I'm not interested in films that deal with the 1980s but were shot in 2008. That is a reinterpretation of history, which is interesting in itself, but what I'm examining in my research is what does this film tell me about Germany at a certain time.

Bastian Heinsohn

"Germany was pretty much destroyed in World War II, so the task was how to build a lot of houses in a very short time," says Assistant Professor of German Bastian Heinsohn. Post-war Germany underwent a period of rapid reconstruction. "That created this feeling of being lost or not recognizing your own city anymore." As identical new concrete structures lined one street after another, the cities took on a cold, lifeless feel. That barren sense is depicted in the 1950s film Jonas, an award-winning critique of the fast-paced reconstruction.

Heinsohn is fascinated by the portrayal of streets in film. Whether a filmmaker uses an empty street to signify a no-go area, or an interrupted street to reflect divided Berlin during the cold war, the depiction always has meaning. "Displaying a street is not a coincidence," he says. "Anything you put in a movie is deliberate." In his research on the portrayal of streets in post-war German films, he has focused on Zeitphänomen, or films made at the time they are depicting. "I'm not interested in films that deal with the 1980s but were shot in 2008," he says. "That is a reinterpretation of history, which is interesting in itself, but what I'm examining in my research is what does this film tell me about Germany at a certain time." || Ask the Experts: Bastian Heinsohn on graffiti, film

What better person to consider the meaning of streets than a flâneur? A phrase often used by the French poet Charles Baudelaire, the term refers to a person who walks aimlessly through a city, with no destination beyond examining the surroundings along the way. "The best thing that could happen to a flâneur is to get lost," says Heinsohn, who enjoys wandering the streets of Berlin's varied neighborhoods.

Heinsohn's studies of the relationship between the human being and the city extend beyond film. He is examining literary representations of urban Germany, and plans to look at the city as readable text. "That means I would look at text in the city, like graffiti — graffiti as a political tool, graffiti as art, graffiti as illegal art, graffiti in the museum," he says. "Is it dirt, does it tell you something, is it trying to give you a different perception of the city?"

Heinsohn has also explored cities as a photographer, taking his own photographs of Berlin in transition. More recently, he has exhibited his photographs of lights, from sunrise to streetlights to neon signs to sunset. He is also a self-described soccer aficionado, playing pick-up games with other faculty members and following his lifelong team, 1.FC Kaiserslautern. He has watched the team rise to the top of the German leagues, and sink into a slump. He hopes to cheer them to the top again, perhaps not unlike Berlin itself.

Posted Sept. 22, 2009

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