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March 25, 2007

JMW Turner: The Blue Rigi

The successful fight for JMW Turner's: The Blue Rigi

http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/turnerrigi/default.shtm



Turners Blue Rigi










I was very pleased to find out this morning from my email box that JMW Turner's The Blue Rigi has been bought by the Tate Gallery. What gave me special pleasure was that I had bought 6 brushstrokes through the special National Art Fund innovative online campaign.

OK my life as an art collector extends into the virtual rather than the real and aside from interesting issues as to whether I've got some virtual  art which is tradeable inside Second Life the fact that people had to be charitable at all in order to ensure that this painting stayed within the UK and available for public contemplation is a serious cultural policy issue. There is no way I would have contributed to a Tracy Emin piece or Damien Hurst piece. Amusing? Yes. Intellectually challenging? Possibly but rarely. Overhyped? Yes. Overvalued? Yes. How can we reasonably compare to Turner arguably the very first modernist painter and one who was up on the latest theories of colur (Goethe) and pereception (developing psychological theories) in his day producing valuable paintings which stand the test of cultural time.  

In recent years  it has become especially trendy amongst fans of 'New' Labour to spend their time in a typically postmodern way of using culture as an instrument of economic and social policy. Forget 'Art for Art's Sake' they sneer, don't be judgemental about content, let populism rule, what the audience think they want is all right just providing we can make money out of it and we can sit around getting audiences to evaluate their experience for the marketing people. This of course ignores issues of ideology and the construction of dominant cultural discourses.


Instrumentalism & Cultural Policy

Well, taken from this entirely instrumentalist perspective which at a theoretical level appears to subsume Walter Benjamin's notion of removing the auratic aspect of Art with a capital A and turn it into an excuse for commerce; paintings of the quality of Turner's Blue Rigi are fundamental to the success of megapolises such as London and New York. You can hardly hear a native English accent in central London in summer and now increasingly all year around. Students and tourists flock to London because it is a cultural capital of the World. those who have considerable cultural capital and wish to invest more in this go to London and its galleries as well as enjoying the signature architecture which is an iconic must for the contemporary global city fighting for the tourist trade, and in the case of London adding value to attract global financiers to work in London. Great art therefore can be seen as underpinning the attraction of London as a place to live and work. A process which has rather neatly been defined as Brandscaping.



Brandscapes










Even from the pitiful perspective of 'anything goes' providing it makes money New Labour should have the made the funds available to keep this 'high added value' sort of art without all sorts of quangos having to chase around for funding which is small fry at the national level. The irony is that City councils elsewhere in the country are beginning to sell of their own smaller art treasures because they can't afford to run their education and social care systems.

The January Warwick podcast by Munira Mirza is a welcome antidote to this sort of thinking. Hopefully it marks the beginnings of a change away to a more balanced view of culture than extreme populist postmodernism. this is not the same as saying that the cultural popular should be ignored. There is an issue of definitions as well as issues of quality. 


Taxation & Paying for Art

Why these mainly Northern councils have no money when the Chancellor emphasises 10 years of apparently unbroken economic growth is an interesting question. It is also hard to disagree with the Tories when they rail against the levels of taxation. Even they can justifiably note that poorer people are being hit by the tax system, just funding poorer people still.

At risk of slipping into anecdote most of my monthly outgoings are in the form of taxation. As a couple we spend over £120 per week on petrol. Most of this cost is tax in one form or another. Furthermore as my wife is currently a full-time student in receipt of a government loan she is effectively paying twice for her education as a huge proportion of the loan goes on this fuel every term. On top of that the course is materials and equipment heavy which attracts the regressive 17.5% VAT. At the same time I receive no tax relief and currently must commute a long way to work which is in the underpaid Tertiary education sector. We do not even have parity with school-teachers!

Three months of longish distance commuting shows that many people are in similar position . The key point here is not an individual whinge, it is to emphasise the huge tax burden that ordinary people are paying either to get to work or to get an education. Yet at the same time our cultural citizenship is being eroded. Why on earth should I or anybody else have to respond to begging bowl campaigns to maintain or improve an economically / culturally / socially valuable  infrastructure in which content (the Art itself is central). Quite obviously I already do this through the disproportinate tax system. It is a benighted cultural policy framework increasingly based upon narrow accountacy discourse which creates this situation.

It is now the case that  that the National Lottery which is a 'voluntary' tax on the very poorest who have had little training in probability theory. The fact that the Government has this at all is shameful. The fact that our culture is dependent upon the wheel of fate rather than a properly funded policy framework is despicable. The fact that a large amount of this extremly dubious tax is now being siphoned away from the cause it is promoted for supporting to the Olympic extravaganza is dihonest and exploitative beyond belief. The plain fact is that almost nobody funding the Olympic games through their gambling will be able to afford a seat in the stadium highlights the point. 

As taxpayers we are seemingly paying a lot for 'cultural consultants' and a range of parastites positioning themselves around policy honeypots while a cultural drain continues in line with the general opening up of wealth divides in the era of post-neo-liberal cultural-economic policies. They are the real vultures of culture! 

The Olympic Games  and the funding of it is a 21st century version of Roman gladitorial contests. Wage slaves are funding the pleasures of the rich. As a crumb they can sample the pleasures second hand through the Mass Media. Of course we can buy into the regeneration argument and I'm sure most of the population in the UK feel that the Millenium Dome bonanza was an excellent way of spending vast amounts of money rather than bulding say twenty art galleries the cost of the one in Wasall and some art to put in it! the citizens of Athens would probably agree as they pass the crumbling and unloved Olympic Stadium built for the last Olympics. Interestingly the tourist population is there for the genuine cultural heritage which seems to show that quality will out!

Cultural Citizenship 

It is time that we fought for a system of governance which values and promotes notions of cultural citizenship which should have at its heart the accessibility of canonical cultural works - This opens up a can of worms on canons but that is another debate.  This needs to be thought of on a global basis just as any other facet of advanced citizenry should be.  I want people from all over the world to be able to experience great art. The nature of individual paintings means that people usually have to travel to it unlike music which is more accessible.

I resent being arm-twisted to pay more for what as a state the UK should pay for anyway and what I consider I have more than paid for through my taxes. If I give money or goods it usually goes to Oxfam or global development campaigns and that is how I prefer to keep it.

When it comes to the arts and culture I would also prefer a wider European cultural policy perspective to be developed. Small accession states such as Lithuania inherited quite a good cultural infrastructure in terms of the numbers of galleries and museums and performance spaces.  These countries  became impoverished through neo-liberal approaches to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Now they should be having more support to rebuild the good aspects of cultural citizenship which were previously available under Soviet rule.  Cultural citizenship and a common cultural sense of 'Europeaness' is more likely to succeed in uniting  Europe at the level of the quotidian than highly abstract constitutional structures which have little to do with everyday European citizens. In brief culture is far more valuable than just simple accountancy benchmarks. It is where it is hardest to define that perhaps it becomes most valuable in terms of geist



October 12, 2006

Weimar Cinema Until the Coming of Sound: An Overview

As is well known, World War 1 allowed the United States to dominate the film markets of the World outside of Europe with European countries being ousted from regions such as Latin America and Australasia. Previously these areas had provided significant sources of revenue for European cinema.

After the war the biggest competition in the film industry to emerge for the USA came from Germany. This was because Germany had developed its film industry largely in isolation between 1916– 1921. In 1916 Germany banned all foreign imports except from Denmark. Alongside this cinema in Germany attracted large capital investment. Ufa was formed through both big capital and Government intervention which resulted in a developing vertically integrated industry combining production, distribution and exhibition. In 1917 the German film industry made sure that it consolidated its position in neutral countries as much as possible and continued to do this after the end of the war.

The ban on film imports was continued probably more as a response to the severe post-war trade restrictions which were imposed upon Germany at the Treaty of Versailles and the general conditions of peace. Films had been left out of the equation. They were not deemed as significant at that point compared with iron and steel and the chemical industries for example.

The Social Democrat led coalition governments of the immediate post-war period were determined to ensure that unemployment didn’t rise and contribute to the already extremely unstable internal political situation. As a result there was an increasing rise in inflation. This situation was seriously exacerbated when French troops occupied the Ruhr industrial region. The German government funded the passive resistance of the German workers who refused to run industry for the benefits of the French. The corresponding fall in tax revenues combined with massively increased outgoings led to Government borrowing at ever increasing rates of interest which eventually led to the hyperinflation crisis in the summer of 1923.

The high levels of inflation were extremely beneficial to the German film industry as production money borrowed could be paid back in inflated currency and any foreign currency earnings were especially beneficial. At the same time it meant an effective import barrier because other European countries couldn’t compete with the German market. Only America could effectively enter the film market at all because of its far more efficient industrial base.

It wasn’t until 1924 when far more cooperation between nationally based European film industries was attempted. This was largely predicated upon the increasing recognition that no single country stood a chance against the US film industry.

The Power of the Post War US Film Industry

Despite the various barriers against foreign imports in Germany, Hollywood did well in Germany throughout the 1920s. Even in 1923 it had about 25% of the market when the German film industry was in its most advantageous position. In 1924 after the institution of the Dawes plan and the stabilisation of the Mark the US increased its market share to about one third. This share continued to grow very strongly with 42% of the market in 1925 and beginning to slow in its expansion rate to 46% by 1926. By comparison German films had 36% of the box office in 1926. In three years America had nearly doubled its presence and outgrown the German industry.

The power of the US film industry was based upon the fact that size matters. By the end of the war it was the largest film industry in the world. In the early 1920s there were approximately 18,000 cinemas in the US compared with: 4,000 in Britain; 3,700 in Germany; a lowly 2,500 in France. Added to this the American cinemas were more efficient money machines: they were significantly larger, they had more screenings per week and more people went more regularly to the cinema. American workers were more affluent as Europe was still recovering from the war.

This was a case of success breeding success. Hollywood companies could invest more in each film. They had almost guaranteed returns on the domestic market and fairly predictable returns from overseas. By factoring in the rising overseas returns into their calculations even as early as 1917 Hollywood was able to invest in better production values to counter possible post-war competition thus successfully trumping European cinema at an early stage. By comparison in Germany the post Dawes plan financial adjustments hit the German film industry hard. The industrial cities had not yet staged their recovery and there were a plethora of German films with low production values which were no competition for Hollywood. There was a crisis of overproduction in German cinema.

The Growth of the European Idea

Even as early as 1924 there were moves afoot to try and consolidate the European film industry as a response to the growing menace of US total domination. This can be seen as part of general growing trend amongst politicians, intellectuals and leading industrialists. The reconciliation between France and Germany which begun after Stresemann took power in Germany continued with the election of Edouard Herriot in France in May 1924. In October Herriot spoke publicly about the need to develop a ‘United States of Europe’. This was a clear response to the runaway success of American capitalism which prior to the War was already the most productive on the planet. By the mid 1920s its GDP could be measured against the output of several European countries added together, rather than a direct comparison with say Britain.

As far as the European film industry was concerned the first mutual distribution agreement was established in the summer of 1924. No longer protected by hyperinflation, the German film industry had initiated new tactics to protect its position. The agreement was established between Ufa and Etablissements Aubert in France. This agreement differed in that there were mutual distribution rights established rather than the usual one way deal imposed by the more powerful partner.

The way the deal was presented was also extremely important. The deal was headed up by Erich Pommer then head of Ufa. Pommer was crystal clear about the industrial necessity of the situation which was ‘to amortise costs rapidly’. It was also clear that to achieve this, the notion of ‘national’ films needed to be subordinated to that of ‘continental films’ if that goal were to be achieved. Films such as Murnau’s Tartuffe were arguably a result of this deal. This was exactly the sort of film which should have an appeal in France whilst utilising leading German cast, director, crew and production facilities. Perhaps Tartuffe can be viewed as the first Euro-pudding Thompson notes that similar opinions “…were expressed repeatedly in the trade and popular press of Europe for the rest of the silent period” (Thompson in Higson and Maltby 1999, p 60).

The deal brokered by Pommer quickly led to more attempts at consolidation. Only a few weeks later the émigré Russian Wengeroff in conjunction with the industrial conglomeration Stinnes in Germany formed a joint production and distribution company called Westi. By early spring in 1925 they had formed what turned out to be a short-lived partnership with Pathe in France. The Stinnes conglomerate went into receivership only a few months later and Westi was broken up with other German film companies such as Ufa and Deulig picking up some cheap assets.

It was in 1925 that Ufa famously ran into serious financial difficulties. Pommer was determined to crack the US market and Metropolis was to be the leading spectacular which was to achieve this. Despite being the most expensive German film up until that time the film flopped in the US which had much to do with the very defensive American distribution system which continuously stifled foreign competition at birth. The failure of Pommer’s strategy led to the famous Parafumet deal in which Paramount and MGM bailed out Ufa by lending it $4 million over a 10 year period. In return they gained a firm grip on the German market by being allowed to distribute 20 films a year each through the Ufa chain of cinemas which were the most profitable in Germany situated in all the largest cities. This deal lasted into the early 1930s.

Not only does this deal help to explain the massive market share gained by America by 1926 it also helps to explain why there was such an appetite for American modernism in the cities. Rural and small town Germany had rather less exposure to the international influence of Hollywood as well as probably being a more conservative audience anyway. An important economic factor was that by now Germany was a twin speed economy with the rural and small town areas being severely depressed whilst the industrial cities were doing very well. In short there may have been the appetite for expensive American films in rural areas but there was no cash to fund it.

Thomas Saunders (1999) points to the setting up of the Deutches Lichtbild Syndikat (German Film Syndicate or DLS) in 1926. This was a defensive measure against Hollywood imports and was started by an association of exhibitors to unite independent cinema owners around a production and distribution company free of Hollywood. By 1928 Saunders estimates it had about 20% of cinemas supporting it including some of the larger ones in the main cities and provinces which were not part of the major chains. However Saunders only comments that it was 20% or one fifth of all cinemas, this does not equate to 20% of the box office takings. As such it cannot be seen as a great threat to Hollywood and its major partners although Saunders comments “Its early films proved popular, the first of them spectacularly so, indicating that pooling of capital through exhibition could succeed on a national level”. (Higson & Maltby 1999, p168). This seems to be a little out of proportion and no figures are given, nor is any example of relevant films cited.

The ambivalent situation in which even a company like Ufa was in, was shown at the 1928 European film congress held in Berlin. Ludwig Klitsch, was Hugenberg’s right-hand man and head of Ufa. The extreme Nationalist Hugenberg had recently taken over Ufa. Klitsch, was also head of SPIO (Spitzenorganisation der Deutschen Filmwirtshaft) the umbrella organisation of the German film industry. From this position he made a very ambivalent speech. Klitsch welcomed the moves towards European consolidation but was harsh on those expressing anti-American sentiments and he went out of his way to praise Will Hays who was his American counterpart. (Thomas Saunders p 159). This was a speech of ‘realpolitik’. Hugenberg’s nationalistic sentiments needed to be subordinated to the realities of the wider political economy, at least for the time being.

Ever since the establishing of the Dawes plan in 1923 German industry had made a strong recovery with its major industries such as electrical goods and chemicals become major players on the global market. They were primarily export led and the main importer of these products was the USA. Furthermore these companies had consolidated and redeveloped on the back of American money much of which was held in short-term loans. In brief the German economy was very exposed to American whim as the extraction of short-term cash at the onset of the 1929 depression was prove. Klitsch had little option but to move cautiously especially because Ufa itself was very exposed to US influence through the Parafumet deal. It was of course a deal which made Ufa very wealthy. The Hollywood films were continuous successes at the box office. The complaints of the minor players were sour grapes. They were being squeezed.

Hugenberg nurturing Nazism

The position of Deulig, Hugenberg’s original film vehicle and a part of his media empire had had a very different publicly stated position in 1926. The Reichsfilmblatt magazine which was the public outlet for the National Association of German Exhibitors argued that Hollywood movies were alienating filmgoers and ruining cinemas. They hid behind a European idea and quoted Melamerson who in 1926 as head of Deulig had argued for a distinct European filmic identity which cinema needed to foster. In fact, as quoted by Thomas Saunders (1999), Melamerson talked about the conditions of oversupply in the industry from 1924. This of course coincides with the German film industry having to be rather more careful in what it produced. With hyperinflation even feeble films could make their money back quickly. Melamerson’s appeals for European unity constituted the talk of consolidation and changing business conditions current in European films circles at the time.

Conclusion

It is clear that a significant response of the German film industry in the mid 1920s was a dramatic change of tactics in response to massive changes in prevailing business conditions which had previously been extremely beneficial. In a doubly protected domestic market European competition was thin and even Hollywood had only made limited inroads compared with other European countries.

Initially the most farsighted, such as Eric Pommer, had pursued a twin strategy of trying to break into the American market by producing films with much higher production values. Whilst encouraging the possibilities of a consolidated European marketplace able to achieve this. In reality neither Germany nor Europe had the ability to produce films on a continuous basis at this level and with most industry agreements being partial and with an eye on local competition as well Europe for the US was still a continent of fragments. The ability to guarantee supply of continuous box office hits was where Hollywood had a huge advantage. The exhibition and distribution network across most European countries was doing very nicely out of Hollywood thank you! Furthermore the American distribution and exhibition system in the USA itself was hard to crack. Vertical integration whereby there was control of the means of production, distribution and exhibition meant that the Hollywood production chain was well protected; only crumbs were left for the Europeans. It came to the point that Pommer had to rent out a New York cinema himself in order to give Metropolis a press release!

The financial evidence presented above provides more indicators explaining the huge cultural divide within Germany in the 1920s which increasingly translated into a political divide. In 1926 the Nazis were nowhere but even before 1929 and the onset of the Depression they had made huge gains in rural areas which had never made an economic recovery. This was because global agricultural prices had fallen since 1923 while at the same time many farmers had borrowed to invest in new equipment. Repayment of the loans in a stabilised currency meant the inflation didn’t erode the value of the loans and the farming and provincial towns were hard hit as a result. There was little money left for entertainments and consequently the local rural cinemas would only have been able to afford cheaply made local produced films.

There is seemingly much research to be done on audiences and the conditions of exhibition in rural Germany at this time to better establish the roots of the tension between the obvious liking for American modernism represented in the big industrial cities and small town nationalistic culture which was seemingly represented in the provinces.


October 05, 2006

Triumph of the Will: Riefenstahl Consolidating Nazi Power

The Stadium in Nuremberg

Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the Nuremberg Nazi Congress of 1934 has frequently been hailed as a significant artistic documentary film. Reifenstahl died very recently and up until that time she consistently denied any association with the Nazis defending the film as a ‘work of art’. However the fact that she made another film about the Nazi Nuremburg congress in 1933 tends to undermine that argument. Dealing with the film and with Reifenstahl is awkward. As the article below by Marcus points out Reappraising Triumph of the Will it is possibly the most discussed film and director in the history of cinema to date only possibly exceeded by Welles & Hitchcock. However as a quick trawl through the internet will show you there is a lot of not very good discussion and much of it has little or no historical contextual background. Below I focus particularly on the representation of the Army in the film and the underlying issues surrounding this as it appears to have been little covered elsewhere.

Riefenstahl with Hitler

The film itself came out at a highly significant time for the Nazis as it celebrated Hitlers process of consolidation of power which took place during the period from the end of January 1933 through the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives on June 30th 1934 followed by Hitler becoming Fuhrer after the death of Hindenberg. The film had a lot of work to do to spread the message of consolidation. Below the film is examined with a lot of attention being paid to to the composition of the target audience it was meant to reach. Whatever else the brutality against the Left, Jews and even liberals within the administrative posts in Germany meant that few could be unaware of the course of events. Riefenstahl’s denial rings very hollow.

This extract from the film is at the George Washington University and shows the reception that Hitler got when he landed at Nuremberg. It is the moment which Reifenstahl has been building up to. Reappraising Triumph of the Will
This is a particularly useful recent article. It contains a critical report on an interview conducted by Marcus himself with Reifenstahl. Marcus notes many of the diecrepancies and contradictions with previous interviews that she had given.

This a very useful article because it places Triumph of the Will squarely in the context of the other films which Reifenstahl made for Hitler. She had filmed the Nuremberg rally in 1933 gaining very valuable experience of the place and space of the rallies themselves. She also made a film of the rally the following year. This film was to strongly feature the Werhmacht as the Werhmacht had complained that there was very little about their manoeuvres in Triumph of the Will.

Animated Gif of Nuremburg Images

Marcus spends a brief time on the issue of the army and what he says is perceptive and useful. The role of the army is something which most commentators either fail to consider or skim over. Coming at this film within the context of seeing the film as an important part of the whole of the period of the Nazi consolidation of power rather than a decontextualised psuedo documentary allows us as critics to get a much better handle on the film. Below a representation from Visconti signifying the free reign of terror which the SA had between March 1933 for over a year. However much of what they were doing was alienting the middle and upper class base of support for the Nazis.

The SA practicing on Effigies in Visconti

The role of the army in Hitler’s plans after taking power were crucial. In the first instance the army needed to stand by in a ‘neutral’ fashion whilst Hitler carried out his institutional purges during 1933 & 1934. It was the role of the Army in the future of Nazi Germany which was one of the fundamental points of difference between Roehm head of the SA and Hitler along with his unquestioning supporters such as Himmler and Goebbels the SS.

Ernst Roehm Leader of the SA

An excellent cinematic representation of this difference is shown within Visconti’s much under-rated film The Damned. Roehm wanted the SA to replace the army and be the spearhead for a more fundamental revolution at home and to lead the struggle for Lebensraum the Nazis imperialist plans for eastwards expansion. The Werhmacht were fundamentally opposed to the SA. whilst consolidating his position Hitler had no choice but to buy off the army – he obviously didn’t need a civil war with a fully professional armed fighting force. furthermore the Prussian backbone of the army had much in common with the genral aims of resoring Germany’s place in the World which would ensure a massive expansion of the armed forces. The kind of debauchery which Roehm was engaged in at the time of the massacre was helpful to Hitler in calming disturbed elements of the SA. visconti’s representation of this is largely based upon the reports of William Shirer an American journalist in Germany at the time.

The Debauchery of the SA

The Wehrmacht colluded in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. It was ensured that they were confined to barracks whilst those identified as the greatest threats amongst the SA were purged. Furthermore it is reported that the Wehrmacht aslo provided logistical support for the SS to carry out the massacre. Shortly afterwards the officers of the army swore their personal allegiance to Hitler as Fuhrer. The seriousness of swearing an oath of allegiance within the Prussian officer code cannot be overestimated. Over the coming years this would prove to be a fundamental pillar of strength for Hitler. Below is an image of von Blomberg who appears on the podium with Hitler watching the manoeuvres. This would be seen by many of the film’s eventual audiences as highly significant.

Von Blomberg a key element in Hitlers rise to absolute power

Whilst the army might have wished to have been better represented the key target audience of the film needed to be the SA and all its supporters who had so recently had their leadership brutally removed. The mass popularity of Hitler and the unifying of Germany as a Nation with even the Saarland – at that time still under occupation – being included. There currently appears to be no evidence concerning the amount and type of footage of the army however it would be extraordinarily if Hitler wasn’t very aware of and had some level of input at the policy level of exactly what was in the film whatever Reifenstahl says. In another section I have placed a brief article on the re-armament policies of the Nazis and the development of these over the course of the early years of the regime. This historical detail will hopefully help to shed light on aspects of Triumph of the Will. I will also be placing a review of the process of the Nazi consolidation of power which I take to be from the end of January 1933 to the release of Triumph of the Will. This film needs to be seen as a spectacular represesentation of a spectacular event with a range of target audiences in mind. As a piece of performative filmmaking which come close to Wagner’s ideal of the gesamtkunstwerk then it is hard to beat. This link will take you to some realplayer downloads. I find it takes them a time to start up. The prelude to the Meistersinger was Reifenstahl’s ‘choice’. The fact that Wagner was Hitler’s favourite naturally had nothing to do with it. But then its a pain having to out up with that anti-Semite as well :-). Wagner was entirely appropriate for Riefenstahl’s score to the film, but then that was art – nothing to do with anti-Semitism at all!


October 03, 2006

People on Sunday: Siodmak et al

So why did I pick this film? Well like most of the others it appears in the list of Germany’s most significant films. It is part of the BFI’s ‘History of The Avant-Garde’ series of DVDs.

People on Sunday

The film came out in 1929 and was shot before the great depression had started. As such it could be seen as representing a false optimism of people living out their lives in a micro way assuming that macro factors were taking care of themselves.

Robert Siodmak

Edgar G. Ulmer

Severaral of its makers went on to become important directors in Hollywood after leaving Germany when it turned Nazi. They were Edgar Ulmer, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann.

Most of these directors went onto to make major contributions to the American ‘genre’ of ’ noir’ thrillers. Whilst some uninspired commentaries on the web fail to see the connection the film noir sensibility of dark forces bubbling under the surface of society arguably reflects both Neue Sachlichkeit and expressionist elements born of pre-Nazi and Nazi society.

The direction of the film is credited to Siodmak and Ulmer however it seems as though both Wilder and Zinnemann did some directing. The film was a collaborative effort.

Brigitte Borchert & Wolfgang von Waltershausen

It was one of a number of films which became highly influential amongst documentary and documentary style film-makers. Philip Kemp’s notes to the BFI DVD version cite Renoir’s thirties films Italian Neo-realism and the British ‘Free Cinema’ movement of the 1950s. It owes its origins more to developments within Neue Sachlichkeit than Vertov’s truly radical in film-making and political terms 1929 film ‘Man With a Movie Camera’. Here some in depth comparative research would be useful.

The Original Mass Observation Book of 1937

One important person that Kemp has missed out was Humphrey Jennings. Jennings’ surrealistically inspired input into the Griersonion British documentary movement and then his wartime output has very close links with this style of ethnographic ‘quasi-documentary’ film making. Jennings was a very strongly accredited influence with the Free Cinema Movement. Like the makers of People on Sunday they were concerned with the leisure activities of ordinary people. That Jennings was a founding member of the British Mass-Observation Movement with its development of the qualitative research technique of observation is also an indicator that this film was seen by Jennings.

Christl Ehlers the Film Extra

An important element of People on Sunday was that the actors were ordinary people not trained actors. The nearest to being an actor was Annie Shreyer who sometimes became a film extra.

An interesting interview with the other main woman in the film Brigitte Borchert is included in the BFI sleevneotes. Borchert comments that although the film was successful with the critics the ordinary people she worked with were unimpressed: ‘They said they saw things like that every day and would rather have seen a kitsch movie; they were right: they go to the movies to forget about their hard lives”. Unwittingly Borchert had summarised the main contents of Horkheimer and Adorno’s ‘_The Culture Industry’ several years before it was written!

Brigitte Borchert & Wolfgang von Waltershausen Swimming

For a good range of photographs Deutsch film portal. (Please note at time of writing the photo entitled Borchert is mis-titled).


October 02, 2006

The Threepenny Opera

I chose to cover The Threepenny Opera for a number of reasons. The Mack the Knife & Polly Peachumdirection was by G. W. Pabst
who directed Pandora’s Box which comes earlier in the course. This helps to build up the knowledge profile of a particular director.

G. W. Pabst

Lotte Lenya

The film was made at a politically interesting time in 1931 when the economic depression was still deepening nearly two years after it had started. Political polarisations were deepening along with the depression. The cinematography was done by Fritz Otto Wagner. There is a brief profile of him below. Wagner was the cinematographer on two of the classic films of the period that are covered in the course. His abilities clearly show that this was no coincidence.

Kurt Weill

The musical score was written by Kurt Weill and the adaptation was from a play by Brecht. Brecht felt that the handlng of the film destroyed the political and aesthetic modes of his play and took out a law suit against the producers.

Bertolt Brecht

Cabaret singer Lotte Lenya appears in what seems to be her only screen role.

Brothel Scene with Lotte Lenya

Those should be reasons enough :-).

Fritz Arno Wagner

Fritz Arno Wagner
One of the best and most experienced cinematographers in the Weimar period. He stayed within the industry during the Nazi period. Wagner had worked with Pabst before as director of photography on Westfront 1918. Wagner worked on many important films of the Weimar period including Murnau’s Nosferatu, Fritz Lang’s M, Spione (1927 / 28) and the earlier der mude Tod (1921) and even on Lubitsch’s 1919 classic Madam Dubarry (1919). For a full list of credits go to Deutsch Film Portal

Useful link at the Senses of Cinema Site

Another link to Threepenny Opera


From Expressionism to Neue Sachlichkeit: Two Weimar ‘Art’ Cinema Styles

Recently film critics and historians such as Thomas Elsaesser , Pam Cook and Sabine Hake have laid down a strong challenge to the way in which cinema of the Weimar years has been represented as one of the ‘golden-ages’ of world cinema. Canonical films of the period are usually cited as:The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919), The Golem (Paul Wegener, 1920), Destiny , (Fritz Lang, 1921), Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1921), Dr. Mabuse, (Fritz Lang, 1922 ), The Last Laugh, (F. W. Murnau, 1924), Metropolis _( Fritz Lang, 1925 ) _Pandora’s Box (G. W. Pabst, 1928). They have an importance which is within the canon of cinematic achievements but there is a cult mythology attached which has grown up around these films in which they are parodied, subjected to pastiche and recycled in post-modern video clip style as Elsaesser points out.

As a counter to the spectacular, psychologically inflected and highly subjective expressionistic film the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) film developed. It was an outreach of the New Objectivity artistic current running through Weimar cultural output at this time. This period is mainly associated with what are sometimes erroneously described as the ‘Golden Years’ of the Weimar Republic. This period lasted from 1924 after the Dawes Plan was instituted and lasted until 1929 and the dramatic economic collapse triggered by the Great Depression’ in the autumn of that year.

Economic crisis in the Weimar

The late Weimar period coincided with the coming of sound and the concentration upon Hollywood style genre cinema. More or less concurrently with the coming of sound was the massive economic depression which hit Germany following the collapse of the US stock market.

This depression deepened until late 1932. Ironically although the first signs of an economic upturn could be discerned, Hitler became Chancellor at the end of January 1933. This depression period saw the production of socialistic films such as Kuhle Wampe and The Threepenny Opera. The former was scripted by Brecht and the latter came from his reworking of John Gay’s highlty satirical ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ and both involved elements of epic theatre. The production of the latter disappointed Brecht and he started a law suit against Nero-Film who were the producers. For Brecht the intended political message had been de-politicised.

Expressionism

Lil Dagover & Conrad Veidt inThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Werner Krauss as Dr Caligari

Many of the canonical films form the core of cinematic output which is described as a film movement called ‘ Expressionism’. The term Expressionism with a capital ‘E’ comes originally from painting and theatre. It is extremely stylised in terms of its mise-en-scene; in other words the settings, camera angles and lighting. The lighting is strongly chiaroscuro (sharply contrasting areas of light and shade), and the settings strongly distorted version of reality as usually experienced.

Nosferatu: The Vampyr is killed by the light

The acting is highly stylised and the subject matter is macabre and or concerning ‘lowlife’ issues. Frequently analyses of these films have concentrated upon the idea the films of a nation reflect its ‘mentality’. This type of criticism or commentary often ignores the conditions of industrial production and slips towards notions of the auteur. As Cook points out Siegfried Kracauer, whose work ‘From Caligari to Hitler’ was to provide a benchmark of criticism for these films did start out from commenting on the industrial situation.

“… the German film industry was of course anxious to experiment in the field of artistic achievements “ Since in those early days the conviction prevailed that foreign markets could only be conquered by aesthetically qualified entertainment. Art ensured export, and export meant Salvation.”

Sabine Hake notes the gradual historical revision which has been taking place within academic writings about German cinema of this period. This writing has risen to challenge Kracauer’s analysis arguing that it is a psychologically teleological construction of German society. Teleology states the Penguin Dictionary of Sociology is “The attempt to explain social processes of social change by reference to an end-state to which they are alleged to be working, or to an ultimate function which they are said to serve”. (Penguin Dictionary of Sociology 4th Edition).

It is argued that Kracauer implies a situation of direct cause and effect between film and society and that the state of German society can be ‘read off from the films’. One critical task for course members will be to evaluate Kracauer’s work in the light of these arguments measured against their own readings of the films.

The other seminal contemporary critical work of this period comes from Lotte Eisner who identifies expressionist films as strongly romanticist and therefore deeply anti-modernist as well as being very ‘German’ foregrounding problems of identity as well as metaphysical aspects of space. Below Bocklin’s Tomb by Ferdinand Keller.

Bocklin
This is an argument which leads into concerns about the ideology of the sublime. There is a danger in Eisner’s approach that there is an underlying essentialism related to ‘national characteristics’ which divorces these characteristics from culural, social and economic circumstances. One possible task for the course team will be to explore the links with anti-modernism and romanticism more closely. The Old National Gallery in the Berlin State Museum is a useful site to visit where I obtained an image of. Bocklin’s Ilse of the Dead

Bocklin

As the introduction to the recent edition of Kracauer’s book makes clear, he was working under limited conditions and at the time had to focus upon a narrower range of films than perhaps he would have liked. It is also the case that he was being funded to search for explanations of Nazism.

Not all the films mentioned above were made in the Expressionist mould. Hake describes Murnau’s output as ‘poetic realist’ a movement usually associated with French directors like Renoir, during the mid to late 1930s. It has been suggested that the films of F.W. Murnau acted as a form of bridge between the Expressionist movement and Neue Sachlichkeit suggest Martin Brady and Helen Hughes . These seemingly diametrically opposed cultural influences are clearly present within Metropolis as Andreas Huyssen has noted.

A recent book Expressionist Film New Perspectives

Neue Sachlichkeit

Metropolis by George Grosz

The origins of Neue Sachlichkeit emerged in 1924. It erupted out of the left-opposition within the Expressionist-utopian Novembergruppe. This group was called the Red Group associated with what is frequently known as ‘Verism’. Painters associated with the ‘verists’ were Otto Dix and George Grosz & Max Beckmann. They were highly critical and used satire to attack the evils of post-war Weimar German society exposing the devastating effects of World War I and the consequent economic climate upon individuals.

A second term, ‘Magic Realists’, has been applied to diverse artists associated with Neue Sachlichkeit, including Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Alexander Kanoldt, Christian Schad, and Georg Schrimpf.

Rudolf Schichter depicting cafe society

These works are usually taken as opposing the aggressive subjectivity of German Expressionist art but avoiding political criticism. Some of the work by Schad was close to being pornographic. Unlike many of the artists from the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, who had their works displayed in the infamous degenerate art exhibition, Shad’s works were apparently celebrated by the Nazis.

The movement thus incorporated a range of political commitments and techniques whilst marking a shift in representational values. Art historion Paul Wood points out that Otto Dix, although critically aligned with the left, moved away from the subjects of war and marginalisation in an expressionist mode to a ‘meticulous even obsessive painting technique …...he applied successive layers and then erased all marks of manufacture. In doing this he was directly refusing the discredited subjectivity of Expressionism.’

Neue Sacklichkeit 1

Otto Dix describes his attitude to Neue Sachlichkeit: ‘For me the object is primary and determines the form. I have therefore felt it vital to get as close as possible to the thing I see. ‘What’ matters more to me than ‘How’. Indeed ‘how’ arises from ‘What’. Above the more non-political aspect of Neue Sachlichkeit whilst below there is a political edge. These differing approaches to ‘realism’ open up a vast and important area of aesthetics which cross-cut the left intelligentsia within Germany, with Brecht, Adorno, Benjamin, Bloch and Lukacs engaged in intense debate. These concerns are beyond the scope of this review.

Neue Sacklichkeit 2 The Political Edge

How far New Objectivity was an acceptance of the status quo derived from a ‘detached enchantment’ is open to challenge. Here it is useful to note the comments of the painter and artist George Grosz who strongly defended himself against what he described as the ‘Hurrah Bolshevism’ which wanted to see the proletariat presented as ‘always neatly brushed and combed in the old hero’s dress ’. Seeking to represent the conditions of the working classes as accurately as possible, Grosz derided the ‘false idealisation of the propaganda,’ which was emanating from the German Communist Party (KPD) of the time. This was the time socialist realism was becoming the dominant aesthetic form in Soviet Russia.

Paul Wood argues that paradoxically, that the more ‘realistic’ the art the more its social criticism appeared to be blunted. Rather than a social strategy ‘it represented an attitude of alienation from the actual lived reality’. It is in this sense that_ Neue Sachlichkeit_ can be seen as representing the truth underlying the superficial aspects of reality. The alienation represented within it can be seen as a critique of the contentment and new consumerist values of the stabilised German society through the hyper-realism which generated a sense of ‘unreality’ Wood emphasises. Wood also notes that Neue Sachlichkeit became strongly associated with photography. In the field of left wing aesthetics we find that for Brecht and Benjamin the pretence of documentary photography to represent reality needed to be undone through montage such as the work of John Heartfield compared with the photography of August Sander below.

Neue Sachlichkeit Phot by August Sander Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photomantage by John Heartfield

The film director most associated with New Objectivity or Neue Sachlichkeit and its celebration of technological progress is Georg Wilhelm Pabst. Hake suggests that New Objectivity also accepted the status quo in society. [This is an issue which can be researched in more depth on the course.] Pabst’s works deal with a range of social problems such as; prostitution, labour disputes, inflation and marital problems, as well as revolutionary politics argues Hake: ‘Significantly the same principle of detached enchantment guides the visual representation of women, interiors, and the objects of everyday life. Yet the realism that distinguishes Pabst’s approach to camerawork and mise-en-scene also accommodates more voyeuristic and fetishistic scenarios.’ Bearing the last part of this comment in mind it may be useful to compare Pabst’s voyeurism with the work of people like Schad. Below images from Pabst’s Joyless Streets & Pandora’s Box.

Greta Garbo & Grigori Chmara in Pabst

Hake sums up the contribution of Pabst as one who was committed to the progressive spirit of the stabilisation period. But through striving for technical perfectionism Pabst favoured the beauty of appearances through the creation of surface effects: ’Pabst during the Weimar period contributed to the new style of objectivity and factuality that was both provocatively materialist and profoundly consumerist in orientation.

Louise Brooks & Franz Lederer in Pabst

Hake’s emphasis ssems very different to Bergfelder and Carter who note Pabst’s independent productions in the last years of the Weimar republic including Westfront 1918 (Western Front, 1930), Kameradschaft (Comradeship, 1930), _Dreigroschenoper _(The Threepenny Opera, 1931).
Certainly at this stage Pabst seemed to be clearly antiwar. Given Brecht’s disappointment with The Threepenyy Opera this is a film which is worthy of a special case study and will be another possible task for the course team.

From Pabst West Front 1918

Pabst’s Die Freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street, 1925), whilst depicting the bad conditions of the working class had been criticised for a depoliticised individualism from the left. For the left it was deemed as a ‘pessimistic’ film. Whilst Hake notes an eroticism of the filmic image in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), Bergfelder notes the presence of the Jack the Ripper character in both Pandora’s Box and as ‘Mack the Knife’ in The Threepenny Opera seeing the Ripper as representing male insecurities ‘ that seems to suggest a German masculinity torn apart by the social and psychological legacies of world War 1’.

Bergfelder also notes the representations of misogynist aggression in the paintings of Dix and Grosz and in that sense the concern with crime can be seen as a representation of the chaos under the surface of contemporary Germany. Perhaps re-reading the films of Pabst through the ironic lens of the hyper-real, reveals Pabst to be more critically concerned with the mechanisms of capitalism than Hake allows. Yet Pabst chose to remain behind to work under the Nazi cinematic regime perhaps it was Hitler’s populism which seduced him perhaps it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. The reason is still an enigma today. It is a tension which will be explored during the course and through this space.


September 27, 2006

Why I Chose These Films

Well if you’ve discovered this blog and got to this part its probably because of the images illustrating the course I’m constructiong for Open Studies starting this coming January. I’m going to explain in this entry and future ones why I’ve chosen these particular films and what I hope the course will help to achieve. Please feel free to comment. A fundamental part of the point of the course is to contribute to a better understanding of European culture in general through its fantastic cinematic history, its not just a course for the sake of it.

The Weimar and Nazi period of German history is enormously rich and controversial. Much of this can be seen in its film output. Some of the best known directors in the World ever, emerged within German cinema of the Weimar period. Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Murnau and Pabst and infamously Leni Reifenstahl were just some of the well known names.

In this course I’m keen to get away from the rather dominant popular perception of German films as all about Expressionsim. Of course it was fascinating and helped to create a powerful film industry second only to the USA in the 1920s.

Ironically one of the films we will be considering is _Metropolis _ which cost a huge amount of money and was designed to crack the American market through its development of spectacle. It flopped in the States and as a result an Americam company bailed out Ufa gaining a controlling interest and access to distribution rights throught the Ufa chain of premium cinemas. This weakness in the company allowed the arch nationalist media mogul Hugenberg to buy the American share and control the company. Unsurprisingly the Jewish Pommer was one of the first to suffer dismissal.

We are starting the course with a strange film called Double Headed Eagle. This film constructs a narrative of the Weimar period from 1918-1933 when Hitler takes power. It contains some fascinating archive footage including some of Eva Braun’s home movies. As with many things it does need to be judged on its absences as well. There is footage of Hitler campaigning in the countryside but no clear idea of how dreadful rural unemployment and poverty was from 1923 onwards. This really gave the Nazis a field day because of the twin speed economy that developed after the Dawes plan. The well off woman at the races is an image which could be used as part of the myth of the ‘golden years’ of the Weimar republic. I don’t want to be too hard on the film. I’ve just been searching the Web for images of rural unemployment in the Weimar during the 1920s drawing a blank. I did find this interesting site though of the German Historical Institute for those of a historical frame of mind. If anybody finds some good images of rural unemployment in the Weimar during the 1920s please wing me an email. The women at the races comes from the images and documents section of the GHI site by the way.

 A socialite horseracing, Berlin c 1925

Double Headed Eagle is cinematically interesting nevertheless, because it eschews the ‘voice of god’ style of documentary we are all so used to and uses images combined with music to convey its ideas.

Next entry will be on Nosferatu probably the best of German expressionist cinema.


September 26, 2006

Focus Films for Weimar and Nazi Germany Course January 2007

Introductory Film

The Double Headed Eagle: Lutz Becker 1973 (90 mins)

Archive Footage Germany 1918_1933

Post First War & Expressionism

Nosferatu: F. W. Murnau 1922, ( 89 mins)
Max Schreck in Nosferatu

The ‘Golden Years’

Tartuffe: F. W. Murnau 1926, (64 mins)

Emil Jannings & Li Dagover in Tartuffe

Metropolis: Fritz Lang, 1926/7 (118 mins)

Metropolis

Pandora’s Box: G. W. Pabst, 1928 (105 mins)

Louise Brooks & Franz Lederer in Pandora

People on a Sunday: Siodmak / Ulmer, 1929. (73 mins)

Brigitte Borchert & Wolfgang von Waltershausen in People on Sunday

Asphalt: Joe May, 1929 (92 mins)

Amman en route to confessing in asphalt

The Depression

M: Fritz Lang 1931 (105 mins)

Peter Lorre in M 2

The Threepeny Opera: G. W. Pabst, 1931. (105 mins)

Rudolf Foster as Mack in Threepenny Opera

Kuhle Wampe: Slatan Dudow, 1932. (117 mins)

Hertha Thiele + Ernst Busch Kuhle Wampe

Nazi Cinema: The Consolidation of Power

Triumph of the Will: Leni Riefenstahl, 1934

Leni Reifenstahl with Adolf Hitler

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