WHEN "The Tin Drum" won an Oscar this year, it became clear that the German cinema has been marching to a different drummer for the last decade. Nevertheless, international status has brought as many critics as fans. It is just as fashionable to praise the films of Rainer Fasbinder, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Volker Schloendorff and their epigones as it is chic to denounce them for being elliptical, intellectual and didactic.
The current "Festival of New German Cinema" at the American Film Institute has drawn full houses for the last two weeks; and if word of mouth sells tickets, it will continue to sell out until Herzog's Dracula takes his last bite in "Nosferatu" on Dec. 19. No truly controversial film has found its way into the program, but these rather traditional ventures are more likely to appeal to American audiences -- and are among those generally held in esteem by German audiences.
The best-known and most prolific director represented in the series is Rainer Werber Fassbinder, who at 34 has directed some 32 films. "The Marriage of Maria Braun" (Nov. 28-29) combined the German cinema's guilt-ridden obsession with World War II and his own obsession with characters who have reached the end of their spiritual tether. His longtime star, Hanna Schygulla, plays businesswoman Maria Braun with a control and calculation meant to indict Germany's postwar "economic miracle."
After the great exodus to Hollywood in the '30s and the moribund kitsch and porno of the postwar German cinema, the first glimmer of seious filmmaking was taken very seriously. Recently, German cinema has decided to be the conscience of West Germany, committed to looking through the camera from a political point of view. The establishment of two government institutions made that possible: the Curatorium of Young German Film in 1965 and the Federal Film Board in 1968, which generously subsidized the cinema. "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum" (1975) was the first film to spead the word that the German wave was advancing. It took government monies to promote and help produce the political paranoia of the Fassbinderian generation.
One such politically oriented director is Wim Wenders, who grew up listening to American radio and rock 'n' roll. It shows up in the amount of Americana glittering in his films. His "Kings of the Road" (Dec. 8 and 10) is in the tradition of American road-journey movies; he even calls his company Road Movies. The road led to California, where he now works for Francis Coppola, so his suffering under American cultural imperialism paid off handsomely. He vows never to go back, but his films have consistently treated the American-German love-hate relationship.
Werner Herzog is the least political of these enfant terrible. Film buffs are fond of finding his vision metaphysical and directly descended from German expressionistic traditions. It is no accident that God appears in two of his titles, but it is an accident that his homage to Murnau's "Nosferatu" (the 1922 original will be shown on Dec. 18) is enjoyed as a piece of camp theater. American audiences have found Klaus Kinski very funny, but what the Germans themselves like about Herzog is his visual grandiloquence. A film bureaucrat commented, "We give him television money, but they never look like television films."
Herzog will hang by his toes over a volcano in South America, threaten to infest Rotterdam with rats, walk from Munich to Paris to visit a film critic. "I Am My Films" (Dec. 6) is the accurate title of a documentary about him.
The average American moviegoer will find the tone of true belief and paperback Marxism in many of the new German films thought-provoking, if not simply provoking. It seems that every hero is an underdog, above whom the filmmakers themselves, however, have risen to become part of an anti-establishment blue-jeans bourgeoisie.
The only humorist on the AFI scene is Walter Bockmeyer, whose "Jane Is Jane Forever" is about a senior critzen who thinks she's Tarzan's widow. Equally funny is his parody of the "Heimat" films of the '50s, "Flaming Hearts," about two Bavarians down and out in New York until they win a cow. Bockmeyer runs a successful pub in Cologne in real life.
No overview of German cinema should omit a sample of the Hitleriana spawned a 1977. The AFI series includes none, although versions of the fuhrer's success ranged over 12 films from the Wagnerian and viscous seven-hour "Our Hitler" of Syberberg to the realignment of old newsreels covering a highly motivated career politician beloved by his people in "Hitler -- a Career" by Joachim Fest. A Freudian slip in a Variety headline called it "Hitler -- a Carrier" and correctly diagnosed the epidemic.