Cinema (2018 | Issue 4)

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German cinema has a long and colourful history. Right from the early days of motion pictures, Germany has been at the forefront of the medium. It has greatly contributed to its development, both technically and artistically. In fact, the first film shown to a paying audience in the history of cinema was in Berlin. What’s Up, Germany? looks at the history of German cinema.

The Formative Years

Back in 1895, German film-makers Max and Emil Skladanowsky invented the Bioscop, an early form of cinema projection. In November that year, they demonstrated their invention before a paying audience at the Berlin Wintergarten theatre, predating the first public screening by the Lumière brothers by over a month. Early films were usually shown in Kintopps or converted storefronts. The first dedicated cinema opened in Mannheim in 1906. The next year, the weekly journal Der Kinematograph was launched.

Berlin was the centre of German film production. Founded in 1912, the Babelsberg Studio, located just outside Berlin, was the first large-scale studio in the world. It was Hollywood’s biggest competitor at the time. Several legendary figures like the director Fritz Lang, the actress Marlene Dietrich and the screenwriter Billy Wilder were products of Babelsberg. Another legendary institution was the Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa). Also located in Babelsberg, it flourished under producer Erich Pommer’s able leadership. It produced most of the films in Germany in the 1920s, including Ernst Lubitsch’s Madame DuBarry (1919), the first German film to make a mark in the international market.

The Golden Age

The movies that came out between 1920 and 1932, also known as Weimar films, dealt largely with underworld crime, vampires and seductive sirens. They shaped future film genres, especially horror and film noir. The 1920s saw the release of groundbreaking silent Expressionist films like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), FW Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Hollywood borrowed lighting and set design techniques from these German movies.

With the advent of sound post 1929, came Josef von Sternberg’s seminal talkie, The Blue Angel (1930). Starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings, this film gave Dietrich her big break in Hollywood. She became a superstar in the US after a few weeks of its release! The Blue Angel, like

With the advent of sound post 1929, came Josef von Sternberg’s seminal talkie, The Blue Angel (1930). Starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings, this film gave Dietrich her big break in Hollywood. She became a superstar in the US after a few weeks of its release! The Blue Angel, like many films of this period, was shot in both German and English. Other notable talkies were Fritz Lang’s M and GW Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera, both released in 1931.

many films of this period, was shot in both German and English. Other notable talkies were Fritz Lang’s M and GW Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera, both released in 1931.

Creative Drain

With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, film-makers found their artistic freedom and funding curtailed. The result was an exodus to Hollywood. By 1939, nearly the entire film industry had left the country, delivering a major blow to German cinema and an advantage for American cinema. The only name of significance in this period was Leni Riefenstahl, a film-maker who made documentaries praising the Third Reich.

New German Cinema

The drought finally ended in the 1960s and 1970s. World war realities and politics gave birth to radical films. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Margarethe von Trotta took centre stage and established New German Cinema, earning themselves an international reputation. It is difficult to define this cinematic movement, since these directors had their own individual style, but a common feature was their cinematic maturity. Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl (1966), Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats Soul (1974) and Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979) found critical acclaim. The Tin Drum won the Palme d’Or and Germany’s first Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Later in the 1980s, Wolfgang Petersen’s The Boat (1981) was nominated for six Oscars. Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) also earned a Palme d’Or.

Diverse Output

Recent German films reflect the country’s diverse society. The cinema landscape, which includes indie films, sophisticated mainstream productions and box-office hits, is truly multicultural. Productions from contemporary German film-makers are being celebrated by international critics and have enjoyed worldwide success: Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998), Caroline Link’s Nowhere in Africa (2001), Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004), Fatih Akin’s HeadOn (2004), Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006), Til Schweiger’s Head Full of Honey (2014), Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2015), Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016) and Akin’s In the Fade (2017).

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