Jean-Gabriel Périot’s first foray into feature-length filmmaking, A German Youth (Une jeunesse allemande), carries over the archival approach taken in many of his short-form works. He’s made a career out of re-purposing the past, from his Ken Jacobs-esque Under Twilight to the haunting photography-based Hiroshima short 200,000 Phantoms, the potency of each less derived from the selection of footage itself than the way in which it is juxtaposed or altered.1 In A German Youth, the concept being made clear through contrast is the dissemination of information by the media in West Germany during the 1960s, with a particular focus on how the infamous Red Army Faction (initially the Baader-Meinhof Group) were presented to the public.
A German Youth begins with the question of whether there could even be a post-war cinema in Germany, the establishment of the Berlin Film Academy a means through which the government could encourage the semblance of a proud creative industry, a somewhat acceptable streak of nationalism. The small group of students selected for the inaugural class, which included eventual RAF member Holger Meins and Harun Farocki, would turn out to be political radicals, making films which condemned their parents’ generation for their complicity with the Nazis and encouraging acts of rebellious violence.2 Périot cuts between their artistic output, political activism targeting established institutions (including their own film school, which they rename the Dziga Vertov Academy) and a parallel narrative of interviews with and reporting by Ulrike Meinhof, who managed to provoke thought and change from within existing media structures.
As the film progresses, these perspectives are counterbalanced by clips from television programs under the umbrella of a conservative media conglomerate owned by (and named after) Axel Springer. The gradual imbalance between the expression of these groups and that of the programs who oppose them give greater potency to Périot’s approach to the formation of the Red Army Faction, much of which occurs out of sight for viewers of A German Youth; we’re left just as much in the dark as viewers of the time, and rather than encouraging us to see them as deranged terrorists, Périot’s structuring of the film delivers a sly self-awareness that questions all dissemination of media, even his own work of longform montage.
Without any voiceover or intertitles, the film moves away from an Adam Curtis-esque overarching argument and more towards something like Brett Morgen’s wonderful June 17, 1994, which intercut footage of various sports stories being reported on the day of OJ Simpson’s police car chase and eventual arrest. Périot amusingly includes the opening credits for programs like Forum and Panorama3 in an effort to replicate the experience of watching television in West Germany during that time. Through that gaze we witness the various arrests of activists and the myriad of legal prosecutions that followed, in which lawyer Horst Mahler became something of a spokesperson for their movement, as well as the sudden shift in how news programs described Meinhof, moving from journalist to terrorist by the film’s end.
Interestingly, Périot refrains from making any declarative or didactic statement with A German Youth. Though it seems clear he sympathises with the media suppression faced by these radical groups, he seems to wish to present a specific piece of history by interrogating the very form of media production. It’s something of a shame that he mostly avoids assessing the impact of the RAF on popular culture; the film’s end, which features Rainer Werner Fassbinder-starring clips from 1978 omnibus film Germany in Autumn, is surprisingly potent in terms of the echoes of representation from other artists.4 Outside of that, though, A German Youth remains a uniquely compelling look at an oft-simplified time in German history and forces audiences to grapple not only with the shift from protest group to violent organisation but also the means through which we engage with that kind of narrative.