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The Weimar Touch

The International Influence of Weimar Cinema after 1933

Weimar cinema between 1918 and 1933 was characterized by a high level of artistic diversity. It created forms and genres that enjoyed international respect and recognition. This year’s Retrospective “The Weimar Touch” is devoted to how cinema from the Weimar Republic influenced international filmmaking after 1933. It focuses on the through lines, reciprocal interplay and transformations displayed especially in the films of German-speaking emigrants up through the 1950s. Its protagonists brought this legacy to bear on the unfamiliar cinema of their countries of exile – in Hungary, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal or the USA. The Retrospective is showing 31 films in five segments: “Rhythm and Laughter”, “‘Unheimlich’ – The Dark Side”, “Light and Shadow”, “Variations”, and “Know Your Enemy”. Screenings include famous classics as well as almost unknown films that bear testimony to the enduring influence of the creativity of Weimar cinema.

Soon after the Nazis seized power in 1933, they implemented a series of sweeping measures to enforce total conformity with Nazi doctrine (“Gleichschaltung”) in all aspects of society, including the film sector. A number of ’rogue’ films appeared that had been conceived during the Weimar Republic but were only produced later. But those were now outnumbered by films that were fully aligned with Nazi ideology: “martyr films” such as HITLERJUNGE QUEX. EIN FILM VOM OPFERGEIST DER DEUTSCHEN JUGEND (OUR FLAGS LEAD US FORWARD) by Hans Steinhoff, or Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1933 Nuremberg Rally, DER SIEG DES GLAUBENS (VICTORY OF FAITH). Riefenstahl was flown in Adolf Hitler’s plane directly from the Nuremberg location to Berlin, to attend the gala premiere of the Arnold Fanck film, SOS EISBERG, in which she acted. The film’s producer was Paul Kohner, who was later to help so many émigrés to the US. But he and composer Paul Dessau could not attend the premiere; they had already been forced to flee Germany.

 

Nonetheless, for a brief period in the early days of the Nazi regime, glimpses of characteristic Weimar cinema conventions remained visible. Clear echoes can be seen, for instance, in Reinhold Schünzel’s VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA, which premiered on December 23, 1933. And Paul Martin’s GLÜCKSKINDER (1936) is influenced not just by American ideals, but also by the film archetypes of the Weimar era. Another example of the transformation of German cinema that is well worth seeing is EINMAL EINE GROSSE DAME SEIN (1934), directed by Gerhard Lamprecht, later to be founding director of the Deutsche Kinemathek. In it, Lamprecht made musical reference to DER KONGRESS TANZT (Erik Charell, 1931) the most successful sound film operetta of the Weimar era, which was condemned by the Nazis. The Retrospective proffers several unexpected examples of this ongoing influence.

Over the next few years, more than 2,000 men and women were barred from the film industry alone and forced to emigrate. They did this in the hope of escaping unemployment, disenfranchisement and persecution. Once abroad, they found themselves facing entirely new conditions. In their countries of exile, the émigrés became new competitors in existing markets. They often knew little about the surrounding culture, had to struggle with language difficulties and found it hard to smoothly adapt their skills.

 

“Rhythm and Laughter”
In Weimar cinema, sound film operettas, musical films and film comedies were genres that were decisively influenced by Jewish filmmakers. Well worth watching: PETER (Hungary, Austria 1934) by Hermann Kosterlitz was filmed in Budapest. In this comedy that is highly critical of society, with echoes of the sound film operetta, wilful Franzisca Gaál plays the title character, a breeches role. With KOMEDIE OM GELD (1936) filmed by Max Ophüls in the Netherlands, we re-discover a recently restored delight. The director of photography was Eugen Schüfftan, who later became an Oscar winner. An absolute must is the classic SOME LIKE IT HOT (USA 1959) by Billy Wilder. On a par with his beau ideal, Ernst Lubitsch, and with equal nonchalance, Billy Wilder continued to hone the subversive humour and frivolous travesty of Weimar cinema for decades, transposing it onto the American context of his time.

 

“‘Unheimlich’ – The Dark Side”
Thrillers also benefitted from the Weimar tradition that had been shaped by filmmakers such as Fritz Lang. In the USA, Lang, who became an American citizen in 1935, took a decisive stand against lynch law with his film FURY (1936). The still young sub-genre of film noir, which especially in America began painting a dark, edgy picture of the present from the mid-1940s onwards, was inspired to an astonishingly large extent by directors and screenwriters who had emigrated from Germany. Robert Siodmak deserves a special mention here with his “Black Series”. He immigrated to the USA straight after the outbreak of war in 1939, but not before filming PIÈGES (TRAPS, France 1939) during his exile in Paris. That film, which can be regarded as an essential link with his American body of work, is about a murderer of women. It begins as a French romantic comedy, but develops into a sinister thriller that drives the audience into the grip of the pathological in a way that Fritz Lang had already demonstrated with his 1931 masterpiece M. Another example of the French film noir is LE CORBEAU (1943) by Henri-Georges Clouzot, about a doctor pursued in a “witch-hunt”. The persecution of two people is also the theme of THE CHASE (USA 1946). In this case, both the director Arthur Ripley and the author of the original novel were Americans. But one element of biographical continuity is worth noting: the producer was Seymour Nebenzal who had produced significant films for Nero-Film AG in Berlin during the Weimar Republic.

 

“Light and Shadow”
Amsterdam was already the fourth stop on Kurt Gerron’s emigration journey and it was where he made the gripping thriller HET MYSTERIE VAN DE MONDSCHEINSONATE (Netherlands 1935). Erwin Scharf designed the sets and the Hungarian Akos Farkas was the director of photography. Both of them had been forced to flee from Nazi Germany. THE LANGUAGE OF SHADOWS is the title of a film about Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s works. Time and again American directors acknowledged Murnau’s aesthetic influence on their own films. John Ford was no exception. His film HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (USA 1940) takes place around 1900 in South Wales, where coal mining has destroyed the idyllic landscape and eventually drives the workers from their homeland. In LETTER FROM AN UNKOWN WOMAN (USA 1948), Max Ophüls evokes memories of Vienna around the turn of the century. The director of photography was Franz Planer who, before emigrating, had already worked together with Ophüls in Germany. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger directed THE SMALL BACK ROOM (United Kingdom 1949), which is set in England during World War II. These two men were both gifted and successful. What is particularly remarkable is that Pressburger, one of the Weimar Republic’s most brilliant screenwriters, managed to overcome the language barrier and create highly acclaimed works in English as well.

 

“Variations”
The films being shown under this heading are both remakes and films that modify their Weimar era models. Unlike, for instance, Joseph Losey’s 1951 American remake of Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic M, both of which were produced by Seymour Nebenzal, these films do not necessarily include any biographical continuity. FIRST A GIRL (United Kingdom 1935) by Victor Saville harks back to Reinhold Schünzel’s VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA (Germany 1933). Both films are being screened in the Retrospective. Similarly, CAR OF DREAMS by Graham Cutts and Austin Melford (United Kingdom 1935), displays many analogies in plot and set design with Gerhard Lamprecht’s film EINMAL EINE GROSSE DAME SEIN. LE GOLEM by Julien Duvivier (Czechoslovakia/France 1936) echoes earlier cinematic models such as Paul Wegener’s silent movies, which picked up the theme three times between 1914 and 1920, as well as a contemporary novel of 1931. This film is particularly worth seeing, not least because of these many layers of reference.

 

“Know Your Enemy”
Film is a medium of entertainment and a mass medium, and its influence was also used to take a stand against the Nazi regime or to mobilize people: TO BE OR NOT TO BE (USA 1942) by Ernst Lubitsch ridiculed the Nazis and their ideology with ingenious comedy and humanity. Another classic is HANGMEN ALSO DIE! (USA 1943) by Fritz Lang, which is set in Prague immediately after the assassination of the Nazi’s Acting Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich. The plot in the gripping American film of 1944, NONE SHALL ESCAPE, directed by André de Toth, seems to foreshadow the actual prosecution of war criminals in post-war trials. In the 1930s, the director Ludwig Berger was successful with musical films and the filming of operettas. In exile in the Netherlands, he filmed ERGENS IN NEDERLAND. EEN FILM UIT DE MOBILISATIETIJD (SOMEWHERE IN THE NETHERLANDS, Netherlands 1940). The romantic drama focuses on the imminent German invasion. Following the film’s premiere in April 1940, it only survived for three months in the cinemas. It was banned after the German invasion and almost all of the copies were destroyed. One of the must-see movie classics is, of course, CASABLANCA (USA 1942) by Michael Curtiz, with its cast of mostly European actors. Many of them had personally experienced the desperate efforts to get a visa and the difficulties of adapting to a foreign language. This was the case with Szöke Szakall who, in the role of Carl the head waiter, toasts a couple on their approaching departure to the USA and tops off one of the most delightful film dialogues – “What watch?” – “Ten watch.” – “Such much?” – with his memorable quip: “You will get along beautifully in America”.

 

Meanwhile, the times in the Third Reich had long since changed radically. First, the spirit that had once radiated from the films of the 1920s and the early 1930s became a rarity in a German film industry in the stranglehold of enforced conformity. And then it was banned completely.

The films produced in exile with the help of artists who had been banished from Germany included all genres; there were large-scale productions and quickie, low-budget works. Although they are not a part of German film history, they are still part of the historical impact of German film. The aesthetic influences of films from the Weimar Republic lived on in many films in the countries where the refugees sought sanctuary – under new auspices, adapting to changing production conditions, and within different cultural and social contexts. “The Weimar Touch” Retrospective traces the living influences of a cinema era, to which the Nazi regime put a brutal end in Germany.

Rainer Rother

 

The Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen is responsible for the Retrospective. “The Weimar Touch” is dedicated to a topic that represents a long, important and continuing tradition of the Deutsche Kinemathek, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2013. It is the first retrospective to be curated by the Deutsche Kinemathek in cooperation with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The members of the Curatorial Board are Rainer Rother (Section Director of the Retrospective and Artistic Director of the Deutsche Kinemathek), Rajendra Roy (Chief Curator of Film at MoMA), Laurence Kardish (former Senior Curator of Film at MoMA), Connie Betz (Deutsche Kinemathek, Programme Coordinator Retrospective), and Hans-Michael Bock (Cinegraph, Hamburg).

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