1918 – 1933 Weimar Republic

1918–1933 Weimar Republic

Three inventors conceived up with the Tri-Ergon sound-on-film system in 1918. From 1922 to 1926, they tried to introduce the process to film production, and UFA showed an interest, but, possibly due to financial difficulties, never made a sound film.  In the period immediately following World War I, the film industry boomed, helped by the 1920s German inflation. This enabled film makers to borrow money in Papiermark which would be vastly devalued by the time it had to be repaid. Nevertheless, film budgets were tight and the need to save money was a contributing factor to the rise of German Expressionism, as was the desire to move forward and embrace the future that swept most of Europe at the time. Expressionist movies relied heavily on symbolism and artistic imagery rather than stark realism to tell their stories. Given the grim mood in post-WWI Germany, it was not surprising that these films focused heavily on crime and horror. The film usually credited with sparking the popularity of expressionism is Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). It painted a picture on the cinema screen with non-realistic sets built with exaggerated geometry, images painted on the floors and walls to represent objects (and often light and shadow), and a story involving the dark hallucinations of an insane man. An exaggerated acting style and unnatural costume design are other trademarks of this movement. Other notable works of Expressionism are Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), and Carl Boese and Paul Wegener’s The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920). The Expressionist movement died down during the mid-1920s, but it continued to influence world cinema for years afterward. Its influence is particularly noticeable in American horror films and film noir, and the works of European directors as diverse as Jean Cocteau and Ingmar Bergman.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

UFA had been privatised in 1921 by a sale of the state’s holdings to the Deutsche Bank and had become the mainstay of an industry that produced up to 600 feature films a year in the 1920s. In addition to UFA, there were some 230 film companies in business in Berlin alone at this time. However, film industry financing was a fragile business in the unstable economy of the Weimar Republic, and this, coupled with the industry’s tendency to overreach itself financially (such as in the production of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), perhaps the most famous German film of this period), frequently led to bankruptcies and financial ruin. UFA itself was forced to go into a disadvantageous partnership called Parufamet with the American studios Paramount and MGM in 1925 before being taken over by the nationalistindustrialist and newspaper owner Alfred Hugenberg in 1927. The company’s financial travails did not prevent it from producing numerous significant films throughout this period, among them, Ernst Lubitsch’s Madame Du Barry (1919), Lang’s epic production of Die Nibelungen, and Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1925), and the development of the studios at Babelsberg, originally established in 1912 but later taken over by UFA and expanded massively to accommodate the filming ofMetropolis, gave the German film industry a highly developed infrastructure. Babelsberg was at the centre of German filmmaking for several years, “the German equivalent to Hollywood”.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

In addition to developments in the industry itself, the Weimar period saw the birth of film criticism as a serious discipline whose practitioners included Rudolf Arnheimin Die Weltbühne and in Film als Kunst (1932), Béla Balázs in Der Sichtbare Mensch (1924), Siegfried Kracauer in the Frankfurter Zeitung, and Lotte H. Eisner in the Filmkurier.

Der Sichtbare Mensch
Der Sichtbare Mensch

After the influence of Expressionism began to wane a variety of other genres and styles developed in the 1920s. Movies influenced by New Objectivity with socially concerned themes and a return to realism, among them films by Georg Wilhelm Pabst such as Joyless Street (Die Freudlose Gasse) (1925), Pandora’s Box (1929), and The Loves of Jeanne Ney became widespread in the later 1920s. The movement is best characterized by tendency to understand reality and characters in terms of inanimate objects and personal possessions. Often associated with “street films.” The influence of New Objectivity may also be seen in the trend towards so-called “asphalt” and “morality” films which dealt with “scandalous” subjects like abortion, prostitution, homosexuality, oral sex and addiction. Contrastingly, in the same period the genre of the Bergfilm was also developed, mainly by the director Arnold Fanck, in which individuals were shown battling against nature in the mountains.Animators and directors of experimental film such as Lotte Reiniger, Oskar Fischinger and Walter Ruttmann were also very active in Germany in the 1920s. Ruttman’s experimental documentary Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927) epitomises the energy of 1920s Berlin. The polarised politics of the Weimar period were also reflected in some its movies. A series of patriotic films on Prussian history starring Otto Gebühr as Frederick the Great were produced throughout the 1920s and were popular with the nationalist right-wing, who strongly criticised the “asphalt” films’ “decadence”.

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt
Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt

Many of the films during that came out of Germany at this time were historical spectacles designed to pull in a large crowd and international release all while adhering to a smaller budget. Ernst Lubitsch’s Madame DuBarry explored the French revolution through window of the intimate life of King Louis’ mistress. Many of his films tended to how the intimate and petty passions of the rich and powerful are ironically responsible for huge historical events in the public realm.

Madame du Barry movie poster

The fourth key artistic movement of German cinema at this time was that of Kammerspiel or “chamber drama.” Associated in particular with the screenwriter Carl Meyer and films such as Murnau’s Last Laugh, this movement was in many ways a reaction against spectacle and expressionism. These films tended to revolve around ordinary people living in often dreary, ordinary settings. Often called “instinct” films because they emphasized the impulses and intimate psychology of the characters. The number of sets was often kept to a small number as well. This movement also relied heavily on the use of camera movements to explore the rather intimate and simple spaces.

The film genre, which emerged in 1920s Berlin, was named after the chamber theatre built by Deutsches Theater director Max Reinhardt. With its modest and intimate set design, ‘chamber theatre’ was a concept conceived with the aim of creating unity between the stage and audience.
The film genre, which emerged in 1920s Berlin, was named after the chamber theatre built by Deutsches Theater director Max Reinhardt. With its modest and intimate set design, ‘chamber theatre’ was a concept conceived with the aim of creating unity between the stage and audience.

The arrival of sound at the very end of the 1920s produced a final artistic flourish of German film before the collapse of the Weimar Republic in 1933. Sound production and distribution were quickly taken up by the German film industry and by 1932 Germany had 3,800 cinemas equipped to play sound films. Der blaue Engel (1930) by the Austrian director Josef von Sternberg was Germany’s first talkie (shot simultaneously in German and English) and made an international star of Marlene Dietrich. Other early sound films of note include Berlin Alexanderplatz, Pabst’s Bertolt Brecht adaptation The Threepenny Opera and Lang’s M (all 1931) as well as Hochbaum’s Razzia in Sankt Pauli & produced by Justin Rosenfeld (1932). Brecht was also one of the creators of the explicitly communist film Kuhle Wampe(1932), which was banned soon after its release.

Fritz Lang’s “M”

Aside from the major movements already addressed, German filmmakers at this time were known as innovators for their creative usage of Mise-en-scene and camera movement.


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