Steve Williams reports on the Weimarvellous strand of the Glasgow Film Festival which screened The Blue Angel and Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, the condemned republic captured on film.
The Blue Angel, produced in 1930,came to being during the years of transition that saw the first ‘talkies’ brought to the palaces and sacred spaces of European cinemas. These were telling times for Weimar Germany and indeed the history of Europe and the world. Josef von Sternberg’s film, the first of a successful working relationship with Marlene Dietrich, marks this transition in his aesthetic choices compellingly and inventively. Primarily using the geometric, crepuscular style of German expressionism and cinematic narrative devices associated with silent cinema, Sternberg uses sound effectively to separate internal and external spaces and to add a dated sense of tradition and routine in the character of Professor Rath (Emil Jannings), through the regular chimes of an ornate clock. He uses it, however, most famously by employing song, not only in creating the atmosphere of the cabaret, but as a method of revealing the true nature of Dietrich’s Lola Lola.
Thematically the film is more complex than is collectively remembered. An inability to control human nature – that of oneself and of others – is central to the film and is particularly resonant. In the previous few years Germany had thrown off the shackles of censorship and militarism to unsteadily embrace democracy. It had survived the horrors of World War One and the devastating financial punishments exacted on her by its victors to revel in unprecedented cultural inventiveness and the pursuit of leisure. This, however, merely masked the true condition of the fledgling republic. The new democracy was being manipulated and undermined by the old military establishment and from cultural commentators from all sides of the spectrum. The precarious economic freedoms gave birth to licentiousness and were due to be cut short by the Wall Street Crash and unleash Nazism’s fanatic, romanticised ideals of natural order. In Professor Rath, Emil Jannings could embody an establishment figure belonging to that former, delusory generation. He could also be a Jewish intellectual or a member of the new German bourgeoisie with a dangerous curiosity for life on the wrong side of the tracks.
Notwithstanding, the professor is analogous to Weimar Germany – both complicit in his own downfall and victim of dark, external forces. He tries to bring his students under control and his mocked and degraded. He is rendered vulnerable, disarmed and participates in his own humiliation through his doomed pursuit of Dietrich’s cabaret singer, Lola Lola. He is victim to the uneasy modernity of the times and to his own shadowy nature.
Dietrich’s signature song in the film ‘Von Kopf bis Fuss’ lost its nuances in the translation to the English version ‘Falling in Love Again’. A more literal translation reveals more of the singer’s inner morality – ‘From head to foot, ready for love – love is my world, or else nothing’ and corresponds to the precarious nature of the Weimar Republic.
Like many films and much of the art of the time, it deals not only with the ugliness of the past and the desperation of the present, but it also possesses a terrifying prescience. Siegfried Krakauer concluded that many of the films of this era hinted at the inevitability of the Nazi-led cataclysm. Traces of that impending tragic ideology are of course much easier to identify with hindsight, but that renders it none the less chilling when Dietrich sings ‘Beware of Blonde Women, they have a certain…something’. Furthermore, the professor’s students subvert his name Rath, to Unrat – ‘garbage’ – as they mock him, a word Hitler had used to refer the Jews in Mein Kampf.
The transformation of Professor Rath into a twisted, monstrous manifestation of his inner emotional state is another fine and measured reference to the strengths of German expressionism in cinema. The contrast with the cold, bovine eyes of Dietrich’s Lola as she begins the cycle of performance, seduction and destruction once again is arresting.
Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927) is revered and criticised in equal measure, sometimes from the same source. It captures the rapid tempo of modernity in Berlin using images, in the same way that Alfred Doeblin captured it with language in his book Berlin,Alexanderplatz. Like many of the experimental films produced around that decade dealing with modernity, it captured a new world of abstract images wrought open by technology, industry, moving machines and transport. The environment of Berlin’s denizens was rapidly transformed by alien and surreal structures built in new materials. Ruttmann’s film uses these visual anomalies to almost fetishise the geometric forms, kinesis and abstractions that the new world city brought forth on a daily basis. Berlin was a city of severe contrasts in those days and Ruttmann utilises these in his film – shadow and light, modernity and tradition, rich and poor, dynamic and sedentary.
Ruttmann’s film is often criticised for its ambivalence towards the dehumanising properties of the modern day city, even castigating it as a precursor for Nazi propaganda films. Part of this opprobrium may well stem for the fact that Ruttmann worked with the Nazis on many of their propaganda films, most notably as assistant to Leni Riefenstahl on Triumph of the Will (1934). Yet at the time his Berlin film utilised techniques associated with avant-garde New Objectivity. This may account for some of the ambivalence, however Ruttmann himself thought of it as an anthropological study, likening the city to an organism. This is borne out in the film as human, animal and industry exist and move in symbiosis over the course of the day. Anyone wishing to test the ambivalence and non-political nature of the film would be advised to watch the sequences juxtaposing working human beings with animals in cages or on a leash, or those contrasting the lives of rich and poor or the stock market and a rollercoaster. Certainly one scene in which we observe people running across a busy street of racing traffic at least hints that city life might bring its inhabitants to a flirtation with death on a daily basis.
There is remarkably little left of the Berlin shown in this film. It exists only in photos and on celluloid, in myth and in the dwindling memories of those few still alive who remember it as it was. As such it is a fascinating documentation of a European city approaching its zenith, before being condemned to decades of suffering and decay.