Force Fields of the Specific

Church and Film after 1945. Speech at the Church Reception at the Festival of East European Cinema Cottbus 2003
Der Mann ohne Vergangenheit

Aki Kaurismäki: The Man Without a Past (European Templeton Film Award 2002)

I want to give you an idea on the way things stand in the discussion on the relationship of church and cinema, film and theology in a few words. I thought, the best way would be to give you an example and then add a few general remarks.
During the Berlinale, every year in Febuary, our church organisation for film, Interfilm, that is based on the ecumenical council of the churches, has the opportunity to award the Templeton Film Award. It is supposed to be given to a European film of the previous year that best serves “religious progress” – this is the aim of the donator. “For religious progress”, whatever this may mean – the term leaves room for a wide range of associations and interpretations that we know how to use. This year, the award has been given to “The Man Without A Past” by Aki Kaurismäki. Many of you will know the film.
I recall it or tell it to those who do not know it: It is a film about a man who, while being on a business trip, is beaten up by a gang of youths, who have specialised in robbing people, and this man consequently loses his memory. He does not remember anything – neither who he is nor who he was. He has to start a completely new life without a name and a past. he meets people who live at the margins of society and whose friend he becomes. He meets a female officer of the Salvation Army who cares for these people. She is straight in her moral and religious convictions – no doubt about them. But slowly, through hesitant approaches, a deep love develops between them – a love that changes them both. A love that even lasts when – by an interconnection of various circumstances that I do not need to mention here – the man’s name and past are revealed. In the end, both – the up to now nameless man and the officer of the Salvation army – walk out of the picture, hand in hand, towards their first night together. And a passing train hides from the possible voyeur what we all know will happen, but what – in the shyness and the caution of the two – no other needs to see.
When discussing the film and awarding it, we immediately noticed how much stimulus such a film offers for theological reflection, how much stimulus it has in store for deeper thoughts, yes, how easily you can preach about it. “You have to be born again”, Jesus says to Nicodemus in that nightly conversation in St Matthew’s gospel. Not as a child or an adolescent, no, but as an adult – start anew or have to start anew. Not in such a manner, of course, hopefully not in such a way as the man without a name, with a terrible blow on the head. But yet, suddenly, from one omoment to the other: having to cope with a new world that is completely new and difficult to understand. In a world where the problem of the name arises – a name signifying identity and reliability, also for banks. A name that can also be misused or perverted into a term very quickly, so that I have to defend the unique relation between the name and the person. “ She has a name”, the man says about his new girlfriend when the others want to make demands on her through her name, “she has a name, but not for you.” The man without a past gets involved with a world – as I said – at the margins of society where there are yet surprisingly little negative characters. After a while, you ask yourself if it is not even a question of your own tired and desolate perspective that you tend to see so many things rather as a heap of rubbish instead of as a fertile garden, as a garden full of flowers even? This film offers signs of a world of resurrection. A world that I sometimes dream of and where I sometimes am. The miracle of the other life that begins already when the one who has been declared dead undoes his bandages and has to get some good sleep at first. Thus, the thoughts wander to and fro between the stories of the film and the stories that the Christian faith lives of.
To start with the general remarks – it seems to me that there have been three phases in the history of the encounter between church and film since 1945 – seen from the perspective of theology and the church. The first phase of church film work – from 1945 till the late sixties – centers around the question if the film can serve the church as a medium. Is there a “religious film”, can film be propagation? The initial optimism that has seen the film as an excellent missionary instrument, dissolves after a while. Scandals that point to the film’s own way – such as the discussions on “Sinner”, are warnings. Within the churches, the term “indirect propagation” is agreed on, as a possibility of course, not as common reality. “Film can make perceptible the reality of the Holy Ghost only through the mirror of a human fate” (Schwalbach Declaration). Harald Braun’s “Night Watch” (1949) is regarded as a paradigm of indirect propagation. The pastor’s faith – that is kept up with difficulty only after the death of his wonderful daughter – is a stimulus for further questioning and further thinking. The situation intensifies once again when in the early sixties, Jesus films are booming (from “King of Kings” to Pasolini’s “The First Gospel According to St Matthew”). Here, the perspective of the indirect propagation confirms itself once again. “We can show the son of a man, but we cannot show the son of God”, Werner Hess, the film representative of the EKD (German Protestant Church) at the time, said. 
Then I see a second phase in the relation between church and film that begins at the end of the sixties. The opinion that the secularisation of the western world is an unstoppable and irreversible process has apparently gained complete acceptance. There no longer is a religious special status, there no longer are religious spaces. The way out through the worldliness of the world is definitely obstructed, the process of living in a world without God is irreversible and film is the most powerful medium of the secular spirit. Theologically, it is primarily all about the image in and behind the pictures. The picture as a reference, the trandescending of the watchable is part of the image experience itself. Theological discussions on films are becoming a “search for parables that – in a non-religious and profane manner – may point to the statements of Christian faith”, to say it with the words of the present film representative of the EKD, Werner Schneider (who claims this together with Doron Kiesel). The freedom and the autonomy of cineastic art that should not feel that the church could possibly decide for it, is the precondition.
Yet, it seems to me that we have long since entered a third phase of the relation between church and film. And the example that I quoted at the beginning – the film “The Man Without A Past” – was meant to give a little impression of it. The thesis of secularisation has shown its limits, religious spaces have proven themselves resistant or have been recreated. The Russian and the eastern European film that we are viewing here in Cottbus, has always widely withdrawn itself from this deconstruction of religious worlds. There has been no new “sacralisation of reality”, but the possibility of an experience of God has re-established itself in the mind of many. Years ago, Sylvain de Bleeckere already diagnosed: “Comparable to the way the medieval architecture of the cathedrals is the remaining witness of Christianity and Christian culture, the European film art is a contemporary sign of a fundamental, culture creating force of the Christian culture in the torn Europe in the years after the war.” After centuries of dominance of the ratio in philosophy and theology, force fields of the specific begin to unfold their irresistible power: in the experience of time and space, in the poetry of beauty, in the precondition of reason or in the battle against what destroys life. Many films have have become theological outlines in their own right, deeply exciting and challenging us just because they show concrete experiences of reality. The discoveries move to and fro between film and church, between theology and the world of the cinema. So, suddenly – just like at the moment – there can be a film about Luther that seems to be an adventure story – and you can discuss it excellently.
And one thing will remain the same: if film is really a work of art and church stays with what it should, then film and church will never be identical. Film participates in the specific character of the arts that is determined by structural openness and polyvalence. Esthetical experience is – at the core of its understanding of itself – much more interested in stimulating questions than in answering them, in confusing rather than in calming, in the search for meaning rather than in the teaching of meaning. Yet thus, the esthetical experience – in films too – creates a tension with regard to the position of the church that I also think is not to be given up. Church and theology are and will be related to a revelation of history, they have to tend to a certain non-opposition at least, to a unity of world and the experience of God, to the answers. Thus, there remains a border between the two different horizons of experience. But just as the acceptance of borders is a part of man's life, so is the crossing of borders. And thus, the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known. And this is what makes the encounter of church and film – like in Cottbus with the example of Russia – so stimulating and so important.