Thursday, April 14, 2016

From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses (LOOKS Film Productions, Arte, ZDF, Kino, TCM, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a peculiar presentation on Turner Classic Movies, an elaborate 2014 documentary on the films of Weimar-era Germany called From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses. I had assumed this would be a relatively normal TCM documentary — narrated in English and with a few film clips interspersed with a lot of talking heads — instead it was made by Rüdiger Suchsland (which sounds more like the name of a place than a person — I couldn’t help but think, “Suchsland, Suchsland, über alles”) and the narration was in German (they didn’t do what PBS usually does when they show foreign documentaries and have an English voice-over replace the original). What’s more, the visual content consisted almost exclusively of film clips, not only from the Weimar-era dramatic films but from actual newsreels and amateur footage from the same time, and some of the parallels between what documentarians of the time were recording in the streets of Berlin and Germany’s other major cities and what fiction filmmakers were reproducing in the great German studios (between the two World Wars the German studios were the best-equipped and most technologically advanced in the world outside of Hollywood) were among the most interesting parts of the film. The title came from a controversial 1947 book by Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, which made the case that the filmmakers of the Weimar era had consciously or unconsciously reproduced the conflicts within Germany, psychological and social as well as political, that ultimately brought the Nazis to power in 1933.

I hadn’t known much about Kracauer personally but I wasn’t surprised when this film noted that he was a member of the so-called “Frankfurt School,” a group of Marxist scholars including Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, who essentially attempted to update Marxism to include a critique of mass culture and an analysis of how the capitalist ruling class used it to inculcate its values among the masses. I’ve never actually read Kracauer’s book, though I’ve seen a lot of the major movies of the Weimar era and some of their directors — notably Fritz Lang, who if I were forced to pick just one would be my all-time favorite filmmaker, both for the obsessiveness with which he told his story and the sheer range of his approach (though if I had to pick one movie as the greatest film of all time it would probably be Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — I remember my disappointment when the results of the last Sight and Sound poll of the 10 greatest movies of all time came out and Hitchcock’s Vertigo had surpassed Citizen Kane at the top of the list; I remember thinking that if any movie deserved to chart above Kane it was 2001, and though I love Vertigo I’d rate at least three other Hitchcock films — Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious and Strangers on a Train — ahead of it), as well as the number of genres in which Lang pioneered (he was making “Hitchcock movies” before Hitchcock was and James Bond movies well before Ian Fleming created the character — and, praise by, Suchsland devoted quite a bit of time to Lang’s 1928 film Spies, which pioneered both the Hitchcock and Bond films; no fewer than three 1930’s British Hitchcock films, The 39 Steps, The Secret Agent and Sabotage, rip off key sequences or plot points from Spies, and when I saw the complete Spies from Kino Lorber the film came off as less Hitchcockian and more Bondish than it had in a 90-minute cut version I’d first seen in the 1970’s). Anyway, Kracauer’s analysis was ridiculed by many of the surviving filmmakers who had actually worked in Weimar Germany; in his post-film commentary TCM host Ben Mankiewicz said that Lang had claimed he made his two-part film Die Nibelungen in 1923-24 to exalt the German people instead of criticize them, and in his 1965 autobiography Josef von Sternberg said that Kracauer’s claim that the students who harass their professor in The Blue Angel were the prototypes of the Hitler youth. Sternberg, a native Austrian who made all but two of his films in the U.S., said that when he went to Germany to film The Blue Angel in 1930 he’d never heard of the Nazis, and while he was there he ran into two of their rallies but otherwise had no contact with them. As I mentioned, virtually this entire film was in German with English subtitles — though ironically Fritz Lang was represented by a late-1960’s documentary interview he had filmed in English, and one of the modern-day talking heads, U.S. professor Eric Weitz, was also shown speaking English. (Presumably he was either subtitled or voice-overed in the original German release of this documentary.)

If there’s a point to be made for this documentary, it’s that the cinema of Weimar Germany encompassed far more than the dark, brooding, atmospheric films most movie buffs think of — Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Student of Prague; Lang’s The Spiders, Destiny (whose German title, Der Müde Tod, literally translates as Weary Death), Dr. Mabuse, Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Pabst’s The Joyless Street, Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl and The Threepenny Opera, Sternberg’s The Blue Angel — when they think “Weimar German cinema.” It also encompassed light-hearted musicals with titles like Drei von der Tankstelle (literally “Three from the Gas Station”) and The Congress Dances (a musical about the Congress of Vienna, of all things), many of them starring Willy Fritsch and Lillian Harvey, who became a superstar team in early German sound films anticipating Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the U.S. (though ironically before sound came in Fritsch had been the juvenile male leads in Lang’s Spies and Woman in the Moon). There was also a strain of socially conscious films that came about during what Suchsland called the “New Sobriety,” the period between the currency reform of 1924 that ended the hyperinflation and the worldwide depression of 1929, in which (at least according to him) German cinema moved away from the Expressionism of the Caligari period and became more realistic. One of the paradigmatic examples was a rarely seen film from 1929 called People on Sunday, made on a shoestring budget and self-financed by its illustrious participants, including Robert and Curt Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Eugen Schuftan and Billy Wilder. (In his 1969 interview in The Celluloid Muse Wilder — one of the few Celluloid Muse subjects who was still making movies when he was interviewed for it — recalled, “We borrowed the money from the uncle of Robert Siodmak, the director. And Robert was the director for a very simple reason: when kids play football on a meadow the one who owns the football is the captain, and Robert owned the camera.”) It anticipated the French New Wave films of three decades later and was a simple story of two young (straight) couples out and about on a Sunday, and as Suchsland pointed out it began with a deliberate rejection of movie-star culture: two of the protagonists are shown messing up publicity photos of Willy Fritsch and Lillian Harvey.

Suchsland also mentioned that the German Social Democratic Party had its own filmmaking operation, devoted to making movies about working-class people in dire straits due to the financial situation — including one in which an old man commits suicide and the director cuts to a group of 1-percenters who see the story in the newspaper and wonder why today’s workers are so weak-willed that they give up so easily. At least one of the frustrations of a documentary like From Caligari to Hitler is it whets your appetite for long-unavailable or hard-to-find movies — you’ll see clips from an unfamiliar but fascinating-looking film and think, “Gee, I’d love to see that!” In this case, the movie I’d most like to see after watching this one is Nerves, made the same year (1919) as Caligari and apparently even more extreme — and effective — in its stylization. From Caligari to Hitler suffers from the pretentiousness of its theorizing — Siegfried Kracauer was one of the founders of modern-day “critical theory” and you can definitely see its roots here (after From Caligari to Hitler Kracauer wrote another book, Theory of Film, which Pauline Kael ridiculed in her review, saying that Kracauer couldn’t just enjoy watching Fred Astaire dance like the rest of us; he had to construct a theory under which Astaire’s work could be validated in serious intellectual terms) — and certainly a version with an English-language narration would have been more satisfying to a U.S. audience, but it’s still an interesting look at one of the most important eras in any country’s cinematic history even though, if Douglas Sirk’s 1937 film La Habañera is to be believed, the common assumption that the Nazi years were an artistic wasteland and German films didn’t start getting good again until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when a new generation of directors like Schlondorff (interviewed here), Herzog, Wenders and Fassbinder emerged and put German cinema back on the international map, is simply not true.