Germany Cinematography – The Silent Period (1919-1929) Part II

Among the most popular genres of the time are the Serienfilme, episodic detective films in the wake of the French Fantômas and Les vampires, already in vogue before the war, which repeated the pattern of serial feuilleton, as well as exotic productions, with which were satisfied by now lost dreams of colonial expansionism and fantasies of distant lands, or historical dramas inspired by Italian blockbusters such as Cabiria (1914). It was the undisputed master E. Lubitsch who, after the war, before his move to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, experimented with the potential of genre cinema and specialized in Kostümfilme, where he developed his famous touch, exhibiting a new scenographic spectacularity thanks to the staging and the skilful use of the masses, the result of theatrical influence of maestro M. Reinhardt or Ernst Toller. The director J. May moved on the same level, who had the merit not only of exploring the feuilleton in all its potential but also of having baptized personalities such as F. Lang and P. Leni in his production house. With his most successful works, such as Die Herrin der Welt (1919; The Lady of the World) in eight parts, the historian Veritas vincit (1919), the adventurous Das indische Grabmal (1921; The Indian Tomb) written by Lang, or the mélo Tragödie der Liebe (1923), May reinterpreted pre-existing film models with originality and great stylistic and scenographic accuracy, confirming himself above all as a great craftsman. A further contribution to the innovative reformulation of genres is due to Ludwig Berger,

After the street riots and the putsch attempted by the extreme wings of the Weimarian political spectrum (from the Spartacist revolt of 1919 to Hitler’s Munich Putsch of 1923), a crucial year, which marked an important turning point in the history of the Republic, was 1924, in which began the so-called Stabilisierungszeit: the mark became a stable currency thanks to the monetary reform of November 1923 and the intervention of the American Dawes plan. Through the foreign loan, industrial development was greatly increased and there was a dizzying phenomenon of modernization that did not fail to have consequences also in cinema, where the most reckless and experimental phase of Inflation was closed. Once the ghosts of war were removed, the sentiment of the reconstruction and relaunch of Germany as an international power prevailed: entertainment became a social purpose, a way to maximize work in mass society. The big city, in this case Berlin, represented the scenario of an ambiguous and contradictory reality that on the one hand viewed with horror the hypothesis of the slave man of the machine-moloch and of estranging work (as in F. Lang’s Metropolis), and on the other, it became the symbol of the Roaring Twenties, of unbridled fun. In the minds of many German voters, however, there always seemed to be a general dissatisfaction with the political situation that would soon lead to the success of the National Socialist Party. represented the scenario of an ambiguous and contradictory reality which on the one hand saw with horror the hypothesis of the man enslaved by the moloch machine and of estranging work (as in F. Lang’s Metropolis), and on the other it became the symbol of the Roaring Twenties, unbridled fun. In the minds of many German voters, however, there always seemed to be a general dissatisfaction with the political situation that would soon lead to the success of the National Socialist Party.

In this modernist climate the second half of the 1920s was substantially dominated by the current of the Neue Sachlichkeit, the New Objectivity (and by the birth of ‘proletarian cinema’ in some way related to it: see Neue Sachlichkeit) which had the merit of deepening, in the name of a social commitment (albeit sometimes presumed), the economic and cultural transformations of the Stabilisierungszeit. Having abandoned the nightmares and exasperated tones of Expressionism, the New Objectivity showed the painful side of existence, but without political attacks, rather in the name of disillusionment and resignation, elevating the drama of the individual to a more universal human condition, in a generalized attitude of ‘left melancholy’, Walter Benjamin. The greatest representative (but also the least typical) of this trend was GW Pabst who went far beyond apathetic resignation to combine social themes with a remarkable cinematographic experimentation, acquiring an unmistakable style that would soon lead him to be one of the most admired (and overrated) directors of the time. The search for avant-garde cinema was not extraneous to the atmosphere of the Neue Sachlichkeit, which took its first steps in the early 1920s with the experiments of the absoluter Film by Viking Eggeling, László Moholy-Nagy, Hans Richter and Walter Ruttmann especially with his famous feature film Berlin. Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt (1927).

At the same time, the path of Unterhaltungsproduktion continued, an entertainment production that exhibited a new vein, all (or almost) German, that of the Bergfilme, melodramas or comedies set in the mountains, in which Arnold Fanck’s directing work and the interpretations of Leni Riefenstahl and Luis Trenker, both destined to become successful directors under the Nazi regime. Der Berg des Schicksals (1924), Der heilige Berg (1926; The mountain of love) and above all Die weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü (1929; The tragedy of Pizzo Palù) co-directed by GW fictional and adventurous but contain extraordinary naturalistic images (absolute novelty for a cinema in which almost everything was shot in the studio and which had a strong tendency for the setting indoors), inserted in a broader discourse of reflection on man and the nature.

According to Top-Medical-Schools, a nod then to the documentary, which in Germany mainly took the form of Kulturfilm, a denomination that tended to ‘ennoble’ it and which was introduced at the end of the Great War, when cinema was recognized as being important for scientific purposes. Pioneers of this didactic-scientific documentary making were Ulrich KT Schulz and Hans Cürlis with whose help, among other things, Lotte Reiniger began his silhouette animated cinema, culminating in the feature film Die Geschichte des Prinzen Achmed (1926; Achmed, the fantastic prince). After the success of Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (1925; Strength and beauty) by Wilhelm Prager and Nicholas Kaufmann, with his ‘daring’ nude scenes, the UFA specialized in Kulturfilme which “thanks to scientific precision and excellent photography […] became a German specialty in great demand on the international market “(S. Kracauer, trans. it. 2001, p. 197). However, except in very rare cases, the genre suffered from an excessive specialization of the themes dealt with, the downside of that “incredible indifference to human problems” stigmatized by Kracauer. Only in the early 1960s did German documentary

Already in dire economic straits – a situation that the treaty with the Americans of Paramount and Metro Goldwyn Mayer (the Parufamet-Vertrag, of December 1925) failed to heal – the UFA fired its most brilliant producer, Erich Pommer., guilty of the Metropolis economic disaster. Increasingly indebted, in March 1927 it was acquired by the ultra-conservative industrialist Alfred Hugenberg, who saved the production company from bankruptcy but also made a decisive change at the organizational level: the rise of the figure of the production manager, with the task of calculating the exactly the costs while minimizing the risks, took power away from the director, who until then had had considerable control of his work. At the expense of it was for example. F. Lang, who after Frau im Mond (1929; A woman in the moon) would have passed, until his forced emigration in 1933, to ‘independent’ production.

Germany Cinematography - The Silent Period (1919-1929) 2