Film Front Weimar: Representations of the First World War in German Films of the Weimar period (1919 – 1933).
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004
ISBN 90 5356 597 3
(Review copy supplied by Amsterdam University Press)
Films dealing with the First World War, with a few notable exceptions like the British documentary The Battle of the Somme (1916) or Lewis Milestone’s anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front (USA, 1930), have largely been ignored by film historians and critics. However, since the mid-1990s this has begun to change and studies such as Film and the First World War edited by Karel Dibbetts and Bert Hogenkamp, (Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 1995) Andrew Kelly’s Cinema and the Great War (London, Routledge, 1997), Leslie Midkiff DeBauche’s Reel Patriotism (Madison, Wisconsin University Press, 1997) and The First World War and Popular Cinema, edited by Michael Paris (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1999) have started to unravel exactly how the combatant nations adopted film to record the experience of war, how cinema was used as part of a comprehensive propaganda offensive to sell the war to contemporary audiences, and perhaps more importantly, how filmmakers have subsequently helped to shape the meaning and memory of 1914 – 1918 for later generations. Yet even in these recent works, most attention has still been focused on British and American cinema, thus it is timely that Amsterdam University Press have now published an English translation of Bernadette Kester’s Film Front Weimar – a detailed study of German films about the war made between the Armistice and the Nazi takeover in 1933.
Despite the ravages of war and the problems of defeat, the German film industry remained vibrant. In the post-war years, film-going became even more popular and began to attract the middle and upper classes into the cinemas as audiences not only sought a temporary, albeit brief, escape from the political chaos of Weimar, but were increasingly attracted by the dynamic, often experimental quality of German cinema. Throughout the 1920s, vast new film theatres, like the Ufa Palast am Zoo and the Primus-Palast in Berlin, were built to accommodate growing audiences, and the German film industry expanded to become the largest in the world after Hollywood. The inter-war years were a time of development and experimentation in the film world and Germany was no exception offering what the author calls the “aesthetically modern film”, alongside more mainstream fare such as domestic melodramas, historical adventures and war films.
As Kester notes, directors and producers of war films, however, “did not in the first place worry about creating artistically satisfying productions”(46). But while a film such as Pabst’s Westfront 1918 (1930) or Ucicky’s Morgenrot (1933) could be included in the “art” film category, most war films placed the emphasis on a more commercial straightforward narrative communicating a historical perspective or were concerned with individual or group experiences in battle. Between 1925 and the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, the industry produced over thirty films about the war, both documentary reconstruction and narratives – some three or four major productions a year throughout the period – a substantial number by any measure. So why did Weimar filmmakers feel compelled to so frequently revisit what was, after all, a humiliating defeat for Germany? The answer, of course, is that film offered one means through which audiences could come to terms with the war; to negotiate the suffering and loss of what, after 1918, appeared to be a pointless bloodletting. It is in this context that we should view the events on screen. As Kester notes, “Narratives create meaning, and they are therefore able to make the war past a subject for discussion, to make it bearable and digestible”(219).
Kester offers a useful survey of these films based on a close reading of the texts that is neatly contextualised. Films are categorised thematically – semi-official documentary reconstructions, anti-war films, naval warfare and gender and the war film. Essentially, Kester draws three major conclusions from her study of the genre. Firstly, that most films in some way deny that Germany was responsible for the war. Rather than accept the “war guilt” clause enshrined in the Versailles Treaty, Weimar filmmakers argued that war had come by accident; blame faulty diplomacy or lay the guilt squarely on the pre-1914 autocratic monarchies that denied the people a voice and created policy according to narrow self-interest, as in the 1931 film 1914: Die Letzten Tage vor dem Weltbrand. Secondly, in the combat films set on the Western Front, the overriding message is that the German Army, that band of brothers bound together by intense patriotism and camaraderie, was never really defeated. The military were betrayed, it was suggested, by the selfish weakness of politicians and businessmen. Clearly, such films built upon the widely believed myth of the “stab in the back” most commonly argued by the political right, but an appealing excuse for a nation that had been created by the sword and which clung so desperately to its martial traditions. Finally, Kester suggests that in the vast majority of these war films, there is “no recognisable national enemy”. If the enemy was shown at all in the West Front films, it was invariably the French, but even they shown without bitterness or anger. In the naval films, German and British sailors usually demonstrate considerable mutual respect. Was this part of a collective strategy through which filmmakers played their part in helping to bring Germany back into the commonwealth of European nations? Or does this ascribe too subtle a part to filmmakers who were, after all, probably more motivated by box office success and critical acclaim? But if there is no recognizable enemy, there are certainly identifiable heroes – the German soldiers and sailors who, even as dupes of a corrupt political system in the anti-war films, still display noble ideals – a sense of duty, bravery and loyalty to nation and comrades.
Kester argues her case well argued and is generally convincing but there are areas where she fails to fully develop her thesis; I would like to have seen a more detailed analysis of the reception of the anti-war films. However, overall this is a useful book, well-written and based upon sound archival research, that will increase our understanding of how German filmmakers dealt with the experience of war and defeat. Anyone interested in First World War films or Weimar cinema will find Film front Weimar enlightening reading. Non-German speakers, however, should note that the translation has irritatingly left film dialogue and quotations from other sources in the original German!
University of Central Lancashire, UK.
Created on: Tuesday, 4 May 2004 | Last Updated: 4-May-04