While Hollywood was the hotbed of filmmaking, especially in the 1920s and 1930s (when there was the absolute major output of featured film in the history of the American film industry), on the other side of the ocean, Berlin and Germany established themselves as the centre of experimental cinema.
Although the German cinema started at the very end of the 1800s, it really exploded after WWI. Because it was especially prominent between 1920 (when The Cabinet of Dr Caligaris was released) and the rise of the Nazis to power (1933), which is also the span of the Weimar Republic, this is also known as Weimar Cinema.
The Weimar Republic was a mind-blowing – if ill-fated – social and political experiment. It manifested unprecedented freedom of expression for many minorities and for women, it dominated in the arts and the sciences, but it was also plagued by political and economic instability. Among these were the huge war reparations Germany was supposed to pay (which in 1923 led to the hyperinflation) and the rise of a particularly strong totalitarian party destined to take in its hand the fate of the nation… and not just.
The artistic vitality was particularly evident in the film industry, which, if on the one hand, expressed a romantic, even fantastic vain, on the other, explored the essence of modern life. This more modern vein of German cinema explored the growth of cities, postwar social differences, the rise of the European fascism, technological progress and the shift in sexual roles. Avant-garde at its highest.
But it also had to cope with the lack of funds. Unable to afford Hollywood’s huge sets, lavish customs and expensive props, German filmmakers had to find alternative ways to convey atmosphere, mood and emotions. They found their language in Expressionism, which born before the war, saw its highest moment in the interwar years and it was a way to suggest what couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be openly said.
Weimar cinema sought to address contemporary issues. Its themes were a lot darker than Hollywood’s: crime, immorality, social decay and the destructive power of money and technology. WWI had left the German people physically and psychologically wounded and the country in a dire economic situation. Born in the aftermath of the war, these films depicted a decadent nightlife, a previously unseen eroticism and unfettered sexuality – particularly in women, whose sense of freedom was nonetheless undercut by a vein of hopelessness just below the surface. Unrequited and thwarted love, uncontrollable criminal activity and the clash between the classes and the generations were foremost film material. The idea of the urban environment simultaneously threatening and enticing; the figure of the immature man-child fatally incapable of taking control; the emasculated male, the fallen woman were all fair games.
The language of the Expressionist style, characterised by deeply shadowed lighting, distorted perspectives and intentionally artificial sets, was perfect for this message. It wasn’t a direct relay of reality, rather it was a filter, a way to express on screen the messy feelings of a vital but problematic time. Sex morality, depression, veterans ghoulishly mangled by war, the loss of innocence and the complete rejection of the past were the issues the German people dealt with in the postwar period. Films like M explore ethics in a very complex, layered way. Films like Metropolis expose the injustice embedded in a society that accepts that not all people are equal. It was only a matter of time before this kind of cinema attracted the wrong kind of attention from the Nazi government.
Many directors and writers who first made their groundbreaking films in Germany were forced to flee when the Nazi Party rose to power. A great number of them poured to Hollywood, where they could find a job they knew how to do.
And soon, Hollywood realised these German cinematographers who had come from the other side of the world possessed the language to express the rising anxiety American society was experiencing.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligaris (1921) by Robert Wiene
At a carnival in Germany, Francis (Friedrich Feher) and his friend Alan (Rudolf Lettinger) encounter the crazed Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). The men see Caligari showing off his somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a hypnotized man who the doctor claims can see into the future. Shockingly, Cesare then predicts Alan’s death, and by morning his chilling prophecy has come true — making Cesare the prime suspect. However, is Cesare guilty, or is the doctor controlling him?
Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang
This influential German science-fiction film presents a highly stylized futuristic city where a beautiful and cultured utopia exists above a bleak underworld populated by mistreated workers. When the privileged youth Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) discovers the grim scene under the city, he becomes intent on helping the workers. He befriends the rebellious teacher Maria (Brigitte Helm), but this puts him at odds with his authoritative father (Google synospis)
M (1931) by Fritz Lang
Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a serial killer who preys on children, becomes the focus of a massive Berlin police manhunt. Beckert’s heinous crimes are so repellant and disruptive to city life that he is even targeted by others in the seedy underworld network. With both cops and criminals in pursuit, the murderer soon realizes that people are on his trail, sending him into a tense, panicked attempt to escape justice. But when he is finally put to trial, his defence poses unexpected ethic questions. (Google synopsis)
The Modernism Lab at Yale University – German Cinema Between 1920 and 1930
Alpha History – Weimar Cinema
Harvard Film Archive – Decadent Shadows: the Cinema of Weimar Germany
Lacma Unfraimed – Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s
Mubi – German Expressionism: the world of light and shadow
You’re an amazing writer. Your blog is fabulous 365 days a year, but you always take it to a new level during the A2Z Challenge.
Much hat’s off to you!!
Aww, Mee. Now I’m all blushing.
But actually the subject matter is quite inspiring 😉
Hi I’m participating in the A to Z Challenge too, and I live in Chicago! I had never heard of Weimar before and learned a lot. Look forward to your future posts!
Hi Shawna, thanks for stopping by 🙂
I’m happy you liked the post. I think Weimar is one of the most fascinating places conteporary history can offer. So much going on that is relevant to what we (Europeans) are today.
There is so much about Film Noir that your posts are teaching me. I am looking forward to watch all these movies once the challenge is over. Reading about Weimar Cinema further. Thank You.
I will be reading further about Weimar Cinema, and more generally about the history of the Weimar Republic myself. Such a fascinating periode in history 🙂
Sometimes what you need is a lower budget to come up with something really interesting. Look at the Hollywood blockbusters of today vs the indie films – I know which ones often have the better writing :). Another great post, thank you.
Tasha’s Thinkings – Shapeshifters and Werewolves
I suppose that when you can do whatever you want, you just end up choosing the easy way 😉
I have often wondered what Metropolis was about. Looks a bit weird. Fascinating post. I love WWII history. Close enough!
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Metropolis is definitely a very unique film. Very intersting visuals, but also a very strong story.
I’m learning so much from your posts!
Sreesha, I’m happy you’re enjoying it 🙂
That clip is amazing! I have heard of Metropolis but never seen it – now I’d like to. We recently went to a silent film screening with live musical accompaniment. I was a bit dubious before we went, but really enjoyed it so I’d like to do more of that.
I watched Metropolis many years ago, after reading the novel and loving it. It’s a very unique film.
I’d like to go to a silent screening with live orchestra, must be an incredible experience. Never heard of anything like that near me 🙁
Incidentally I am doing a movie theme too and I just loved reading this post! Movies have always been a powerful tool to depict the time , ideologies , challenges and hopes of a generation and I am sure back then in 1920s when there were limited platforms for views to get expressed – movies could be a critical element in describing and defining the popular culture . The post was rich with content and insights – and I am hooked to the theme so will be coming back for lots more!
You are absolutely right, Chandni. In the 1920s, cinema was a very powerful falcilitator of ideas, which helped nations to unify.
Well, I’ll be covering the Femme Fatale quite in details in future posts, so I suppose my theme and yours will go perfectly together 😉
Thank you, Sarah, for introducing me to this whole new world of German Cinema. I love watching movies from different countries. It always adds a new understanding of that culture and a new perspective to my thoughts (even though many times I don’t understand the language).
I will surely follow the movies you cover all this month and try to watch them.
Name : Gayatri Gadre
Blog : Be young 4ever
#AtoZChallenge Theme : Travel (off the beaten track)
B for : Bath, a romantic city
As all forms of arts, cinema is sure a favoured means of understanding different cultures. I completely agree.
What a fascinating post! It’s so interesting to see how the arts flourished during these years in Berlin. So often, politics impacts what happens to the arts.
That’s true. Besides some forms of art, at some times, impact the lives of people, so of course politics will take notice.
Really digging your A-to-Z series. I love Noir and today’s post is a great backdrop. German art between the Wars is fascinating, and you hit all the highlights as it pertains to film. Great stuff!
I really enjoyed researching the Weimar Cinema. Besides, I’m completely fascinated with Weimar history and society. It was a place of incredible change… for good and for bad.
Peter Lorre with those big mournful eyes was perfect for the genre.
I haven’t watched M yet, but considering the subject matter, I find it very intersting the way his character is depicted. In a very humane way.
I will be looking for Metropolitian on Netflix. I think. The faces of those men as they watch the dancer are quite something.
You made a comment on my blog earlier and i think you misunderstood about the USCT being volunteers or not. They were volunteers. I tried to email you but it bounced back. I wonder what I said that led you to the idea they were not volunteers.
I’m sure you’ll find it intersting. It’s a remarkable film, not only for the visuals, but for the subject matter as well.
Regarding your post, it’s because you say: “He had been enslaved by George Hubbard of Taylor County and enlisted without his consent”. But I see now that you meant “without Taylor’s consent”. I misread it, sorry.
Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
This is fascinating! I didn’t know anything about the Weimar Republic, but now I’m going to go read up on it. It’s interesting how the struggle for diversity and equality was going on even back then.
My next project will be set in Weimar Berlin, so I’m going to read a lot about the topic. And I can’t wait, it’s absolutely fascinating.
Weimar Berlin is considered one of the most open-minded places for homosexcual people to live at that time… although the open-mindness manifested in a different from than we think today.
Also, despite the very conservative view the Nazis had about them, women did find a lot more space to express themselves, and in new ways, in Weimar Berlin.
Berlin was a multicultural city already.
It was a place full of contradictions and potentialities.
The visuals of German film in that era was indeed striking.
No surprise that it still inspires filmmakers today
Film Noir is something new for me. Thanks for your insightful and informative posts, Sarah!
I know film noir is not for everyone, but I hope that at least I’ll be able to expose some of what was beyond the mere movie 🙂
I absolutely love German Expressionism! A good portion of the silents on my list (1,126 so far) are German. I’m also very proud of being over half German, and love hearing about actors and directors from German Expressionism who left after the Nazi takeover. Luckily, I currently live in a city with a great indie theatre that regularly shows classics. I’ve seen Dr. Caligari twice there (in addition to the times I’ve watched it at home), Metropolis, M, and possibly some other German films I’m forgetting. There’s nothing quite like seeing a classic the way it was intended, on the big screen, with an audience.
I wish I could experience that, must be fantastic. Maybe there are theatre offering this kind of performance in the big cities here in Italy… certainly not in Verona 🙁
I had no idea Germany played any part in cinematics. I need to get out of my bubble!
LOL! There is always something to discover 😉
Excellent article. I had not known any of this, so you also taught me something new. I will have to look more into this.
Weimar Cinema is such an intersting subject. And if you get the chance, do watch some of the movies. They are excellent even by today standards.
The times are depicted in all movies!
Love this information!
That’s true. Like in all arts 🙂
Barbara In Caneyhead
I have never seen any of these films. On the surface, I’d say they are too dark for my tastes.
They are definitely dark, but most of them touch very deep in the human soul, human flaws and human gifts.
Superb post – adding more to my “to be watched” as well as my “to be re-watched” list!
D for Don’t get around much anymore
My list is getting loger too 😉
Oops, wrong link!
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Sara C. Snider
I saw Metropolis long ago in High School. Would like to watch it again now that I understand its context better.
I will rewatch it,. I watched it a long time ago too. Besides, I’ve learned that in the last year it has been restored, with more minits discovered from the original version.
Worth rewatching, I’d say 😉
Excellent post on decadent Berlin. My grandparents lived very near Wittenberg and they talked about how horrible the mark was after WW1. They would have a million marks which was enough to buy some bread and butter! I love the German Expressionist preiod and need to own The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(which, I believe was done in 1917??). I love Metropolis and this scene you showed is my favourite! M is another early masterpiece with Peter Lorre and his evil whistle of a Peer Gynt piece. I am certain you have seen Pandora’s Box??
Uhm, maybe Dr Caligaris was film in 1917 but released in 1920? All the film sites I’ve checked make 1920 the year of the film.
I agree, that scen ein Metropolis is remarkable and – for me – very modern. I don’t think people who’s not accustomed to watch silent movies woudl expect anythign like this 😉
Love those old Fritz Lang films. Great post.
Fritz Lang was awesome, I agree 🙂
My daughter is doing a course in film studies. I bet she will love your posts. Thank you 🙂
Gobsmacked in Glorious Goa
I hope she will 🙂