Cinema in Germany

Germany’s Kino
Babylon-Kino, Berlin

The “Babylon” is a classic movie theater in Berlin – located in a landmark-protected building.
PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

The Austrians, Germans, and Swiss, like many of their European neighbors, offer government subsidies to their filmmakers in an effort to encourage domestic motion picture production. Europeans, including the Germans, have traditionally tended to regard filmmaking as an art rather than a business. Because the resulting European films are often limited-budget, intellectually challenging productions that lack the Hollywood big-star, action/blockbuster formula, their mass appeal has been limited.

German film awards such as Der goldene Bär (The Golden Bear) awarded at the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale), as well as other European awards (Cannes, the “Felix,” Venice), have been created in an attempt to compete with the American Academy Awards (“Oscar”) and to call attention to German and European film. The first Berlinale film awards took place in 1951. But even the Berlinale features many US productions.

It is ironic that the German film diet of today is predominantly American, especially in light of Germany’s historical role in world cinema. Almost from the first days of motion pictures, both the Austrians and Germans were at the cinematic forefront, exerting great influence over the medium. Although the first paid public showing of a movie is generally credited to the Lumière brothers in Paris in December 1895, the world’s first public demonstration of moving pictures took place in Berlin almost two months earlier. But German inventor Max Skladanowsky’s “Bioscop” would prove to be impractical for widespread use. Nevertheless, Berlin soon became the center of Germany’s fledgling film industry, and by 1905 there were 16 movie theaters in the city. In 1907 “Der Kinematograph”—a weekly journal for “the entire art of projection”—published its first issue, a tradition that endured until 1934.

Austrian and German film actors, cinematographers, and directors were pioneers in the new film art. Hollywood would not be what it is today without this Austrian and German impact. Even if non-German names like Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, and Kurosawa are more famous in the world of international cinema, German and Austrian directors such as Fassbinder, Sternberg, Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau, Petersen, Preminger, Wilder, Wenders, and others (some of whom are still alive and working) have had an incalculable effect on American movie making. The New German Cinema is known to many film buffs, though there is no “school” of Fassbinder, Wenders, or Herzog as there is of the French Truffaut or the Italian Fellini.

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In the dozen years between 1920 and 1932, the so-called “Golden Age” of early German cinema, before the Nazis ruined its reputation, German cinema led the way for future filmmakers. Beginning with the great pioneering silent films of the 1920s, such as Metropolis, Nosferatu, and Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, and continuing with the advent of sound after 1929—Der blaue Engel, Die Drei von der Tankstelle, M—German film became a model for a distinctive technique and style of filmmaking. Borrowing from the Germans, Hollywood adapted sound techniques, lighting, storytelling, and set design. German expressionistic films such as Caligari and Metropolis, which interestingly enough were not great commercial successes in their time, became the artistic forerunners that led Hollywood from flat lighting and mundane settings to what would become the more artistic light and shadow of film noir. In the 1920s and 1930s, directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, and others left Europe for Hollywood. Even today, lured by bigger budgets and better opportunities, German directors continue to move to Hollywood after getting started in Germany. Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Stargate, Universal Soldier) and Wolfgang Petersen (Outbreak, In the Line of Fire, Das Boot) are two of the most successful.

Austria has contributed well-known actors like the bug-eyed Peter Lorre (Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and great directors such as Fritz Lang (Fury, M, Metropolis, Rancho Notorious), Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder, The Cardinal, Exodus, Laura), and Billy Wilder (Double Indeminity, The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Witness for the Prosecution). Fred Astaire, born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, was the son of Austrian parents.

The teutonic sex symbol Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992), who became an American citizen in 1939, perhaps more than any other single figure, exemplifies the vital role played by Germans and Austrians in the history of film acting. Beginning in 1930, with her groundbreaking portrayal of the sultry femme fatale in The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel), Dietrich’s film career spanned more than half a century from the earliest days of talking pictures into the age of Technicolor and Cinemascope. Dietrich’s 1992 death in seclusion in Paris came after a very public life that saw her starring in a western comedy with Jimmy Stewart (Destry Rides Again, 1939), entertaining U.S. troops during World War II, and performing on stage in Las Vegas in the 1950s—a flashback to her early days on the cabaret stage in Berlin. The late German actor Gert Froebe (1913-1988), best known as the villainous Goldfinger, and the Austrian Klaus Maria Brandauer (You Only Live Twice, Out of Africa) have both enjoyed success in German and American movies. Of course, the Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger is in a cinematic class all by himself.

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