- Weimar Film and Modern Jewish Identity by Ofer Ashkenazi
Ofer Ashkenazi’s Weimar Film and Modern Jewish Identity makes valuable contributions to German studies, Jewish studies, and film history. Unearthing and exploring pervasive engagement with Jewish assimilation and acculturation and liberal, bourgeois ideals in Weimar cinema, this clear, engaging, and well-researched analysis offers an original perspective on Weimar films and their Jewish filmmakers.
Ashkenazi shows the importance of understanding Weimar cinema as more than a “German” national cinema and more than solely reflective of a “German” national [End Page 219] psyche in the tradition of Siegfried Kracauer (From Caligari to Hitler, Princeton, 1947; From Caligari to Hitler, Princeton, 2004). Beginning with the evidence that many directors and other film industry members in Weimar Germany were Jewish and first- or second-generation immigrants, Ashkenazi shows how Weimar cinema also reflects Jewish experiences of modernity and early twentieth-century debates about Jewish acculturation and assimilation. Ashkenazi contends that the modern Jewish experience—or at least the one of Weimar filmmakers—was an urban, bourgeois one deeply invested in cosmopolitan liberalism. According to Ashkenazi, the experiences, desires, and fears of such urban, liberal Jews find expression in the thematic preoccupations in Weimar film with strangers and outsiders, with the possibility of finding authentic identity through performance, and with negotiations of identity between public and private space. He illustrates such preoccupations through well-contextualized, careful close readings of both well- and lesser-known examples of Weimar genre film, including urban comedies, domestic melodramas, horror films, and exotic adventure and war films.
This book makes an important and original contribution to Weimar film studies. There is much fine scholarship on Weimar film, including significant work that locates Weimar cinema in a variety of social, cultural, and political contexts, including analyses of Jewishness, Jewish assimilation, and antisemitism in films of the period. What distinguishes Ashkenazi’s book is his reversal of the assumption that Weimar cinema is a “German” cinema. By revisiting Weimar films as “Jewish” cinema, Ashkenazi develops a narrative that explains some of the era’s thematic fascinations. Ashkenazi does not stick to films with overtly Jewish characters and explicitly Jewish content. Instead, he primarily interprets films that on the surface more obviously address class, gender, and other German national concerns. The relationship of such films to the Jewish experience, according to Ashkenazi, lies not only in the biographies of their directors but also in the film texts themselves. Engagement with Jewishness manifests itself in themes that echo contemporary discussions of Jewish assimilation and acculturation and in a strategy of “double encoding,” of deploying characters and narratives that embed Jewish concerns within more generally legible ones and that appeal simultaneously, and perhaps differently, to Jewish spectators and to a broader bourgeois audience. Thus, a suite of seemingly unrelated films previously understood by audiences and critics to have been about a variety of topics reveal themselves here to be, beneath the surface, all about Jews. To his credit, Ashkenazi does not present his analysis in a totalizing way, he “does not seek to supersede all these other readings. Rather, [he] points to an essential yet understudied cultural context of the production and reception of Weimar film” (150). Ashkenazi’s methodological intervention thus allows readers to see Weimar film from a new perspective and offers tools both for decoding traces of Jewishness in texts where they initially are not evident and for talking about the complexity and polyphony of Weimar film.
Weimar Film and Modern Jewish Identity is written in a clear and engaging way. [End Page 220] The author does a particularly good job of presenting a clear historical and conceptual framework in the introduction and repeating and refining his argument in each chapter, so that while each chapter sheds new light on new material, the overall trajectory of the argument and its implications remain clear throughout. Because of its effectively structured argument, this book could either be read cover to cover (and I recommend doing so) or by individual chapter, particularly by scholars interested only in...