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‘Thesis of the Month’ goes to Sophie Burt, University of Oxford

I’m delighted to be able to steer the ‘Thesis of the Month’ series back to a thesis which deals primarily with film, after a three year hiatus. And since Leila Mukhida’s film-focused post in July 2012 it has been a very exciting time for German screen studies in the UK. There are lots of Germanists dotted around the country working on film and the three-year-old German Screen Studies Network now makes it easy for us to meet each other.

When I started working on my PhD in October 2013 I knew I wanted to look at contemporary German film but since then my specific focus has changed considerably. Originally, I wanted to look at politically active women in German film since 2005, when Merkel became Chancellor. I started off with Fatih Akın’s Auf der anderen Seite, in which one of the female protagonists is a Turkish political activist, but I immediately found that my approach meant that there was a danger I would ignore other aspects of a film which were as or more important in terms of gender. I changed my working title to ‘Gender and Agency in Contemporary German Film’ and this is how I described my thesis in a Chinese whispers-esque exercise run by the Modern Languages faculty at Oxford. However, I found firstly that after my description had been passed on twice the ‘and agency’ was dropped and I was seen as someone who worked on gender in film, and secondly that all the women there seemed to be working on gender in something. The Thesis of the Month feature demonstrates the extent to which this is not the case, but at the time it seemed that we women were all putting ourselves into a gender studies box. I widened my focus to ‘agency in contemporary German film,’ confident that this, like in life, would be partly informed by gender.

It may seem odd to broaden rather than narrow a focus during the course of a PhD and ‘agency’ encompasses far more than I could fit into 80,000 words, but I have found that the broader the approach is, the easier it is to identify trends, rather than imposing a narrative on a set of films. The directors I look at also seem to reflect a broad approach: Akın has stayed in my thesis and I’m also focusing on two similarly big-name (if you know about that sort of thing), prolific directors, namely Christian Petzold and Tom Tykwer.

Part of the appeal of these directors is that they represent three different traditions in German cinema and with my thesis I am attempting to say something broad about German cinema today. These directors are not normally dealt with together: the discussion of Tykwer usually centres around his status as a postmodern, transnational pop filmmaker, scholarship on Akın focuses on Turkish-Germanness and ethnic background, and work on Petzold tends to look at his position in the Berlin School and his characters not belonging. Yet looking at my broad theme of ‘agency’ in these directors’ films shows the similarities between the directors and provides a sense of the shared problems that cinema is used to engage with in a German setting, over and above individual filmmaking traditions.

With my thesis I am also trying to say something about agency in contemporary Germany, outside of film. I was very pleased to discover Karen Evans’ sociological research on this topic, which not only seemed to be asking some of the same questions as I am but also called for an increased emphasis on the role of learning and social relationships in changes in agency, which is reflected in my corpus.

For more about Sophie’s research interests see:




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