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September 14, 2008

Film Criticism & the Blogosphere



Film Criticism & the Blogosphere


The latest edition of Sight & Sound (October 2008) has an great set of articles examining the state of film criticism to day in the light of the development of Web 2.0 and also the rise of the "Critic-Proof film". The full set of features brings together critics from around the world to discuss their favourite critics. It is a work of metacriticism in other words, however, here I intend to focus on the issues of criticism and the rise of Web 2.0.  Nick James the Editor of Sight & Sound introduces the feature making many interesting points. There is a recognition that there needs to be a culture of change within traditional print-based criticism in order to respond to the rise of blogging and its predominant culture of instant criticism on the one hand and the squeeze upon critics to try and make their films critic-proof. With marketing budgets sometimes approaching as much as 50% of the rest of the costs in the case of Hollywood blockbusters obviously distributors are keen to avoid flack. Arguably they can influence the blogging  community  interested in films and pass off pap onto them. However it has to be said that newspaper owners and critics have often been guilty of passing on pap themselves as loss of advertising revenue was a serious danger at least as far as film criticism is concerned. Nick James cites Graham Greene on this dangerous tendency:

He has got to entertain and most film critics find the easiest way to entertain is 'to write big'. Reviewing of this kind contributes nothing to the cinema. The reviewer is simply adding to the atmosphere of graft, vague rhetoric, paid publicity, the general air of Big unscrupulous Business." (Graham Greene, cited Nick James: Sight & Sound - Oct 2008)

An article I found very well thought through was one by Mark Fisher acting deputy editor of The Wire entitled "On Critics: Bloggers Without Boundaries". Fisher takes a sensible line with regard to all the hype surrounding Web 2.0 when he carefully cites the documentary film maker Adam Curtis who launched a strong attack on bloggers arguing that rather than forming an alternative space blogging is "parastitic upon already existing sources of information". Certainly the hype about interactivity, and choice and access has largely hidden from view the fact that there is very little valuable critical discourse within many of these blogs. Indeed in my own experience there are a lot of pages which are just copy and pasting other ones and trying to get advertising. However I think that as more people get familiar with the ways of the web the weak stuff will get weaned out. The structuring of search engine optimisation will contribute to that but only if quality critics start getting off their backsides, stop whinging about the hard time they are having and actually learn how to adapt to the changing world.

If I was a government lacky I would describe this as Continuing Professional Development (CPD). Everybody else has to adapt to the revolution that the internet is bringing. Critics film or otherwise must get out there and compete, and so must their publications. The message is that critics need to get online stop depending on free rides and cosy little press previews. You can get into the cinema on the day a film happens if the distributors keep you out and get your words out to the world a few hours later. Remember much of the profit from a film comes from the after sales in the DVD market and TV rights etc.

The publication you work for needs to get a strong online presence which gains respect, in the way that the BBC has. Look at the numbers of really good blogs the BBC has as well as podcasts and the rest. A big advantage for an online presence is the sophistication of online advertising and the new models of delivering targeted audiences to the adverts. Nick James worries that perhaps only Pete Bradshaw of the Guardian has the power to make or break a film. Well I'm not sure that a single critic should be in that position anyway, however, if his readership respects his views developed consistently then clearly a critic will have some influence. If a critic has that power and a loyal audience then their articles will pull in the best advertising, in this new online world a loyal audience for a brave committed critic will not lose advertising revenue but gain it:

For Anderson this was the worst kind of English cant. His view, on seeing Cooke's views reprinted in 1953, was "there is no such thing as uncommitted criticism, any more than there is such a thing as insignificant art. It is merely a question of the openness with which our commitments are stated. I do not believe we should keep quiet about them." (Lindsay Anderson, cited Nick James: Sight & Sound - Oct 2008)

There is an issue of how the critic online through their publication should react to other parts of the emerging critical discourse. Bloggers justifiably complain that on-line presences of mainstream media is a sort of virtual black-hole. These sites don't feel that they have a responsibility to link out to other sites which perhaps have different views. There is a certain arrogance that the critic is the expert to whom others must listen. Failure to take part in the democratisation of the media and to recognise fellow critics or castigate what they think is bad criticism is already part of Web 2.0. There is no point in being jealous of bloggers in a way which Pete Bradshaw has mentioned (see Whither the Film Critic below), bemoaning the lack of writing space in the print medium. Well spotted, the print medium is very limited. It is the online space which needs to become the primary critical space, the offline space the summary.


Nick James needs to take the next visionary step and get Sight & Sound to entirely adapt itself to the online world. Get the advertising online, get the criticism online, get a much larger global market become a central critical hub for film criticism in the globe. The competition online and in the blogosphere is pretty feeble so far but it is getting stronger everyday. Take the plunge relieve yourself of the fears of sorting out advertising Adsense and Amazon Associates will do it for you,  like Aston University Alumini all sorts of organisations are using these services. Remember any advertising space is 27/7 globally! Rather a tempting prospect for any advertiser, why is it moving onto the web?  The more popular the pages th more the publisher gets. Transparency is increasingly coming to rule the market. At the moment there is a tone in the discourse which smacks of neo-luddism. This is more than about the criticis it is about the future of hard copy magazines specially specialist ones lik Sight & Sound. There is no viable online -film presence which can hold a candle to Sight & Sound - YET. But it will happen unless change comes internally. The aspirant critics with the determination the nouse and the experience to develop several powerful online critical presences  online.  

Arguably we have reached a point where there is a defining moment. This moment offers the opportunities based upon the strengths of the present Sight & Sound, the weaknesses are a lack of a coherent vision to come to terms with the on-line age and revive the tradition of the angry voics of Anderson and his colleagues and later the young critics of Cahiers du cinema as Nick James has noted: 

Never mind that it was a bunch of critics that transformed cinema in the 1950s to create the nouvelle vague, or that another bunch paved the way for Britain's "Angry Young Men" to transform British cinema in the 1960s. (Nick James: Sight & Sound - Oct 2008)


Nick James is showing signs of neo-Luddism and cultural pessimism in the face of change rather than creating a firm line to adapt to the online world.  James has commentd in the past that  he wants Sight and Sound to be the Vinyl to the  iPod. It is an analogy which died years ago in the world of audio. The moment it died was when Linn finally built a CD player despit the fact that they had built their reputation on the famous Linn Sondek record deck. Now Linn is a leading light in the world of music servers and digital downloads offering a quality level many times better than CD. Naim too has just brought an expensive music hard drive to market. Linn still make an upgraded version of their decks but the vinyl brigade is a dying breed. Does Nick James want Sight & Sound to die? The cinema itself has a powerful history of technological change and many pople's job specifications changed. James still hasn't really imagined how the magazine can be changed and how the magazin world is changing. The following sentence in tone sees blogging as a diminished task not an opportunity although he is right that critics who  a well informed  and genuinely critical  can become distinctive again.

Otherwise they may collude in their own extinction by becoming bloggers themselves. Whether or not they stay in print or migrate to the web, they will need the support of their editors to become truly distinctive again by making more than the occasional passionate noise. Nick James: Sight & Sound - Oct 2008)


In this sense James still hasn't fundamentally moved his position from on whihch the Londonist writing some months ago commented on

What we found frustrating was that both members of the panel and the audience had an incredibly unsophisticated knowledge of blogging and online journalism. More than once online writing seemed to conjure up an image of lonely spotty teenage fanboys, wanking in bad grammar about the movie they had just seen, in between whining posts about how misunderstood they are. (The Londonist)

I have to agree with the Londonist there are plenty in the blogosphere who have high standards of writing, knowledge and ability to gain an audience.


Blogging is so much more developed, and richer, and sophisticated than traditional media give it credit for. There are communities out there (note "communities" rather than isolated, socially retarded freaks with broadband) with as much discipline and editorial rigour as any established print journal. Editorial rigour is, in fact, even more keenly followed in online publishing because of the speed and the means available for writers, readers and editors to respond to one another: if an article is released with incorrect information or highly contentious material, it can be a matter of minutes to react and amend. (The Londonist)

The future is gradually closing in on old critical models, models which had many flaws. Hopefully the best of the old media will migrate successfully. Mark Fisher identified some impressive online critical presences. 


The uniquness of the best blog writing...contradicts the assumption that bloggers are at best earnst amateurs, at worst talentless mediocrities motivated by resentment. Many succssful bloggers ...are able to pursue their own agendas free from the pressure of word count and independent of th time of consumer capitalism...The best blogs...occupy a space between journalism and academia, between disciplines, between films and other cultural forms offering a new type of criticism. (Mark Fisher, Sight and Sound October 2008 p 19)


Doubtless the debate will develop.


Webliography

Who Needs Critics?  Nick James  - Editor of Sight & Sound in the October 2008 edition

Whither the film critic in the blogosphere? Guardian report on disucussion at the BAFTA awards

The Londonist - Role of the Critic in the Digital Age

Kinoeye: The Rise of the Critic-proof Film

Variety Newspapers Showing Critics the Door




April 02, 2007

Genre & Contextual Criticism: The Need for a Multi–perspectival analysis

Genre & Contextual Criticism: the Need for a Multi-perspectival Analysis

Introduction

           Genre criticism within film studies has frequently been concerned with its socio-cultural or contextual significance. Neale (2000) suggests that this is partly because Hollywood’s genres have been considered as aesthetically impoverished. This has led to two broad approaches to genre criticism within the tradition of socio-cultural criticism: the ‘ritual approach’ and the ‘ideological approach’. Below these two approaches are contrasted with the less well-known but increasingly important ‘production of culture’ perspective.

The Ritual Approach

           Thomas Schatz has argued that genres can be seen as a form of ‘collective cultural expression’ and as a vehicle for exploring ideals, cultural values and ideas within American society. This has led critics including Schatz to postulate that some genres take place in different social spaces as a ‘symbolic arena of action’ such as the cowboy or gangster film. In these films specific social conflicts are acted out.

           Where these social conflicts are acted out is described as determinate space. In contrast there are other genres such as the musical or social melodrama which take place in indeterminate space. In other words, the settings do not have to be repeated and the social conflicts are less concerned with control of territory but about a range of social conflicts and their reconciliation and or resolution.

           An important aesthetic flaw in Schatz’s case can be discerned in relation to the western. Musical-westerns such as Oklahoma (1955), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Calamity Jane (1953) are hybrid generic films. Schatz’s theory of genre and its relationship to space don’t hold up hold up well against these examples which suggest that the struggle for physical space is superseded by the ability to reconcile differences and attitudes. On this basis these genre hybrids can be considered as predominantly musicals rather than westerns although the settings remain a part of western genre.[1]

           Another critique of ritual theory shows that textual analysis alone can lead to very misleading conclusions. This shows that within film studies a number of different research methods need to be used to gain a more accurate picture about the social context of reception and production. If a number of research methods are used together this is called triangulation.

           A criticism of ritual theory suggests that many people go to see a very wide range of films and that genre and formulas are no guarantee of success but at best provide limited profits. For example western films were cheap to produce and made small but regular profits from a relatively stable audience and thus provided a low risk bread and butter income stream. The ‘B’ and ‘C’ westerns can be considered as highly genre specific and as having low production values and narrow appeal. Perhaps they are better viewed as an early form of niche marketing.

‘...evidence from contemporary audience surveys suggests that westerns were produced in large numbers during the studio era despite the fact that they were popular only with rural audiences and adolescent boys and despite the fact that they were actively disliked by a majority of the viewing population as a whole’ ( My emphasis: Neale: 2000 :225 ) .

           Another major flaw within the ritual theory is its dependence upon the assumption that audiences are representative of the American population as a whole and that this population as a whole is always preoccupied with the same cultural issues and problems. For example, there has been a considerable amount of research into black and ethnic minority representation Hollywood films to show that they were initially addressed to a white only audience.

           Another important point is that most genre theory assumes that all the audiences consume genre output in exactly the same way and also that they consume nothing else. In fact there are a number of what has been termed reader-to-genre relationships. Every reader or consumer of a text comes with a different range of preferences and interests which are unique.

Ideological Theory

           Ritual theory plays down the idea that Hollywood genres are in some way coercive through the filmic texts. By comparison ideological theory argues that audiences are manipulated by the business interests of Hollywood. Neale argues that there is a danger that these theories will close themselves off by becoming self-confirming. Neale describes theories of this nature as ‘Functionalist, reductive and profoundly pessimistic.’[2]

           Neale’s tone here seems overly dismissive and accords with many other theorists and commentators on ‘popular’ culture who allow their own personal tastes to subvert their critical faculties. Strangely these criticisms can be applied to both the left and right of the political spectrum.

           The term reductive describes a straw figure who imagines that a cultural product contains an ideology which immediately contaminates whoever consumes this product so that they are entirely unable to be uncritical. This is often described as the ‘hypodermic’ theory of ideology. Undoubtedly there are a few people who hold to this simplistic notion, particularly on the right of the political spectrum, but few educated people hold to this concept.

           Of more interest is the concept of ‘pessimism’. Many theorists and supporters of cultural populism are concerned to criticise the left-wing members of the Frankfurt School of Social Research which started in Germany between the first and second world wars. The Frankfurt School supporters, especially Theodor Adorno, have been described as ‘pessimists’.

           Adorno was particularly scathing about the forms of popular culture he discovered in the United States after fleeing from Nazi Germany. For Adorno the cultural output in the United States was nearly as totalitarian in its approach as in Nazi Germany. Adorno has been written off by many commentators suggesting he was exaggerating the conditions of ‘popular culture’ based upon his dreadful experiences. However, many of those critics are unfamiliar with, have ignored or not researched crucial aspects about culture under the Nazis.

           Much of the film culture under the Nazis was genre-based cinema. Many of the films shown in Nazi Germany until 1939 were American ones. As has been pointed out elsewhere by Hake [3] a combination of genre construction and exhibitionary restrictions helped to oil the Nazi cultural machine. There is considerable evidence that the overall Nazi strategy regarding cinema was to be able to offer serious competition to the United States. Remodelling their industry and that of Occupied France was part of the strategy. There is evidence that Germany wanted to develop the French film industry into a sort of Trojan horse to penetrate the cinema markets globally.

Evelyn Erlich argues that ‘...the French would supply the commercially appealing films that were necessary for the Germans to compete successfully with the Americans on the international market ...The Germans thus saw that by encouraging French film production, they could use French films as an economic wedge to force the purchase of German films’ (Erlich quoted Williams, 1992 : 271).

           The films produced in occupied France particularly by ‘Continental Films’ were genre based.

Speaking of ‘Continental Films’ Alan Williams notes ‘Although most of the Studio’s productions were relatively conventional exercises in established film genres, they were all carefully constructed and technically proficient’         ( Williams, 1992 : 257 ).

           It can be seen from these examples that genre production as a strategy was relevant to Nazi thinking. Evidence such as this throws some empirical doubt upon the dismissal of Adorno as a pessimist. Rather it emphasises the importance of analysing ideology and the role it plays for media institutions and their products.

           Some see ideology as ‘hegemonic’, which is a form of social control created through generating a a broadly-based consensus of what counts as ‘common-sense’. A controlling role does not entirely stop other cultural products from emerging rather it subverts and controls these through the mechanisms of the market. In the light of this sort of evidence the role and importance of sophisticated theories of ideology in relation to genre and its important role in cultural populism should not be lightly dismissed.

The ‘Production of Culture Perspective’

           Neale uses work by Kapsis to take into account much wider industry factors which are largely ignored by the ideological and ritual theories. The industrial process for films is best seen as variegated and multiple. Which genres finally get made depends on the assessment of the various gatekeepers within the production system itself and their views of audiences future tastes. The higher echelons of management are acutely aware of the dangers of overproduction. Too many of one type of film could mean audience saturation and a fall off at the box office.

Kapsis did a case study of horror film production in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He discovered that during the earliest phase of production there were favourable reviews and viewing figures which shifted by the late 1980s to adverse criticism. Production was cut although there was still very high demand in video rental outlets. Neither the end of the cycle nor the long-term decline in production:‘ ....were due to any observable decline in the popularity of horror films among audiences in America, or to any identifiable change in the basic nature of the films themselves’ (Neale, 2000 :229) .

           Kapsis’ study shows that there are complex market research analyses continuously conducted on the market. These are cross-referenced to other institutional factors such as competition from Television - think of the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - or a shift in international markets. Other factors not mentioned in the analysis of Kapsis’ work are whether other external factors in the market affected this decision. One thing is certain, any withdrawal from the marketplace shows that senior management have decided that future profitability measured against risk was not acceptable. It also indicates that highly genre specific production is not seen as a premium profit-making part of the enterprise.

Conclusion

           All these different forms of contextual criticism have strengths and weaknesses. The ritual approach can be seen to be of relevance in more masculinised genres and it would be interesting to research Schatz’s ideas in relation to the war film genre. The musical and the melodrama which seemingly contradict Schatz’s theory are ‘feminised’ genres and emotional and psychic space is more important for women in these films. It has been suggested that there is an ideological issue of property and ownership at the root of these differently gendered genres. This doesn’t fully account for the different types of socially constructed space which are privileged. Recent sociological work has argued that much of a masculinised approach to what is described as modernity deals with time and space in a way that is gendered by considering non-domestic space as a male dominated space in which women are allowed as sexualised bodies rather than more fully developed individual people. Domestic space - including arenas such as shopping space and care space such as schools - is set against non-domestic space. The social theorist Rita Felski[4] has noted that there is a fear and loathing of domestic space amongst modernist masculinity of the twentieth century. There is a mistaken concept that the rhythms of daily life are inherently conservative compared to the progressive more linear and apparently less repetitive world inhabited by men.

           The production of culture approach highlights the industrial aspects of the film industry. The relative popularity of a few horror films in video-stores measured against the reduction in output of horror movies by the larger films companies indicates that these companies think that the levels of profitability are insufficient and are reducing the numbers of products on the market. The current trends in the market or how the industry wish to reconstruct the audience/ market will be much clearer to them than to the critic. Usually the least successful products are removed which means that within each genre and sub-genre there is a tendency to create a cultic canon of the best films. At the heart of this is a combination of ‘quality’ in negotiation with economics. Constructing markets is about creating premium products as far as Hollywood is concerned.



1 [1]Also see under ‘Iconography as a defining feature of genre’.

2 [2] (Neale, 2000:228 .

3 [3]See the Boxes under ‘Mapping Genres’.

4 [4]Felski, Rita. (1999-2000). As yet there has been little analysis of the representation of the everyday in films studies although there is rather more on issues of domestic space. See the commentary later on Thelma and Louise to note the spatial realignment of the film in gender terms.


Mapping Genres

Mapping Genres

Introduction

            Genre can be used as a method of examining the history of narrative film and cinema more closely. The genres which have dominated the film market are mapped out below. These are the major genres which have been identified by genre critics. New and different genres can be added, however most of those listed below and are considered as uncontested genres have been around from very early in the history of cinema. These genres have evolved or hybridised, and in some cases, as with the western, have very nearly come to the end of the genre cycle. The social and cultural need for the western as a genre relevant to the United States in the 21st century rather than the early part of the 20th has disappeared.

            Firstly the major Hollywood genres are outlined then an important genre to European cinema is briefly examined, following that the notion of sub-genre is defined.

The Main Hollywood Genres

            Neale (2000) has reviewed the development of genre theory in relation to Hollywood and provides a mapping of the development of a range of genres which is drawn upon below. Genre critics and theorists have identified about a dozen major genres in Hollywood. Films which are uncontested as genres include:

The western

The comedy

The musical

The war movie

The thriller

The crime / gangster movie

The horror movie

Science fiction

The detective film

The epic

The social problem film

The teen-pic

The biopic

Action-adventure.

            Films which have become very problematic categories and sometimes critically contested categories include: Film Noir and Melodrama.

Newer Genres

            The range of available genres is not fixed and new genres are frequently in the process of emergence. For example, the 1960s mood of social and cultural liberalisation as well as the growth of widespread car ownership brought forth a new genre the ‘road movie’, with Bonnie and Clyde (1967) usually accepted as the first of these. Other well-known films in the genre include Easy-Rider (1969) and more controversially Thelma and Louise. Initially a masculine genre the road movie can be seen as providing a cultural replacement for the western.

            Neale’s work has provided a mapping of Hollywood genres, other areas of the world have developed their own genres. In India ‘Bollywood’ signifies a range of epic style romantic dramas, punctuated by musical fantasy sequences. Hong-Kong has been associated with the development of the ‘martial-arts’ movie made popular in the west through Bruce Lee Kung Fu films. These created a cult following for films starring Jackie Chan. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) signifies a Hollywood industry move into this market by creating a hybrid genre film. Hollywood achieved this by giving the film a much larger budget than the more strongly generic martial arts films. The narrative structure has also been changed to appeal to western audiences used to different narrative structures.

European Historical Costume Dramas: The ‘Heritage’ Film

            By comparison with Hollywood the situation in Europe has been variegated but quite different. Genres have been quite weak often gaining only a localised market. There has been a penchant for the historical costume drama in Europe, which has acted in a variety of ways including reinforced a sense of national identity with inter-war examples being seen in Britain with Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry V111 (1933). This film proved to be one of the most successful British films ever made in terms of breaking into the American market, the holy grail for European film industries. On the basis of this film Korda clinched a distribution deal with United Artists, which seemed like a licence to print a small amount of money. Whilst Korda’s heritage film doubled as a marker of national identity and commercial success, the emphasis on national identity in the heritage film was strongly present in a range of feature films made under the Nazis in Germany.

‘The main contribution of feature films to the re-emergence of German nationalism lay in the displacement of present concerns into past events and the rewriting of collective history as individual melodrama’ (Hake, 2002 : 80).

            In Nazi Germany both the content and the exhibitionary context[1] worked together. A range of films being commissioned by the state to promote key concepts of Nazi ideology in propaganda form. Hake (2002) argues that because of these conditions of production these films could be seen as ‘a genre to themselves’ based upon Nazi constructions of the spectacular.

Nazi spectaculars were ‘defined less through particular textual characteristics than through contextual qualities as the transformation of opening nights into public spectacles and the many parallels between the events on the screen and concurrent political developments’ (Hake, 2002 : 63).

           

            It is important to emphasise here that very few feature films produced under the Nazi regime were directly propagandistic. Many of the films were generic variants of standard genres such as comedy and romance. Contextual criticism relating to the conditions of viewing is very important here. All narrative feature films were accompanied by newsreels and documentaries where much of the propaganda work took place. Early in the Nazi period Jews were legally excluded from cinemas. Later nobody was allowed into shows after they had started to stop people avoiding the documentaries and the newsreel footage.

            The holy grail of breaking into the American market has always been a feature of European cinema. The occasional success has frequently led to hubristic statements from a senior member of the British film establishment about the need to focus on this market which now lies at the feet of a newly revitalised film industry. The latest in this long line at time of writing being Alan Parker the outgoing chairperson of the British Film Institute in the autumn of 2002.

            The greatest successes in the American market have been amongst those European filmmakers who have gone to work in America from Hitchcock to Ridley Scott. This has not stopped the European film industry from trying to invent a formula based upon high-production values (read ‘big budgets’), utilising some higher profile European stars, and a hybrid or multi-genre mix. La Reine Margot ( France, 1994 ) directed by Patrice Chereau. Accessing the Eurimages fund, part of the European Union, is an example of this.

            Based upon a historical novel by Alexander Dumas on the role of Catherine de Medici and the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s the film fell into the trap of being over-melodramatic and as a historical film largely uninteresting, although Geoff Andrew offered a reading of La Reine Margot arguing that it was a way of referencing current French anxieties in Bosnia and the break-up of Yugoslavia[2]. Viewed ten years later references to Bosnian break-up seem largely spurious spin which can be seen as cheap opportunism to try and gain audience. This costume melodrama was reversing the trend in France to make more interesting historical films such as The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) These had challenged the way in which history represents the past. Banking upon the heritage genre alone failed to impress American audiences.

            The development of other films in this genre such as 1492 (Ridley Scott:1992) about Columbus’ journey ‘discovering’ America went down well in Spain but failed to appeal anywhere else is a good example of cultural policy initiatives prioritising industrial aspirations to increase profitability rather than prioritising the representational needs of citizens and inhabitants of Europe. Thematically La Reine Margot could have said much more about problems of intolerance, fear and identity which has existed through much of its history. The relevance today when the issue of asylum seekers has become so prominent in the latter part of 2002 and early 2003 is far better covered by Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002).

Sub-genres

            Many of the genres mapped by Neale can be broken down further into a range of sub-genres such as the ‘cavalry western’, ‘slapstick comedy’, ‘police thriller’, ‘teen-horror’. These sub-genres often relate to identified market categories. The likelihood is that the more sub-generic or further down the chain of genre influenced film-making a film is, the more formulaic it is likely to be. This is likely to limit its appeal to certain audiences on grounds of content, and quality in terms of plot and characterisation as well as technical proficiency.

            It can be seen from the genre mapping provided by Neale that a category such as ‘teen-pic’ is far more oriented towards a specific market whilst many of the other categories have some elements of openness in their approach.

Conclusion

            From this brief mapping of genres it can be seen that a range of influences from different parts of society create, change and render particular genres obsolete or very minor roles.

            Investment decisions in what films to produce can be influenced solely by industry perceptions although these are likely to be picking up on social and technological change. The growth of the road movie and the decline of the western being useful examples. Genre such as historical costume dramas can be influenced by government and ruling elites who often have an interest in asserting a particular version of national identity especially if there is a growing feeling of crisis. This influenced both Korda’s film on Henry VIII as well as the output of German cinema under the Nazis.

            These sort of films have also been made recently in Europe with the backing of the European Union to try and break into the American market by producing higher value cinema. This largely industrially driven strategy of marketing heritage has not been very successful with the US audience. This shows that creating successful genres needs to have a successful domestic marketplace first. This is an area in which Hollywood has been historically very successful.



1 [1]See firstly ‘Contextual Criticism’ under Methods and Methodology in Film research, secondly ‘the Ritual Approach’ under ‘Genre and Contextual Criticism’ ,

2 [2]See Austen, Guy. 1996. P 168 for details on this.


November 15, 2006

Erich Pommer & Weimar Cinema

Erich Pommer & Weimar Cinema

Return to Weimar Cinema Hub Page

Introduction

Erich Pommer was one of the most important people in Weimar cinema. Pommer first founded and was head of Decla responsible for the production. when Decla later merged with Ufa Pommer was head of production.

Pommer’s original start in film was with the Berlin office of Gaumont in 1907. He later joined the French Éclair company before the war.

Once the war had started he became the co-founder of Decla-Filmgesellschaft, producing a range of serials in popular genres such as detectives and romances.

In 1920 Decla joins with Bioscop to form the second largest German film company after Ufa.

That Pommer was extremely important is evidenced by the description below found on the Deutsche film portal site:

With Die Spinnen and Das Cabinett des Dr. Caligari he made Decla the home for exceptionally gifted directors like Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene. To fulfil his aim of establishing a German film industry which could compete with Hollywood on an artistic, technical and commercial level, he continuously was on the look for new talent. His vision led to lasting creative relationships with maverick directors like Lang and Murnau, with whom Pommer shaped the face of Weimar Cinema as it is remembered and renowned today.


Lang, Pest in Florenz

From 1919 he was familiar with Fritz Lang. Pommer produced Pest in Florenz Dir. Rippert, 1919 with a screenplay by Lang. Later that year he produced Harakiri and Halbblut both directed and with screenplay by Lang. He then produced the adventure series die Spinnen directed by Lang.


Murnau, Phantom 1922

Pommer always had a twin-track approach to the films that were made. On the one hand UFA turned out the genre films of mass culture whilst on the other hand favoured directors were allowed to establish director led units making more artistic and experimental films for the more intellectual audiences of Weimar and for export. Directors with this favoured status included Fritz Lang and later F. W. Murnau.

Many classic films of the Weimar period followed including,

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919 / 20) directed by Wiene, Destiny, (1921) and the two parter Dr Mabuse directed by Lang (1921 / 22). He worked with Murnau firstly on Phantom (1922) and later on The Last Laugh (1924), and then Tartuffe (1925). Tartuffe was seemingly an attempt to create a film with an appeal to the French market as this market opened up following rapprochement between the two countries as post-war enmities subsided. The film has not been considered as one of Murnau’s better works and the various attempts to create a successful unified market failed.

He worked with Lang on Metropolis (1925 / 26) which infamously overran its budget and was an attempt to create a blockbuster to bleak into the US Market. In the same year he worked again with Murnau on Faust.

In 1926 Pommer went to work in the USA. He returned to work for UFA which had by then been taken over by Hugenberg who had put Gustav Klitzsch in charge. UFA now worked on a central producer system with the producer keeping a very tight control on budgets and shooting schedules.

In 1928 and 1928 / 29 he worked with Joe May on Heimkehr and then Asphalt. All of these were still working for Ufa.

In 1929 / 30 Pommer produced von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, yet another film classic, still working for Ufa. In 1930 he produced Robert Siodmak’s Der Mann, der seinen Morder sucht.


Robert Siodmak, der Mann der seinen Morder sucht

Pommer continued to work for Ufa despite the ownership of Hugenberg up until 1932 when he produced his last film for them. Pommer left Germany, going firstly to France, then to Britain and then on to Hollywood. He didn’t produce another film in Germany until 1951.

In Britain Alexander Korda had attracted a number of European filmmakers including Erich Pommer. Pommer formed a production company with Charles Laughton, Mayflower Pictures.

Pommer was undoubtedly an entrepreneurial spirit who also liked good films. Historically he is the only figure who has had enough concentrated power, skill and entrepreneurial skills to challenge the rise of Hollywood in the post first world war period. Circumstances were always against him. His attempts to create ‘Cinema Europe’ to both resist and challenge Hollywood fell on infertile ground.

Webliography  

Films Associated with Erich Pommer 


May Joe: Heimkehr (1928)

May Joe: Asphalt (1928 / 29)

Murnau F.W. : Faust (1926)

Murnau F. W. :  Phantom (1922)

Murnau F. W. : Tartuffe (1925)

Murnau F. W. : The Last Laugh (1924)

Lang Fritz: Dr Mabuse both parts  (1921 / 22)

Lang Fritz:  Metropolis (1925 / 26)

Rippert (Screenpalay Fritz Lang): Pest in Florenz 1919

Siodmak Robert : Der Mann, der seinen Morder sucht. (1930)

von Sternberg Josef: The Blue Angel (1930)

Wiene: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919 / 20)

A Useful Link To "German Department Resource at Dartmouth ":http://www.dartmouth.edu/~germ43/resources/biographies/pommer-e.html


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!


The Cinema of Nazi Germany 1933 – 1945 Part 1

A Prefatory Note

This section requires some prefatory comments as the number of works concerned with the Nazi period now numbers tens of thousands. I have drawn upon Kershaw’s (1993) useful overview of the methodological field until that time. A key concern of this section is the confused and contradictory nature of Nazi Germany and its relation to modernity. Here I take a largely neo-Gramscian approach which argues that Nazism functioned as an hegemonising agent mediating between a variety of political bases to provide a vision of the future which could appeal to a wide range of fractions of German society of the time crosscutting many class and elite differences. Crucial in its success was support from right-wing industrialists and entrepreneurs but there was enough within Nazism to temporarily unite petit-bourgeois, rural concerns and some elements of *theorganised working class along with many of those on the margins of society those whom Marx would describe as the lumpen-proletariat. Once in power there was a massive shift in the power-base internal to the NSDAP as its populist Brown-shirt elements who often relied upon anti-capitalist rhetoric were de-capitated as a political force within Nazism with the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in which the Black shirted SS loyal only to Hitler massacred the Brown-shirt leadership. This was done with the collusion of the official forces of the state standing by. This will be covered in a separate section which deals with Visconti’s representation of the Nazi ‘consolidation of power’.

Scholars and analysts are still arguing furiously over the nature of the Nazi regime. Recent popular historical works such as Burleigh (2000) are premised on reviving the theory of ‘totalitarianism’, which has been for some considerable time been discredited amongst the discourses of historians.

Some scholars such as Mason from a left-wing perspective and Schweitzer (See Kershaw 41-42) from a more Liberal one have identified shifts in Nazism as it became more established and thus more autonomous from those class fractions and elites which had originally helped it to gain power. Thus industrial and capitalist needs became subordinated to ideological ones. Many ensuing historical debates have focused on whether there was a primacy of politics or one of economics. For Kershaw (p 48) the reality is that there was a complex overlap and interaction between the two spheres. Industrialists such as Hugenberg had always had imperialist fantasies and whilst Nazi policies could be seen to be increasing profitability then there was no serious breakdown in hegemony. This analysis is close to that of Sohn-Rethal which Kershaw describes as one in which the Nazis acted in an objective way to maximise capital accumulation at a time when there was an extreme crisis of capitalism.

It is important to take into account the relative power of any particular industries such as cinema which had an important ideological function would be relatively closely controlled and monitored by the state. Industries which had much to gain from the rearmament and subsequent war were likely to have been very close to the heart of the Nazi government. Until the war started going badly and Germany itself became increasingly threatened there was every reason to pursue war aims linked to super-profits. ‘The faster the regime careered madly out of control and towards the abyss, the greater was the scope for political-ideological initiatives out of sequence with and in the end directly negating the potential of the socio-economic system to reproduce itself.’ (Kershaw , 1993: p49). Kershaw subscribes to the argument that ‘in the last instance’ economics do not have primacy over politics, evidenced by reading the Nazi regime as one engaged in a process in which a form of radical nihilism became dominant. This nihilism is interestingly represented in the recent film of Hitler’s bunker called Downfall mentioned elsewhere in this Blog

Introduction

This section suggests that a totalising link between narrative fiction film, non-fiction film, cultural policy and film policy including a cinema building programme and direct Nazi ideology and the policy aims of Nazism can be made. Cinema during the Nazi period initially worked alongside capitalist and industrial interests, and despite restrictions remained open to American and other foreign imports until 1939. There was still a very active co-production schedule with countries such as France until the outbreak of war. All of these institutional factors provided a number of variables which developed in the realms of content, distribution and exhibition, censorship and financing as both the external and internal political circumstances changed.

The Nazi government operated a twin-track policy trying to make cinema both commercially viable and strong enough to compete with Hollywood as well as being a considered as a valuable vehicle of Nazi ideology. The Nazi regime was unable to operate cinema as a strictly commercial venture throughout its period of government with the industry veering between huge losses and good profits. Until the war tide of war began to turn in 1942 Nazi film policy had successfully laid the base for a cinema which would be able to dominate the territories it occupied.

section notes that the weight of scholarship in recent years has established the importance of the ideological functioning of the genres that were prioritised by the Nazis. It was also the case that the verbal content was prioritised over the visual content in order to try and keep better control over the whole text. This goes against earlier scholarship which considered popular generic entertainment as merely “diversionary”, it also argues that readings of Nazi cinema based on texts alone overemphasise the possibility of ‘reading against the grain’ to give alternative and subversive readings for the population in general as a form of resistance.

It is argued that all the institutional arrangements for cinema worked together towards specific ideological ends as a matter of policy. In this sense Nazi Cinema can be considered as different to Hollywood and other European cinemas from states which functioned as developing liberal democracies. In so far as term ‘propaganda’ is useful we can consider a definition of propaganda which includes ‘promoting the policies of the state’ as being useful. Taylor writing on Nazi and Soviet cinema suggests that ‘Propaganda is the attempt to influence the public opinion of an audience through the transmission of ideas and values.’ When dealing with the Nazis it is important to differentiate between the period of the Nazis before coming to power and the period after coming to power. Before coming to power the Nazis had little direct influence of cinema. Mainly their interventions in the area were limited to protesting at screenings of the pacifist film All Quiet on the Western Front.

Right from the outset of power the Nazis had a clear cultural and media policy of taking over the cinema in terms of using it as a tool of ideological communication for their own ends. During their period in power the state effectively gained more and more control through the backdoor as without state investment the industry was unable to stand alone commercially. This was partially caused by the international reaction to the Nazi regime in which trade and consumer boycotts dramatically reduced the export market.

The Installation of Third Reich Cinema

On March 13th 1933 a new ministry the Reichsministerium fur Volksaufklarung und Propaganda (Reich Ministry for People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda) [RMVP] was launched. Goebbels became minister in charge of print media, film radio and later TV when it emerged as a technology. Race laws and anti Trade Union laws went into operation as soon as practically possible.

There was a forced integration of the film industry during 1933 and 1934 which completed the processes of consolidation which had been going on during the Weimar period. After that 80% of output came from four major studios. Many of the integration and consolidation measures were ones which had been planned by the Spitzen-organisation der Deutschen Filmindustrie (SPIO). Klitsch who had been appointed managing director of UFA in 1927 was appointed president of SPIO in the same year.

In 1932 which was a highly problematic year for the industry with falling audiences more imports and rising costs SPIO had come up with a strategy for the industry which would cut overproduction and cut production costs. They also planned a special film-bank for the industry which would safeguard investors and would have to approve the production schedule. Distribution would have to be guaranteed before a film could be started and the distributor would have to be a member of SPIO.

Overall this meant that SPIO would have overall control of the production and distribution process. Because the cutting of ticket prices was eating into distributor and producer profits (see the graphs taken from Rentschler) SPIO wanted only exhibitors who agreed to programming and tickets policies to gain access to distribution thus giving SPIO control in the exhibition sector as well. In June 1933 the SPIO-Kommission brought together industry representatives with the new government to discuss industry reorganisation. In July 1933 the Chamber of Film was set up on a provisional basis and fully established in September.

Output during the Nazi period averaged about 100 feature films per year alongside numerous shorts, newsreels and documentaries. This compares with about 130 feature films per annum in France during the 1930s. France produced 220 features overall during the Occupation 20 of which were made by the German controlled Continental films. Hake suggests the film industry was a considerable economic force however measured by numbers alone it was in fact similar to France. Given the levels of state intervention in Nazi Germany in the 1930s indicators of the comparative health of these two industries by profit is not really a meaningful one.

After 1933 film practitioners of a range of crafts were organised through the Reich Culture Chamber. Only Germans defined by citizenship and racial origin were eligible to be members. This was part of a purge to rewrite and erase aspects of film history. In 1935 the threat of revoking screening licences for all films made before 1933 meant that the names of Jewish directors were removed from the credits. At the same time political rallies were organised against films that featured Jewish actors. Any Jews left in the industry by 1933 quickly left the country.

More fundamental restructuring followed. The Reich Film Law of 1934 established the censorship criterion. Anything that could be considered anti-Nazi aesthetically, morally and politically could be banned and confiscated. Importantly a pre-censorship regime was instituted based upon scripts that were submitted prior to any production work being undertaken. This had the effect of reducing risk for studios, ensuring that tight ministerial control was maintained and meant that the number of films actually censored in the post-production stage before release was tiny. Most direct censorship happened during the war years when individuals had become persona non-grata or images were considered bad for morale because of the fortunes of war.

Financing systems which included incentives were also an effective form of political control by refusing to finance films which the government didn’t approve of. Through the ‘Predicate’ system a range of awards and distinctions were given to feature films. The film credit bank that was established in 1933 and which had become incorporated into the Chamber of Film provided financing for nearly 70% of the films produced through a loan system with loans often not repaid suggests Hake. Petley argues that although the bank was state owned, the banks which lent the money included the Deutsche Bank, the Dresdner Bank and the Commerzbank thus it functioned to safeguard investments.

The Predicate Award System

The censorship system had made additions to the one already in force in the Weimar Republic, perhaps of more significance was the development of the ’Predicate’ system which again had its origins in the Weimar. Predicates were special honours which gave special tax relief to films considered especially worthy. As well as tax relief the award was a strong marketing bonus as well. Four films were awarded the ‘film of the nation’ which went to big budget films which were clearly propagandistic. Hake argues that state-commissioned films were effectively a separate genre as it wasn’t just the content and style of the film but the whole process of making the launches great public spectacles as well as any parallel between on-screen content and developments in the external world.

Special Conditions for Filmmakers

Far from being viewed as an especially repressive environment most of those who had stayed in Germany within the senior levels of the industry were treated very well by the state and there was intense collusion. The cultural legitimacy of the Nazi state was deemed so important that Goebbels granted special exemptions to a few specific individuals deemed too important to lose. For example Erich Kastner who had been banned wrote the screenplay for Munchausen ( 1943 ) under a pseudonym.

Foreign Film Imports and Exports

A new contingency system had limited foreign imports, however, American films still prospered and over 600 hundred foreign feature films were viewed in Germany 1933-1939. The Nazis paid a lot of attention to the conditions of exhibition and mandatory requirements for exhibition were introduced which included a mixture of a feature film and cultural films and newsreels. To try and ensure maximum audience exposure cinema owners were strongly advised not to allow entry after the programme had started to avoid the practice of skipping the compulsory bit.

The accession of the Nazis led to an immediate contraction of exports which declined by nearly 80%, however, nearly one third of foreign films exhibited in the USA in 1939 were of German or Austrian origin although they played to small audiences in cities with strong German connections. The general purge of Jews and dissidents meant that almost no creative talent came to the country. Hake suggests that co-production remained limited to Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Japan, Italy. This evaluation has not taken into consideration the considerable numbers of French people who worked in Germany in the film industry throughout the 1930s. Nor does it take into account the German production company Continental Films established in Paris during the 1930s and which operated during the war.

Growing State Control

Independent film companies were gradually squeezed out and the increasing costs of production combined which had more than doubled between 1933-1937 combined with a loss of export markets meant that even the larger studios had to accept secret government loans. Some of these costs can be attributed to the creation of a localised star system with an actor like Hans Albers earning 562,000 Reich Marks in a year. This was unsustainable on a commercial basis, for only Hollywood could pay star salaries based upon projections of huge total global earnings.

Despite the steadily increasing film attendance with almost 440 million tickets sold in 1938 many studios were operating at a loss. In 1937 even Ufa had lost nearly 15 million Reichmarks and the government effectively took over buying up 70% of the stock through a holding company called Cautio headed by a Dr. Max Winkler. Originally Cautio had been established with vast funds at its disposal to buy vast numbers of newspapers discreetly.

Similar financial deals were conducted with Terra, Tobis and Bavaria studios which kept their names but were effectively government owned. Petley cites Becker who estimated that the whole programme cost nearly 65 million marks. This is a strong indicator of how important the Nazis considered cinema to be. Winkler’s aim was to stabilise the market, make it more profitable and ultimately to reduce state aid. Winkler was largely successful in these aims.

Growing Politicisation of the Cinema

At this point much more cinematic output became directly politicised. After the invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938 ‘expensive prestige productions [were] now openly promoting nationalistic attitudes and fuelling anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic sentiments.’ The conquest of neighbouring countries significantly helped to expand the market for cinema which eventually became Germany’s fourth largest industry.

In 1941 the Deutsche Filmtheatre GmbH was established which facilitated buying up existing cinemas and building new ones in order to maximise the flow of finance back into the industry. In 1942 the Deutsche Filmvertriebs GmbH was established and the film industry became fully nationalised under a Reich film administrator responsible for co-ordinating all aspects of the film industry with the rest of the Nazi public policy field.

Eventually a double strategy was developed of producing a few big budget propagandistic or strongly ideological films supplemented by a large number of popular genre films. Cinema had become increasingly popular with 1.117 billion tickets sold in 1943. For approximately 2 years the restructured industry made healthy profits and had become independent of state aid. In its own terms Petley notes that Nazi film policy was highly successful.

  • Nazi film Genres*

For the types of films which were produced by and for the Nazi regime please go to the article called Nazi Film Genres.


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


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