NEW YORK — THERE was much excitement in February at the Berlin Film Festival over the presence of cinematically vital and politically alert new movies from East Germany, where filmmakers have labored for many years in the shadow of their West German counterparts. There was also much talk while I was at the filmfest about possibilities for unifying the West and East German film industries. If a new wave of East-West cooperation does emerge there, it might counteract a problem that has developed over the past decade: the decline of West German cinema from its position as a leader and innovator in world film. West German filmmakers could surely benefit from an injection of new energy and ideas from the East.
West Germany has not been devoid of worthwhile filmmaking in recent years, to be sure. What has slithered away is the preeminence it enjoyed for much of the 1970s and early '80s. During those years, West Germany took over from France (after the New Wave movement faded there) as Europe's most exciting source of film ideas. Filmmakers behind this development, known as Das Neue Kino, included Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a prolific poet of love and loneliness; Werner Herzog, a chronicler of human experience in all its diversity; Wim Wenders, a visionary with a touch of documentary in his style; Volker Schl"ondorff and Margarethe von Trotta, a husband-wife team with a strong political conscience.
What happened to this constellation of great cin'eastes? Mr. Fassbinder's untimely death was a major blow, but purely artistic factors also played a part in dimming it.
Mr. Herzog failed to maintain the early brilliance that produced such explosive pictures as ``Aguirre, the Wrath of God'' and ``Fitzcarraldo,'' and some of his later work (such as ``Where the Green Ants Dream'') has been positively awful. Mr. Wenders decided to explore life and love outside Germany, and made films (such as ``Paris, Texas'' and ``Hammett'') that contained scarcely a hint of specifically German identity. His recent ``Wings of Desire'' moved solidly back to Germany, but his current project (an ambitious science-fiction epic) is carrying him to a long list of locations outside Germany.
Mr. Schl"ondorff and Ms. von Trotta have begun to work separately, meanwhile, and in the process, each has moved squarely in the direction of mainstream cinema. Von Trotta's last international success was the rather conventional ``Rosa Luxemburg,'' while Schl"ondorff's recent work includes the current film version of Margaret Atwood's novel ``The Handmaid's Tale.''
If the filmmakers of West Germany do come to a close new rapport with their East German counterparts, both sides could gain: the West from new aesthetic and intellectual stimulation, the East from greater technical and financial resources.
The going might not be easy at first. Filmmakers in such countries as Poland and Hungary have begun the new era of Eastern European democratization, not with a burst of brilliant cinema, but with a struggle to find visual and dramatic strategies appropriate to the new social and political situations in which they're now working. Moreover, the East German cinema comes from a tradition more ideologically oriented than that of West German film.
Still, benefits could be great if a coming-together were to occur. The prospects for a reinvigorated German film scene can only be heightened by the challenges and possibilities a cinematic union would bring.