German Cinema, 1920-1930

by Eike Kronshage

The beginning of German cinema is very often said to be February 27, 1920: the premiere of Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (cf. Kracauer 65-66; Eisner 17-26; Ott 52). For earlier times it is often stated by critics, that Germany had no film industry of its own (Kracauer 15). As the suggestive title of Siegfried Kracauer’s book on German cinema, From Caligari to Hitler, indicates, this development found its definite end in 1933, when Hitler became German ‘Reichskanzler’. With the beginnings of German expressionist cinema in 1920 and the definite end in 1933 the short period of highly productive German filmmaking therefore almost completely coincides with the time of the Weimar Republic and is therefore often called ‘Weimar cinema.’

Two major branches can be distinguished in film from that period, the one being highly ‘romantic’, the other one genuinely ‘modern’. While the romantic branch gets its inspiration mainly in fantastical romantic literature (mainly in E.T.A. Hoffmann, E.A.Poe, Bram Stoker, but also in Richard Wagner), the modern branch acquits itself of the commitment to literature and begins to articulate own themes, such as the growth of cities, social differences of the post-war period, inflation, the rise of European fascism, technological progress, or the development of sexuality. The most prominent German directors from that period, namely Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Georg Wilhelm Pabst, made films in the romantic tradition in the early 1920ies, but would turn to the modern branch entirely in the late 1920s.

The Romantic Tradition

The influence of romanticism on early German expressionist cinema can be seen in all parts of filmmaking. Not only are approximately nine out of ten films until 1924 more or less based on romantic literature, and make extensive use of the most common romantic topoi such as the Doppelgänger or the mad genius motif, they also utilise a highly romantic framing, inspired by romantic painters like Caspar David Friedrich (cf. Eisner 106-109). On location shots of breathtaking landscapes alternate with the highly artificial studio shots of geometrically absurd sets, such as ear-like staircases, dangerously tilted buildings, painted shadow and light, magnified doors and windows etc. Furthermore they used purely cinematic techniques, like double exposure, slow motion, and shot-by-shot-tricks to create an atmosphere of non-realism, bringing fantastical, eerie, and hypnotic pictures to life. Their genuinely cinematic elements mingle with elements from romanticism and create films that later on influenced whole genres, like the film noir or the horror film.

The Modern Branch

However, the commercially successful expressionist branch was short-lived. Already the titles of the most important films from the second half of the 1920s indicate new topics, like for example the growing significance of the city: Pabst’s Die Freudlose Gasse [Joyless Streets] (1925), Lang’s Metropolis (1927), or Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Symphonie der Großstadt [Berlin: Symphony of a Great City; co-directed by young Samuel ‘Billy’ Wilder] (1927). With the one notable exception of Murnau’s Faust. Eine deutsche Volkssage [Faust. A German Folk Tale] (1926) almost no films of the period between 1925 and 1930 dwell on romantic topics any longer. A parallel development can be seen in German literature at that point. The growing of cities, the rise of fascism in Germany, and the very general increase in speed exert their influence on both literature and film: Formal experiments get more radical, as in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) (picturized in 1931 with the screenplay written by Döblin himself), Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1931), or in Ruttmann’s Symphonie; socio-political and existential questions become more important, as in Erich Kästner’s Fabian, Thomas Mann’s Mario und der Zauberer (1929), Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (1927) or in Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann; and finally technological progress becomes an important matter for and is challenged in both literature and film, as for example in Lang’s Metropolis, Lang’s Die Frau im Mond [The Girl in the Moon] (1929), or Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues (1929) [All Quiet on the Western Front].

It is first with the Nazis that the romantic tradition gets revived (with films like Josef von Báky’s Münchhausen (1943), Helmut Weiss’ Die Feuerzangenbowle (1944) or even with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (1935), that uses Hellenistic and neo-classical images). Film after the takeover is entirely a subject of the ‘Reichsfilmkammer’, that was part of the ‘Reichskulturkammer’, with Joseph Goebbels as its president. Whoever wanted to shot films had to become a member of the RFK. Subsequently most of the directors, with the one notable exception of Pabst, left Germany and continued their work in Hollywood.


Works Cited:

Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler. A Psychological History of German Film. 1947. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Eisner, Lotte. The Haunted Screen. Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. 1952. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969.

Ott, Frederick. The Great German Films. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1986.

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