Weimar Cinema
“The Language of the Shadows”

Scene from “Casablanca”
Scene from “Casablanca” | Photo (detail): © Deutsche Kinemathek

The Retrospective for 2013 at the Berlinale is called “The Weimar Touch. The International Influence of Weimar Cinema after 1933” and is dedicated to the influence of Weimar cinema on international filmmaking after the National Socialists came to power. Curator and section manager Rainer Rother gives us some insights into the impact of this dynamic era of German film.

At this point, from a film history perspective, what importance can be attributed to Weimar cinema?

The cinema of the Weimar Republic between 1918 and 1933 is considered on an international level to be the heyday of German filmmaking. It was permeated by a special innovative zeal that radiated tremendously into other forms of cinematography. Big-name directors like Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and Georg Wilhelm Pabst are examples of this. When silent films were replaced by films with sound at the end of the 1920s, the German film industry responded by producing different language versions. The film operetta was a Weimar development as well and they managed to find acceptance in international cinemas with their light, sarcastic musical film format. That lightness combined with a sense of societal rebelliousness represented a true innovation in film entertainment. One could even say that German film since the Weimar period has never again reached the levels of intensity and diversity that it did then.

When the National Socialists took over in 1933, this productivity and spirit of experimentation met with an abrupt end. In the hopes of escaping unemployment, persecution and disenfranchisement, some 2,000 filmmakers fled the country in the 1930s and the film industry changed dramatically.

As the title of the retrospective indicates, we are still feeling the impacts of Weimar cinema in today's international filmmaking world. We present examples of the tradition living on in the early period of National Socialism, but there are only a few in which the true character of the era is as present as it had been: Viktor and Viktoria (1933) by Reinhold Schünzel or Einmal eine große Dame sein (1934) by Gerhard Lamprecht.

The real focus of the Retrospective, however, is on the work of directors that were forced to emigrate and in whose work the elements and forms of Weimar cinema were carried on.

How did the consolidation of the German film industry develop and what is your view on it?

Joseph Goebbels actually set the tone in one of his early speeches as the newly appointed minister of propaganda. On March 28, 1933, he spoke at the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin to representatives of the film industry in very clear terms about the “racial tones” of film under National Socialism: Jews and foreigners would no longer have a place in German film. Just days thereafter, the board of directors of Ufa, a major film company, decided to release a number of important employees and canceled many of its contracts. The first measure, which led to the expulsion of Jewish filmmakers from Germany, was followed quickly by an occupational ban. This was the beginning of the exile film genre.

From the film industry perspective, that loss of so many creative people was a real problem. When the displacement of Jews began, film companies that were still dependent on the commercial success of their productions ran into serious problems turning out high-quality films that satisfied the massive popularity of cinema at the time. That is how Ernst Hugo Correll, production manager of Ufa, described it in a report from 1934.

What was the work environment like for the exiled filmmakers in the countries they arrived in?

The directors, writers, composers, production designers, actors – basically everyone who was now looking for work within their profession in a foreign country – were frowned upon as unwanted competition, and not just when they arrived but for a while thereafter too. When you think of the few figures who made a name for themselves despite the circumstances, you have to keep in mind that there was a far greater number of artists floating around who were only given work in horrible conditions, who had to find other professions or who couldn't get any work at all.

The situation was different of course for every artist and every field. For composers it was perhaps a bit easier to continue working because their craft dealt with the universal language of music. For writers it often meant that they had to first learn the local language in order to do anything. Emmerich Preßburger, for example, who had been an author of many of the Weimar Republic's most amazing films, initially had big problems in England and it took him a long time until he felt comfortable enough to write in English. In 1943, under the name Emeric Pressburger, he founded a production company, The Archers, with Michael Powell and became one of the most famous screenwriters in British film. The foreign language factor was a major obstacle for actors as well. Directors, on the other hand, didn't have to articulate themselves in front of the camera and were therefore able to manage with less difficulty.

What countries were most commonly chosen for exiled filmmakers?

Initially, many of them were able to pursue the Weimar tradition here in Europe. Hermann Kosterlitz, for example, made his films in 1934/35 in Budapest before leaving for the United States and working under the name Henry Koster. He then discovered Francisca Gaál, who became the consummate actress for exactly this film genre.

Other countries included France, where Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmak were able to find work, and Holland, where Ludwig Berger and Kurt Gerron made some films. But as soon as Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and World War II began in earnest, these émigrés were forced to leave Europe completely in order to survive.

For many of them the USA became the only safe haven. As home to the largest and most innovative film industry in the world, “Exile in Hollywood” became the most desired course for filmmakers. But the United States only let in a limited number of refugees, so they were reliant on getting a certificate of bond from a US citizen, an “affidavit”. Paul Kohner, who had worked in Hollywood as an agent since the 1930s, became the go-to contact for anyone looking to end up in the United States. He issued and organized contracts and connected people with each other. His efforts on that front were invaluable for many in the industry.

Is the exile film genre solely influenced by the involvement of émigré filmmakers?

The exile film is not mentioned as such in The Weimar Touch retrospective. Our focus was broader, with emphasis on other films in which Weimar culture and cinema can be seen.

Of course we look at a film classic like Casablanca (USA 1942) because nearly all of the actors in it are originally European and emigration is therefore a topic of interest. But the program also includes films like How Green Was My Valley (USA 1940) by John Ford, one of many directors at Fox, an American production company, who were greatly influenced by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau during the period when he was under contract at the firm between 1926 and 1929.

The interplay and continuities can be seen on a variety of levels, for example in the musical scores by Walter Jurmann or Werner Richard Heymann, or in the screenplay styles. Films from Billy Wilder depict a demeanor among the actors that is heavily influenced by the humor of Weimar comedians and film operettas.

You have already mentioned a number of connections to Weimar cinema including thematic, stylistic and aesthetic influences. These are reflected in the five chapters of the Retrospective. Which genres are represented most often in the program?

Comedies and musical films play a major role. Peter (Austria/Hungary 1934) by Hermann Kosterlitz features the headstrong Francisca Gaál in the leading role – the “male role”. One rediscovered work is the recently restored film The Trouble with Money (1936) by Max Ophüls. In the chapter “Rhythm and Laughter” we also show a number of examples of the transformation of Weimar cinema into the filmography of other countries.

We also see here that the thriller genre benefited greatly from the Weimar tradition. Take Fritz Lang's films, for example. Film noir is an expression of the great creative periods of American film, but if you look more closely at this subgenre, you can see that there was a large number of émigré German directors and writers involved: Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder, for example. We show some of this work under the heading “The Dark Side”. It displays a view that society is not just divided into good and bad, but also ambivalence, shadows, and a morality that is both light and dark. It is something that Weimar cinema developed in films like M (1931) by Fritz Lang as well as in other works. One could say that the émigrés provided a sort of aesthetic archetype that enabled them to create a sketch of American society in film noir format.

Do the echoes of expressionist painting play a special role in Weimar cinema in the chapter “Light and Shadow”?

The “Light and Shadow” reference has less to do with expressionism than it does with the type of lighting in the films. When people speak of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's works, for example, they often use the phrase the “language of the shadows”. Murnau was famous for his use of light. It had a lot of gradations, no heavy contrasts, and allowed for a wide spectrum of tones. His film Sunrise – A Song of Two Humans (1927) became one of the most beautiful American silent films. It is a striking work that recalls the Weimar tradition, and not just because of the literary scene set by Hermann Sudermann. Murnau's influence on American film has been oft authenticated by John Ford, for example, the direct of How Green Was My Valley.

Under the heading “Variations” we feature remakes of Weimar cinema masterpieces as well as films that are adaptations of their predecessors. They do not necessarily possess biographical continuity like in Joseph Losey's remake of M (USA 1951), which was also produced by Seymour Nebenzal. First a Girl (UK 1935), by Victor Saville, can of course be traced back to Reinhold Schünzel's Viktor and Viktoria, but oddly enough, the latest DVD of First a Girl is promoted as being inspired by the film Victor Victoria by Blake Edwards (UK, USA 1982). The real original has apparently been forgotten in the annals of time.

The “Know Your Enemy” chapter is dedicated to anti-Nazi films. Who initiated these films?

We named the chapter that because we wanted to show films that went beyond the average concept of anti-Nazi films. Among those films is Ergens in Nederland: een film uit de Mobilisatietijd (1940), for example, made by Ludwig Berger in Holland about the imminent threat of occupation by German troops and a piece that was completed within a year. But the real emphasis of the chapter is of course the classic anti-Nazi films from Hollywood, a period which really began in earnest after the German declaration of war on the United States in December 1941. In addition to Fritz Lang's classic Hangmen Also Die! (1943) we also feature other lesser-known films from the era, which was heavily influenced by émigré directors and actors of German descent, primarily, but also by German immigrants with other functions in the industry. German actors were given specific roles due to their accents, of course, and in many anti-Nazi films Jewish immigrants were given the roles of national socialists and German officers.

Within the context of the retrospective, to what degree will the public be able to see these already famous films in a new light?

To what extent can the films on the program be categorized as part of German film history?

The Deutsche Kinemathek, a major film archive, has long had a focus on Weimar cinema and the exile film genre. We have built a sizable collection there and dedicated many retrospectives to the subject in recent decades. Having said that, films that were created abroad are part of those countries' film history despite their influential involvement from German émigrés. The films are in that sense not a part of German film history, but they do keep that prolific period of German film up until 1933 very much alive.

However, although exile films are not part of German film history, a retrospective of German film history still needs to include a look at those works. The films are ultimately now part of the film tradition and heritage of the country in which they were produced, but the individual stories and oeuvres have their origins in German film.

Dr. Rainer Rother, born 1956, is director of Retrospective at Berlinale 2013. He studied German language and history and got his PhD in 1988. From 1989 to 1991 he was a professor at the University of Hanover. From 1991 to March 2006 he was the director of the archive at the German History Museum in Berlin. Since 2001, Rother has been a member of the selection committee for the Berlin International Film Festival competition. From 2004 to 2006 he was co-curator for the Berlin film series Selling Democracy and since April 2006 he has been the artistic director of the Deutsche Kinemathek film archive and director of the Retrospective at the Berlinale.