The Weimar Shuffle
Dedicated to the memory of Thomas Elsaesser (1943-2019)
German art in the 1919 to 1933 period circumscribed by the exhibition The Mad Square (Art Gallery of New South Wales, August-November 2011) – and certainly German cinema, which we usually refer to as Weimar cinema – is not just one thing. Take a look at the dizzying array of styles, movements, art ideologies: Expressionism, Objectivism, Dada, Bauhaus … all of them overlapping and sometimes contesting each other. This is a crucial way to enter into German culture of this period, and particularly Weimar cinema. This era is marked by the names of great directors such as Fritz Lang (Metropolis, 1926), Friedrich W. Murnau (Nosferatu, 1922), G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box, 1929) and Josef von Sternberg of The Blue Angel (1930) fame. But big names and great artists are not all that should concern us; a cultural view is also needed to understand these classics, as well as many lesser films from the same time and place.
The path-breaking German film critic Frieda Grafe (1996) once said that a useful way to think of individual films, as of cinema as a medium, is in terms of transition points. She referred to movies as passageways or corridors that mediate between historical periods. They are made in their present moment and reflect that moment. whether they want to or not; but they are also in a dialogue with past period, historical movements and traditions. They are also pointed towards the future: sometimes films have a prophetic power, a prescient power – as Jean-Luc Godard demonstrates so lyrically in his video series Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98). This is particularly true, I think, of the art and culture gathered in The Mad Square. All this time-switching is, for my purposes here, the first “Weimar shuffle”.
I am especially fascinated by today’s fascination with Weimar – the contemporary take-up on its historic legacy – which takes many, many forms. Bob Fosse’s popular and ever-studied Cabaret (1972) is only the most visible manifestation of this tendency; although I would not personally classify it as a great film, its status as a cultural symptom needs to be acknowledged and taken seriously. Like many of us, I am drawn to the role of decadence in Weimar culture, particularly the twinning of sex and death.
When we talk about decadence, we often give it a moral pall, a dark shadow: decadence as decline, moral corruption and so on. On the other hand, decadence can just as easily – if our minds are open – refer to freedom, experimentation and play, especially in the realms of sex and gender. It is a question of how we choose to write history – and whether we choose to lock Weimar history within the particularly grim and tragic fate sealed by the rise of Nazism, World War II and the Holocaust. The central argument that scholars and viewers have had concerning the Weimar films takes the following interrogative form: are they in the shadow of Nazism, and do they, in an awful way, predict what Nazism would do to the world?
This was, for instance, the position of the great freelance scholar Siegfried Kracauer, who in 1947 completed his book with the marvellous title From Caligari to Hitler – meaning, from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (the classic 1920 Expressionist film) to the rise of Adolf Hitler. It was as simple as that for Kracauer – as simple and as complex as that. The films held in themselves the seed of this horrible, historical reality that was to come – something he read on many levels of the texts, from their generally depressive mood to the obsessive scenarios of weak fathers needing to be overturned by brave sons.
On the other hand, there’s today a whole revival of Weimar culture in cinema, but also in music video – Madonna, Queen, every second video music artist has pillaged (in a properly postmodern way) the classic films of Weimar culture. David Bowie’s romance with Berlin triggered an entire neo-Weimar dimension in his career, including a part in a 1982 television production of Bertolt Brecht’s 1923 play Baal. Such pop artists choose to emphasise not the moral gloom but the playfulness and possibility of Weimar. They follow the advice of the anthemic Foster the People song of 2011: call it what you want! In a related vein, Thomas Elsaesser (2000) refers to going back to Weimar films as the process of giving them the future they never had – because that future was snuffed out by the historical reality of World War II and the Holocaust.
So now we can, as it were, liberate the decadence, take it beyond always talking about the dark side and moral corruption. When Grafe talked about films being passageways or transition points, she meant that they refer not only to the past, the present and the future; they also take into themselves every art form and every medium: theatre, painting, music, design. And more: fashion and shopping are just as much a part of Weimar culture as painting or literature. But what we see in this culture is not the seamless fusion of all art forms and aesthetic periods. What we witness, instead, are the true “culture wars” (to use a contemporary term), the conflicts and constant struggles between (for example) the avant-garde and the mainstream, or between high art and popular culture. It is not a question of adjudicating which of these cultural forms is better or more authentic; rather, it is the struggle between them that forms any society. (As the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler [Bickenbach 2011] suggested, our models of culture should always be conceptualised in light of wartime, not peacetime.) In all of this, it’s crucial to see these various issues as not just reflected in Weimar films but actually dramatised in them. The movies embody or allegorise the fight between these cultural forms, often in an explicit and powerful way.
One of the great plot devices of Weimar cinema is social mobility – moving up or down the lines of class. So many Weimar stories are about the politician or the professor who falls in love with the showgirl, the prostitute who marries into the aristocrat’s family, the parents who dislike the person that their son or daughter is marrying because he or she is an artist, and so on. These social slippages don’t just happen once in a given film; they happen over and over again. They constitute what I call a degrading. I don’t mean morally degrading but, literally, a de-grading or shuffling of the characters. Another Weimar shuffle! You see people in their social positions and then they are moved around, up and down the social ladder, taken through all sorts of different positions and interrelations.
Cinema is absolutely at the heart of Weimar culture and, indeed, I would say – this is something of a mild provocation in the artworld context – that Photo Art is, in all its forms, more central to Weimar culture than painting. Of course the paintings are fantastic, but … It was amusing to walk through the exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on its lavish opening night, and overhear somebody remark: “Gee, a lot of these works are so small!” They’re small because they’re photos, postcards, posters for films, photos of architecture – and, finally, films (when not projected on a big screen, but customised on LED screens for a museum space).
The photographic forms that were coming to life in this period are a crucial part of the modernity as well as the Modernism of this time. When I make that distinction, I mean that Modernism is an art movement, while modernity is the whole revolution going on in the world of industrialisation, the machine age, architecture and urban planning – but also transportation (train, tram, car) and telecommunication (telephone, radio, film). Many Weimar films are, in fact, reflections on all these things; again, they are cinematic embodiments, allegories, dramatisations. They embed these devices of modernity into the film itself – cinema being, of course, the 20th Century’s supreme Modernist medium! (Martin 2010)
In The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich plays the immortal character of Lola Lola. You don’t meet Lola as a real, physical person at the outset of the movie. Firstly you see her as a poster, then as a postcard, and then finally in flesh and blood. So this is a world, in this moment in modernity, involved with how reality – including your and my flesh and blood reality – is mediated through images. And mediated through Photo Art, or photographic culture of any and every kind.
I am intrigued by the questions of sex and death, as well as the many bizarre combinations of these to things, in Weimar culture. Jill Lloyd spoke, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales seminar on The Mad Square, about a memorable real-life detail: prostitutes who wore mourning veils to give a “macabre frisson” to their sexual services. This relates to an issue that became very important to Weimar intellectuals such as Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, Wilhelm Reich and many other German thinkers of the time. They were trying to deal with sexuality, the kind of sexuality that Freud had brought to the fore in thought: sexuality as an energy – an energy not just of the individual self but in the world, in society, an energy that can go wildly out of control. Remember, the people have just come out of World War I and are about to go into World War II; as we all know, male sexuality goes insane during wartime – rape in war and so many other terrible things. Weimar Culture is an attempt to map, both consciously and unconsciously, what is happening to this unleashed, decadent energy. Where’s it going? What kind of strange alliances is it forming, out there (and in here) in the new, social world?
This relates to modernity – to the changing world of the metropolis, this social space in which energy is circulating in strange ways. Fritz Lang was intensely obsessed by this. Totally obsessed with new technology: he wanted to include it in all of his films in one way or another. He was drawn to the questions of the crowd, of telecommunications, of these new spaces of the modern world and the new kinds of experiences of (precisely) sex and death that they bring up. There’s a striking painting in The Mad Square called Sex Murder: it shows a prostitute under the bed with a guy hiding there about to kill her. Sex murder becomes almost a generic, True Crime obsession of Weimar culture, and no wonder – coming out of the wars and dealing with this strange, new, modern world!
The question of sex crime or sex murder – today we’d likely say serial killing – is exactly bound up with the beginning, the invention, of the modern world. Edgar Allan Poe wrote about it, so did Baudelaire: the crowd on the street, which is the subject of so much Weimar culture. What happens on the street? On the one hand, you’re anonymous out on the street, in the crowd; and, on the other hand, this means that somebody is looking at you and you don’t know who they are, or just when they’re doing their sinister surveillance of you. The murderer will follow you through the crowd and no one will see that happen. In Pandora’s Box, Louise Brooks playing the main character. Lulu throws herself at any man she likes – and the last man happens to be Jack the Ripper. Bad choice: but it’s a choice enabled by this new world, the world of circulation, of permeation, of endless telecommunication, which allows precisely these kinds of sexual encounters that can be ecstatic or can be deadly. Take your pick! Remember that Lang’s M (1931) is really, historically, the first serial killer film, and still the template for so many made all over the world today.
But let us turn from the very well known M or Metropolis to a Lang film that is far less known, Spione (Spies, 1928). This fantastic movie is one of Lang’s greatest because it is, in its own zany way, a celebration of modernity (see Gunning 2000) – modernity in cinema and modernity literally in the streets and on the expressways of transport. Take the very beginning of the film. Lang always starts in on something very close, a detail, and then, very quickly, you’ll get a whole social panorama. So, at the start of Spies, a secret government document is stolen. We don’t know who’s done that, or even why. As eager spectators, we fill in the blanks of what the French critic Serge Daney (1992) called the “clever rubric” offered to us by filmmakers like Lang, Alfred Hitchcock or Jacques Tati. Straight away, we’re into the joy of the motorcycle. Telecommunication: waves of energy, spiralling out into a new, electronic space. News: an event happens, and already it’s news. Welcome to the modern world! Someone’s getting shot, and instantly someone’s on a telephone to talk about it. A bumbling government official – well, some things never change. In the extremely abridged, American edit they cut out that part, because they thought the comedy was too broad, too vulgar; Lang encountered this kind of resistance all the time. Everybody wanted him to be a high artist but he loved the low, vulgar stuff as well – and none of us should ever tear this combo asunder.
A fantastic moment in the opening sequence of Spione: a driver gets out of his racing car and is about to hand over the secret. Who is it, what’s the answer? Sudden bullet through the window: say goodbye to that guy. And the official left behind as a hapless, impotent witness asks the immortal question, “Who? Almighty God, what power is at play here? What is behind this?” The answer is shown to us by the film itself, via its power of montage: Haghi (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the villain. “I – it’s me”. All of this has just happened in little over two minutes of screen time. Films of the 21st Century, 85 years later, are slow and laborious compared to this!
There’s much more we could say about this segment from Spione. One point is that the figure of Haghi, the mastermind, is actually crippled, dwelling in the middle of an amazing bank/fortress that he has built around himself. Everything he does is through telecommunications; he has an army of people that he manipulates all over the city. Haghi is a descendant of another Lang character, Dr Mabuse. There’s a series of Mabuse films – indeed, the last film that Lang made is The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960), an incredibly prescient work about the age of the Internet. But Lang, in a weird way – and this is part of the perversity and the decadence of Weimar culture – identifies with Mabuse and with Haghi, because these sinister figures behind the scenes who manipulate things … well, they might as well be film directors. That’s the type of metaphor or analogy at work here; Lang wasn’t afraid of the self-implication.
Spione was part of a genre called the sensation film; Lang himself said – and he meant this totally positively – “There is only pure sensation, character development does not exist” (see Martin 2006 for further discussion). I agree; more films everywhere should be made on that principle today! However, Spione was criticised in its time for being sensational in exactly the way it intended to be. Kracauer himself said that in the entire plot (which goes on for something like three hours): “One party spies on another and soon you forget who is who and why they’re doing it. As an end in itself, the endless process is meaningless” (Kracauer 1960: 275-6). Siggy couldn’t get into the fun of this film, clearly. But the fun aspect, the pulp fiction aspect of Weimar culture is something we must never forget; Lang himself was deeply into it.
I wouldn’t call Lang camp in the way that we talk about camp comedy or camp culture these days – because there’s a lot of real, tender feeling in Spies for sentimental love and suchlike. But that’s what’s interesting about Lang: like all the key Weimar directors, he forms, in his sensibility and his practice, an unusual transition point between many things: between sentimental German Romanticism and cynicism; between playing with stereotypes as a pure game and then investing real energy and vitality into them.
The Blue Angel by Sternberg is the film that made Marlene Dietrich a star. What’s interesting about Dietrich as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel and Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box alike is (according to movie lore) that they are the prototypes of the femme fatale, the deadly woman – which also exists as a figure long before Weimar, in the history of art, drama, mythology, and so on. Then, in Hollywood cinema of the 1940s, in what we call the film noir, the femme fatale lures men to their doom in her spider web … and that is the way we picture her role, her function, all the way to postmodern revisions like Kiss of the Spider Woman (novel 1976, film 1985). But, in the Weimar films, these figures are not yet the complete femme fatale as we have come to type her. Franz Hessel (quoted in Petro 2007) noted this at the time: “Those dangerous women incarnated by Marlene Dietrich do not give one the feeling that they mean too much harm”. Louise Brooks herself said a wonderful, profound thing about her character in Pandora’s Box: “I was [Pabst’s] unaffected Lulu with the childish simpleness of vice”.
The childish simpleness of vice: that’s Weimar culture in a nutshell – this incredible mixture of innocence and perversity, sophistication and childish play. And similarly in The Blue Angel, the character whom Dietrich plays is most famous for singing the song “Falling in Love Again”, which boasts these lyrics: “Falling in love again. What am I to do? I can’t help it”. There’s a sense that you love this character, or at least have some positive, sympathetic feelings for her, because she’s just being herself; the same goes for Lulu in Pandora’s Box. This is an intriguing, transitional moment in the history of Western culture. The Czech surrealist poet of a much later generation, Petr Král, once wrote a touching tribute to Dietrich in which he essentially observed – and what a terrific thing for a grown man to say in public – “In Marlene Dietrich I see the sexuality of my mother” (I am paraphrasing). In Dietrich you have the fascinating mixture of a motherly quality and a completely sexual, erotic quality; they’re among the volatile ingredients in play here. You are starting to see why we are still attracted today to the aura of Weimar!
Sternberg was drawing on the theatre and Expressionism, but he was transforming the theatrical influence that came from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. There was a movement named after Caligari – Caligarism, no less – but Sternberg wanted to move away from theatre, while still using the form that’s called the kammerspiel (chamber theatre or chamber drama). His films are often referred to as hothouses where you have these sets, these places, these spaces in which, basically, sexual energy circulates – often in devious and perverse ways. He was obsessed with this idea right throughout his entire career; he made a film set in a gambling casino, The Shanghai Gesture (1942); he made another, his final masterwork The Saga of Anatahan (1953), set on an island where many men and one woman are stranded after World War II. What extraordinary topics that he gravitated to, always to achieve this hothouse effect! But the way Sternberg made theatre into cinema – and this was a major achievement of Weimar cinema – is that he would put spaces or places next to each other, in a dynamic transformation.
Here is the way The Blue Angel starts: Caligarism, an Expressionist moment of set design. But you will see very little of this in the rest of the film. It functions as a reference to, or citation of, the then-recent past of German art and culture. So we – by that I mean the German or European viewers of the day – we start with what we know. But the film is a passageway. It’s saying, “Here’s where we come from – Caligarism – now we are going to go somewhere else”. Next comes (as I’ve already mentioned) the introduction of Lola Lola in a poster. Look at the wonderful moment that Sternberg contrives, it contains the whole film: the washer woman who not only unfussily cleans the image of Lola Lola, but also decides to start comparing herself to that feminine ideal. In a mock-ironic way, naturally – to de-grade the ideal image. We’ll never see this washer woman again – it would take us a lot of research to even find out the actress’ or extra’s name! – but her single on-screen moment is indelible.
Here is what I mean about places and spaces. We transit to a classroom. These well-dressed kids are meant to be fifteen years old, even though they look like they’re thirty. This place, this space, is where the main male character, Professor Rath (Emil Jannings), has his domain. It’s where he literally controls and commands the space. Everyone looks at him. He looks at everyone. He commands who speaks and who will remain silent; this is his authority. In the 1905 novel by Heinrich Mann (part of the famous Mann family), the good Professor is teaching Schiller, a figure from German Romanticism – Schiller’s dramatisation of Joan of Arc. He’s trying to teach high culture to these kids who would rather be watching Lola Lola in the nightclub. It’s already a cultural war, the kind of war we see often in Weimar cinema. Later, Professor Rath’s students change his name to “Unrath”, meaning garbage, once he starts going out with Lola Lola – the teacher going out with the showgirl. Of course, he is no great elevated Professor of Literature, to begin with; the film is constantly on about the slippery, sliding scale that takes us from slightly high or pretentious culture to very low, murky, decadent culture. Sound familiar?
Keep this space of the classroom in your mind, because now we are going to the club. Lola Lola wears an amazing dress in this first club scene: if you ever wondered what fetishism is, this film will give you the answer, because everything Dietrich wears offers an exaggerated way to get you to stare at her sex! The sex you will never literally see, naturally. Incredible things are done with this in Sternberg’s staging, his mise en scène. The whole film is based, on the one hand, on the fantasy image of Lola, which the Professor himself falls for; and, on the other hand, that tawdry reality of the washer woman – or the reality of this absolutely seedy club, the Blue Angel. As soon as Professor Rath enters the club, everything changes. The place of the club is compared to the place of the classroom, but everything is inverted. The Professor becomes a lowly figure in this space. He is compared, all the way through, to another character: the clown. And the clown is basically the lowest person possible in the status system of the nightclub. The entire film is about this degrading, this bringing Rath down to a level – at which point, finally, Lola Lola will just move on. What is she to do? She can’t help it!
Pandora’s Box stars Louise Brooks. I want to give some sense of Brooks and her relation to decadence. German art (in its “higher” sense) has been through some difficult times over the past century, in favour and out of favour (for obvious historical reasons) in different countries at different times: Brooks suffered this, too. Her career was virtually over by the end of the 1930s. She actually lived in poverty for much of her life but then, slowly, Cinémathèque programmers and critics rediscovered her and her films. She eventually wrote an autobiography, an extraordinary book called Lulu in Hollywood (1982), in which she said she could have written a lot more but (as she sums up in a marvellous phrase) because she was living in America during its writing, “I am unable to unbuckle the Bible belt of America” – something she surely did want to do! In this book she describes the years of 1927/8 in Berlin, when she starred in Pandora’s Box. The very thought of an American actress in a classic German film based on a classic play by Frank Wedekind – that caused an outcry. At the premiere of the film, audience members were spitting on her: “How can an American play our great German character?” And so the film itself dramatises, through the choice of an actress, this modernisation and Americanisation of German national culture – at the precise moment that it is becoming porous or open to the world, which is the (necessary) fate of all cultures.
Brooks did fit in quite well with Weimar decadence, it seems. Here is her portrait of Berlin in 1927:
At the Eden Hotel, where I lived in Berlin, the café bar was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the streets outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation. Actors’ agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian Quarter. Race-track touts at the Hoppegarten arranged orgies for groups of sportsmen. The nightclub Eldorado displayed an enticing line of homosexuals dressed as women. At the Maly there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians. Collective lust roared unashamed at the theatre. In the review Chocolate Kiddies […] Josephine Baker appeared naked except for a girdle of bananas.
What an amazing panorama of the sexual life of Berlin in the period of the late ‘20s! And with some strange, prescient resonances for us today: as well as the problem of male sexuality in wartime, we also have the very timely problem of the unbridled male sexuality of our sports heroes! Not to mention “lust roaring unashamed” in the arts, if and when we’re so lucky …
Pandora’s Box starts with an ambiguous figure. He’s actually a meter reader, the meter man. But you don’t think that straight away. You might imagine he’s some middle class gentleman. Introduction to Lulu: the main thing about her is that she’s completely guileless. Her desire goes anywhere, regardless of the class or social position of the person she fancies. She can have a desire for this guy, she can have a desire for any guy – it’s nothing ever to do with their wealth or their lack of it. That’s the central provocation, the central transgression of this figure. It’s also the reason why she’s not a femme fatale in the more contemporary film noir sense – she’s not out to fleece, manipulate or betray anyone. So, we have a fascinating erotic byplay. Look at the intriguing things Pabst does with eye-lines, where the characters are looking in the frame – because he takes that system apart. Elsaesser discusses all this brilliantly, and in depth. It’s not like a smooth Hollywood film of the time. They’re looking in unusual directions; Pabst puts a vignette ring around it to make you aware of your own gaze – both spectator and spectacle combined in the one image, many times over. Now this rather shabby, noticeably older guy appears and the meter man tells him: “Get out of here! I’ll give you a buck. Get lost!” But have a look at Lulu’s response: it’s her friend – indeed, rather more than a friend, as we quickly discover. Off to the bedroom with this guy!
Immediately we have an interplay of men in two social positions. The guy who’s a meter man, and then, as it were, the shabby bum below him. She’s attracted to both, and she follows her whim in any way she wants to. The meter man, feeling a bit disgruntled, leaves. And this sets up the narrative mystery of which man would want to kill her – which turns out to be quite a few guys, for one reason or another. Men and their problems! Weimar culture was right onto that.
Elsaesser’s wonderful book Weimar Cinema and After is interested not only in the complexity of this piece of cinema history, but also the legacy that has taken it up in contemporary culture around the world. He emphasises the notions of play, the mask, people who wear masks and their unmasking – and particularly the sliding levels of social mobility. He writes: “For a decadent society of show and mimicking status, the sliding social scale of inversion and grades of identity is potentially limitless”.
There you have it: the inverting of roles and the grading, moving and swapping of identities are potentially limitless. I believe that one of the great, enduring appeals of Weimar culture and Weimar cinema is that, now in the 21st century, in the age of the Internet, it is once again a time where this sliding scale of identity-play seems potentially limitless. What we make of that development, the story we choose to tell of it – morally, aesthetically, politically, culturally – is up to us. Call it what you want! But Weimar culture offers us many rich clues as to our renewed, complex destiny. Let’s try to create for ourselves the future that the Weimar Republic never had.
This is a lightly rewritten version of a talk given at a symposium on The Mad Square, 6 August 2011 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and repeated 3 March 2012 at the National Gallery of Victoria. Some of the ideas here are developed in my audio commentary tracks supplied for the DVD releases by Madman (Australia) of Dr Mabuse, the Gambler and The Blue Angel, and in the text on Spione listed below. See also the subsequent audiovisual essay on The Blue Angel made by Cristina Álvarez López and me in 2017.
Matthias Bickenbach, “Blindness or Insight? Kittler on Culture”, Thesis Eleven, no. 107 (November 2011): 39-46.
Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood (New York: Praeger, 1982).
Serge Daney, “Falling Out of Love”, Sight and Sound, Vol 2 No 3 (July 1992).
Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary (London: Routledge, 2000).
Frieda Grafe, The Ghost and Mrs Muir (London: British Film Institute, 1996).
Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (London: British Film Institute, 2000).
Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947).
Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film (London: Oxford University Press, 1960).
Adrian Martin, “What is Modern Cinema?”, 16:9, no. 38 (September 2010).
Adrian Martin, “Machinations of an Incoherent, Malevolent Universe: Fritz Lang’s Spione”, Rouge, no. 9 (2006).
Patrice Petro, “The Blue Angel in Multiple-Language Versions: The Inner Thighs of Miss Dietrich”, in Gerd Gemünden & Mary J. Desjardins (eds.), Dietrich Icon (New York: Duke University Press, 2007).
© Adrian Martin May 2012