My husband suggested we watch the German documentary film, From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses, on streaming Netflix. I didn’t need much convincing, as I’m sure you are aware I love all things cinema. This film by Rudiger Suchsland won best film at the Venice Film Festival in 2014.
Back when I was getting my undergraduate degree, I took an elective class in history. The theme was film as history, and we viewed several films and discussed whether the movie reflected the times it was made in, how factual it was, or if instead it projected the hopes and fears of America into the plot.
This English subtitled documentary reminded me of that class I took many years ago. Film was in its infancy coming out of World War I, and was still of the silent film genre. I wondered how those films shaped or reflected the society they were made in. German filmmakers were an experimental lot, and I had heard of some of the directors, Fritz Lang the most prominent. Some of the films I had heard of that are now deemed classics, were discussed in this documentary, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis the most well known.
The populace during this time period (1918-1933) didn’t know another World War would be on its way. They were happy, hopeful, carefree and unrestrained following the end of World War I, the war to end all wars. It was a time of social and cultural upheaval that seemed to parallel the roaring 20’s in America.
Brewing on the horizon is the dictatorship of Hitler. The film historians who are interviewed key in on the social climate of the times to explain the nature of the films that were being produced. The films were controversial even then, and when Hitler started to come into power, many actors and filmmakers were essentially exiled, leaving the country for their own safety. Hitler couldn’t very well have filmmakers exercising the freedom of expression they had been used to, and censorship was their fate.
I was surprised to see that Billy Wilder, beloved screenwriter in America, was a European of Jewish descent and had worked in the film industry in Germany. I understood once I heard about all the directors, actors and screenwriters who relocated to Hollywood when the political atmosphere became threatening. (See my previous review for the classic Billy Wilder film, Sabrina.) The exodus of these stars and creators of the German cinema to Hollywood are a lasting gift to American film lovers.
It is interesting to reflect that not that many years later, after World War II, with the Cold War and the alleged Communist threat looming, Hollywood screenwriters were blacklisted for their political beliefs, even jailed. The censorship continued on with McCarthyism, in the wave of paranoia and fear that swept the country.
I highly recommend From Caligari to Hitler if you are the least bit interested in the history of film.