The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema - Book Review

By John Paul Mason

The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema: Rediscovering Germany's Filmic Legacy edited by Christian Rogowski is an anthology of essays dedicated to showing the tremendous variety of film in the Weimar Republic. This book is largely a rebuke of Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler (1947) and Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen (1952), two foundational works for the historiography of Weimar film which utilized a somewhat narrow set of films. Since the publication of these two works, these films – primarily of the expressionist movement – have received a good deal of focus in the historiography of the Weimar cinema.

Editor Christian Rogowski makes clear in his introduction that these foundational texts carried fundamental flaws which needed to be addressed. He added that the essays within The Many Faces were selected to demonstrate the diversity of Weimar cinema that has often been overlooked. This intention makes a lot of sense, and for the most part, the essays selected do a terrific job of expressing it, showcasing the variety of Weimar cinema. This diverse selection of essays about Weimar film leads to some interesting insights about the Weimar culture that would have been lost in a work which did not address the film variety of Weimar in this way.

Of particular interest are essays such as Veronika Feuchtner’s “The International Project of National(ist) Film: Franz Osten in India,” which takes a transnational look at the impact of Weimar film in India and Jill Suzanne Smith’s essay on the “Aufklärungsfilme,” or social hygiene films, of director Richard Oswald. Feuchtner’s transnational approach provides insight not just into the operation of the German film industry, but filmgoing practices of Germans and Indians as well as possible political implications of these films in both Germany and India.

Smith’s essay on social hygiene films demonstrate anxieties about issues such as prostitution and contemporary thoughts on how film ought to handle such matters. These particular types of film have received very little attention in Weimar historiography, but the connections drawn between these films and other critical social developments appear valuable to the study of the Weimar Republic, revealing that there is a lot to be gained by examining films of underexamined genres such as the social hygiene films.

The focus on including writing on a variety of genres does not mean that discussion of expressionist film is left out of this text. Instead, it is continued here in essays such as Anjeana Hans’ essay on the 1924 film Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac), in which she discusses how the film operated as an expression of masculine identity in the wake of World War I.

Barbara Hales’ essay on the 1919 expressionist film Nerven (Nerves) similarly addresses wartime trauma, but in this case, she uses the film to discuss societal reactions to psychological trauma experienced by veterans of World War I. She also addresses the conflation by some of the psychological trauma with the 1918 revolution and the “Dolchstoßlegende,” or stab in the back myth. This use of expressionist film to examine both wartime trauma and responses to wartime trauma creates an intriguing and broad picture of Weimar culture.

The inclusion of essays which examine representations of wartime trauma in the film is largely inspired by Anton Kaes’ approach in Shell Shock Cinema (2009). Kaes similarly takes inspiration from Kracauer, but here uses film to examine how Germans dealt with their past rather than their future. Rogowski cites this as inspiration for his collection process, as essays were sought out which informed more about how Germans lived and dealt with their past or contemporary problems rather than what they wanted for the future.

The selected essays do an excellent job of this and often move beyond a discussion of just film, resulting in a collection which deals with many topics of interest to any Weimar historian, including nationalism, anti-Semitism, and wartime trauma. The length of these essays never allows for these subjects to be delved into as thoroughly as they otherwise could be, and nothing in the volume is transformative to the historiography of the Weimar Republic. Regardless, Rogowski's work is a solid collection which represents the diversity of Weimar film.

Other essays examine the production of Weimar film, Jewish films, anti-Bolshevist films, the introduction of sound, abstract film, and horror films. The problem with this approach is that each topic is only given a minimal amount of discussion before moving on to the next, resulting in the debate which covers a wide variety but says very little – at least in comparison to a monograph. This is, however, a very commendable and well put together collection, and serves as a fantastic introduction to the history of Weimar cinema.

The diversity of films discussed adds some much-needed variety to the historiography of the Weimar cinema, which has for some time been dominated by a discussion which fails to mention many of the films mentioned in this volume. This diversity of film discussed allows for various examinations of the Weimar Republic from many different perspectives. This volume succeeds in the editor’s mission of showcasing the variety of film in Weimar cinema, but the nature of the anthology keeps this work from really deeply examining any of the material presented here.