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  • Labor-Movement Modernism: Proletarian Collectives between Kuhle Wampe and Working-Class Performance Culture
  • Christoph Schaub (bio)

In late 1929, Kolonne Links, one of about two hundred proletarian agitprop troupes that performed at the time in Weimar Germany’s working-class neighborhoods and at political events, devised a performance titled “Film.”1 The piece moved from satirical critiques of the movie industry and film censorship to propaganda for the Volksfilmverband, a platform promoting a left-wing cinema.2 In particular, the performance criticized the film industry for producing movies that allegedly pacified proletarian audiences, compromised their investment in class struggle, and provided an illusory depiction of reality. Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis, which had been released just two years earlier in 1927, was the performance’s case in point. The performance not only advanced its argument through words, but also appropriated Metropolis’s representation of the proletarian masses and repurposed it for its own political project. In other words: Kolonne Links translated Metropolis’s staging of the proletarian masses back into the context of working-class performance practice that had originally influenced Lang’s own staging of the urban working class.3

It was, however, not only in movies produced outside of the public sphere of the labor movement, such as Metropolis, that proletarian performances influenced the staging of the urban proletariat. Such performances were also foundational to the production, aesthetics, and diegetic world of Slatan Dudow’s movie Kuhle Wampe oder Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe or Who Owns the World?, 1932), which—like “Film” and [End Page 327] Metropolis—was concerned with the image of the proletarian masses in urban modernity and belonged, like “Film,” to the left-wing attempt to produce a counter-hegemony to commercial film, through distribution companies, film production, cultural activism, and criticism.4 Made possible through the voluntary participation of thousands of working-class athletes and performance activists—and documenting the work of an agitprop troupe and working-class choruses while fusing the aesthetics of proletarian performances with the editing techniques of the city symphony film—the movie exemplifies exchange processes between modernist film and working-class performance practices that were multidirectional and crossed lines of class.

These cultural interactions and aesthetic hybridizations have, however, not attracted detailed attention in scholarship on the movie, and this is at least partially so because existing performance studies research on working-class performance practices has not been brought into contact with research on Kuhle Wampe in film studies. Combining both fields, this article reconstructs the interrelations between proletarian performance practice and film in the Weimar Republic to demonstrate that Kuhle Wampe’s politics of form are based on an intermedial hybridization of aesthetic forms emerging in the media of film and performance. Kuhle Wampe contributed to the production of a cinematic counter-hegemony, I argue, by appropriating aesthetics of working-class performances and reimagining them through modernist editing techniques.

My article develops this thesis in two directions. First, I explore the politics implied in the aesthetic image of the urban proletariat constructed by Kuhle Wampe, comparing it both to the mass politics of agitprop and working-class chorus as well as to the representation of the masses in fascist film. In this way, my article contributes to the study of mass imaginaries in the interwar years. I build here on Stefan Jonsson’s insight “that the aesthetic images of the mass in Weimar culture tell us far more about the political conflicts and historical predicament of this society than we are likely to pick up if we limit our interest to references to the masses found in the scholarly and political context.”5 Secondly, I use my discussion of the hybrid aesthetics of Kuhle Wampe to reconsider the nature of the film’s modernism itself. Kuhle Wampe is widely seen as “a modernist work of the political avant-garde,” a distinction attributed to the movie in the first place because of its indebtedness to Brechtian epic theater and to the Soviet cinematic avant-garde.6 While this genealogy is convincing for most parts of the movie, it falls short of explaining the aesthetics of the famous sports festival sequence at the end of the film...


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pp. 327-348
Launched on MUSE
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