National Identity in Weimar Cinema: Occult, Expressionism and the Femme Fatale
By: Meg Geddie
The influence of the strange, mysterious and unknown gave rise to a nihilistic concept of fate or destiny on which a whole genre of Weimar films was based. Germans of the early twentieth century felt as if nothing mattered because, in the end, death claims everyone. Some people therefore simply decided to give themselves over to vice and enjoy life while they could. This hopeless sort of indulgence stemmed from and intensified after the shock of World War I. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926) and Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921) and Metropolis (1927) conveyed the message of inescapable fate through the use of magic and the occult.
Nosferatu (1922) was blatantly based on Bram Stoker's Dracula; however, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau succeeded in creating a different interpretation of the story. Like the original, Thomas Hutter (Johnathan Harker in the novel) travels to Count Orlok's (Dracula's) castle for real estate business purposes, the vampire falls in love with Ellen Hutter (Vilna Harker), and the vampire follows Hutter home and begins killing his victims. The similarities between the novel and film cease at this point. One of the main differences had major implications for Weimar society: the association of the vampire with plagues of sickness and rats. The use of the occult image of the vampire, a foreigner, who could spread disease through blood transmission and by rodents, represented a social evil that could also infect and spread. Therefore the innocent townspeople became the victims of an evil outside force.
Author Maria Tatar describes the occult myth of the vampire as a parallel for the spread of a sickness of hysteria in the media and public caused by real life serial killers who murdered their victims in strange ways including Fritz Haarman, who did indeed drink his victims' blood and caused public panic between 1918 and 1924 in Hanover. The idea of mass hysteria infecting the public is more evident in Fritz Lang's M (1931). Tatar also points out that Germans with a long history of anti Semitism saw the Jews as real life vampires who were tainting the blood of true Germans. The quintessential gesture for warding off vampires is making the sign of the cross, a Christian concept. Also, the motive of Hutter for traveling to Count Orlok's castle is financia1. In addition, Jews were often likened to rodents or rats, as was the vampire. Nosferatu possesses a striking resemblance to a rat with his long pointy fangs. These occult images of a foreign monster whose powers are supernatural mean that no human force could overcome it. This fatalistic notion of being unable to control one's fate contributed to the problem of national identity in Weimar Germany.
Murnau's Faust is based upon the folk tale of a man who gives up his moral integrity to the forces of hell in order to gain knowledge and youth. German appreciation for legend and myth was reflected by the film's popularity. Faust is a character that like the Biblical Job is tempted by Satan. Mephisto (played by Emil Jannings) tempts Faust with the promise of power and youth. If Faust gives in to his worldly desires, evil will triumph over good and Satan will win his bargain with God. However, unlike Job, the aging Faust eventually signs Mephisto's contract with the understanding that it will extend only for one day. Faust feels compelled to gain this knowledge because the townspeople are dying of a plague-like disease and beg him to intervene after their entreaties to the Christian God seem to fail. However, Faust has been tricked and the contract is binding for his lifetime. Thus, he becomes a young man again, a regression to his youth and a happier time. This twist on the typical narrative reflects a fascination with mysticism and a sense of impending doom. A Babel metaphor can be perceived when Mephisto convinces Faust that "Pleasure is all."
The imagery of the occult makes several appearances in the film. The opening scene is filled with ghostly skeletons and demons. While the doctor, Faust, searches for a cure for the townspeople, magic symbols appear in his notes as does, eventually, the contract and the burning book that seal his fate. When Faust invokes Mephisto, he draws a circle on the ground and speaks magic incantations. The wholesome young girl, Gretchen with whom Faust falls in love visits her aunt who sells magic love potions. In the final scene, "leibe" (love) is the magic word that breaks Faust's contract with Mephisto (and also ends both young lovers' lives). Through the use of occult symbolism, the concept of inevitable destiny shows the fatalism of Weimar society.
Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921) begins with a young happily engaged couple travelling to a sleepy little town located in "sometime, someplace" where they meet a mysterious stranger who turns out to be Death. The townspeople are fascinated with a massive wall he has magically constructed next to the graveyard that contains no windows or doors. While at a tavern, the young man's hour of death has come and he and the stranger disappear. The young lady frantically searches the town for them and eventually finds an apothecary who seems to comfort her at his shop. While left alone for a moment, she starts to drink poison and finally meets Death in a dreamlike vision. He then gives her three chances to save her lover from death, but all three prove unsuccessful. She returns to the real world and Death gives her one last chance to save her lover by giving him a life. She ends up in a burning building and starts to give Death a baby, but at the last moment changes her mind and hands the baby through the window to its mother's waiting arms. She then tells Death to take her, since life without her lover is nothing. He does take her life and the young couple is united in death. This film sent the message that no one can change his or her fate. The human lack of control and the pervading sense of instability reflect the problems of Weimar national identity.
Georg Wilhelm Pabst's Three Penny Opera (1931) also sends a message of futility although there are no occult connotations within this film. The film is told through a street performer singing the story of "Mack the Knife" and interestingly we find that the best-laid plans do not make any difference unless there is money involved. For example, Mackie's gangsters dream of a respectable middle class life, as seen in a clandestine wedding in a warehouse that is bedecked with stolen finery. The film Three Penny Opera was a widely popular adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's play and historians have debated the seriousness of the communistic tones
The influence of the occult as far as witchcraft goes is evident in films like Faust and Nosferatu; however, Eastern mystic spiritualism was also popular in Germany and elsewhere during this period. Many Germans believed in creating the healthiest body possible and admired the unclothed human form. Nude dances, exercises and cults were in vogue. A focus on exercise and sports was also congruent with Germans leaning towards communism as communist ideology encouraged health, fitness and hygiene. Numerous nudist colonies sprouted in Germany with the mission to detoxify from the stress and decadence of bourgeois life. "By merely removing their clothing, strangers could shed their social markings, toss aside all sexual taboos, and enter into an exalted state of Adamite consciousness." From the occult-like communion with nature grew the “mountain genre.” Such films usually pitted nature, an uncontrollable force, against man. Director Arnold Fanck was the expert in the mountain genre (the bergfilm) and his protégée Leni Riefenstahl would eventually become a key director for Hitler and the Nazi regime. Prime examples of the bergfilm include the White Hell of Piz Palu directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and Arnold Fanck (1929) and The Blue Light directed by and starring Leni Riefenstahl (1934).
The Blue Light is a fascinating film incorporating magic crystals and a witch hunt and stars Leni Riefenstahl as the athletic femme fatale, all against the background of a huge mountain. The story begins in a small superstitious village that lies in the shadow of the mysterious Monte Cristallo (Crystal Mountain). Only Junta (Riefenstahl) is able to climb the treacherous rocks to collect the crystals that emit a blue light during a full moon. This light lures men to follow Junta to find the source of the crystals to sell them for profit. However they always fall to their death and the villagers blame Junta and chase her through the town shouting “witch.” A stranger takes pity on her and stops the angry mob, complete with pitchforks, and eventually befriends Junta. He is then able to follow her to the source of the blue light but worries for her safety. He therefore shows the villagers how to climb the dangerous path and they strip the mountains of its crystals to sell. When Junta encounters the bare mountain, she is overwhelmed with grief and falls to her death. The Blue Light reflects the crisis of national identity in the republic in that the mystic relationship between mankind and nature was a more rationalized view of an uncontrollable, inevitable destiny mixed with occult undertones of nature worship.
More than expressionism or occult influence, the image of a new type of empowered woman was perhaps the most revealing of a societal identity wrought with uncertainty and inverted sexual roles. With a new fledgling republic, a floodgate of new and exciting concepts and ideas poured into the Weimar intellectual scene. With these new ideas also came moral taboos as well as challenges to social norms, typical of any cultural renaissance. The new democracy brought with it capitalism that extended to the previously censored newborn film industry. Foreign films were shown, ushering in a German thirst for new foreign products. From the United States in particular, the image of the flapper girl influenced the creation of what historians call the "neu frau" (new woman), who challenged the traditional rules of sexuality.
This "New Woman" was independent, had a career of her own and a sense of belonging within the social sphere. Many women now found jobs outside of the home, and therefore were much more visible in the public arena. The "New Woman" asserted her newfound independence by wearing shorter dresses, smoking in public, and cropping her hair. Such dazzling starlets as Pola Negri, Henny Porten, Marlene Dietrich, Bridgette Helm, Greta Garbo, Lil Dagover, Louise Brooks, Leni Riefenstahl, Asta Nielsen, Anita Berber and Elisabeth Bergner exemplified the new female model and helped reinvent the German woman through their screen performances in films like The Blue Angel (1930) directed by Joseph von Sternberg and Metropolis directed by Fritz Lang in 1927. These characters had bare legs, come hither eyes, loose manners. They were both easygoing and aloof and they represented the femme fatale who seemed to bring the downfall of man while at the same time behaving more like men. The roles of women in these Weimar films revealed concepts about femininity and masculinity, and raised questions about post-war German national identity and its contribution to modernity.
The role of fashion in Weimar film played an important role in the shaping of such New Women. A whole genre of film was invented to basically advertise the latest fashions to the mass public whose main audience was women. These fashion films included Roswolsky's Mistress (1921), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1921) and several of Ernst Lubitsch's lighthearted comedies. Plots were secondary to the portrayal of fashion in the films. The stories of these films usually featured a lower class girl with high aspirations using modeling as her ticket to a career as a real actress. Fashion shows were for only select elite, whereas the average woman could afford to go to the cinema. Women could participate both in the economy of movie going while picking up style tips from their favorite actresses or models. They wanted the "Asta Neilsen" look while "No one who wants to learn about modern costumes and fashions should miss a film with Brigitte Helm." Most moviegoers came from the lower and middle classes as the upper class held that film was a baser form of entertainment; theater was more artistically valuable. Thus, the Weimar woman could also indulge a fantasy of dressing in elegant and expensive high class clothes vicariously through glamorous film stars.
Characters that brought the demise of man in these films show how the independence of the new feminine role model could be a harrowing threat to the established status quo. Furthermore, women for centuries have been associated with the darker side of nature and primal instincts. This symbolism shows the psychological subconscious fears that were manifesting themselves via the archetype of the femme fatale. Brigitte Helm's first role in Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) would typecast her as a beautiful monster that caused men's destruction. Helm's character Maria is a wholesome and religious girl but a scientist uses her likeness to create another, a robot Maria. The imposter not only incites the workers to riot causing their own doom but also seductively mesmerizes the elite gentlemen's club. Their lusty gaze becomes one collective eye. Her demon like postures and gyrations hypnotize the upper class while the robot remains aware of her control over the crowd. Metropolis contains many occult references such as pentacles on walls and indeed the evil Maria is finally burned at the stake for witchcraft.
Marlene Dietrich's character Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930) is irrefutably the epitome of the femme fatale and "a new incarnation of sex." The film is dedicated to both male destruction and Lola's legs. The professor, Immanuel Rath played by Emil Jannings is portrayed as a silly tyrant. His students make fun of him almost to his face. He also brandishes a handkerchief as a security blanket whenever he finds himself in a socially awkward situation. He is a tyrant, but a comical one for whom the audience feels sorry. The professor disapprovingly attends one of Lola Lola's shows at The Blue Angel in order to dissuade the owners from admitting his students. After hearing Lola's song, he winds up alone with her in her dressing room as she seduces him by acting as if uninterested. The handkerchief as a symbol of his bourgeois decency is replaced by Lola's underwear (a prank by one of the professor's students). The professor falls in love with Lola and quits his teaching in order to marry her. However financial difficulties force him to resort to buffoonery and he is transformed into a clown acting in the manager's magic trick show. "This archetypal character, instead of becoming adult, engages in a process of retrogression effected with ostentatious self-pity." The professor ends up going insane and dies clinging to his old desk in the university.
Lola's seductive feminine agenda is clearly seen in her mocking subordination of the professor, while he is simply being a gentleman. Lola's show song clearly states what will happen if a man falls in love with her.
Falling in love again/ Never wanted to/ What am I to do? /
I can't help it/ Loves's always been my game/ Play it
how I may/ I can't help it. Men cluster to me/ Like moths
to the flame/ and if their wings burn/ I know I'm not to blame.
Lola even directs her song at the professor, then at a new man at the end of the film signaling the continuation of the vicious cycle. Lola's wardrobe consists of show costumes that emphasize her legs and dominant status. This strange combination results in both a more feminine and masculine character. Weimar women shared this double gender identity and began cutting their hair shorter like a man, wearing suits and began to lose weight, which deemphasized curves. Lola wears a top hat, a symbol of masculinity. Even Lola's voice is low and sultry due to her smoking, an unsightly feature in a decent woman.
The concept of the femme fatale was threatening to a male society that had ceased to be dominant. The men had just lost the war and came home to find women occupying their jobs, voting and wearing their manly attitude with a short skirt. The male identity was not only shell-shocked but also electrified. In addition, beautiful women who incited men to sexual desire and nonsensical whims also led them to their demise and ruin. Berlin as a whole was demonstrating this by participating in the joys of excess only to find World War II at the end. The frustration and anger towards the female increase of social power led to murder both artistically and literally. The works of artists Otto Dix and George Grosz contained sensual images of sexual murders. Although the Weimar period saw the development of greater independence of women, they also became more objectified. The plastic dummies in shops windows eventually were replaced with real live women who demonstrated the merchandise. Alongside the live mannequins on the street were the prostitutes who advertised not clothes, but flesh. The market for flesh was high in Germany. Both the mannequin and the streetwalker were gazed upon and objectified. Like mere commodities, such women were seen as heartless. These new soulless creatures were dangerous and represented the "intoxicating and threatening dimensions of modernity.” Masculinity was most definitely challenged by this new threat. All of a sudden women were dressing and behaving more like men, and doing it in a way that was sensual and sexy. What power this must have given to women! On the other end of the spectrum men needed to compensate for this loss of control which led many to commit lustmord (sexual murder).
In cinema, Fritz Lang's M (1931) alluded to the fact that any one was capable of sexual murder and that the role of victim and murderer could easily be reversed. This was a shocking concept because the murders filmed were based on real life serial killers. This caused mass hysteria that spread like a disease and was even referred to as an infection. Jewish actor, Peter Lorre played a child-like child murderer who did not want to commit these heinous acts but could not control his urges. The film however, focuses on finding the murderer instead of the crimes themselves. This emphasizes a search for true identity even when the culprit is already known. Not only do the roles of police detective and criminal gang become reversed but also the roles of the victim and the murderer. Both the municipal authorities and the underworld criminals for whom he is ruining business hunt Lorre's character, Hans Beckert.
In addition to the frustrations of sexual norms, generation gaps between Germans were certainly an important source of contention in the Weimar Republic. German film had idealized the recent glories of the empire and emphasized historical heroes. Now, the youth of Germany began to call for a new future that was a return to simpler values. Films that celebrated German past became popular (such as Die Nibelungen directed by Fritz Lang in 1924). The older generations that had fought during World War I, however, often thought that the young people who had not lived through hard times were incompetent and immature. In turn, the youth movement wanted to save Germany from the current state of vice and sin. These young people thought that Germany had become a modern day Babel filled with sex, drugs and alcohol. The youth were partly right in this sentiment. A common metaphor among historians of Weimar culture is that after the horrors of WWI , Germans decided too live in the hedonistic moment and give themselves over to vice and excess which transformed into “…a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano.” Most young people came from bourgeois families but often did not feel as though they belonged to any social group, so they banded together “…as a haven from a Germany they could not respect or even understand…” Their fathers, some maintained, had ruined the nation by allowing a decadent and insecure republic to rise to power. Frequently they sang patriotic songs, professed a love of nature and shared an obsession with being physically healthy. Because they were young youth groups seemed easily swayed and manipulated by demigods (such as Adolf Hitler who would use them later as a tool). The motif of a revolt of the son and revenge by the father was seen both in the early Weimar Republic and, ironically, at its end. The social consequences of this phenomenon are also reflected the popularity of what historians have dubbed the Weimar "street films."
At the end of the Weimar Republic, many films were purely propaganda, while those that were not lacked any sort of thought provoking substance. Not until the re-unification of Germany in 1990 would German film resume some semblance of its former richness. The national identity of Weimar Germany was a fear of hopeless chaos but also a hope for a better future. What it meant to be a German in this era was to have little sense of national identity, and a confusion of self. This identity is reflected in the films that emphasize expressionism, anger at the femme fatale, and the influence of the occult. These themes are displayed by the characters in the films and their reactions. The films reflect Weimar Germany because they reveal certain truths about the psychological impact of the unstable social, political and economic situations on the Germans while at the same time they called for change. Nazi Germany answered that call in 1933.
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Recommended Reading: Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War by Anton Kaes, 2010, which received excellent reviews.
See Also National Identity in Weimar Cinema: Occult, Expressionism and Femme Fatale Part I