Germany is certainly among the most vital and innovative countries in the history of films of the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to being the homeland of expressionism, kammerspiel and The New Objectivity are also established, with a long series of dramas and historical movies. The kammerspiel, which means chamber acting, is a theatrical and musical avant-garde movement that also contaminates cinema, launched in the theatre in 1906 with the theatrical performance of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin, and which strictly respects the principle of three unity: unity of place, unity of time and unity of action. The story has as its main focus the relationship between actor and camera.
The acting is minimalist, essential, focused on making the viewer perceive even the slightest expressive nuances of faces. The locations are realistic and overwhelming: they are the visual metaphor of the characters’ condition of suffering. It includes a small number of films, but all of them are very interesting. They are inspired by Max Reinhardt’s experiences and they are almost written by Carl Mayer , with precise rules.
These are stories set in petty bourgeois environments, dramas of desires, grudges and threatening presences of fate. But above all, they are films shot with a total unity of action, place and space. The idea of the filmmakers is to tell exclusively through images in a totally cinematic way without the aid of captions. Kammerspiel such as Backstairs, Shattered and New Year’s Eve tell inevitable dramas caused by the human condition and the mediocrity of everyday life.
Kammerspiel: Small Daily Tragedies
These are little everyday stories that take on tragedy proportions. At the same time, historical cinema was affirmed in Germany. Inspired by the success of the German popular tradition and the Italian historical film, but with a greater capacity for staging, to move hundreds of extras and to use the sets. The director Ernst Lubitsch specialised in this genre at the beginning of his career, who later became interested in comedy especially in his trip to Hollywood, creating a unique style nicknamed Lubitsch touch .
Director Joe May specialises in another genre, a mix of genres between drama, exoticism, detective story and magic, as in the film The Indian tomb, written by Fritz Lang and his wife Thea von harbou. Fritz Lang will also make an extraordinary film, considered one of the most successful projects in the Kammerspiel, The Last Laugh , which, however, also draws on other styles and contaminations, such as expressionism.
The dramas and difficulties of metropolitan life in Berlin in the 1920s favour the success of many drama films set on city streets. The difficult world of working-class neighbourhoods, where weak people live a life of humiliation and suffering, without any possibility of redemption.
The kammerspiel and The new objectivity move in the opposite direction of expressionism and are interested in the reality of Germany of the time, but always with a strong artistic imprint of the director and his vision, without yield to objectivity as an end in itself.
The Outcasts of The City
A world of thieves, criminals, prostitutes and murderers living in the poorest neighbourhoods, but also rich bourgeois who try to change their lives and win against their frustrations without success. The expressionist style however influences this visual research on reality. The fears and anxieties of the characters on the screen are represented with visual technical solutions of great impact, with a fundamental importance of the shot.
Sometimes they are female subjects destined for failure by social laws or love disappointments. Varieté by Dupont from 1925 instead tells the drama of a former prisoner forced to suffer violence, with great expressiveness. Joe May, who had previously worked in historical dramas, also makes a film that makes the new reality of German cities particularly vividly, Asphalt from 1928.
Kammerspiel: The Films of Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Street dramas reach their best result in Pabst ‘s cinema, which manages to combine objectivity and great expressiveness in his films. The actors and the objects filmed seem to acquire a heavy, objective, corporeal, almost physical presence in his cinema. The heavy materiality of the things and people of city life acquires a singular value in Pabst, an expressive force that deforms reality in a grotesque way, thanks to the angles and light used in an innovative way. Pabst is able to alternate close-ups and close-ups, details and wider shots with a quick editing and with a unique fluidity and technical ability.
Secrets of a soul from 1926 is one of his first films, totally dedicated to psychoanalysis. But the director offers the best of his production in street dramas, recounting despair, humiliation and frustration in films such as The Joyless Street, from 1925, Lulu from 1928 and The Diary of a Lost Girl from 1925. Films that tell stories of sensuality, oppression, desire and crime. Louise Brooks gives face to a particularly suggestive character, in a story where sin and power meet to make the characters fall into temptation and evil, with images of great intensity.
The Political Kammerspiel
The most radical cinematographic experiences are linked to political and ideological projects of staging the misery of the most disadvantaged classes of the capitalist metropolises. They are more realistic films that touch the border with the documentary and try to accurately represent the condition of poverty in the popular neighbourhoods of the cities. It is a cinema of denunciation of social injustices, of class relations, which was born as a model of cinema engaged within the left-wing parties. The cinematographic experiences in the period of the Weimar Republic therefore establish very heterogeneous cinema models and visions of reality in Germany.
A current with greater strength in metaphors and symbols, which gives priority to the image and the single shot over the entire sequences and narration. The deforming and figurative expressionist cinema of Lang and Murnau. On the other hand, there is a more objective cinema that represents and describes reality with an analytical montage and a classic narrative that gives less importance to the figurative aspect of the single image. It is a cinema that tells the objective reality that will be called The New Objectivity , which also includes a more conventional and standardised genre cinema, which prefers paths and dramaturges functional to the structure of the story.
Kammerspiel Movies to Watch
This was the German director’s first film Leopold Jessner, together with Paul Leni. Carl Mayer wrote the story specifically for Leopold Jessner. The film was a forerunner of the German kammerspiel film style of the 1920s. The waitress (Henny Porten) wakes up going about her day and doing her job. The postman (Fritz Kortner) spies on her from her home. The postman delivers the mail and sees the waitress who opens the letter and reads it. During the night the woman meets The Lover (William Dieterle). The postman sees it from his house. The maid goes out the following evening, still being spied on by the postman.
It is a 1921 German Kammerspiel silent film directed by Lupu Pick, written by Carl Meyer, and is considered the first example of the kammerspielfilm. Set during the winter season, the film tells the story of a railroad man who monitors the tracks and his family who live an ugly and boring life beside a railway line. They receive a telegram announcing the arrival of the area examiner, who will be staying with the family.
New Year’s Eve (1921)
It is a 1924 German Kammerspiel silent film directed by Lupu Pick and written by Carl Meyer. It was shot in 1923 and premiered in Berlin on 4 January 1924. The film is considered one of the earliest examples of a kammerspiel film and was pioneering in its notable use of the camera, using panning and tracking instead of holding the shot . Like Pick’s previous films, it does not use captions.
It is a 1925 silent drama film directed by Ewald Andre Dupont based on the 1912 novel The Oath of Stephan Huller by Felix Hollaender. The trapeze scenes are set in the Wintergarten theater in Berlin. In the film, Jannings plays “Boss Huller,” a former trapeze player who was seriously injured in an accident and currently runs a seedy circus with his wife (Maly Delschaft) and their young son. Huller urges the family to hire a stranger (Lya De Putti) as a new dancer, with whom he prepares a new trapeze routine. The man falls in love with the dancer and the story ends dramatically.
Joe May, who had previously worked in historical dramas, also makes a film that renders the new reality of German cities particularly vividly, Asphalt from 1928. The film stars Gustav Fröhlich and Betty Amann and tells of a girl from Berlin who gets into trouble and steals a precious jewel. She is captured by a policeman, and the woman tries to convince him to let her go. The film was shot between October and December 1928 at the UFA.
In Berlin, a girl named Else is a beautiful con artist. Her haute couture garments and flawless makeup make her deserve to gaze at a ruby as she seduces the jeweler. She is caught attempting a theft and confesses that it was her first time and that she needed the money.
Secrets of a Soul (1926)
Secret of a soul by Pabst from 1926 is one of his first films, totally dedicated to psychoanalysis. Martin Fellman, a teacher, suffers from headaches that make him think he is going crazy. He is afraid of being about to kill his partner. He works with Dr. Orth, a psychoanalyst, to overcome his psychoses.
The Joyless Street (1925)
It is a 1925 German silent film directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst starring Greta Garbo and Asta Nielsen. It is based on a short story by Hugo Bettauer and is considered an expression of the New Objectivity in cinema. On a street called Melchiorgasse in a bad neighborhood in 1921 Vienna, Austria, a few people’s lives collide. Marie, daughter of an abusive father, wants to leave her home with the help of her boyfriend Egon, a cashier. Grete is the eldest daughter of the poor official Rumfort. Marie and Grete wait at the butcher’s shop run by the abusive Josef Geiringer, but Grete blacks out and loses her position. Marie and her friend Else manage to get into Geiringer’s shop, where they get a piece of meat in exchange for sex.
Pandora’s Box (1929)
It is a 1929 German silent drama film directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and starring Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner and Francis Lederer. The film is about Lulu, a sexy girl whose spontaneous nature creates problems for herself and those who like her. It is based on Frank Wedekind’s plays Erdgeist (1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904). Snubbed by critics upon its initial release, the film was later discovered by film scholars as a classic of Weimar German cinema.
Lulu is the girlfriend of a respected middle-aged newspaper author, Dr. Ludwig Schön. One day an old man, his “first client”, Schigolch, shows up at the door of his house. When Schön also arrives, he has Schigolch hide on the terrace. Schön breaks the news to Lulu that he will most likely marry Charlotte von Zarnikow, the daughter of the Minister of the Interior.
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
It is a 1929 German silent film directed by GW Pabst and starring American actress Louise Brooks. There are 2 versions of the film: from 79 minutes to 116 minutes. This was Brooks’ last and second film with Pabst and, like their previous collaboration Lulu, is considered a classic film. It is based on Margarete Böhme’s bestselling 1905 novel of the same name. The book had previously been adapted by Richard Oswald.
Thymian Henning, pharmacologist Robert Henning’s naïve little girl, is perplexed when their caretaker, Elisabeth, leaves suddenly on the day of the little girl’s confirmation. It turns out that her father got Elisabeth pregnant. Elisabeth’s body is taken to the pharmacy later that day, an obvious suicide, and the event causes Thymian anguish.
Thymian’s father’s aide Meinert ensures to clear everything up for her late that night, but instead rapes her while she is unconscious and she too becomes pregnant. Thymian refuses to recognize the child’s father, her relatives find out from her diary and decide that the best thing is for her to marry Meinert. When she refuses they give the baby to a midwife and send her to a prison for troubled women run by an overbearing woman and her aide.