The View from Berlin

ImageI was recently in Berlin, but at quite the wrong time for the Berlin Film Festival. Undaunted, I headed for the Berlin Film Museum, located centrally in Berlin in the ultra-modern Sony Centre, a striking edifice of glass and steel. Filmhaus, the part of the centre housing the museum, its Arsenal cinemas and the German Film & TV School is right opposite the Cinestar and Event cinemas, part of Germany’s largest cinema chain, operated by none other than Australia’s Amalgamated Holdings (Greater Union).

The museum therefore, by its geography and architecture, corresponds more closely with ACMI in Melbourne than it does with NFSA’s sleepy art deco presence just too far off the main drag in Canberra. But its focus, like NFSA’s, is on the entire century of filmmaking in Germany, and this invites a comparison of the exhibits, the industries and the histories of the two countries. (This isn’t as absurd as it sounds.)

It’s been said that Australia’s history as a Federation is also that of its film industry, which was born at around the same time. It’s not so very different in Germany, which was only a couple of decades old as a country when film was first seen by the German public. The Skladanowsky brothers screened moving pictures at the Berlin Wintergarden on their Bioscope projector in November 1895, apparently weeks before the Lumière brothers did in Paris. (What is it about brothers in film? Pathé, Coen, Wachowsky, anyone?)

As in Australia, but for largely quite different reasons, the German film industry has struggled throughout the twentieth century. And just as in Australia (reassuringly for film theorists and social historians), the ebb and flow of cinema mirrors very precisely the preoccupations of the country at the time.

ImageThere is only one way through the museum (like shopping at Ikea, though there the resemblance ends). Entering the first section, the floor, walls and ceiling disappear and you are immediately swept into an infinite world of cinema images. Silent film stars in close-up; a screen kiss; marching troops; there’s Peter Lorre in M, there’s a young Marlene Dietrich. It’s all done with mirrors, and you spot glimpses of yourself over there, and there – and isn’t that the iconic shot in Nosferatu? – and where is the floor? can I step this way or that? So far this is no ordinary museum, but a brilliant and disorienting celebration of disembodied, timeless images from across the last century: in other words – cinema!  Somehow, that is exactly what the German Expressionists of the 1920s were concerned with, in a way more than any other national cinema was.

As you emerge from this first chamber, you see an early, hand-cranked camera, apparently cranking itself, demonstrating the intermittent movement that is central to cinematography. In the next display is a moving projector. The early years of cinema were full of technicians solving problems in their own way, and Germany’s Oskar Messter is one of several people in different countries who are claimed as inventors of the Maltese Cross or Geneva movement for projectors at around the same time. Next, a large model shows the studio and sets that were built to make The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).

From then on, the museum settles down to deal with the distinct periods of German cinema and history (the early years, the Weimar republic years, the Nazi years, and the bleak postwar years) by focussing mainly on three “Ms”: FW Murnau (Nosferatu), Metropolis (Fritz Lang), and Marlene Dietrich; and of course Leni Riefenstahl, and only briefly touching on the later resurgence led by directors such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog.

So how would this compare with the story of Australian cinema, if it were told in the same way? Is it a fair or worthwhile comparison? For those who proudly point to Australia’s production of the world’s first feature film in 1906, its prolific production burst for the subsequent decade before Hollywood took over, and the disproportionate international successes of our cinematographers in recent years, yes, we should ask the questions.

Australia’s early cinema was led by showmen such as the Tait brothers (there goes the ‘brothers’ thing again), but the Taits were theatrical entrepreneurs rather than creatives or artists. In Germany, FW Murnau also came from the stage, but he was an actor when war broke out, having studied philosophy (reportedly reading Schopenhauer and Nietsche at the age of 12). He wrote his first film screenplay while interred in neutral Switzerland where his plane had crashed. Australian silent films, more focussed on gaining an audience than being artistic expressions tended to have straightforward themes and be realist in style: such popular appeal films were also made in Germany, but Murnau and others were part of the broader expressionist movement dominating the arts in Europe at the time, and made films with pioneering camera and editing techniques and more philosophical themes.

Nosferatu ImageMade here at the same time as Murnau’s Nosferatu (really Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as the copyright court found), The Sentimental Bloke is sometimes hailed as Australia’s best silent film (and like many other great silent films from both countries it suffered the fate of savage and bad cutting for US release and failed). A setting of the CJ Dennis verses, it is a simple narrative of ordinary people, which can stand up to critical analysis of the way it portrays post WW1 social values in urban Australia. But even if Australia were not half a world away, it would never have made the impact on world cinema that German pictures of the time did.

For the Term of his Natural Lifege MetropolisFor the Term of his Natural Life, made in the same year as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, shows traces of the German film’s visual expressionist style in a story that deals with social justice and revenge as powerfully as Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. But in 1927 it is entirely backward looking, innovative neither in style nor message. Moreover, although an Australian story and production, the director Norman Dawn was an American.

While Australian silent cinema suffered from a lack of protection from imported US and UK productions, the tragedy of early German cinema is that all the creative giants of the twenties moved over to Hollywood: at first to escape the hyper-inflation of the German economy, and later to escape the Nazi regime. Both Fritz Lang and FW Murnau made the journey, as did Marlene Dietrich (whose extensive collection of costumes is shown alongside clips of the films she wore them in).

As a result, much of the film museum’s exhibit for this mid-century period deals not with German cinema but with the work of émigré filmmakers, mostly in Hollywood. There is a display that deals with Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and Triumph des Willens, but, ironically, in another corner of the same room a clip is playing from Casablanca (1942). The clip, (of course), is the scene where the German soldiers’ singing is drowned out by the band and patrons of Rick’s café singing The Marseillaise. Casablanca was directed by the Hungarian émigré Mihaly Kertész, (Michael Curtiz) who had worked in Vienna and then briefly in Germany with Lang and Murnau before being invited to Hollywood in 1923.

Set against this display of creative expression and propaganda, what could a visit to the NFSA’s small exhibition in Canberra tell us about our own industry? After the silent era, our story is one of an industry that struggled for half a century, relieved by newsreels and documentaries (no shortage of propaganda there, but perhaps less blatantly so), and the consistently successful Cinesound features of Ken G Hall. Hall never pretended to be a great auteur filmmaker: he was of the tradition of the Taits, originally a publicity man for a cinema chain. As it happens, his break came in 1926 when he was asked by his employer to recut a German silent film (bought sight-unseen) called Unsere Emden: a German WW1 story of the famous battleship sunk by HMAS Sydney in Australia’s first WW1 naval action. More than recutting the film, Hall re-shot half of it, with the cooperation of the Australian Navy, to convert it from a blatantly pro-German propaganda film to one that told a heroic story of the Australian action.

This comparison is not to dismiss Australia’s film history as somehow less worthy than a European one. Rather, it is to note that Berlin spent the twentieth century in turmoil – first artistic, then financial, then political, military and political again – and its cinema reflects exactly that, whether it flourished in Germany itself or in exile. By contrast, Australia’s twentieth century was one of less sophisticated issues: building a new country far away from the northern hemisphere’s traditional conflicts; learning to survive a tough climate and an economy affected by the rest of the world but with little influence over it; involvement in other people’s far distant wars; and more recently, belatedly creating the cinematic literature of our national myths. In both countries, the cinema precisely reflects those times and preoccupations.

ImagePerhaps everyone needs to travel away to get a perspective on such matters: and my visit to the Berlin Film Museum will certainly send me back to Canberra to revisit the display at NFSA and learn more from it. Perhaps its modest and traditional design reflects the substance of the culture it displays: perhaps in a small way that might even reinforce those modest ideas of cinema.  But how breathtakingly magnificent it would be to see a display that, like the one in Berlin, so completely transports the visitor and immerses him in a uniquely cinematic world.

This was first published in Screenhub in November 2012

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One response to this post.

  1. […] also : The View from Berlin ; Du hast ja keine Ahnung wie schön du bist […]

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