German Expressionist cinema revival at the Berlinale | Film | DW | 25.02.2020
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German Expressionist cinema revival at the Berlinale

Screening 1920s Expressionist masterpieces "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "Waxworks," and an adaptation of legendary Weimar novel, "Berlin Alexanderplatz," the Berlinale refocuses the cultural highs of the Weimar era.

A century has now passed since the beginning of a decade that is still regarded, at least in Germany, as a highpoint of cultural experimentation and creativity. In that decade, literature, theatre, dance, art, and above all cinema, were reinvented along modernist lines, and in particular German Expressionism.

In Germany, the 1920s coincided with the Weimar Republic, that brief flowering of German democracy after World War One that came crashing down when Hitler took power in 1933. A mythical time of freewheeling cultural experimentation had ended. But this heyday of creativity has lived on.  

The 2020 Berlinale is appropriately celebrating a century since that revolutionary decade began with a program that includes a contemporary adaptation of Alfred Döblin's legendary 1929 Weimar novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and the world premiere of the restored version of one of the most legendary silent movies of the era, Paul Leni's Waxworks from 1924 (pictured top).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the early masterpiece of German Expressionism that sees a deranged hypnotist manipulate a sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt) to commit a series of murders, will be screened 100 years after its premiere. The Berlin Alexanderplatz remake is in the running for a Golden Bear.

Filmstill Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Imago Images/United Archives)

A possessed Conrad Veidt in 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari'

Fantasy waxwork worlds

A digitally restored version of Paul Leni's silent omnibus film, Waxworks, has had its world premier at the Berlinale and will now be available to audiences around the world.

Waxworks is the story of a young poet who is hired to write backstories for three tyrannical historical figures rendered in wax: Caliph Harun al-Rashid, Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper. Each of the sinister figures take up an episode of the film in which they cross paths with the poet and the daughter of the waxworks owner  — who in one episode is pursued by the serial killer, Jack the Ripper.

Read moreSilent films that speak volumes: A Weimar cinema retrospective

Nearly a century since it was released, Waxworks remains fresh today due to its imaginative direction, the theatrical performances by lead actors Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauß, but above all its setting.

According to Rainer Rother from the German Cinematheque, the fact that director Paul Leni was also a production designer and graphic artist meant he could create the particular staging and décor that made Expressionist cinema so distinctive.

Rother also points to the importance of the settings and studio buildings utilized in the film. "There is hardly any other film in the 1920s that has more spectacular locations than Waxworks," he told DW.

German silent film influenced Hollywood

Leni's Expressionist film was not only artful in the way it employed abstract sets and outlandish costumes. His last film before he left Germany for Los Angeles also pioneered the fundamentals of a Hollywood blockbuster: A fantasy or historical premise; an unpredictable journey through time; a strong element of horror; and of course a pinch of romance.

Read moreWhat a history-making Oscar nomination reveals about gender equality in Hollywood

With its ironic stylistic devices and outlandish plot that is delivered with a wink, Leni was also breaking with more earnest early Expressionist classics such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922).

Berlinale | Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Deutsche Kinemathek)

'Waxworks' can now be seen in a new light

The silent film's contemporary significance is heightened by the release of a digitally restored version created in a cooperation between the German Cinematheque and Cineteca di Bologna, and a new soundtrack from the Ensemble Musikfabrik. The German original burned in 1925, with the restored version based on a copy found in the British Film Institute.

"A reunion with this film is definitely worthwhile because the visual quality is much, much better than it was before the restoration," said Rainer Rother of the restored Waxworks print.

Weimar-period classic in contemporary context

Alfred Döblin's famed Weimar Berlin novel centered around small time criminal and laborer Franz Biberkopf has been reimagined for the screen (it was famously adapted into a TV miniseries by Rainer Fassbinder in 1980), but this time the protagonist is a refugee from West Africa.

In this reworking by Afghan-German director Burhan Qurbani (We Are Young. We Are Strong.), the stateless person named Francis finds his way to the German capital and is treated just as mercilessly as Biberkopf in the 1920s.  

Berlinale 2020 Filmstills Berlin Alexanderplatz (Frédéric Batier/2019 Sommerhaus/eOne Germany)

West African refugee Francis reprises the alienated protagonist Franz in the original 1929 novel

Though Francis has no work permit, he initially resists an offer to deal drugs in a local park before coming under the influence of the neurotic, sex-addicted Reinhold, who takes him in.

This updated version of Berlin Alexanderplatz is also about exiles and outsiders who struggles to find a place. It also repeats the authentic, street-level portrayal of the city. 

Combined with the screenings of Expressionist masterpieces The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Waxworks, the Berlinale in 2020 is acting as a bridge to the cultural and artistic revolution that was centered in Berlin a century before.

Watch video 02:15

DW book expert David Levitz on 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' by Alfred Döblin

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