(This article on the Goethe Institute’s “Audi Festival of German Films” first appeared in a shorter version in the “Australian Jewish News” on 30 April 2015.)
There is no doubt that Germany has gone to great lengths to confront its Nazi past, and nowhere is that more evident than in the activities of the Goethe Institute, the official German international cultural organisation. The biggest event run by the Goethe Institute here in Australia is the annual Festival of German Films.
This year, the festival features three films of significant Jewish interest: a documentary about German film during the Weimar period, a documentary about a famous house in Czechoslovakia and a German-Israeli drama.
Certainly the true Jewish highlight of this year’s Festival is the documentary “From Caligari to Hitler – German cinema in the age of the masses”, directed by journalist Ruediger Suchsland. It is based on the book “From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film”, a 1947 book by Siegfried Kracauer that examined the history of German film during from 1895 to 1933.
Kracauer was a notable German Jewish film critic, journalist and philosopher who fled Germany in 1933, eventually settling in New York City, where the Museum of Modern Art funded the book’s writing. Close friends with noted Jewish philosophers Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno (part-Jewish), Kracauer’s book is considered a classic of film historiography, interweaving social and political theory and positing that the rise of Nazism was foreshadowed in the films of the 1920s.
The documentary includes great clips from “The Golem” (perhaps the most famous of all German-Jewish films), “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, “M”, “Metropolis”, “Nosferatu”, “The Blue Angel” and other classics of the time. It also features interviews with director Volker Schlondorff, historians Thomas Elsaesser and Erik Weitz and director Fatih Akin, who is of Turkish background. (Included in the Festival is Akin’s film “The Cut”, set in about Turkish persecution of Armenians in 1915 Turkey.)
Other than Kracauer’s thesis, the Jewish significance of this documentary is that until the rise of the Nazis, German film was, quite simply, the best in Europe, an excellence powered by Jewish directors, writers, producers, actors and cinematographers. At the end of the “From Caligari to Hitler” film, the credits list a number of German film personalities of the period who left Germany, primarily fleeing the Nazis in 1933. This list includes well-known names such as Ernest Lubitsch, Max Ophuls, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Peter Lorre, Robert and Curt Siodmak and Josef von Sternberg, but also a number of lesser known figures like cinematographers Karl Freund and Eugen Schüfftan, critic Lotte Eisner, directors Richard Oswald and Edgar Ulmer, actors Dita Parlo and Elisabeth Bergner, writer Carl Mayer, writer-directors Paul Czinner (husband of Bergner) and Richard Oswald, and composer Werner Richard Heymann. (Even Fritz Lang’s mother was born Jewish.) Many of these people were featured in the 2008 PBS documentary “Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood”.
Perhaps the most famous of the between-the-wars German films was the 1920 silent horror film “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”, produced by Erich Pommer (Jewish), who also produced “The Blue Angel”, which co-starred Jewish actor Kurt Gerron, playing opposite Marlene Dietrich. As one of the richest periods of European-Jewish cultural achievement, this period is truly worth celebrating. My critique of Suchland’s documentary is that, if anything, he follows Kracauer’s psycho-social thesis too closely, and does not pay sufficient attention to other factors influencing films at that time, and never really asks the question what did it mean that so many of the key players were Jewish. The English language subtitled narration is also excessively (and sometimes hilariously) dense, but I suspect that’s the way that German film theorists may actually talk.
Another Festival documentary, “Haus Tugendhat”, tells the story of a Mies Van Der Rohe-designed house in the city of Brno, Czech Republic. Originally built in 1929 for the Tugendhats, a Jewish family, this film examines both the history of the house – a classic modern architectural design – and its original owners.
The dramatic feature “Anywhere Else”, directed by Israeli-born Esther Amrami, tells what could be a partly autobiographical story of Noa, an Israeli woman who is graduating a university in Berlin with a masters thesis on untranslatable words, possibly a good metaphor for her split life. Noa impulsively returns to Israel on a visit, and her dilemmas all come to a head on Yom Hazikaron, in both comic and dramatic ways. It’s a slight film, but notable in how it deals with the Israeli expatriate experience.
The “Audi Festival of German Films” runs in Australia from 13 May through 31 May 2015 in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart and Byron Bay. Go to the Festival website for details.