- A Culture of Light: Cinema and Technology in 1920s Germany
A Culture of Light: Cinema and Technology in 1920s Germany is a compelling first book by Frances Guerin, a lecturer in film studies at Kent University, Canterbury. Guerin's book offers an engaging new analysis of the much-discussed topic of 1920s German cinema. What separates Guerin's book from previous scholarship is that she discusses an aspect of 1920s German cinema that has been for the most part ignored—light and lighting and the connection between technology and film meaning.
Guerin begins her book by stating rather obviously that "cinema is a medium of light" (xiii). Despite the transparency of the statement, that the cinematic image is manipulated in and of light is often ignored or downplayed by critics. As a new and emerging technology, cinema played a role similar to electrical lighting in modern Germany. Guerin sets out to investigate the relationship between 1920s German [End Page 134] film and the various contemporaneous uses of light and lighting and their connection to the culture of German technological modernity.
This work by Guerin becomes especially important because, in addition to shedding some new light on old favorites like Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) and Die Straße [The Street] (Karl Grüne, 1923), she also discusses some films that have been left out of existing histories, such as Algol, Tragödie der Macht [Algol, Tragedy of Power] (Hans Werkmesiter, 1920), Der Stahlwerk der Poldihütte während des Weltkrieges [The Poldihütte Steelworks during the World War] (1917), and Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam [The Golem: How He Came in the World] (Paul Wegener, 1920). Avoiding a politically determinist analysis, Guerin instead places these films within a historical context, examining how various economic, social, and cultural crises are played out through new and innovative uses of film lighting. Rather than burdening the films with the responsibility of representing a national identity, Guerin points to the larger issue of Germany's embrace of technological modernity as being one kind of national cinema.
When discussing light, Guerin refers to the various ways it is manipulated, natural light, light as it interacts with the space and time of the real world, artificial light such as gas, and technologically mass-produced light such as electric light and neon light. The key to Guerin's argument about 1920s German cinema lies in a tripartite role of light and lighting in the films. Although this point is not initially clear in her opening arguments in the introduction, it becomes clear in her actual analysis of the films. The films Guerin has chosen to discuss stand out because (1) light and lighting play a central role in the frame composition, (2) light is a principle narrative structure; it provides the context for representational images and, (3) light is the language through which themes about technological innovation are communicated (79). According to Guerin, analysis of the use of light in these films offers a unique insight into representations of a new industrialized way of life in Germany, as well as providing a context for developing artistic and cultural activities.
Guerin astutely sets the stage for her analysis by accounting for the historical and artistic culture of light at a time when Germany was working hard to create a new, vibrant and strong self-image. She explores the developments in industrially produced light and how they altered all aspects of life, including conceptions of space, temporality, class distinction, the capitalist economy, and the entertainment industry, as well as the other arts within a larger landscape of Germany's progress toward technological modernity (7). In discussing the connection between light and German art forms like architecture, theater, and photography, Guerin also takes the opportunity to position her work within the theoretical arguments surrounding German cinema and modernity. Unlike Siegfried Kracuaer, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Bloch, she suggests that the problematic portrayals of modernity in the films help them to conceive of a new concept of modernity.
Guerin then examines the use of light and...