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November 15, 2006

Women Stars in Nazi Cinema

In 2003 Antje Aschied published Hitler’s Heroines: Stardom and Womanhood in Nazi Cinema. The hyperlinked review of the book is quite scathing about the methods behind the book arguing, correctly in my view, that there was a lack of historical contextualisation and and over-reliance on textual analysis devoid of anything else to claim that aspects of the text could be read as ruptures and disjunctures in the approach of Nazism to wards femininity.

Textual analysis is an important research tool which itself can be informed by a range of methodologies. Nevertheless there is a tension between textual and contextual which is very hard to resolve. Here Erica Carter’s excellent review article of relatively recent textual analytical approaches to film history makes the point very clearly in her summing up. Despite the excellence and usefulness of the books she is reviewing which rely upon analysis of few texts in minute detail: What however, of those methodologies from the field of film studies – genre, star and auteur studies, for instance – in which the single text is decentered and made part of larger systems of signification? (Carter, 1999, p 583).

Well it isn’t rocket science to note that there were contradictory features within Nazism indeed David Kershaw argues that Hitler deliberately encouraged competition amongst his followers on a divide and rule basis.

Only picking three stars to study seems like a flawed method if one wishes to draw conclusions about the Nazi attitude to women. The three stars in question: Kristina Soederbaum, Zarah Leander and Lilian Harvey were not true Aryans in of German stock, two being Swedish and one English. Any study would only be firmly based if comparative work was done across all the leading actresses.

Furthermore the key element of audinece is missing from the equation. As reviewer Jana Bruns scathingly and rhetorically asks:“is it conceivable, for example, that stars like Leander, Soederbaum and Harvey damaged the regime by unraveling Nazi gender essentialism and allowing viewers to align with different identities?”

Whilst textual methods of research can be extremly useful it is usually better to triangulate research across several methods. Qualitative types of audience research should be obligatory when the issues are as high stake as close analysis of the ideological functioning of Nazism and its successes and failures.

It seems worthwhile to at least contextualise a little. The position of Soederbaum is intersting to say the least. She was a star alongside Veit Harlan in the infamous rabid anti-semitic piece of direct propaganda Jud Suss which was also directed by Harlan. (Soererabum was also Harlan’s wife). The audiences were clearly so disrupted by the transgressive nature of woman that they rushed out and rescued all the Jewish women in concentration camps.

Kristina Soederbaum in Jud Suss

As if that particular piece of propaganda context were not enough Soederbaum also stars in another Veit Harlan foray into direction into direction Kolberg. Please see introduction to the film on this blog for more details.

Kristina Soederbaum in Kolberg

This was an enormous propaganda exercise which was being made in the teeth of total collapse of the regime on all military fronts. Nevertheless the propaganda value was considered so important that large number of front-line troops were used as extras and the budget was huge. From the perspective of -unraveling Nazi gender essentialism_ the issues were rather more serious for the average German with the Soviets knocking at the door of Berlin and British and American troops rapidly thrusting deep into German territory over the Rhine.

Out of the 35,000 books on the Nazi regime this one may not get to the top of the pile.


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 03, 2006

People on Sunday: Siodmak et al

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

People on Sunday

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

Robert Siodmak

Edgar G. Ulmer

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

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

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

Brigitte Borchert & Wolfgang von Waltershausen

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

The Original Mass Observation Book of 1937

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

Christl Ehlers the Film Extra

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

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

Brigitte Borchert & Wolfgang von Waltershausen Swimming

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


October 02, 2006

The Threepenny Opera

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

G. W. Pabst

Lotte Lenya

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

Kurt Weill

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

Bertolt Brecht

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

Brothel Scene with Lotte Lenya

Those should be reasons enough :-).

Fritz Arno Wagner

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

Useful link at the Senses of Cinema Site

Another link to Threepenny Opera


September 29, 2006

Weimar & Nazi Cinema Bibliography and Resources: Evaluation

Weimar and Nazi Cinema Resource Evaluation

Introduction

Any academically based site needs to have ats its heart a reliable and well mantained route into resources. Some of these sources will be signposts to highly specialised resources which may be in public or private institutions.

There are other simple resource pages consisting of a bibliography. a filmography and a webliography which are being continually updated and developed, part of your work will be to contribute to these. They are to be left as basic lists. It is in this space that comparison and evaluation will take place.

Why Evaluation

I am particularly keen to be evaluating available web resources. For somebody coming fresh to this area of study a Google search would turn up at times millions of hits on somebody like Fritz Lang. Many of these hits especially those on the first couple of web pages of a search are commercial ones.

It is important objective to turn this whole blog into a ‘virtual’ space where people from all over the globe interested in Weimar and Nazi cinema can visit. Whatever their current level of knowledge and viewing experience from ‘A’ level to postgraduate student, or non students interested in cinema, Germany, Europe their visit should be a good experience.

Course Task

One of the task for all the members of the course team is to work on developing this resource. There will be a graded annotation system from 1 – 5 stars. Before any stars are formally awarded there must be a minimum of 5 argued contributions for each entry and consensus must be reached. Prior to consensus there will be a provisional grade awarded. The key points of the argument will be set against the the entry. It will be possible to have comparative entries.

For example there can be a review of lets us say the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Fritz Lang and the Wikipedia entry on Lang. Where Wikipedia is deemed to be weaker the team may decided to edit the entry as a collaboration or else it can adress the issues by adding to work on Fritz Lang in the blog. If it is felt that the knowledge base is insuficient then a contribution via the Wiki discussion page may be entered.

This will be part of the formal tasks for the course. It will encourage independent research skills, increase the individual knowledge base, encourage collaborative learning and teamwork. Engage with Web 2 communication technologies, contribute to the global community of knowledge in a (virtual ) concrete way. It should also be fun and satisfying and give free reign to the pedant in all of us :-).

How to do this

1) If you have access to your own blog you can link into this one by linking in via the ‘blog this’ button. Alternatively you can add to the comments box which you will find below this entry. You will be able to add hyperlinks so that readers can directly access the resources that you have chosen to compare.

What can an Evaluation contain?

It would be useful if the level of assumed knowledge is identified. For example the Enclyclopedia Britannica article hyperlinked below assumes very little or no knowledge.

This book review is from an academic journal and assumes a much higher level of knowledge.

Some internet sources will also have embedded links. It would be useful if you can follow these links and make some assessment of whether they are useful and to whom they may be useful etc.

You should also comment on how well researched the resource is and you may wish to make some comments on weaknesses or strengths of the reaerch methods used.


September 27, 2006

Nosferatu

Nosferatu is going to be the first ‘real’ film to be screened on the course. It really is a great film. It’s right at the cutting edge of technology and it tried to develop visual and cinematic conventions which just didn’t catch on. Instead of using slow motion as an important visual effect it actually speeds things up!

The narrative itself is interesting, often cutting between two parallel apsects of the action. Of course the acting and the performance by Max Schreck is excellent, setting the benchmark for Draculas to come.

Nosferatu

What tends to get missed when analysing this film is the way it seems to function as an allegory for the state of Germany at the time of its making. It is a film which is reflecting and contributing to a sense of xenophobia and also anti-semitic feeling in an interactionist way. It locks into sentiments being expressed by the far right about the ‘stab in the back theory’ of betrayal by enemies amongst ‘us’. It can also be read as critique of the French occupation of the Rhineland and a reflection of the national resistance to that occupation. This is certainly one of the elements we will be discussing.


Why I Chose These Films

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

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

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

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

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

 A socialite horseracing, Berlin c 1925

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

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


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