Rediscovered by the great retrospective Prima di Caligari, presented in the 11th edition of the “Days of silent cinema” in Pordenone (1990), the original German film production appears today of considerable interest. In traditional discussions, on the other hand, there was a tendency to start the golden age of German cinema only in the first post-war period, and to deal with the initial period only to trace, in a problematic continuity, the signs of the great period of Expressionism: those aspects linked to the fantastic, the morbid, the terror, the nightmare, the double that still characterize the second half of the 1910s.
A month before the Lumière brothers, on 1 November 1895 at the Wintergarten in Berlin, it was the lesser-known brothers Emil and Max Skladanowsky who projected the first moving images in public, thanks to their still technically imperfect bioscope, establishing a primacy that in the epoch of exasperated nationalisms he was too exalted; the program of nine small films opened with a wild Italienischer Bauerntanz.
During the first diffusion of the cinematographic phenomenon, Germany witnessed above all the development of solid manufacturing and engineering foundations aimed at appropriating technological innovations and transforming them into industrial growth, and therefore the flourishing of optical and photographic companies. A strong technical progress was accompanied, however, by a rather scarce production and until about 1910 – as far as we can judge by the little surviving at the time – German cinema remained a poor appendage of fairs or variety, with short rough films and ‘ without qualities’, interesting more than anything else under the aspect of depth psychology: in exhibiting the fear of matriarchy, military strength (and a continuous presence of the Kaiser), these seem to reflect that mixture of authoritarianism and insecurity typical of Wilhelminian age. In a market dominated by France with Pathé Frères and Gaumont, and above all by Denmark with Nordisk Film Kompagni, this primeval phase was therefore characterized by anonymous products that focused above all on current affairs, musical comedies, circus acts, fashion and erotic scenes Among the pioneering figures in the foreground, we must first of all mention that of Oskar Messter, active across the board in the various branches of the newborn cinema, as inventor of the Maltese cross, director, producer and distributor: in addition to having created since 1903 of the ante litteram video clips, the Ton-Bilder (or Biophon), short films synchronized (as far as possible) with musical pieces played by a gramophone, would also have been among the inventors of the newsreel (the Messter-Woche,
In the more strictly technical field, we must instead remember the experiments of Guido Seeber: a great innovator especially as regards shooting, lighting and set-up of the set and special effects (but also director of short animated films), he was commissioned, among other things, of the construction of the first film studios in Babelsberg in 1911 and became the first internationally acclaimed German cameraman.
In 1907 there was a structural change in the cinematographic economy: the introduction of the Monopolfilm, that is to say a contract to grant the exclusivity of a film to an exhibitor in a specific area, a restructuring that had among its consequences the industrial consolidation, the process of rationalization of distribution, but also the lengthening of the duration of the film, the extension of the story with the consequent birth of specific genres and styles. At the same time, as in the rest of Europe, the transformation of the physical environment of cinema took place: from the itinerant representation of fairs, we moved on to fixed structures. The infamous former shops of the free market period gave way to elegant theaters, designed to reassure a bourgeois public: Kinopalast was born, capable of hosting even a thousand spectators. The show, initially composed of about ten different clips, alternating with variety numbers, was gradually transformed into a single film, about 45 minutes long, and characterized by greater attention to history, also to try to overcome the moralistic objections of the movement of the Kinoreformers on the dangers of the new medium and guaranteeing its respectability, without however losing its grip on the public. In the wake of this moralization process, also linked to a crisis in the sector between 1907 and 1911, Autorenfilm was born shortly thereafter, where the term ‘author’, unlike today, referred not so much to the director as to the screenwriter, generally a man of letters (in 1914 Kurt Pinthus published his famous Kinobuch with 15 cinematographic subjects written by some of the most significant exponents of the German literary avant-garde). It was therefore a product that combined the most daring and spectacular technical innovations with a compelling plot, but rich in literary references. The first examples of this genre, the surprising Zweimal gelebt (1912) or the famous Der Andere (1913), both directed by Max Mack, marked a first fixed point in the affirmation of the filmic language in Germany while shortly thereafter a theatrical genius like Max Reinhardt, the personality who most profoundly influenced German cinema of the time, experimented with the new medium, making two films in Italy between the serious and the facetious, between pantomime and fantasy, Die Insel der Seligen (1913) and Eine venetianische Nacht ( 1914) At the same time the phenomenon of stardom began to assert itself, represented e.g. by the Danish Asta Nielsen, taken from Nordisk by Paul Davidson, the main producer and operator of the 1910s. Often directed by her husband Urban Gad, Nielsen, since Afgrunden (1910, The Abyss) and then in films such as Der fremde Vogel (1911), Engelein (1914), Vordertreppe und Hintertreppe (1915), she was the first actress to create a natural acting style that differed considerably from the histrionic-theatrical one in vogue at the time, as well as giving life to a new female erotic model. Her counterpart was Henny Porten, of decidedly more Teutonic features, the blonde Blinde, so defined by virtue of her first great success Das Liebesglück der Blinden (1911, Messter production) who, very young, starting from 1906 had begun her career by appearing in the Ton-Bilder of his father Franz and who competed with the ‘divine’ Paul Wegener, who can be considered a pioneer of fantastic cinema as well as one of the first theorists of the specificity of the medium: in the films he interpreted, Der Student von Prag (1913) by Stellan Rye and Der Golem (1915) by Henrik Galeen, the latter of which he also saw him participate in the screenplay, special effects a la Méliès are combined with stories that present literary aspects typical of German culture but do not give up the elements most loved by the general public, such as science fiction and horror, aspects that would have been resumed and detailed by the cinema of the period of the Weimar Republic (see below). Wegener himself a few years later realized with Carl Boese a remake of Der Golem entitled Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920; Golem – How he came into the world).
When the German film industry entered the war, it flourished; the embargo on foreign films led to a notable increase in national production which saw the imposition of some great personalities. Along with the proliferation of production companies, often run by the most successful directors, Richard Oswald, Joe May, Franz Hofer, Joseph Delmont and the young Ernst Lubitsch, still known mainly as an actor, established themselves.
As regards the economic structure, there was a gradual phenomenon of the absorption of many small production companies, but a real turning point took place in December 1917, when the UFA (Universum Film-Aktiengesellschaft) was born., the largest European artistic workshop and for a long time the only real competitor of the Hollywood majors, which would dominate the market until the end of the Second World War. Its main characteristic was that it was born not so much to face capitalist competition as had happened in other countries, but from an economic-military operation wanted ‘from above’. The UFA was created from the merger of the DLG (Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft), founded in 1916 by the chairman of the Krupp board of directors, Alfred Hugenberg, and the BUFA (Bild- und Film -Amt) wanted by General Ludendorff, in 1917: on both sides the need for a major German film production was seen above all as an instrument of both civil and military propaganda, indeed Ludendorff considered it a decisive weapon in view of a happy war outcome. Thanks to the Ministry of War, to that of the Treasury and above all to Deutsche Bank, despite the period of serious crisis, companies such as Nordisk and those of Messter and Davidson were acquired, which were hired as technical and artistic advisors. In total contrast to the military defeat and the end of the empire, the UFA began its victorious path at the end of the First World War, inseparable from the history of German cinema. In fact, it was also thanks to it that Germany became the protagonist of an imposing change, such as to make it absolutely original in the panorama of European cinema, where it would remain for a long time the
The birth of the UFA and the military defeat marked a profound break in the cinema of the 1910s, which in any case cannot be reduced to a simple preparation for the Weimarian golden age. If the Homunculus series (1916), directed by Otto Rippert, appears to be a compendium of neo-romantic Satanism of the period, anticipating many themes subsequently dealt with by Expressionism, at the same time there were also those who made fun of everything, throwing away the demonism in parody as Edmund Edel in Doktor Satansohn (1916), a film starring a wild and grumpy E. Lubitsch. And the great Berlin director, even in the context of ‘popular’ plots and a fat proletarian comedy, already gave proof of his class, for example. in Schuhpalast Pinkus (1916) or in Meyer aus Berlin (1919), where he also appeared as the protagonist. The same discourse can be extended to two later rediscovered directors: F. Hofer, decadent and fine director of bourgeois interieurs and family stories (but also of a spectacular high-quality Sensationsfilm such as Die schwarze Kugel or Die geheimnisvollen Schwestern, 1913), or J. Delmont, mainly the author of American-style detective stories. Without forgetting, just to mention a few titles, films such as Die Landstrasse (1913) by Paul von Woringen, where the hunt for a murderer is transformed into a phenomenological investigation of rural atmospheres and characters; or Alexander von Antaffly’s Lulu (1917), which looks good in comparison with Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s later version; or finally Die Teufelskirche (1919) by Hans Mierendorff, with which, in an intertwining of sensuality, religion, dream and collective delirium reach full stylistic maturity. Already in the war years Germany expressed a cinema of notable level.