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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

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 04, 2006

Kuhle Wampe or Who Owns the World? Brecht and Weimar Cinema

*Kuhle Wampe or Who Owns the World *1932 Dir Slatan Dudow

Screenplay by Bertolt Brecht

The music is by Hans Eisler. follow the link to listen to a brief extract.

Hans Eisler

More extracts from Eisler’s radical music can be found here

The discordant and militant music within the score emphasises the harshness of the city environment where mass unemployment is the norm. Every day the men gather with thier bicycles near the river hoping to hear of a job. It is literally survival of the fittest as the men cycle desparately when they hear of a hint of a job.

Kuhle Wampe Bicycles

The film was probably the only directly communist film made during this period. Unemployment was still rising in 1932 towards its maximum of 8 million people. The spring and summer of 1932 was an important electoral time as there were both Reichstag and Presidential elections in that year. It was in the early summer that Hitler and the Nazis gained their highest vote of over 13 million people. By November their vote was on the wane as hints of economic recovery began to relieve the pressure.

For all the solidarity heartily sung for at the end of the film by several thousand communist youth the fact that the KPD and the Social Democrats were unable to combine their strength eventually was a causal factor in the rise of Hitler to power.

Unlike the Threepenny Opera which Brecht had lost control of falling out with Pabst and leaving the film with a sour taste in the air between himself and Weill, Brecht had firm control of the script and style of the film-making.


October 02, 2006

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

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

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

Economic crisis in the Weimar

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

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

Expressionism

Lil Dagover & Conrad Veidt inThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Werner Krauss as Dr Caligari

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

Nosferatu: The Vampyr is killed by the light

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bocklin

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

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

A recent book Expressionist Film New Perspectives

Neue Sachlichkeit

Metropolis by George Grosz

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

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

Rudolf Schichter depicting cafe society

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

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

Neue Sacklichkeit 1

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

Neue Sacklichkeit 2 The Political Edge

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

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

Neue Sachlichkeit Phot by August Sander Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photomantage by John Heartfield

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

Greta Garbo & Grigori Chmara in Pabst

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

Louise Brooks & Franz Lederer in Pabst

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

From Pabst West Front 1918

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

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


September 27, 2006

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.


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