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Tag Archives: Menschen am Sonntag

A Weimar-Era German Cinema Primer

As a result of the popularity of my “South Korean New Wave Primer” post (in terms of total number of views), I have decided to launch a “Primer series” – a periodic listing of capsule reviews of 10 – 20 films that exemplify a particular historical movement or national cinema style. These lists are in no way meant to be definitive. Rather, they represent a sampling of films that I consider essential to understanding a given period in film history. They are also meant to be an ideal introduction to various movements for students in my film studies classes who would like to broaden their knowledge of world cinema, although I will always throw in a wild card or two for the benefit of my more seasoned cinephile readers.

The second post in the Primer series deals with one of my favorite eras, Germany during the Weimar Republic (1919 – 1933). Although today this period is beloved for being birthplace and home to the movement known as German Expressionism, there were many remarkable films of different styles and genres made during this time, as the below list should make abundantly clear.

Madame DuBarry (Lubitsch, 1919)

Polish-born Pola Negri was a major international movie star and sex symbol during the silent era and Madame DuBarry, a biopic of Louis the XV’s mistress set (incongruously) against the backdrop of the French Revolution, is one of her finest star vehicles. Funny, tragic and sexually provocative for its time, this historical epic allowed German film studio UFA to break into the international market. Four years later, director Ernst Lubitsch would become the first of many German filmmakers to migrate to Hollywood (where he would achieve even greater fame).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) (Wiene, 1920)

This is the definitive German Expressionist film, in which all of the elements of director Robert Wiene’s mise-en-scene (lighting, set design, costume design, the movement of figures within the frame) have been deliberately distorted and exaggerated for expressive purposes. The end result, a view of the world through the eyes of a madman, single-handedly inaugurated the Expressionist movement, which dominated German cinema screens for most of the rest of the decade.

The Golem (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam) (Boese/Wegener, 1920)

A fascinating horror movie/political allegory about a Rabbi in 16th century Prague who creates the title character, a giant monster designed to defend the inhabitants of a Jewish ghetto against religious persecution. The Expressionist sets and monster make-up still impress today.

Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit) (Lang, 1922)

The first in a cycle of Fritz Lang films about a diabolical criminal mastermind and master of disguise who crashes the stock market and swindles countless innocents out of their money seemingly for no reason other than the sheer fun of it. Indebted to the mystery serials of Louis Feuillade, this four-hour movie (split into two parts of equal length) remains a fast-paced, rip-roaring entertainment from start to finish.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens) (Murnau, 1922)

The first and in my opinion best adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this influential horror movie introduced many now-familiar elements of vampire mythology (such as the notion that vampires cannot be exposed to sunlight). Max Schreck’s frightening incarnation of the title character is unforgettable, as is director F.W. Murnau’s equation between the vampire and the plague – a clear allegory for the senseless mass death that had recently swept across Germany in the first World War.

Warning Shadows (Schatten: Eine nächtliche Halluzination) (Robison, 1923)

A magician arrives at a dinner party and performs a shadow puppet play that seems to dramatize the desires, jealousy and romantic maneuverings of the various partygoers in attendance. This is the single best example of an Expressionist film using light and shadow in an explicitly symbolic way to underscore a film’s themes, which is saying a lot. Also notable for containing no intertitles.

The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann) (Murnau, 1924)

Murnau’s second masterpiece tells the sad story of a proud but aging hotel doorman whose entire world crumbles when his employers demote him to the position of bathroom attendant. Murnau’s new contract with UFA afforded him money and resources way beyond the relatively meager budget of Nosferatu and he put it all to good use by executing complex, elaborate and highly innovative camera movements.

Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) (Birinsky/Leni, 1924)

A lighthearted triptych in which the owner of a wax museum hires a writer to compose stories about his statues for the benefit of his customers. This clever framing device allows the filmmakers to juxtapose stories set in different historical eras, à la Griffith’s Intolerance, while simultaneously dabbling in the Expressionist style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang’s Destiny.

Variety (Variete) (Dupont, 1925)

One of the major masterpieces of the entire silent era that, for reasons unknown to me, has only ever been released on VHS in the United States. This tragic, darkly ironic crime tale concerns a love triangle between trapeze artists that ends in betrayal and murder. Emil Jannings is at his best as the cuckolded husband but it’s Karl Freund’s brilliant cinematography that really makes Variety fly.

Faust (Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage) (Murnau, 1926)

The well-known story of an alchemist who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a second shot at youth is, in the hands of F.W. Murnau, an extravagant, virtuoso piece of filmmaking that shows why some film writers, including me, consider him one of the greatest directors of all time. Indeed, out of all the silent films I’ve seen, I can only compare it to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis from the following year in terms of sheer ambition. Disappointing box office returns for both films was a major factor in the decline of Expressionist cinema.

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt) (Ruttmann, 1927)

The “city symphony” film, an experimental/documentary hybrid in which filmmakers composed images of a typical day in the life of a major city, was briefly in vogue as the international art film of choice in the late silent era. Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Sypmphony of a Great City is a terrific piece of eye candy and a fascinating documentary window into Weimar-era Berlin. It also exerted a huge influence on Dziga-Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera.

Metropolis (Lang, 1927)

Metropolis is the most famous of all silent German films – a massively influential science fiction epic about class warfare in a futuristic Germany that dazzles with its visionary architecture and pioneering special effects. But the formidable formal qualities are nicely balanced by a stellar cast including veteran screen actors Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Alfred Abel and newcomer Brigitte Helm (terrific in a dual role). The “complete” version unveiled in 2010 is the great film restoration story of our time.

Spies (Spione) (Lang, 1928)

The Mabuse-like leader of a spy ring finds out about a romance between one of his employees, a beautiful Russian woman, and suave government agent “Number 326” who has been assigned to bring him down. Spies contains many incredible set pieces including political assassinations, heists of government secrets, a train wreck and a finale involving a clown performance that has to be seen to be believed. This is the real birth of the modern spy thriller, without which the James Bond series would not be possible.

Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) (Pabst, 1929)

A lot of German stars have tried their luck in Hollywood. In the late 1920s American actress Louise Brooks did the opposite, moving to Germany and teaming up with director G.W. Pabst for a trio of memorable films. Pandora’s Box is their masterpiece, a realistically told, naturalistically acted story of a woman forced into prostitution who meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Although her career went into decline immediately after she returned to Hollywood, Brooks was rediscovered in the 1950s and today has become one of the most iconic visages (and bobbed haircuts) of the silent cinema.

White Hell of Pitz Palu (Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü) (Fanck/Pabst, 1929)

A major reference point in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, White Hell of Pitz Palu is a good example of the “mountain climbing film,” a popular genre in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The story concerns a young married couple hiking in the Alps who meet a doctor looking for the wife he had lost on a similar hiking expedition years earlier. This is chock-full of exciting climbing and rescue sequences and the minimal intertitles make it easy to focus on the film’s spectacular snowy scenery. The female lead is played by future director (and Nazi propagandist) Leni Riefenstahl.

The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel) (von Sternberg, 1930)

The Blue Angel is notable for many reasons, including its status as the first German talkie and the film that launched Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. The story is reminiscent of Variety with Emil Jannings again playing a man who is driven to ruin by a treacherous woman, this time a cabaret singer of loose morals named Lola Lola (Dietrich at her most iconic). This was the only German-made film by Austrian director Josef von Sternberg.

People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) (Siodmak/Ulmer, 1930)

A remarkable documentary-like narrative film about a weekend in the life of ordinary Berliners, People on Sunday centers on five characters who are portrayed by non-actors with day-jobs similar to those of their counterparts in the story. The film is also fascinating in that it was made by a collective of young amateur filmmakers, all of whom would soon go on to notable careers in Hollywood: it was directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann based on a script by Billy Wilder.

M (Lang, 1931)

My favorite German movie of all time is this police procedural/serial killer thriller based on the exploits of several real-life German murderers of the 1920s. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his innovative use of dialogue, sound effects and music (the killer’s habitual whistling) was hugely influential on subsequent movies. This was also the screen debut of theatrical actor Peter Lorre, chilling and believable as the killer, who would soon follow his director in carving out a memorable Hollywood career.

Maedchen in Uniform (Froelich/Sagan, 1931)

A beautiful film about a teenage girl sent to a boarding school where she falls in love with a female teacher, this is one of the earliest portrayals of an explicitly homosexual character in the history of cinema. The taboo-breaking content of the film, as well as its function as a plea for tolerance, are made exceedingly poignant knowing in hindsight that the rise of Nazism was just around the corner. Superbly directed by Leontine Sagan, one of the very few women to get behind a camera in this era of German movies.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse) (Lang, 1933)

Fritz Lang’s farewell to German cinema resurrects his supervillain Dr. Mabuse from more than a decade earlier (again played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and has him match wits against Otto Wernicke’s Inspector Lohman character from M! Many critics and historians have interpreted the film as an anti-Nazi parable in which characters belonging to the criminal underworld are equated with the Nazi party. Indeed Joseph Goebbels promptly banned The Testament of Dr. Mabuse from German cinemas and Fritz Lang soon headed to America where he became one of the most prominent directors of film noir.

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Top 25 Films of the 1930s

25. Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, Russia, 1938)

24. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, UK, 1938)

It seems that 1935’s The 39 Steps has become the consensus pick for the masterpiece of Hitchcock’s British period but, while I do love that film unreservedly, I love this outrageously entertaining spy caper even more. While aboard a transcontinental train, Iris, a beautiful young Englishwoman, befriends Miss Froy, an elderly woman who mysteriously disappears. In a signature nightmarish paranoid plot, Hitchcock has all of the other passengers deny that Froy was ever on the train, which causes Iris to question her sanity. It’s up to Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut), an unflappably witty ethnomusicologist, to help Iris get to the bottom of the mystery. This is one of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining films, which is saying a lot, in part because of the colorful supporting players; I’m particularly fond of the hilarious slapstick brawl between Gilbert, Iris and a nefarious Italian magician. As someone who wore out his public domain VHS copy as a teenager, I am exceedingly grateful to the Criterion Collection for their impeccable 2011 Blu-ray.

23. Freaks (Browning, USA, 1932)

22. The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1936)

My favorite pre-war Yasujiro Ozu film is also his first sound movie, an exceedingly poignant story of the relationship between a single mother who slaves away in a silk factory to give her son the best possible education only to be disappointed when he doesn’t grow up to fulfill her lofty expectations. Exquisite direction, including a signature use of cutaways to seemingly random exteriors, nuanced performances and a simple, unsentimental plot combine for a unique and deeply moving experience.

21. Outskirts (Barnet, Russia, 1933)

Although active as a director until his death by suicide in 1965, Boris Barnet is probably best known for his silent film work (e.g., The Girl with the Hatbox and Miss Mend). Outskirts (AKA The Patriots) was Barnet’s first sound movie and remains an unjustly underseen masterpiece of its era. The film is a comedy/drama about the residents of an unnamed town in rural Russia in the days leading up to World War I. It starts off as a comedy that boasts a delightful and innovative use of sound (where animals and even inanimate objects are given voice) but becomes increasingly serious after the war breaks out. Most surprising of all is the tender love subplot that develops between a Russian peasant girl and a German POW. Hopefully, Outskirts will someday receive the loving home video release it deserves and become much better known among cinephiles.

20. Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, USA, 1939)

19. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, Japan, 1934)

The one and only film I’ve been able to track down by the esteemed Yasujiro Shimazu is this delightful comedy/drama about the friendship between two neighboring families set in contemporary suburban Japan. The plot concerns a love triangle between a law student who “looks like Frederic March” and the two sisters next door, one of whom is newly separated from her husband. In a lot of ways, this feels like the most modern (and westernized) Japanese movie of its era – the characters play baseball, watch a Betty Boop cartoon and engage in hilarious, flirtatious banter. The exchanges between the law student and the younger sister in particular (the Miss Yae of the title) are highly memorable and infectiously fun.

18. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer, Germany, 1930)

A remarkable documentary-like narrative film about a weekend in the life of ordinary Berliners, People on Sunday centers on five characters who are portrayed by non-actors with day-jobs similar to those of their counterparts in the story. The film is also fascinating in that it was made by a collective of young amateur filmmakers, all of whom would soon go on to notable careers in Hollywood: it was directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann based on a script by Billy Wilder.

17. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)

The Blue Angel is notable for many reasons, including its status as the first German talkie and the film that launched Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. The story is reminiscent of Variety with Emil Jannings again playing a man who is driven to ruin by a treacherous woman, this time a cabaret singer of loose morals named Lola Lola (Dietrich at her most iconic). This was the only German-made film by Austrian director Josef von Sternberg.

16. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, Japan, 1936)

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the top directors at Shochiku Studios in the 1930s – although his work was virtually unknown in the West until the 21st century. Mr. Thank You is an astonishing film about a bus driver known for his politeness who travels from town to town through rural Japan. It takes place virtually in real time and was shot on a real bus traveling through the countryside (no rear projection was used), which makes it an important stylistic precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami. Shimizu’s film is both universal (a bus journey as a metaphor for life – a series of sad, funny, ephemeral encounters between fellow travelers) and specifically rooted in Depression-era Japan (a woman sells her daughter into prostitution, a Korean laborer helps to build a road that she herself cannot afford to travel on by bus).

15. Vampyr (Dreyer, Germany, 1932)

14. L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930)

Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is also his first masterpiece, a hilarious Surrealist account of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famous Surrealist images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

13. The Goddess (Wu, China, 1934)

12. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Hawks, USA, 1932)

11. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, USA, 1932)

German emigre director Ernst Lubitsch inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

10. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

9. The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937)

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8. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin had more success than any of the silent clowns in transitioning to the sound era – in part because he delayed doing so for as long as possible. City Lights was his last true silent and the penultimate outing of his beloved “Little Tramp” character. Here, the Tramp falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. Alternately funny and poignant in the best Chaplin tradition, this film also provides the best example of Chaplin’s still relatively unheralded genius as filmmaker: the only close-ups that occur in the entire film are in the final moments, which make them all the more impacting.

7. Earth (Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 1930)

My favorite Soviet film of the silent era is Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth, whose slender narrative about the virtues of collective farming in the Ukraine is merely an excuse for the director to present a succession of rapturously beautiful painterly images: wheat fields waving in the wind, rain falling on fruit, a young woman standing next to a giant sunflower and a series of unforgettable faces that resemble paintings of religious icons. Dovzhenko got his start as a painter and cartoonist and his purely visual approach to storytelling would serve as a model for future Soviet directing greats Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov.

6. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)

The first major masterpiece of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career is this towering period drama about the taboo relationship between a wealthy young actor and his family’s wet nurse. The formal precision of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely calibrated camera movements, combined with his signature use of long takes and long shots (there are literally no close-ups in the movie), is perfectly suited to his twin themes of doomed love and female sacrifice. This may have been a routine melodrama in the hands of any other director but Mizoguchi, the consummate perfectionist, knew that his rigorous visual style would touch and elevate the viewer. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ranks alongside of Mizoguchi’s best post-war films (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

5. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, Japan, 1937)

Sadao Yamanaka is considered a major figure in Japanese movies of the early sound era. He died tragically before reaching his thirtieth birthday and only three of the twenty-plus films he directed in his brief, prolific career survive today. This is cause for bitter regret because Humanity and Paper Balloons is probably my favorite Japanese movie of the entire pre-war era, a film I would rank ahead of the greatest early work of the more well-known directors on this list. Set in the Tokugawa era, this story of a kidnap and ransom plot across class lines is a jidai-geki (period piece) that feels like a gendai-geki (contemporary story). Indeed, it’s fascinating to see such an unromanticized view of the samurai class, which went against cinematic trends of the pre-war years. This flawlessly directed portrait of 18th century village life is alternately tragic and funny and brimming with unforgettable characters.

4. M (Lang, Germany, 1931)

My favorite German movie of all time is this police procedural/serial killer thriller based on the exploits of several real-life German murderers of the 1920s. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his innovative use of dialogue, sound effects and music (the killer’s habitual whistling) was hugely influential on subsequent movies. This was also the screen debut of theatrical actor Peter Lorre, chilling and believable as the killer, who would soon follow his director in carving out a memorable Hollywood career.

3. L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)

L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. One of cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.

2. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)

This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and lovers getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.

1. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930)

F.W. Murnau’s final Hollywood movie was lost until the early 1970s, then seriously critically reappraised when excellent quality DVD and blu-ray versions appeared in the 21st century. The film charts the relationship between a young wheat farmer (Charles Farrell) and his city girl bride (Mary Duncan) through blissful courtship, disillusion with meddling in-laws and the austerity of farm life and, ultimately, hard-won and believable reconciliation. As with all of Murnau’s best work, documentary realism is combined with breathtaking and poetic flights of fancy: Farrell and Duncan’s “run through the wheat” is probably my favorite 30 seconds in any movie ever.


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