Berlin Notes: Weimar Cinema comes home

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011

Photograph: Sony Centre, Berlin

Sony Center, Potsdamer Platz, Home to the German Cinematheque. Photograph: Caitlin Freitag.

Potsdamer Platz. Photo: Caitlin Freitag

Twenty years ago, the Potsdamer Platz was Europe’s biggest building site. While the Berlin Wall was in place, the square was no-man’s land, a bombed-out site against the East-West border, marked by one of the ghost stations where West Berlin trains doubled through the Eastern sector without stopping. Now, the square is at the heart of one of Berlin’s richest cultural quarters, and is visited by an estimated 100,000 people daily. Its controversial architecture is strikingly contemporary, but to a historian, its effervescence is nothing new. In remaking Potsdamer Platz after 1989, Berlin’s authorities went some way to reclaiming its past: in particular, its heydey as the centre of Berlin nightlife and Weimar culture in the 1920s and 1930s.

Potsdamer Platz. Photo: Huw Edwards

The Potsdamer Platz is a particularly appropriate location for the German Cinematheque – Museum for Film and Television, which some of our group visited to investigate the place of film in our view of the past. The Universum Film AG (UFA), centre of Weimar Germany’s film industry, had its headquarters close by during its glory years, from 1917-1927. UFA’s productions offer a “window to the national soul” for the years following World War I, its story is a case study for the harrowing of Weimar Germany’s cultural life by the National Socialists. Among the many artefacts displayed in the Museum is one of the most iconic costumes of early film: the uniform worn by actor Emil Jannings in The Last Man, directed in 1925 by the legendary Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau.

This masterpiece, Der Letzte Mann (The Last Man or The Last Laugh, 1925) is acknowledged by cinema historians as the seminal example of a period in the development of German film in the Weimar years that concentrated on minutely realistic studies of everyday life. The film deals with the fall from grace of a haughty and opinionated doorman at a plush Berlin Hotel. An elderly man, he is demoted to lavatory attendant as he is considered too old to be the symbolic face of the hotel and has been seen to have taken an unauthorised break. The symbol of his authority and status, his garish uniform, is symbolically stripped from him in a superbly staged scene. The unnamed doorman’s world falls apart and the respect previously shown to him turns to malice and mockery, especially in the dire tenement building in which he lives. In allegorical terms, the film can be seen as a warning of the dangers of complacent, pompous authority and a reminder of the humiliation suffered by the outmoded and uniformed ‘old order.’

Innovative and allegorical German cinema produced during the turbulent Weimar period acutely reflects the prevailing socio-political ethos between 1919 and 1933. The era contains three recognised cinematic periods: the Expressionist (1919-1924), exemplified by films like Dr Caligari, Der Golem and Nosferatu; Kammerspiel Film (Intimate Theatre or Chamber Theatre, approx 1924-1929), such as The Last Man, Faust, Tartuffe and Metropolis; and Strassenspiel (Street Realism, 1929-1934) eg Dr. Mabuse, Pandora’s Box, and Asphalt.

All three periods speak of the prevailing changes in culture and national mood from the paranoia, humiliation and depression at the end of World War One, through the decadent mid-twenties and the temporary affluence of the “Dawes Plan period, to economic decline and the rise of the National Socialists. They reflect the national collective psyche of each specific period.

Photograph from "Last Man"

The Doorman at the peak of his authority

In a speech in the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin on March 28, 1933, the principal features of the Nazis’ proposed film policy were revealed by Josef Goebbels to representatives of the film industry. He had been named as ‘Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda’ only two weeks earlier, six weeks after Adolf Hitler had been named as Reichs Chancellor. Goebbels now stated that the German people were to be subject to the intervention of the National-Socialist Reich “in the economy and in general cultural affairs and that includes film.” Cinema was to reflect the “the contours of the Volksgemeinschaft [people’s community] and be allowed only to reflect art that has taken root deep in the bedrock of National Socialism”.

Last Man: Photograph

The Doorman, uniform and social standing gone, cowers in his lavatory

Hitler was to ban Jews from working in the film industry soon after Goebbels speech at the Hotel Kaiserhof, prompting some 800 film stars, directors and cinematic technicians to leave the country. Murnau, Lang, Jannings, Meyer and Pommer, were amongst those to flee as well as Billy Wilder, Hedy Lamarr, Peter Lorre, Fred Zinnemann, Joseph von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich and Otto Preminger. Virtuoso cameraman Karl Freund was also amongst the émigrés, taking with him a wealth of technological expertise and fellow cinematic craftspeople. Hollywood’s gain was Germany’s loss – a loss now placed in relief by the siting of the Cinematheque in the flamboyant Sony Centre at the new Potsdamer Platz.

If anyone doubts early German cinema’s deep and lasting influence on film, here are a few stills to add to the debate:

This post was contributed by Huw Edwards, student of history, film and literature on the BA Humanities programme.

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