Audiovisual

 

Weimar Berlin Film Industry and Silent Films

After the First World War, new technologies allowed filmmaking to further develop and to become the most innovative cultural industry in the interwar period. Berlin, where Germany’s largest film production company Ufa is located, was the centre of the newly established sector and many world-famous directors worked there, including Fritz Lang or F.W. Murnau. Weimar Berlin was therefore the most attractive destination for British filmmakers and enthusiasts.

English film director, producer and screenwriter Alfred Hitchcock.
Figure 1. Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock and Berlin


In 1924, Alfred Hitchcock, who went to become a master of the thriller, arrived in Berlin and worked in the Ufa Studio as the art director for the Anglo-German production
The Blackguard. Defeated in the recent war, German society was dominated by the “teutonic gloominess and taste for psychological horror and uncertainty”1 and the cultural revival was in a rather depressing and mysterious mood. Working in such social conditions, Hitchcock “was swept away by the controlling style and pictorial mood of German expressionism.”2 In Berlin, he got in touch with the most innovative and most advanced film environment in the world, which was vastly different from the British film industry.3 This job enabled him to observe the work of F.W. Murnau closely, who was making the expressionist film The Last Laugh at that time. In the film, Murnau adopted a new technique arising from the expressionist movement: unchained camera. Hitchcock obviously learned a great deal from Murnau, including the technique of unchained camera and his subjective shooting style.

A year after Hitchcock returned to Britain, he produced the first “Hitchcockian picture”: The Lodger.4 There were “subjective shots very reminiscent of The Last Laugh both in form and content.”5 In his later interview, Hitchcock admitted that during his stay in Berlin, he “absorbed the prevailing images that German culture exploited to express its sense of post-war horror, social unrest, and the emotional dislocation and ubiquitous fear of madness that lurked just behind … and just ahead.”6 His models were forever “the German filmmakers of 1924 and 1925.”7

British Film Enthusiasts


Apart from professional filmmakers, “Berlin also provided the opportunity for other British film enthusiasts to view the latest offerings of the German avant-garde.”9 Going to the cinema was a common entertainment for Britons living in or traveling to Berlin. Many writers and artists, including Christopher Isherwood, W.H. Auden and Edward Sackville-West were regular visitors of the cinema. Berlin, without strict censorship under the Weimar government, was also one of the very few places in the world where audiences could watch Russian films. Even during their short visit to Berlin, Virginia Woolf and her sister Venessa Bell went to the cinema to see the latest Russian production of
Storm over Asia.10

Back in London, after the First World War, Britain had set a ban on foreign films in order to protect the local industry and Britons did not have access to German innovative films. Returning from a visit to Berlin in 1924, Ivor Montagu established The London Film Society with several British film enthusiasts to provide other film lovers with the opportunity to see films from Germany and other countries. German films presented there included The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and The Last Laugh.

Still from ‘The Last Laugh’
Figure 2. The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann), F. W. Murnau, 1924
Still from ‘The Last Laugh’
Figure 3. The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann), F. W. Murnau, 1924

In the 1970s, almost half a century after his stay in Berlin, Spender wrote to the New York Times about his experience in Berlin cinemas. “But most of all, we went to movies: Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”; and his “M,” … we liked seeing those Russian films … We saw all those which have become classics … and also many now-forgotten ones.”11 Berlin, the most advanced city in the film industry, set the city’s reputation for innovative films with mysterious themes and provided Britons with the opportunity to explore the city myth through cinemas.

The Cold War and Spy Movie

Capital of Spies


According to the Potsdam Agreement, after the Second World War, Germany was occupied by the four allied forces and the capital city Berlin was divided into four sectors. Already before Germany’s surrender, conflicts between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union had started. Berlin, the centre of the military occupation, was at the front line of the Cold War and hence became the centre of intelligence agents for both sides.

The war of information and spies might date back to the end of the Second World War. Before the Western Allies entered Berlin in June 1945, the Soviet Union had occupied the city for more than a month, built their war memorial at Tiergarten, and might have planted their spies. As the relationship between the West and the East worsened, the two groups both tried to get information from the opposite side. Berlin, with easy transit before the Wall, quickly became “a playground for the secret services on both sides of the Cold War.”12 “As a CIA agent once described it, ‘if the Soviet Military Commander in Bucharest or Warsaw telephoned Moscow, the call went via Berlin.’”13 Spies moved actively in Berlin, and during the Cold War, the city was widely known as “Capital of Spies.” Even in 2013, according to the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence, Berlin is still “European Capital of Intelligence Operatives.”14

Real historical events and figures such as the Stasi kidnappings, the tunnel built by the Britons and Americans to bug the Soviets, as well as the double spy George Blake, further added to the mysterious atmosphere. Filmmakers never miss such an excellent topic for their works. The famous Glienicke Bridge, originally named as The Bridge of Unity, where the two sides used to exchange their secret agents, the Charlie Checkpoints and the signaling between the different sectors were often portrayed in artistic works.

1984: 007 Octopussy


Among all the spies in films around the world, the 007 series was probably the most famous. Based on Ian Flaming’s original novels, the 1984
Octopussy was shot in West Berlin, because the crew did not get permission to get into East Berlin. Kurfrstendamm, Checkpoint Charlie, and many other Berlin famous spots appeared in the film. Apart from air fights, impressive air stunts and spy wars in Berlin, this film reflected thetense international relations and worked as propaganda during the Cold War to show British efforts of protecting the world from the perceived evil of the Soviet Union. The climax of the film was when 007 removed the nuclear bomb in the American army camp, which was a representation of the nuclear threat in the 1980s. At the same time, a Soviet general shot by his own people was an ironic depiction smearing Britain’s opponent, when he tried to chase after 007 into the American sector and was mistaken as a runaway.

Acrostar, a small white plane with wings that fold up.
Figure 4. Bede BD-5J

Echoes from the past

Weimar Berlin and Cold War espionage are still frequently chosen topics in the contemporary film industry and the mystery of Berlin echoes from a hundred years ago. Cabarets of the 1920s, the Weimar homosexual paradise, the Berlin Wall and Espionage exist in the common imagination as points of reference, and many popular British films choose Berlin as their setting.

The BBC adapted the famous British writer Christopher Isherwood’s biographical novel Christopher and His Kind into a one-and-a-half-hour film and Matt Smith played the author. The first half of the film was filled with homosexual nightlife and clubs in Berlin, while the latter half focused on the turbulent social context and the prelude of Nazis’ coming into power. Six years later, the German TV series Babylon Berlin launched and received great acclaim both in Germany and around the world, including the UK. This contemporary series, based on a historical novel, focused on Weimar Berlin. The representation of Berlin’s turbulent social life during the 1920s and the 1930s has been attractive to the audience. The mysterious atmosphere consisting of crime, sexual freedom, and social unsettlement of Weimar Berlin was deeply engraved into the audience’s mind through sight and audio representations. It is worth noting that the series is made in the Babelsberg studios, where many famous films were shot, including Metropolis and The Blue Angels during the Weimar Period.

Regarding contemporary spy movies, the British director Guy Richie presented an exciting scene of flying over the Berlin Wall from the east to the west at the beginning of his 2015 film The Man from UNCLE. The protagonist used a rope to fly over the Berlin Wall and the space in-between from a window in the East to a van in the West. This kind of exaggerated and exciting scene further reinforces the view of Berlin as the centre of Cold War conflicts.

From a contemporary standpoint, the exaggerated portrayal of past Berlin is not authentic to the historical reality. Scholars have argued that Babylon Berlin is an incomplete representation of the Weimar period, “especially when it comes to the representation of Jewishness and queerness” and “queer culture is celebrated only as an empty symbol of hedonistic nightlife.”17 Among the certainly existing extremes, the ordinary life in-between was often ignored.18

Similar misrepresentation happened to Christopher and His Kind, where the famous line by Isherwood was presented by the protagonist at the beginning of the film: “Berlin meant boys.” Moreover, concerning clothing, the leading female character Jean Ross often dressed in modern clothing rather than the actual vintage-featured dresses. When discussing the portrayal of Berlin’s myth, it would be more reasonable to call them the contemporary interpretation of Berlin’s myth with echoes from the past. In conclusion, Berlin and its myth have been both the inspiration and the topics for the British film industry from the 1920s to the 2020s.

Figure 1. Public domain
Figure 2. The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann), F. W. Murnau, 1924 © Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung
Figure 3. The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann), F. W. Murnau, 1924 © Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung
Figure 4. Bede BD-5J © Lennart Guldbrandsson
All the gallery images © Studio Babelsberg AG

Storer, Colin. Britain and the Weimar Republic: the History of a Cultural Relationship, New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2010, 99. Quoted in Eisener, Lotto H. The Haunted Screen, 51.
Colin, 99. Quoted in McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 63.
Bade, James N. Murnau’s The Last Laugh and Hitchcock’s Subjective Camera. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 23:3 (2006), 257.
Leitch, Thomas & Poague, Leland. A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 19.
Bade, 261.
Colin, 99. Quoted in Spoto, Donald. The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, 69.
Bade, 257. Quoted in Spoto, 68.
The Last Laugh.
Colin, 101.
10Marcus, Laura. “Weimar Berlin Cinema and British Connections.” 10.
11 Spender, Stephen. “Life is not a Caberet.” The New York Times 30 October 1977: 198.
12 Flemming, Thomas. & Opitz, Cindy. Berlin in the Cold War. New York: Berlinica Publishing LLC, 32.
13 Flemming & Opitz, 31.
14 Capital of Spies.
15 Hume, Alan; Gareth Owen “Potted Palms”. A Life Through the Lens: Memoirs of a Film Cameraman. McFarland & Company. p. 122.
16 Lunsford, J. Lynn (22 September 2006). “Filming air combat is as risky as a dogfight.”
17 Feuchtner, Veronika. & Lerner, Paul. Forum: Babylon Berlin: Media, Spectacle, and History. Central European History, 53(2020), 839.
18 Feuchtner & Lerner, 841.

Bade, James N. “Murnau’s The Last Laugh and Hitchcock’s Subjective Camera.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 23:3 (2006).
Colin, 99. Quoted in McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light.
Storer, Colin. Britain and the Weimar Republic: the History of a Cultural Relationship, New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2010.
Hume, Alan. & Owen, Gareth. “Potted Palms”. A Life Through the Lens: Memoirs of a Film Cameraman. McFarland & Company.
Feuchtner, Veronika. & Lerner, Paul. “Forum: Babylon Berlin: Media, Spectacle, and History.” Central European History, 53(2020).
Flemming, Thomas. & Opitz, Cindy. Berlin in the Cold War. New York: Berlinica Publishing LLC.
Leitch, Thomas & Poague, Leland. A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
Lunsford, J. Lynn (22 September 2006). “Filming air combat is as risky as a dogfight.
Marcus, Laura. “Weimar Berlin Cinema and British Connections.”
The Last Laugh.
Spender, Stephen. “Life is not a Caberet.” The New York Times 30 October 1977: 198.