The first and arguably still the most influential “movement” in movie history, the German cinema of the Expressionist era had the good graces to be a style revolution that had its roots, famously, in the bloodied soil of WWI. It could therefore be seen as an organic eruption, an art geyser with only genuine social despair and artists’ fury to propel it. Of course, as with film noir a quarter-century later, the history is messier—for one thing, German Expressionism was not a pre-auteurist confluence of like-minded maestros honing their individual visions but a house style of the nation’s sole state production company (Ufa), as institutionalized and commercial a project as the Lucas-Spielberg blockbuster aesthetics of ’80s and ’90s Hollywood. More to the point, the darkling faerie tale films of Murnau, Lang, Pabst, Dupont, May, Wiene, et al. may not have been quite a response to the Great War’s scorched earth and soul (which had, in fact, very little to do with the Gothic and/or “street” style and content of many of the movies), but an expression of German life under the Weimar Republic, a pause-reset gap in German history we tend to overlook, because what came before and after it were so hellacious.
A duo of overlapping retros, at MoMA and the Harvard Film Archive, make the point, and quite organically illustrate how much the moment varied beyond the horror films and moral fables that have long become sanctified and petrified in film culture arteries. The series certainly have their pedagogic work cut out for them—American audiences, even avid silent film fans, know generally little about the Weimar years, and that little usually has something to do with the budding career of a short, vociferous man named Adolf. Generalizing (something only "idiots" do, according to William Blake, generalizing beautifully), the 1919-1933 period in Germany was a crazed, brawling tumult, born out of postwar rage and preceded first by a quasi-Bolshevik series of worker and military uprisings and independently elected councils. Revolutionary Communist and parliamentarian Social Democrat contingents fought it out, often simply proclaiming new governmental formations to the public without agreement being reached, and fighting became so prevalent in the Strasse of Berlin that the new government, with elections held in January 1919, relocated to Weimar. The Allies' blockade and the Treaty of Versailles applied economic pressure, while for the next five years right and left factions battled like street gangs in Germany’s populated areas. Add a major coup, several general strikes, massive Communist uprisings, an additional occupation by Allied troops, and stir.
The EKG plateaued in 1923 when the government began to stabilize (with a symbolic sigh, as the Beer Hall Putsch was easily put down and Hitler sat in jail scribbling), but entropy arrived in another form: a new burst of U.S.-aided assistance fueled a “golden” period lasting to the end of the decade, enduring a big surge in cultural renovation, and a huge, generation-upsetting influx of "modern" Americanized styles and attitudes. Modernism arrived like the devil on horseback, and with German society, in the eyes of anyone over 30, happily, giddily going to hell, things boiled along swimmingly and decadently until the stock market crash, and the precipitous economic downturn that voted the big-mouthed, law-and-order-promising Nazis into Parliament. From there, only a few short worrisome years remained until the National Socialists took over completely, and a new day, as they say, dawned.
The heart of the Weimar film experience lies in those frantic, buoyant, contentious middle years, when the collision of war memories, raw disturbance caused by the years of outrageous civil unrest, and an intoxicating surge of sexual, aesthetic, and cultural progressiveness lit up the lichtspielhaus night sky. But as with all art-cultural events, lines are impossible to draw—Richard Oswald’s pioneering gay "issue" drama Different From the Others came in 1919, when censorship laws were still being written. (It was banned by 1920.) Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) arrived like a shareable, avant-garde bad dream soon thereafter, followed closely in style by Hans Werckmeister’s sci-fi parable Algol (1920), and the first cinema "wave" gathered force even as political violence percolated and the society’s infrastructure lay in ruins.
Despite the monolithic treatment the era has received in the history books, “Expressionism” itself was as varied a phenomenon as the broader culture around it, embarking from the harbor of normalcy with Caligari but quickly modifying that film’s wild Freudian theatricalism and adapting it to a broad spectrum of tastes, genres, and ideas. The Weimar scene was nothing if not catholic in its application of extreme style to a wildly busy popular art form, and borderline supernatural folklore wasn’t the only obsession. Ernst Lubitsch’s nouveau riche rip The Oyster Princess (1919) comes off as positively Burtonesque (splitting the difference between Beetlejuice and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), satiric of Art Deco and teeming with startling compositions, and yet hilarious and featuring what must be the greatest musical-comedy number in the history of silents. Fritz Lang’s cellar-dwelling Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) invented the modern crime film, and felt positively proto-noir decades before the fact, leading more or less directly to Karl Grune's The Street (1923) and its inauguration of the fatalistic "street" subgenre, gritty yet as studio-artificial as Lubitsch's cream puff. You can hardly point to Lang’s iconic Die Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927), or Joe May’s urban-tragic Asphalt (1929) and claim a Caligari inheritance. German Expressionism quickly became a standard of designed visual density, not precisely a style, and its function at the time may have been more as pure eye-feast—the silent era’s Avatars, 300s, and Inceptions—than as a specifically Gothic idea.
But there's no mistaking the films' generalized moralistic thrust, which is where the conflicts that define the Weimar culture manifest themselves with bells and whistles. The '20s were a sin-scarred party in most industrialized nations, and conservative Christian-parental backlash was ubiquitous, and these are good reasons why the decade is still as notorious for generational battle lines and hedonistic upheaval as the ’60s came to be. But Germany was situated for a singularly potent awakening, identifying itself still with the loftiest achievements in high culture and scholarship for a century running, coming off the dissolution of an expansive empire and the punishment meted out by the Allies for a war in part initiated by at least three other powers, and being for a time without both central authority and the economic chips to propel the nation forward for the sake of business alone. So, the intoxication of decadence, criminal indulgence, and lawlessness competed on a movie-by-movie, often scene-by-scene, basis with its howlingly horrified reply, a pious call for cosmic justice and damnation. It was a dynamic that Hollywood’s "morality codes" later borrowed in earnest, but for the Germans it wasn’t an imposed constriction but the meat of the problem, an inevitable divine reaction to the sins the world compels upon you, a condemnation received for just being human.
Which sounds very noir, if a good deal more Catholic, even if the one legacy film playing at both retros helmed by noiristes-to-be—Edgar G. Ulmer and Robert Siodmak's Menschen am Sonntag (1930), assisted by Curt Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann, and Billy Wilder—is famously a gentle, observational precursor to '30s Renoir and neorealism. That in itself was a vibe the smaller production companies pursued into the sound era, with Wilhelm Thiele’s rather French gas station musical Three Good Friends (1930), Paul Martin’s fanciful warbler A Blonde Dream (1932), Slatan Dudow’s edgily Communistic Kulhe Wampe (1932), and of course Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform (1931), a somber, conscientiously un-Expressionistic parable of oppression and social power that, like many of the films of the day that dared to deal with contemporary life, was eventually Nazi-banned, their makers briskly vacating their homeland for Paris and Los Angeles by 1933.
Whatever the style, Weimar culture didn’t last long into the sound era, yet another casualty of technology and history both. But the silents didn’t just die with the coming of talkies—they were extinguished as well, tragically, by the Depression, and by the ascension of the Third Reich, and by the consolidation of Stalin’s power circa 1929, and by the portents of the Spanish Civil War, and by the entire ghastly European march toward modern warfare and tribal genocide, which germinated in the trenches of 1917 and upon which the century would turn, as on a hinge. Arguably, nowhere was the cinematic loss as tremendous as in Germany, where the bloom of intense, helter-skelter silent-era energy comes off as a beautiful adolescence, burning twice as bright but hardly long enough.
RELATED CALENDAR ENTRYNovember 17, 2010–March 7, 2011 Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares
Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct