History through a Lens – German Film

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011

Visit to the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen (German Cinematheque – Museum for Film and Television)

Along with history, film has always been one of my greatest passions. One of the sights that I was most looking forward to seeing in Berlin was the German Film Museum. Some might argue that the German Film Museum has no place on a history field trip, but it is a mistake to think that. Where better to gauge the reactions of the country during and between war years? As Huw Edwards, a fellow film enthusiast, will discuss more thoroughly in our next blog post, German cinema is a tool used both to reflect and influence the mood of the nation. The museum not only exhibits the history of film in Germany but in doing so displays the changing politics of the country and the effects that these political changes had globally.

Metropolis: Photograph

Ceri, Jonathan, Huw and some doppelgangers in the German Cinematheque, Berlin. Photo: Ceri Carter

As you walk into the main exhibition you are greeted with a surreal scene; the floor, ceiling and walls are covered in mirrors with a white, winding walkway through to the other side of the room. Amongst the mirrors are several large screens at jaunty angles flashing clips from various films linked to the German film industry. A feeling of dread and terror sweeps over you as it feels as though you are walking on the set of Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927.)

The cityscape of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927)

Each display echoes the period from which the memorabilia is from; for example, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) display incorporates the jagged, twisted shapes synonymous with the German Expressionist movement. The museum chooses to commemorate film history through a variety of different memorabilia, such as original film scripts, notebooks, telegrams, costumes, Oscars, etc. There is a huge section of the museum dedicated to probably Berlin’s most famous actress, Marlene Dietrich. Any Marlene fan would get a thrill from seeing a collection of her costumes displayed so elegantly, or the ‘love’ telegrams sent to her by Josef von Sternberg and Fritz Lang.

Photograph: Marlene Dietrich Display

Marlene Dietrich Display - Photograph from the website of the German Film Museum

It is becoming apparent that film can be a useful source for historians, whether it is for portraying the past or as a reflection of social and political climates at the time of production. Not only can film tell us about the past but the history of film as a technology is a research area in its own right. In line with our general theme of remembering the past, any visitor to the German Film Museum will be struck by the various ways in which the museum has chosen to display the collections that they have. By showing the exhibits chronologically they are illuminating the cultural and political story behind the making of these films. Snippets of the development in technology are trickled between the memorabilia to remind us how innovative the film-makers truly were. The use of mirrors, shadows and angles throughout the museum enhances the whole experience and allows the visitor to almost experience firsthand what the directors envisaged when making their films. As you wander through the collections you are made acutely aware of the impact that National Socialism had on a global scale in driving directors such as Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau and actors like Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre from Germany and to Hollywood.

On the whole the museum was a massive highlight for me, satisfying my love of both film and history. It is a must see for any film buff or any cultural historian interested in German film. The innovative way in which the museum displayed its exhibitions and took you on a journey through the history of German Film made the visit an all round exhilarating experience. I, for one, felt like a child in a sweet shop.

This post was contributed by Ceri Carter, a rising final-year history student and secretary of the Glamorgan University History Society.

Photo: Inside the German Film Museum

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One Response to History through a Lens – German Film

  1. Pingback: History Division News » Berlin Notes: Weimar Cinema comes Home

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