Early German Cinema Points to the Rise of Hitler



What does cinema know that we don’t?”

Any consideration of this film that fails to take into account this central, poignant, and, in the face of its subject, legitimately profound question is missing a most vital point. It’s not just this documentary’s tag line, it’s the takeaway.

The question originated from a not-new yet radical notion that when art becomes a living thing, a collective mass apart from any individual creators, it can somehow have the ability to tune into not only the honesty of what’s past or the necessity of what is now, but inevitabilities of the future. Call it providential, mystical, impossible, non-quantifiable, unverifiable; but always mysterious. And, almost always, the bottom line is too brutally honest, in spite of its escapist wrapper.

For Germany in the deceptively blissful Weimar era (1919 – 1933), this was never more true. It was a time of cinema most exquisite and lucid, beautiful and felt, with German films still silent, black and white (inky, ashy, and luminous). We can now look back on the oneiric panoply of future cities, lost girls, flying carpets, cabaret acts, cruising youths, space travel, devils, vampires, dragon slaying, ruined men and the sheer impact of a single letter, “M”, as a beautiful, frightening, diverse yet unified-by-time whole. As the country was recovering from the loss of the First World War and inching towards granting warped truth to power (in terms of politics), the filmmaking art (like all art is capable) would telegraph its own signals and warnings: Power to truth.

Insomuch as it’s been said that all of film history is, in a sense, either leading up to or reeling out from World War II, the films of the Weimar era cannot, historically speaking, be overlooked.

A bit of historical context: Professor Eric D. Weitz says in the documentary, “Its as if Weimar Germany really is a hothouse of cultural production.” The state of German cinema in the 1920s was among the strongest (the studio UFA proved to be a major global player, often greater than Hollywood), most vibrant (the filmic imprint of German Expressionism), and most influential in movie history (Universal Monsters, Film Noir, Neo-Noir, and further on). Beyond the unmistakable light rendering, large scale imagination, and dramatic intensity, there lurks not far from the surface, an even greater resonance. As hip youths mingle freely (as in Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Billy Wilder-scripted proto neo-realist People on Sunday, here called “the film of the decade”), an ominous, upside down black-gloved hand overtakes a map (Fritz Lang’s M). And the Devil himself towers over the the outside world (F.W. Murnau’s Faust). Soon enough, all would see him.

M (1931), directed by Fritz Lang

Now then… For those who like their film history dense with a strong dose of such openly speculative philosophy, behold the documentary From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses. Constructed entirely from choice clips of key films of the era, documentarian Rüdiger Suchsland takes and runs with the premise of its source publication, already generalized above, by critic Siegfried Kracauer, a 1947 volume long considered one of the essentials for any film book library. To give an idea of just how entrenched Kracauer was with such notions, look no further than the bold title of another of his books, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Here, he joins his subjects, becoming an important player in the film of his own book.

As for the director Suchsland, he, most welcomely, seems to be making a career of this sort of thing. That’s his voice we hear in the wall-to-wall narration, and, he has what appears to be a follow up film on the way. His follow-up documentary is entitled Hitler’s Hollywood, and is already making the rounds. This is all a good thing, as such an analysis of this country-gone-wrong (as he puts it, a postwar war that no one knew to also be a prewar era) is most ideal, powerful and poignant when it comes from within. Though Germany has never been known for its collective self-introspection regarding its own severe past misdeeds, here we have a German filmmaker spring-boarding from a renowned German critic’s book, sharing a title and asking the hardest questions of their homeland.

PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (1930), directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer

Though inviting and even narratively lulling at a glance, the film asks viewers to engage fully from beginning to end. Each point flows into the next in a continuous stream of many of contemporary history’s greatest film artists (lots of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau), contextualized by the brief words of occasional film historians and filmmakers. (Faith Akin, Elisabeth Bronfen, Thomas Elsaesser, Volker Schlöndorff, Eric D. Weitz, all of whom appear on camera throughout). In the end, though, as a long list of the names of one legendary German creative after another goes on and on, each one later driven to flee their country longterm as the Nazi’s took hold, the deflating impact of what was lost to Germany itself on a cultural level alone is staggering.

Any deep dive into cinephilia will, sooner or later, take one down the rabbit hole of film history. Sometimes the rabbit hole turns out to be more of a foxhole, but the trip must always be taken properly is a proper empathy, grasp and context is to be achieved. And, insomuch as it’s been said that all of film history is, in a sense, either leading up to or reeling out from World War II, the films of the Weimar era cannot, historically speaking, (and not just film history) be overlooked. Had people been cine-literate then, perhaps the message of Weimar cinema would’ve been heard, even heeded, and much of the horror of the Third Reich could’ve been avoided.

Which, if one could be so bold, begs the question… If we were cine-literate today, what might we be hearing? And Suchsland’s question still applies: What does cinema know that we don’t?

THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920), directed by Robert Wiene