Cinema during the Period of Weimar Germany
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The Weimar period refers to the interwar period in Germany, which began in 1919 and ended in 1933. In German Cinema, this brief span is regarded as the most prolific. To comprehend the German film industry, it is necessary to understand the social setting in which the film industry flourished.
Films were produced for three main purposes: entertainment, art, and government propaganda. During this period, there was pronounced sexual, artistic, and social freedom. Even though the Weimar period was regarded as a period of enormous economic and political instability, it was nevertheless a milestone for cultural revival. During this time, art, music, theater, and architecture bloomed. For this reason, the film industry was set to benefit from artistic innovation and technical achievement (Eisner 37).
Previously, the Weimar cinema was associated with the work of a few filmmakers and a limited number of simplistic films. To a large extent, a single film would be taken and analyzed. The results of the analysis are then taken as representative of the whole film industry during that period.
The purpose of this research proposal is to demystify the misconceptions surrounding the German film industry during the Weimar period. This is achieved through the extensive analysis of literature that depicts the true picture of the film industry during that period.
The critics of the German film industry during the Weimar period judged it from a minimalist perspective. However, such limited judgments have been scrapped by research, which has brought to light the vast richness and diversity of the film industry during the Weimar period. Research into the film industry during this period shows that it encompassed a variety of issues such as art, genre, technology, national identity, international relations, socioeconomic changes, and the role of gender in film spectatorship (Elsaesser 133).
To be able to understand the film industry, it is mandatory for one to take into consideration the setting in which the films were produced. This is because they can be used to serve various purposes such as entertainment, art, or even government propaganda. Therefore, this means that no film is produced in vain since it is meant to serve one or more purposes.
The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann)by F.W Murnau
Being the result of the fruitful collaboration of F.W Munrau and cinematographer Karl Freund with a star Emil Jannings, The Last Laugh was stylistically innovative and marked a change in the types of roles played by Jannings. He played the role of a doorman at an upscale hotel who is shattered and lacks an identity. After this, he began to specialize in roles of defeat and humiliation. Munrau made an inventive use of tracking shots and his beautiful understanding of cinematic space resulted in highly Expressionistic and fluid movies (Harvard Film Archive 1).
Asphalt byJoe May
Joe May took Weimar cinema to a new height by showing in an extended documentary like a prologue the pavement turning into roads, which is further pounded by frenzied citizens. A nice traffic cop falls in love with the wrong woman. May hints at redemption in the acts of the young woman and, thus, a happy ending for the couple. By masterful operation of the camera, the street scenes were aesthetically rendered through the use of different shades of the same color (Harvard Film Archive 1).
Die Nibelungen by Fritz Lang
Based on an ancient myth, Die Nibelungen celebrates nationalism in Germany and an idealized view of the past that Lang would reject ultimately when he fled Germany for Hollywood. The film was made in two parts. In the first part Siegfried, a painterly approach is achieved by using symmetry of figures in an intricate architectural montage of colossal proportions. In the second part Kriemhild’s Revenge, the violence turns into hysterical revenge. With unique effects and spectacularly staged battle sequences, Lang’s Die Nibelungen was undoubtedly one of the greatest Weimar cinemas.
Metropolis by Fritz Lang
Most of the fiction literature before the cinema age dwelt in the production of ideally perfect states. However, most cinematic productions deviated from this trend and dwelt in the production of realistic fiction. For instance, Vivian Sobchack depicts the city in Metropolis as “a place of alienation, delirious chaos, resistance and even improbable liberation” (Harvard Film Archive). The city in Metropolis is divided into two parts: the high and the low. Residents who live above the ground are the opposite of those living below the streets in terms of living standards. Those who live above the streets lead a pleasant life whilst the workers lead mechanized lives. They live in deplorable conditions that make them look like they are not humans. In this film, Fritz Lang is heavily futuristic (Harvard Film Archive).
The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger
This is the earliest known animated feature; this silhouette puppet film boasts of complex and captivating animation. The film, which derives heavily from The One Thousand and One Nights, narrates the accomplishments of a young prince and his flying horse. Lotte Reiniger gives her characters subtle, yet incredibly evocative movement, giving her little detailed silhouettes a lot of expressivity. Reiniger worked with background artist Walter Ruttman and animator Bertold Bartosch for three years in an improvised studio. She chose to animate her stories because that way she would be able to tell her story in ways that could not be achieved through a film. The result of this effort is a creative animation the figures of which are delicate, yet display physicality in their movements (Harvard Film Archive 1).
The Weimar period saw an exceptional number and variety of the films that were produced. As a result of inflation, the films were made in low budgets and thus were exported cheaply in foreign markets. At its largest, the Weimar cinema was only second to Hollywood in the number of films produced and released. The Universum Film AG or the UFA grew during this time. It absorbed many film producing companies in Germany. As it was founded by the German government, it served to produce propaganda films during World War I. It continued to be a government subsidiary throughout the Weimar republic, consequentially getting finacial support through the tough inflation times. Silent films were the beginning of Weimar cinema in Germany. The earliest culture or the Expressionist movement depicted the dark side of human nature. The sets were nightmarish and non-realistic. The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari is possibly the earliest cinema of these times. Dystopia was common in the Expressionist cinema. These films were made right after the First World War, and the mood was grim. Though Expressionism was not the dominant type of cinema in Weimar Germany, regular people preferred costume dramas and folk cinema, and it still had an influence on the filmmakers and minds of the people.
Silent films continued through the 1920s. It had its benefits. It gave the filmmakers the ability to have an international cast. People from Britain and France were also able to act as accents were irrelevant. When sound came into cinema, filmmakers experimented with the language. The Threepenny Opera was first filmed with a French-cast, then with a German-cast, and finally with an English-cast. The filmmaking during the Weimar period was not limited to fictional-feature length films. It contained a combination of feature-length films, news reels, short films, and other pieces of entertainment. Educational, instructional, political, propaganda, and corporate films were also popular in Weimar Republic Germany. These were not seen as lower pieces of film than fictional films, as it was in many other cultures. Rather, some of Germany's most popular film directors made many of these non-narrative films.
Weimar Cinema: A Golden Era
The German cinema in the Weimar period (which came about right after the First World War) is referred to as the ‘golden age’ of cinema because this is the period when the cinema in Germany boomed. Though a sound film was not made in this period initially, possibly due to financial difficulties, the time 1922 to 1926 grew to immense heights, helped by the 1920’s hyperinflation. The money was borrowed in Papiermark or Marks (%u2133). The value of the mark would be widely depleted by the time of repayment. The budget was still tight, and the need to save money was overwhelming.
During the 1920’s, the most successful films were those that came out of the expressionist movement. Since this movement was artistic in nature, German expressionism went back further than the First World War (Eisner 120). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari), which was directed by Dr. Robert Weine in 1919-20, and Metropolis, which was directed by Fritz Lang in 1926-27, are regarded as two of the most expressionist films.
The German Expressionists relied heavily on the symbolism and aesthetic nature rather than stark realism. The mood at that time in Germany was gloomy. Unsurprisingly, the movies made during this time were mostly crime and horror. Films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) were produced. The former depicted a cinema screen with non-realistic sets built with exaggerated geometry and a story the spoke about an insane man having dark hallucinations, whereas Nosferatu is a classic all time favorite horror movie based on a plot revolving around the ‘Bird of Death’ or Nosferatu who lives on the blood of humans.
Even though the Expressionists waned in the mid-1920s, they continued to influence cinema in the years that followed. For instance, the influence of the Expressionists can be noted in the American horror films as well as in the works of some extremely diverse directors (Eisner, 157). The film industry was a risky business because of the instability during the Weimar period. This was further compounded by the industry’s practice of overreaching itself financially, leading to bankruptcies. For these and other reasons, UFA was compelled to get into a partnership with the Paramount and MGM American studios in 1925; a move that turned out to be disastrous. Nationalist Industrialist and newspaper owner Alfred Hungenburg then overtook it in 1927. Though the company was in a financially unstable situation, the company continued to produce numerous significant films like The Last Laugh (1925) and Madame du Barry (1919). Coupled with the developments in the industry itself, the Weimar period saw the beginning of the newly born practices of film criticism. As the film was the last development of the arts, it was also the last to show expressionism.
After some of the influence of the Expressionists began to wane, a variety of other styles and genres began to come out in the 1920s. A conspicuous feature of this was that films were now made with socially concerned themes and made a return to realism. For instance, films such as Joyless Street (1925) and Pandora’s Box (1929) showed a tendency to understand reality and characters in terms of lifeless objects and personal property. The new tendency took on some scandalous issues of society such as abortions, homosexuality, oral sex, and addictions.
Many of the films that were made during that time were historical spectacles. They attracted a large audience while adhering to the limited budget. These films depicted how the cherished and trivial passions of the rich and powerful were the cause of enormous historical events.
Kammerspiel or Chamber drama was the fourth artistic movement after the Expressionists, New Objectivities, and Spectacles during the reign of the Weimar German cinema. This genre was in an ironic way a reaction against the Expressionist and the Spectacle movement. These movies tended to revolve around people living an ordinary, diary life (Rogowski 88). Because of the emphasis on impulse and intimate psychology of the characters, these films were also called ‘instinct’ films.
The Arrival of Sound
The arrival of sound was the fifth and final flourish in the German cinema before the collapse of the Weimar republic. These welcome changes took place in the late 1920s. The German cinema accepted the arrival of sound pretty quickly, and by 1932, over 3500 films were made with sound in them. The Threepenny Opera and Lang’s M are one of the earliest Weimar cinemas with sound.
Role of Women
The Weimar period saw women take to the stage in the film industry. It provided them with a platform to impact society from various perspectives such as fashion and cuisine. Neue Frau or New Woman was probably the most innovative aspect of the Weimar cinema. With her short skirt, Bubikopf (bobbed hair), and cloche hat, she freely walked around the streets of Berlin. This newfound freedom and movement depicted the body and fashion of tthe modern woman. This increased their awareness in the workplace and changed the image of the metropolis.
One of the most famous silent-film actresses of the Weimar period was Louise Brooks (1906-1985). She is best known for her role in the Classic Weimar New Objectivity film Pandora’s Box and her elegance proved to be a perfect example of the neue Frau or New Woman. In Pandora’s Box, she played the role of Lulu, a black-bobbed jazz beauty wearing trendy clothes that embodied the ideal of the Weimar-era "New Woman," a social role that promoted political equality, free-spiritedness, and gender ambiguity.
At the end of the First World War, Germany was in a poor state given that the majority of its inhabitants were suffering from famine, a high rate of unemployment, and high inflation. These issues were reflected in the films produced during this period (Elsaesser 87). For instance, what the suffering people went through during this period was captured in a two-part film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse der Spieler) by Fritz Lang, which was released in the year 1922. It describes a corrupt criminal who took chances with fortunes and lives of others.
The Aufklärungsfilme or "films about the life facts" also came out throughout this period. Even though a big amount of these films were sex-oriented, they were disguised as being educational. When people realized this, there were widespread demonstrations where the demonstrators demanded legal process against the Aufklärungsfilm (Rogowski 47). To address the issue, the National Assembly recommended to nationalize the film industry.
This was declined in support of a National Censorship Law, which was passed in May, 1920. The new law did not prohibit films based on their content. However, it prohibited children under the age of twelve from watching films. Those who were between the ages of 12 and 18 were only allowed to view films given a distinctive certificate.
Even though some scholars looked down upon the film industry, others recognized its educational potential. For instance, the Organization for Cinematographic Study was founded in 1913 with the aim of encouraging films rich in educational and scientific value, hoping to raise the standards of ordinary films. The organization proposed to provide the cost of production in cases where producers felt such films would not be profitable to them. An example of such a film was hosted in a Berlin symphony hall in 1914.
Films produced during the Weimar cinema period brought the concerns and worries of the time. They clearly depicted the cultural concepts that would define a highly important period in cinema history. For instance, some of them expressed a decadent nightlife; which was a kind of unchained sexuality unknown previously. This was more seen especially in women whose apparent feeling of freedom was compromised by a thinly veiled sense of despondency that was likely to erupt at any time.
The negative side of the Weimar cinema came out in forms such as uncontrolled criminal activity, unreciprocated love, and the conflict brought about by the difference in generations and classes. Thematic expressions emerged in various films, for instance, the Harvard Film Archive states that:
The idea of the urban environment, represented in a series of “street” films, as simultaneously threatening and enticing in its debauchery, the figure of the immature man-child fatally incapable of taking control, the emasculated male, often embodied by the brilliant actor Emil Jannings and that of the fallen woman, representing either a trap for the unsuspecting, respectable male or the victim of a ruthless society (Harvard Film Archive).
The Weimar period of German cinema is limited to a number of simplistic films. For this reason, the role of the film industry during this period is myopically judged. This was so because analysts would take a single film and analyze it. They then would generalize findings as being representative of the entire film industry. Nonetheless, a detailed review of the Weimar cinema contrasts such findings. The film industry during the Weimar Period had a large influence on international perceptions of German film, and so it was aptly named the ‘Golden Era’ of cinema.
Given the fact that there were no dialogues in movies, filmmakers hired an international cast. This endeared the films to a worldwide audience as there was no language barrier. The UFA had a reputation for monopolizing the German cinema during the 1920s and 30s. In the changed atmosphere in the reign of the Weimar Republic, the national censorship was abolished in 1919 by the Council of People. A significant step was taken by the Reich Film Act in May 1920 to reinstitute the state censorship. This act later enabled the Nazis to imply ideological control over Germany. This era saw a remarkable show of talent. The talent and opportunity were actually the things that characterized the Weimar Period of German cinema. The innovations in style and technology were much influenced by the political turmoil.
The best example of this was the emergence of Expressionism as a style. The characterization was made by deeply shadowed lighting and intentionally artificial sets. The cinema at that time reflected the fears and concerns of that period. It expressed the ideas of the cultural moment that would later be recognized as a hugely influential period in the history of cinema. The Weimar Cinema is a beautiful blend of theatre, music, and all flourished architecture with films’ unique positions to achieve the benefits of corresponding technical innovation and artistic achievements.
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