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Cinema in Times of Upheaval: Retrospective Films of the Weimar Republic
by Rose Finlay

While the rest of the Berlin International Film Festival focuses on experimentation, art house darlings, and the occasional Hollywood star, the Retrospective (Retrospektive) section chooses to look back at film innovations from the past. At the 68th Berlinale, the focus was on films made during the brief interwar political period of the Weimar Republic which lasted from 1918 until 1933.

In the time directly following the devastation of World War I, Germany was wracked by an economic depression and the fledgling republic struggled to set up strong roots following the end of the German Empire. In contrast to this time of political and economic turmoil, filmmaking in particular flourished throughout the republic with both auteur and studio productions of a variety of styles and influences released. As part of this year’s Retrospective, a wide variety of films were chosen from both well-known and more obscure artists. Some of the works highlight the inroads Germany was making on the world film industry and others on more experimental and introspective developments.

This year, the section was divided into three themes: “Exotic” with its focus on travelogues and outdoor films, “Quotidian” and its contemporaneous social issues and experimentation, and “History” where period films with lavish production films were emphasized. I was lucky enough to see a number of films from each of these thematic groupings, and each brought a unique perspective of the politics and society and the progress being made throughout the period.

In the “Quotidian” section, there were films about the burgeoning modern woman (DAS ABENDTEUER EINER SCHÖNEN FRAU [1932]), judgment of the upper-classes (the censored DAS LIED VOM LEBEN [1931]), and stark criticism of child labor and abuse (DIE UNEHELICHEN[1926]). The “History” section was particularly interesting upon the 100th anniversary of the end of the World War I. Several of the films were blatantly critical of the futility and cost of war such as DIE ANDERE SEITE(1931) and HEIMKEHR (1928). Others tried to dismantle the glorification of the Prussian virtues of militarism, austerity, and discipline. The films are made only more powerful by the knowledge that many of the actors and filmmakers would have served during the war, and with the knowledge that in only a few years such narratives were no longer allowed. Finally, the “Exotic” section showed another aspect of German society of the time, a nationalistic pride in athleticism (DAS BLAUE LICHT [1932], DER KAMPF UMS MATTERHORN[1928]), the interest of society in exploration (MILAK DER GRÖNLANDJÄGER [1927]), and the belief in European cultural superiority in the face of foreign culture (OPIUM[1919]). While many of these films are extraordinary both artistically and in their feats of staging and human strength, it is fascinating to see how these themes, which are often deeply connected with Nazi propaganda, had their roots in earlier generations.

Always a worthwhile experience, it must be mentioned that perhaps the most important aspect of the Retrospective section is the focus on film preservation. With so many films from this era lost to time, fires, and political upheaval, film preservers often have to patch together fragments from around the world in order to make the most complete films possible. The Berlinale always highlights these restorations with discussions from film historians and restorers and live music performed by internationally renowned film accompanists.

The 68th Berlinale marked yet another wonderful year of fascinating classic films, and it will be a joy to see what they decide to focus on next year.