The Canon of Early Weimar Cinema Reloaded

Joel Westerdale (Smith College, Massachusetts)

Recent years have seen a significant shift in our understanding of early Weimar film. For over fifty years, Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler and Eisner’s L’Ecran démoniaque have dominated discussion, concentrating attention on technical innovations and the coming Nazi terror. But recent studies have exploded this narrow account, opening up issues of race (Nagl, 2009), corporate bodies (Andriopoulos, 2008), and the legacy of the Great War (Kaes, 2009; Stiasny, 2009). This new wave of scholarship has led to a revision of the Weimar film canon, reevaluating its current constituents (Isenberg, 2009) while also questioning its limitedness (Rogowski, forthcoming 2010).

My talk contributes to this reassessment of the canon by examining how a disturbingly coherent group of films – films like Wiene’s Caligari, Murnau’s Nosferatu and Lang’s Metropolis – came to represent early Weimar Film, despite the actual diversity of German film production at the time. Drawing on contemporary accounts and reviews, marketing materials, and original screenplays, it argues that the source of this dominant ‘dark cinema’ is to be found not in the war behind or the terror ahead, but in an international marketing campaign (spearheaded by Erich Pommer) that exploited a long-established dark ‘German’ profile to promote films that themselves drew their narrative inspiration from the originary uncanniness of film itself.

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