|Elisabeth Freytag (Meret Becker) and her grandson Robert (Ilyes Moutaoukkil)
© X Verleih
This is a translated, slightly abbreviated version of a text published in this blog on October 30th, 2015.
The portrait of a generation
The first post-war decades in Germany continue to give cause for further investigation and - if you think of movies like Im Labyrinth des Schweigens (Labyrinth of Lies, 2014) und Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer (People vs Fritz Bauer, 2015) - have again become a main focus of interest on the part of filmmakers in recent years. Special attention should be given, in this context, to director Oskar Roehler‘s excellent film adaptation Quellen des Lebens (Sources of Life, 2013) of his own autobiographical novel Herkunft (Origins, 2011). Both works are highly thought-provoking and reflect profound cultural and moral shifts that reshaped the country between the end of World War II and the early 1970s. Unfortunately they are still not sufficiently known and recognized for what they represent: powerfully narrated meditations on the history of the early years of the Federal Republic, imbued with their creator‘s personal experience. Roehler provides critical testimony, preserving and contemplating the memories of the grandchildren of the war. He is representative of his generation in the same way that for example Bernward Vesper, Christoph Meckel und his own prominent parents Klaus Roehler und Gisela Elsner are representative of the previous generation and its confrontation with the Nazi-background of their families.
Like his narrator Robert, Roehler himself was born fifteen years after the war into a world which for a long period of time had suppressed feelings of guilt, grief and shame and in which what remains unspoken, the taboos, the kitsch and people's escape into labour and cosumerism have paralysed society. Right from the beginning, his unusual biography enabled the director to develop a remarkable intuition for the influence of social change on the individual. His youth is characterized by the contrast between the two very different environments he grew up in. His paternal grandparents belonged to the lower middle classes in rural Frankonia, while on his mother's side they lived in a mansion in Nuremberg. One grandfather manufactured garden gnomes, the other one was a board member at Siemens. Through the unsettled artists' life of his left-leaning parents, Roehler came into contact with other cultural milieus as well. Therefore he is now in a particularly suitable position to draw from personal experience when in his books and films he looks back at the postwar-decades and illuminates the period's changes in mentality and mindset. It was an age first marked by reconstruction after the wartime damage and desolation and by the experience of trauma and violence shared by nearly everyone including millions of war veterans and displaced people. The widespread refusal to face the responsibility for Nazi atrocities extended into the nineteen-fifties and sixties which were also characterized by an unprecedented economic boom. It was the political student movement of the late sixties and early seventies that finally put up resistance against this general denial of guilt and would change society forever. However, many of its prominent members like Oskar Roehler's parents quickly lost their way in life themselves engaging in egomaniacal thinking and antisocial attitudes.
© Ullstein Verlag
Oskar Roehler has systematically turned his own life and the lives of his parents and grandparents into the most important subject matter of a number of films and of both of his novels. In Herkunft and Quellen des Lebens, Robert is his creator‘s alter ego, a result of which is a subtle blending of perspectives whenever the author‘s real life experiences are again lived through or rather rearranged, reinvented and interpreted by the fictional narrator. Detailed information about Roehler‘s biography and „modus operandi“ is provided by the various interviews he gave, several of which can easily be found on the internet. In these interviews, Roehler comes across as unobtrusive and lacking in vanity however obsessed he may be with his own personal history. Robert‘s father Klaus Freytag (Rolf in the novel) is based on Klaus Roehler, a writer and left-wing activist who today is mainly remembered as a literary editor, while his mother Gisela Ellers (Nora) is modeled on Gisela Elsner who rose to short-lived fame as an author of fiction in the late sixties.Both titles determine the therapeutic game with fiction and reality which Roehler plays in order to cope with his life by trying to understand the suffering derived from his childhood and youth. It is a game of self-reflection which systematically links the private and individual to the public and political, thus creating a psychological portrait of the post-war period and helping us to comprehend what the fabric of life was like in that age. The worlds in which he moves are emotional deserts where the wartime trauma and distress of the grandparents as well as their collective repression of the Nazi past cast dark shadows on the following generations whose entire existence is profoundly affected. Robert, the grandson, pays the price for these intergenerational constellations and entanglements, especially for his parents‘ narcissism which was a product of their feeling of powerlessness (and has already been dealt with in thisblog before). Willi Winkler described Quellen des Lebens in the Süddeutsche Zeitung as a „Wahnsinnsschrei eines Gequälten“1 („insane outcry from a tortured soul“). On one occasion, Klaus Freytag leaves little Robert alone at a sun-scorched beach in Italy until large areas of his skin are burnt. „Progressive“ education in his case involves having to watch his parents and then later his father and his rapidly changing lovers have sex. The audience bit by bit gains insight into some horrors of a childhood among the radical counterculture of the late sixties. He also realizes why Oskar Roehler‘s parents have come to embody the dark, neurotic side of that movement.
Truthfulness, appropriateness, fairness
Questions about artistic licence arise whenever fiction and reality are as closely interwoven and the private lives of real people are transformed into art as in Herkunft und Quellen des Lebens. In such cases, the freedom of art is more limited than in purely fictitious narrations. Roehler's protagonist Robert is based on his own younger self and his other characters to a varying extent represent people he personally knew – relatives, friends, lovers etc. Herkunft is a „roman à clef“, its adaptation a „film à clef“, and the connection between the real and the fictitious characters is not even thinly disguised. The public image of these people (many of whom are not alive anymore) for posterity will forever be determined by the novel and the film. Consequently they have a right to be dealt with responsibly and can expect the author and director to seek truthfulness, appropriateness and fairness.
Truthfulness, however, is a vital need for Roehler while trying to come to terms with his experiences. When exploring who he is and how he became who he is, he cannot afford any half-truths, lies and self-deception. For him, a vivid reminder of the dangers of untruthfulness is the German post-war society in general and most of all his grandfather and father whom he describes as people who were traumatized by the war and its aftermath and who also felt betrayed by women but who never openly confront their past. Instead they retreat and do not really want to know what the cause of their misery is. Their memories remain a dark matter for them which turns Robert's grandfather into a „Gespenst“ („ghost“) und his son into an aggressive alcoholic. Oskar Roehler, by contrast, wants to gain control of his life by confronting the past with the help of literature and film. Both the novel and the film derive suspense and drama from the contrast between the continuing mental decline of Robert's parents and the resolute fight their son puts up to escape from their influence and develop a stable identity.
What sets Oskar Roehler apart is the determination to leave behind the bitterness and coldness of his parents. Even when dealing with his most horrible experiences there is always the narrative distance necessary to keep us from becoming too absorbed in the story-world and to create space for reflection (especially in the film). Thereby the story of his family appears as a complex and ambivalent set of events with characters full of contradictions. Roehler looks into the „sources of life“ of the others as well all of whom are sufferers, too, because of history and circumstances. Erich Freytag, a former Nazi who never completely breaks free from the ideology, is an especially inconsistent character. But it is Erich who saves Robert by acting as father figure for the grandson who probably is the product of an affair his mother had with a Hungarian Jew. This grandfather offers protection to a child unwanted and neglected by his mother from birth. His mother and his legal father are also judged fairly, especially Klaus who at the end is only the empty shell of the hopeful young man he once was. The woman he loved left him alone with a child that was not his own and that he resented, his career as a writer came to nothing and finally his revolutionary rage evaporates, too, leaving him alone with his sadness and anger.
From novel to film
Quellen des Lebens is the unusual case of an author adapting his own novel to film which allows for interesting insights into how the creative mind works. Over the years, Oskar Roehler has tried to give his life sense and significance by building a coherent story from the memories of his youth. with the novel being the first stage in the process. Quellen des Lebens, however, is not an attempt to transfer that stage as faithfully as possible to film but a transformation into something new. Herkunft, the novel, is detail-loving, luxuriant, often pitiless and extreme. It is a 600 page long tour de force whose narrator sometimes struggles to tame an abundance of material. The reader is made to keenly feel the lasting effect of the pain caused by the childhood experiences of separation and loss and also the desire for salvation and redemption.
Quellen des Lebens on the other hand is much more streamlined and restrained and less intimate, partly because Roehler as a director tries to avoid extremes that would only work in an arthouse production for niche markets. He wants to make an ambitious film with an all-star cast (Jürgen Vogel, Moritz Bleibtreu and Meret Becker among others) for big audiences. The final part of the plot is removed and the film comes to a happy ending with Robert and his girlfriend Laura sitting together on an Adriatic beach. Thus, Quellen des Lebens resembles other film adaptations of literature which make the original texts more palatable and less controversial. At the same time, you get the impression that Robert now finally has control of his life narrative. In this second stage it seems more coherent and secure, and even more of the negative feeling has disappeared or given way to a touch of subtle irony. The plot is stripped down to its essential core and organized around a number of episodes which are possibly based on crucial experiences or turning points in the author's life. Some of these episodes represent epiphanies, i.e. moments of clarity and sudden realization of truth. Roehler conveys their aura visually and through the use of imaginative and grotesque plot elements. The scene at the death bed of Laura's father for example masterfully keeps the balance between existential angst, melancholy, irony and the grotesque.
1Winkler, Willi: Wahnsinnsschrei eines Gequälten. Oskar Roehlers Verfilmung seines eigenen Missbildungsromans. In: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 19./20. Juli 2014.