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Modernism/Modernity 9.1 (2002) 197-198

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Book Review

Weimar Cinema and After:
Germany's Historical Imaginary

Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary. Thomas Elsaesser. New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. 472. $22.99 (paper).

For over half a century, the study of Weimar cinema has been dominated by the work of two German émigrés, From Caligari to Hitler (1947) by Siegfried Kracauer and The Haunted Screen (1969) by Lotte Eisner. Having established themselves as critics during the Weimar years, these two authors sought to account for the radical innovations in German cinema of the 1920s and early 1930s while also making the cultural and political landscape--the psycho-historical in Kracauer's case, and the aesthetic in Eisner's--comprehensible to non-German audiences. Although each of these works has its share of merit and both remain in print and often serve as required reading for film students, they tend to rely on what film scholar Thomas Elsaesser terms "historical imaginaries" (34). According to Elsaesser, both books

have helped to popularize and at the same time demonize this cinema, making it, under a double conjuncture, in one case representative of broader tendencies within society (Kracauer's collective soul of the recipients), and in another, more art-historical turn, of the German "genius" (Eisner's individual soul of the creators) in art, reflected, expressed and embodied in German cinema. [34]

The goals of this study, then, are to broaden the scope of analysis and to complicate the previous analytical models used to examine the period.

Touching upon much of the same ground as Kracauer and Eisner, and then branching out into less charted territory, Elsaesser divides his book into four parts, each containing three to four chapters. The chapters move freely from the realm of the auteur (Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau, and G. W. Pabst) to thematic and historical constellations (from expressionism to film noir) to genres that have not received their due attention (German screen comedy and the operetta). Figures like director Reinhold Schünzel, at one time a "household name" according to Elsaesser, demand renewed consideration as they allow us to revisit such neglected areas--relegated to the margins in standard works--as popular cinema and Weimar camp.

In laying out the larger stakes of debate, Elsaesser devotes an entire chapter to Erich Pommer, in which he explores the critical evolution of Germany's most successful film company, the Universal Film Aktien Gesellschaft, or UFA, and Pommer's extended tenure as its charismatic and ambitious head of production. This is of course a high point in German and European film history and, by zeroing in on key junctures within the development of UFA, Elsaesser does an impressive job of supplementing and revising the work done by Klaus Kreimeier and others.1 Owing to the breadth and rigor of his account, readers are left with a complex understanding of the role that Pommer played in creating what came to be known as the "UFA-style." As Pommer once famously remarked:

I hold the view that the value of a film does not lie in the quantity of players, nor in the size of the sums invested in the negative, but in the careful selection of subjects, the tasteful direction, the quality of the cast, and last but not least in the creative collaboration of the director with good designers and camera operators. Only under these conditions can we hope to achieve acceptable product for export. [118]

The "export" was indeed vast: first of pictures themselves and later of actors, directors, screenwriters, and producers.

Perhaps the most significant contribution made in Weimar Cinema and After is its emphasis on the vital legacy of the period, the long shadows that Weimar has cast over American cinema. In one of the final chapters, "To Be or Not to Be: Extra-Territorial in Vienna-Berlin-Hollywood," [End Page 197] Elsaesser assesses the mass migration of the German and Austrian film industry. Yet, in keeping with his earlier treatment of Weimar, he attempts to move beyond the accepted myths...


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