German silent classics

Due to Germany’s political burden, after WW II German silent films found themselves overshadowed by contemporary French avant-garde films and the Soviet editing school. Over the course of the last twenty years, due to the success of the new German scene, these films have found their rightful place.

During the silent film era, between WW I and the National Socialist regime from 1933, or the so-called Weimar Republic, German film experienced a meteoric rise. Despite widespread poverty, reparations, and record inflation, the film industry grew rapidly. The reason for this was not just that the audience adored cheap thrills, but also because of a certain paradox - the contemporary financial situation and taxes were actually in favor of the film industry. This was the era of the most important film company between the two world wars - United Film Artists, (which had branches all over the world; the Yugoslavian branch was based in Zagreb), built a film studio called Babelsberg near Berlin, which was impressive even by Hollywood standards. To understand German film history, we have to take into account that at that time Germany had just been defeated in war, was partially occupied, and was torn by inner conflict (primarily due to the emergence of Nazism). During this time many films that have had an enormous impact on the history of film and that even today attract audiences were created. While these films were appreciated at the time, they were, due to Germany’s political burden, overshadowed by contemporary French avant-garde films and the Soviet editing school. Over the course of the last twenty years, what with the inevitable historic shift away from those events and the success of the new German scene, these films have found their rightful place. They are the basis of many values that became standards towards the end of the silent film era and in throughout the whole of the sound film era.

Along with commercial populist films - melodramas, burlesques, criminal films with classic plots - some modernist currents emerged and gained a lasting reputation. One of them was expressionism, too often regarded as being exclusively the style of that time. Expressionism inspired the imaginative development of all kinds of fantasy films, encouraged the use of suggestive and indicative visual (mostly dark) atmosphere, and inventive photography and set design (even in non-fantasy films). The other dominant style also encouraged similar opuses: Kammerspielfilm -- psychological chamber films with contemporary topics that led to improved techniques for directing in constricted spaces, lighting, and camera movement. All of the new techniques were not only used for narrative purposes, but also in order to help viewers experience characters’ mental states and to rhetorically motivate events. The derivative of this current, so-called street films (Strassenfilme), are sort of an ambient extension of chamber films. They are the first films about the modern metropolis in all its aspects (especially at night). The fourth dominant current in these films is the New Reality (Neue Sachlichkeit), realist films that very harshly analyze contemporary social and economic issues and regard them from a somewhat leftist perspective. Finally - they often forget themselves - there emerged films by extreme experimentalist authors, such as Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling.
One must remain aware that even though these films are often naïve and old fashioned, they will never really become obsolete. The works and their traces remain, even if we limit ourselves to only a few German silent film directors such as Fritz Lang, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Walther Ruttmann, Robert Wiene and Georg Wilhelm Pabst. Psychological chamber film, toward the end of the nineteenth century with a stronger sexual subtext, became one of the dominating genres in the future sound film era. Even in today’s repertoire, there prevail dreamlike fantasy films, legends, science fiction, horrors, spy and criminal films.

Other influences of these silent films are apparent in many areas - from the American film noire (which was mostly created by the directors from the “Weimar” school) to postmodernism. The same can be said for motives and themes: in these films, for the first time ever, were modern motifs of contemporary neurosis, split personalities, terrorism, people versus civilization, loneliness, threat and powerlessness, tyranny and frightening authorities. Lovers of German silent movies will recognize the typical ambiances and atmospheres that were rare or unknown in the world of film at that time: nights, lights, dark and busy metropolis, hotels, bordellos, asylums, cabarets, dark cellars and staircases. Directors that followed, with their films and statements, bring back more memories: Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Tim Burton, Claude Chabrol, Henri Georges Cluzot, Sergej Mihajlovič Ejzenštejn, John Ford, Werner Herzog, Alfred Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Billy Wilder and many others. Finally, the aforementioned currents were acclaimed by the emerging Croatian cinema, and they highly influenced the only Croatian director that they could in that time - Oktavijan Miletić.
(Ante Peterlić)