Thursday, October 10, 2019

Weimar Shorts – Prog. 3: The Social Question

Polizeibericht Überfall. My screenshot.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
Weimar Shorts.
Grand piano: Donald Sosin.
Teatro Verdi, e-subtitles in English and Italian by Underlight, 10 Oct 2019.

Mäusezucht. Ein lohnender Nebenerwerb des kleinen Mannes (DE 1921, D: Georg Victor Mendel). Photo: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto website, Valerio Greco from the Teatro Verdi screen, Flickr, 10 Oct 2019.

MÄUSEZUCHT. EIN LOHNENDER NEBENERWERB DES KLEINEN MANNES [Mice Breeding. A Worthwhile Source of Supplemental Income for the Common Man] (DE 1921)
regia/dir: Dr. Georg Victor Mendel? photog: Dr. Georg Victor Mendel. prod: National-Film AG, Berlin. copia/copy: DCP, 9′, col. (da/from 35 mm nitr., 163 m, 18 fps, imbibito/tinted); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: DFF – Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum, Frankfurt-am-Main.

Anke Mebold (GCM): "This live-action short produced by National-Film AG poses an interesting challenge from the outset due to its title: Mäusezucht. Ein in lohnender Nebenerwerb des kleinen Mannes (Mice Breeding. A Worthwhile Source of Supplemental Income for the Common Man). While the film convincingly shows how to breed mice galore, it withholds information on how revenue was to be generated; maybe this was thought utterly obvious, or perhaps the second part of the title was merely an empty promise or ruse."

"On all other levels, Victor Mendel’s mouse propagation propaganda works smoothly, balancing on the borderline between education and entertainment and evoking core topics of the late 1910s and early 1920s, such as fertility and genetics, arguably deemed significant in the context of Volksgesundheit (public health) after the massive loss of lives incurred during the First World War. Here these harrowing themes come together in a conversationally pleasant style, in a Kulturfilm that functions as a public service announcement fused with a biology lesson, served up as infotainment."

"While pleasure and play with the overly kinetic petite pets is left to young children, the care necessary for the mice’s survival, and their well-being and proliferation, is provided by a young woman. How-to sections on cage construction and cleaning are followed by instructions on proper feeding. The film creates an atmosphere of wholesomeness, domesticity, and well-being for both the mice and their owners. The setting for the breeding cages is in the healthy outdoors, tinted in pleasant daylight yellow. The instructive intertitles are accentuated in a green tint, while indoor settings display a light-red hue."

"As the audience gets to enjoy the competent care and nourishment strategically provided by the young woman to the mice, the film suggests new opportunities and hopeful beginnings. Quite possibly the filmmakers sought to transpose onto mice what Germany’s traumatized post-war population was hungry for: good nutrition, health, a degree of prosperity, successful child-bearing and rearing, and in consequence, population re-growth. By alluding to such a chain of key concepts constituting a better future, the film urges its post-war audience to seize its chances." Anke Mebold (GCM)

AA: I saw for the first time this poignant documentary film on mice breeding as a recommended sideline in early 1920s Germany. Donald Sosin played in a joyful major scale.

POLIZEIBERICHT ÜBERFALL [Police Report: Assault] (DE 1929)
regia/dir: Ernö Metzner. scen: Ernö Metzner, Grace Chiang. photog: Eduard von Borsody. cast: Heinrich Gotho, Eva-Schmid-Kayser, Alfred Loretto, Hans Ruys, Sybille Schmitz, Rudolf Hilberg, Heinrich Fakoni, Kurt Gerron, Hans G. Casparius, Gustav Püttjer. prod: Deutscher Werkfilm. v.c./censor date:  13.4.1929, 30.5.1929. copia/copy: 35 mm, 422 m, 23′ (16 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin.

Anton Kaes (GCM): "Included in an influential 1995 collection of historical avant-garde films, Ernö Metzner’s 22-minute short film Polizeibericht Überfall was not shown in Germany in its own day. The Berlin censorship board called it a “criminal film” and banned it in 1929 for its “brutal and demoralizing effect.” The British avant-garde film journal Close Up called the German censor’s ban “incomprehensible” and published the official ruling, which claimed that “the film might induce a person to commit crimes.” Metzner, the Austrian-Hungarian director who had made two propaganda films for the Social Democratic Party before this film, responded to the ban by arguing that the film was not at all about crime, but about the pervasive fear that had gripped German society in the waning years of the Weimar Republic, as the traumatic collapse of the economy threatened the material foundations of ordinary life."

"The film captures the centrality of money in its first few shots by focusing on a coin in the middle of the road.  A pedestrian is struck down by a car as he tries to retrieve it, but another destitute passerby picks it up and wants to exchange it for cigarettes – except the coin turns out to be counterfeit. Undeterred, the unnamed protagonist uses it for gambling and amasses huge winnings. As he leaves the gambling den, he is pursued by a thug out to rob him, but he finds refuge in a prostitute’s apartment, only to be robbed by her pimp. When the man is thrown out into the street, he is assaulted by the waiting brute with a blow to the head, sending him into a tailspin of multiple flashbacks, consisting of the unending circulation and exchange of coins. Although the film shares its gritty urban realist setting with Weimar’s street-films, this extended hallucinatory dream sequence moves it closer to Hans Richter’s avant-garde film Inflation (1928), which also seeks to visualize the irrational power of money through surreal distortions and double-exposures of the human body, using mirrors and prismatic lenses to convey the senseless reproduction of money."

"Police Report: Assault ends with a question on its final title card: “Who is guilty of the crime?” The answer is given by a close-up of the coin in the center of the frame, rapidly spinning around. It is the coin – i.e., the capitalist money economy itself – that is responsible for crime, greed, and the commodification of everything. The film uses its narrative to reflect on the nexus of capitalism, gambling, prostitution, and crime as signifiers of modernity. It also suggests the futility of resistance – the counterfeit coin ends up again in the street, and will start another cycle. Echoing the educational aims of the Kulturfilm genre, this short film essay seeks to enlighten the spectator about the deeper causes of the social question, relating it not only to the Weimar Republic, but to the capitalist system as such, and its assault on human existence." Anton Kaes (GCM)

AA: Revisited the famous Weimar classic. We have a print and screen it regularly. Might the film have been inspired by Die Abenteuer eines Zehnmarkscheines (1926), itself based on Leo Tolstoy's The Forged Coupon?

Markt in Berlin. Quelle: Deutsches Filminstitut Filmmuseum. Filmportal.

MARKT IN BERLIN [Market in Berlin] (DE 1929)
regia/dir, scen, photog, mont/ed: Wilfried Basse. prod: Basse-Film GmbH. uscita/rel: 10.11.1929. copia/copy: 35 mm, 413 m, 15′ (24 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin.

Anton Kaes (GCM): "Wilfried Basse’s experimental documentary Markt in Berlin begins with a title card: “The big city of Berlin is not only dominated by tempo and traffic; there is also idyllic small-town life even in the hustle and bustle of Berlin-West.” First shown in November 1929, two years after Walter Ruttmann’s famed feature-length documentary Berlin. Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, this short film offers a corrective to Ruttmann’s expansive view of the metropolis of “tempo and traffic.” Markt in Berlin is confined to a single square that holds a weekly food market, which for half a day brings together city and countryside, vendors and shoppers, old and young, wealthy and poor – a social microcosm of ordinary people interacting and exchanging goods and money. In the midst of the market, a policeman oversees the orderly circulation of the anonymous crowd."

"Employing the latest optical technology, Basse uses time-lapse photography to compress the set-up time of the market in the early morning hours, and quick cuts to shorten the clean-up in the afternoon. The vacant Wittenbergplatz comes to life for a few hours and returns to its usual quiet as soon as the activity is over. Extreme high-angle shots miniaturize the market, rendering it like a movie set being erected and put away again. The market activities themselves are animated by a hand-held camera that is constantly moving, panning, tilting, and searching for faces, hands, glances, and gestures, often in close-up. Reminiscent of street photography, this aesthetic of random encounters, fleeting transactions and coincidences, unplanned but revealing moments — what Kracauer would call “the flow of life” — was made possible by a new compact camera, the Kinamo, the smallest and most portable movie-camera up to that time. The Kinamo was spring-operated and held only 25-metre cassettes, for one minute of film, with an average shot length of 7 metres (3-5 seconds). Joining the shoppers unseen, being jostled and its view often blocked, the Kinamo observed and recorded unscripted life as it unfolded. The camera also featured a new fast lens, the Zeiss Sonnar 1.4, whose technical advance motivated Basse to devote a short experimental film to it, Mit Optik 1.4, which he reportedly showed to Dziga Vertov on his visit to Berlin in 1931."

"Markt in Berlin was first presented – along with Joris Ivens’ short documentary De Brug, also shot with a Kinamo – in November 1929 as part of the international Film und Foto (FIFO) exhibition in Stuttgart that showcased the state of the arts in film and photography worldwide. Organized by the Deutscher Werkbund (German Association of Craftsmen), with the participation of Lázló Moholy-Nagy, Hans Richter, and Sigfried Giedion, the exhibition propagated what was called Neues Sehen (New Vision), which promoted the idea that a mechanical lens would reveal aspects of reality not seen by the human eye. In its vertiginous perspectives, magnification of details, and manipulation of time and space, Markt in Berlin exemplified this new school of technology-mediated perception."

"Only a month after this experiment in Neues Sehen was screened, a longer Kulturfilm version with 22 didactic title cards, now called Wochenmarkt am Wittenbergplatz (Weekly Market in Wittenbergplatz), was approved and used henceforth because the inclusion of a certified Kulturfilm reduced a movie theater’s entertainment tax." Anton Kaes (GCM)

AA: Revisited Wilfried Basse's marvellous documentary film, full of life, gaining in value with years passing by. The approach is classical, from generous long establishing shots from high angles to revealing close-ups to eels and what have you. Certain passages remind me of Agnès Varda's Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse. Wittenbergplatz is dear to me: at this U-Bahnhof I used to step out to frequent the Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek screenings at Cinema Arsenal while I was a student in West Berlin in the 1980s

BLUTMAI 1929 (Kampfmai 1929) [Blood May 1929] (DE 1929)
regia/dir: Phil Jutzi. photog: Phil Jutzi, Erich Heintze. prod: Willy Münzenberg/Filmkartell “Weltfilm” GmbH. copia/copy: 35 mm, 222 m, 9′ (22 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin.

Anton Kaes (GCM): "Blutmai 1929 (also known as Kampfmai 1929, or, in a longer version, 1. Mai – Weltfeiertag der Arbeiterklasse [1 May – World Holiday of the Working Class]) is a short documentary of the bloody May Day demonstrations in Berlin on 1 May 1929, when police battled Communist demonstrators who defied a ban on public gatherings. Over three days of rioting, 33 civilians were killed by the police, with 200 injured, and thousands arrested. The Communists blamed the Police chief, a Social Democrat, for the fatal outcome, which irreparably deepened the rift between the two workers’ parties, the SPD and the KPD, thus dividing and weakening the Left’s opposition to the Nazis’ rise to power."
"This agit-prop documentary follows what Sergei Tretyakov called “operative art,” in which film and photography do not seek to portray an elusive objective reality, but rather offer a partisan argument. Soviet film propaganda methods were tirelessly promoted by Willy Münzenberg’s influential Communist media conglomerate, which included the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, a tabloid newspaper for socialist workers, and Prometheus, a proletarian film distribution and production company that prospered after the sensational German success of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in 1926."
"Phil Jutzi was involved in this venture, preparing Soviet films for German distribution and working as a cameraman on German-Soviet co-productions. He soon established himself as a leading director of proletarian film in 1929 with the semi-documentary film Um’s tägliche Brot (Hunger in Waldenburg) and the feature film Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück. Jutzi was also responsible for the documentary Blutmai 1929, which involved a number of cameramen positioned on rooftops and behind windows in the Communist districts of Berlin, where street fights and police violence were widely expected. Jutzi edited the footage by adding explanatory intertitles and narrative closure, with a funeral for the fallen comrades as well as an appearance by Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the KPD."
"Blutmai 1929 makes use of stylistic features from the Russian and German film avant-garde. Taking its cue from Vertov’s Kino-Eye, it includes no fictional actors, no screenplay, and no unifying perspective. Instead, the hand-held mobile camera produces unsteady, jittery images from radically different perspectives, at one moment plunging us in the midst of the action, and at another affording us a god’s-eye view of the battlefield. The unconventional angles from the rooftops make people running from the police look like ants scurrying in all directions. The abrupt shifts of perspective and angle also suggest that the action is too volatile and uncontrollable to be fully captured, even by multiple cameras. Close-ups of helmeted police beating unarmed civilians provide evidence less of individual violent assaults than of the irreconcilable antagonism between mortal enemies. Inserts of slogans and newspaper headlines are also used to involve spectators intellectually and to provide a critical perspective on how events were portrayed by the mainstream press. The last title, “Wake up, Damned of the Earth,” is the first line of “The Internationale,” and meant as a call to arms. Frustrated by the Communist Party, Jutzi became a member of the NSDAP in 1933, and died in poverty in 1945." Anton Kaes (GCM) NOT SHOWN


AA: A wrong film was shown here instead of Blutmai 1929. La mer du Nord: dunes, water patterns, breakwaters, people on the beach, a lone rower, bordering on abstraction, prefiguring Antonioni.

ZEITPROBLEME. WIE DER ARBEITER WOHNT [Contemporary Problems: How the Worker Lives] (DE 1930)
regia/dir: Slatan Dudow. collab: Phil Jutzi. photog: Walter Hrich. prod: Willy Münzenberg / Filmkartell “Weltfilm” GmbH. v.c./censor date: 19.8.1930. copia/copy: 35 mm, 337 m, 16′ (18 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin.

Anton Kaes (GCM): "Slatan Dudow was 27 years old when he made this short film about contemporary housing problems of the Berlin working class in 1930. Born in Bulgaria, he moved to Berlin in 1922 and became part of its vibrant Leftist theater scene, working with Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht. Zeitprobleme was Dudow’s debut film, and the first in a planned but unrealized series of short documentaries about Berlin’s working class – an answer to Ufa’s mainstream newsreels that systematically ignored the proletariat. Dudow’s film was produced by Kartell Weltfilm, which specialized in non-commercial production and distribution of proletarian-revolutionary propaganda films for KPD campaigns and meetings. Founded in 1928, Weltfilm was part of a complex web of proletarian mass media (the so-called Münzenberg Trust) that also promoted the import of films by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Vertov. Dudow, who visited Moscow in 1929, made his short in the “Russian style,” using juxtaposition and sharp contrast to promote class consciousness."

"The first title card assures the audience of the film’s authenticity, declaring that it emerged from the midst of the housing misery that condemns workers and children to live in dark and damp basement rooms, known breeding grounds for tuberculosis. The camera documents various aspects of proletarian life in realistic images, from the unemployment office to children playing with water. Although the film tries to capture the milieu through an abundance of panning and tilting shots, there are some remarkable contemplative moments when Dudow presents haunting portraits of workers and children. They echo August Sanders’ photographs of ordinary people and also exemplify the kind of proletarian photography promoted by the journal Der Arbeiter-Fotograf around the same time. The various episodes, stitched together with the help of intertitles, represent mostly variations of static comparisons of ostentatious wealth with unimaginable poverty."

"Only toward the end, a bare-bones narrative emerges that is staged: a young unemployed worker’s family is evicted because they are unable to pay the rent. The father tries to stop the eviction but is taken away by the police. Intercut with the suffering family is the grinning face of a wealthy landlord, shot in dehumanizing extreme close-up. There is no dialogue or even spatial or temporal proximity between them, only mutual contempt and animosity, underscored by the harsh cross-cutting. In the film’s last few minutes, in a tightly framed shot, pieces of broken furniture are piling up, highlighting the mechanical inhumanity of such an eviction. The last intertitle states: “This is not a solution.” The film thus invited discussion about questions that go beyond the story. Dudow himself offered a solution in his next film, Kuhle Wampe oder wem gehört die Welt (1932), an experimental feature film written by Bertolt Brecht, which followed the principles of Epic Theater and became a model for Jean-Luc Godard and political cinema in the 1960s." Anton Kaes (GCM)

AA: Revisited Slatan Dudow's classic documentary, starting at the end of the working day. Faces marked with life and the years. Visiting the employment office, learning about a rent increase, counting food stamps, following an invalid (quite probably a war invalid), contrasting the districts of the have and the have not, gardens, breeding grounds of TB, children playing in the mud, "our beach" a big common pond, bricks transported, sleeping corners for hire, baby carts moved in narrow corridors, dogs bathed, children fed, eviction notice causing melancholy, the last resort: the police enforces the eviction.

Zwei Welten. My screenshot.

ZWEI WELTEN [Two Worlds] (DE 1930)
regia/dir: Werner Hochbaum. scen: Heinrich Braune. photog: Gustav Berger. prod: Werner Hochbaum Filmproduktion GmbH. v.c./censor date: 27.8.1930. copia/copy: 35 mm, 437 m, 21′ (18 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin.

Anton Kaes (GCM): "Zwei Welten is an election propaganda short commissioned by the Social Democratic Party for the pivotal national election of 14 September 1930, which in retrospect sealed the fate of the Weimar Republic. The worsening economy and the unstable government helped the National Socialist German Workers’ Party to increase their number of seats in the Reichstag from 12 to 107, while the Communist Party gained 23 seats to become the third-largest party, with 77 seats. The SPD lost 10 seats, but remained the largest party, with 143 seats."

"In this short film, which passed the censorship board barely three weeks before the election, the SPD presents itself as a socialist alternative to capitalism as well as fascism – despite the fact that the KPD accused the SPD of “social fascism.” Berlin’s SPD usurps the KPD’s radical binary view, according to which there are two worlds – the wealthy and glamorous leisure class in Berlin-South and the destitute working class in Berlin-North, unemployed, demoralized, and portrayed as victims of the other class. The film uses parallel-cutting in the manner of D.W. Griffith’s 1909 social class drama A Corner in Wheat, in which an industrialist’s greed to corner the wheat market is juxtaposed with the plight of farmers who no longer can afford to buy bread. Contrasting tropes of privilege and poverty were also popular in Soviet film, most graphically in Yakov Bliokh’s Das Dokument von Shanghai (The Shanghai Document), which was edited by Albrecht Viktor Blum (see his Wasser und Wogen in Program 1) and shown in Germany in 1928. Here the parallel editing sets the hard labor of disempowered natives harshly against the decadent idleness of European and Chinese elites."

"In a similar way, Werner Hochbaum, a Hamburg-based filmmaker associated with the SPD, cross-cuts between the affluent class playing tennis and golf outdoors and the unemployed proletariat confined to their dark, cramped living quarters. The relationship between the disconnected two worlds is established by parallel montage based on contrast and opposition. The difference is not explained through a narrative about historical roots and causes – the film merely presents unchanging caricatures of either side. This ahistorical approach allows Hochbaum to lift whole sequences dealing with the proletariat from his first feature film Brüder (Brothers) of 1929 and repurpose them in this election short. (Although Brüder is similarly fond of binaries, setting one brother, a revolutionary, against the other, a policeman, the narrative allows for nuances and ambiguities.)"

"Zwei Welten employs a hybrid film style that alternates between documentary milieu shots of the proletariat and staged scenes of the wealthy class, culminating in passages in which the film addresses the spectator. Most remarkable is the satirical scene in which an industrialist attaches a swastika armband over his military uniform and struts in front of his mistress. After the incendiary title relating to capitalists – “They only know one God: profit. And they want to sacrifice you to it!” — a stretched-out index finger points repeatedly at the spectator: “You all decide between dictatorship or democracy!” Promises of work and a happy future are illustrated with found-footage shots of smokestacks, agricultural work, modern housing, and schoolchildren. Ballots rain down and a final title appears: “Vote for the Social Democrats.” Less than three years later, the Nazis banned both the KPD and the SPD." Anton Kaes (GCM)

AA: Revisited Zwei Welten of which I blogged in Bologna five years ago: "The structure of Zwei Welten is classical-Griffithian (A Corner in Wheat). The roaming, observing camera records details of two worlds heartbreakingly distant from one another. Dictatorship or democracy? The film urges us to vote. The emphasis on the Nazi character is significant in a film made in 1929. Among the final images of the Social Democratic election propaganda film: harvesting, children of the Pestalozzi School, a shower of ballots." (AA Film Diary, 2 July 2014)


AA Facebook capsule:

The programme of the greatest gravity in Pordenone's Weimar series was The Social Question. On display were the key directors Ernö Metzner, Wilfred Basse, Slatan Dudow and Werner Hochbaum (Phil Jutzi's Blutmai 1929 was missing). Something had to change in the society, and there were still real alternatives. These images grow with the years, whether classical observations (Markt in Berlin), experimental montages (Überfall) or open propaganda (Zwei Welten). Excellent program notes by Anke Mebold and Anton Kaes.

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