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Venice Film Review: ‘From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses’

Ruediger Suchsland's Weimar cinema study is more an illustration of a prolix thesis than a groundbreaking docu.

Volker Schloendorff, Fatih Akin, Thomas Elsaesser, Eric D. Weitz, Elisabeth Bronfen.   Narrators: Ruediger Suchsland, Hans Henrik Woehler.   (German, English dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3908344/reference

Exceptionally beautiful restored film clips are the main reason to see Ruediger Suchsland’s “From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses.” More an illustration of a prolix thesis than a groundbreaking docu, the film takes Siegfried Kracauer’s seminal 1947 study on Weimar cinema and reiterates numerous points found in the book, with little acknowledgment that scholarship, still indebted to Kracauer, has moved on. Missing from Suchsland’s work is any nod to non-German influences, and his complete disregard for Wilhelmine cinema (i.e., before Weimar) ignores significant research of the past 20 years. Still, image quality is strong enough to make a nice DVD.

Kracauer’s thrust, that the themes in Weimar cinema prefigure the rise of Nazism and can be seen as red flags for those trained to recognize them, was revolutionary, especially in 1947. Suchsland situates the great critic/historian in his time, discussing his grounding in the philosophies of the era, specifically Marxism, Nietzsche and Freud. What’s less discussed is his need as an exile from the Third Reich to explain how his Germany devolved into such a deformed nation. Unquestionably Kracauer’s analysis continues to inform our understanding of these films, yet his desire to package everything under a constraining umbrella (the book carries the subtitle “A Psychological History of the German Film”), means that much gets left out, and some elements of his argument are pushed too hard.

An attractively edited montage of filmed faces, inevitably calling to mind the photos of August Sander, allow Suchsland to ask, “What is the face of the Weimar Republic?” Is it a face, he asks, or is it more the black-gloved hand of Gustaf Grundgrens in Fritz Lang’s “M”? Weimar is both mythic and modern, the helmer rightfully states, and the myths are as much a creation of the present as they are a self-invention from the era. What the docu fails to acknowledge is that, notwithstanding the unquestionable watershed that was WWI, any discussion of Weimar cinema without even a mention of what came before “Caligari” is simply untenable (it was equally one of Kracauer’s great flaws). Suchsland rightly highlights Robert Reinert’s 1919 “Nerven,” yet doesn’t mention that director’s seminal serial “Homunculus” from 1916, which can also be said to prefigure Germany’s dark path.

Analysis of films such as “The Golem,” “Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler,” “Metropolis” and several others lends credence to the idea of a cinema enamored of master villains hypnotizing a populace, though such an idea has always been problematic since hypnotism implies an unwilling mass and thus soft-pedals the average person’s culpability in enabling the Third Reich’s rise to power. Suchsland does add some post-Kracauer scholarship, discussing the shift from Expressionism to “New Sobriety,” and his welcome mention of Gerhard Lamprecht’s populist motifs, as well as an excellent examination of Paul Czinner’s “Fraulien Else,” reflects a broader field of study than just Kracauer.

However, like his predecessor, Suchsland ignores non-German influences: He makes no mention of Louis Feuillade’s fundamental impact, fails to discuss how Italian epics influenced German counterparts, and doesn’t touch on the role of Soviet editing and subject matter with regard to leftist films and “People on Sunday.” Also, detective movies and musicals are added almost as an afterthought, despite their enormous popularity. He engages in a brief examination of Elisabeth Bergner, Louise Brooks, Marlene Dietrich and Lilian Harvey, yet there’s zilch on Asta Nielsen (even Kracauer admitted “the German screen world would be incomplete without the characters Asta Nielsen created during the silent era”). Henny Porten, the most popular actress of the time, is also missing.

The fundamental problem is that any attempt to force an entire era’s messy cultural output into one airtight theory is always bound to leak. Suchsland brings in a few talking heads, including Fatih Akin (presumably to make the docu seem more of-the-moment). At the end, Volker Schlondorff wisely says that Weimar cinema wasn’t nearly as ideological as is generally claimed, yet the statement, running counter to much of the docu’s thrust, feels shunted to the side.

Tech credits are praiseworthy on every level: Clips were sourced from the best restored prints and look glorious. Editing, an extremely complicated task, manages to bind many disparate strands together into an elegant whole, but the idea of using the female characters from “People on Sunday” as guides through the era is only fitfully integrated. The narration is far too wordy, though musical accompaniments are extremely well chosen.

Venice Film Review: 'From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Cinema Classics), Aug. 28, 2014. Running time: 118 MIN. (Original title: “Von Caligari zu Hitler. Das Deutsche Kino im Zeitalter der Massen”)

Production: (Documentary – Germany) A Looks Filmproduktion production, in collaboration with Arte/ZDF. Produced by Martina Haubrich, Gunnar Dedio.  

Crew: Directed, written by Ruediger Suchsland. Camera (color/B&W), Harald Schmuck, Frank Reimann; editor, Katja Dringenberg; music, Michael Hartmann, Henrik Albrecht; sound, Tobias Schinko, Enrico Leube, Tobias Fritzsch, Juergen Schulz.

With: Volker Schloendorff, Fatih Akin, Thomas Elsaesser, Eric D. Weitz, Elisabeth Bronfen.   Narrators: Ruediger Suchsland, Hans Henrik Woehler.   (German, English dialogue)

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