Research into war films film historians

The place of the war in literature, painting, monumental architecture, photography and postcard pictures has often been the subject of research.21 It is therefore all the more remarkable that the German war films from the Weimar period have largely been ignored. The period itself has been studied more often than nearly any other period in German history before the Second World War.22 More than thirty war films were made between 1925 and 1933. While this fact has been observed, it has never been the subject of serious study.23 If war films were studied, the impression was given that only one film represented the German war experience, All quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930). The German-dubbed version of this American film created such an uproar that interest in other (German) war films was shifted to the background. The film was based on Eric Maria Remarque's bestselling novel Im Westen nichts Neues (1929). A survey of the reactions that All quiet on the Western Front caused in the press, with the general public and in political circles, can be found in a book by Bärbel Schrader, which anthologizes contemporary criticism.24 This study not only shows how much a (critical) film representation of the war was able to stir up emotions, even more so than the novel, but it also reveals the huge role that the war past played in cultural and political life in the Weimar Republic. In fact, the book also shows that film criticism is indispensable source material for anyone studying the social process of ascribing meaning.

This does not answer the question why so little attention has so far been given to German war films. I would like to offer a number of possible explanations and give a survey of what various authors have asserted about German World War One films. If we confine ourselves to experts in the field of film history, we see that a canon has been created in literature dealing with 'the' Weimar film. Furthermore, expressionism and social realism take up a dominant position in that canon. The first movement refers to the avant-garde of the pre-Weimar period, when expressionism in painting, graphic art, theatre and poetry soared to new heights. Only after the expressionist movement was well past its peak - many representatives of expressionist art were killed in the war - was it discovered by the film industry. The first truly expressionist film was Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene) from 1919, one of the first films to contribute to the artistic status of the cinema.25 A number of other, less extreme, expressionist films followed in its wake. Films that are generally con sidered to be part of this 'movement' are still an important starting point for studies dealing with film in the Weimar period.

The second 'movement' referred not so much to something that was already past its peak, but to the contemporary present. While expressionist films were mostly made during the first half of the Weimar period, most realistic films can be situated in the period from 1924-1929, the so-called stable phase of the republic.26 This period has become known as Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. In realistic films, the emphasis was not on the characters' inner perception of their environment, as was the case in expressionist films, but on objective and concrete reality. In the first place, this meant that these films took as their subject matter various modern phenomena, including the many wrongs in contemporary society. The films dealt with the many excesses of metropolitan life, poverty, class differences and prostitution, and also with the dynamics and pulse of the big city. Images of the swinging nightlife, new fads, fashions and trends, all kinds of leisure pursuits and technological gimmicks and innovations were first introduced to a broader public in films. Secondly, some directors chose to shoot their films in a much more realistic way, regardless of their subject matter. A number of war films from this period, and from the one immediately following it (1929-1933), can also be called realistic films. Some of them are even explicitly 'documentary' in character. These films will be discussed within the context of the Neue Sachlichkeit phenomenon in the third chapter.

The film-historical canon for the Weimar period has thus been selected from expressionist and realist films. The decisive factors in making this selection were aesthetic criteria. This means that we know relatively much about a very small minority of all the films produced during the Weimar period, on average around two hundred every year.27 Films that failed to create much sensation in an aesthetic sense, mostly box-office successes, received little atten-tion.28 As we will see, German war films are not aesthetically uninteresting in every respect, but to most film historians, they are still largely terra incognita.

This does not mean, however, that film history fails to offer useful perspectives from which to study the Weimar war films. The approach that exclusively studies the canon and the work of the 'great masters' meanwhile becomes outdated. Much the same is true for the approach that only focuses on the film text itself. In the seventies and eighties, studies by Robert Sklar, Garth Jowett, Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery widened the angle by putting great emphasis on the social, political and cultural contexts in which films circulated, in short, on cinema as an institution and as a cultural practice.29 The standard work on classical Hollywood films by David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and Janet Staiger also deliberately departs from this canonical approach.30

Studies by the above-mentioned authors and the works of Stephen Bottomore, Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, Charles Musser, Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio have ushered in a new approach in film history. The focus has so far mainly been on the gaps in film history, and this has resulted in extensive studies of especially the early period (1895-1917). This approach, called New Film History, shifts attention from the isolated film text itself to the context that surrounds the screening of the film. This context consists of social and cultural frameworks, and also includes the immediate contexts of cinema and programme. Early cinema was intricately tied up with entertainment such as variety shows and vaudeville.31 One of the effects of this new approach has been an increase in the development of theory on various film-historical and historiographical issues.32 Researchers began to study source material that had until than been neglected or ignored because it was deemed too unconventional. In addition to film criticism, programmes and reports in specialist journals, sources such as fan mail, correspondence by people involved, regulations and provisions by local authorities, insurance agencies and fire departments, advertisements, posters, postcards and building licences all contributed to the creation of a different image of this early period in film history.

Representatives of the new approach in film history no longer make the analysis of an individual film text their top priority, if only because more than half of the films from the early period have been lost. The present study charts a middle course by analysing individual films as well as discussing the various contexts to which these films refer.33 My approach will be explained in detail in the final paragraph of this chapter.

The fact that German war films have rarely received detailed and serious attention does not mean that they have therefore gone unnoticed. However, books about war films in general are limited in scope and often serve to list films rather than to analyse or contextualise them.34 Studies of the First World War film deal mostly with American films or anti-war movies.35 Standard works usually devote no more than several paragraphs to individual German war films.36 In short, there has never been that much critical interest in the thematic genre as such, and the perspective is all too often confined to the so-called 'masterpiece' or author approach. As I indicated earlier, this means that discussion has been narrowed down either to films that are thought to possess great artistic merit, or to films that are seen as important steps in the development of a director's individual and recognizable style. This is why a film such as Westfront 1918 by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, released some months ahead of its American counterpart All quiet on the Western Front, will seldom be absent from such studies. After all, a number of his films are considered to be major representatives of the New Objectivity.37

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