The Beginning of German Cinema

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From masterpieces of silent cinema to the post-war Golden Age and the New Cinema of the 1970s, German cinema has been one of the most innovative and vibrant in the world.

The first picture-houses to appear in Germany were little more than converted shops with a sheet hung on one wall, but at the turn of the 20th Century the first custom designed cinemas were being built throughout the country, mostly showing imported British and French films. The first German film to be reviewed by the press, and taken seriously as a piece of art, was Max Mack’s 1913 melodrama The Other One, based on a well known play. The establishment of the first industrial-scale German film studio UFA gave a base for emerging film talent including Ernst Lubisch, who made his technically dazzling Madame Dubarry for the studio in 1918. UFA’s roster of directors also included a young Alfred Hitchcock, who learned his craft while making The Blackguard in Berlin in 1924.

A young Alfred Hitchcock on the set of "The Blackguard".
A young Alfred Hitchcock on the set of “The Blackguard”.

After the First World War, German cinema began to produce its own films, as the more liberal culture of the Weimar republic triggered an explosion of output across all the arts. Filmmakers responded to the new freedoms by incorporating the techniques of expressionist art and avant-garde theatre to produce macabre stories of madness and dread at the beginnings of what would be known as the horror film. With its skeletal make-up, tattered costumes and visually distorted black and white sets, Robert Wiene’s 1920 The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was at the vanguard of what became known as German Expressionism and is regarded as a landmark in international cinema. Two years later, F.W. Murnau made an unauthorised adaptation of Irish writer Bram Stoker’s Dracula entitled Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror with Max Schrek as the rat-like vampire Count Orlock, capturing some of the most frightening, and enduring, images of cinematic horror ever filmed. The film was almost lost when Stoker’s widow Florence sued the production company for copyright infringement and, as part of the settlement, requested that every print of the film be destroyed. One copy, shipped to the United States, survived the judgement and was duplicated over the years. Two decades later, the ominous shadows and stark storylines of Expressionism would be a major influence on the emerging film noir genre in Hollywood.

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Almost a century later, it’s difficult to appreciate the influence Wiene and Murnau had on world cinema. Wiene went on to make an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment entitled Roskolnikow in 1923 that was the first genuine German blockbuster. Murnau delivered a series of authentic silent masterpieces, starting with 1924s The Last Laugh (the first film shot from the point of view of the protagonist) and his last German-made film Faust (1926), adapted from Goethe’s play about a man who makes a deal with the devil. Later that year, Murnau emigrated to the United States where he joined Fox studios and, in 1928, made Sunrise, regularly cited by film scholars as one of the greatest films ever made. Sunrise was not a success at the box office but shared the Academy Award for Best Film with William A. Wellman’s WWI action movie Wings at the first Academy Awards presentation in 1929.

Clara Bow in Wings (1929).
Clara Bow in Wings (1929).

At the same time as Murnau was making his name in Hollywood (it was a short career, he died in a car crash 1931) Fritz Lang was putting together the most ambitious, most expensive and most influential silent film of all time in Germany. Cited as the first science-fiction film, and heavily influenced by the new Communist thinking of Marx and Engels, Metropolis tells the story of a futuristic city, divided between workers and managers, where a scientist attempts to create a robot that will maintain the city. Savagely cut by censors and distributors from its original 210 minute running time, an almost complete version of the still-astonishing film was discovered in a Buenos Aires archive in 2008. Lang followed the success of Metropolis with his extraordinary M, starring Peter Lorre as a serial killer preying on children in an unnamed German city.

"The Blue Angel" directed by Josef Von Sterberg starring Marlene Dietrich.
“The Blue Angel” directed by Josef Von Sterberg starring Marlene Dietrich.

At the beginning of the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s, an entire generation of German filmmakers fled the country for Hollywood, including Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann. Before they too left, never to return, director Josef von Sternberg cast Marlene Dietrich in her first starring role, and first talking movie, The Blue Angel, which played to captivated audiences around the world. Dietrich would go on to become one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. After Hitler came to power in 1933, the last remaining talent left the country, including Ernst Lubitsch, Michael Curtiz and Douglas Sirk. All would become world-famous filmmakers in Hollywood. The only filmmaker to remain in Germany, former actress Leni Riefenstahl, would become infamous for her Nazi-approved documentaries Triumph of the Will and Olympia, which venerated the imperial iconography of the Third Reich while attempting to make gods of its leaders. After the war, the shattered film industry was almost entirely shut down, with the newly-divided Germany struggling to form any kind of artistic expression. One of the few international successes was former actor Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 anti-war film The Bridge, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1960 Academy Awards.

Werner Herzog's "Das Boot"
Werner Herzog’s “Das Boot”

The fervent political and social atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s in West Germany was reflected in an outpouring of radical cinema that emerged in what would become known as the New Cinema. Influenced by the French New Wave and working with low-budgets, found locations and innovative technicians, the New Cinema saw the emergence of a generation of exciting filmmakers including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wender and Volker Schlondorff, among others. Working under the banner “Old Film Is Dead”, these filmmakers set about rebuilding and revitalising German cinema, One of the first films to make an international impact was Herzog’s extraordinary 1972 South American saga Aguirre, Wrath of God which had Klaus Kinski play a half-mad conquistador sailing down the Amazon in search of El Dorado. Herzog went on to make more than fifty films, documentaries and television dramas and is one of world cinema’s most acclaimed and respected directors.

Werner Herzog's "Aguirre: Wrath of God" (1972)
Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre: Wrath of God” (1972)

In 1974 Fassbinder released his gut-wrenching drama Fear Eats the Soul, which told the story of a love that blossoms between a young Moroccan emigrant and a middle-aged German housewife. Fassbinder shot the film in 15 days on a minimal budget as an exercise in making a film with materials on hand but the film was acclaimed as a masterpiece and won both the FIPRESCI and Ecumenical Jury prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. The controversial Fassbinder was nothing if not productive and continued to release film after film throughout the 70s and 80s (sometimes as many as three in a year), with his masterpiece being arguably 1979’s The Marriage of Maria Braun, which suggest the moral decadence of the era had its roots in the collapse of German society after WWII. Fassbinder died in 1982, at the age of 37. Also in 1979, Schlondorff was to win the Palme d’Or for his adaptation of Gunther Grass’s novel The Tin Drum, which was distributed internationally to commercial and critical acclaim.

The Tin Drum is a 1979 film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Günter Grass. It was directed and co-written by Volker Schlöndorff. Stylistically, it is a surrealistic black comedy.
The Tin Drum is a 1979 film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Günter Grass. It was directed and co-written by Volker Schlöndorff. Stylistically, it is a surrealistic black comedy.

In 1974, Wenders released Alice in the Cities, the first in his road-movie trilogy which also include 1975s The Wrong Move and 1976s Kings of the Road. His 1977 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novel The American Friend, starring Dennis Hopper, would bring him to international attention, followed by a series of acclaimed films including 1984s Paris Texas, 1987s Wings of Desire and 1999s documentary The Buena Vista Social Club. Following the critical and commercial success of his extraordinarily tense WWII U-Boat epic Das Boot in 1981, Wolfgang Petersen followed in the footsteps of the German émigré directors of sixty years before and decamped to Hollywood, where he would enjoy success with a long series of action films including 1993s In the Line of Fire and 2000s The Perfect Storm.  Petersen was joined by Roland Emmerich, whose 1990 student film Moon 44 brought him to the attention of Hollywood producers who enlisted the young director to make a series of commercial science-fiction blockbusters including 1994s Stargate, 1996s Independence Day and 2004s The Day After Tomorrow.

he Perfect Storm is a 2000 biographical disaster drama film directed by Wolfgang Petersen.
he Perfect Storm is a 2000 biographical disaster drama film directed by Wolfgang Petersen.

The collapse of communism and the end of the cold war reunited Germany and brought about a long period of rethinking the German national cinema. One of the first films to address the new, reunified Germany was, oddly, a comedy. Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film Goodbye Lenin! tells the story of a young man pretending that East Germany still exists in order to placate his ill, elderly mother. The following year, Oliver Hirschbiegel directed Downfall, a lacerating account of Hitler’s final days in his bunker in Berlin featuring an extraordinary performance by Bruno Ganz as the defeated dictator. In 2006 Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck made his debut writing and directing The Lives of Others, an excoriating story of how the communist East German state attempt to destroy the lives of a radical playwright and his actress wife. Von Donnersmarck won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 2006, among a host of international gongs. The country’s troubled past also cast a dark shadow across Austrian director Michael Haneke’s superb Palme d’Or winning The White Ribbon, which studied the roots of Nazism in a parable about a group of children in a small German village before WWI.

"Run Lola Run" directed by Tom Tykwer (1998)
“Run Lola Run” directed by Tom Tykwer (1998)

(All text from http://www.volta.ie/articles/a-short-history-of-german-cinema)

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