Given the infamous position the Lumiere Brothers have as the pioneers of early cinema,
(and coincidentally, the anniversary of their Cinematographe was a couple days ago),
perhaps slightly less aware is the competing story of two German inventors, Max and Emil Skladanowsky, the creators of the Bioscop, a film projector eventually proved to be inferior to the lumiere brother’s creation.
Fun fact. The screenings of the Bioscop were actually the first payed screenings of moving pictures in Europe (November 1st, 1895 in a restaurant called Feldschlößchen), and actually played a vital role in the development of German cinema and its influence on cinematic history despite it being short lived.
Recognized in history as the birth of a theoretical idea now called the “cinema of attraction” (by a film theorist named Tom Gunning), the early years of German cinema for the most part travels a similar line as much of Europe in that it continued to balance the allure of this new thing called the “moving image” with the perception of it as either art or entertainment. These travelling projections, or the German Kintopp as they came to be called, moved through the Country capturing the imagination of its people through the power of the image, using visuals to evoke emotions (the root of cinema of attraction).
As history goes, the fascination with seeing moving pictures on screen eventually led to the creation of something more concrete being established within the German landscape, with the Kammerlichtspiele Cinema in Berlin 1912 being the first cinema of note, but with cinemas emerging in places like Mannheim as early as 1906.
Cinema and Class Structures
What is interesting to note about these early years of travelling entertainment within Germany, and eventually the glorious German architecture that would follow, is that even in its formative years cinema was functioning as a commentary on class. According to many of the sources I encountered, the novelty of these pictures eventually gave way to popularity, shifting its focus to lower and middle class audiences. The popularity of the medium in Germany began to divert the higher classes away, causing them to dismiss it as frivolous entertainment. It would be later though, as the idea of film began to take concrete shape in the form of a more visible architectural presence, that it began to be considered as serious art.
This relationship between film and class continues throughout German cinematic history, with this social concern informing everything from German expressionism, Nazi propaganda, post war cinema, to the eventual re-education purposes entering into the modern age. But intiatilly, with this history comes the building of these grand cinemas, their destruction in the wars, in Germany’s post war period their reconstruction amidst the East-West divide and the American funding that allowed West Germany to begin to redevelop, and ultimately their familiar deconstruction once again with the onset of tv, a familiar epidemic that exists in similar form across Europe.
If I can backtrack a bit to the early 1900’s and the emergence of German cinema as a concrete form, a part of what moved film from a lower class distraction to an upper class and distinguished artform was the connection of cinema in Germany to its formative influence on oral, literature and cultural German storytelling methods. What made films in Germany artistic was its connection to “literary form”, which itself connected back to Germany’s historical positioning as some of the earliest storytellers to influence modern forms. This provides cinema with a foundation on which to grow in form as well as a new way of expressing shared themes and ideas.
It is out of this that German cinema is able to gain an intellectual presence, developing different styles and methods such as Schaulust (literally translated visual pleasure), which grew to become the most prominent and distinguishable characteristic of German cinema and cinematic criticism. As Walter Serner writes, “If one looks to where cinema receives its ultimate power, into these strangely flickering eyes that point far back into human history, suddenly it stands there in all its massiveness: visual pleasure (Schaulust).” And these distinct visual forms emerge from Germany’s rich history of storytelling.
What might be more interesting though is Germany’s more recent cinematic history, particularly in the years following re-unification. On a superficial level there are many ways in which it appears to mirror the development of the multiplex that we see in America, with cinemas at first spanning out into smaller and more modest venues called KoKis (Independent Cinemas meant to protect the virtue of cinema), and then ultimately growing into the big box centers that are about more than just the screen and the film. But where America’s movement created something entirely other, buildings that mirror their capitalist agendas rather than offering any clear connection to some idea of its cinematic history, in Germany the movement was and is an attempt to reconnect to the glorious buildings of their past. As film studies expert Jan Phillips writes, “In contrast to the homogenous multiplexes, the focus here is on the cinema theatre itself – which consciously reflects the glamour of the picture houses of a bygone era.” As I will touch on more below, this connection to building and art, people and architecture is a defining part of German culture and its cinematic tradition.
A National and International Cinematic Industry
The more I travel the world through film, the more common and aware the relationship between the building of a National Film Industry and the pressures of an International Industry becomes. A strong, localized Industry is vital to the health of a given Country, not just on an economic level but on a social level. And what is most important about this fact is that the history of cinema holds a deep and very real connection to the development of a Country’s ethos, identity and social awareness. This is at least in part because of the ways it has replaced (in the modern age) the theater as the means through which a Country is able to form (through the telling and retelling of their stories in a shared and public fashion) a collective narrative and recognizable identity. Film has the power to unify people around an idea and a purpose in a way that other artforms cannot.
Even more so, these stories become the lens through which people are able to both understand their history and the means by which they are able to express their experience of it. It gives voice to their past, their present and actively imagines their future, thus giving the people confidence to then step out into a more global reality. This is why you see so many of Countries in their pre and post war periods developing their industries and investing in their filmmakers as part of a renewed National vision and value. This is also where, in times of struggle, Countries with power are those with established arts (film industries), holding a strong national identity that is able to carry and influence abroad.
As Jochen Kurten writes in the article,
“Fact and Fiction: German Films and History”, “More than any book or exhibition, even more than school lessons, popular feature films influence Germans’ image of their own history. That is not new knowledge perhaps, nor is it surprising. But as articulated by Hans Walter Hütter, director of the “Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland” (House of History of the Federal Republic of Germany), the claim carries a lot of weight.”
A real problem arises when a Country needs to rebuild but is left unable to rise above the foreign influences and pressures that holds them captive. This was and is true for Germany, which found so many of its citizens having moved away and now living on American and foreign soil. Without those creatives who are able to help give voice to the narrative of the Country as it is being experienced, Germany has found itself being overshadowed by the perspective of those living abroad viewing the Country from a distance and a localized industry that has failed to capture its true ethos in a visible way.
I can say, of all the Country’s I have visited so far, either in part or in full, Germany is so far the most unique in this regard. Their history is entrenched in this national-international narrative. This is a very simplified analysis of a complex discussion, but what adds to this picture is that Germany’s lengthy and difficult political story also dictated its cinematic history towards the path it eventually followed, forming its cinematic landscape in ways that were more beholden to oppression than liberation. As the wonderful 2018 Hitlers Hollywood shows, when the cinema that is there becomes the voice of a dictator and regime, the story of its people gets muddied and confused. This is why movements like Italian Neo-Realism were so influential and so important. They helped rebuild their Country’s through film that became the voice of the people, interested in capturing their reality and their concern.
To this end, the biggest hurdle that German Cinema faced and continues to face is the fact that it has been left scattered by its relationship to international borders and its in-Country conflict, causing what began as one of the most promising centers for cinematic development (as represented in their architectural history, preserved, rebuilt and destroyed, their innovation and their early films), to give way to period after period of mass exoduses of Germans to foreign soil, with (as mentioned) one of the primary exoduses being the eventual establishment of German cinema now being made from American soil and as American films by German Americans. European influence early on (France, Italy and Denmark) quickly gave way to the gradual Americanization of German culture, of which a byproduct was an unfortunate disassociation from the history that had informed the German peoples experiences. This is something, as a people, they are still trying to overcome, and the future of German film plays a vital role in re-establishing these connections.
Cinema, Early Expressionism and Politics
One can then add to this the difficult history Germany has faced on a socio-political level, moving through the two World Wars and towards eventual re-unification of East and West. The decision to ban imported films in both world wars, including French Film, had a two-fold effect. On one hand it did help to protect a “distinctly German cinematic identity.” Consider the Weimar period, a complex and problematic interwar era that, despite its early struggles to create a true Democracy and the infamous Article 48 that paved the way for Hitler, gave rise to some of a period of stability and cultural reform in German Expressionism and Chamber Dramas, even advancing the art of film itself. German Expressionism is heavy in symbolism and imagery, not coincidentally evoking new class distinctions and a high level of social commentary. It was a way of understanding the German experience through stylings that were unique to their form of storytelling. It reflected the voice of the people in a time of change, a drastic contrast to the Country under Nazi rule.
Even a most cursory look at Expressionism can tell you that it was interested in using style to say something about what the people were thinking, feeling and fearing. It lends itself readily to the horror genre, but expands beyond it. Even more so perhaps, Chamber Dramas, translated from the German word Kammerspielfilm which means “an intimate, cinematic portrait of lower middle class life”, comes from a style of German theater that is very sparse and very simple and has an interest in character over movement, examining the motivations of a character rather than depicting a story arc. These were perhaps the flip side of expressionism which tended to be more grand displays of cinematic fervor. Chamber films were intimate with a specific interest in digging underneath the German Psyche.
Also not surprising is the deep conviction of German Expressionism to the rejection of Western ideas and ideologies. Even then it knew the dangers of being absorbed by an international identity, and it is one of the reasons why the genre and style is still the most recognizable German collection of films on an international level. It is through both Expressionism and Chamber Dramas, among other German styles and movements, that we are able to recognize, for example, the deep connection with Germans to architecture and cityscape, buildings, streets and civic life. Knowing this can help one understand the devastation that their destruction had on their physical and emotional landscape, the motivation they had for rebuilding the old, and the power that held in giving them a future.
But whatever periods of potential and creativity that we find and discover, we also know that we are never far away from another war, another divide or another political battle, many of which decimated and or controlled the culture, architecture and national identity in its wake. With the wars came bans on importing international films and exporting German films, with subsequent Government control banning and directing what kind of films could then be seen and made. This cut off lines of artistic influence altogether, and even more tragically so abruptly. Films then turn towards propaganda with history becoming confused, the voice of the people left fighting to be heard and largely marginalized in its course.
The irony of this is that over this same period of time it could be said that Germans have had the single greatest influence on American film in its illustrious history. But that comes at the expense of being able to see and understand Germany’s cultural identity from the context of its own soil, and it has impeded its ability to heal and reform as a Country from so many of these experiences.
Facing A Persisting Cinematic Problem
To say this another way, German film is thus caught in a catch 22. Their banning of international films led to their films not being recognized outside of their borders, which led to a declining interest in film overall, which led to a lack of creatives willing and able to make films that reflect their own story from their own perspective.
As a few articles suggested, they have tried to come up with solutions but have never really regained their footing and their ability to be inventive. They have lost a national identity both inwards and outwards, with most of the success coming from international partnerships these days and German filmmakers making and producing abroad.
As one article puts it,
“Germans, like many of their European neighbors, offer government subsidies to their filmmakers in an effort to encourage domestic motion picture production. Europeans, including the Germans, have traditionally tended to regard filmmaking as an art rather than a business. Because the resulting European films are often limited-budget, intellectually challenging productions that lack the Hollywood big-star, action/blockbuster formula, their mass appeal has been limited.”
(Further) “It is ironic, then, that the German film diet of today is predominantly Anglo-American, especially in light of Germany’s historical role in world cinema. Almost from the first days of motion pictures, both the Austrians and Germans were at the cinematic forefront, exerting great influence over the medium. And yet years of migration have made their cinematic presence in America far greater than it is in their own Country.”
(Cinema in Germany)
Germany, unlike Ireland (which I visited before travelling to Germany cinematically speaking), was never able to reconcile this predominantly Anglo-American influence with a vigorous longing to return to their homeland. Whereas the Irish have created movements meant to reclaim their heritage and rebuild their culture through Irish Cinema, Germany continues to wrestle with its complex relationship with its past and present and future, consequently struggling to find its place in the cinematic world as its creatives remain scattered abroad.
(And yet) Authentically “German” films are still every bit as important now as they have always been, and have even persisted in some surprising ways that are not always easy to recognize in an increasingly global climate. These films are important because they help one to not forget their past but to face it, to remember it and build towards a stronger future.
This is why, seeing beyond even expressionist film, recognizing movements like New Objectivity, which like Chamber Films existed as a parallel and counter to expressionist film in that it traded the expression for realism, Trummerfilm (literally “rubble film”), which distinguished films captured right after the war in the rubble of its aftermath (films largely interested in the theme of rebuilding such as “Somewhere in Berlin”), Heimatfilm (“homeland film”), which spans that post war period up until the 70’s with films interested in generational contrasts and the relationship between rural and urban life, is important to understanding Germany as a Country. All of the genre and style distinctives that do still exist with German cinema are important because they can protect and record the history of the people amidst the upheaval and the rebuilding. This is true today even with viewing films (like the Nazi Propaganda films, and even the post war films where one can see a clear agenda covering up the reality) that confused their history and manipulated it. They tell a part of their story that is worth remembering and making sense of, and provide an overarching narrative that one can look back on, think and reflect upon and piece together in a meaningful way. They also allow one to hear and see the voice of the people being expressed in the midst of trying times, offering us a glimpse of those who tried to stand up against that which was not right and tell stories that reflected their actual experience.
And seeing and supporting modern German films today becomes vital to learning and capturing and recapturing the true German spirit now. It might take more work to uncover these films than in other Countries but it is worth the investment whether one is German or not. Because one thing is true, for all that the German people have witnessed and lived through and had to overcome, they have so many stories worth telling, a strong storytelling culture to pass on and preserve, and a culture worth celebrating in its immense potential to impact the cinema of tomorrow.
*MY JOURNEY THROUGH GERMAN CINEMA
Here is a link to my working (and ranked) list of German films from my travels. There are of course many that I can still add, and I will continue to do so as I get a chance.
A Critical History of German Film by Stephen Brockmann
The German Cinema Book by Tim Bergfelder
The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907–1933 by Anton Kaes, Nicholas Baer, Michael Cowan
Hollywood in Berlin: American Cinema and Weimar Germany By Thomas J. Saunders
Feinstein, Joshua (1999). Constructing the Mythic Present in the East German Cinema: Frank Beyer’s ‘Spur Der Steine’ and the 11th Plenum of 1965.