Lights! Camera! Weimar!

“Hollywood’s German Influence” is explored by A.J. Goldmann in the Wall Street Journal:

They don’t make them like they used to. But while the most recent Berlin Film Festival was filled with largely mediocre competition fare, luckily one could seek refuge in the festival’s sidebar retrospective, “The Weimar Touch.” Co-curated by the Deutsche Kinematek and the Museum of Modern Art—it will be shown in New York with slight modifications from April 3 through May 6—the series used the works of such celebrated directors as Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder to make a compelling case for the lasting influence of Weimar-era cinema on Hollywood and beyond.

It is hard to overstate the amount of technical innovation and sheer talent that characterized the German film industry between 1918 and 1933. Today this golden age is best remembered for Expressionist masterpieces such as Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu.” But Weimar filmmaking was much more than just sinister lighting and jagged camera angles. The industry also produced comedies, musicals, melodramas and thrillers that were among the most popular and inventive movies of the era.

When the Nazis took power in 1933, many of Germany’s most gifted directors, actors, cinematographers, production designers and composers were forced out of its film industry. All told, the country lost more than 2,000 professionals, many of Jewish descent. And Germany’s loss was Hollywood’s gain. The themes, techniques and sensibilities that a generation of émigré filmmakers carried with them to Hollywood brought a new degree of sophistication and know-how to American cinema.


But what corner of American life wasn’t shaped by the Weimar Republic? Last year, I did a Silicon Graffiti video titled, “Weimar? Because We Reich You,” which focused on the how ubiquitously Weimar-era ideas and concepts seeped into American culture (both high and low), politics, and science over the course of the 20th century.

In 1987’s The Closing of the American Mind, the late Alan Bloom wrote that by the middle of the 20th century, American universities had essentially become enclaves of German philosophy:

This popularization of German philosophy in the United States is of peculiar interest to me because I have watched it occur during my own intellectual lifetime, and I feel a little like someone who knew Napoleon when he was six. I have seen value relativism and its concomitants grow greater in the land than anyone imagined. Who in 1920 would have believed that Max Weber’s technical sociological terminology would someday be the everyday language of the United States, the land of the Philistines, itself in the meantime become the most powerful nation in the world? The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.


As I added in the conclusion of my script:

Which isn’t to say that German influences on America were all bad, or that this was some sort of sinister plot. Sigmund Freud’s efforts have been left in the dust by modern neuroscience, but research into the hidden caverns of the human brain had to start to somewhere.  Albert Einstein’s theories led to the splitting of the atom, which both won World War II and provided the basis of nuclear power, which has been remarkably safe in America and Europe. After the war, America’s jet aviation – first the Air Force, then commercial airlines – benefitted enormously from brilliant German engineering work even as America was, thankfully, destroying Nazi Germany’s ability to implement these designs. Similarly, America landed a man on the moon thanks to the efforts of Werner Von Braun, and other German émigrés.

On Park Avenue in 1966, a businessman could have lunch at the Four Seasons, a restaurant designed by Philip Johnson (who dug both Weimar and its successor culture…) in a building designed by Mies van der Rohe, he could then walk over to the Pan Am building, designed by Walter Gropius, to catch a helicopter to JFK Airport, and on the way, read about Werner Von Braun’s latest efforts to land a man on the moon. If he was worried that von Braun’s missiles could be used to deliver payloads designed by Albert Einstein and Edward Teller – well, his Freudian analyst would soon set him at ease. At least until he saw the April 8th 1966 cover of Time magazine, which echoed the words of Friedrich Nietzsche nearly a century earlier. And all the while, likely never thinking of where these additions to American life originated. The following decade, our businessman would struggle with Weimar-style risqué sexual mores, hyperinflation, and what the then-president’s administration ultimately termed a malaise and a crisis of confidence amongst his fellow liberal elites.

But to respond to the query by Thomas Friedman last year in the New York Times, ‘Can Greeks Become Germans?’

Well, 50 years ago, we did, didn’t we?


No reason why Hollywood should have been exempted from Weimar’s influence as well.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified image.)


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