Germany Cinematography – From Sound to Hitler (1929-1933)

After the great battle for sound licenses which, with the Paris Conference of June 1930, had ensured Germany through the Tobis-Klangfilm consortium a leading role on the world market, it was achieved within a few years the historic passage. The epochal restructuring, which had seen the Germans among the pioneers of optical sound with the Tri-Ergon system (the first public attempt dates back to 1922), was both productive and aesthetic: if the hypothesis of creating works that were at the same time of commercial and prestige, the idea of ​​cinema as an elitist art faded in a definitive way (since production costs became too high and tending the film even more to level off industrially). Genre films proliferated then, including the musical or rather the Tonfilm-Operette, which, thanks to the advent of sound, represented the great novelty of the period. After Melodie des Herzens (1929) by Hanns Schwarz, the first film produced by the UFA all spoken, the genre took shape which, instead of referring to the modern musical, turned rather towards the Viennese operetta: a title for everyone, Der Kongress tanzt (1931; Congress has fun) by Eric Charell.  In Liebeswalzer (1930; Waltz of love) by Wilhelm Thiele, the most famous couple of the Tonfilm-Operette appeared for the first time, Lilian Harvey and Willy Fritsch, while with Die drei von der Tankstelle (1930; The little mermaid of the motorway), also directed by Thiele, he moved on to parody, in a process of modernization of the genre: the scenario no longer includes fairytale realms, palaces and uniforms, but the daily reality, including, as will be seen in other cases, the severe economic crisis and unemployment due to the world recession of 1929.

Another discovery of sound was the patriotic film, of which Die letzte Kompagnie (1930; The Last Company), Curtis Bernhardt ‘s Prussian film, Der Rebell (1932), a work by Bernhardt and L. Trenker on independence struggle of the Tyroleans against Napoleon, or the submarine drama Morgenrot (1933; Hell of the Seas) by Gustav Ucicky: still far from being pure propaganda films for rearmament, they send ambivalent messages, as war is seen as an indisputable destiny while the nationalist sentiment coexists with melancholy tones and a veiled death drive.

The UFA, however, thanks also to the return of E. Pommer from a profitable exile in the United States, was not confined to the commercial security of already tested formulas: one of the examples of its political elasticity was in fact Der blaue Engel (The blue angel) by Josef von Sternberg, the greatest hit of 1930, boldly based on the novel by a leftist writer like H. Mann, who launched the then almost unknown Marlene Dietrich into the star system sky.

The most unconventional but at the same time most interesting and original production survived with the support of independent film companies such as the bourgeois-democratic-inspired Nero-Film, the communist Prometheus or other Munich companies. Within these niches, a nouvelle vague of young artists emerged, whose first extraordinary example was Menschen am Sonntag (1930), directed by Robert Siodmak, the result of the collective Filmstudio 1929, which included a group of strangers newcomers who later established themselves in Hollywood, including Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann and Edgar Germany Ulmer. Siodmak later confirmed his great talent and his ability to use sound in an original way with Abschied (1930) or Voruntersuchung (1931; Investigation). In the meantime, the young Max Ophuls was also making a name for himself, who before his great success Liebelei (1933; Mad Lovers), a film permeated by a magical atmosphere of Schnitzlerian lightness, with Die verkaufte Braut (1932; The sold bride) had renewed with great originality the formula of Tonfilm-Operette.

The works of Piel Jutzi or Carl Junghans (see Neue Sachlichkeit) that address issues related to the injustices of capitalist society such as unemployment, suicide, prostitution. And there was no shortage, in a last great artistic explosion, of some masterpieces of the great directors of the time: this is the case of Lang, who with M (1931) and Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933) develops a path in which the ideological aspect is stronger, even if it is excessive to trace there signs or premonitions of the horror of later historical events. Pabst also explored more specifically social issues, with Westfront 1918, Vier von der Infanterie (1930; Westfront) or Kameradschaft (1931; The tragedy of the mine), which however earned him the accusation of too general humanitarianism by the more politicized critics. The delightful Emil und die Detektive (1931; The terrible army, scripted by B. Leontine Sagan Mädchen in Uniform, (1931; Girls in uniform, supervised by Carl Froelich) were the last great examples of free and creative German cinema.

Germany Cinematography - From Sound to Hitler (1929-1933)