German film industry during the First World

The outbreak of the First World War gave a new impulse to the development of a national film industry. Germany closed its borders to its enemies, gradually putting most of its competitors in the film industry out of business,22 after a brief initial period when all kinds of exceptions crossed the border.23 The Kinematograph reported on the new situation as follows:

Vor ca. drei Tagen schon sind die französischen Staatsangehörigen der grossen Pariser Firmen Pathe, Gaumont usw. nach ihrer Heimat abgereist, und Leute, die jahrelang als Kollegen friedlich an einem Pulte arbeiteten, können sich in nächster Zeit als Feinde auf Leben und Tod mit der Waffe in der Hand gegenüberstehen; die Internationalität unserer Industrie bringt das so mit sich - c'est la guerre!24

As early as five days after the German mobilisation on August ist, the Verein der Lichtbildtheater-besitzer Gross-Berlins und Provinz Brandenburg (e.V.) had called on cinema managers to stop showing any French films.25 Although many complied with such calls, much French film material was smuggled into Germany via neutral subsidiaries abroad, and shown in cinemas around the country.26 Only on 25 February 1916 did the German state officially issue a ban on film imports.27 From that moment on, the country was practically left to its own devices and forced to satisfy the domestic demand for film entertainment itself.28 The products of the neutral Danish, American (until 1917) and Italian (until 1915) film industries were the only ones allowed on the German film market.29

How the national film industry reacted to this situation can partly be seen from the figures. The number of domestic production companies grew constantly from 25 in 1914 to 130 in 1918.30 The centre of German cinema was Berlin; later, Munich would become the film centre of southern Germany. In fact, an increase in film activities could be observed in Germany just before the war, as was shown by the construction of the famous Babelsberg studio complex near Berlin. The success of (foreign) films had convinced German entrepreneurs that producing films could be a profitable activity. In a retrospective published in 1919, the Kinematograph confirmed that the war had given a strong impulse to the German film industry:

Der Krieg hat erst so eigentlich eine bedeutungsvolle deutsche Filmindustrie geschaffen, eine Industrie, die heute erfolgreich auf den Plan mit der ausländischen Konkurrenz treten kann.31

Indeed, German industry emerged from the war as a winner. Germany was not called 'Europe's Hollywood' for nothing.32

At the beginning of the war, it quickly became clear that the German film industry was lagging far behind that of its enemies. Although in Germany the influence of film was overestimated in a negative sense rather than underestimated - it was seen as a factor in the increase in crime and moral decline in the masses -, France and Great Britain had meanwhile discovered the propagan-distic possibilities that the new medium offered. It seemed logical to use film and its capacity for manipulation as a means to convince the population of the depravity of the German enemy. The suggestive effect of the medium turned out to be very suitable to mobilise or fan the flames of anti-German sentiment in order to summon the warlike spirit and willingness to sacrifice soldiers and civilians alike.33 Once the Germans realised the extent to which foreign cinema defiled German honour, they also decided to take action.

In circles which, in the past, had taken a hostile attitude towards film, much activity was sparked by the desire to restore the damage done to Germany in the international arena. After all, all these so-called Hetzfilme were also exported to neutral countries and allies of the Entente states. People in the higher reaches of press, industry, trade, tourism and culture, as well as representatives of the Foreign Ministry, joined forces in order to develop an antidote. Although the first result was meant as an antidote, it looked far less aggressive than what was being produced in France, Great Britain and later the United

States. In November 1916, interested parties created an organisation which was to formulate a first response to allied anti-German propaganda. This organisation was christened 'Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft' (DLG).34 The rightwing nationalist industrialist and media tycoon, Alfred Hugenberg, and his right-hand man, Ludwig Klitzsch, were considered the most powerful men in the DLG organisation.35 During the Weimar period, they would emerge as the two most powerful men in the Ufa organisation. DLG concentrated mainly on the production of short propaganda documentaries which served to show the success of German industrial development, the beauty of the German landscape and the riches of German culture.36 Germany was to be shown in a positive light. It will hardly come as a surprise that this 'soft' approach was no match for the more aggressive propaganda films produced by the Allies that, for some time, had been able to penetrate the neutral markets. Germany failed to come up with an effective response to the negative stereotype of the cruel and lustful 'Hun'. In 1917, Reichstag member Gustav Stresemann wrote in Der Film:

Wenn sich heute der Deutsche oft verwundert fragt, woher es denn komme, dass dieses Deutschland, das 44 Jahre hindurch stets die Politik des Friedens getrieben und sich bestrebt hat, der Welt den Frieden zu erhalten, einen so geschlossene Phalanx von Feinden allüberall im Erdenrund, und wie die jüngsten Tage wieder gezeigt haben, bis hinauf in den fernsten Osten sich erwerben konnte (...) dann übersieht er neben anderen meist die ausserordentlich wirkungskräftige Filmpropaganda, welche unsere Feinde sehr im Gegensatz zu uns überall in der Welt getrieben haben. (...) Tausende und Abertausende von Kilometern Ententefilms sind auf die Neutralen losgelassen worden, Films, die dazu bestimmt waren, eine deutschfeindliche Stimmung zu verbreiten und die noch neutralen Länder zum Eintritt in den Weltkrieg an der Seite der Entente zu verleiten.37

This statement illustrates an untold belief in the power of the medium of film. Also, Stresemann used the enemy film propaganda to advertise Germany's peace-loving mission.

After the first battles, it quickly became clear that the initial war of movement soon changed into a war of attrition with stagnating front lines. The heroic spirit with which Germany and the other countries that were involved had first entered the war had to be revived. After about two years of battle, the great losses at the front and the food shortages among the civilian population created feelings of dejection and resistance against the desperate situation. Nevertheless, the arms industry was ordered to step up production via the so-called Hindenburgprogramm. At this stage, military circles became interested in the possibilities of the medium of film, too. So far, high-ranking military officials had only taken a passing interest in film propaganda. Matthias Erzberger, a signatory of the 1919 armistice, wrote in his memoirs: 'Bei den militärischen Stellen fand man 1914-15 äusserst wenig Verständnis für die Notwendigkeit der Aufklärung im Ausland.'38 Erich Ludendorff, however, had, for quite some time, been unhappy with the war propaganda as it had been conducted thus far. He believed that the film industry was too fragmented to be effective.39

Ludendorff therefore thought that the time was right to create production companies that would operate entirely under the guidance and control of the military authorities. Compared to the Entente states, Germany had left it rather late to engage seriously in this form of war propaganda. The idea that the war would be brief had been the ruling thought for too long. This meant that many private film companies were wary of switching to a type of film production that would only serve war propaganda, even in the most testing of times. Also, in Germany it was still unusual for the state to provide financial support to national film production. The situation in the Entente states was quite different, where state authorities poured large sums of money into the production of anti-German propaganda films. In Germany, people felt they were above the vile nature of the antagonistic 'Hass-, Hetz- und Lügefilmen'.40 Yet it became impossible to ignore these films any longer; something had to be done to redress the balance, and less subtly so than DLG had done.

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