PAINTING WITH LIGHT
THE UNEASY ALLIANCE OF ART, POLITICS AND ECONOMICS IN EARLY SOVIET AND WEIMAR CINEMA
by Mark Ryall
It was the American pop artist R. B. Kitaj who said that art is not created in a vacuum. He was talking about the capacity of art to both comment on and respond to the anxieties of a society, but the idiom is especially relevant to the art of film. An artist needs only paint, canvas and a subject. A poet needs only a pen and paper. But the filmmaker requires so much more. No matter what concept is to be conveyed or what subject is to be captured, the filmmaker requires a camera, lights and electricity to power them (an enduring problem in early Soviet film), a crew to operate the machinery, and enough film stock to capture the moving image (again, problematic for the Soviets). The captured image then has to be cut together before it can be presented to an audience. And this is still only half the journey for the film artist. Conveying an artistic message from sender to receiver also requires a system of exhibition.
If the role of film art is the conveyance of ideas with the intention of illumination, then the goal of the filmmaker as artist is to convey their message to the masses in the hope of enlightenment. The success or failure of this process depends on a great many factors, not least the cinematic mode of production.
Film was the defining art form of the twentieth century, and it was built on the cornerstone of technological innovation. This technology is reliant on investment – either private or public – and creates a tension between the artist and the industry that has been present from the very beginning. The very nature of the film industry is driven by economic forces beyond the control of the artist. The cinematic apparatus may be an ideological system, but it is still fundamentally dependent on finance.
In other words, if film is painting with light, then someone has to pay for the paint.
Global economies were in a state of flux in the aftermath of World War I. The political landscape of both the Soviet and Weimar republics had a direct effect on the film industries of Russia and Germany. The founder of the Moscow Film School Lev Kuleshov noted as much when writing on the state of cinema in 1922.
“We have summoned, and continue to summon, all kinds of meetings, boards, commissions etc. which are supposed to take the appropriate measures to regenerate one of the most interesting areas of industry.”
Kuleshov recognised that cinema as an art form is dependent on more than the sum of its parts. Acting, set design, direction and photography are insignificant in isolation. And as Film theorist Siegfried Kracauer has observed, production of a film cannot be placed at the feet of a single individual.
“The Russian film director Pudovkin emphasises the collective character of film production by identifying it with industrial production: ‘The technical manager can achieve nothing without foremen and workmen […] Team work is that which makes every, even the most insignificant, task a part of the living work and organically connects to the general task.”
Early Russian cinema made no overtures towards art. The Pre-Revolutionary Russian film industry was almost non-existent, and theatres relied heavily on foreign imports. What little domestic fare there was mainly aped the genre pictures popular overseas. Therefore the modus operandi of the early Russian film industry was not promoting the avant-garde, but competing with imported films on the level of populist appeal.
The Russian authorities had attempted to create an indigenous film industry as far back as 1914, when the Military Film Section was appointed to provide front line newsreel footage for the domestic audience. But the quality was not up to muster and the footage was scrapped. Nevertheless, during the course of World War I the Russian film industry went from producing approximately 129 (mostly) short films in 1913 to 499 in 1916. The medium of film not only allowed Russia to sell an image of itself to its people, but it also allowed the government to sell the Bolshevik ideology to the outside world. But when Sovkino was established in 1924 with the intention of centralising the Russian film industry, the cinema-going masses were not yet ready to embrace the avant-garde and still preferred the narratives of the imported film over these home-grown offerings.
Joseph Stalin’s speech to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of Soviet cinema in 1935 proves that the artist’s mode of illumination is the politician’s vehicle for propaganda.
“Abroad they all watch Soviet films with attention and they all understand them. You filmmakers can’t imagine what important work is in your hands. With unique opportunities for spiritual influence over the masses at its command, cinema helps the working class and its Party to educate the workers in the spirit of socialism, to organise the masses for the struggle for socialism, to raise their cultural level and their political fighting capacity”
Many films made during this period were produced with the explicit intent of performing the function of propaganda – both at home and overseas – yet still managed to operate on the level of art. The work of Sergei Eisenstein exemplifies the duality of art cinema and blatant, unapologetic propaganda. The narrative thrust of both Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928) mimic and replicate the victory of socialism and the arch-narrative of post-Revolutionary Russia.
October (Ten Days that Shook the World)
Furthermore, these films advocated the ideology of socialism. They promoted the agency of the masses and the power of the many over the individual. Battleship Potemkin was a far greater success outside Russia than the reception it received in Eisenstein’s homeland, a condition largely due to its experimental nature and obscure symbolism.
Eisenstein’s subsequent film, October (Ten Days that Shook the World), was commissioned by the Soviet government to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Bolskevik Revolution of 1917. In the absence of any extant footage of the October Revolution, Eisenstein’s film provided the opportunity to dramatize these events for the people, and to provide them with a fiction in place of non-existent factual footage. Naturally, this allowed for a certain degree of truth-bending. Just as the Odessa Steps sequence of Potemkin had no basis in historical fact, the documentary style and verisimilitude of October has since acquired the unwarranted authority of documentary footage.
October’s noble narrative portrays the bloodless victory of the masses. Here the blood of Battleship Potemkin’s massacred proletariat is substituted for the smashed wine bottles from the fallen Tsar’s heaving cellars. But again, Eisenstein’s predilection for heavy symbolism and experimentation risked alienating his intended audience – the common man. This was a concern noted contemporaneously by Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, following a viewing of October.
“There is much symbolism that will be little understood by the masses, [such as] the sea of scythes that appears before the toppling of the thrones. To someone who had not seen pictures and sculptures that symbolise the mass peasant movement by scythes this image would probably be unintelligible and would pass right over him.”
As with Battleship Potemkin before it, October was received poorly by both critics and audiences.
If Eisenstein’s predilection for typage elevated the crowd above the individual, then Dziga Vertov reinserted the film artist back into the cinematic apparatus. Vertov’s style of Socialist realism stemmed from a desire to free the audience from foreign melodrama. He too was a victim of Russian economics and bureaucratic red tape.
“I myself am now severely starved. In the creative sense, of course… If I were dependant only on pen and paper, I should be writing day and night […] But I have to write with a camera […] My work is dependent on a whole range of organisational and technical factors […] If I cannot get anything out of a particular management or governing body, I shall still not surrender […] Governing bodies come and go but art remains.”
Vertov had parted company with his previous backers, Sovkino, when his previous film, One-Sixth of the World (1926), went dangerously over budget. His final silent film, Man with a Movie Camera (1929), reinserts the audience into the cinematic apparatus. From the first shot of the filmmaker himself behind the movie camera – caught in the act of creating his art – the film brings the artist, subject and viewer together in one glorious piece of Kinopravda. Shots of a projectionist feeding film through a projector in an empty theatre cut to an audience filled with excited anticipation intermingle with scenes of everyday Russia and its citizens. Simply put, Man with a Movie Camera is a representation of life itself.
In 1927, the year of October’s release, box office receipts of Soviet films exceeded those of imported films for the first time. But this phenomenon was not a product of Eisenstein’s avant-garde musings or Vertov’s social realism. Audiences still preferred the bourgeois narratives that mimicked foreign cinema. While Lenin saw the early potential of film as a tool of ideological propagation, there were those in Germany with a similar vision.
The Weimar Republic was established in the confusion and turbulence following World War I. It struggled through an unstable political landscape that included failed revolutions, political assassinations, a massive war debt and territorial losses incurred by the Treaty of Versailles. It is curious, then, that Weimar art and culture evoked a progressive ethos and the aspirations of a cosmopolitan urban culture. It evoked the misplaced hope of democracy.
Man with a Movie Camera
The Soviets held great influence over German filmmakers of the Weimar Republic. The similarities between the films produced by the German Social Democratic Party and the Russian Communist Party during this period are obvious, but the broad intent of Weimar filmmakers was not to utilise cinema as an ideological tool. During its formative years, it was hoped that cinema would help the new Weimar Republic compete with the heavily-competitive European market and the monopoly of Hollywood.
Allied implementation of the Dawes plan in 1924 created some relief for a German economy suffering the effects of hyperinflation. Just as the Soviet film industry enjoyed a post-War boom, German production companies swelled from 28 in 1913 to 245 in 1919. The success or failure of these fledgling companies depended not on finding a home grown audience, but on tapping into an exportable commodity which would attract the foreign investor. That commodity was to be German expressionism.
If the common association between Weimar cinema and the expressionist movement unfairly overlooks some of the German output of traditional genre films, then it is perhaps understandable. In terms of artistic merit, the detective films, comedies and melodramas enjoyed by the domestic audience simply cannot match the extraordinary visual aesthetic of expressionists such as Robert Wiene and F.W. Murnau. The man on the street may have been looking for escapist entertainment, but art cinema is what the foreign markets wanted from Germany. As Sigfried Kracauer puts it, “art assured export, and export meant salvation”.
The expressionist aesthetic makes the work of Wiene and Murnau a prudent choice to illustrate the synthesis of art, politics and economics during the Weimar period. On a visceral level, the powerful dynamism in style of the expressionists not only signified a strong artistic credibility, but also exhibited early evidence of a singular authorial presence. Furthermore, these filmmakers all had a message to convey through the medium of their art. It is not difficult to understand that the psychological turmoil and exploration of the darker side of human nature in Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) could be relatable to the post-War audience still struggling to comprehend the horrors of World War I. Nor how Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) analogises the threat of the outsider, or interloper. However, finding an audience for this work was not to be easy.
Wiene’s 1920 foray into expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, introduces the dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, exaggerated perspective and a mise-en-scéne replicating the delusions of a madman. Wiene utilises overtly theatrical sets with severely angular perspectives that resemble a Cubist Picasso brought to life. These factors all mimic the disturbed mind of the narrator and protagonist, Francis (Friedrich Frehér). The narrative examines what is real, what is merely the representation of the real, and what is the product of the imagination. Caligari (Werner Krauss), the showman hypnotist with power to command the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) to commit a series of murders at his will, can be read as a metaphor of the hypnotic ability of film to bewitch the viewer. Cesare then must stand as a metaphor for the helplessness and lack of agency the audience has under the absolute authority of the cinematic apparatus.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Kracauer’s much cited reading of the film is as a glorification of conformity and authoritarian power.
“The character of Caligari embodies these tendencies; he stands for an unlimited authority that idolizes power as such, and, so satisfy its lust for domination, ruthlessly violates all human rights and values”.
This heavily politicised analysis is based mainly on the changes to Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer’s original story (notably the inclusion of Francis’ framing narrative) demanded by head of Decla (and later Bioscop) Erich Pommer. The added framing device places Francis in an asylum – where the asylum director/Caligari now has the power to cure his mania – and removes the agency of the individual protagonist. Where Janowitz and Meyer’s original story was critical of authority and exposed the madness therein, Wiene’s version glorified authority and committed the antagonist to madness. Such alterations bastardise the authors’ original intent from a critique of tyranny to a document endorsing totalitarian authority. However, recent research finds that not only did Janowitz and Meyer’s original screenplay include the problematic framing device, but also made allusions to Francis’ insanity.
Nosferatu, A Symphony of Shadows
The chiaroscuro, canted angles and exaggerated performance of Dr. Caligari reappear in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, A Symphony of Shadows (1922). The pronounced performance and striking appearance of Max Shreck as Count Orlock were embellished by an aquiline nasal prosthetic giving the actor a stereotypically Jewish appearance. This combined with the matter of Orlock introducing a plague of rats to the ecosystem of Wisborg makes it difficult to interpret the character as anything other than a metaphor for the Jewish “Other” of Mitteleuropa. The chaos and destruction inflicted by Orlock on the small town played to the fears and prejudice of the German middle classes. In contrast to the studio-centric work of Wiene and other expressionist filmmakers, the economic pressures of production worked to the advantage of Murnau. Shooting on locations in Northern Germany utilised the natural beauty of the landscape and lends Nosferatu a wide vista which would have been unachievable on a sound stage. Lotte Eisner notes the difference between Murnau’s style and the expensive, set-bound aesthetic of Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch, who would build entire forests and towns to enable them to shoot in studio.
“The reason was not merely that the frontiers were closed to them through a lack of foreign currency and sympathy […] but expressionist precepts turned them away from reality.”
Also noteworthy is Murnau’s technical experimentalism, from the negative effect used to render the Carpathian phantom realm, to the stop motion effect used to give Orlock’s movements an otherworldly quality.
As the public reception of Dr. Caligari and October demonstrate, the difference between the artist’s intentional objective and the reaction to their message of the intended audience is significant. The native Russian and German film industries of the 1920s shared many of the same political and economic problems, but would eventually come to enjoy a similar venerated position in the canon of film art. Enlightenment is never guaranteed. In the case of post-War German and Russian cinema, it would be a long time before the message received a positive reception on home turf. The role played by Weimar cinema went beyond the movie theatre as a mere source of entertainment. It was a political movement advocating societal change during an economically unstable period when the memory of war was still fresh in the hearts and minds of the population. The ideology was ripe with hope at the outset, but this optimism eventually proved to be unsustainable. In the long term, this hope in the new cosmopolitanism was unsustainable, and the ideological experiment of expressionism dwindled concomitantly with the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.