All 5 entries tagged Ufa
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November 30, 2006
In 1926 UFA suffered severe financial losses. The superproductions Metropolis and Faust weren’t finished on time and had run up huge bills. Deutsche Bank was prepared to force the company into bankruptcy unless a new source of capital was found.
The extreme nationalist Alfred Hugenberg quickly made the most of the his opportunity and acquired the majority of the share capital. Hugenberg installed his protege Ludwig Klitzsch at the helm of UFA. Klitzsch swiftly moved to restructure the company along Hollywood models of best practice. He also started to diversify into other media communications areas specifically sheet music and gramophone records.
The Central Producer System
Klitzsch’s first move was to install the central producer system. Under the old management Erich Pommer had given his leading directors the right to use the Director unit to help creatre more artistic films, with the directors having a relatively free hand over what they did and what they spent. The central producer system ensured a tight control over all aspects of the film from budget to shooting schedule. Klitzsch’s restructuring enabled UFA to start breaking even and helped them to raise the money to invest in sound
They achieved managed to ahcieve the move to full sound production in just over a year. In order to make this hasty transistion Klitsch engineered a deal with UFA competitior Tobis-Klangfilm licensing their technology rather than going down the expensive route of re-inventing their own.
There is no doubt that the financial restructuring and ensuing business model put UFA firmly back into business. As Germany slid deeper into depression with unemployment reaching arounf 8 million in late 1932 by 1930-31 UFA was in the black. Not only had it it done well in the domestic market but it had agressively and successfully marketed its foreign language versions in France and the UK as well as continuing to develop on the music side as another income stream.
New directors new kinds of film
This financial recovery was achieved in spite of (or because of) the loss of the top directors under previous management. Murnau had gone to America, Lang had started his own production company after Metropolis, Pabst had started working for Nero Films and E. A. Dupont had gone to the UK.
With the coming of sound musicals and comedies became the staple of UFA production with the development of international stars. The Blue Angel 1929 / 30 starring Emil Jannings and making Marlene Dietrich an international star is perhaps the most famous of these films.
Other films of this ilk included The Congress Dance (1931) dir Eric Charell with Lilian Harvey, Lil Dagover and Conrad Veidt.
Above new favourite of the audience Lilian Harvey in The Congress Dance while below Lil Dagover and Conrad Veidt provide an in depth quality cast.
There were also oddball comedies such as Viktor and Victoria
which was made on the cusp on the Nazi takeover of power. According to the hyperlinked articled it became the box office number one hit in 1933. Sabine Hake has it recorded as a top seller for 1934.
Throughout the depression UFA was able to provide circuses but no bread, that role fell to the Nazis.
Klitzsch also started to institute changes in SPIO and try and follow the Hollywood model of an industry self regulatory regime which would serve to help control supply and reduce concerns about overproduction and consequent falling incomes for all.
Elsaesser considers that overall the restructring of UFA was a necessary step although he was thankful for the earlier model followed by Pommer because some of the great films of the Weimar period still admired today would never have been made. In terms of politcs and ideology Elsaesser is of the opinion that despite criticisms from the left it was a business imperative rather than an ideological one that drove UFA after Hugenberg took over and until the Nazi regime became firmly established.
Sabine Hake (2002) places Asphalt firmly in the genre of the ‘street film’. Typically these films addressed urban issues such as poverty and unemployment. In films such as Tragedy of a Prostitute (1927) starring Asta Nielsen, liberated sexuality is linked to criminality. Hake goes on to suggest that Asphalt combined aspects of the sentimental melodramatic strain of street film with the more surface cynical attitude to modern sexuality represented in other aspects of the genre. Hake also comments that it was: …a final demonstration of the genre’s visual possibilities before the introduction of sound. (Hake 2002, p 41).
The current marketing of the recently released Eureka DVD and many of the weaker commentaries which litter the web emphasise the ‘expressionist’ nature of the film. There are clearly some elements of the shooting which echo what has come to be known as ‘German expressionist film’ however these are merely hints used where there is clearly a troubled soul torn between love and desire and duty casting a literal shadow over the character. Perhaps the most obvious one is the shot of the policeman returning home after the fight as he climbs the stairs.
Redolent of Nosferatu climbing the stairs this shot isn’t overdone in a horror style. Lotte Eisner makes reference to the geometric patterns in the shooting style of the workmen laying the asphalt and elsewhere the use of deep shadow makes use of common expressionist techniques but this doesn’t add up to an ‘expressionist film’.
The Conditions of Production
It is important to note that the film is one of the first made under the new UFA regime after it was bought up by Hugenberg and Kliztsch installed as its chief executive. Kliztsch had restructured UFA. Although Pommer had returned to the fold it was in the role of central producer following the contemporary Hollywood business model. No longer was there a director led model of filmmaking. Budgets and deadlines and scripting were coming under strict control.
Asphalt wasn’t to be made as an art based film based upon the old UFA split between artistic productions and genre popular based films. This film was given a well known director, a lead actor, Gustav Frolich, who had been a lead in Metropolis opposite Betty Amman an American actress who Pommer hoped would provide some international attraction for audiences. With the art director Kettlehut who had been one of the art directors on Metropolis and the cinematographer Gunther Rittau who had also worked on Metropolis the film had a gifted and talented team. It was important for UFA to maintain its, by now, well recognised brand look of quality for its flagship films whilst maintaining a firm grip on the budget.
The film was to be a well made multi-genre film which had the Hollywood standards of quality in terms of production values with popular appeal. It embraced the street film and involved various heists, but it was a straight forward romance with various narrative hurdles to be crossed before the lovers could be united. The narrative closure ends on a note of hope for the future as well as underpinning a message of redemption through true love which involves sacrifice. It is ultimately a moral tale for the urban sophisticate in which lust and sex turns into true love and the baddy is eliminated. The femme fatale is to be punished but this is not the exacting over-done retribution of the full blown American thriller (film-noir).
The film needs to appeal to a female audience and offers a path through the urban maze for the naïve provincial woman who might get caught up in the Berlin demi-monde. Frequently the stereotypes of the dutiful parents might be read by the audience in a tongue in cheek way which was entirely appropriate for the audience this film seems to have been aimed at. The seduction of the policeman had to have been played for laughs.
With a careful balance of cheap sets such as the parental home and an extravagant street set along with shots from a plane this film was carefully budgeted and very modern able to appeal to a more intellectual urban sophisticate as well as those more interested in popular culture. As such Asphalt is probably best seen as part of UFA emerging mass entertainments strategy for financial recovery.
A precursor of ‘film noir’?
Generically there are aspects of Asphalt which foreshadow those films dubbed as ‘film noir’ which themselves contained a strong Weimar visual imaginary. It is an urban thriller which explores the underside of the modern city. This is a film which is redemptive through and through and true love pushes aside the frills and fripperies which are the rewards of being on the margins of the underworld. Spirit triumphs over worldly possessions. This is all mediated by the mechanisms of justice and as such can be seen to underpin a state which is firm but fair.
Betty Amman bears witness to the outcome of the fight in a redemptive and self-sacrificing act to save her policeman lover. As an audience we know she hasn’t done anything very bad. She has shown she has moral courage when the chips are down and is unlikely to spend much time in jail.
Audience and reception
I have no current information on its full ratings at the box office, however it benefited from the full UFA treatment having a top team making it and premiering at UFAs top venue the Palast-am-Zoo in Berlin and would have received all the efforts of the formidable UFA publicity machine which was every bit the equal of the Hollywood one.
Some commentators try to see in the film some sort of foreshadowing of economic disaster to come after the Wall Street crash of 1929. This is more of a pathetic attempt to link the film into some expressionistic discourse rather than a comment based upon historical facts. No cinematic evidence of this is offered because there is none. If anything is foreshadowed it is Riefenstahl’s shots of Hitler arriving on a plane to Nuremburg however Aspahlt got it in first as another criminal arrives in Germany.
Until the Wall Street Crash in October of 1929 many months after the film was released there was a severe case of ‘irrational exuberance’ (Greenspan) amongst many in Germany as well as America. The German metropolis ‘had never had it so good’ (Harold Macmillan).
The war years were now a receding memory as were the bitter political polarisations which had followed. The film acts as both a celebration of developing consumer culture as car ownership, up-market fashion, jewellery and air travel are all celebrated. Both buyers and sellers beware there are always opportunists who wish to establish themselves by pickpocketing, deception or elaborate heists. The rule of law must stand firm within this bonanza is the message but there is no hint of the impoverished in this film. There are routes to success but they must be legitimate ones is a core preferred reading of the film.
November 27, 2006
Metropolis is an awkward film to write about. It is contradictory, eclectic, it has a visual imaginary which is both in awe of modernity and seemingly petrified by it.
Ultimately the film seems to accept a society led by a .technocratic elite which recognises that the rather ignorant and stupid workers don’t deserve to be treated totally like slaves. The leader should nevertheless be benign and remain connected to the people. But it is an unconvincing ending.
Metropolis has been written about from many different perspectives with another book on the film produced this year (2006).This piece remains focused on trying to understand Metropolis within the context of its times. It also probes some issues which are raised by the failure of this flagship blockbuster film amongst the audiences it was meant to have been targeting. There is a huge mythology which tends to focus on the character of the director Fritz Lang which detracts from this from this fundamental question.
Another key issue is the numerous different versions which were deliberately made to target different audiences. This history is summarised in a separate blog entry. What remains an issue is the fact that the original version screened in Berlin for about 16 weeks has been lost and is unlikely to be ever reconstructed. This is important because, given its Expressionist impulse with an emphasis upon form as a method of making meaning rather than plot and script, then any viewing and analysis is strictly limited. The fact that this apparently best version wasn’t successful with audiences makes some provisional analysis of its failure with audiences even more important.
Metropolis represented a society without a spiritual vision which like the ancient Greeks was dependent upon workers who appeared to be slaves – not even wage slaves. Certainly, there were no consumer outlets for workers to spend an income although the elites clearly had their pleasure palaces.
Politically the film could be read as populist in the sense that it was a recognition that the plebs did have needs beyond pure slavery. Slavery is clearly signified in both the Greek athletics stadium and the reference to the Egyptian Moloch. The film could thus be read as supportive of the centre-right coalition which had taken power in the Weimar after the Dawes plan of 1923 but it is more complicated than that. However there is much in this film that could be read as supportive of NSDAP principles.
Germany & Modernity
Going back to basics means briefly analysing what was happening on the economic front in the Weimar at the time Metropolis was released in 1927. By doing this I will argue that there has been an overemphasis on what Kaes has described as the cultural resistance to modernity:
The war had been fought, according to the ideologues, to defend traditional German Kultur against the onslaught of Zivilisation, i.e. the mechanisation of life, democracy and modern mass culture. (Kaes p 59).
Whilst this attitude described the position of many landowning aristocrats, provincial landowners and peasants, this was hardly the concern of the great industrialists, and empire makers. Nor was it the concern of the largest social democratic party in the world prior to the First World War. Their historical compromise with capitalism (to paraphrase Lenin) was to sacrifice their internationalism on the sword of nationalist empire building. This was sold to them as a pre-emptive defence against a greedy Russian empire keen to eat away at Germany. Without the support of the German working class the war could not have been fought effectively.
By 1914 Germany was an industrial powerhouse second only to the USA. Certainly Britain had been outstripped in terms of industrial production by the turn of the previous century. Wilhelmine Germany had a core leadership with great imperial ambitions. It was a modernising country which under Bismark had introduced the first welfare state to discourage rebellion and revolution.
Like other countries Germany had its tensions. These were more pronounced partly because the pace of change was faster than in Britain which as the first industrial nation grew slightly more organically. Uneven development meant that there was a greater cultural shock of the kind which Marx wrote about: all that is solid melts into air. The sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies had written about the process in his well known identification of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, in which the more organic face to face relationship of small communities was being replaced by much larger and more impersonal structures. The famous sociologist Max Weber wrote about the process as one of increasing bureaucratisation which he dubbed an iron cage.
Visually Lang’s film represents these strands of thought. Control, surveillance, the replacement of natural rhythms by clock time and lack of meaningful human interaction were all described visually by Lang. These were represented in what Kracauer has described as ‘mass ornament’ where the workers are choreographed in geometric patterns. This also relates to an expressionist love of visual form and this is an important aspect of the construction of menaing within the film.
Political and Economic Modernity
In terms of political modernity Germany failed to make the transition effectively to a more democratic society. Although the SDP were a large party they had very little power in the German constitutional structure which remained a very top down affair with real power residing with the Kaiser through leaders such as Bismarck in the past.
Britain had gone through its major recent constitutional crisis in 1910 when the House of Lords had to give up its right to veto absolutely the power of the elected government through the House of Lords. Of course there were still British aristocrats who resented the incursion of democracy and like lord Londonderry they looked upon Mussolini and Hitler as their saviours against potential Bolshevism.
In Germany democracy was hastily awarded so that the Prussian elites could escape the blame for the First World War. The Social Democrats took power and had to negotiate the Armistice. Known as the November criminals purveyors of the stab in the back to the German nation these unjustified slogans reverberated around the political right. Certainly their grab for power landed them with responsibility for the war and its aftermath.
The situation was made far worse because large numbers of the armed forces didn’t understand that Germany had been defeated. This was not the time of rapid modern communications and the troops on the Eastern front had successfully forced a peace deal with the new Bolshevik regime having previously trounced the Czarist troops so badly that the Bolsheviks were well positioned to win their revolution. Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the main architects of the German High Command managed to escape criticism from the centre and the right.
The first few years of the ‘peace’ were marked by severe internal strife with attempts to seize power such as Hitler’s ‘Beer Hall Putsch of 1923’ always on the agenda. This was made against an economic background of inflation leading to hyperinflation as the Government attempted to stand up to the French takeover of the industrial Rhineland because they could afford to pay the war reparations. The Weimar republic of 1923 was a hollow democracy redolent of today’s Iraq.
The Dawes stabilisation plan worked wonders. However it left Weimar Germany with something closer to a three speed economy. Consumer electronics and chemicals industries became the biggest in the world providing the hungry American market. The workers and the cities they lived in such as Berlin and Munich were highly successful. Berlin became the cultural capital of Europe, in the mid to late twenties. There were no doubts about modernity here, it was a cause and means of celebration amongst large sectors of the population.
However, the heavy industries based upon coal, iron and steel in the Ruhr regions were stagnant, there was overproduction on the global market but they were coping. The strong communist party unions ensured that the NSDAP gained no serious foothold in these cities.
The third strand of the economy was the agricultural economy. They had been hit hard by hyperinflation with their savings eroded rather than spending them. Foolishly many borrowed when inflation was under control after 1923 to invest in better agricultural machinery, just as world agricultural overproduction knocked the bottom out of the food commodities market. The period of 1923 to 1929 was one of extreme hardship for over one third of the population. It was amongst these people that Nazism was finally to flower for nobody else was dealing with their plight. It was for them that anti-modernity was a fundamental enemy:
for a broad spectrum of anti-modernist and volkish Germans Berlin and all that it stood for as the devil incarnate, Berlin had become the crystallisation point of resentment against industrialisation, capitalism and democracy and the cultural influence of the West… Anti-modernists penned the term ‘asphalt culture’ to refer to the lack of genuine culture and social values promoted by urban life. (Natter 1994: 214-215 cited McArthur).
Why did Metropolis flop?
A core question to be asked of Metropolis is why did it flop with audiences? Arguably in terms of both form and content is entirely failed to resonate with those who were its target audience, in short it was not a zeitgeist film. In the light of the above it becomes much easier to offer explanations.
In terms of the Berlin based sophisticated and cosmopolitan audiences, this film must have been distinctly out of kilter with their expectations, lifestyle and ambitions. The Gothic and Prehistoric architectural spaces of cathedral and catacombs would have had little resonance with their experience. The elitist sports athletics stadium was an irrelevance at a time of rapidly growing health and sports activities. [Click on ‘Exhibition Tour’ and then Room 11]. Good health was an important part of international interwar modernism. The elitist night club space in the film seemed to be a grumpy critique of what large numbers of workers enjoyed every weekend and was a major source of wealth and status.
Culture was putting Berlin on the map. It was the city of Hitchcock, Pressburger and Isherwood to name but a few. Exotic cosmopolitanism with shows from people like Josephine Baker were enormously popular. The ethnography of People on a Sunday would have had far more resonance. Young professionals were being housed in Batchelor developments built by contemporary architects and loving it.
Modernist intellectuals were hardly likely to approve. The interesting and enjoyable spaces of the city such as parks and cafes shopping arcades and even cinema itself went entirely unrepresented. The representation of the ‘bad Maria’ would have seemed like a critique of young women who were enjoying their freedom in terms of earning money and sexuality. This was the ‘free air of the city’ as the old Hanseatic slogan had it made real in modernity. For the first time in history these freedoms were available to the working classes who would have been farm or domestic labourers in previous times. Neither church nor state was controlling them.
If workers in Berlin were going to be unimpressed by the naïve, desexualised and feeble storyline of Metropolis the communist dominated workforce of the heavy industry areas would also find the film entirely unappealing. It was scornful of the power of organised labour and represented the working classes as entirely stupid. So much so that they were easily led to disaster by an agent provocateur the ‘bad Maria’.
The intellectual and professional classes who might have been more attracted to the expressionist sentiment exploring the underside of modernity might well have been put off by the simplicity of the plot leave alone the anti-Semitic sentiments coming through around the Rotwang character.
There were no big name German stars and this was an audience used to the best Hollywood had to offer in terms of stars, technology and genres. As Taylor (1998 r.e.) notes; in 1926, the year before Metropolis was released, American feature films had 44.3% of the market compared to Germany’s 38.2%. In short films American dominance was absolute with an astonishing 94.9 % of the market compared to Germany’s 1.2% of the market. Even these statistics don’t tell the whole story for the Parafumet agreement which gave the American producers access to all the first run UFA cinemas situated in all the large and therefore modernistically inclined city populations signifies that Metropolis was a film which rather than being futuristic was decidedly behind the social and cultural zeitgeist of contemporary German cultural life.
There is little doubt that the visual effects are stunning, they are good to an audience now and in 1927 they were undoubtedly fantastic but good SFX doesn’t make a good film. Unlike a modern day blockbuster there is no clear audience. There wasn’t a genre of science fiction well established at that time, the romantic plot was feeble with an unconvincing hero in Freder who was a stand in actor anyway. Previously Lang had been able to create stars but that was when German cinema was in a highly protected environment. Metropolis was a serious but deeply flawed attempt by Pommer and Lang to establish a blockbuster formula to break into the American market.
Why would the rural anti-modernity and anti-modernist audiences in the rural areas flock to see the film? Something marketed strongly as science-fiction to a poverty stricken hinterland more used to ‘B’ movie standard comedy and dramas as their form of escapism were unlikely to buy into it. It would of course be fascinating to know just what the box-office breakdown of Metropolis was. Of course they would not have seen the original Berlin version in any case.
Perhaps it is to the American film executives reaction to the original print we can turn to, to provide us with an explanation for why Metropolis flopped. Horrified by its length, its lack of clear plot, lack of stars and with no clear generic market it was clearly a nightmare for them. Studying the reviews and the failure of the film to ignite Berlin audiences would have confirmed their well-honed business instincts. The Berliners liked Hollywood and they didn’t like Metropolis. Clearly this message got through to the UFA board and it was why the general release cut for Germany was very close to the American one. Despite global release in the main cinema markets of the world the film made a huge loss and almost bankrupted UFA.
Elsaesser argues that perhaps the coming of sound later in 1927 cut short Metropolis. This seems unlikely. There was only one significant sound film The Jazz Singer and like any technology sound needed time to bed in and be installed in cinemas across the world. It took time to make the sound films to go with the cinemas. While this was a relatively quick it is questionable whether this was a primary reason for the failure of Metropolis to attract significant audiences..
November 15, 2006
The history of the institutional aspects of cinema is interesting and the film studios in Babelsberg a suburb of Berlin which became so famous between the wars started in 1911 in a derelict factory surrounded by some wasteland by the nascent film company Bioscop who were to produce some famous films with Asta Nielsen the Danish Actress.
Babelsberg is still in use today after being taken over by DEFA after 1945.
The Goethe Institute is informative about today’s Babelsberg based German film industry.
Erich Pommer & Weimar Cinema
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Films Associated with Erich Pommer
May Joe: Heimkehr (1928)
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)
Rippert (Screenpalay Fritz Lang): Pest in Florenz 1919
Siodmak Robert : Der Mann, der seinen Morder sucht. (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