For various technical, economic, and aesthetic reasons, dance did not appear often in films. Rita Sacchetto, Jenny Hasselquist, and Grete Wiesenthal had performed in movies before 1920, and in 1919 Mary Wigman made a mountain film, now lost, in Switzerland. Anita Berber made a heap of films but not many in which she danced, although she and Droste supposedly made in Vienna of film of their "dances of vice, horror, and ecstasy." Eight-year old Maryla Gremo performed her curious expressionist dances in the Murnau productions of Satanas (1919) and Sehsucht (1919), and Murnau directed further films that featured characters who were dancers but played by actors (Conrad Veidt, Sasha Gura). For the Berlin premiere
of Nosferatu (1922), Elisabeth Grube devised a live dance prologue, Die Serenade , with original music by Hans Erdmann (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau , 215–216, 221). In 1920, Laban prepared a fairy-tale dance film for production by the Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA) studio in Berlin, but this project soon seemed too risky for studio executives of the inflation era and had to be abandoned. He later (1928) planned a film to explicate his system for notating dance, but this project also failed to reach the screen. UFA eventually produced Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (1925), which included documentary footage of several prominent dancers. But the paucity of dance imagery on the cinema screen (rather than before it) is nevertheless disappointing, especially because what little documentary footage remains of Wigman, Laban, Impekoven, Jo Mihály, Gert, and Kreutzberg, is tantatalizingly mysterious. Documentary fragments of Hellerau students in 1913 undulating outdoors through colonnade shadows and bands of luscious sunlight are among the most hypnotic and luminous images of the moving body I have ever seen.
In Der sichtbare Mensch (1924), the Hungarian expatriate screenwriter Béla Balazs (1884–1949) grasped that film possessed the unique capacity to reveal the "melody of physiognomy" in a "scientific" manner, through close-ups (or "microphysiognomy" of the body) and "rhythmic" editing of multiple views or angles of the body. Moreover, because "the physiognomy of men [sic] is more intense when they are silent," all-dance films in the silent era of pantomimic acting would seem as feasible in the studio environment as Laban had imagined in 1920 (Balazs 61–65, 80–81, 207). Film speeds, however, were not high enough to allow for the filming of dances in their concert environments; more often, dances on film required a daylight environment, which actually gave the bodily movements a beautiful luminosity. Hans Pasche, in Die Schallkiste (3/9, September 1928, 10), urged dancers to use the new synchronized sound technology to produce dances directly for the screen, as demonstrated by a short dance film featuring Dorothea Albu of the Berlin State Opera ballet. But neither the dance nor film worlds explored this possibility. Thus, despite the prodigious dance talent in Germany, dance in film never appeared as anything more than an interlude in a larger, nondanced narrative context.
Most dancers seemed to grasp that dance on the screen was not the same as dance on the stage and that dance in film achieved expressive power only when the camera did not merely watch the dance but "danced" as well, became an integral component of the movement. Fritz Böhme thought film could achieve dancelike properties when it moved toward dynamic abstractionism, as in the montage editing or "reflecting color music" of "absolute" films or animations by Walter Ruttmann, Hans Richter, or Oskar Fischinger ("Materialen," 25). Of course, in such films, dance was no longer the work of the body. One dancer who well understood how to use film technology on behalf of bodily movement was Leni Riefenstahl (b. 1902), whose Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938) remain among the most seductive cinematic representations of physical beauty and strength in film history. She herself starred in the immensely successful The Blue Light (1931), with a scenario by Balazs about a mountain girl shunned by villagers who believe her skill at climbing the rugged cliffs to reach the remote crystal cave of the "blue light" awakens fatal desires in men. Riefenstahl did not dance in this silent film, but she moved through treacherous, sublime nature with a poise, rhythm, and physical precision unique to a dancer. No other director of the era treated the camera as if it were the partner of the body, entailing a fluid tension between the desire of the camera to get closer to the body, and the desire of the body to get closer to the camera.
One of the most prominent examples of this tendency to regard dance, sports, and gymnastics as a unified and unifying ideology of body culture was Wilhelm Prager's 1925 film, Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit , written by a physician, Nicholas Kaufmann, in consultation with several professorial advisers. Because the federal government owned a controlling interest in UFA, which produced the film, one does not hesitate to suggest that the film represented official state advocacy of the "modern body culture" it showed. After its initial run in theatres, Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit appeared in classrooms and club halls everywhere in Germany. However, because it contained several scenes depicting women performing nude gymnastics, it had difficulty reaching audiences abroad, particularly in England and the United States, both of which banned theatrical exhibitions of the film. The film for the most part contained documentary footage celebrating various sports, athletic prowess, exercise techniques, modern dance forms, and outdoor pleasures. These were interspersed with fanciful reenactments of Greco-Roman sport and beauty culture (performed by students and teachers of the Deutsche Hochschule für Leibesübungen). Among the numberous athletes depicted were Else Döbler (swimming), Nedo Nadi (fencing),
Rocky Knight (boxing), Rinjiro Degouchi (jiu-jitsu), Helen Wills (tennis), and Babe Ruth (baseball). Dancers included Mary Wigman, Rudolf Laban, Tamara Karsavina, Jenny Hasselquist, and Niddy Impekoven, and politicians associated with sport culture included Prime Minister Lloyd George of England, Benito Mussolini, and the Crown Prince of Norway. The film also contained didactic sequences, some involving animated diagrams, describing correct posture, the unhealthy effects of corsets, ergonomic factors, and so forth.
The message of the film was obvious: a revitalized national German identity depended on heightened, modern body consciousness in the spectator, a consciousness one could achieve by choosing to pursue one or more of the activities depicted. Nude women from the Hedwig Hagemann girl's school in Hamburg demonstrate, by a placid, sparkling lake, some of the Mensendieck movement techniques as more gentle, less competitive alternatives to the other activities, but the appearance of nude women here and in the Greco-Roman scenes dominates perception of the film as a whole. One wants to see more of this activity or wants to see the nude women doing more; more than enough documentation establishes the other choices. But on the whole the film presents dance, sport, and gymnastics as equally attractive "paths to strength and beauty" without acknowledging the differing aims (and gender politics) motivating the choice to pursue one mode of body culture over another. The viewer must discern these differences according to the image of the body projected by each of the modes. Yet by lumping dance, sport, and gymnastics together, the film makes an integrated idea of body culture into a national sign of individual and societal freedom.