Cinema of Germany
When the movie industry first flowered in the period from 1900 to 1915, it took hold in Europe as well as America. But World War I shattered the economies of the European continent and stunted the growth of the industry there, allowing Hollywood to gain a dominance in the motion picture industry that it has never relented.
The story of German cinema in particular began in the period following World War I, as Germany slowly recovered from the horrors of war. Movies were a popular escape into fantasy for many people, and the film industry boomed, but German filmmakers could not afford to create high-budget films. The need for low budgets, combined with a desire to move forward and embrace the future that swept most of Europe at the time, led to the rise of German Expressionism: movies that relied heavily on symbolism and artistic imagery rather than stark realism to tell their stories. The film usually credited with sparking the popularity of expressionism is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), which is still studied by film scholar s today. It painted a picture on the cinema screen with wild, non-realistic sets built with overexagerrated geometry, images painted on the floors and walls to represent objects (and often light and shadow), and a story involving the dark hallucinations of an insane man. The Expressionist movement died down during the mid-1920s, but it continued to influence cinema for years after. Please see the main article on German Expressionism for a more in-depth explanation of the movement and style.
The film studio Universum Film A.G. (better known as UFA) was founded by the German government before the end of World War I to produce pro-war films, though after the war ended it grew to prominence with the success of German cinema in the 1920s. It produced a number of lavish, surreal spectacles, the most famous of which is Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Other noted UFA films include Madame Dubary (1919), Lang's epic production of Die Nibelungen , and F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1925). UFA overextended its budgets in the mid-1920s and had to declare bankruptcy; they signed an agreement with Paramount Pictures that relegated the studio to a lesser role.
The rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s sparked an abrupt change in German cinema. Several prominent German directors emigrated (or fled) to America, bringing their substantial talents to bear in Hollywood and having a major influence in American film as a result. The Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s were directed by German emigree filmmakers, including Tod Browning and Karl Freund , while famed director Michael Curtiz came from Germany to become a top Warner Bros. director. Fritz Lang's exodus to America is legendary; it is said that Metropolis so greatly impressed Joseph Goebbels that he asked Lang to become the head of his propaganda film unit. Lang chose to flee to America instead, where he had a long and prosperous career.
The flight of many talented German filmmakers, combined with a new era of censorship and control over the German film industry, has made German cinema of the Nazi era infamous for its contributions to the field of propaganda. Leni Riefenstahl, perhaps the most famous and talented of all propaganda filmmakers, enjoyed a prosperous career during this period. She produced a number of motion pictures, though her two most famous are her documentaries Olympia (1936) and especially Triumph of the Will (1935).
The German film industry collapsed, along with that of most of Continental Europe, with the defeat of Germany in 1945. Germany was especially hard hit, and its film industry suffered a severe decline that lasted for over twenty-five years, as Europe was flooded with American films and European filmmaking talents were swiftly discovered and enticed into coming to America. European films slowly recovered and evolved in different ways (Italian Neorealism was a product of the post-World War II era), though Germany's film industry foundered. The advent of television further sapped at Germany's film talent, and the period of the 1960s saw it at its lowest level, producing little more than low-budget pornographic films that were barely worth mentioning.
But German film did stage a recovery during the late 1960s into the 1970s, with the emergence of a new generation of directors. Working with low budgets, and influenced by the maverick Hollywood directors of the Vietnam War era, such directors as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff and Wim Wenders made names for themselves and produced a number of "small" motion pictures that caught the attention of the art house crowd, and enabled these directors (particularly Wenders and Schlöndorff) into better-financed productions which were backed by the big US studios. Their success sparked a renaissance in German films which may not have returned the country to the glory days of the UFA, but did bring the film industry back to Germany and encouraged other German filmmakers to make quality movies.
Important directors in German Film History:
- Auteurs (mainly 1960s to 1980s):