The Weimar Era, the brief interwar period in Germany that extends from roughly 1919 to 1933 and that marks the lifespan of the fledging Weimar Republic, resulted in an extraordinary and prolific flowering of German cinema. Certain distinct characteristics of German society at the time – a pronounced sexual, artistic and social freedom coupled with the tortured aftermath of WWI, which left the German people physically and psychologically wounded and the country in economic straits – combined to produce a unique and specific cinema that straddled the silent and early sound eras. A period of great political and economic instability – of rampant inflation and unemployment – the Weimar Era was nonetheless also a time of important and all-encompassing cultural revival. Theater, music, art and architecture all flourished, with film uniquely positioned to reap the benefits of simultaneous technical achievement and artistic innovation.
A remarkable confluence of talent and opportunity characterizes Weimar cinema. Ufa, the state-run film studio, oversaw nearly all of the films during this period, with producer Erich Pommer shepherding such important films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, among dozens of others. Many of the directors and writers who would flee from Germany to Hollywood when the Nazis rose to power made their first, groundbreaking films here – F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, William Dieterle, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder and cinematographer Karl Freund among them. Their stylistic and technical innovations were profoundly influenced by the political turmoil of the time, most notably the emergence of Expressionism as a style, characterized by deeply shadowed lighting, distorted perspective and intentionally artificial sets.
Weimar cinema reflected the uncertainties and concerns of the era, articulating the ideas of a cultural moment that would come to be recognized as a hugely influential period in film history. These works are defined by the depiction of decadent nightlife, a previously unseen eroticism and unfettered sexuality – particularly in women – whose seeming sense of freedom was undercut by a vein of hopelessness that ran just below the surface, threatening to overwhelm everyone in its path. In his book on Weimar culture, Peter Gay called this attitude “a dance at the edge of a volcano,” summarizing the prevailing mood whose dark side showed itself through depictions of unrequited or thwarted love, uncontrollable criminal activity and a clash between classes and generations. Central tropes emerge in film after film – the idea of the urban environment, represented in a series of “street” films, as simultaneously threatening and enticing in its debauchery, the figure of the immature man-child fatally incapable of taking control, the emasculated male, often embodied by the brilliant actor Emil Jannings and that of the fallen woman, representing either a trap for the unsuspecting, respectable male or the victim of a ruthless society. The films in this series represent Weimar cinema at its most exciting, showcasing both well-known works by acknowledged masters such as Murnau’s The Last Laugh, Lang’s Die Nibelungen and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, and Pabst’s The Joyless Street and Westfront 1918 along with lesser-known but equally important films as Asphalt, Whither Germany? and New Year’s Eve.
Special thanks: Laurence Kardish, Justin Rigby, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Glenn KnicKrehm, Meret Peters, ConstellationCenter; Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen, Karin Oehlenschläger, Goethe Institut, Boston; Eric Rentschler.
Directed by Fritz Lang.
With Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Bernard Goetzke, Alfred Abel
Germany 1922, 35mm, b/w, silent, Part I: 153 min., Part II: 112 min.
In Lang’s seminal two-part film, the criminal mastermind Mabuse, a pure product of his time, takes advantage of the unrest of the era, wreaking havoc on the stock market and gambling tables with equal abandon. Targeting the decadence and depravity that marked the postwar period, Mabuse perpetrates crimes in a quest to be in ultimate control of the city, allowing Lang to clearly demarcate the ways in which institutional chaos can lead to tyranny. In Lang’s vision, even the police are viewed as a gang, when, in the justly famous finale, they storm Mabuse’s lair in a manner reminiscent of the postwar street clashes in which war minister Gustav Noske’s Freikorps, forerunners of the Nazi storm troops, put down the communist Spartacus uprising by murdering its leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.
Directed by Lotte Reiniger.
Germany 1926, b/w, silent, 65 min.
The earliest known surviving animated feature, Reiniger’s sublimely rendered silhouette puppet film features breathtakingly complex and enchanting animation. Based on tales from The One Thousand and One Nights, The Adventures of Prince Achmed depicts the exploits of a young prince and his flying horse. Reiniger imbues her figures with subtle yet incredibly evocative movement, lending her minutely detailed silhouettes an incredible expressivity. Working with animator Bertold Bartosch and background artist Walter Ruttman for three years in an improvised studio, Reiniger intentionally chose to animate stories that could not be told on film any other way, resulting in fantastical and imaginative animation that juxtaposes the delicacy of her figures with the physicality of their movements.
Directed by F.W. Murnau.
With Emil Jannings, Max Hiller, Maly Delschaft
Germany 1924, 35mm, b/w, silent, 85 min.
Stylistically innovative, The Last Laugh was the result of a fruitful collaboration between F.W. Murnau, screenwriter Carl Mayer, cinematographer Karl Freund and star Emil Jannings. The film marked a turning point in the types of roles played by Jannings – after playing the doorman at an upscale hotel whose identity is completely shattered when he is demoted and stripped of his authoritative uniform, from which he entire sense of self is derived, he began to specialize in roles of defeat and humiliation, including in Variety and The Blue Angel. Murnau’s inventive use of elaborate tracking shots and his unique understanding of cinematic space resulted in a highly Expressionistic and fluid camera, lending the tale of one man’s decline the depth and scope of national tragedy.
Directed by Slatan Dudow.
With Hertha Thiele, Ernst Busch, Adolf Fischer
Germany 1932, 16mm, b/w, 90 min. German with English subtitles
Based on a screenplay co-written by Bertolt Brecht, Whither Germany? is the only Weimar-era film with explicitly Communist politics. Subject to censorship upon its release and banned outright when Hitler came to power, the film depicts the concerns of a working class woman as she and her family struggle to survive, living in a true-to-life tent-city on the outskirts of town before ultimately finding fulfillment in a left-wing workers group. The influence of Russian film theory is evident in Bulgarian director Dudow’s use of montage and rapid editing to convey meaning and in Hanns Eisler’s emphatic score.
Directed by G.W. Pabst.
With Asta Nielsen, Greta Garbo, Werner Krauss
Germany 1925, 35mm, b/w, silent, 180 min.
Print from the collection of George Eastman House
Based on a best-selling novel and a huge success when it was released, The Joyless Street, which features a magnetic performance by a very young Greta Garbo, offers a stark depiction of post-WWI, inflation-driven Vienna, balancing its multi-person narrative with an exciting realism that renders the melodrama of the plot deeply moving. Taking place entirely on the street of the title, Pabst’s film juxtaposes the trials of the desperately poor with the nihilistic pleasure seeking of the moneyed class, emphasizing the intersection of public and private life in the city and making explicit the link between economic and moral ruin.
Friday December 10 at 7pm
Screening moved to Saturday, December 18
Directed by Wilhelm Thiele.
With Lillian Harvey, Willy Fritsch, Oskar Karlweis, Heinz Rühmann
Germany 1930, 35mm, b/w, 99 min. German with English subtitles
Three from the Gas Station was a hit in Germany upon its initial release as part of the first wave of German musicals in the early sound period. Like Hollywood’s Depression-era film musicals, Three From the Gas Station is based in the economic misery of the time but proposes an escapist solution. The three men of the title gather what little money they have to open a gas station. Each quickly falls in love with their favorite customer, a beautiful female motorist. The score contains songs that became popular standards, and the cast boasts a number of the stars of early sound cinema in Germany, notably Lillian Harvey and Willy Fritsch.
Directed by Fritz Lang.
With Paul Richter, Margarete Schon, Theodor Loos
Germany 1924, 35mm, b/w, silent, Part I: 141 min., Part II: 148 min.
Fritz Lang’s epic two-part saga, written by his wife Thea von Harbou and based on an ancient myth – which also inspired Wagner’s Ring cycle – is a celebration of Germanic nationalism and an idealized view of the past that Lang would ultimately reject when he fled Germany for Hollywood. For Part I, Siegfried, Lang employs a painterly style, creating symmetry of figures in elaborate, architectural tableaux of monumental proportions that speaks to the moral code that governs the hero’s actions. The intentional austerity of Part I gives way to a dynamic sense of movement in Part II, Kriemhild’s Revenge, in which the violence becomes frenzied and revenge-driven, with spectacularly staged battle sequences and special effects. Shot entirely in the Ufa studio, Lang’s incredible saga, a visually stunning work of light and shadow, with elaborate sets and meticulous production design, will be shown on two consecutive nights.
Directed by Bruno Rahn.
With Asta Nielsen, Oskar Homolka, Hilde Jennings
Germany 1927, 35mm, b/w, silent, 85 min.
Thematically similar to the other “street films” of the era, with an emphasis on the dissatisfied middle class male who ventures into the city at night searching for excitement but finding heartbreak, Tragedy sets itself apart through the devastating portrayal of an aging prostitute by silent star Asta Nielsen. Along with another, younger prostitute and their pimp, they represent the lost souls whose lives have been devoured by the city streets. Rahn emphasizes the street itself, detailing both its danger and its allure with extended shots of feet and legs hurrying along the pavement, emphasizing the dark corners where deals are made and the hauntingly beautiful shadows thrown by streetlights.
Directed by Joe May.
With Betty Amann, Gustav Frohlich, Albert Steinruck
Germany 1929, 35mm, b/w, silent, 90 min.
Director Joe May carries the Weimar-era fascination with the urban street milieu to its furthest extreme by even showing, in an extended documentary-style prologue, how the pavement itself is made and laid into roads, which are then pounded by frenzied city inhabitants. Nice guy traffic cop – tasked with controlling the chaos of the street – falls for the wrong woman, but this time May hints at redemption for the female thief and a happy ending for the couple. By masterfully manipulating the lighting and constantly moving camera, May creates a chiaroscuro effect in the street scenes and achieves a virtuosic high point by shooting a climactic act of violence through a mirror.
Directed by Leontine Sagan.
With Dorothea Wieck, Hertha Thiele, Ellen Schwanneke
Germany 1931, 35mm, b/w, 98 min. German with English subtitles
Directed by Leontine Sagan and based on a stage play by Christa Winsloe, Girls in Uniform, with its all-female cast and provocative subject matter, has always been a somewhat controversial film, open to several different readings, including as a proto-feminist and lesbian work. Centered around an emotionally fragile girl who attends a repressive, rigidly-run boarding school for the daughters of the military upper class, the film is undeniably anti-authoritarian in its politics. Sagan juxtaposes the cruelty of the staff and coldness of the institutional surroundings with the warm friendships between the teenage students who, in a clear case of youth triumphing over the repressive “old” ways, rally around their weakest member in defiance of the staff.
Directed by Karl Grune.
With Eugen Klopfer, Lucie Hoflich, Aud Egede-Nissen
Germany 1923, 16mm, b/w, silent, 74 min.
The chaotic depravity of the urban environment is dangerous enough to bring a bourgeois man to the brink of disaster in Karl Grune’s The Street, when he flees the boredom of his comfortable home and wife for the lure of the city lights. The street, both ominous and tempting, is seen encroaching on his private space when its blinking and tantalizing lights flicker on his ceiling, luring him away from the safety of the home. Grune uses light, darkness and moving shadows to create a sense of heightened reality in depicting street life, while the man’s own menacing hallucinations lend a sense of foreboding to the action.
Directed by G.W. Pabst.
With Gustav Diessl, Fritz Kampers, Hans-Joachim Moebis
Germany 1930, 16mm, b/w, 90 min. German with English subtitles
Pabst’s sharp and unyielding film about trench warfare in the last days of WWI follows a German squadron as it tries to hold its line against the French. Clearly pacifist in its intentions, the film documents the horrors of war with a constantly moving camera that dispassionately takes in the stark devastation of the battlefield. The unsparing realism of the film, along with Pabst refusal to valorize or romanticize the sacrifices of the soldiers, caused controversy on its release, and, inevitably, suppression when the Nazi’s rose to power three years later.
Directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer.
With Brigitte Borchert, Christl Ehlers, Annie Schreyer
Germany 1929, 35mm, b/w, silent, 73 min.
Made at the tail end of the silent era, People on Sunday is one of the first feature films to draw attention to the lives of the ordinary Berliners – a taxi driver, a shop girl – as they go about their Sunday recreation, utilizing a novel blend of fiction and documentary techniques that recalls the “city symphonies” of the 1920s. A film with an enormous influence on both the French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism, People was a collaboration between several filmmakers who would go on to successful Hollywood careers – Robert and Curt Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinneman, along with famed cinematographer Eugen Schufftan, who shot the film on a series of Sundays to accommodate the work schedules of the nonprofessional cast.