Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era edited by Noah William Isenberg. Columbia University Press. Hardcover, 373 pages. $32.

The cover of Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era

On the cover of Noah Isenberg’s new anthology, a nearly naked woman, her head adorned with radiating feathers and her breasts covered only by bejeweled pasties, stares at us with heavily raccooned eyes and a slight smirk that betrays a calculated cool. The hard yet seductive gaze is Maria’s, or rather that of her false double, the robot that inventor Rotwang created to lead the workers to self-destruction in Fritz Lang’s 1927 science-fiction fantasy, Metropolis. The image is well chosen. Promiscuity and male anxiety, medieval witchcraft and state-of-the-art special effects, displaced class struggle and visionary utopianism, doppelgängers, vampires, and golems—these are the hallmarks of German cinema between 1918 and 1933, a period bracketed by the abdication of the kaiser and the rise of the führer. Weimar cinema was the golden era of German film, when runaway inflation made the nation’s productions competitive in foreign markets; when eminent directors like Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau, and G. W. Pabst turned film into a legitimate art; when professionals like Karl Freund, Carl Mayer, and Eugen Schüfftan set new standards in cinematography, script writing, and special effects; and when illustrious stars, many of them soon to be lured to Hollywood, first appeared on-screen, among them Pola Negri, Conrad Veidt, and Greta Garbo.

Weimar Cinema gathers sixteen essays that shed new light on such classics as Nosferatu (1922), The Joyless Street (1925), and Pandora’s Box (1929), while also exploring such lesser-known titles as Joe May’s Orientalist blockbuster The Indian Tomb (1921) and Bertolt Brecht’s single directorial effort, Kuhle Wampe (1932), a social-realist drama about Berlin’s unemployed. Next to art films cast in the main genres of the period (horror, science fiction, domestic melodrama, the street film, and the Kammerspiel), we find such works as Walter Ruttmann’s urban montage, Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927), and the low-budget People on Sunday (1930), made by a then-unknown group of film aficionados, including Fred Zinnemann, Billy Wilder, and Edgar Ulmer, who called themselves the Filmstudio 1929. As Isenberg states in his introduction, cinema was the favored medium to depict a culture suspended between promise and tragedy: “In this paranoid world, built precariously atop the power vacuum that was left after the war, a need for projecting society’s innermost anxieties, fantasies, and dreams onto the big screen arose almost as quickly as the republic itself was collapsing.”

For decades, our understanding of this cinema was shaped by two books—Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen (1952) and Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler (1947). Written by Jewish exiles from Nazi Germany, they share a distinctive postwar and post-Holocaust perspective that seeks to understand Weimar cinema in light of what came afterward. Thus Eisner emphasizes the films’ roots in the dark and irrational side of German Romanticism, while Kracauer sees certain motifs, such as the bowing to authority and the crisis of male subjectivity, as signaling a German “national disposition” that led to the coming atrocities. Recent scholarship, however, has begun to expand on Eisner’s and Kracauer’s limited scope. Abandoning the perspective of post–World War II hindsight, Isenberg and his international contributors shift attention to the ways in which Weimar cinema reacted to and engaged with the fallout of the first great conflict. Thomas Elsaesser and Matt Erlin, for example, show how Murnau’s experience as a pilot in World War I influenced his cinematography, and Anton Kaes looks at Metropolis as a film that not only portrays quiet submission to an authoritarian leader (Hitler, according to Kracauer’s reading) but harks back to the trauma of Germany’s defeat. For viewers of the period, Kaes maintains, the uniformed workers must have evoked images of soldiers marching to their deaths in the trenches, while the notion of the worker-soldier echoed the contemporaneous writings of Ernst Jünger, whose “futuristic project blended feudal imagery of service and sacrifice with a modern celebration of efficiency and vitality.”

The war also deeply affected gender relations. The casualties left a serious shortage of men, and the end of hostilities forced women who had been employed in the war effort to return to domesticity. Then, during the relative economic stability of the republic’s middle years, there arose the New Woman and the media-generated Girlkultur, whose excesses were immortalized in the vamp figures portrayed by Louise Brooks and Marlene Dietrich. Equally important was the generational shift that the new republic inaugurated. In a highly original discussion of Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), Sabine Hake takes issue with critics who have seen Emil Jannings’s degradation from hotel porter to bathroom attendant as representing the postwar years’ humiliations, arguing that the film criticizes the authoritarian structures, Prussian in origin, that obstructed contemporary egalitarian principles.

As its subtitle indicates, the book confines itself to the era’s canonical so-called art films, which make up only a fraction of the period’s output. Nevertheless, Weimar Cinema is the volume on this fascinating era of international film history. Paying close attention to the historical moment, its essays are written in an accessible prose. The fact that nearly all of the films discussed here are available on DVD, many in recently restored versions with ample additional features, only adds to the volume’s attraction. With the freeze-frame function at our fingertips, we can arrest Maria’s cold gaze and explore what lies at the heart of Weimar cinema’s ambiguous attraction.

Gerd Gemünden is the author, most recently, of A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films (Berghahn Books, 2008).