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Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era

Edited by Noah Isenberg

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Paper, 376 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-13055-4
$29.00 / £20.00

January, 2009
Cloth, 376 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-13054-7
$90.00 / £62.00

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Falling in Love Again

There is a pivotal scene almost halfway into Josef von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930) in which the still upstanding Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), a man who epitomizes imperial Prussian rigidity teetering on the brink of collapse, finds himself drawn back to the same seedy nightclub where he first encountered the enchanting songstress Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). There, as the stodgy old teacher makes his way to the balcony, he finds Lola onstage, swaying her hips nonchalantly while she belts out one of her signature ballads—pronouncing her inability to do anything but love and finally declaring her innocence vis-à-vis the men who swarm around her "like moths around a flame" and get burned in the process. Punctuating the scene, the "honorary guest" Professor Rath receives a hearty welcome and a call for applause from a gruff, surly magician called Kiepert (Kurt Gerron). From his perch above the main floor, Rath—and, of course, we together with him—can take in everything: the raucous, mixed crowd; the tawdry stage arrangement cluttered with scantily-clad female performers, Lola at its center; a melancholy clown, gazing up at him in ominous anticipation of an inevitable role reversal; and an oversized nude mermaid statue, whose voluptuous form catches him off guard and finally leads his attention back to the stage. As Lola strikes her seductive, by now iconic, pose atop a wooden keg, with legs in sharp focus in a tightly framed shot and a look of complete self-assurance on her face, Rath cannot contain his delight. In the end, he is positively smitten.

The scene is significant not only for its role in the basic plot development, as it prepares Rath for his ultimate descent into shame and humiliation, but also in terms of its broader commentary on Weimar cinema as a whole. Quite self-conscious in its approach, the scene highlights the boldness of the New Woman, a stock character in Weimar cinema, at least since the so-called street films of the early 1920s, introduced here in the figure of the international star. It captures, moreover, the spirit of Weimar, or what has come to be seen as that spirit, "a dance on the edge of a volcano," in the words of Peter Gay (1968, xiv), or the "historical imaginary," as Thomas Elsaesser (2000) has since conceived it: the pulsating, decadent nightlife, where such slogans as "Everything that pleases is allowed" appear entirely credible; the powerful undercurrent of eroticism and unbridled sexuality that reached poignant expression in the visual arts, culture, and literature throughout the interwar years, threatening to subvert bourgeois morality; the paradox of love, often unrequited, in an otherwise seemingly cold, loveless society in which desire handily trumps emotion; and finally, the recurrent clashes between rival generations, classes, and political and social orientations, as well as between a heady force of internationalism and an unyielding German provincialism. Even the film’s music (Friedrich Hollaender’s "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fußauf Liebe eingestellt," or "Falling in Love Again" in the English rendition), coupled with rather racy narrative lyrics, strikes a resonant chord in many other films of the era, as it, too, underscores the sense of helplessness that overwhelmed those who fell into the trap that was the false promise of Weimar. It evokes the misplaced hope in the new—in democracy, a cosmopolitan urban culture, and a progressive ethos—that would ultimately prove impossible to sustain beyond the confines of a short-lived experiment.

On another level, von Sternberg arranges the nightclub interlude in such a way as to elevate Marlene Dietrich’s status as a new film sensation, conveying beyond a doubt the "sex appeal"—a phrase that was often used in the original English—that is almost organically ascribed to such figures. Thus he places her in a venerated line of international stars that radiated from the Weimar screen, from the Danish-born Asta Nielsen and the Swedish Greta Garbo through the American dancer Louise Brooks, picking up on a notable strain of media-generated Girlkultur that first took root in the 1920s. As Patrice Petro has observed, referring specifically to Dietrich and Brooks, these women became "convenient figures upon which to project a reading of male subjectivity in crisis; as figures of female eroticism, they were typically featured in films where male characters are brought to their doom as a result of their uncompromising devotion to a feminine ideal" (Petro 1989, 159; see also von Ankum 1997). The most famous roles brought to life on the big screen during the Weimar years—perhaps foremost among them Brooks’s Lulu and Dietrich’s Lola Lola—demonstrate how indelible these images were in their day and how fundamental they have become to our understanding of Weimar culture. In a slight (more Americanized) variation on the same theme, there is a counterpart in what Detlev Peukert calls "the male-generated fantasy of the ‘vamp’: the glamour girl, a bit too independent to be true, armed with bobbed hair and made-up face, fash­ionable clothes and cigarette, working by day in a typing pool or behind the sales counter in some dreamland of consumerism, frittering away the night dancing the Charleston or watching UFA and Hollywood films" (Peukert 1993, 99).

Indeed, for Anglo-American viewers the visual conception of Weimar may be linked less to The Blue Angel than to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), a film that appeared a good four decades later and yet managed to suggest a sensibility that, despite its tendency toward mythologizing, is taken for authentic (Jelavich 1993, 154–86). The "divine decadence" of which American showgirl Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) speaks oozes from Fosse’s Kit Kat Club, as it does from the eponymous nightclub of von Sternberg’s film, which boasts a similar kind of magnetic attraction. Yet ultimately it is not Bowles—that charming starlet extracted from Christopher Isherwood’s imagination and his Berlin Stories, so reminiscent of the Kansas-born Brooks—who best represents the face of Weimar Berlin. Rather, as Ian Buruma has suggested in his trenchant analysis, it is the master of ceremonies and "androgynous host" (Joel Grey):

"Grey managed to personify everything we now associate with the end of that giddy, sinister, brilliant decade between the two world wars, when Berlin was the capital of sex, art, and violence. The sunken cheeks, the curled blood-red lips, the rouge and death-white powder, the lacquered black hair, the little dark eyes, darting about like malevolent black insects, and all this combined with that unforgettable voice—whining, lisping, sneering. He is the sum of everything we find repellent and yet deeply intriguing about Berlin at the dawn of the Third Reich." (Buruma 2006, 13)

This highly potent combination of "repellent" and "intriguing" was what passed for love—desire and temptation—as it was articulated during the Weimar years, both in everyday life and in the cinematic imagination. In his memoirs, The World of Yesterday (1943), Stefan Zweig describes what he terms a transformation of Berlin "into the Babylon of the World," a place, as he puts it in his extended musings on the subject, which is tinged with an air of caution:

"Bars, amusement parks, honky-tonks sprang up like mushrooms. What we had seen in [turn-of-the-century] Austria proved to be just a mild and shy prologue to this witches’ Sabbath; for the Germans introduced all their vehemence and methodical organization into the perversion. Along the entire Kurfürstendamm powdered and rouged men sauntered and they were not all professionals; every high school boy wanted to earn some money and in the dimly lit bars one might see government officials and men of the world of finance tenderly courting drunken sailors without any shame. Even the Rome of Suetonius had never known such orgies as the pervert balls of Berlin, where hundreds of men costumed as women and hundreds of women as men danced under the benevolent eyes of the police. In the collapse of all values a kind of madness gained hold particularly in the bourgeois circles which until then had been unshakeable in their probity. Young girls bragged proudly of their perversion, to be sixteen and still under suspicion of virginity would have been a disgrace in any school of Berlin at the time, every girl wanted to be able to tell of her adventures and the more exotic, the better. (Zweig 1964, 313)."

Though the rhetoric in Zweig’s portrait of Weimar Berlin may be overblown, he gets at the heart of the tension between the development of an advanced erotic culture within a society that, at that same moment, was showing signs of wanting to smother expression, sexual and otherwise (Peukert 1993, 170–171; Gordon 2000; Weitz 2007, 297–330).

A Republic of Impostors

In his Critique of Cynical Reason, Peter Sloterdijk brands the Weimar Republic the "German Republic of Impostors." For Sloterdijk the impostor embodies the political and psychological instability of Germany’s fledgling democracy during that period. "In such an ‘insecure’ world," he writes, "the impostor grew into a character type of the times par excellence. Cases of fraud, deception, misleading, breach of promise, charlatanism, and so forth multiplied not only in the numerical sense: The impostor also became an indispensable figure in the sense of collective reassurance, a model of the times and a mythical template. . . . [T]he impostor became the existentially most important and most understandable symbol for the chronic crisis of complexity of modern consciousness" (Sloterdijk 1987, 484). As has been amply documented by historians of Weimar, crime was, to a great extent, untrammeled. Indeed, the "insecure world" of which Sloterdijk speaks was precisely the ideal milieu within which crime and deception could flourish. The face of the impostor, as Weimar cinema would quickly attest, bore many guises: hypnotists, wizards, street gangsters, mad scientists, fakes in uniform, female cyborgs, cross-dressers, con artists, swindlers and more. In The Haunted Screen, Lotte Eisner cites a passage from the nineteenth-century German romantic poet Ludwig Tieck that serves to illustrate one of the many functions of cinema during the Wei­mar years: "We create fairy tales," writes Tieck, "because we prefer to populate the monstrous emptiness and horrid chaos" (Eisner 1969, 97). German cinema, which in its early days adhered more or less to the principles of a "cinema of attractions," shaped around the spectacle itself and less oriented toward visual storytelling, quickly built on the more firmly established arts, drawing on folktales, legends, romantic lore, and material that was extracted from literature, theater, and mass culture. The cinema assumed the role that fairy tales had traditionally performed, feeding into the curiosity and imagination of the viewing public.

That need for fantasy only increased with the heightened sense of insecurity, the feeling of having been duped, which accompanied Germany’s shaky transition to the Weimar Republic. Its inauspicious beginnings, borne out of the traumatic defeat of the First World War, were followed by years of extreme tumult—from the failed revolutions of its first years to the massive war debt and territorial losses incurred by the Treaty of Versailles, along with bloody political assassinations, runaway inflation and burgeoning opposition to the very idea of democracy. "The hyperinflationary excesses of 1922–3 have left a profound imprint on the German psyche," remarks Peukert (1993, 64). Among other factors, the economic instability heightened the sense of volatility and the notion that Germany’s well-being was beyond its own control—or, perhaps, simply out of control. All who were associated with the republic’s inception—and with the "unjust" deal that was cut with the victors of the war—were very quickly branded impostors, inauthentic Germans, and thus targets of violent attack (Peukert 1993, 73; Weitz 2007, 7–39). As Sloterdijk puts it, "If we wanted to write a social history of mistrust in Germany, then above all the Weimar Republic would draw attention to itself. Fraud and expectations of being defrauded became epidemic in it. In those years, it proved to be an omnipres­ent risk of existence that from behind all solid illusions, the untenable and chaotic emerged" (Sloterdijk 1987, 483).

In this paranoid world, built precariously atop the power vacuum that was left after the war, a need for projecting society’s innermost anxieties, fantasies, and dreams onto the big screen arose almost as quickly as the republic itself was collapsing. The general atmosphere of political and social make-believe found its logical expression in the cinema. Perhaps there was no other, more effective, way to parlay the curious character of Weimar into aesthetic form (think, for instance, of the cold, cynical portraits of representative figures—the caricatures of types extracted from the political and social arena—in the portraits by Georg Grosz, Otto Dix, and others). In an oft-cited essay from the Frankfurter Zeitung, "The Cult of Distraction: On Berlin’s Picture Palaces" (1926), Siegfried Kracauer, who spent much of the 1920s as the paper’s cultural editor and a frequent contributor, gives us a contemporary take on cinema and the reality of the urban world: "In the streets of Berlin, one is often struck by the momentary insight that someday all this will suddenly burst apart. The entertainment to which the general public throngs ought to produce the same effect" (Kracauer 1995, 327). It is not surprising, then, that so much of Weimar cinema contained an explosive element, whether in the early adventure films, horror pictures, the so-called street films, melodramas, or futurist fantasies. Kracauer notes, in the same essay, the "bourgeois reproach" that Berliners were allegedly "addicted to distraction" (Kracauer 1995, 327). With all their new stimuli, in particular those that were awakened in the cinema, Berliners were thought to harbor a greater reliance on forms of mass entertainment than were people living elsewhere in Weimar Germany. Much of the cinema came back to a very specific idea of the city, often as a stand-in for Berlin, and found its proper milieu in the street. As Anton Kaes has argued, "The street became a staging ground for sex and crime, a setting where the individual encountered anonymous others, unsheltered and vulnerable" (Kaes 2004, 66; see also Tatar 1995). Or, as Gay has noted of Berlin, "It was a city of crooks and cripples, a city of hit songs and endless talk; with a press that was ‘cruel, pitiless, aggressive, filled with bloody irony, yet not discouraging,’ and with criticism that was, in the same way, harsh, nonconformist, but fair, in search of quality, delighted with excellence. [In the words of Carl Zuckmayer:] ‘Berlin tasted of the future, and that is why we gladly took the crap and the coldness’ " (Gay 1968, 132).

These developments were not met without a challenge, and a considerable segment of Weimar Germany’s population harbored an antipathy toward the big city that is not altogether unlike the enmity occasionally directed at contemporary New York City. In this countermovement, one in which a return to a kind of imperial glory, or unified strength and stability, was often imagined, the figures who represented Weimar—those "outsiders" who had managed to make their way, temporarily, to the center—were the subject of scorn. "The hunger for wholeness," asserts Gay, "was awash with hate; the political, and sometimes private, world of its chief spokesmen was a paranoid world, filled with enemies: the dehumanizing machines, capitalist materialism, godless rationalism, rootless society, cosmopolitan Jews, and that all-devouring monster, the city" (Gay 1968, 96). It was precisely this fractured nature that Weimar’s best films took on as their subject and revealed, knowingly or not, to the world at large.

With its so-called prestige films aimed at the export market—often with greater pretensions to artistic quality than basic mass entertainment—Weimar cinema made its way across Europe and to the other side of the Atlantic. Movies like The Blue Angel had a purported mission "to synthesize art and commercial success" and showed an acute awareness of the interplay (not to mention fierce competition) between America and Germany—between the relatively new talkies and silent cinema, between Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft, or Ufa, as Weimar Germany’s biggest, most powerful film company was commonly known, and Hollywood (Kreimeier 1999, 189). From the very beginning, the Anglo-American reception was slightly suspicious, if not altogether contemptuous. As in Germany, the debate concerning cinema was more often than not carried out by writers and intellectuals rather than by the masses (Hake 1993). Virginia Woolf remarks in a 1926 essay on film, commenting on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, that Cesare seems "to embody some monstrous, diseased imagination of the lunatic’s brain" (Woolf 1994, 39). A New York Times article, published just a few years earlier, showed little patience for the industry-imposed designation of "highbrow" motion pictures—Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Wegener’s The Golem, and Lubitsch’s Gypsy Blood listed among them—used to distinguish intellectually ambitious (often German) films from their Hollywood counterparts, the logic being that "the public doesn’t want that kind of stuff" (Anon. 1922, 69). Or, as another critic in New York’s newspaper of record wrote: "In Germany many of the important films are too gruesome for the American public. . . . German filmmakers are producing many cubist effects. Some of these films are skillfully done, but the themes are generally gloomy and not of a character which Americans demand" (Kaes 1993, 71). Little did the critic know that the demand for those same films, as well as many that followed, would only increase with time.

The Long Farewell

For more than half a century the study of Weimar cinema has been dominated—and, in large measure, continues to be dominated—by the work of two German émigrés, Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler (1947) and Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen (1969; first published in France in 1952). Both authors established themselves as critics during the Weimar years and, having managed to flee Nazi Germany, continued their careers in American and French exile. In their respective studies the two critics sought to recall and reassess the profound developments made in German film of the 1920s and early 1930s, while also rendering the cultural and political intricacies of the period comprehensible to their respective non-German audiences. In spite of certain, by now well-established, shortcomings—an excessive emphasis on the collective German psyche in the case of Kracauer, on German aesthetic ingenuity in the case of Eisner—each of these works still has its share of merits, and both remain in print and serve as required reading for students of film.

What Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era seeks to offer is not so much a replacement for, but a much-needed supplement to, Kracauer’s and Eisner’s work. It is a wide-ranging collaborative project that brings together an array of different authors and different approaches. It aims to revise and update earlier research, while presenting new insights to today’s scholars, teachers, and students of Weimar cinema and to the general reader interested in this vital period in film history. The volume focuses on the most significant, most widely taught, and most widely available films of the period. Each of the film chapters attends to such fundamental concerns as technical advancements made in a given film; the film’s production history and its place within the larger history of the German studio and of Weimar cinema in general; the signature style of the film’s director and the mark that the film has left on the career trajectory of a given director; the acting talent and the rise of German (and non-German) stars in Weimar cinema; and the film’s contemporary and subsequent critical reception and the debates unleashed both during and after a film’s release.

Taken together, the films chosen for inclusion in this volume represent the extraordinary richness of Weimar’s cinematic output in terms of style, genre, and innovation. There are horror films and melodramas, early gangster pictures and science fiction, avant-garde and fantasy films, sexual intrigues and love stories, classics of silent cinema and Germany’s first talkies. Readers can follow the early careers of major directors, including F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and G. W. Pabst, and examine the debuts of such international stars as Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks, and Marlene Dietrich; they can also chart the impact of such visionary producers as Erich Pommer, such influential cinematographers as Karl Freund, and pioneering art directors like Erich Kettelhut. There are 16-mm (and, in some cases, 35-mm) prints of all sixteen films in circulation, and all have been released either on DVD—the case for the vast majority of films represented in the volume, many of them transfers from high-quality, restored prints—or, in the few cases where DVDs have not yet been produced, on VHS (see the complete filmography).

Returning briefly to Kracauer’s and Eisner’s works, Dietrich Scheunemann has recently noted that "there is a growing awareness that the two books, although still recognized as the authoritative sources on the subject, do not tell the whole story of Weimar cinema" (Scheunemann 2003, ix). Over the past several decades, scholars and critics have pointed to the gaps, omissions, oversights, and methodological flaws in their respective approaches. Although it is not the aim of the present study to tell the "whole story" of this legendary epoch, these individual contributions will undoubtedly help widen the scope of analysis; they offer new lines of inquiry and suggest additional possible entry points in the larger project of examin­ing the films. There is no unified, monolithic approach. The diverse nature of the subject defies such a conception. As Elsaesser remarks in Weimar Cinema and After, "It seems that, starting with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the films usually indexed as Weimar cinema have one thing in common: they are invariably constructed as picture puzzles. Consistently if not systematically, they refuse to be ‘tied down’ to a single meaning" (Elsaesser 2000, 4).

Near the close of his Goodbye to Berlin (1939), Christopher Isherwood writes, "Berlin is a city with two centres—the cluster of expensive hotels, bars, cinemas, shops round the Memorial Church, a sparkling nucleus of light, like a sham diamond, in the shabby twilight of the town; and the self-conscious civic centre of buildings round the Unter den Linden, carefully arranged. In grand international styles, they assert our dignity as a capital city—a parliament, a couple of museums, a State bank, a cathedral, an opera, a dozen embassies, a triumphal arch; nothing has been forgotten" (Isherwood 1945, 186). These two centers, the new and the old, the provisional and the official, represented just a few cracks in the already highly fissured Weimar Republic. By the time Germany’s first democracy had run its short course, Kracauer’s sense that at any moment Berlin could suddenly burst apart would seem more prescient than ever before. The era would come to an apocalyptic close, and with its destruction would come the end of an aesthetic movement—or, really, a series of movements, some of them related, others entirely independent—that often made a point of recognizing its artificial, ephemeral, contingent, quintessentially modern nature. Rather than bidding a final farewell to that epoch, it appears that we have instead spent some seventy-five years trying to make sense of what actually occurred, wrestling with the legacy of Weimar (Petro 2006). It is my hope that this volume will offer some additional assistance in that larger undertaking.


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About the Author

Noah Isenberg is associate professor of University Humanities at Eugene Lang College-The New School, where he teaches literature, film, and intellectual history. He is the author, most recently, of Detour (British Film Institute, 2008).

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