German Cinema in 20th Century

As early as 1915, food supply was becoming a major problem in Germany; labor protests followed two years later. People began to draw their lines in social classifications and the military had just handed over power to a civilian government (Fulbrook, 18-20). Barely a month into the new government, people became increasingly irritated and demanded a new one. By 1918, Germany’s ambition of becoming a global power was shattered after its defeat in the First World War (Fulbrook, 3). Germany was in constant chaos, mired by an unstable economy and never-ending power struggle.

People then, as we do now, turned to cinema to escape from their internal turmoil. There were people in the movie industry that recognized this as an opportunity to create awareness by delivering a moral of sorts, rather than resorting to forceful influence.  It was during this time that the Wiemar cinematic period began (1919-1933). Weimer cinema can be broadly divided in 3 eras; the first phase from 1919 to 1924 is marked by “the rise of the expressionist film out of the lost war, the failed revolution, and the rampant inflation” (Hake. 2001, pp 26). The second phase stretches from 1924 to 1929, when the emphasis shifted to economic stability and more realist approaches and New Objectivity. The third phase is the period of 1929 – 1933, during which sound was introduced to cinema and politicization of cinema began at the end of this era (Hake, 2001, pp 26). Despite the fact that only a few Weimar era films survived, they managed to influence a huge amount of research through sociological analyses.

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“Anders als die Andern“ (Different From the Others, 1919)

The movie “Different from the others” is about homosexuality, and was among the first films to openly discuss the topic. It was more than just a sensitive issue to the Germans at that time; homosexuality was considered to be a criminal offense and the punishment for individuals proved to be homosexual included possible cancellation of civil rights (Hake, 31).

The lead character Paul, a gay violinist meets his future partner Kurt at a concert. A creepy man named Frank, who attends homosexual gatherings to scout possible blackmail victims, stalks the two of them. Paul gets fed up and decides to take Frank to court, but gets charged and persecuted for being gay; he is prohibited from playing in concerts, which forces him to take his own life. The movie, through Paul’s suicide, interpretatively shows the harsh laws that Germany had for homosexuals (Para. 175, German Constitution).

Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari, Das (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is acknowledged as one of the pioneers of German expressionist films. The film’s weird style was later emulated by other great German filmmakers (Hake, 28). This film is about an insane doctor who uses a somnambulist named Cesare to murder chosen victims. However, there is the twist in the ending as the lead character wakes up and turns out to be a real patient being treated by Dr.Caligari. The surprise ending captures critical made people think and question whether the entire movie was just a hallucination or if they were really the killers. The ending is perhaps the films greatest strength of the movie since the director actually lets the audience make up their own minds.

Cesare’s character was played by Conrad Veidt who also played the role of a homosexual in “Different from the others”.  Surprisingly, queerness was portrayed in this movie as well to show a lifestyle of sexual transitions, wherein people lived normal lives during the day and came out of their closets as sexual monsters (Bergfelder et al, 51). Creepy music was extensively played and narration was used to deliver the mystery of the plot. The set was filled with jagged objects such as crooked windows, trees and mountains were to complement the twists and possibly a metaphor for the unstable German society during that Weimar period.

Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924)

            The Last Laugh is another film that has a surprise twist in the ending, as a poor doorman inherits a fortune out of sheer luck from a rich American bachelor. The happy ending was a concession towards Hollywood and could have possibly been coincidence or purposeful, since Germany was stabilized with the help of the United States in the same year. The movie represented two worlds: The world of the rich “Atlantic” who smoked their cigars, and the world of the poor working class. The hotel was named “Atlantic” to signal a cosmopolitan understanding and different characters portrayed different social types in the movie since there were no names. Although no dialogues or inter-titles were used, it delivered perfect visual communication to international audiences. This movie used a realistic set and was one of the first films to use a free moving camera.

The doorman’s character is mocked endlessly after losing his job. The porter could be seen as Germany, never letting go of power or at least the idea of power until the very end. The only recourse for a better life for Germans was to hope for change. The movie’s message was quite clear: do not let the appearance of power define you, as a beggar is shown riding in a carriage in the end.

M (1931)

            M is different from the previous movies since it has sound, enabling ideas to be conveyed directly. For example, the dialogue (audio & text) would be about the commissioner telling the secretary about the crime scene, while the actual picture would be detectives investigating the crime scene.  The movie has no sound during action scenes to increase suspense and mystery. It also contrasts between the normal and crime worlds, as the plot shows working girls and the mobsters’ businesses being hurt by constant raids and therefore forcing mobsters taking the law into their own hands. This was more of a critique of the republic not being able to deliver security to a public. In the end, the killer is captured and pleads insanity.  Since no one can declare whether a man should be killed or not, for a crime he is not responsible for, the audience was left to make up their mind. Drawing a parallel with this theme and the Wiemar period leads to a conclusion that movies were a reminder to the audiences of what anger and revenge may lead to, irrespective of the motives.

There were perhaps more films from the Wiemar era, worthy of public viewing and admiration, but only about 10% of the period’s films survived destruction (Hake, 26). These powerful movies gave audience a feel of what was going on around them, and did not brainwash the viewers as it was up to the audience to make up their minds on whether to accept it as, dismiss it, or do something about it.


Different from the Others (Anders als die andern) (1919/20, Director: Richard Oswald)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari) (1920, Robert Wiene)

The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann) (1924, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau)

M (1931, Fritz Lang)

Tim Bergfelder, E Mary Fulbrook, History of Germany, 1918-2000: The Divided Nationrica Carter, and Deniz Göktürk, eds. The German Cinema Book

Sabine Hake, German National Cinema


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German Cinema in 20th Century. (2017, Jan 22). Retrieved from