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The memory of World War I had a decisive influence on the formation of German nationalism in the years preceding the rise of National Socialism. Analyzing popular German films of the 1920s, this article suggests that despite the significant postwar nation-building process, the bourgeois culture of the Weimar Republic also endeavored to utilize memories of war experiences in order to undermine nationalism and to contemplate an alternative, transnational framework for collective identity. Focusing on two films--Leo Lasko's pseudo-documentary Weltkrieg (1927/28) and Richard Oswald's fictional Dr. Bessels Verwandlung (1927)--the article examines the ways they presented the war as an inevitable outcome of nationalism, implying that rationalism and subjectivity, the fundamental concepts of the Enlightenment, can be obtained only through an alternative, non-nationalist perception of collective identity. The contemporary reactions to these films show that these ideas, although repressed and forgotten after January 1933, were not exceptional to German bourgeois society in the Weimar period.
The experiences and of World War I had a vital impact on the formation of German nationalism in the years that preceded the rise of National Socialism. Throughout the 1920s, numerous films, novels, theater plays and commemoration ceremonies in Germany associated war experiences and sacrifice with the aspiration for a national revival. According to George Mosse's famous argument, the memory of the war was shaped through these practices as a process of naturalization, sanctification and trivialization of the encounter with mass death in the trenches. (1) The importance of this process notwithstanding, this article explores different, often forgotten influences on the formation of the memory of World War I in postwar Germany. Focusing on popular German films of the late 1920s, it highlights the ways in which they displayed an alternative imagery of the Great War, one that criticized nationalism and presented alternative concepts of collective identity.
The films examined below demonstrate an attempt to utilize the memory of trench warfare in order to replace the putative German national identity with a transnational perception of bourgeois community. (2) The term transnationalism is considered here as a paradigm for identification, which links the individual with an imagined community that exists beyond national boundaries. (3) This imagined collective marginalizes the role of state borders and the alleged distinctive essence of the nation; in their stead, it accentuates the shared modern experiences and worldviews of early 1920s educated European urbanites. The members of the films' imagined community experienced life in established nation-states, and at the same time were inspired by the universal ideals of the Enlightenment: namely, a "rational" construction of social relations that would guarantee the freedom of the individual.
For several reasons, film is an exceptional medium to demonstrate the relations between the remembrance of the war and the idea of transnational community in the Weimar Republic (1918-33). First, film was an extremely popular leisure activity among German urbanites during the 1920s, in particular after 1924. According to statistics that were published in the Weimar period, more than a million spectators gathered in German film theaters every night, and about 40 million film tickets were sold each year in Berlin alone. (4) Second, in the post-World War I years, film was recognized by German intellectuals and politicians as a remarkably effective tool in ideological struggles. Reactionary and revolutionary commentators alike recommended the use of film as a means to win over public opinion. Put simply, the recurring argument in the writing of these critics emphasized film's ability to show what "really" happened. The conservative critic Oskar Kalbus, for instance, asserted that film would discredit communist propaganda, since "the Camera Obscura cannot lie." (5) Using similar reasoning, Bela Balazs explained to the readers of the communist Film und Volk that "the film works for us," since "displaying the truth is the best weapon!" (6) The persuasive ability of film to display "the truth" was further emphasized by Weimar politicians, critics and teachers, who underscored the social and political influence of "realistic" war films. (7) For pacifists, war films could provide a convincing demonstration of the horrors and futility of war. (8) For nationalists, war film provided a therapeutic return to the battlefield, which evoked the patriotic spirit and revisualized the excitement of the fight without paying heed to the defeat and its aftermath. (9)
By the late 1920s, the German spectator was familiar with a variety of war films, from enthusiastic patriotic tales of heroism to antiwar melodramas. (10) The films discussed below are certainly removed from the former, but it would be a mistake to classify them as merely pacifist. Generally speaking, these films presented the following two-part argument: first, war should be rejected because it nullifies the foundations of liberal society--i.e. the freedom of the individual and the rational nature of social relations; and, second, war is an inevitable, symptomatic development of nationalism. Hence, using the popular war film genre, these films suggested an alternative--a non-national framework of collective identity. The manifestation of this argument will be demonstrated in two films: Leo Lasko's Der Weltkrieg (The World War, 1927/1928) and Richard Oswald's Dr. Bessels Verwandlung (The transformation of Dr. Bessel, 1927). (11)
These two films were chosen because they exemplify the expressions of this alternative framework despite the considerable differences between them in their cinematic style and target audience. Lasko's film was marketed by UFA (Universal Film Aktiengesellschaft) as an "objective" documentary about war events; it was extremely popular at the box offices and enjoyed the support of the Weimar Republic's political institutions. My reading of Der Weltkrieg as a campaign against nationalism from a liberal point of view goes against the grain of the common interpretation of this film, which explains it as demonstrating the endeavor to form and distribute a nationalist-conservative imagery of the Great War. (12) It shows, nevertheless, that the film allows, and encourages, an alternative reading (a fact that was noted already by Weimar critics). This interpretation does not disregard the well-documented tendency of Weimar filmmakers to avoid explicit support of causes that might be considered offensive to part of the politically fragmented audience. (13) It suggests that the result of this precocious attitude was not inevitably a depoliticization of war films; rather, as Der Weltkrieg demonstrates, it also resulted in films that permitted multiple readings, in which the criticism of the nationalist paradigm was subtle and sophisticated. This reading is compatible with current studies' understanding of Weimar culture and its "crises," which are related to an extraordinary coexistence of contradictory ideologies, beliefs and social practices. (14) Unlike UFA's extravagant representation of the war, Richard Oswald--who was known for his "tendency for spectacle, taboo breaking and erotica"--directed his Dr. Bessel as a minor war-fairytale about a German officer who changes his nationality in the trenches. (15) Even though most of the film's events occur away from the front line, the reality it displays is determined by the war. Dr. Bessel presents the Great War as an omnipresent, distinctive social condition, which dictates particular thoughts, aspirations and actions, both on the front lines and on the home front. (16) In spite of their fundamental differences, both films depicted World War I in a way that corresponds with the above-mentioned argument. Evidently, the representation of the war in Weimar cinema was not limited to its portrayal in the discussed films. Nevertheless, the parallel "meaning" of the war in these disparate films suggests that the transnational perception of collective identity promoted in them was neither esoteric nor extraordinary within bourgeois culture of late 1920s Germany.
FILM AND COLLECTIVE IDENTITY IN POST-WORLD WAR I GERMANY
The defeat in World War I and the volatile aftermath forced numerous intellectuals, artists and policy makers to reconsider their understanding of "German identity." (17) The postwar era was also a time of a growing consciousness about the power of visual (and audio-visual) images in ideological conflicts and in the formation of identities. (18) It is no wonder, then, that German filmmakers were frequently called upon by intellectuals to neglect their "international indifference" and to engage in the discourse of national identity. The need to discuss the essence of German nationality in films was stressed by both right-wing and left-wing critics. Thus, conservatives condemned the films of the "un-German (undeutsche) Broadway people," which were made in Berlin, and propagated the production of genuine "German" films. (19) Similarly, socialist critics pointed out the dependency of local productions on the international market, which dictated "the slogan of the day": "national neutrality, objectivity, an increase in sales." (20)
Indeed, the tension between the national and the international aspect of Weimar film has been a recurring theme of film reviewers, cultural critics and historians. The characteristics of this debate were formulated already in the early 1920s. Otto Riebiecke's warning in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung in October 1921 against the failure of the German national film was a typical remark: "our greatest feature films (Prunk- und Spielfilme) are based on international themes and rarely deal with essential German interests." (21) The reaction of the daily film magazine the Film-Kurier, published the following day, was also typical of this debate. The magazine's critic Paul Ickes agreed that film should indeed express the shared collective identity but rejected Riebiecke's conclusion: a genuine "national" film is not dependent on its theme, but on its "compositions," on the ways images are construed on the screen. According to Ickes, the compositions are inevitably influenced by national tendencies and traditions. (22)
This debate reverberated throughout the years of the Weimar Republic. Conscious of the roles of Kultur and Zivilisation within the German national identity discourse, many critics formulated their perception of film through these concepts. (23) Thus, for instance, several observers noted the essential relations between film and the universal "achievements of Zivilisation." (24) Others followed Ickes's erudite understanding that highlighted the intimate relations between German "quality" film and the distinctive cultural tradition associated with the German Kultur. The German film, according to this argument, emphasizes the uniqueness of the German nation and its cultural tradition and thus helps to differentiate it from other nations. (25) Some critics have suggested that the German nature of the films is revealed in a distinctive combination of Kultur and Zivilisation. (26) According to several commentators, the relations between film and the nation (or the Volk) were oftentimes a result of the unique ability of film to express unconscious collective desires and needs of the national community; a modern equivalent of premodern folktales. (27)
The tension between the national and universal qualities of Weimar film is apparent also in the works of post-World War II scholars. The correlations between film and the "formation of collective memory and national identity" in the Weimar Republic were highlighted in the groundbreaking studies of Lotte Eisner and Siegfried Kracauer, which still influence current research. (28) On the other hand, implementing a broader framework for the study of film--one that includes distribution constraints, import and censorship policies, etc.--current scholars also emphasize the international nature of production and consumption of films in the 1920s. The constant employment of international "stars," the production cooperation with European, American and Soviet studios, as well as the international …