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9. Conclusion

Telescoped into clear-cut stages Weimar’s experience of Hollywood can be formulated very simply: America came, provoked both applause and controversy, and then faded. At the close, as at the opening of the Weimar era, the American cinema sat on the periphery of German cultural concerns. Only in the middle years of the Republic did Americanization, in the cinema as in other spheres, generate sustained discourse. In this sense the first American phase in German history was an interlude, a harbinger of developments after 1945.

Once the stages of Weimar’s encounter with Hollywood are dissected, it is clear that history did not come full circle. Despite striking parallels between circumstances and attitudes in the early and late years of the Republic, Hollywood’s relative remoteness from Berlin in 1933 had different implications than after 1918. For moviegoers and for the film community, the expectations and apprehensions of the early 1920s gave way to a more distanced and dispassionate appreciation of American imports. Moreover, at any given moment in the intervening years, Hollywood possessed a multiplicity of meanings. By turns a much sought after novelty, an imposition, a scapegoat for domestic film difficulties, a model for cinematic development, a cause of moral outrage, a window on the American soul, or a mirror for German identity: Hollywood served multiple purposes and was integrated into a multitude of discourses. Indeed the measure of its domestication in Germany was the variety of issues it could be enlisted to address.

Domestication did not necessarily presuppose the popularity of American motion pictures. In fact, it is arguable that the layers of discourse on Hollywood were richest when American motion pictures encountered growing box-office difficulties. Nevertheless, Hollywood’s popular appeal was a crucial issue. Film historians have claimed both that American feature films were popular as elsewhere and that German viewers preferred domestic films. Neither generalization is convincing.[1] Impressionistic evidence from critics and theater owners suggests that American cinema initially received a warm welcome. It is possible, ironically, that the dated and largely sensationalist pictures of the first years of import enjoyed greater collective appreciation than any other body of American pictures which followed. At middecade a combination of limited hard evidence and editorial opinion indicates that tastes had become much more selective. Individual pictures, such as Ben Hur or slapsticks starring Harold Lloyd, did very well at the German box office. Numerous other imports failed to generate much interest. Whether German viewers were amerikamüde, as the pundits maintained, or simply more discriminating than American moviegoers, or increasingly wedded to an Americanized domestic product, as consumers they took what they wanted and left the rest. For the balance of the Weimar period, particularly once talkies were introduced, American imports remained regular features of theater programs but by all accounts less popular as a whole than their German counterparts.

Among trade experts, critics and outside commentators, questions of popularity were overlaid with a complex pattern of commercial and cultural agendas. For literary intellectuals the fascination with America and Hollywood, which has often been noted, vied with indigestion and disdain.[2] On balance it is safe to say that a number of those with leftist leanings found in specific imports justification for domestic causes. Trade experts and critics were likewise both fascinated and repulsed by American motion pictures. Increasingly they distinguished suitable from inappropriate imports, primarily on the grounds of incompatible national tastes. In the middecade reaction against American imports, however, commercial pressures cut across judgments of quality and appeal. Trade circles made efforts to rehabilitate Hollywood in order to safeguard commitments to American companies.

From within the German film industry, discourse on American cinema was heavily conditioned by competitive and expansionist ambitions. Immediately following the war Hollywood was a distant, unknown quantity with an imposing international record. Initial interest, overwhelmingly commercial, was expressed frequently with wartime rhetoric. Lines formed for the battle to decide whether Hollywood or Berlin would rule the motion picture world. Although in retrospect German defeat appears inevitable, the clash was not without a rationale.[3] By 1918 the German cinema was a major industry with visions of expansion abroad, where its principal competitor was the United States. Like other industrial interests the cinema sought to identify its welfare with that of the nation and German Kultur. Consequently, discourse drew both on stereotypical images of America as soulless, technologically precocious, artistically childish and uncritical, and on assumptions of cultural collision engendered by the war.

By middecade discourse on Hollywood had shifted somewhat to accommodate the general debate unleashed by the onslaught of Amerikanismus. In response to the latter, forward-looking circles adopted the United States as a model of efficiency, rationalization and technological modernity. With the cultural avant garde they revised the traditional, negative judgment on American culture. Sports, jazz, film—in a word, mass culture, with its commercial, social and supranational ramifications—gained acceptance as progressive, democratic and dynamic.[4] Against these enthusiasts for American accomplishments, by no means of a single political persuasion, was ranged a coalition of interests determined to defend German culture against adulteration or sabotage. Gathered in good measure on the nationalist right, but including intellectuals of virtually all political persuasions, this coalition saw America as the embodiment of precisely those tendencies most feared at home.[5] Erosion of national identity, the overwhelming of Kultur by American civilization, meant loss of privileged intellectual status. America had room for engineers, technocrats and entertainers but not for the formulators of higher values. American mass culture and rationalization represented the threat of cultural proletarianization.[6]

Although framed in this wider debate, informed discourse on American cinema at middecade cannot be adequately understood in such schematic terms. By this point Hollywood was no longer a legend or abstraction, but a source of inspiration, funding for domestic production and extremely diverse movie entertainment. With respect to the films themselves, the rhetoric of “average” and “outstanding” or “suitable” and “inappropriate,” while reasserting differences of taste and culture between Hollywood and Berlin, could not disguise that American film was domesticated both as product and point of reference. Exchange of technology, personnel, promotional techniques and finished products had become so extensive that interests and opinions could no longer be separated. Clear-cut choices for or against Hollywood were an illusion. At stake was rather selection for assimilation of what seemed relevant from the American model for domestic development.[7]

In this context Hollywood did much more than encroach on an important industry or provide a storehouse of filmic techniques. By modeling a successful formula, however unevenly received in German theaters, it created an identity crisis for Weimar cinema, encouraging both imitation and the search for alternative filmic discourses. Moreover, by spotlighting problems in the dualism of high and low culture it challenged the very categories applied to analyze the cinema. In defence against Hollywood, dualistic conceptions of culture—art versus industry, self-realization versus entertainment—proved self-defeating. The dismissal of American film as advertising or assembly-line merchandise, intended to damn it irredeemably, simply confirmed the interrelatedness of commercial and creative impulses which German filmmakers had to accept to rival Hollywood. Competitive pressure from Hollywood therefore not only accelerated rationalization of the German film industry but also progressively deprived film experts of the critical categories used to suggest cultural distinctiveness.

The extended discourse on national versus international cinema was another dualistic structure used to establish distance between Hollywood and Berlin. Here too, critical dissection of American global film hegemony exposed the options as more illusory than real.[8] Broadly speaking, contemporaries concluded that the juggernautlike force of American cinema derived from its marriage of three achievements—a distinct identity, popular appeal and cultural respectability. As a trinity these permitted American movies to establish themselves not only as the dominant national cinema but also as the archetype of cinema, the yardstick for all others. Consequently, Americanization in cinema went beyond matters of cutting rhythms, fashions or advertising campaigns. It implied appropriation or replication of the particular achievements which made Hollywood preeminent.

In the early 1920s prestige and profit, at home and abroad, appeared within the grasp of German filmmakers. In short order American inroads began to frustrate realization of these ambitions and to force a particular construction on the way in which they were pursued. The essential task for Weimar cinema became to duplicate the American feat, that is, to win a position domestically and internationally comparable to that enjoyed by Hollywood. To do so meant creation of a distinct product which would generate the type of consensus which American cinema enjoyed in the United States. A decidedly un-American motion picture identity which did not possess broad appeal clearly would not shake Hollywood’s hegemony. Conversely, adoption of the American model in the interests of international sales, enormously tempting though it proved, meant engaging American production at its strongest points and thereby condemning German cinema to derivative and subordinate status. Confrontation with Hollywood therefore highlighted the challenge of establishing production both German and publicly relevant.

The 1920s witnessed a somewhat erratic but ongoing quest to realize these twin objectives in the guise of a German national cinema. Despite the term it was neither nationalistic nor politically motivated. Rather it connoted that synthesis of recognizability, prestige and popularity which Hollywood had attained. Although multiple variables conditioned that synthesis, two overlapping relationships were primary—between filmmaker and audience and between Germany and the world. The first challenge was to give German cinema a profile at home comparable to Hollywood’s in the United States. The second was to extend that profile abroad. Since contemporaries generally believed that successfully meeting the former would assure the latter, the problem boiled down to establishing a reliable, mutually-reinforcing link between producer and consumer.[9]

Though self-evident, this particular problem resisted simple solutions. As discussion in chapter five indicated, experts reasoned that, by contrast with the United States, Germany was a socially and culturally fragmented nation. Regional, confessional, political and intellectual differences presented substantial if not insurmountable obstacles to truly shared cinema experience. In particular, the expectations imposed on cinema by the cultivated segment of German society, represented within as well as outside the industry, complicated general conquest of the German public realm. Under these circumstances Weimar cinema exhibited admirable diversity but lacked a center, a representative type. Between Expressionism, psychological drama or literary adaptations and sentimental romances, military farces and patriotic spectacles German production appealed to a wide range of social and intellectual groups but failed to unite them. Squeezed by domestic resistance and foreign competition it required a formula to reconcile cultivation and general accessibility.[10]

At the level of critical discourse the demand for realism became the principal expression of contemporary concern to create a national cinema and more homogenous audience. But that recommendation collided with recognition that Germany offered far too divided a community to permit realistic treatment of topical issues. To the extent that its films shared aversion to realistic, contemporary settings and themes, they mirrored the lack of social and political consensus in the Weimar Republic.[11] A national cinema presupposed a degree of social and cultural homogeneity, linking filmmakers and moviegoers, which Weimar lacked. The only escape from the social instability and cultural conflict which constituted the cinema’s Sitz im Leben would come from their amelioration. To establish a solid nexus between producer and consumer meant participation in the task of defining and creating the nation.[12]

Insofar as America exemplified the social and cultural symmetry required to sustain a national cinema, it was model and ally to Weimar cinema. Nevertheless, Americanization continued to elicit very ambivalent responses. Trade experts recommended adoption of a series of organizational, performing and filmic techniques, and more broadly recognized the symbiosis of American cinema and society, but they rarely advocated fundamental social and cultural democratization as the prerequisite of a national cinema. Similarly, more distanced observers such as Roland Schacht or Herbert Ihering, who traced Hollywood’s ascendancy to the peculiarities of American culture, were still loathe to open the door to Amerikanismus. This instinctive aversion to the prospect of Berlin becoming New York was not, however, the whole key to ambivalence. There was rationale as well as reflex response in German discourse on the filmic ramifications of Americanization. Since wholesale borrowing appeared to permit further subjugation by Hollywood, imitation offered a treacherous way forward. On the assumption that German and American mentalities differed in fundamentals, many experts also argued that catering to the latter would not open doors to the American market. Berlin could not be New York. Finally, evidence that cultural differences could be overcome within specific styles or genres justified pursuit of a separate identity. The lesson drawn from slapstick, for example, was the need not to imitate but to cultivate a comparably unique and popular German genre.

The simultaneous transition to talking motion pictures and realization by German cinema of its long-standing aspiration to national primacy appear causally related. The number and variety of American imports declined as domestic producers proved adept in early sound pictures, so adept that Germany also experienced widening European export prospects.[13] In the language of the mid-1920s, Germany finally had spawned a national cinema. Some observers believed, however, that this attainment had more organic causes. In their opinion the sound revolution ran parallel with a national revolution in tastes as well as politics. Nationalist rhetoric strikingly confirms, however, even as it conceals, the immensity of the American film shadow. The national cinema was dressed as an endogenous creation which escaped Hollywood, but it emerged out of almost unbroken dialogue with American cinema and duplicated the American achievement as analyzed by German observers in the 1920s. In the early 1930s prestige, profit and national distinctiveness appeared reconciled at last.

The discourse of national cinemas elided crucial aspects of Hollywood’s significance for Berlin. In pragmatic terms, both the attractiveness of the American market and the potency of the American model encouraged large-scale borrowing from early in the Weimar period. No plea for cultural independence could gainsay that Hollywood, not Germany, ruled the film world. No claim of optimal market potential for distinctively German pictures or warning against unauthentic Americanisms prevented at least the larger producers from attempting to gauge and satisfy the tastes of American viewers. Insofar as they collaborated directly with American partners for exchange of motion pictures these tendencies were institutionalized. The discourse of national revolution should not therefore obscure the extent to which domestic revival drew on American precedents.

Particularly revealing for the later Weimar period was policy at UFA after the takeover of Alfred Hugenberg and associates in 1927. Whatever his political agenda, Hugenberg and his right-hand man, Ludwig Klitzsch, were committed to contesting Hollywood’s home turf. Rapid revision of the Parufamet agreements and repayment of the accompanying loan did not mean that UFA intended to solve the problem of German film production without reference to Hollywood. On the contrary, not only did UFA follow Hollywood’s lead in rationalization of production and borrowing of sound technology, but it continued to make the American market a top priority. Most telling in the last regard was the decision to reacquire the services of Erich Pommer in 1927. Pommer made no secret of his outlook: two years in Hollywood convinced him that the American film mentality, which he characterized as naive and unproblematic, was the key to international success.[14] UFA entrusted its most expensive and representative productions, first silent and then sound, to the man best situated between Berlin and Hollywood to create pictures appealing to American viewers. It thus deliberately entrusted its international image to a self-confessed convert to the Hollywood system.[15]

Given the dramatic increase in UFA’s relative weight in German production with the industrial concentration attendant upon the transition to sound, Pommer’s second German career has more than passing significance. Commercially, and perhaps artistically, his pictures belie the scepticism about hybridization of Hollywood and Berlin so prevalent in the 1920s.[16] They also throw intriguing light on the question of national provenance. By terms of the import legislation Pommer’s productions clearly qualified as German. Yet if a picture made by Lubitsch or Murnau in America had earlier been seen as profoundly German, there are grounds for judging Pommer’s early sound pictures as the offspring of a cross-cultural marriage. In the framework of national cinemas, Hollywood had now, by invitation, returned to Berlin in the person of the former champion of German cinema art.

Since concern here is with discourses rather than influences, such a conclusion suggests the ambiguity of Berlin’s encounter with Hollywood as much as the triumph of Americanization. With limited means to predict how Weimar cinema would have evolved had Hollywood not been omnipresent, it is impossible to apportion credit neatly to exogenous and endogenous factors. Independently, neither Hollywood nor Berlin represented static entities; in practice each developed through interaction with the other. The assumption that cinema had become irreversibly internationalized by the 1920s is as tenable as the case for national cinemas. Exchange was so voluminous and adoption or assimilation by one cinema of another’s methods and techniques so routine that the web of influence and counterinfluence cannot be fully disentangled.

What remains indisputable is that America was the dominant partner in the encounter between Hollywood and Berlin. Decades later there is still reason to question whether, in the formulation of Edward Buscombe, a revolt against Hollywood is a revolt against the cinema. Contemporaries already perceived that internationalization and Americanization were dangerously close to synonymous. There was an extremely fine line between a national cinema which enjoyed international recognition and absorption by Hollywood. Significantly, the discourse of the more visionary commentators tacitly admitted this. They awaited the filmic Gesamtkunstwerk which would obliterate stylistic and market distinctions. National would become international, technology would prove humanly liberating, commerce would become Kunst, idea would become image, the word would be made cinematic flesh. Even though their terminology derived from dualistic assumptions, their arguments clearly intended to foster the kind of synthesis evidenced by Hollywood.

In retrospect it can hardly be doubted that without Hollywood some form of this problem would have received critical attention. The motion picture, bound by commercial and ideological dictates to seek consensus, badly strained the bounds of bourgeois Kultur. Some attempt had to be made to reconcile nineteenth-century cultural norms, essentially middle-class in purview, and a medium which belonged originally to a lower-class subculture. Weimar witnessed a number of strategies to ease this strain, as well as severe erosion of the the social stratification on which it was based. Insofar as the national cinema presupposed formation of an increasingly homogenous moviegoing public, the growing number of urban white-collar workers and the blurring of class boundaries which the National Socialists later idealized in the Volksgemeinschaft were noteworthy developments in the 1920s. Despite political polarization and fragmentation, Weimar’s socioeconomic experience was increasingly democratized.[17] Nevertheless, it was pressure from Hollywood which focused the cinematic challenge, for it was Hollywood which demonstrated the indivisibility of cinematic and broader cultural consensus. It was thus perfectly appropriate that the eclipse of Hollywood’s presence coincided with the rise of a movement which recognized in film a device to override class distinctions and make Kultur both serve and command the Volk.


1. Cf. Salt, “From Caligari to Who?” p. 123; Monaco, Cinema and Society, pp. 72–74, generally accepts the claims of the Film-Kurier poll. [BACK]

2. Cf. Hake, “Chaplin Reception,” p. 108; Kaes, “Literary Intellectuals and the Cinema,” pp. 21–23. [BACK]

3. See Miles and Smith, Cinema, Literature and Society, p. 177, for the claim that America created the sole model of narrative cinema which has proven marketable in the western world. [BACK]

4. Cf. Berg, Deutschland und Amerika, p. 132; Hermand and Trommler, Die Kultur der Weimarer Republik, pp. 55–58; Hughes, American Genesis, p. 293. [BACK]

5. Berg, Deutschland und Amerika, p. 131. [BACK]

6. Cf. Kaes, Kino-Debatte, p. 17; Beck, Germany Rediscovers America, pp. 244–245; Stark, “Cinema, Society and the State,” p. 165; Strauss, Menace in the West, pp. 90, 176. [BACK]

7. See the general yet penetrating remarks in Schütz, Romane der Weimarer Republik, pp. 18–19. [BACK]

8. Cf. on this point LeMahieu, A Culture for Democracy, pp. 98–99, who opposes aesthetic and commercial impulses; Hay, Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy, pp. 9–10, 72–73; Elsaesser, “Cinema—The Irresponsible Signifier or ‘The Gamble with History’: Film Theory or Cinema Theory,” New German Critique, no. 40 (1987), 70; 84. [BACK]

9. Cf. the options discussed by Buscombe, “Film History and the Idea of a National Cinema,” pp. 143–148. [BACK]

10. Kreimeier, Die Ufa-Story, pp. 100, 109, refers to UFA, in its early years, as a media department store, offering whatever promised commercial or critical success. [BACK]

11. See, for instance, Fritz Lang, “Was ich in Amerika sah,” Film-Kurier, 17 December 1924; and the recommendations of Ihering, “Wohin geht der deutsche Film?” Von Reinhardt bis Brecht, vol. II, pp. 530–532. On temporal displacement see Elsaesser, “German Silent Cinema.” Eric Rentschler’s recent argument that consensus was attained through the Bergfilm throws an interesting light on the remoteness of Weimar’s film “center” from everyday life: see his “Mountains and Modernity,” pp. 145–146. [BACK]

12. This argument is developed more fully in my “History in the Making.” Cf. Buscombe, “Film History and the Idea of a National Cinema,” pp. 150–151, who treats this as a production problem. [BACK]

13. Ludwig Klitzsch, “Rede zur UFA Konvention, 1930,” noted that Germany was in a favorable position to move into European film markets where native producers were unable to meet the demand for high quality sound pictures. In 1931 he reported surprisingly favorable results with foreign versions. The following year foreign earnings were up forty-five percent over 1930–1931. See the speeches in Klitzsch, Bekenntnis zum deutschen Film. [BACK]

14. Erich Pommer, “Der internationale Film,” Film-Rundschau, 6 November 1928. [BACK]

15. BA-UFA R109I/1473. This folio, indexed as Erich Pommer, includes a copy of the PSC-UFA contract of 16 August 1930. Article 2 stipulated that in choice of subject matter and nature of production these films were to be suitable for “the whole world, especially for distribution in America.” Cf. the programmatic debate on cultivating the American market in BA-UFA R109I/1028b, 26 January 1932, pt. 1 and Anlage. [BACK]

16. The list includes Melodie des Herzens, Der blaue Engel, Drei von der Tankstelle, Der Kongress tanzt, Bomben auf Monte Carlo. One can debate the artistic merits of these productions relative to works like Faust or Tartüff made under Pommer’s supervision in the mid-1920s. Their commercial value is certain. [BACK]

17. Hermand and Trommler, Die Kultur der Weimarer Republik, pp. 70–71, cite remarks by Siegfried Kracauer from 1926 to this effect, but date the critical divide to 1923. Cf. Kracauer, “Kult der Zerstreuung,” in his Das Ornament der Masse (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1977), pp. 311–317, here p. 313, who identified mass society in Berlin as the model of the new, homogenous Weltstadt-Publikum. [BACK]

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