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Silent films that speak volumes: Weimar cinema retrospective

Jochen Kürten ct
October 31, 2018

On the Weimar era centennial, a retrospective of silent movies from a time of great creativity and innovation is featured at the German Historical Museum. Curator Philipp Stiasny told DW why the films remain so modern.

Scene from Seine Frau, die Unbekannte shows a couple smoking
Image: Deutsches Filminstitut Frankfurt

The films of the Weimar era remain lodged in popular consciousness a century after this defing period of artistic innovation began. To commerate this year's Weimar centennial, the German Historical Museum will nightly screen classic silent movies from the time at its Zeughaus cinema.

Running November 1 through February 2, 2019, the film series, which is titled "Weimar International: Silent movies without borders from Berlin and Babelsberg, 1918-1929," especially focuses on films featuring soundtracks by internationally reknowned film musicians. DW's Jochen Kürten spoke with curator Philipp Stiasny ahead of the series' opening.

DW: Everyone seems to be talking about the Weimar Republic today, as many see political parallels with the present. Is that one motivation for this Weimar cinema retrospective?

Philipp Stiasny: No, explicit political commentary was not our intention. As to the question of why the retrospective now, there are several reasons. For one, the Weimar Republic will be 100 years old in November. And Weimar cinema is associated with the great era of German cinema – and not only in specialist circles. Shortly after the First World War, the creative potential here exploded and all sorts of people from many countries and industries came to Germany. Millions of people streamed into the movie houses every evening.

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Nevertheless, when we think of Weimar cinema we don't usually think of very popular pleasure films, but rather of the characters out of a nightmare as in Nosferatu or dystopias like Metropolis. These classics are well-known, from television or from showings in theaters. Metropolis is part of global cultural heritage.

At the same time, though, Weimar cinema consisted of so-called "bread and butter" cinema. Many more films that were devoted to life: genre films, crime novels, adventure films and many, many comedies. Just as we do today, the audience went to the cinema to have fun and, above all, to laugh. We would like to place these films on an equal footing with the classics in our series.

Were some of the great directors from the era also involved?

We sometimes forget that well-known directors like Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and Georg Wilhelm Pabst should not only be perceived as forerunners of the famous auteur filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s but as auteur filmmakers who had complete creative control over their product and were able to play around.

Lang, Lubitsch and the others also worked in an industry – the film industry. Fritz Lang, for example, was not at all critical of genre cinema. We are showing as part of the retrospective one of his earliest surviving films, the two-part "Die Spinnen" from 1919/20. In the program we wrote that the film is something like an "Indiana Jones avant la letter." Between Fritz Lang at the end of the 1910s and Steven Spielberg in the 1970s, a lot has changed but certain formats didn't change that much. Of course, the complexity of filmmaking has changed as have the technical possibilities but the grammar of the film has remained the same.

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And just as Fritz Lang is a bit pigeonholed into a pattern of entertaining and fun-filled genre cinema, so too were many other filmmakers who have been forgotten today but who were well known at the time. Above all, these were star-studded movies, featuring especially female stars in comedies, detective stories, thrillers or genres that are still very familiar to us today.

Film still from Pietro der Korsar shows a woman lying down and a man beside her
A Weimar-era pirate film: "Pietro der Korsar"Image: Deutsches Filminstitut Frankfurt

Why was Weimar cinema such a powerful, radiant force at the time?

A definitive explanation as to why this was the case in Germany is difficult to answer. One reason, however, is that Germany was a country that was very open to the entertainment industry and technology at the time. You can't generalize – that certainly wasn't the case in the German provinces – but it was true of Berlin and Brandenburg. The studios in Babelsberg were the center of the German film industry and people came to Babelsberg and Berlin from abroad.

Is there any explanation as to what attracted people to Berlin?

We added a subtitle to the series: "Silent films without borders from Berlin and Babelsberg." Of course, there were national borders at that time. But there was no language barrier. You didn't have to hold long dialogues in silent films. Those who wanted to get into the industry and knew something about filmmaking were not held back because, for example, they spoke German with a Hungarian accent or Polish. The business here in Berlin was very international. The film industry was open to people who could do something and had ideas.

Can you compare this with the contemporary film industry?

It was something completely different than it is today. Of course, there are many filmmakers in Germany and Europe today who travel around and are multilingual. A German language film shown at the Berlinale, for example, doesn't necessarily come from a filmmaker born in Germany.

At the time, however, this was the case to a completely different extent. A considerable proportion of the filmmakers who made films in Babelsberg did not come from Berlin. They came to Berlin and though they may not have found a new home, they found a home in the film industry. The newcomer, the outsider, took a chance.

Galerie - Klassische deutsche Horror - Filme
One newcomer drawn to Berlin was the American actress Louise Brooks, seen here in the classic 1929 Weimar film, "Pandora's Box," which was directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst Image: picture-alliance /

Can you give some examples?

Ernst Lubitsch is one example. Lubitsch was born in Germany, but his father came from Belarus so he always spoke with an accent yet he succeeded in becoming a top director in Germany. That was true of many others as well. Alexander Korda, who dominated the British film industry almost single-handedly in the 1930s, made films in the Weimar cinema after having previously been in Hungary and Austria and having been thrown out of those countries because of his socialist sympathies. Korda made great films in Germany before he went to England.

Germany wasn't just an incubator for many international careers. Many also stayed here because they realized that there was a lot of curiosity here, that there were people here with whom one could really accomplish something. And the legal and economic conditions were ripe.

Weimar cinema at the time held a lot of appeal internationally, especially in Hollywood's eyes. And that process began long before 1933...

Ernst Lubitsch was wooed away by Hollywood in the early 1920s. No one who went to Hollywood at that time felt they were making an irreversible move. Lubitsch took a contract from Twentieth Century Fox and likely thought he would be back in Germany in three or four years.

That wasn't the case, of course, as a result of political developments, as the National Socialists came to power in 1933. But it also had to do with the fact that Hollywood very quickly dominated the cinema market around the world – by a long shot. Germany was the only strong competitor in the cinema sector.

Film still from Der letzte Mann shows two man standing at a sink
Tech-savvy Murnau knew how to finesse films and used all the tricks on his films, as seen here in "Der letzte Mann"Image: picture-alliance/Keystone/Röhnert

What did the filmmakers of Weimar cinema bring to Hollywood?

They brought their creativity to Hollywood. Take, for example, Murnau. With films like Nosferatu and Der letzte Mann, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was absolutely at the top of the list of creative and tech-savvy filmmakers.

Murnau was really interested in seeing what you can do with film. He wondered how the medium could be pushed to its limits – up to the point of making films that get by without any language at all. He even went so far as to film without any captions, where everything is developed around light, gestures, movement — including camera movement. This incredibly creative man shaped Hollywood: An entire school at Fox adopted the "Murnau style."

Nosferatu's Max Schreck character features long fingernails and a small head
Murnaus 'Nosferatu' is a Weimar cinema classicImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But there was also a kind of counter-movement with some filmmakers leaving Hollywood for Babelsberg at that time.

That's the other side. Louise Brooks, for example, came to Germany and made two films with Georg Wilhelm Pabst, one of them being, "Pandora's Box." It was a great work of art, which nobody really understood at the time — it was far too political. This mixture of sex and fantasies of submission, of murder and passion. By the way, it was also a very clever analysis of the gender relations of the time: How men form an image of women and how the woman who does not correspond to this image dies miserably.

There are other examples. Anna May Wong, an American of Asian descent, came to Germany, as did two or three other US stars. But of course there was greater movement from other European countries, especially from cities in the East like Warsaw or Vienna. And then, when the opportunity arose for these filmmakers, they went on to Hollywood.

"Weimar International: Silent movies without borders from Berlin and Babelsberg, 1918-1929" runs November 1 through February 2, 2019.