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January 29, 2007
Lotte Eisner on Murnau's Nosferatu 1922
Writing about web page /michaelwalford/entry/the_weimar_cinema_1_2/
Lotte Eisner on Murnau's Nosferatu (1922)
Here I have summarised some of the key points that Eisner makes about Murnau's Nosferatu 1922. The complete title of the film is Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror). Eisner describes Murnau as the greatest of the German filmmakers through his creation of poignant and overwhelming images which go beyond mere decorative stylisation. Murnau was trained as an art historian and in many of his shots he plays with the memory of great paintings, whilst Lang by comparison tries to make faithful reproductions of great paintings when he has recourse to them. In Faust the shooting of a prostrate man stricken with plague there is a ‘transposed reflection of Mantegna’s Christ’. (Eisner, 1969:98)
Eisner notes that Murnau was gay and suggests that his films ‘bear the impress of of his inner complexity’ noting that born in 1888 he lived under the shadow of Paragraph 175 of the pre 1918 German penal code outlawing homosexuality. Fear of blackmail was thus always present. She suggests that Murnau’s origins in Westphalia a rural farming area influenced his work which came through in a sense of nostalgia for the countryside.
Nosferatu was filmed on location which was unusual at the time. Using Gothic Baltic towns he filmed on the dunes of the Baltic ‘ He makes us feel the freshness of a meadow in which horses gallop around with a marvellous lightness’. (Eisner:1969, 99). The use of the architecture of these Baltic towns obviated the need to use artificial chiaroscuro. Murnau uses nature combined with editing to make waves foretell the arrival of the vampire. Murnau’s direction is tight with each shot having a precise function using momentary close-up of billowing sails to contribute to the narrative drive.
‘ It is reasonable to argue that the German cinema is a development of German Romanticism, and that modern technique merely lends visible form to Romantic fantasies’. (Eisner, 1969: 11).
On this last comment the short documentary by the art historian Christopher Frayling on the British Film insitute DVD usefully explores this notion in relation to Nosferatu.
December 15, 2006
Open Studies in European Cinema. The Cultural Hurdles Controlling UFA's Potential
Throughout the Weimar period the company that eventually became UFA was under continuous pressure from a range of different political sources. The criticisms which UFA faced came from both Leftwing and Liberal sources as well as from those such as religious quarters which saw the cinema as a potential basis for moral debasement.
Why the Criticism?
Many critics whose political persuasion was either socialist / communist or just plain Liberal saw UFA as a tool of the Nationalist right. The arts pages of the liberal left newspapers (the Weimar equivalent of the Guardian in Britain today) tended to denounce artistic films as ‘kitsch’ (in other words not genuine Art with a capital ‘A’. The genre films – of which there were many – became denounced as ‘Shund’ (trash). See Elsaesser (2000, p 127).
Part of the cause of this liberal critique was generated by the fact that the original organisation of UFA was strongly associated with the military leadership of 1917 didn’t help. These elites had been persuaded that the Reich needed a more organised propaganda outlet, however Germany had been defeated by the time UFA had started up. Elsaesser argues that there was a certain commercial logic which:
...belonged to the political culture of Wilhelmine society, making UFA an expression not so much of the war as a new way of thinking, on the one hand about corporate capitalism, and on the other about public opinion and the (technological) media. (Elsaesser, 2000 p 113).
The Moralist Critiique of UFA
Whilst the Liberal critics saw murky links with the military elites of Wilhelmine Germany the professional classes from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds tended to see the cinema as a potential space for moral debasement. As a result they campaigned strongly for the creation of ‘cultural films’. They had in mind educational and documentary films, which was an outlet that UFA catered for.
The Left-wing attitude to cinema
Those in the more organised and radical left such as the KPD (German Communist Party) tended to be uniformly hostile towards cinema in general. UFA was frequntly attacked for poisoning the minds of the masses with reactionary celebrations of Prussia’s glory (Elsaesser p 128). After 1925 Willi Munzenberg successfully persuaded the KPD to try and counter bourgeois cinema by establishing thier own distribution company. This was done and the comnpany was called Prometheus Films. It was Prometheus who were to sponsor Kuhle Wampe (1930) for instance.
As the producer of UFA in overall control of the cinematic output Erich Pommer ignored these criticisms and the demands for ‘realism’ from the various quarters of the critical establishment which accompanied these demands.
A turn to realism was entirely contrary to Pommer’s ambitions to establish strong export led growth. From the outset Pommer had understood that Hollywood was the main source of competition that German cinema was having to compete with.
Realist output in the years immedaiately following the war would have been disastrous for the export market . A fact that Pommer was keenly aware of. This stemmed from the fact that Germany was very closely associated with causing the First World War. The promotion of contemporary German settings would have spelt the kiss of death to cinema.
As a result UFA output was split into films for the domestic market and export oriented films. The former largely consisted of comedies and social dramas which used realist settings. By comparison, the sort of films available to the English market today were the films which Pommer had wanted to be available in the 1920s. Films from the Neue Sachlichkeit period, for example, by directors such as Pabst and Joe May were strongly associated with what became known as the “UFA look”. This look meant high production values. The emphasis was on strong sets and the best craftsworkers that UFA had avalibale in terms of camerawork, lighting, sets, and costumes to create an excellent mise en scene.
UFA’s Problems with America
Right from the outset UFA had problems breaking into the American market place. The developing Hollywood system manage to gain control over distribution and exhibition which helped to exclude potential competition from Europe.
But at the end of the day UFA wasn’t producing the sort of films that appealed to American audiences. By comparison the Americans – especially after 1924 – were winning significant market share of the German audience. One key element in this failure was the lack of internationally renowned stars. Most actors who started to become famous in the Weimar republic were quickly wooed by the razzle dazzle and serious cash offered by Hollywood. The establishing of the star system was a central feature of Hollywood success then as it is now.
As a response Pommer tried hiring American actresses such as Louise Brooks, Anna May Wong and Betty Amman. Louise Brooks worked with Pabst and Betty Amman worked with May. None of the actors who worked with Fritz Lang ever gained international stardom.
It was only after the coming of sound and the strategy of hiring American directors such as von Sternberg as well did UFA manage to develop some significant stars with genuinely international successes. Marlene Dietrich and Lilian Harvey modelled upon contemporary Hollywood stars to name but two.
Although UFA became a very successful film company being the only European film company to offer serious competition at all to Hollywood there were many hurdles which were culturally based which it faced. These hurdles reduced its chances of success both at home and abroad. It was only after its restructuring under the control of Klitsch that UFA began to make consistent profits in a fully competitive environment. To do this it had to develop a Hollywood business model.
December 07, 2006
Nazi Cinema: The SA ‘Movement’ films of 1933
This article argues that the rapidly changing fortunes of the Nazi party through its runaway successes and methods of following up its election victory led to problems with its intended propaganda output. The popular SA films overemphasised the role of the SA and promoted their confidence and ambitions which were at complete odds with the new priorites of the Nazi leadership. This provides a partial explanation of Goebbels’ attempts to distance the Nazi leadership from the heroic martyr SA films of 1933.
Hitler takes full power in the middle of March 1933. Approximately 8 million were unemployed. Many firms bankrupted. Schacht is soon appointed to run the economy. Mass employment through infrastructure projects started.
Process of Gleichschaltung or ‘co-ordination’ starts. This fairly mild sounding word is a euphemism for a wave of physical attacks combined with changing laws which ousted potential enemies from work and led to the establishment of concentration camps. All political parties banned and unions taken over which is achieved by August.
The aptly named Storm-troopers of the SA were commanded by Erich Roehm. The SA was the essential front-line weapon for taking on the KPD in particular and also the SPD. They were extensively used for intimidation of elected deputies in the immediate aftermath of the March 1933 election. For several years they had been physically combating the KPD and the SPD on the ground. All three of these mass parties had armed wings. Many people in all of these parties had been injured and some killed in street fighting brawls attacks on political meetings. This had been developing since 1930 as the depression deepened and social polarisations became deeper.
One of the main tasks Hitler needed to achieve in 1933 was to physically eliminate any danger from the political left. The Nazis had gained power because the left was divided. Should they finally agree to unite against the NSDAP rule then Hitler would probably not have remained in power for long. The country would have been ungovernable. The SA were thus used immediately to totally repress what was seen as the most dangerous opposition first.
The Nazis were very pragmatic, apart from an organised boycott of Jewish shops at the beginning of April the anti-Semitism came second to neutralising the threat of the KPD and SPD. It did proceed at a legislative level as Jews were gradually forced out of work. This happened most quickly in the cultural sphere. (See Evans, 2003 for a good synopsis of this). As spring wore into summer the Nazis had made significant gains against their enemies in the process of Gleichschaltung.
The SA Films
Given that the SA were playing such an important role at this time it was to be expected that they would require some representation within the cinema. The films produced helped to justify the current SA actions and to publicly develop an institutional mythology around them. Out of the three films which fall into this category Hans Westmar is based upon a real character – Horst Wessel. He was then mythologized into the Nazi canon with the ‘Horst Wessel song’ becoming a symbolic message through being turned into an anthem. Hitler Youth Quex is also based upon a true story.
SA-Mann Brand: dir Franz Seitz (SA Hero, genre from a book by Goebbels)
Hitler Youth Quex : Hans Steinhoff (SA Hero, from a novel based upon a real life member of the Hitler Youth)
Hans Westmar : Franz Wenzler (SA Hero, from a novel based upon Horst Wessel. Goebbels intervened to change it).
The premiere was at the Gloria-Palast in Munich. It was disrupted because an SA chief demanded that all SA and SS members leave as the cinema was showing film posters painted by a Polish painter.
For the plot and mise en scene see Faletti (2000)
Hitler Youth Quex
Hitler Youth Quex was made by Ufa. It was based upon the real life story of a Hitler Youth member called Herbert Norkus who was killed by the Communists. Welch suggests that Ufa were keen to make the film if only to outdo their competition in Munich. It was screened for Hitler and many Nazi dignitaries at the Ufa_Palast in Munich on September 11th 1933. The production values were higher with several leading actors and the director was also well known. However it cost only 320,000 marks which was slightly above average for the time. It was reviewed favourably having a successful run at the main Ufa screen in Berlin the Ufa-Palast-am-Zoo. By the end of January 1934 it had gained over 1 million viewers.
For the plot and mise en scene analysis see Rentschler (1996) and Faletti (2000).
The film Hans Westmar directed by Hans Wenzler had a slightly turbulent route to the screens. Originally entitled Horst Wessel Goebbels cancelled its premiere originally billed for the 9th October 1933. Goebbels did this on the grounds that ‘the film compromised the hero’s stature and menaced the interests of the state and the German people.’ (Faletti, 27). Goebbels wanted some revisions and also wanted the name of the hero changed and the name of the film. The premiere eventually took place on 13 December 1933.
For plot and mise en scene see Faletti (2000).
Were there deeper underlying reasons for Goebbels’ decision?
Faletti (2000) is concerned with drawing comparisons with stylistic attributes taken from Weimar cinema which is useful, however I argue here that she might possibly be missing a more valuable point here. Why should Goebbels have taken such a disliking to the original Hans Westmar previously entitled Horst Wessel? This is a question which the specialist scholars have omitted to take up and in some cases elided out of intellectual enquiry in an entirely speculative way. Sabine Hake (2001) for example comments: Hans Westmar about the first “martyr” of the movement, required significant changes because of its presumably unflattering portrayal of National Socialism.” (My emphasis: Hake, 2001 p 26) As I argue below there is a far more plausible explanation which responds to the rapidly shifting pattern of politics in Nazi ruled Germany. Making unsubstantiated presumptions isn’t a particularly useful or scholarly way of proceeding.
Faletti too, slips over the nature of the changes in attitude from Goebbels yet this has to be a particularly interesting question. It is notable that on the 9th of September when the Horst Wessel version of the film was to be premiered Goebbels came out with his well known opinions about the nature of ‘propaganda’ films:
We National Socialists do not place any particular value on our SA marching across stage or screen. Their domain is in the street … the National Socialist government has never asked that SA films should be made. On the contrary – it sees danger in a surplus of them. (Goebbels cited Taylor 1998 p 148)
It seems abundantly clear that Goebbels considers that there is a lot at stake here. This seems a lot of trouble to go to on the surface, lets face it that great piece of “Art” with a capital A (for Riefenstahl and her apologists at least), is little more than a huge bunch of Nazis marching about and standing to attention. We can either take Riefenstahl at face value (probably unwise) claiming that Goebbels and she didn’t see eye to eye and that Hitler somehow overrode things or we can try and look deeper into the political situation amongst the Nazis themselves as it was unfurling.
The Horst Wessel song written by the martyred Nazi became a battle hymn and as such was hugely symbolically significant: That such an open celebration of brutal physical force could become the battle-hymn of the Nazi Party speaks volumes for the central role that violence played in its quest for power. (Evans, 2003: p 268)
If we take into account the fact that By the summer of 1933 the creation of a one party was virtually complete (Evans, 2003 p374) and that as Goebbels put it the Nazis were on The road to the total state. Our revolution has an uncanny dynamic (Goebbels cited Evans, 2003, 174) then we can see that over a very short time an initial set of problems was becoming superseded by another.
The Nazis had successfully brought on board many of the middle-classes as members as well as gaining the approval of many of the elites. But many of these people were being alienated by not only the brutality of the SA but also by the fact that many of the SA leadership around Roehm were interested in a further revolution where the leading capitalists were nationalised immediately, and at the same time the Roehm faction of the SA saw itself as the military vanguard of the new state. Neither of these developments was welcome amongst the leadership around Hitler and Goebbels.
The new allies of the Nazis needed to be won round. Of particular importance was the position of the army and by default the attitude of the Prussian elites. The army would certainly not accept any situation where their power was eroded in favour of the SA. As a fully professional and trained military force they were vital to Hitler’s key goal of Lebensraum or living space. This was the imperial dream writ new. Hitler wanted expansion into Eastern Europe and as can be seen after 1936 the whole state was pushed into investing in this ultimate goal. At this point Hitler wanted new friends and to win a position of trust until a fully hegemonic position could be gained. Even in the late summer of 1933 it was clear to those around Hitler that the excesses and ambitions of the SA would need to be reigned in.
It is this dramatically changing political position of street oppositionists to government and the possibilities of bringing dreams into fruition which spelt caution to the leadership. In terms of gaining a better understanding of the path to creating the Nazi state and how people were persuaded to accept it an intense appreciation of the political ground rather than abstract textual analysis is likely to bear more fruit.
It is political expediency in the light of changing circumstances that can be understood to be a marker of Goebbels’ attitude to the Horst Wessel / Hans Westmar film in September. It would be fascinating to know exactly what changes were instituted and more work clearly needs to be done on this in order to substantiate this argument fully. Currently it remains more circumstantial based on the clear shifts in attitude taking place.
Part of Hitler’s and Goebbels’ problem is the speed of their success. Had the SA needed to have been still engaged in pitched fighting with communists and other oppositionists as they were in the first few weeks of power then there is little doubt that this heavy handed ‘propaganda’ would have been required for morale purposes. But suddenly the street enemies had largely collapsed and the political and economic aims were now rather different. Eventually these intra-Nazi tensions would be resolved by the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ but until then steps were taken to control cinematic output more carefully. The extreme SA was becoming more dangerous for the overall ambitions of Hitler than the communists.
The new cinema law instituted in February of 1934. Under this law completed films were still to be submitted to the Reichsfilmprufstelle as well as having the scripts subjected to preproduction censorship. At he same time the censorship office in Munich was closed down and decision making centralised in Berlin. Each censorship committee was to have a casting vote by a member of the Propaganda Ministry. In 1935 even more measures were taken to ensure the tightest possible controls. At this point the shutting down of the Munich censorship office was important. It was from Munich that two of the three SA Movement films were made. Whether there was a conscious decision to reduce SA influence in the decision making about films is a question which is raised here.
A complicating factor is the fact that only two days after Goebbels’ speech Hitler Youth Quex is premiered. Goebbels was very flattering about it (Rntschler 1996). Was it a decision that two premieres of two similar films would damage each other, Goebbels clearly preferred Hitler Youth Quex aesthetically. Being made by Ufa in Berlin it is likely that Goebbels knew exactly what was in this film and how it was being represented. By comparison Hans Westmar represented a fear of loss of control.
Bibliography: see main bibliography using the resources tag.
December 03, 2006
Open Studies in European Cinema. German Cinema: The History & Culture of Weimar & Nazi Cinema
This page is an entry portal in the Warwick Open Studies course for Weimar and Nazi Cinema.
This course starts on tuesday 9th of January 2007 @ 7.00 pm
Contact University of Warwick Open Studies to register. It is possible to register online. Please follow the link above.
The course is continuing during the summer term featuring another range of films from the period.
Open Studies in European Cinema. Summary of key findings of Rentschler's Ministry of Illusions
First published in 1996 Eric Rentschler’s book The Ministry of Illusion was an important step forward in the historiography of Nazi cinema seeking to go beyond the over-simplistic binary models of propaganda / distractive entertainment which had been prevalent until then.
Under Goebbels cinema became centralised and consolidated. By 1942 there were 4 state owned studios: Bavaria, Ufa, Terra, and Tobis which between them dominated the industry.
Rentschler has identified a number of core features of Nazi feature films over the period:
- Very little footage was shot out of doors or on location
- Directors were functional as facilitators not auteurs
- Film was to be artful and accessible not intellectual or esoteric
- Films were made under a state apparatus that determined every aspect of production from script development to the final shape of the film
- The conditions of exhibition including release and distribution were also closely administered
- Nazi cinema denigrated the film of the fantastic as well as filmic realism
- Nazi cinema assumed a ‘middle ground’ of historical period pieces, costume drams, musical revues, light comedies, melodramas and petty bourgeois fantasies
- Modernism persisted not within full length features but in short films and non-fiction films. (Examples given: Riefenstahl, Zieckle & Ruttman)
- Nazi film narratives generally privilege space over time, composition over editing, design over movement and sets over human shapes
- Compared to Hollywood output the films appear slow and static. There was more use of panoramas and tableaux than close-ups
- There was little nudity and few stunts or action scenes
- The music worked with visuals to make spectators lose touch with conceptual logic
- The ideal film would spirit people away from the real world to a ‘pleasant, compelling, and convincing alternative space
- Only a minority of features were ‘overt’ propaganda
- There were two waves of films with strong propaganda content. The first was comprised of the SA films of 1933. the second were the anti-Semitic, anti-British and anti-Russian films between 1939-1932
- These propaganda films worked within the larder constellation of the whole of Nazi cinema apparatuses
- The Third Reich was … a full-blown media dictatorship (p 217)
- Both film executives and government film administrators avoided films which put National Socialism on display
- The utopian spaces of cinema were sponsored by the Ministry of Propaganda: Nazi cinema not only created illusions but also often showed illusionists at work, occasionally self-reflected about the power of illusion (p 218)
- Despite the post-war claims of filmmakers and revisionist critics, one finds very few examples of open resistance to the party and state in films of this era (p 218)
- Rentschler recognises that not all meaning can be controlled and furthermore points out that allowing occasional spaces of transgression served the overall aims of the film industry admirably
- Exceptions forming some sort of resistance for Rentschler appeared firstly after 1942 and include The Enchanted Day,Romance in a Minor Key, Akrobat Sho-o-o-o-n
- There were more ‘leakages’ as the system gradually became more chaotic as the war drew into its final months
November 30, 2006
Open Studies in European Cinema. The Restructuring of UFA under Klitzsch
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.
UFA was increasingly peopled by directors who were efficient and effective makers of genre films such as Karl Hartl and Gustav Ucicky
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.
Open Studies in European Cinema_The Ministry of Illusions_: The 5 Premises of Eric Rentschler
Eric Rentschler’s Ministry of Illusions is one of an increasing number of academic studies re-viewing the structures, productions and effects of Nazi Cinema. Some of these studies are perhaps over-embedded in textual analysis to the point of excluding the contextual. It is clear that analysis of Nazi cinema as ‘bad object’ needs careful analysis in order to better understand how the mechanisms of this abominable regime were able to contribute to the maintenance of a hegemonic position in one of Europe’s most advanced countries.
Not least amongst Rentschler’s concerns is the easy availability of much of the output of the Nazi period, at least that which was classed as entertainment and therefore nothing more than a distraction. This is something we will return to in a piece summarising Rentschler’s concerns about the redemptive processes goping on within 1990s German cinema which has potentially dangerous redemptive characteristics.
The 5 Premises
Nazi cinema needs to be seen in the light of the state’s concerted effort to create a culture industry in the service of mass deception (Rentschler p 16)
Entertainment played a crucial role in Nazi culture. Film ...was to move the hearts and minds of masses while seeming to have little in common with politics or party agendas (ibid p 19).
Goebbels saw media culture as a kind of orchestra which moves forward in a planned way using different instruments palying different notes. The whole being co-ordinated into a symphony: The political itself is instituted and constituted (and regualrly re-grounds itself) in and as works of art (Phillippe Lacone-Labatte on Heidegger and Aesthetics, cited Rentschler p 21).
Mass culture was fundamental to the Nazi project creating a specific social ontology anchoring people in a reconstructed everyday: ...the popular clearly played a prominent and ubiquitous role in everyday life. Rentschler notes that the popular entertainment model had homologies with American ones.
Neither dumping ground of propaganda nor a moronic cult of distraction and surely not a locus of resistance, _Nazi feature production warrants more careful scrutiny. Interestingly Rentschler notes here that the popular media could not have been a locus of resistance despite more revisionist attempts to play with concepts of ‘reading texts against the grain as an act of resistance’. (Well if even that was the case it wasn’t very effective resistance one is tempted to add).
Asphalt(1927): Joe May
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, Modernity and the Economy: Or why it was a flop!
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 23, 2006
Open Studies in European Cinema. Nazi Box Office Figures
Nazi Period Facts and Figures
Year< > Number of Cinemas< >Number of admissions (millions)
Table derived from Rentchsler, 1996 p 13. Originally sourced from Prinzler, Chronik des deutschen Films 1895-1994. Stuttgart, 1995.
On these figures it can be seen that during the first two years of Nazi rule the number of screens was reduced in the first year at the rate of nearly one per day and during the second year by approximately one every three days. At the same time that there were closures the numbers of cinema-goers rose steadily every year peaking in 1943. In 1943 the peak of audiences was accompanied by the first contraction in the number of cinemas since 1936 and falling to fewer cinemas than in 1939. This trend can clearly be put down to wartime conditions changing dramatically with RAF air raids beginning to make a real impact on cities from early in 1943.
Table 2: German box-office statistics, 1929-1939
Year< >Number of Tickets sold < >Gross Income (million RM)
Table derived from Rentschler, 1996 p105. Originally sourced from Traub ed. Die Ufa. Ein Beitrag zur Entwicklungsgeschichte des deutschen ilmschaffens. Berlin: Ufa-Buchverlag, p 156.
Numbers with a * against them denote a discrepancy with table 1. This amounts to a difference of 12 million tickets sold in 1938.
Table 3: Foreign feature films exhibited in the Third Reich
Year/All features/German features/% of all features /Total US/ Total foreign
-- -- -- -—-0….......14
-- -- -- -—-0….......30
-- -- -- -—-0….......23
-- -- -- -—-0….......13
Derived from Rentschler, 1996, p106. Sourced from Boguslaw, Drewniak, deutsche Film 1938-1945. Ein Gesamptuberblick. Dusseldorf: Droste, 1987, p 814.
Analysis of the Statistics
In 1933 the numbers of tickets sold were higher than in 1932 by 7 million yet the gross income fell by 59 million Reichmarks. The reason is that possibly prices of cinema tickets are being lowered to keep audience share furthermore more people were being employed by the state on infrastructure projects thus beginning to stimulate the economy.
1934 shows that there were 82 fewer cinemas with 14 million more tickets being sold. This was the first full year the Nazis were in power. During this year more German made features were exhibited than during any other year of the Nazi regime.
The figures for 1934 show a contraction in production of the number of German films with US imports at their highest level during the Nazi period. It would appear that there was a focus upon making better quality productions and fewer films.
It was only in 1936 that box office sales finally increased over the 1929 figures despite the end of 1929 seeing the beginning of the economic depression. Furthermore the box office taking were 280 million RM compared with the 1929 273 million RM. The number of tickets sold were 362 million and 328 million respectively. On theses figures this means that 32 million more tickets were sold in 1936 which netted only another 7 million RM. This clearly indicates that tickets were cheaper in the first few years of the Nazi regime.
The discrepancy between cinema going numbers and income shows that the Nazi regime was not running cinema as a pure business venture as suggested by some commentators. Given that there were many popular entertainment films produced there seems to be a strong element of ‘bread & circuses’ involved.
We can also see that there was a considerable expansion in the number of cinemas with nearly two hundred more than in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. When we combine the audience figures with the expansion of cinema numbers with the fact that the Nazis paid quite a number of overseas ‘stars’ inflated rates of pay to keep them on board then it is clear that ideological concerns were the main priority for the film industry and entertainment was linked to this.
1939, the year the war started, there were over 1,500 more cinemas than in 1938. The number of admissions went up considerably there is a discrepancy between the figures by 178 million on the lowest estimate however there were only 11 more feature films made than in 1938.
These figures raise a number of questions: Who developed these cinemas? Where were they? Were they in areas that had previously had no local cinema? Does this provide us with an indicator of Nazi preparations for war? Does the start of the war mean that many people flocked to the cinemas to see the newsreels rather than the feature films in order to get news of the opening months of the war? If that is the case how might this information be utilised regarding theories of propaganda?
Throughout the period of the war the average percentage of German feature films being screened was well above 70%.
During the war the statistics show that the number of feature films being made in Germany dropped considerably. At the same time there were more foreign features being shown in Germany. We don’t know from the statistics where these were made. Some were certainly from Continental films the German controlled film production company based in Paris. Quite possibly some were from Vichy France.