Part 2: Suggested Wider Reading For Oxbridge German Applicants

Your personal statement is an essential part of your university application as it gives you the chance to stand out from other applicants and demonstrate your enthusiasm for modern languages. You can stand out as a candidate by participating in extracurriculars related to modern languages and exploring a wide range of texts in the target language.

Literature has a place of particular importance in Oxbridge universities, therefore having an interest in it demonstrates your suitability for the programme and your capacity for independent study. You should not only read the works included in your personal statement but also have a critical knowledge of them, because these works may serve as a springboard for the interviewer to initiate critical discussions about literature during the interview. You could also demonstrate that you have engaged in wider reading by engaging with other works on the A-level specification. These works are, however, regularly seen by tutors and interviewers at Oxbridge. To differentiate yourself competitively whilst still critically engaging in reading outside the classroom and the specification, it may be beneficial to discuss lesser-known texts of high literary value. To assist you in this challenge, we have compiled a list of recommended plays and films, accompanied by insightful questions for your critical analysis.

If plays and films are not for you, do check out our list of suggested German prose and poetry for Oxbridge applicants of German studies here.

German plays to read when applying to Oxbridge

Leben des Galilei by Bertolt Brecht

This play centres on Galileo Galilei, a mathematics professor who challenges conventional beliefs, proving Copernicus’ theory with a telescope. Facing opposition from the Church, he recants his work to avoid punishment, but with the help of his student, Andrea, he surreptitiously publishes his influential book. The play explores themes of development, persecution, labour, and the Great man theory; those interested will find plenty of scope for Marxist criticism in this play.

Your personal statement would most certainly benefit from the inclusion of this play as it gives you to opportunity to explore the text of one of the major dramatists of the twentieth century, whose works are both widely performed in theatres as well as taught in universities and schools.

Deeply interested in social and political issues as well as the power dynamics at play within society, Brecht sought to create a new kind of theatrical experience that encouraged critical thinking and social awareness; he revolutionized the theatre with his concept of epic theatre which would prove to have a major and enduring influence in the development of theatre theory and practise.

Critical Questions:

  • How is the relationship between science, religion and society portrayed in the play?
      • Consider the representations of, and tensions between, the ethical responsibilities of scientists and the potential consequences of their discoveries
      • Consider how these themes are represented and embodied by Galileo, Andrea, and Mrs Sarti
  • How does the play relate to Brecht’s idea of epic theatre?
      • Deeply influenced by Marxist theory, Brecht rose to prominence as a leading proponent of the Verfremdungseffekt and epic theatre. What is epic theatre, and which theatrical techniques are deployed to help characterise the play as epic theatre? 
      • How do these techniques serve to engage the audience intellectually and emotionally? What effect do they have on the overall meaning of the play?

The ‘Lulu’ Plays: Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora by Frank Wedekind

In the play “Erdgeist,” Lulu is rescued from the streets by Dr Schön. Their complex relationship leads to marriages, seductions, and a web of betrayal. Lulu’s journey sees her from being a lover and a dancer to facing imprisonment before escaping with the aid of Countess Geschwitz. 

Die Büchse der Pandora” continues this story; Lulu is freed from prison by her allies, but peril is always close at hand. As she and Alwa make their getaway to Paris, blackmailers threaten her for her prior crimes.

When their opulent lifestyle falls apart and Lulu descends into prostitution in London, tragedy strikes as her final clients bring devastation, climaxing with a chilling encounter with ‘Jack the Ripper.’ Often played together in abridged form, these two plays deal with themes of gender, sexuality, power, society, and identity.

Including these pieces in your personal statement (be it one or both plays) would be a positive contribution as these plays are groundbreaking in their exploration of sexuality and societal norms, such was typical of Wedekind’s works. Although the themes of sexuality, power, and gender explored in these plays may still resonate with viewers today, the plays’ candid depictions of sexuality and violence—including lesbianism and an encounter with Jack the Ripper—pushed the bounds of what was then deemed appropriate for the stage.

Critical questions:

  • What is the significance of identity in these plays?
      • Consider the role that names play in Lulu’s characterisation
      • Consider how she is perceived from the perspective of her partners
      • Consider Lulu’s shifting social status throughout the plays
  • Do you regard Lulu more as a victim or a femme fatale?
      • Consider Lulu as a tragic victim
      • Consider the power dynamics between Lulu and Dr Schön

German films to watch when applying to Oxbridge

Angst essen Seele auf by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

This film explores the story of Emmi, a widow in West Germany after the Munich Massacre, who finds love and companionship with Ali, a Moroccan Gastarbeiter. From prejudice, rejection, and Emmi’s own doubts, their relationship faces numerous obstacles. Although they rekindle their love through these trials, tragedy nevertheless strikes, heavily testing their relationship. The film deals with themes such as prejudice, society, identity and love.

Whilst the film consists of highly praised storytelling with exceptional performances from the cast, considering this piece for your personal statement would also be highly beneficial as it powerfully explores universal themes and social issues within a contemporary point in history i.e. the influx of Gastarbeiter moving into West Germany between 1955 and 1973. 

Critical questions:

  • What is the significance of the title, Angst essen Seele auf?
      • Consider its literalisation through Ali’s hospitalisation
      • Consider the ironies surrounding this phrase
      • What does the grammar of the phrase inform us?
  • Would you agree that both Emmi and Ali are driven by fear, albeit in distinct ways?
      • Consider the settings
      • Consider the shots used
      • Consider how fear influences their treatment of each other and their relationship

M by Fritz Lang

In this film, Berlin is terrorised by a child killer, sparking a citywide manhunt. The prime suspect, Beckert, is pursued by both the police and the criminal underworld. Captured by criminals, he delivers a powerful plea for understanding before the police intervene. Whilst the film explores themes of justice, criminality, and individual vs. societal responsibility, the film concludes with an explicit reminder of the importance of safeguarding children.

This film would stand out as an excellent inclusion in your personal statement due to its complex criticism of society and its numerous cinematic innovations, including its distinctive use of sound, shots, and lighting. The film is also a fantastic introduction to Lang himself; he is recognised as a pioneer of German expressionism, working in a variety of genres to highlight current social and political issues.

Critical questions:

  • How does Lang utilise sound in the film and for what effect?
      • M is Lang’s first sound film. Consider the soundtrack. How does it develop the atmosphere of the film?
      • A leitmotif is a recurring musical phrase associated with a person, idea, or situation. Consider the leitmotif associated with Beckert. What role does it play in the film?
      • Consider the way Lang contrasts sound with silence
  • What would you consider to be the focus of the film?
      • None of the murders are committed on screen. Could you still argue that the murders are the focus of the film?
      • Consider the depiction of the city. How does the camera operate to depict it?
      • Consider the reactions of the people. Are the people being depicted as increasingly divided or increasingly united?
      • Consider the focus on Beckert. What kinds of symbols are associated with him and how are they recognised by the viewer and the characters in the film?

The topic of choosing what to read for your wider reading can be overwhelming, but the key is to read extensively and diversely, exploring different authors, genres, and literary forms. Having a solid understanding of the works is crucial as it will provide a basis for your critical analysis, which, in many ways, holds a more significant value during your interview. Oxbridge tutors and interviewers are equally interested in your capacity to think critically and analytically when confronted with new material or literary works as well as what you already know.  Your independent reading is essential for demonstrating your commitment to the subject and perseverance in exploring it beyond the curriculum. However, interviewers are also evaluating you on how critically you approach these texts in a discussion.

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