Defeat brought two to three years of social and political turmoil until the Weimar Republic (named after the provincial town to which the postwar government fled to escape the upheavals in Berlin) stabilized Germany. Then the Great Depression of 1929 undermined the fragile economy and democracy, paving the way for Nazism. Yet this short period is known as the Golden Age of German cinema.
Initially, the German economy spiraled into inflation, which was not controlled until the US Dawes Plan guaranteed the currency in 1923. Yet the film industry remained active, with hundreds of production companies and distributors, and it expanded with the Emelka studios in Munich, later the Bavaria AG, the second traditional site of German filmmaking. The other major studio, Ufa, prospered initially, establishing prestige cinemas in Berlin and Hamburg and later building the leading soundstage at Babelsberg. The new republic rapidly established direct control over production with film assessment offices in Berlin and Munich, freeing individual films from the preventive censorship applied by law. However, the same body could also promote its educational criteria via tax breaks for "particularly valuable" films.
Yet German filmmakers' greatest advantage was international, as exported German films gained acclaim abroad. With foreign films also coming in, international opportunity meant negotiating with what was already the dominant global film industry, Hollywood. In 1921 a European Film Alliance came about between the Hollywood company Famous Players and a group of ex-Ufa filmmakers, such as the entrepreneur Paul Davidson (1867–1927) and the directors Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947) and Joe May (1880–1954). However, its management could not cope with the pressures of inflation and quickly declared bankruptcy. A few years later, Ufa, led by the most successful producer of the day, Erich Pommer (1889–1966), made the Parufamet agreement with the Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn studios. Ufa contracted for twenty US films each season and guaranteed the American studios 75 percent of its cinema's programs, and the Americans agreed to take ten Ufa films each. The German side needed the deal, as it also came with a loan of $4 million to pay off Ufa's debts. Unfortunately, it was not enough.
Already in 1919 Ufa had launched the first German international success for over five years with Lubitsch's costume drama, Madame Du Barry . Under the title Passion , this became a huge hit in the United States the next year, so that the director left for Hollywood in 1923 and never worked in Germany again. In early 1920 Robert Wiene's (1881–1938) Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari ( The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ), the film that came to characterize German expressionism, the dominant avant-garde art movement of the times, premiered in Berlin. It abandoned any attempt at realism, depicting the machinations of an evil doctor and showman with his exhibit, a sleepwalker, through bizarre, painted sets and exaggerated costume and acting styles, not least from the young Conrad Veidt (1893–1943), who also later left for Hollywood and is perhaps best known for his role as the Nazi commander in Casablanca (1941). Caligari 's theme of the corruption lurking behind respectability was so potentially controversial that the producers forced the addition of a conciliatory ending before release. Unlike Lubitsch's film, Wiene's made an international impression as innovative filmmaking, even if it did not enjoy the same popular success. Other examples are Fritz Lang's (1890–1976) Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler ( Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler , 1922), centered on a mad criminal mastermind, and above all his Der Müde Tod ( The Weary Death , also known as Destiny and Between Two Worlds , 1921), a film exploring the mysteries of life and death and displaying Lang's ability to visualize transcendent scenes architecturally. F. W. Murnau (1888–1931) made twenty-two films from 1919 to 1931, when he died in the United States. Nosferatu, ein Symphonie des Grauens ( Nosferatu the Vampire , also known as Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors , 1922) is one of the most well-known expressionist films, while Der Letzte Mann ( The Last Laugh , 1924) displayed a masterful use of the moving camera that did away entirely with the need for subtitles to tell its tale of a once-proud hotel doorman who finds himself unemployed. Murnau came to the United States on the strength of these films, but with the exception of the exquisite Sunrise (1927), he was unable to find success within the Hollywood studio system. Expressionism was nearing its end in Das Wachsfigurenkabinett ( Waxworks , Paul Leni, 1924), which told three fantastical tales with magnificent sets and featured three of the era's great stars: Veidt, Emil Jannings (1884–1950), and Werner Krauss (1884–1959).
In 1924 Fritz Lang adapted the expressionist style for the historical epic Die Nibelungen , which depicts the greatest German folk-myth. With his penchant for monumental effect combined with expressionistic devices, Lang made another of the milestone films of the Weimar Republic, Metropolis , in 1927. With two of German cinema's leading stars, Heinrich George (1893–1946) and Brigitte Helm (1906–1996), supported by an army of extras, the story shows an apocalypse averted in a supercity of the future and an idealistic conclusion uniting management and workers. Although it confirmed Ufa's technical prowess, the film also came close to bankrupting the company, precipitating eventual takeover by conservative, nationalist interests. However, Metropolis had impressed Dr. Josef Goebbels (1897–1945), who, as the Nazi propaganda minister after 1933, offered Lang a leading position in the industry. Lang left for Hollywood, where he managed a reasonably successful transition, producing films like Fury (1936), the anti-Nazi story Hangmen Also Die (1943), Rancho Notorious (1952), and The Big Heat (1953). He never reintegrated into the German industry after the war, although he accepted invitations to return to Germany to direct Der Tiger von Eschnapur ( The Tiger of Bengal , 1959), Das indische Grabmal ( The Indian Tomb , 1959), and Die Tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse ( The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse , 1960), reprising a motif from his early career.
In the late 1920s expressionism gave way to the technically and ideologically more sober style of the New Objectivity, which found cinematic expression in such films as Kurt (1902–2000) and Robert (1900–1973) Siodmak's Menschen am Sonntag ( People on Sunday , 1930) and G. W. Pabst's (1885–1967) Die freudlose Gasse ( The Joyless Street , 1925). The latter, a social drama set in a proletarian district of Vienna, combined social commentary with moralistic melodrama to show the corruption of speculators and the rescue of the heroine by an American Red Cross officer. It was also the film debut of Greta Garbo (1905–1990), who shortly afterward left for Hollywood and became a screen goddess. In the same genre, but ideologically uncompromising, is Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück ( Mother Krause's Journey to Happiness , 1929), made by director Piel Jutzi (1896–1946) with the Marxist film collective, Prometheus. The film depicts a mother's suicide after her family is destroyed by unemployment and poverty and advocates working-class solidarity.
Lang also depicted the same milieu for his first sound film, M—Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder ( M , 1931), but used it for a crime thriller based on an actual case of a serial killer of children. M launched another significant star, Peter Lorre (1904–1964), who soon went on to prosper in Hollywood. In M , and in much of the earlier expressionist filmmaking from Caligari onward, the critic Siegfried Kracauer identified in the German culture and nation a significant reflection of individual and social psychoses, which would find an overt form in Nazism.
Murnau took his professional name from a town in southern Bavaria favored by noted artists in the early part of the twentieth century. He earned a reputation as a creative genius who contributed to the German film industry's international ascendancy, but also as a director unable to manage the shift to Hollywood and all that such a move entailed.
After World War I, he became an apprentice to the theater director Max Reinhardt in Berlin. He directed his first film, Der Knabe in Blau ( The Boy in Blue ), in 1919 and had his first success with the romantic melodrama Der Gang in die Nacht ( The Dark Road ) in 1921. With the screenwriter Henrik Galeen, he made one of the signal films of German expressionism, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens ( Nosferatu the Vampire , 1922), the forerunner of the vampire genre and a cult film today. Murnau worked in a variety of styles but is best known for his expressionist films: Herr Tartüff ( Tartuffe , 1926), from the seventeenth-century French comedy by Molière, and Faust (1926), from the celebrated play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Murnau's Der letzte Mann ( The Last Laugh , 1924), one of the most significant films of the period, combined elements of expressionism and the subsequent New Objectivity. Murnau had Karl Freund, a leading cameraman of the day, shift his camera around and through the scenes, even going so far as to have Freund strap the unwieldy equipment onto his body. The film's groundbreaking visual effects support a story told from the perspective of the protagonist, a hotel doorman powerfully portrayed by Emil Jannings. The Last Laugh displays technical prowess, eschewing any title cards to support its narrative.
Murnau received official recognition at the premiere of Faust in 1926, but he left for the United States and a contract with Fox studios. There he made Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), an expressionist story of infidelity and murder with a visionary, dreamlike style, often ranked as one of the greatest silent films. It was a critical but not a commercial success. After Four Devils (1928) and City Girl (1930), Murnau quit the mainstream industry and took a loyal team to the South Pacific to produce Tabu (1931), a tale of love and death in paradise. He was killed in a car accident a week before its Hollywood premiere.
Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens ( Nosferatu the Vampire , 1922), Der letzte Mann ( The Last Laugh , 1924), Faust (1926), Herr Tartüff ( Tartuffe , 1926), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), Tabu (1931)
Eisner, Lotte H. Murnau . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973; London: Secker and Warburg, 1973.
Fischer, Lucy. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans . London: British Film Institute, 1998.
Fu, Winnie, ed. The Psychic Labyrinth of F. W. Murnau . Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2003.
Huff, Theodore. An Index to the Films of F. W. Murnau . New York: Gordon Press Publishers, 1998.
Petrie, Graham. Hollywood Destinies: European Directors in America, 1922–1931 , revised ed. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2002.
The introduction of sound in 1927 radically changed the longer-term prospects for German films internationally, as possibly the only rival industry to Hollywood now operated through a minority language. The first German sound film exhibited was Walter Ruttmann's (1887–1941) Melodie der Welt ( Melody of the World , 1929), a travelogue dominated by music.
The shift to full use of sound's potential came with Josef von Sternberg's (1894–1969) Der Blaue Engel ( The Blue Angel , 1930), starring Emil Jannings as a bourgeois schoolmaster seduced by a cabaret performer and Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992) as the seductive singer, Lola Lola. To counter the inevitable restriction to the natural territory of the German language, films like The Blue Angel and Ewald Dupont's (1891–1956) Atlantic (1929) were shot in several language versions simultaneously. By the end of 1930, sound films were the norm in production and exhibition.
The only declared Communist film produced in the whole period, Kuhle Wampe oder: Wem gehört die Welt? ( To Whom Does the World Belong? , 1932), directed by Slatan Dudow (1903–1963) and written by the renowned playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), just managed to get a premiere in Berlin in 1932 after being refused three times by the censors. It depicts an encampment of the unemployed in the forests south of Berlin and is highly critical of state and religious authorities. Also typical of the times is the film version of Brecht's play, Die Dreigroschenoper ( The Threepenny Opera , 1931); Brecht sued the director, G. W. Pabst, and his producers, claiming they had falsified the political message he sought from a story of the collaboration of crooks, police, and banks. Brecht himself left Germany early in 1933, exemplifying the devastating impact of political developments on the nation's entire creative intelligentsia.