Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary
FFC rating: 9/10
by Thomas Elsaesser
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover All together now: German cinema between the wars irrationally reflected the fears of the times. It mirrored the decadence of the period and was closely linked with the irrationalism of German romanticism. It directly prefigured the rise of Hitler and the flight of the country's important directors during the Nazi era, which both condemned Germany to hack propaganda and gave America the gift of film noir.
Well, not quite. According to Thomas Elsaesser, the discourse on Weimar and Nazi-era cinema has become so certain, and so over-simplified, that a great number of facts, influences, and industrial imperatives have become obscured. His book Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary attempts to give a deeper and more nuanced view of German film than the auteurist idolatry and pseudo-sociological assumptions that have marked writing on the period. By following through pre-Weimar influences and the commercial motives behind adopting styles, this ambitious and meticulously researched volume serves as a cold slap in the face to everyone who thought they knew Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau, and the whole menacing morass that was German Expressionism.
Elsaesser kicks things off by scrutinizing the two books that have dominated our understanding of Weimar cinema: Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler and Lotte Eisner's The Haunted Screen. He notes that the thrust of the two books--"in Kracauer, a demonstrable relation between Weimar films, social upheaval, and Nazism; in Eisner, the demonstrable relation between German Romanticism, Expressionist films, and Nazism"--comes from their positions as intellectuals in exile trying to serve as mediators between a hated national identity and a suspicious audience of non-German readers. What they came up with were two separate "imaginaries"--in the case of Eisner, a "tradition" leading to "German Expressionism" and in Kracauer, an "anti-tradition" leading to "Weimar cinema"--which simultaneously contradict and feed off each other. While Elsaesser is far from dismissing them, he offers enough bones of contention that they seem less the defining works they once did.
In any event, the fixation on Caligari and his chiaroscuro'd brethren obscures many other threads in the cinema landscape of Weimar and Nazi Germany. There is the influence of the operetta--an aristocratically despised genre that nevertheless undergirds much of Lubitsch as well as a host of other German films. In his exploration of screenwriter Walter Reisch, Elsaesser debates the relative merits of subversive potential in this conservative (and, in time, Nazified) form that is fascinating.
The book also dispels the myth of apparent supremacy of Leni Riefenstahl's method, pointing out that she never made a movie after Olympiad largely because she was too avant-garde for the masses. Elsaesser argues that actual propaganda was most often "lifestyle propaganda," offering the public the vicarious prosperity and modernity that Hitler was promising in place of certain other freedoms. And a long chapter is devoted to Erich Pommer, who brought together a host of competing film companies into the vast conglomerate UFA, and notes the impact that the rationalization of such chaos had on UFA's films.
In addition, there are several brilliant revisitings of classics and auteurs from a decidedly post-structural perspective. There is a Marxist-feminist perspective on Pandora's Box in which the film's doomed, amoral heroine defies patriarchal authority by making a "purchase" to "break the vicious cycle between (bourgeois) production and (maternal) reproduction." Murnau's oeuvre is discussed in terms of outward manipulation of UFA's technological apparatus and inward exploration of his homosexuality; Lang's Dr. Mabuse, der Speller is read as both an examination and example of the newly visual culture of broadsheet journalism and cinema, establishing the look as "locus of power." Thus these films and directors are slotted into industrial, political and cultural points of contact that make them less sui-generis than they might seem.
Most importantly, this is a book not only about the production of a cinema, but also the production of an understanding of a cinema: Weimar Cinema and After offers plenty of lore on the reception and canonization of certain films. This ranges from the acceptance-on-faith of Kracauer and Eisner, the marginalization of pop forms like the operetta and Reinhardt Schuntzel comedies, and the examination of the social forces that created the period's best-known classics. (There is also the matter of Pandora's Box, a scorching failure on release, saved years later by New Wave den-mother Henri Langlois and his Louise Brooks fetish.)
All of this cultural map-making forces us to think twice about the absoluteness of our own decisions and shows us how much history, culture, and dumb luck wind up deciding who survives and who passes into obscurity. The book is a fantastic starting place for understanding a period of German cinema in addition to our own assumption-making process and the forces that shape it.
480 pages; September, 2000; ISBN: 0415012341; Routledge