In this essay I shall be exploring the history of the National German cinema and how it has transformed and adapted to the continuous shifts in political, economic, social and cultural influences both internally and externally that Germany and it’s people have experienced over the last century.
Cinema made its debut in Germany in 1895 when brothers Emil and Max Skladanowsky invented their own projector system called the Bioscop and on November 1st 1895 demonstrated it with a series of 8 short films lasting 15 minutes in total, this was the very first displaying of moving images to a paying audience in Europe and this symbolises the start of the German film industry.
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Hake, as well as numerous other scholars – and I tend to agree, argue that Wilhelmine cinema can be divided into three distinct periods. Which are ‘(1895-1906) Emergence and Experimentation’, ‘(1906-1910) Expansion and Consolidation’ and (1910-1918) Standardization. There periods saw numerous and various influences on cinema in it’s early years. For example the first decade saw plenty of technological innovation especially since industrialisation was still in full swing during this period, for example Ottomat Anschütz’s Tachyscope.
However with Germany still being a furiously imperialist nation the wonder of moving images was not met with enthusiasm by all parties. Germany’s educated upper classes had a strong resistance to the power and appeal of the cinema which was ‘based not only in their anxieties about the levelling effect on cultural life but also their fears of the modern masses for whom cinema had become the preferred form of entertainment’. (Hake 2008:11) With the many cultural influences on cinema such as the circus and the fairground, early German cinema had little need for the contemporary literary conventions and instead focused on the visual spectacle and illusionary aspects of the medium.
“If one looks to where cinema receives its ultimate power, into these strangely flickering eyes that point far back into human history, suddenly it stands there in all its massiveness: visual pleasure.” (Brockmann 2010:16)
1906-1910 saw the German Film Industry begin to consolidate itself into a national industry. All resources, capital, production, facilities and technical know-how were consolidated into a few dominate companies, similarly to the studio system in Hollywood. This followed by the foundation of the Geyer Printing lab in 1911 gave the German industry independance from it’s French competitors, who had been a dominant force in the European film market since the early days of film.
The standardisation phase (1910-1918) saw the beginnings of the longer narrative film which became the most popular cinematic form ‘in 1913 alone, more than 350 new films were released nationwide’ (Hake 2008:13). This had a knock-on effect for filmic forms and styles in Germany with the introduction of various new filming and editing techniques including greater variation in shot size and composition, superimposition, fading and masking.
The First World War saw German cinema finally break free of French influence with the inclusion of nationalism within films, forming a new bond between industry and state. However Germany did not exploit film and a medium of propaganda as much as Britain did for example with The Beast of Berlin. Surprisingly films and newsreels from the war period were aimed more towards escapism, they may have shown scenes from the front lines however realism was often avoided and narrative styles taken up instead.
WW1 saw the rise and establishment of some of the industry’s big hitting studios such as the UFA studios (1917), setting the stage for the next era of German cinema.
Economics had the biggest impact on cinema in the Weimar period, the harsh reparations outlined in the Treaty of Versailles caused hyperinflation in 1920’s Germany. However this allowed for the emergence of the expressionist cinema movement. The inflation allowed filmmakers to Papiermark which would have vastly devalued by the time it needed to be repaid. Nevertheless, film budgets were tight and the need to save money was a contributing factor to the rise of expressionist films like the Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).
“The struggle for economic survival after the currency reform of 1924 manifested itself in an intense competition over film audiences that affected everything from advertising, journalism, and fandom to programming practices, admissions policies, and theatre architecture and design. Two simultaneous developments informed the transformation of cinema as a public sphere: the unification of audiences under the… idea of a homogenous middle-class society and the diversification of markets.”(Hake 2008:51)
The late twenties, whilst still not entirely free from economic trouble, brought greater economic security to the Weimar Republic. The number of cinemas increased (approximately) from 2,300 to 3,700 between 1918 and 1920, however, despite this films were still constricted by small budgets. Yet as the decade moved on the influence of Expressionism began to fade which allowed for a variety of new styles and genres to emerge most of which concerned with the idea of ‘New Objectivity’ a phenomenon influencing all artistic mediums of the Weimar period. These films were primarily concerned with social themes and a return to realism. Films such as Joyless Street (Die Freudlose Gasse) (1925) and Pandora’s Box (1929) by Georg Wilhelm Pabst fall into this new filmic form. The return to a realist style of cinema prompted a new trend in ‘asphalt’ and ‘morality’ films which focused on subjects such as prostitution, homosexuality, addiction, oral sex and abortion. On the other hand Arnold Fanck was also developing the ‘Bergfilm’ as a genre, these films typically featured the protagonist battling the elements up in the mountains.
There was one other big movement in German cinema during this period which came in the form of the chamber play or chamber drama (Kammerspiel). Associated with Carl Meyer these films were in many ways a statement against the popular spectacle and expressionist films. chamber play films expressed more conservative attitudes especially in regards to opposing big city life, were often set in small, dreary and very bland settings, usually backing traditional family values. They were often known better as ‘instinct’ films since they focused on the intimate psychology of the characters.
The last few years of the Weimar Republic saw some dramatic changes in Germany both technologically and politically. National Socialism was on the rise with the German people starting to look for someone to blame for their hardships during the twenties, which would have a dramatic effect on Germany and it’s film industry in the years to come, but more immediately the introduction of sound was re-shaping the film industry. With a now global economic crisis the three big German studios (Ufa, Terra, and Emelka) couldn’t afford the enormous costs of transitioning to sound films so as a result they consolidated and began searching for new sources of needed capital, resulting in a new found ties with the state in order to protect German culture and stave of American film dominance.
1933 saw the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi party thus beginning the next phase in the ever changing face of German national cinema. The earlier economic crisis had seen a number of German directors leave Germany for greener pastures but the new anti-semitic laws enforced by the Nazi’s caused ‘many other directors, actors, composers and screenwriters’ (Hake 2001:23) to leave the country taking with them the unique flare that constituted German cinema.
‘Obligatory cheerfulness and and crude sexual humour took the place of subtle innuendo and double entendre. Visual, acoustic and linguistic wit was abandoned in favor of conventional dramatic effects, and the provocative play with identities gave way to highly normative definitions of gender and race’ (Hake 2001:24)
With the relationship established between the film industry and the state before the downfall of the Weimar Republic it was easy for the Nazi party to impose it influence over the studios. The Ufa was effectively under Nazi control by March 1933 when Alfred Hugenberg excluded Jews from being able to work at the studio which was several months before the establishment of the Reich Chamber of Film (Reichsfilmkammer) which made the film industry directly under Goebbels’s propaganda ministry and led to the exemption of Jews and foreigners from employment within the German film industry. Approximately 3000 people in the industry were adversely affected forcing most to leave Germany such as Fritz Lang who proceeded to have a long and prosperous career in Hollywood.
Yet was, as you would expect, all German cinema of this period purely propaganda? Goebbels himself ‘always made the distinction between the 20 percent big budget films with clear propagandistic intentions and the 80 percent films on a higher artistic level.’ (Hake 2001:3) However it has been argued that this was not entirely the case with Hans Wollenberg arguing that ‘even apparently harmless subjects, comedies or even musicals, have, somehow a tendency to advance Nazi ideologies’ (Wollenberg 1948). It is clear that there is truth to this as Goebbels proceeded to ban film criticism in 1936 leaving journalists only to comment on the content of a film rather than it’s merits, artistic or otherwise.
The import of foreign films was also highly restricted between 1933 and 1940 the number of American films shown in Germany dropped from 64 to a mere 5 films a year. Entertainment films became increasingly important towards the end of the second world war with films providing from a distraction from the constant threat of Allied bombing and German defeats at the front. Cinema admissions in 1933 and 1944 exceeded over a billion sales consisting of big box office hits such as Die große Liebe (1942) and Wunschkonzert (1941) which combined elements of musical, wartime romance and patriotism.
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The Nazi regime however brutal and restrictive was not totally without technical innovation in the film industry. One such innovation was the introduction of Agfacolor as a major element of the film production process in 1939. Leni Riefenstahl also made numerous contributions to technical and aesthetic achievement with her film Triumph of the Will (1935), documenting the 1934 Nuremberg Rally. This combined with the documenting of the 1936 Summer Olympics, led the way with new techniques for camera movement and editing practices which still influence filmmakers to this day.
With the fall of the Nazi regime in 1945 Germany became divided into the East (Communist controlled) and West (capitalist) zones which had an incredible and unmistakable knock on effect to National German Cinema. The Allies began a process of decartelization led by th the American principles of ‘free competition, open markets,… and the abolition of state control’ (Fehrenbach 1995:51-52). This coupled with the Occupation Statute which protected the German film industry by forbidding import quotas allowed cinema in Germany to get back onto it’s feet.
The west established the ‘SPIO, the main professional organisation of the West German Film Industry’ (Hake 2008:96) in 1949, which helped establish a voluntary self-censorship code that was agreed upon by the industry for all the western zones. This code was managed by the Freiwillige Selbstkon (FSK), the code was modelled after the MPPDA model and has the same ‘taboo subject- nudity, vulgarity, blasphemy’ (Hake 2008:96)) and so on. In 1951 the Filmbewertungsstelle (Film Evaluation Board ot FBS) was established creating a system of economic support for filmmakers however was also known for political censorship in an effort to make sure West German films featured principles that would allow smoother integration into the western alliance.
For the first time in years German audiences had unrestricted access to world cinema with melodramas from the states and Charlie Chaplins classics being popular during this period, the share of German films remained high at 40% of the market in the 1950’s with American films taking up a mere 30% of the market. (Schneider 1990:35, 42 & 44). Most West German films of the post war period have been categorised as the rubble film (Trümmerfilm). Rubble films were not too dissimilar in style Italian neorealist films and they focused themselves on day to day life in war torn Germany and the initial reactions to the Nazi period.
With the arrival of the 1960’s German cinema reached an impasse, the growth in Cinema attendance that had been seen in the 50’s had begun to stagnate and decline.’ By 1969 cinema attendance was at an all time low with an average of 172.2 million visits per year, 25% of the attendance peak seen in the previous decade. (Kinobesuche in Deutschland 1925 bis 2004) Thus the Oberhausen Manifesto was created by a group of young up and coming filming makers who said ‘The old film is dead, we believe in the new’. ‘the government responded to this mounting criticism by setting up the first film subsidy agency, the Kuratorium junger deutscher Film (Board of Young German Film). Launched in 1965 by the BMI, the Kuratorium was given a brief to promote the kind of filmmaking demanded by the Oberhausen Manifesto signatories and to ‘stimulate a renewal of the German film in a manner exclusively and directly beneficial to the community (quoted in Dawson 1981: 16)’ (Knight 2004).
The establishment Kuratorium helped create a batch of critically acclaimed films which appeared to be a renewal of German film such as Kluge’s Yesterday Girl which won the Special Jury Prize at the 1966 Venice Film Festival and a number of other awards this was the start of what was ‘initially termed Young German Film and later became the New German Cinema.’ (Knight 2004)
East Germany or the German Democratic Republic (GDR) initially benefited from the fact that the majority of Germany’s film production infrastructure was now located in Soviet controlled Berlin. Soviet administration was keen to get the film industry started again and moved quickly to do so, cinemas were re-opened just three weeks after the occupation began and the production company Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft or DEFA was established in May 1946. DEFA became the centre of a centralized system of film production and by 1949 was totally under state control.
‘Bertolt Brecht noted that Defa… has all sorts of problems finding subjects, especially contemporary ones. Those at its head list significant themes: underground movement, distribution of land, two year plan, the new man etc., etc.; then writers are supposed to devise stories that interpret them theme and it’s associated problems. This naturally often goes wrong’ (Allan and Stanford, 1999:6-7)
This strong political control lead to a severe lack of scripts capable of being a driving force for pushing Soviet ideologies and as such DEFA had real difficulties in the early fifties ‘only 30 films were released in the first four years’ (Allan and Stanford, 1999:7) After managements restructure and the exploitation of the ‘climate of compromise’ by Hans Rodenburg the later half of the fifties saw DEFA produce a variety of films on a number of different topics. Childrens films, science-fiction and red westerns were all genres that developed in this period.
With the dawn of the 1960’s East German cinema moved away from the Stalinist approach to filmmaking and ‘increasingly the films of the 1960’s tackled subject matter that was both controversial and contemporary.’ (Allan and Stanford, 1999:6-7) but filmmakers were still affected by the ever changing political stances if the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) the whole slate of films from 1966 for example was pulled from distribution. The early seventies was ablaze with popular success and was one of the most successful times for DEFA with films like Frank Beyer’s Jakob, der Lügner which was the only DEFA film nominated for an Oscar. This success however alarmed the SED leadership and after sharp criticism of Ulrich Plenzdorf and the expatriatiation of Wolf Biermann another wave of filmmakers left Germany as a direct result of this and the harsh restrictions placed upon them and their work.
The 1980’s were the beginning of the end for DEFA changing political stances of other countries was allowing films from nations such as Poland and Hungary to become easily available in East Germany not to mention increasing access to American television from West Germany. This combined with pressure from a new generation of directors that were displeased with opportunities with DEFA, fast and furious changes to internal politics and the fall of the wall in 1989 saw the restrictions on filmmaking vanish along with the GDR as Germany reunified.
Post Unification Cinema
Unified Germany and the newly re-unified Europe created new problems and new opportunities. 1990’s Germany was focused on merging two distinct ideologies, resulting in debates about what constitutes Germanness in the arenas of culturally, socially and politically. The film industry was of course affected by this the old state owned studios were privatised, DEFA was sold to a French conglomerate, an initial peak in cinema attendance in the early nineties known as the ‘cinema of consensus’ and the privatisation of cinemas across Germany coupled with the availability of Hollywood films kept German cinema going and pushed forward the development of high budget entertainment films and so the industry began focusing on the now accessible transnational markets.
‘Several developments and events contributed to the making of such a transnational cinema: the fall of the wall…the influx of Eastern Europeans… the establishment of the EU and the… integration of Germany into the European labour market (Hake 2008:216). With some German films gaining international success such as ‘The Edge of Heaven’ which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
‘As the last decade of the 20th Century has shown, the future of German cinema will require more than the perfection of well-tested generic formulas and the creative contribution of a few talented directors. And as the first decade of the 21st Century has suggests, the survival of the influential filmic tradition will involve… the elements that have characterized German cinema from the start. Now as then, this process requires a workable compromise between art film and popular cinema, generic tradition and formal innovation, political ideology and mass diversion, public interest and corporate profit, cultural heritage and cultural industry and…between… national, international and transnational… identity in a global media landscape.’ (Hake 2008:221)
In conclusion it is clear that German cinema has been affected by an ever changing political and economic settings where cultural and social ideologies are constantly changing and merging as influences both internal and external shaped the country, it’s people and it’s culture.
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