The cinema of the Weimar Republic remains astonishing to this day for its sheer variety and productivity. Some of the German films from 1918–1933 featured in this Berlinale retrospective are real discoveries addressing issues that are highly topical in our day and age.
By Philipp Bühler
Metropolis, Nosferatu, People on Sunday – Weimar film has a canon of its own. 90 per cent of its legacy has been lost, and yet even connoisseurs are unfamiliar with many of the films that have survived, often because the extant copies have been poorly preserved or are simply unavailable. This year’s Weimar Cinema retrospective has omitted a hundred all too familiar films in order to focus attention on some less familiar productions. This may sound a bit like reheating leftovers, but this year’s selection actually holds plenty of surprises.
Modern portrayals of women shortly before the Nazi takeover
The Adventure of Thea Roland
(Das Abenteuer einer schönen Frau
, 1932) is a good example: a German screwball comedy even before the American classics of the genre – who’d have thought it? A successful sculptress is looking for a boxer to model for her, unintentionally becomes pregnant with his child and astounds the happy father with her decision to raise the child by herself – a portrait of unabashed feminism just one year before the Nazis seized power. Director Hermann Kosterlitz had to emigrate and became quite successful in Hollywood. Going by the name of Henry Koster, he was James Stewart’s favourite director.
Social criticism and Jewish life
Gerhard Lamprecht was best known for his 1931 adaptation of Erich Kästner’s 1929 children’s novel Emil and the Detectives
. But he also made Children of No Importance
, 1926), a silent drama about illegitimate children. The Song of Life
(Das Lied vom Leben
, 1931, Alexis Granowsky) and Sprengbagger 1010
(1929, Carl Ludwig Acház-Duisberg) are presented as socially critical films about the working-class milieu. It remains to be seen what they have to add to better-known “proletarian pictures” like Kuhle Wampe
or Who Owns the World?
(US title: Whither Germany?
, 1932, Slatan Dudow). One highlight in any case is The Ancient Law
(Das alte Gesetz
, 1923) by E.A. Dupont, a wizardly pioneer of the silver screen. This early silent film – which, strictly speaking, is not part of the retrospective, but of the newly restored “Berlinale Classics” – is about a Galician rabbi’s son who embarks on an acting career against his father’s wishes. It is one of a whole slew of films of that era that sought to raise awareness of Jewish issues and addressed the subjects of anti-Semitism and assimilation. After the Berlinale, this beautifully restored version of The Ancient Law
will be touring Eastern Europe, including a showing at the Goethe-Institut in Vilnius.