The Dark Mirror: German Cinema between Hitler and Hollywood

The Dark Mirror: German Cinema between Hitler and Hollywood

by Lutz Koepnick

Paperback(First Edition)

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Lutz Koepnick analyzes the complicated relationship between two cinemas—Hollywood's and Nazi Germany's—in this theoretically and politically incisive study. The Dark Mirror examines the split course of German popular film from the early 1930s until the mid 1950s, showing how Nazi filmmakers appropriated Hollywood conventions and how German film exiles reworked German cultural material in their efforts to find a working base in the Hollywood studio system. Through detailed readings of specific films, Koepnick provides a vivid sense of the give and take between German and American cinema.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520233119
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/03/2002
Series: Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism , #32
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 334
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Lutz Koepnick is Associate Professor of German and Film and Media Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power (1999) and Nothungs Modernität: Wagners Ring und die Poesie der Macht im neunzehnten Jahrhundert (1994).

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The Dark Mirror

German Cinema between Hitler and Hollywood
By Lutz Koepnick

University of California

Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-23311-5

Chapter One



Robert Siodmak's triumph in Hollywood dovetailed with the boom of the American film industry during and shortly after World War II. Siodmak's film noirs of the mid-1940s indicated the extent to which the war had brought a host of new talents, a spirit of innovation, and relative progressivism to the classical studio system. As a B genre par excellence, film noir in the 1940s might have relied on the same kind of industry structures and moviegoing habits that had characterized American cinema since the arrival of synchronized sound in the late 1920s. It was designed for viewers who considered motion pictures an integral part of American cultural life and who went to the movies at least once a week on average. But on the other hand the rise of film noir in the early 1940s inaugurated a period in which various political, economic, social, and technological forces would deeply change dominant industry structures and audience expectations. Film noir demonstrated that the war experience had passed a new kind of maturity on to American audiences as much as to the film industry. Siodmak's success around 1945 in no small part relied on his ability to use studio filmmaking at the height of its productivity to communicate a pending sense of crisis and industrial transformation. His films espoused the entire range of modern experience and mass culture, yet at the same time they gratified newly emerging demands for greater product differentiation and cultural diversification.

Although American global power in the immediate postwar era was radically on the rise, the Hollywood film industry experienced a dramatic downturn in 1947. The late 1940s in fact became the most afflicted period of American filmmaking. The industry was plagued not only by drastically declining box office returns but also by labor struggles and runaway production costs, by censorship battles and anticommunist hysteria, by defiant exhibitors and antitrust rulings. For many the 1948 Paramount Case-which outlawed the practice of vertical integration that had proven so profitable for the major studios and thus effectively terminated classical studio operations within less than a decade-signified the climax of Hollywood's postwar troubles. But the downfall of American filmmaking starting in the second half of the 1940s did not simply reflect the impact of unprecedented political interventions into studio structures, nor did it result solely from inner-industrial struggles or the escalating uncoupling of star and studio systems. Rather, it had much to do with postwar transformations of American society as a whole: "[P]ostwar changes in the average work week, leisure time, disposable income, and consumer interest disrupted the loyal partnership that had existed for more than twenty years between the motion picture industry and its audience." Suburbanization moved audiences away from inner-city theaters. Instead of spending their money for movies, Americans in the immediate postwar period invested in homes, cars, house appliances, or bank accounts. After years of wartime shortages consumers suddenly yearned for new kinds of leisure activities that privileged participatory recreation over mass-produced entertainment. They wanted to engage in golfing or boating, camping or gardening, and found Hollywood particularly ill prepared to satisfy their demands for more diversified pastimes.

In spite of dwindling audience figures and growing political constraints, however, Hollywood features of the immediate postwar era showed some surprising signs of vitality and aesthetic experimentation. Films such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler), Crossfire (1947, Edward Dmytryk), Gentleman's Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan), and All the King's Men (1949, Robert Rossen) infused American cinema with an innovative blend of realism and social awareness. They addressed burning issues of the day (veteran's reintegration, anti-Semitism, political corruption), brandished present hypocrisies from a liberal-left perspective, and upset dominant standards of illusionism and identification. By 1950, however, little was left of this spirit of departure. Troubled by both the HUAC inquiries and the dramatic decline of the market, studios such as MGM, Warner's, Paramount, and RKO eschewed whatever could be read as a trace of left-leaning liberalism. With the notable exception of Twentieth Century-Fox, Hollywood major studios turned openly conservative. They desisted from aesthetic innovation and social realism to appease anticommunist inquisitors as much as to recapture viewers who preferred to spend their leisure time amid the more alluring scenes of the outdoors and of suburban commodity consumption.

James Agee, in a 1948 column for The Nation, described the troubled position of postwar American cinema as follows:

It is hard to believe that absolutely first-rate works of art can ever again be made in Hollywood, but it would be idiotic to assume that flatly. If they are to be made there, they will most probably develop along the directions worked out during the past year or two; they will be journalistic, semi-documentary, and "social-minded," or will start that way and transcend those levels.... It is now an absolute certainty that every most hopeful thing that has been stirring in Hollywood is petrified more grimly than ever before.

Agee was certainly correct in pointing out that there was a major fault line separating American filmmaking around 1950 from its role during the war and prewar era. But he was wrong in predicting that Hollywood could and would reclaim lost territory by forgoing spectacle and illusionism in the name of some new realist aesthetic. As we will see in further detail in chapter 8, Hollywood's primary response to postwar declines was to invest in technology and spectacle. Although since the arrival of sound Hollywood studios had sensed no real need for new technologies to hold the interest of the moviegoing public, postwar transformations of American society caused the industry to develop a different kind of screen presentation and to rebuild the parameters of cinematic viewership through widescreen processes such as CinemaScope. Contrary to Agee's recommendation, the American film industry before long embarked on what must be understood as a veritable revolution. Deprived of the steady audiences of the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood endorsed widescreen cinema in the 1950s so as to recuperate the erstwhile place of moviegoing in American cultural life. It designed a new kind of cinema of attraction and astonishment, a cinema of startlingly amplified sights and sounds that would refocus the viewer's attention on the extraordinary nature of the apparatus itself.

This chapter and the next will comment in a series of typological readings on the role of German émigré directors in the troubled last years of the classical Hollywood studio system. Although it would surely go too far to assign Hitler refugees a special position in what happened to Hollywood after Hitler, it is interesting to note that for some émigrés the disintegration of studio power resulted in new career opportunities. Fred Zinnemann and Otto Preminger did some of their most important directorial work after 1952; Billy Wilder was able to enhance his recognition as a bold producer-director throughout the 1950s and early 1960s; and Douglas Sirk's Universal melodramas clearly fitted well into the very culture of leisure and consumption that had caused audiences to abandon classical Hollywood features after the war. Furthermore, it is important to understand that in some films that were shot around 1950 at the margins of the tormented studio system, in independent or semi-independent production contexts, German émigré directors either addressed the burgeoning transformations of American mass culture head-on or provided striking allegories for the troubled position of Hollywood after 1946. As we will see in a moment, this self-thematization of modern industrial culture around 1950 was often expressed through a confrontation with the legacy of American populism, an ideological heritage with which Germans-recollecting the disastrous path of populism in Germany from 1914 to 1945-had and continue to have an ambivalent relationship, to say the least.

Two films are central to my discussion in this chapter, Douglas Sirk's The First Legion (1951) and Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious (1952). Sirk's The First Legion undertakes a high cultural recuperation of the popular carried out to undercut the susceptibility of populism for commercialized mass culture. The film immerses the viewer in a quasi-heroic struggle against the consumption of sights and sounds in the present age; it suggests a Wagnerian overhaul of the popular's own reified Wagnerianism. Speaking from the entrenched position of American cinema circa 1950, The First Legion aspires to rejuvenate contemporary filmmaking by challenging popular culture over the right to inherit the legacy of the nineteenth century-its utopian dreams, sentimental affinities, and Wagnerian excesses. Lang's Rancho Notorious, by contrast, takes recourse to the most populist of all Hollywood film genres, the western, in order to engage the audience in a quasi-Brechtian reworking of the populist legacy. Lang's point is of course not to persuade his American audiences in any way to engage in communist political practice. Rather, by taking recourse to Brechtian strategies of distanciation and textual counterpoint, Rancho Notorious hopes to reinstate the heterogeneity of the popular and mobilize populism against its own petrification. Unlike Sirk, for whom the popular in The First Legion represents a site of manipulation, materialism, and vacuity, Lang insists on the relative autonomy of popular expressions from commodification and ideology. Whereas The First Legion denounces mass culture as a realm of spectacular seduction, Lang aims to reinvigorate the popular from within-by probing the viewer's relation to the single most popular genre of the studio era.

Their fundamental differences notwithstanding, both Sirk's Wagnerian recuperation of the popular and Lang's Brechtian overhaul of Hollywood populism must be understood as parts of an integral chapter of Berlin in Hollywood. Both directors approach American realities around 1950 refracted through the prism of particular German cultural perspectives. Through the use of melos and music both films engage the viewer in their critical assessment of modern culture. For both Lang and Sirk sound becomes a valuable means of exploring modern culture as a heterogeneous space of contestation. Contrary to Nazi cinema's view of culture as homogeneous, Lang's and Sirk's films permit us to think of modern culture as multivocal: a vehicle of power and social homogenization as much as a mouthpiece of emancipation, nonidentity, and visions of a better life.

Populism and Its Discontents

Hollywood filmmaking during the studio era was deeply influenced by the legacy of the two major American reform movements around 1900, agrarian populism and urban progressivism. Neither populism nor progressivism ever developed a fully coherent system of ideas, but both came to dominate American cultural life in the first half of the twentieth century because both addressed critical issues related to ongoing processes of social, economic, and technological modernization. In a country lacking any established vocabulary of socialism, both populism and progressivism challenged the rule of big government and business with the help of an amorphous array of ideas that revolved around the image of individual self-determination and "the people." At once utopian and activist, they offered unifying symbols to a widespread spectrum of wills and interests.

Populists opposed political and economic concentration, the rise of administrative centers, and the urban culture of intellectuals. They advocated the Edenic image of agrarian life, propagating the unhampered use of "land" as the primary vehicle of individual self-realization and communal integration. Unlike contemporary socialist movements in Europe, American populists mainly aspired to reform the current system by replacing corrupt and conspiratorial elites "with representatives of the truer, agricultural America." Like turn-of-the-century populists, progressives believed that the roots of American democracy were originally formed on the farms and in small villages and that urbanization, industrialization, and mass immigration increasingly destroyed the kind of individualism and codes of conduct coupled with agrarian life. But rather than relying on traditional moral values alone, progressives hoped to find in the institutional framework of modern industrial America and in governmental policies the very means to correct the problems of the present. In contrast to populism, progressivism developed a more positive concept of the political. Politics' proper task was to reconstruct the possibility of individual self-expression and moral integrity, of economic self-determination and unrestricted communality. Its paramount, albeit paradoxical, mission was to make itself superfluous.

As a result of the Great Depression and New Deal politics, the 1930s witnessed a dramatic upswing of precisely the kind of phenomena that turn-of-the-century populists and progressives had loathed the most: industrial concentration, big government, and a more prominent role for intellectual elites in American cultural life. Hollywood's dream factories, however, in spite of their own drive toward bureaucratization and market control, continued to draw heavily on the rhetorical tropes of progressivism and populism, "blurring their differences and fusing them into a common ideological strand." Classical Hollywood cinema upheld what historical developments seemed to negate. The populist and progressive myths of moral individualism and agency, of agrarian democracy and conspiratorial politics, helped define narrative conventions and character motivations throughout the studio era. These ideological tropes fundamentally influenced what became a cinema of active, goal-oriented protagonists.

Hitler refugees in the United States had an uneasy relationship with American populism, for populist sentiments had, of course, been key to National Socialist politics as well. Similar to American populists, Nazi politics relied on the integrative power of diffuse resentments and cultural prejudices.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Dark Mirror

PART 1: HOLLYWOOD in BERLIN, 1933–1939
Chapter 1 Sounds of Silence: Nazi Cinema and the Quest for a National Culture Industry
Chapter 2 Incorporating the Underground: Curtis Bernhardt’s The Tunnel
Chapter 3 Engendering Mass Culture: Zarah Leander and the Economy of Desire
Chapter 4 Siegfried Rides Again: Nazi Westerns and Modernity
PART 2: BERLIN in HOLLYWOOD, 1939–1955
Chapter 5 Wagner at Warner’s: German Sounds and Hollywood Studio Visions
Chapter 6 Berlin Noir: Robert Siodmak’s Hollywood
Chapter 7 Pianos, Priests, and Popular Culture: Sirk, Lang, and the Legacy of American Populism
Chapter 8 Isolde Resurrected: Curtis Bernhardt’s Interrupted Melody

Epilogue: "Talking about Germany"

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