National Identity in Weimar Cinema: Occult, Expressionism and the Femme Fatal


By: Meg Geddie
Part I

It is surprising to many, that from 1919-1933, although the Weimar Republic was in the throes of economic, political and social turmoil, it produced some of the most innovative and culturally rich works in cinema history. These German films have been acclaimed for their artistic value, influence on cinema in the United States and contribution to the industry as a whole. How Germans constructed their own identity through film still influences the perceptions of the Weimar Republic. Because the making of a film is a group endeavor and because movies cater to a mass audience, films made between 1919 and 1933 can be studied as a source of Weimar culture. Furthermore, during this period of German history, mass culture and mass consumerism exploded. Consequently, film as both a consumable product and an art form reflected much about Weimar culture providing particularly useful insights into the psychology behind German national identity during the interwar period.


What did it mean to be a German citizen living in the 1920s? How did Germans perceive themselves within the context of international humiliation and drastically changing social norms? Some answers can be found within a closer look at three major themes of Weimar cinema. In particular, the portrayal of women in these films, as well as the role of women and their contribution in Weimar culture is a vital asset to the study of German modernity. In addition, the use of occult themes and the supernatural in Weimar film reflect a German haunted subconscious. However, "In exposing the German soul, the postwar films seemed to make even more of a riddle of it." These psychological clues to the collective German mind during the Weimar republic are seen through the films' use of expressionism to give both specific and interpretive meaning to symbolic objects. Directors such as, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, Paul Leni, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Fritz Lang, Joe May and Ernst Lubitsch just to name a few, show through their films how the Germans of the Weimar Republic chose to express the drama of their times. German national identity, as revealed in their cinema, reflects both a hopeless descent into madness and chaos and a desire to escape to a better future.

In July, 1895, German brothers Emil and Max Skladanowsky presented their Bioskop projector at the Wintergarten music hall in Berlin. A better moving picture camera, the Cinematography was invented by the Lumiere brothers in Paris by December 1895. Other early German cinema pioneers include Oskar Messter, Max Gliewe, and Guido Seeber. Most of these early films were simply theater stage and literature adaptations, and many directors and actors made the transition from stage to films (including Werner Krauss and Asta Nielson) just as later film actors and directors would make the conversion from silent to sound films. The most distinguishing technological innovation made by the Weimar film industry was the use of a mobile camera that could shoot from different angles, thus emphasizing certain concepts or ideas while downplaying others. Film was not popular among the upper class in the beginning. They saw film as a baser form of entertainment, not an art form, fit for only the lower classes. But as more stage actors and directors transitioned into film, the medium became more acceptable and even served as a class leveler: "cinema created a classless audience."

Some of the earliest pre-Weimar films of note include The Student of Prague (1913) and Der Golem (1915) both directed by Paul Wegener. These films contained themes that resonated for the duration of Weimar film and would eventually become remakes. The Student of Prague illustrated the theme of the loss of identity as well as the concept of a middle class plight, themes that also appeared in Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's Faust (1926) among others. Der Golem (1915) addressed the same concept of lost identity as well as the fatalistic self destruction and inevitable providence seen in later films such as Destiny (1921) directed by Fritz Lang. Although technically The Student of Prague and Der Golem were released before the November revolution in 1919, Weimar culture extends before and after the actual formation of the political system of democracy in Germany.

Because few foreign films were imported during the pre-Weimar era, the German film industry had few competitors. This gave directors experience for later technological innovations, most notably the movable camera that made the use of different angles to emphasize certain expressions or objects as in The Last Laugh (F.W. Murnau, 1924). The abundance of anti German short films made by the United States and Britain prompted officials to create a national film company to promote their agenda. Headed by General Erich Ludendorff, the Universal Film A. G. (UFA) was created in 1917. However, when the November revolution made Germany a republic, UFA became privatized and was bought by producer, Erich Pommer. In effect, this drew together all the creative energies of the Weimar culture and the UFA studio became an institution of experimentation. However, by 1927 due to financial difficulties (occurring in all sectors of the economy because of the Great Depression), Pommer was forced to sell UFA to media giant Alfred Hugenberg. Historians debate about the nature of films produced by UFA after this point. Because Hugenberg was sympathetic with the Nazi regime, critics tend to believe that all films after this point were simply propaganda. However, this was not the case due to the fact that UFA was still a capitalist company, meaning they wanted to make films that would please a mass audience. What audiences preferred were films that provided an escape. Therefore, films after 1927 are often seen as meaningless with frivolous themes and a lack of artistic creativity. These films took the form of musicals and operettas during the late 1920s when sound film became more readily available, for example, The Congress Dances directed by Erich Charell in 1931.

It is easy to make psychological connections between the chaotic political, economic and social reality of the Weimar Republic and the strange but vibrant films that were produced during this era. The tragic themes, the use of expressionism and the archetypical roles of the characters reflect a reality in turmoil. The era was filled with uncertainty; historian, Felix Gilbert acknowledged, "When I am in Berlin I am haunted by the impression that the ground on which I stand is not firm." Following the war, the social, political and economic changes must have had a discouraging effect on the German people especially for the working and middle class whose future was suddenly insecure. Germans seemed to lose all hope; this is reflected in the films since nearly every early Weimar film appears to feature a character that commits suicide as the only escape. In order to grasp the psychological content of these films, and their relationship to the German national identity it is necessary to understand the historical context of sweeping political, economic and social changes that all occurred within a short number of years.

The first major change began with the forced abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II on November 9, 1918 when Chancellor of Germany, Prince Max von Baden publicly declared that Wilhelm had made the decision to abdicate although in actuality the Kaiser had initially refused to do so. Within hours of his proclamation, Philipp Scheidemann, Chancellor of the Republic and leading Social Democrat, announced the formation of a German Republic. This hasty proclamation was meant to forestall mass uprisings by the Communist Party leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Thus, the German government went from an imperial regime to a parliamentary republic within weeks and with very little democratic experience. "No one could fail to notice that the Republic came into the world almost by accident...”


In addition to implementing a whole new democratic system of government, the Weimar Republic faced many economic and political challenges stemming from the aftermath of the First World War. In addition, internal factors such as extreme inflation and party rivalry hampered the government's development and ultimately these problems destroyed all hopes for Germany's future as a democratic republic. Moreover, the extremely serious external issue created crisis after crisis: in particular, the conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. In addition to the humiliation of the "War-Guilt Clause," vast military restrictions also caused Germany to lose a significant portion of land. Despite these harsh terms, the hardest was the payment of reparations by Germany to the Allied nations, the total of which was 226 billion Reichmarks, an impossible debt.

Certainly, the French government's attitude at Versailles proved very aggressive towards Germany partly because emotionally France wanted to punish Germany for the war, much of which was fought on French territory. The ultimate damage was horrific. Post war demilitarization and occupation of German territories by allied forces in turn caused Germany to feel resentful and threatened. Yet, without such severe restrictions, France felt continually endangered. The most intense argument concerned the area of the Alsace-Lorraine region, a valued territory between the two nations and a province that was distinctly rich in industrial potential."


Immediately after the war, Germany could not make reparations with currency, as the Kaiser's government was bankrupt. Therefore the new Republic made payments in kind by bartering; not surprisingly problems multiplied quickly. Without the use of the resources of the Alsace-Lorraine, the Germans could not meet their timber quota and defaulted in 1923. This gave the French a pretext to occupy the vital Ruhr region. In German opinion, the occupation was a worse violation of the Versailles Treaty than a monetary violation of defaulted loans. In January 11, 1923, Prime Minister, Raymond Poincare (1860-1934) ordered the French army to move into the Ruhr region which was rich in coal, steel and iron. German workers responded to the Ruhr invasion by declaring a strike, which ironically only escalated inflation and made the tragic economic situation in the Rhineland even worse.


In September 1923, Chancellor Gustav Stresemann (1878-1929) was able to end these strikes but civilian violent resistance to the occupation spread to other parts of Germany. Despite such frustration throughout 1923 the situation improved in April when the United States proposed the Dawes Plan. Although the plan, proposed by Charles G. Dawes, made France withdraw its troops in July-August 1925 and lowered the amount of reparation payments, it was not enough. After five years, the Young Plan, formed by Owen D. Young was adopted in 1929. The end result of the occupations was that some sympathy for Germany was generated internationally and opened up the new democracy for foreign capital interests such as the film industry. Following the crisis in the Ruhr, Germany experienced a period of comparative stability. While violence declined as economic conditions improved, the underlying problems of the Weimar Republic were still lurking under the surface.

The presidency of Gustav Stresemann, a former foreign minister earned an optimistic nickname for the decade as the "Golden Twenties." From 1923-1929, Germany experienced a cultural shift. The flapper style took fashion by storm as it did elsewhere in Europe and the United States. The cabaret "scene" became very popular. The revitalized film industry saw some of the first widely popular silent films from Germany like The Student of Prague (1913) and Der Golem (1915) that in turn, influenced the eventual development of "horror" and "science fiction" as a genre. That a devastated and war torn Germany could produce such culturally groundbreaking films is a testament to the resolve of the German people to continue their search for a new national identity. One reason for this sense of loss may be that after World War I, the younger, more liberal generations felt as though they had no patriotic identity while the older, more conservative generations who grew up under Kaiser Wilhelm's rule felt that they had lost their traditional values. Weimar films in general, delve into this subconscious search for a German national identity. Many historians come to the conclusion that this search ended in a retrogression or retreat into the subconscious and then later into a simpler view of a mythical past. This adolescent regression is reflected in the rise of the "street films" such as The Street directed by Karl Grune in 1923 and Asphalt directed by Joe May (Julius Otto Mandl) in 1929 in particular and nationalist films like Die Nibelungen directed by Fritz Lang in 1924.


The definitive characteristic of Weimar identity is German expressionism. Weimar cultural historian Walter Laqueur defined expressionism: "... it totally rejected accepted aesthetic standards: the painters were fascinated by ugliness; the composers threw harmony overboard, gradually moving towards dissonance; the poet and playwrights were preoccupied with the madness of great cities, parricide and rats emerging from rotting corpses." Expressionist artists believed that "...real beauty was in the horror of tormented individuals, in the loss of equilibrium and symmetry."" Expressionism "...was idealistic and regressive at one and the same time. It was a revolt against the falsities of bourgeois existence and against intellectualism; it led anywhere and nowhere."


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Weine in 1920, was and is the epitome of such expressionist art in film. Every aspect of Caligari, from the scenery, costumes and even the story itself reflect the creators' vision of a totally expressionist work. Writers, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer envisioned the concept for Caligari through sharing disturbing personal experiences. Janowitz believed he had witnessed a mysterious murder and Mayer was haunted by the suicide of his father and his sessions with an army psychiatrist. In addition they both attended a fair in Kanststrasse where they saw a prophecy given by a hypnotized man. From these strange experiences, the writers envisioned the story of Dr. Caligari played by Werner Kraus and his somnambulist, the zombie-like Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who murders under the influence of Caligari. However, Cesare cannot bring himself to kill the feminine heroine Jane, (Lil Dagover) and instead kidnaps her. Meanwhile the hero, Francis anxiously tries to uncover the truth behind the mysterious murders. His search leads him to an insane asylum where he finds that the director is, in fact, Dr. Caligari who is clearly mad. The doctor is then put into a straitjacket and thrown into one of his own asylum rooms. The story then takes an unexpected twist. The director, Robert Wiene inserted a framing story that reveals Francis is a patient in the asylum, while Jane and Cesare are fellow inmates and Caligari is a concerned doctor. Francis becomes frantic and has to be placed in the straightjacket and thrown into a cell. The doctor then exclaims that he now knows how to cure the patient's mania. The framing story absolutely reversed the direction of the film. Janowitz and Mayer envisioned this expressionist film as a truly revolutionary allegory; a revolt against authority. With the surprise ending, the theme changes to one that gives validation to authority figures. It reduces anything meaningful to the maniacal ravings of a lunatic.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was not popular when first released in Germany except in avant-garde groups and among intellectual circles in France. This is not surprising because of the confusing theme within a conflicting theme, but also because of the strange expressionist look of the film itself. Weird angular shadows were painted on the stage so they were always present even in the light of day. Everything in Caligari's world is drastically skewed so that it looks as if it comes from the inside of a lunatic's imagination. Chairs with abnormally high backs, and asymmetrical rooms, windows and doors add to the sense that something is wrong. Even the costumes of Cesare and Jane do not fit into even exotic norms. The film eventually became a classic, hailed as the prime example of expressionist film for its use of lighting, shadow and "psychological subject matter."

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari exposed the crisis of German identity. Much of the film's emphasis deals with discovering the true identity of the murderer, the guilty one, just as Germans needed to find a scapegoat for losing the war and ensuing political upheaval. Interestingly, the roles reverse and the guilty becomes the victim, a theme utilized later by Fritz Lang in M (1931). Cesare is never formally blamed for the murders, and the audience only sees a shadow scene of someone killing Francis's friend Alan. Previously, Alan and Francis both in love with Jane swore to remain friends no matter whom she chose. The decision to include this information in the film hints that Francis could himself have been Alan's murderer, reversing the roles of murderer and victim. Another question of identity occurs in the Dr. Caligari character. He is both the concerned real doctor of the asylum and the unidentified man obsessed with an eleventh century figured named Caligari who used a somnambulist to commit murders. The words "You must become Caligari" appear in a hallucinogenic expressionist font all around the doctor and he eventually assumes Caligari's identity. The archetype of an old professor/scientist/doctorwho is so much a genius that he loses his personal identity to unseen forces and assumes other identities is a recurrent theme especially in Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse films. The crisis of identity in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari shows that Germans were retreating into their own minds, however dark and distorted that might be.