A Culture of Light. Cinema and Technology in 1920s Germany

Francis Guerin,
A Culture of Light. Cinema and Technology in 1920s Germany.
Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0 8166 4286 9
314 pp
US$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

As Thomas Elsaesser notes in his book on German cinema, Weimar Cinema and After (2000), the historiography of German cinema in the 1920s was dominated for decades by two towering figures of German-Jewish exile, Lotte Eisner and Siegfried Kracauer. While Eisner’s L’Ecran démonique (first published in Paris, 1952) took an art historical perspective, finding the roots of German expressionist cinema in the uncanny light and shadows of German romantic painting and the theatrical mise-en-scene of Max Reinhardt, Kracauer’s social-psychological analysis, From Caligari to Hitler (Princeton, 1947), discovered a particularly German predilection towards authoritarianism (and Fascism) in the monsters and demons of Weimar cinema. Both books have spawned legions of supporters and detractors, yet have remained steadfastly in print to the present day.

Francis Guerin’s award-winning dissertation, [1]  A Culture of Light. Cinema and Technology in 1920s Germany, seeks like Elsaesser and others to overcome the inherent dichotomies of their predecessors. Indeed, by referencing Kracauer without naming him, the book seeks to “… relieve(s) German films of the responsibility to explain the political and ideological instability of the period, an instability said to be the uncertain foundation of Nazism. In unlocking this dubious link, A Culture of Light redefines the field of German film scholarship,” to quote the blurb on the back cover. Of course, one can argue that contemporary scholars appreciate Kracauer today less for his teleological critique – most certainly the product of its origins as a theory of German Fascism for use in World War II American propaganda – than for his still valid readings of individual films from the Weimar period. But it is also true that German cinema in the 1920s is imbricated in contemporary political realities, e.g. through the founding of UFA by the German High Command in 1917 or the purchase of the same company in 1927 by the leader of the right-wing German National Party, Alfred Hugenberg, like no other national cinema in the capitalist West. So I’m not sure one really wants to divorce politics from commercial film production in Germany, even if one doesn’t buy Kracauer’s argument. In point of fact, both Kracauer and Eisner are, like Guerin, primarily concerned with German art cinema, rather than the German film industry’s wide variety of popular genres, despite the totalizing claims they and Guerin make for their projects: Guerin discusses less than a dozen films in detail, so that “redefining German film scholarship” also becomes a bit of a stretch.

Guerin begins her introduction by stating that cinema is a medium of electric light and that it is the qualities of light and lighting technology that define German Weimar cinema. In particular, she defines a tripartite role of light and lighting as material, subject and referent of filmic representation: “light as the medium of film also has the capacity to be deployed as the content of representational images. These images might represent developments in light technology that take place in the historical world. Such representations can then potentially analyze the sociological function of artificial light formations such as the cinema itself.” (xv) If I understand her correctly, she is saying that light in the cinema not only allows for moving images to exist, but that it may also further a modernist self-reflexivity re the cinematic apparatus, and finally advances that technology through its use. Eisner, of course, privileges Stimmung – the play of light and shadow – and Eisner’s notion of chiaroscuro has been a cornerstone of all subsequent discussions of German Expressionism and Weimar cinema, but Guerin’s interest in electric light seemingly goes in the opposite direction by focusing on modernity, rather than on its stylistic origins in German Romanticism. This certainly makes sense, given the abundant and growing literature on German modernism in the 1920s and its relation to film, but one does wonder whether light – to the exclusion of all other cinema technologies and stylistic devices – can carry the heavy burden of defining a German national cinema, divorced from the tyranny of the political. Then again, Guerin – in contrast to the publisher’s pr – constantly refutes that her findings have any meaning for German cinema and society in general, but only address the films she discusses. In fact, Guerin hopes to circumvent overt political issues by arguing that these films demonstrate “the central conflict of a technological modernism (which is) the conflict between the utopian aspiration for mythical cohesion and the recognition of the material rupture brought about by industrialization…” (xxvii)

In her first chapter, Guerin discusses the electrification of German cities and specifically the conversion of street lighting from gas to electricity, stating that electric light (and industrialization) arrived late in Germany, i.e. in the 1910s and 1920s, so that she sees a concomitant rise of a culture of (electric) light and German cinema (which also lagged behind national cinemas elsewhere). However, while industrialization lagged slightly behind England, most German histories maintain that the Second Reich was an industrial powerhouse by the 1870s, allowing it to defeat France in that decade. Indeed, Germany pioneered indirect electrical current in 1891 and there seems little evidence to suggest that street lighting arrived later in Germany than elsewhere in Europe or the United States, even if World War I did temporarily dim Berlin’s streets in the interest of energy conservation. So while Guerin’s point that electric advertising and street lamps defined Berlin’s modernity in the 1920s is well taken, – remember the breath-taking montage in Ruttmann’s Berlin. Symphony of a City – I’m dubious about a model which locates a parallel rise of electric light and German cinema in the post World War I era.

Guerin then goes on to state that the rise of German cinema was indelibly connected to the use of electric light for film production in the 1920s, ten years after the electrification of American studios, a statement that simply does not hold water (12). Anecdotally, we know that Peter Ostermayr added arc lights to his studio in 1910, while Karl Valentin’s studio was equipped with artificial light as early as 1912. By 1916, the German cameraman Helmar Lerski was not only creating expressive lighting techniques for directors William Wauer and Robert Reinert, but also pioneering the use of artificial light for night time location shooting. [2] Anyone who has seen the dense mise-en-scene of Franz Hofer’s films from the 1910s realizes they would not have been possible without focused electric lighting. Indeed, one can argue that the American film industry’s move to Southern California retarded the use of artificial light – shooting on outdoor stages remained the norm through at least the 1910s – so that it was the Americans who were bowled over by German studio lighting in films like Variety. Guerin tries to buttress her case by stating that expressionist chiaroscuro was in fact not created through artificial lighting (as has often been assumed), but by diffuse sunlight on painted sets and that it was only in the mid 1920s that electric light was utilized “as compositional materials in the construction of mise-en-scene, agents in the narrative progression, and bearers of discursive meaning.” (13)

Guerin’s next chapter on films of the 1910s begins to explore the German cinema’s manipulation of light and its relationship to modernity, utilizing as examples the films Und das Licht Erlosch (1914) and Das Stahlwerk der Poldihütte während des Weltkrieges (1917), the former a wild melodrama, “motivated by the contradiction between a utopian narrative pattern and technological experimentation” (63), the latter an industrial documentary. Unfortunately for the broad generalizations about German cinema the author develops in this chapter, Das Stahlwerk is in fact not a German film, but rather was produced by Czechs under Austrian domination. And while the author specifically states that she hopes to overcome the often implied dichotomy between Wilhelmine and Weimar cinema, she too discusses her examples as precursors to the more sophisticated lighting of the 1920s.

The tripartite use of light is demonstrated in the following chapter through close readings of Algol (1920) and Warning Shadows (1923), films which look back at German mythologies, while also pointing forward to modernism. The author discovers a meta-filmic event in Alexander Granach’s shadow play, that self-reflexively obscures the boundaries between illusion and reality, the cinema as a modern form of entertainment and a purveyor of truth, just as she does in the case of The Golem‘s magic show, presented by the Rabbi Loew at Rudolph’s court, which Guerin discusses in Chapter 4. That chapter extends the analysis of the cinema as a form of magic through readings of Faust, Siegfried, and Metropolis. Guerin reiterates: “Thus, the films not only invoke the cinema as magic to represent the nature of history in their midst, but they use light and lighting to effect the representation.” (111) Guerin concludes that cinema technology allows for the creation of powerful myths that illuminate history, the present, and possible futures. Surprisingly, Guerin completely misses the fact that the German word for magic, Zauber, also translates as enchantment, which might have lead to a productive discussion of audience desire in this matrix.

In chapter 5, Guerin reads Die Strasse (1923), Jenseits der Strasse (1929) and Am Rande der Welt (1927) in terms of their construction of real cinematic space and its relationship to real, i.e. historic space. These films “use light and lighting to fragment, disconnect, and simultaneously extend space in order to represent the spatial and social reorganization of technological modernity.” (156) While the first two films narrativise the fragmentation and alienation of modernity in an urban landscape, impacting the private through the intrusion of the public, Grune’s At the Edge of the World visualizes the effects of war on a rural environment. In the street films, abstract lighting designs in the cityscapes become tropes for discontinuities in reality, while in the latter film abstract lighting infiltrates the interior spaces of the country folk, while evenly lighted, deep focus spaces characterize the natural environment torn asunder by war.

In a final chapter, Guerin looks at Varieté (1925) and Sylvester (1923), two films that offer discourses on popular, mass entertainments in Weimar culture and are thus perfect candidates for discussing Weimar cinema’s penchant for self-reflexivity as an entertainment medium. Imbricated in this discourse is a notion of the external world in moral chaos, to the extent that even happy endings must necessarily be over-determined, unable to suture the fissures the narratives have torn open: “… the modern entertainment industry is here represented for its intimate relationship with sexual and moral perversions.” (221) Guerin concludes the chapter noting that conflicts between technological excess – the profusion of lights – and moral critique open up a space for audience reflection.

Indeed, in her conclusion Guerin states that the uniqueness of Weimar German cinema is grounded in its refusal to gloss over inherent conflicts between aesthetic experiment and linear narrative, its depth of social commitment, its discourse on technological modernity, and its lack of conformity to classical Hollywood narrative. In other words, Weimar cinema, like all forms of modernist art, demands an active and engaged reader. Yet, while this seems logical and true, this reader finds that the trees have often obscured the forest, so that, for example, instances of overt social commitment seem to have gotten lost in the exclusive focus on light and lighting.

And, unfortunately, despite admirable and in-depth research, this volume is marred by mistakes and omissions. Thus, Max Ophüls is identified as an Austrian (he was born in the Saarland), while Josef von Sternberg becomes a German (he was an Austrian-American). Carbon arc is mistranslated as coal arc, while Bauhütte is translated as a team, instead of as a workshop. Peter Panter is not identified as the pseudonym for Germany’s most famous literary critic in the 1920s, Kurt Tucholsky. Not Florian, but rather the Rabbi Loew’s assistant reanimates the Golem, leading to the destruction of the town. Boleslas Matuszewski was a Polish filmmaker, not a French publicist. Mother (1926) was directed by Pudovkin, not Dozhenko. Vertov’s Enthusiasm was released in 1931, not 1929.

Having said all that, Guerin does offer an important new perspective on silent German art cinema, in particular its unique usage of light and lighting techniques. The degree to which her findings can be generalized for a German national cinema remains a subject for further research, but the parameters are now clearly demarcated.

Jan-Christopher Horak
UCLA, Los Angeles.


[1]  In 2003, Guerin’s work won the dissertation award of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies.
[2]In a footnote (#24, p. 289), Guerin wrongly identifies Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922) as the first instance of night time location shooting in German film.

Created on: Thursday, 2 March 2006 | Last Updated: 2-Mar-06

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →