Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 43, December 2001



Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

Re-imagining German Film History




Thomas Elsaesser

_Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary_

London and New York: Routledge, 2000

ISBN 041501235X

480 pp.


The German cinema of the 1920s is generally pigeon-holed as part of the culture of the Weimar Republic (1919-33). And because Weimar culture -- described variously as 'radical', 'lively', and 'decadent' -- is seen, along with the republic's unstable political institutions, as paving the way for the Nazism which followed, it is not surprising that the German silent cinema has been saddled with a dubious reputation. Two famous books, Lotte Eisner's _The Haunted Screen_ and Siegfried Kracauer's _From Caligari to Hitler_, each in different ways explore the connections between German cinema of the 1920s, the culture of the Weimar Republic, and emergent Nazism. Kracauer's was first published in New York in 1947, Eisner's in Paris (under the title _L'Ecran Demoniaque_) in 1952. The presuppositions of both books are very much of their time. Both authors were Jewish emigres from Germany, concerned to understand and then explain what went wrong with their country during the horror years of 1933 to 1945.


Eisner's and Kracauer's books cast a long shadow. Together they have helped to form what Thomas Elsaesser in his long awaited _Weimar Cinema and After_ calls the 'historical imaginary' of German cinema. There are in fact many other ways in which one might conceptualise German cinema of the pre-Nazi period. It was for example industrially the strongest cinema in Europe and the only one with the potential to compete with Hollywood in either the domestic or the international marketplace. It was also an aesthetically distinct cinema which had succumbed less than most to what Tom Gunning has called narrative integration. German films of the 1920s were often in a pure sense spectacular; they defied realist convention even when they aimed at psychological truth; and they preserved many elements of what Gunning saw as characterising cinema prior to the rise to dominance of the integrationist mode, the fairground values of the 'attraction'.


On the face of it there is a strong case for dispensing with the Kracauer/Eisner mode of retrospective interpretation and looking at the history of German cinema with fresh eyes. But easier said than done. Even if we did not already have Kracauer or Eisner to guide our thinking, the brute fact of Nazism, interposed between us and the world of _Caligari_, _Metropolis_ or _Pandora's Box_, makes a virgin vision impossible. We must accept that German cinema lives in the contemporary mind in a historically shaped imaginary form. No critic can write about German cinema, no composer can prepare a new score to accompany a German silent film, without retrospect cutting in to influence how they do it.


The first great merit of Elsaesser's _Weimar Cinema and After_ is that it recognises this fundamental fact. Elsaesser himself wishes to present German cinema differently -- among other things as a canny and self-conscious commercial business. But he knows that in order to make his alternative vision carry conviction he must first explore the conditions that have led to the popular picture of German cinema as precursor of the Nazi nightmare.


The first problem in decoupling pre-1933 German cinema from its Nazified succession is that there is no other succession to couple it to. Nazism split German cinema in two. A number of leading figures in the German cinema -- Lubitsch and Murnau being the most prominent -- had already left Germany for America in the 1920s. After 1933 others were to follow, either taking a more or less direct path to the United States or getting there via a staging post in Paris or London. By 1941 a substantial portion of the German cinema was a cinema-in-exile in Hollywood: producer Erich Pommer; producer-director Ernst Lubitsch; directors Fritz Lang, Edgar Ulmer, Max Ophuls, Detlef Sierck (Douglas Sirk), Robert Siodmak; writers Curt Siodmak and Billy Wilder; cinematographers Eugen Schufftan, Curt Courant, and Franz Planer, were all in happy or unhappy exile in California.


But unlike exiled German or Austrian writers -- Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Stefan Zweig, Lion Feuchtwanger and others -- who continued in their absence from their homeland to contribute to *German* literature, writing in German for a German-speaking public, the film emigres by contrast, if they found work at all, contributed to *American* cinema. They could not return in 1945 and resume activity as if they had never been away. Many indeed did not return at all. Lang stayed in America; Ophuls returned to Europe in 1950, but to France first and to his native Germany only for the last two years of his life. And German cinema went through new upheavals making restoration of anything like continuity impossible. Both the western Allies and the Russians insisted on de-Nazification. Although Pommer's skills were called upon by the Americans to assist in recreating a purified industry, the conditions under which he was asked to work makes one wonder why they bothered. German film-makers who had worked in the Nazi period had difficulty getting work; those who had emigrated were in no hurry to come home.


Post-1945 German cinema was also cut into two by the Cold War, with neither East nor West managing either to create a distinctively new cinema (as happened in Italy) or to reconnect successfully with the past (as in France). West German cinema was particularly feeble. It had no industrial base and little in the way of ideas. Some of its genres show an affinity with traditional entertainment models which were also popular during the Nazi period, but it would require a very broad definition of Nazi culture to include these films within its domain.


Another difficulty with uncoupling Weimar cinema from the Nazi cinema which followed it lies in the fact that there are real and undeniable continuities between the two. This is hardly surprising. Although the German industry was heavily leant on by the Nazis throughout their period in power, it retained its basic structure and most of its non-Jewish personnel throughout the 1930s. 'Decadent' films were discouraged, of course, but to a great extent the production of the early Nazi period continued traditions already established in the preceding decade.


Though it may be difficult to think about Weimar cinema separately from Nazism, it is not necessarily impossible. Theoretically at least, one can attempt to make one's mind a clean slate. By looking only at documents prior to 1933 -- at the films themselves, at press reports, at industry papers and so on -- one can construct a picture of German cinema as it was seen by film-makers and audiences at the time. Such a reconstruction might give a small part to the views and activities of certain right-wing politicians on the make, but that part would not be a prominent one. It would produce a view unencumbered by hindsight. It would not force the material into a mould dictated by what happened after, but it would also be implicitly counter-factual. It would have to be based on a wilful pretence that what everyone knows happened after never happened. Such counter-factual history can be useful. It can remind one, for example, that what happened was not necessarily destined to happen and that something that now seems to us irrational was not so at the time.


Elsaesser shies just short of writing a counter-factual history. But, while remaining alive to the facts of what came after, much of his effort is devoted to explaining Weimar cinema in terms relatively unclouded by retrospect. This is particularly valuable when it comes to assessing the industrial and entertainment sides of Weimar. We are now used to thinking of most European cinemas as mainly purveyors of 'art cinema', since most of what we now see -- whether ancient or modern -- falls into that category. It is therefore very useful to be reminded that this is, historically at least, a misleading viewpoint. In the case of Weimar, what are memorialised are the 'classics' -- _Caligari_, _Metropolis_, _Joyless Street_, etc. -- put together under the heading of Expressionism. In fact, as has already remarked by Barry Salt and other writers, not many films of the period can be accurately described as Expressionist. More interestingly, Elsaesser observes that those few that can be so described tend to use 'Expressionism' more as a marketing device than as something integral to their artistic structure. _Metropolis_, for example, uses Expressionist devices in a manner which falls not far short of camp. These are, in fact, commercial films, equipped with a certain nod-and-a wink knowingness which was, Elsaesser suggests, as much characteristic of Weimar culture as the taste for the demonic noted by Eisner in 1952.


If one looks at German cinema of the 1920s as a resolutely commercial cinema a lot becomes clearer. This was a culture not yet dominated by Hollywood. Native traditions were strong and the percentage of box office taken by American films was lower than in most other European countries. But the industry was alert to the danger of American competition and takeover. It needed to maintain its box-office share on the domestic market and to export German films as widely as possible, even to America. To this end it adopted a characteristic European strategy of the period. It marketed itself as quality. Or rather as quality abroad and tradition at home. Home audiences would be reassured, while those abroad would -- it was hoped -- be seduced by the artistic gloss of the export product that they were buying into a superior form of cultural experience. Conducted on a small scale, such strategies have often proved successful in other branches of the economy, at least for a while. But producing films is not like hand-crafting beer mugs for tourists. And producing films as the German industry conceived it was not a low-cost enterprise on the neo-realist or New Wave model. The strategy was high investment and high risk.


In the end the strategy failed. This was not inevitable. It is rather that at the end of the day too many circumstances stacked up against it. But the circumstances needed only to be slightly different for the German cinema to have not only survived but to have dominated Europe with substantial exports to the USA as well. Attempts to make the German cinema dominant in Europe continued well into the 1930s, and were revived, in a new and sinister form, during the Second World War.


_Weimar Cinema and After_ looks both at the 'classics' -- the Langs, Lubitsches, Murnaus, Pabsts, etc. -- and at the kind if cinema that is now lesser known though at the time was of course extremely popular. There was never a strict divide between the two types. Indeed the very idea that there should be is an example of the harmful effects of retrospect. Nevertheless there were differences, both between upmarket and downmarket genres and within each one. Although there were ways in which German films in general differed from American films in general, Elsaesser does not attempt to locate a unitary 'Weimar' style equivalent to the 'classical Hollywood' style identified by David Bordwell and others as having characterised the bulk of American cinema from the 1920s onwards. Indeed his study of the specific traits of different film-makers suggests that to search for such a style would be a wild goose chase. Even 'classical Hollywood' is not such a tight unity as all that, but it is arguable that what distinguishes the American *cinema* (rather than just American films) is that it did develop a collective style, whereas European cinemas, with their looser modes of organisation, also allowed more stylistic variation. The German Lang, Murnau, Lubitsch, and Pabst are distinguishable from each other to a far greater degree than equivalent American directors of the 1920s. (Lubitsch and Lang subsequently Americanised successfully; Murnau, carrying the burden of the individuality for which Fox had hired him, had more trouble adapting.)


Elsaesser's analysis validates some -- though by no means all -- of Eisner's and Kracauer's anxieties about Weimar cinema's perverse and dangerous trends. But he is particularly interested in the kinds of film which could only with great difficulty be subsumed under an 'ideological' argument. Not that politically-minded critics haven't tried and sometimes even succeeded in making all films, plays, operas, symphonies, pop songs, comedy routines or whatever it might be subserve the cause of a reading implicating them in some ideological enterprise or other. Elsaesser is more circumspect. If there is a political subtext behind the comedy of Reinhold Schuenzel or the operetta films of Walter Reisch he waits for it to reveal itself in whatever way it may rather than forcibly unmasking it.


The treatment of Reisch is particularly interesting. Reisch was an Austrian Jew who emigrated to Berlin in the 1920s and became a scriptwriter for UFA. Socially conservative and politically quite naive, he was very shocked to find himself in 1931 branded as a far-right-winger because one of the operettas he had written painted a reasonably attractive portrait of Frederick the Great. Interviewed by Elsaesser in his home in Los Angeles, Reisch gives a rosy picture of life in the German film industry as of one great happy family in which the Jews tended to write the scripts and the Gentiles directed them (rather as one family member might be assigned to wash the dishes and another to make the beds). [1] I have to say I find this account on the one hand a splendidly good read, as film people's memoirs often are, and on the other hand deeply implausible. The interviewer, it should be said, is not unaware that his subject is spinning him a yarn and projecting a version of Weimar that he (Reisch) knew to be something of a romance, but he reckons that the yarn is worth retelling because it is more truthful than not. I must admit that I am more sceptical. Reisch's story is interesting because it contradicts received wisdom about Weimar cinema, and UFA in particular, but his portrayal of life in Berlin also contradicts a lot of contemporary testimony about how unpleasant life had become in Berlin during the rise of Nazism, and not only for the Jews. If Reisch is wrong about the one he might well be wrong about the other. Memories are rarely reliable.


Elsaesser's big book on Weimar, little book on _Metropolis_, [2] and interview in _Pix_, between them mount a big challenge to the orthodox versions of film history, and do so without parading their 'revisionism', which is welcome.


University of Luton, England





1. Elsaesser interviewed Reisch for the magazine _Pix 3_, edited and published by Ilona Halberstadt (London: British Film Institute, 2001).


2. Thomas Elsaesser, _Metropolis_, BFI Film Classics (London: British Film Institute, 2000).



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, 'Re-imagining German Film History', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 43, December 2001 <>.



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