- The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema: Rediscovering Germany’s Filmic Legacy
Weimar culture has generated a consistent flow of scholarly interest since the 1960s, but in the past decade a veritable stream of English-language books on Weimar cinema has gushed forth (not to mention those in German). These include Thomas Elsaesser’s Weimar Cinema and After (New York 2000), edited volumes by Kenneth Calhoun (Peripheral Visions, Detroit 2001) and Dietrich Scheunemann (Expressionist Film—New Perspectives, Rochester 2003), Frances Guerin’s A Culture of Light (Minneapolis 2005), Anton Kaes’s Shell Shock Cinema (Princeton 2009), Noah Isenberg’s edited volume Weimar Cinema (New York 2009), and the substantial catalogue edited by Laurence Kardish for the Museum of Modern Art’s film retrospective, Weimar Cinema 1919–1933 (New York 2010). The volume under discussion compares most immediately to Isenberg’s collection of essays whose subtitle—An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era—accurately conveys that volume’s content: 16 solid readings of the best-known Weimar films, including an essay by Rogowski (reviewer’s disclaimer: one by me as well). The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema dovetails nicely with this most recent collection; its 18 chapters reveal no overlap in the films discussed, since it focuses on popular genre films rather than the better-known Weimar auteur cinema, nor in the contributors, except the editor himself. As such, the two volumes not only reveal the breadth of Weimar film historiography with contributions from three generations of scholars, but they also complement each other exceptionally well. Together they offer the interested reader or film instructor a wealth of background material, readings of individual films, and paradigms for discussing Weimar popular culture.
Editor Christian Rogowski frames the essays in his introduction by emphasizing three aspects on which they focus. First, taken together, the contributions insist on broadening the canon by highlighting the diversity or “many faces” of Weimar cinema. Second, the contributors stress how popular film genres were conceived for and marketed both to domestic and international mass audiences, countering traditional claims that Weimar cinema “reflects” or responds to uniquely German developments. Third, and related to this understanding of the commercially driven film industry, the authors consider how technological innovation and experimentation made Weimar cinema so productive, both in number of films produced and in sheer creative energy. Implicitly the entire volume is aimed against the weighty legacies of Siegfried Kracauer’s socio-psychological reductionism and Lotte Eisner’s appeal to or defense of high-brow art cinema that have dominated Weimar film history for the past 60 years.
Arranged more or less chronologically according to the films treated, the 18 [End Page 471] richly illustrated essays were largely authored by a younger generation of film scholars trained during the 1990s and 2000s, reflecting to some extent new avenues and issues in film analysis and criticism. The chapters excel in historically contextualizing their respective films, usually relying on movie industry press and film reviews for both the production and reception details. While it is impossible to comment on all of them, the majority of the authors focus on a single film while referring to relevant domestic and foreign features to broaden the corpus of films under discussion. Some of the highlights for me are Richard McCormick’s discussion of the liberatory politics of “orientalism” in Lubitsch’s Sumurun (1920); Angelika Fuechtner’s presentation of Franz Osten’s Hindi feature Leuchte Asiens (1925) as an example of how transnationalism inflects Weimar cinema; Theodore Rippey’s discussion of Weimar body culture as displayed in the often cited but rarely screened “Kulturfilm” Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (1925); Rogowski’s treatment of Wilhelm Dieterle’s Geschlecht in Fesseln (1928) as a model for how one situates a film within discursive fields of production and reception; and Jaimey Fisher’s spatial analysis of sound techniques in Pabst’s Westfront (1930). Other contributors address larger issues beyond paradigmatic studies of individual films: Joseph Garncarz on the cultural specificity of the Weimar star...