- A Culture of Light: Cinema and Technology in 1920s Germany
Frances Guerin begins A Culture of Light: Cinema and Technology in 1920s Germany by reminding us that there is a long tradition within representation that is central to the understanding of the coherence of light and lighting. Generally, as she states, approaches are grouped under two umbrellas. On the one hand, from Plato through the Middle Ages and into the 19th century, light was put in the service of mystical and mythical narratives that searched for metaphysical truth. In these representations, light was characteristically the symbol of truth and knowledge. In 19th-century representation, in particular, light was juxtaposed with darkness to signify the possibility of a truth defined by social integration, freedom from the burdens of everyday life and the attainment of spiritual wisdom. Conversely, from Euclid through Galileo to Einstein and the quantum physicists, the study of light has functioned within the realm of science as an integral component of efforts to empirically and quantitatively gain knowledge of the physical world. Relationships between light and darkness, in this realm, exist within the physical world rather than referencing realms beyond our grasp. The mythical and scientific trajectories have evoked societal tensions, as they did in German art and cinema of the 1920s.
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While this tension per se is not Guerin's specific focus as she surveys the culture of light, it becomes clear that this culture developed in a way that played with the tension. More specifically, she argues that German silent cinema manipulates light and lighting to represent and interact with transformations of space, conceptions of time and history, modes of representation and the flourishing entertainment industry in 1920s Germany. While acknowledging that German cinema was not as well developed as that of France or the United States, the book conveys that it shared their urbanity. We also find that German narrative film of the 1920s enthusiastically embraced the products of late industrialization when they deployed light and lighting in all their variant possibilities. Indeed, the book's balancing of light and lighting highlights the combination as a single aspect of the mise-en-scène. This point is so well argued that the text retains the magic of cinematic effect and grasps the elusive relationship between films and the people who produce them.
Throughout the volume, the book's organization works in its favor. Chapter One sets the stage. Here the author provides a detailed account of historical and artistic connections between film's articulation of light and lighting and those in other media. This foundational section places 1920s German film within the development of a Modernist aesthetic in Europe. In Chapter 2, Guerin introduces a number of films from the 1910s, which provides some continuity between pre- and post-World War I projects. Against this background, she is also able to speak of technological modernity in Germany and to demonstrate the roots of themes later explored in depth by 1920s filmmakers. Her argument here is that films such as Und das Lict Erlosch foreground manipulations in light and lighting within the framed composition, narrative structure and fulcrum around which thematic issues turn. [End Page 91]
Chapters 3-6 are the meat of the study. Analyzing the use of light in 11 films, the author moves, in each case, from a discussion of the filmic use of light and lighting for compositional purposes through the unfolding of the story to the engagement with transformations in social and cultural life that resulted from technological modernity in Germany. I was fascinated by Guerin's ability to make me envision how the culture evolved and how deftly she paired the films and the events that marked the period. Algol (1920) and Schatten (1923) use light and lighting in self-conscious ways. Referencing these projects, she opens a discussion of the kinds of transformations that are brought to visual representation with the invention of electrical lighting and other...