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The changes of revolutionary Russia in 1917 found hungry resonance in post-war Germany, a nation defeated, […] Read more

The changes of revolutionary Russia in 1917 found hungry resonance in post-war Germany, a nation defeated, divided and bereft of power and dreams. The November Revolution of 1918 that dethroned the Kaiser erupted into warfare among the Socialists themselves, climaxing in the failed Sparticist uprising in January, the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and the triumph of the Social Democrats. The Weimar Republic, born in blood and division, survived thirteen years of vehement political conflicts, hyperinflation, and humiliation by the Allied victors of World War I. Yet, this time of economic chaos and social inequality also witnessed a florescence of German literature, architecture (the Bauhaus), philosophy and film that would be crushed in the 1930s with the rise of the Third Reich and the exile of many artists. While we know many great film directors of the period – Murnau, Lubitsch, Pabst, von Sternberg, Lang – this selection focuses on the socio-political currents themselves and the films that sometimes brought even artists like George Grosz and Bertolt Brecht into the mass media politics of crisis.

Unlike the celebrations that underpinned so many Soviet depictions of the post-revolutionary scene, these German films were weapons in ongoing struggles, where ideologies are expressed by powerful stories that become parables of suffering and redemption. While the leftist visions of the earlier films give way, in the end, to the chilling path toward Hitler and Nazism, it is striking to see the same elements across so many films: the suffering of the urban working class (including the early history of this proletariat in Zelnik’s The Weavers ), the crushing burdens faced by men and women who saw no future before them, and the children who figured as symbols of despair rather than hope. Resolutions, similarly, come through a mixture of ideological arguments – Brecht penned Kuhle Wampe’s debate over markets – and the fanfare of mass events such as camps, rallies, and protests, where the tragedies of the individual could be lost in the action and hope of the many.

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