc. These responses to the films are presented against the backdrop of public debates about the past and the reception of other historical films.

Given that all three films were made over the last 10 years and that most of the producers’ files remain trade secrets, Großmann considers many kinds of available sources. She discusses interviews with the authors, recordings of press conferences, press books, advertising materials, documents from funding institutions, reviews, online comments, etc. Furthermore, she analyses each film in the context of its cultural, political and economic framing. The interpretation of the films themselves remains just one step in her extensive analytical work. It is the discursive environment of the films that appears most relevant for the discussion about cinematic memories of the Second World War in Poland and Germany.

The result is a book that contributes to the recent discussions in memory studies about the field’s strong focus on representations of the past without asking who actually uses and identifies with these representations “No film can be considered a ‘memory film’ only because it deals with historical issues,” (p. 260) writes Großmann. Yet only a few scholars have managed to close the gap between representation and reception, since studying the two separate subjects requires different and more complex methodologies. To solve this problem, Großmann considers the production and distribution mechanisms within the Polish and German film industries and emphasizes funding programs as one of the means of the politics of memory.

Especially convincing is the third part of the book, in which the author juxtaposes the responses to the films with the scholarship on mnemonic discourses. This analysis proves that film reception is more than just a sum of reactions to a certain media product: it is a result of previous debates and a contribution to future discourses. In a similar study from 2020, which focused on “Generation War” – hence also Großmann’s object of research – Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann proposed the notion of media resonance to study how memories interplay with each other.[2] A good method to discuss these resonances is the analysis of public responses to media events, which include various types of sources, from immediate local voices to international reactions. Without mentioning Ebbrecht-Hartmann’s concept, which was published simultaneously to the book under review, Großmann follows a very similar approach, in which she places great emphasis on the importance of the extra-cinematic discourse to prove the films’ mnemonic agency.

If I had to complain about anything, it would be the concluding chapter. As it is quite often the case in dissertations, the ending is more a summary of the book than an outlook for future research. After providing the reader with so much information and detailed analysis, it would be useful to discuss the limits of the concept of ‘memory film’ and the limits of transnational approaches in memory studies which – at least in Großmann’s project – turn out to be bilateral rather than transnational. With this disclaimer, however, Moving Memories is a great (and voluminous) piece of well-written, clearly structured, and extremely informative research.

[1] Astrid Erll / Stephanie Wodianka (eds.), Film und Kulturelle Erinnerung. Plurimediale Konstellationen, Berlin 2008, p. 8.
[2] Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann, Media resonance and conflicting memories: Historical event movies as conflict zone, in: Memory Studies 15 (2022), pp. 979–994.