Monday 21 August 2017
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Israeli Early Cinema

The 26th edition of the catalogue of “Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto”, pp. 35-36

Courtesy of Mr. Livio Jacob, President of the festival.

Text by: Hans-Michael Bock, Geoff Brown, David Robinson

German silent films from Die Cabinet des Dr. Galigari to the coming of the talkies is one of the most celebrated eras in film history, and an endless source of themes theses for film studies, which makes it ironical that it is also the most consistently misrepresented region of cinema history. The generally accepted concept of the Weimar period is narrowly blinkered, over-defined by the outlook and parameters of two influential books: Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler (1947), written in exile in the USA, and Lottee H. Eisner’s L’Ecran Démoniaque, first published in France in 1952.

The corpus of Weimar cinema, as generally viewed, consists of less than 20 “classic” directors and perhaps a repertory of 50 films. German silent cinema, according to this vision, is Caligari, Metropolis, Nusferatu, Waxworks… Expressionism and dark tales of ghosts and shadows and horror… grim Kammerspiele of authoritarian fathers and right-wing tales of the Prussian King Frederic the Great… some experiments by avant-garde animators and Lotte Reininger’s silhouettes… Lenny Riefenstahl and mountains films… and dash perhaps of Neue Sachlichkeit and lower-class backyard romances.

There were the films that won critical attention and an export market (though not always the home audience). They suited Kracauer’s psycho-sociological perspective and Eisner’s essentially Romantic view of German art history; and for readers emerging from the rubble and destruction of World War II emotional, even political, sense to view past German film art history as the story of cinema of fear and folly, premonition and nightmare. At the same time this focus on a select group of films further consolidated the canon of titles selected for preservation by the archives (especially the Nazi-Reichsfilmarchiv in Berlin), thus bequeathing  the “haunted screen” view of Weimar Cinema to the next generation of archivists and historians.

But it is now time to move on, and explore more of the film archives’ store rooms: this year’s Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto presents the first of two or more series intended to set the record straight. Post-World-War I Germany had a flourishing and prolific industry (more than 3,000 feature films were realized between 1918 and 1929), which fostered the rise of an extensive generation of gifted, original directors, technicians and actors – many of whom remain to be rediscovered and revalued. A good number of names, of course, became eclipsed by the larger historical cataclysms which followed the end of the Weimar republic. A majority of the directors and actors featured in this presentation were Jewish, and forced into exile by the rise of Nazism. In many cases they were unable to pursue careers abroad; and their names and films were simply forgotten. A few other directors became so notoriously associated with Nazi propaganda films that critics chose simply to ostracize them and write off their earlier films, generally apolitical films – a situation now remedied in Hans Steinhoff’s case by the restoration work of the Steinhoff’s Project, on view in recent years of the Giornate. Other figures have been disregarded by “serious” historians because their work was unashamedly Publikumsfilme, “commercial” or appealing successfully to a large popular market.

Drawing largely on the explorations undertaken over more than 25 years by the CineGraf group with their publications and Film History Conferences in Hamburg, we have chosen 15 films by directors who for one reason or another we feel have been undeservedly eclipsed, and who are rarely honored in historical retrospectives. Working in general genres – the circus drama, the prestige literary adaptation, the spicy comedy, the slice of hokum – all of them reveal high professional skills, coupled with a quest for originality and genuine invention: qualities that can only enrich our previously restricted knowledge of German silent cinema.