A Critical History of German Film

A Critical History of German Film

Stephen Brockmann
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 532
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt16314jf
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  • Book Info
    A Critical History of German Film
    Book Description:

    A history of German film dealing with individual films as works of art has long been needed. Existing histories tend to treat cinema as an economic rather than an aesthetic phenomenon; earlier surveys that do engage with individual films do not include films of recent decades. This book treats representative films from the beginnings of German film to the present. Providing historical context through an introduction and interchapters preceding the treatments of each era's films, the volume is suitable for semester- or year-long survey courses and for anyone with an interest in German cinema.BR> The films: The Student of Prague - The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - The Last Laugh - Metropolis - The Blue Angel - M - Triumph of the Will - The Great Love - The Murderers Are among Us - Sun Seekers - Trace of Stones - The Legend of Paul and Paula - Solo Sunny - The Bridge - Young Törless - Aguirre, The Wrath of God - Germany in Autumn - The Marriage of Maria Braun - The Tin Drum - Marianne and Juliane - Wings of Desire - Maybe, Maybe Not - Rossini - Run Lola Run - Good Bye Lenin! - Head On - The Lives of Others Stephen Brockmann is Professor of German at Carnegie Mellon University and President of the German Studies Association. He received the German Academic Exchange Service's 2007 Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in German and European Studies.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-722-7
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Critical Film History and German Studies
    (pp. 1-10)

    German cinema constitutes one of the world’s most important cinema traditions, featuring some of the greatest films ever made, from Robert Wiene’sDas Cabinet des Dr. Caligari(The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920) and F. W. Murnau’sDer letzte Mann(The Last Laugh, 1924) through Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious but undoubtedly importantTriumph des Willens(Triumph of the Will, 1934) to postwar triumphs like Werner Herzog’sAguirre, der Zorn Gottes(Aguirre, The Wrath of God, 1972) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’sDie Ehe der Maria Braun(The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979). These films, and many others, constitute a unique body of...

  5. Part One: Early German Film History 1895–1918
    • 1: Early German Film History 1895–1918: Historical Overview
      (pp. 13-27)

      The advent of photography in the nineteenth century, made possible by advances in the chemical industry, ultimately led to the invention of what came to be called motion pictures, which were in essence nothing but the projection of large numbers of sequentially ordered still photographs. The word “film” still shows the provenance of cinema from photography and the chemicals that make it possible. The history of film in Germany began on November 1, 1895, when Max Skladanowsky — working together with his brother Emil — showed a fifteen-minute series of eight short movies as the main attraction in a vaudevillelike...

    • 2: Der Student von Prag (1913) and Learning to Look
      (pp. 29-40)

      Der Student von Prag(The Student of Prague) should be seen as part of the general battle over cinema culture in the second decade of the twentieth century. The film was directed in 1913 by the Danish-born director Stellan Rye — who was to die only a year later as a prisoner-of-war in France in the First World War — photographed by Guido Seeber, and written by Hanns Heinz Ewers, based on a novel by Ewers and derived in part from Edgar Allan Poe’s tale “William Wilson” (1839). It was filmed largely on location in Prague.Der Student von Prag...

  6. Part Two: Weimar Cinema 1919–1933
    • 3: Weimar Cinema 1919–1933: Historical Overview
      (pp. 43-57)

      Weimar cinema is the classic cinema of Germany, the period in which Germany was, along with the United States, at the pinnacle of world cinema production, at least in terms of film quality, and in which German cinema was at its most influential internationally and historically. The names of Germany’s great movie directors of the Weimar period — Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, Fritz Lang — and of German film stars like Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich became internationally known and recognized during this period. Many of them, such as Lubitsch, Lang, and Dietrich, ultimately wound up...

    • 4: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) or Film as Hypnosis
      (pp. 59-69)

      Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari(The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), the quintessential example of German Expressionist cinema, was both popular with the general public and well respected by critics. It was recognized abroad as representative of a distinct German cinematic style characterized by Expressionist set designs, careful studio work and photography, and intense psychological exploration. For Lotte Eisner, it was in the “mysterious world” of Expressionism, particularly as epitomized byDas Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, “that the German cinema found its true nature.”¹Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligariis an early psychological and criminal thriller — foreshadowing such films as...

    • 5: Der letzte Mann (1924) or Learning to Move
      (pp. 71-79)

      F. W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) is one of the indisputable masterpieces of German film; some might even argue that it is the greatest film ever made in Germany. It eloquently demonstrates the possibilities of silent film at the height of its powers, in the last decade before the introduction of sound film. Throughout the entire film, intertitles are unnecessary and therefore not present; there is only one intertitle at the end. The film’s story is told, instead, purely in images. Those images flow smoothly and beautifully, and there is no need whatsoever for language. The silent...

    • 6: Metropolis (1927) or Technology and Sex
      (pp. 81-95)

      Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, one of the most influential science fiction movies of all time, was a huge blockbuster featuring advanced technology and special effects. It cost well over five million marks and was, at the time it was made, the most expensive German movie ever. It was so expensive — costing three times its original budget — that it almost bankrupted the massive Ufa film company, and even though it was reasonably successful in cinemas, it did not make enough money to recoup its production costs.¹ At the time thatMetropoliswas made, German cinema was at a competitive disadvantage...

    • 7: Der blaue Engel (1930) and Learning to Talk
      (pp. 97-111)

      With Josef von Sternberg’sDer blaue Engel(The Blue Angel), we enter the era of sound film, which was introduced in Germany in 1929. The following year, 1930, marked the first year that the majority of German films produced were sound films. It is fitting that many of these early sound films, likeDer blaue Engel, included song numbers and music, often as a significant part of the film plot. The music, in other words, is often not just background music — heard only by the audience and intended to put them into the right mood — it is, rather,...

    • 8: M (1931) or Sound and Terror
      (pp. 113-128)

      Fritz Lang’sM, one of the great Weimar thrillers, and to this day one of the most gripping crime films ever made, makes brilliant use of sound, even though large portions of it occur in silence. In one of the key scenes, a blind balloon seller hears a man whistling a melody, and he recognizes it immediately as the same one he had heard when a little girl named Elsie Beckmann was kidnapped and murdered. The melody — “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg — becomes a kind of WagnerianLeitmotiv, giving the murderer away to...

  7. Part Three: Nazi Cinema 1933–1945
    • 9: Nazi Cinema 1933–1945: Historical Overview
      (pp. 131-149)

      On January 30, 1933, the president of the German Reich, Paul von Hindenburg, appointed Adolf Hitler, the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP), chancellor of Germany. Although initially Hitler ruled Germany as the head of a parliamentary coalition of right-wing parties, it was not long before the Reichstag, the German parliament, passed theErmächtigungsgesetz(enabling law) in March of 1933, which gave Hitler dictatorial powers. Soon the Communist and Social Democratic parties were banned, the first concentration camp was established for Hitler’s political enemies (Dachau, in March of 1933), and even the right-wing allies...

    • 10: Triumph des Willens (1935): Documentary and Propaganda
      (pp. 151-165)

      Leni Riefenstahl, who directedTriumph des Willens(Triumph of the Will), was born in Berlin in 1902 and started her artistic career as a dancer. Her approach to dance came out of a worship of nature, strength, and beauty that was widespread in the final years of the WilhelmineKaiserreichand during the years of the Weimar Republic. In many ways this approach to nature drew its strength from the same roots as the turn-of-the-century German youth movement and the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, whose ideas about natural education and what he called “anthroposophy” resulted in the founding of...

    • 11: Die große Liebe (1942) or Love and War
      (pp. 167-180)

      Rolf Hansen’s Die grosse Liebe (The Great Love) premiered at the Ufa-Palast in Berlin on June 12, 1942, and became the most popular German movie of all time. It earned eight million Reichsmarks and played to an audience of over twenty-seven million spectators, nearly half the German population.¹ It was one of a series ofDurchhaltefilme(getting-through-it films), movies created during the war to raise the spirits of German civilians who were experiencing bombing raids on their cities and separation from their loved ones. Such films emerged in response to propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’s demand for films “that have the...

  8. Part Four: German Cinema at the Zero Hour 1945–1949
    • 12: German Cinema at the Zero Hour 1945–1949: Historical Overview
      (pp. 183-195)

      The end of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath are frequently referred to in German culture as a Zero Hour to signal the fact that by 1945 Germany had reached a historical nadir. The country’s major cities had been destroyed in Allied air raids, and many cities like Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, and Nuremberg were little more than massive piles of rubble. For this reason much of the literature of the immediate postwar period, which dealt with Germany’s devastation in a relatively realistic way, was disparagingly referred to by its critics asTrümmerliteratur(rubble literature), just as many...

    • 13: Die Mörder sind unter uns (1946): The Rubble Film
      (pp. 197-210)

      Given the difficult conditions under which it was created, Wolfgang Staudte’sDie Mörder sind unter uns(The Murderers Are among Us), the first German feature film to be made after the end of the Second World War, is a remarkably accomplished film. The film was largely made at the Althoff Studio in Babelsberg, but parts of the film were made on location in the ruins of Berlin. Filming on location was a relatively unusual thing for German cinema, which had previously been known for careful studio work. The journalist Curt Riess later remembered the making ofDie Mörder sind unter...

  9. Part Five: Postwar East German Cinema 1949–1989
    • 14: Postwar East German Cinema 1949–1989: Historical Overview
      (pp. 213-233)

      For the four decades of separation between the two German states, the cinema of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) remained relatively unknown in West Germany and in the rest of the western world. Whereas some East German literature — novels by Christa Wolf and plays by Heiner Müller, for instance — became popular in the west, East German cinema was a largely unknown quantity. Books by East German writers were relatively easy to distribute in West Germany, but film requires a complex and expensive distribution system, and in western capitalist countries that distribution system is oriented toward profit. Therefore, there...

    • 15: Sonnensucher (1958) or Searching for the Socialist Sun
      (pp. 235-245)

      Konrad Wolf’s filmSonnensucher(Sun Seekers) was conceived in the mid-1950s, filmed in 1957–58, and, after various bureaucratic battles in 1958 and 1959, ultimately scheduled for release on October 23, 1959, a few weeks after the tenth anniversary of the founding of the German Democratic Republic. In many ways the film would have been an appropriate vehicle for celebrating that anniversary. It featured a working-class hero, the miner Jupp König — played by one of DEFA’s most popular actors, Erwin Geschonneck — who becomes the leader of the Socialist Unity Party’s organization within his mine.Sonnensucherportrays workers struggling...

    • 16: Spur der Steine (1966) or Traces of Repression
      (pp. 247-257)

      Frank Beyer’s filmSpur der Steine(Trace of Stones), based on Erik Neutsch’s prizewinning novel of the same name, was already mostly completed when, in the fall of 1965, the cultural atmosphere in the GDR began to tighten up in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev’s fall from power in the Soviet Union. Hardliners in the SED Politburo disliked the cautiously liberalizing tendencies of Walter Ulbricht’s New Economic System (Neues Ökonomisches System der Planung und Leitung or NÖSPL, introduced in 1963), which had begun to move away from top-down central planning and to place more decision-making power in the hands of...

    • 17: Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973) or East Germany in the ’70s
      (pp. 259-273)

      Released in 1973, Heiner Carow’s filmDie Legende von Paul und Paula(The Legend of Paul and Paula) quickly became one of the most popular East German movies of the 1970s, helping to counteract a steady decline in East German cinema attendance that had set in during the 1960s. The film was so popular that many East Germans named their daughters “Paula” after its female protagonist.¹ It continues to enjoy cult status today as an icon of GDR culture.

      Die Legende von Paul und Paulareflects the cultural preoccupations of the early Honecker period. In 1971 Erich Honecker finally succeeded...

    • 18: Solo Sunny (1980) or Even Socialism Can’t Stave Off Loneliness
      (pp. 275-282)

      In spite of its often bleak subject matter, Konrad Wolf’s last film,Solo Sunny, which he directed in conjunction with his screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase, was a surprise DEFA hit at a time — after the expatriation of the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann — when DEFA very much needed a hit. Kohlhaase later admitted that neither he nor Wolf had expected this film to be a popular success: “the massive public response to it from the moment it went on release was something we hadn’t bargained for, it really took us by surprise.”¹ East German cinema attendance was continuing to decline in...

  10. Part Six: Postwar West German Cinema 1949–1989
    • 19: Postwar West German Cinema 1949–1989: Historical Overview
      (pp. 285-301)

      Whereas East German cinema after the end of the Second World War received the active support and encouragement of Soviet authorities and the East German government, West German cinema received less assistance from the western occupation authorities and the West German government. In fact, in many ways the first years after the end of the war saw a systematic attempt on the part of Hollywood studios to weaken the German film industry. The Ufa conglomerate that had dominated German cinema for decades was broken up in the western zones, and West German cinema had to compete on the open market...

    • 20: Die Brücke (1959): Film and War
      (pp. 303-313)

      Bernhard Wicki made his famous antiwar filmDie Brücke(The Bridge) in 1959, several years after the Federal Republic of Germany reinstituted the army, joined the NATO alliance in 1955, and reinstated the military draft for young men in 1956. The film is thus a statement not just about the German past but also about the German present. In showing the senseless destruction of six young German lives at the end of the Second World War, it conjures up a painful recent memory: Nazi Germany’s fruitless attempt to turn back the Allied invasion by throwing teenage boys into the fight....

    • 21: Der junge Törless (1966) or Recapturing Tradition
      (pp. 315-327)

      When it appeared in 1966, Volker Schlöndorff’s first feature filmDer junge Törless(Young Törless), was hailed as one of the first signs of a new, more creative West German cinema emerging from the relative stasis of the 1950s.Der junge Törlesswas released in the same year as Alexander Kluge’s first feature film,Abschied von gestern(literally: Farewell to Yesterday; English title: Yesterday Girl) and Ulrich Schamoni’sEs(It), both of which also signaled the arrival of what became known as the Young German Film and, later, the New German Cinema. All three films dealt with young people and...

    • 22: Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972): Film and the Sublime
      (pp. 329-341)

      Although generally considered one of the primary representatives of the New German Cinema, Werner Herzog approaches his art in a very different way from his fellow filmmakers. Directors like Kluge, Fassbinder, and Schlöndorff were known for their political activism and commitment, but Herzog has generally tended to steer clear of political involvement. Asked about his ideological commitment, or lack thereof, he responds with a typical lack of modesty: “I do not like to drop names, but what sort of an ideology would you push under the shirt of Conrad or Hemingway or Kafka? Goya or Caspar David Friedrich?”¹ Whereas many...

    • 23: Deutschland im Herbst (1978) or Film and Politics
      (pp. 343-355)

      Deutschland im Herbst(Germany in Autumn) is hard to categorize. In many ways it is a documentary about the profoundly disturbing political events that occurred in West Germany in the fall of 1977, but it also includes extended fictional episodes. As Miriam Hansen has written, it responds to its primary creator Alexander Kluge’s proposals for blending “radical observation and radical fiction which would leave neither genre intact.”¹ Although Kluge and his editor Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus were primarily responsible for the final sequencing of the film’s many segments,Deutschland im Herbstcannot be said to be “by” any single director. Eleven different...

    • 24: Die Ehe der Maria Braun (1979) or West Germany Rebuilds
      (pp. 357-369)

      When Rainer Werner Fassbinder directedDie Ehe der Maria Braun(The Marriage of Maria Braun) in 1978–79, he was thirty-four years old and had already directed over thirty films. By the time he died three years later at the age of thirty-seven, the total was over forty — more than three films a year during his active life as a director from 1969 to 1982. One of them,Berlin Alexanderplatz(1980), was actually a fourteen-part made-for-television movie with 900 minutes of playing time. Throughout his brief but extraordinarily productive career, Fassbinder made films at great speed with a close-knit,...

    • 25: Die Blechtrommel (1979) or Coming to Terms with the Nazi Past
      (pp. 371-381)

      Volker Schlöndorff’sDie Blechtrommel(The Tin Drum) was one of the most commercially successful films of the New German Cinema. Not only did critics praise its artistic excellence, but it also drew relatively large audiences in Germany and elsewhere, and it continues to draw audiences in video and DVD format to this day.Die Blechtrommelis based on Günter Grass’s famous 1959 novel of the same title, one of the landmarks of postwar West German literature, about the life of a boy born in Danzig in 1924 who decides, at the age of three, to stop growing, and who therefore...

    • 26: Die bleierne Zeit (1981): Film and Terrorism
      (pp. 383-397)

      For over three decades, Margarethe von Trotta has been the most famous woman filmmaker in Germany, a country that enjoys one of the most active feminist film scenes in the world. As Susan E. Linville puts it, von Trotta is “the best known of several extraordinary German women filmmakers.”¹ In accordance with the 1970s feminist slogan “The personal is the political,” von Trotta typically addresses the intersection of personal and political life. Her first feature film,Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum(1975), which she codirected with her then-husband Volker Schlöndorff, confronted precisely that intersection: a chance encounter between a...

    • 27: Der Himmel über Berlin (1987): Berlin, City of Angels
      (pp. 399-410)

      Wim Wenders’sDer Himmel über Berlin(literally: The Sky over Berlin; English title: Wings of Desire) was made on the cusp of a transition in German cinema from the political to the private, from the socially rigorous to the self-indulgently personal, and in some ways the film itself thematizes the large-scale transition. Its main character is the angel Damiel, played by Bruno Ganz, who ultimately decides that he has had enough of being an angel with access to but no involvement in all the stories that make up society and wants to become a human being with an ordinary life...

  11. Part Seven: German Film after Reunification 1990–2010
    • 28: German Film after Reunification 1990–2010: Historical Overview
      (pp. 413-435)

      Politically, the two decades after German reunification have been dominated by a union of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU), which has been the Federal Republic of Germany’s (FRG) primary governing constellation since the country’s foundation. Helmut Kohl, who had become chancellor in 1982, remained in that post for sixteen years, becoming the country’s longest-governing leader. In 1998 he was defeated by a coalition between the SPD and the environmentalist Green Party under Gerhard Schröder, who was chancellor from 1998 to 2005. In 2005 Schröder was defeated by Angela Merkel of the CDU,...

    • 29: Der bewegte Mann (1994) or West German Self-Absorption
      (pp. 437-445)

      Sönke Wortmann’sDer bewegte Mann(literally: The Moved Man; English title: Maybe, Maybe Not), based on Ralf König’s popular underground gay comic books, was one of the most commercially successful movies of the 1990s. It won the Federal Film Prize for best film in 1995, and Sönke Wortmann was named the best director of the year. At the time of its release,Der bewegte Manncaptured about 30 percent of the German market. It was eventually seen by well over six million viewers in Germany, making it easily competitive, at least on the German market, even compared to some major...

    • 30: Rossini (1997) or West German Self-Absorption Criticized
      (pp. 447-455)

      Rossini oder die mörderische Frage, wer mit wem schliefwas one of the most popular German movies of 1997, and in many ways it marked the culmination of the wave of film comedies that swept through German cinema in the post-reunification period. Unlike most of those comedies, however, which had been directed by younger filmmakers like Sönke Wortmann and Detlev Buck, who emerged on the scene over the course of the 1990s,Rossiniwas directed by veteran filmmaker Helmut Dietl. Born in 1944, Dietl was already well known for his 1980s television comedy seriesKir Royal, a show named after...

    • 31: Lola rennt (1998) or Cool Germania
      (pp. 457-467)

      WithLola rennt(Run Lola Run), his third feature film, Tom Tykwer catapulted himself to fame and fortune. The movie, whose fast-paced plot takes place on the streets of Berlin, was the biggest German-made hit of 1998–99 both nationally and internationally. In addition to attracting well over two million German viewers in 1998, it won the 1999 German Film Awards for best director and best picture. At the dawn of the new millennium, this film seemed to announce to the world the arrival of a dynamic young Germany synonymous with what many observers had begun to call the post-reunification...

    • 32: Good Bye Lenin! (2003) or Farewell to the Socialist Motherland
      (pp. 469-477)

      Wolfgang Becker’sGood Bye Lenin!was, financially, the most successful of the wave ofOstalgiefilms released in Germany around the turn of the millennium. Unlike Leander Haussmann’sSonnenallee(1999), which had initiated the cinematicOstalgietrend four years earlier,Good Bye Lenin!was actually directed by a West German, not an East German. Becker was one of three directors, including Tom Tykwer ofLola rennt, who, in 1994, joined together to create the successful production company X-Filme Creative Pool, a director-driven ensemble that gave directors access to financial backing while helping them to preserve creative control over their work,...

    • 33: Gegen die Wand (2004) or Germany Goes Multicultural
      (pp. 479-487)

      Fatih Akin, born in Hamburg in 1973 to Turkish immigrants, achieved a sensation in Germany and internationally withGegen die Wand(literally: Against the Wall; English title: Head On). Not only did the film win the Golden Bear for best film at the 2004 Berlin International Film Festival — the first German-made film to do so in almost two decades — it also won the same year’s European film award for best film, as well as garnering Akin the audience award for best director. For many,Gegen die Wandannounced that Turkish-German filmmaking had come into its own.

      And yet...

    • 34: Das Leben der anderen (2006) or the Power of Art
      (pp. 489-500)

      Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first feature filmDas Leben der anderen(The Lives of Others) was greeted by critics on both the left and the right as the first important cinematic look at the East German dictatorship after the spate of historical comedies about the GDR that culminated withGood Bye Lenin!in 2003. Anna Funder, writing in the left-liberal British newspaperGuardian, proclaimed that the film “may well be the first realistic portrayal of the GDR” ever made.¹ John Podhoretz, film reviewer for the right-wing American magazineWeekly Standard, praisedDas Leben der anderenfor being one of the...

  12. Index
    (pp. 501-522)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 523-523)