National Film Traditions

National Film Traditions

Little by little the various firms reorganized themselves, and American firms either opened branches in France or made arrangements for French distributors to handle their output. Various changes were made on the producing side and by 1915 the industry was once more functioning almost normally. But it had undergone considerable changes. Western Import had opened a big branch in Paris managed by Jacques Haik.

Keystone was distributing all its comedies, notably those of Mabel Normand, in France through Aubert. Eclair never entirely ceased production but had kept going with war newsreels, on which it now continued to concentrate. The Film d’Art had passed into the control of Nalpas: he had reorganized its personnel but kept its character. Other firms, less well managed or less stable, had entirely disappeared, the one among them most to be regretted being, of course, that of Méliès.

The making of war newsreels led naturally to the production of patriotic films. In 1915 Film National brought out an ambitious picture based on Victor Margueritte’s patriotic novel, Frontiers of the Heart. “Extolling as it does the national sentiment of France,” so the producers advertised, “this film has been so adapted as to fit perfectly with the following patriotic airs: The Sambre-et-Meuse Regiment, The Bugle Call, The Marseillaise, The Call to the Colors and The Charge.”

The same firm announced A Sacred Love, “showing on the screen the most poignant conflict of emotions that could rend the heart of a young Frenchman today.” They also produced The Burgomaster’s Daughter and The House at the Ferry Ferry, not to mention The Independence of Belgium from 1830 to 1914, a piece which was highly edifying as well as historical. The influence of American culture in other countries was not always welcome.

The main essentials of the postwar film, when Baroncelli and Léonce Perret were to dominate the scene, were thus all ready prepared. Actually the sum total of the French wartime film is rather a sorry one. There was neither development nor originality to be found; only the old Film d’Art on the one hand and the serials on the other. In between these there occurred no genuine contribution to the art of the film, now stemming rather from Chaplin and Ince and Griffith in America.

There was in France only a film industry and the desire to exploit popular taste. The war was doubtless to blame, but so were the producers, and the writers who lacked courage, and the absolute lack of any standards, and the prevailing bad taste. The prophetic words of Louis Delluc might appropriately be repeated here, for though they were written in 1919 they remain true to this day: “I should like to believe that we shall eventually make good films. It would be very surprising, for the cinema is not in our blood. There are few nations which nurture all of the arts, and France, which has so much to pride herself on in poetry and the drama, in painting and the dance yet has no feeling, no understanding and no love for music. I prophesy–we shall see in the future if I am right–that France has no more aptitude for the cinema than for music.”

In the 1930s Japan was the most prolific filmmaking country in the world, producing 400 to 600 features a year. Like Hollywood, Japanese cinema had its established genres. The most popular were historical films, swordfight action dramas appealing largely, like Westems, to male audiences. Gendai-geki, films set in modem Japan, included comedies, films about the lower middle class, and home drarnas, which dealt with family problems.

Like the Japanese, the German and Italian governments restricted the import of foreign films, but they produced their propaganda in newsreels and radio. Their feature films tended instead to express the feeling of their cultures about entertainment, social relationships and individual emotions.

Under Mussolini the ltalian industry produced far more ltalian “pink” films – sentirnental comedies and romantic melodramas, – than “black” or truly Fascist films. Similarly, the German film industry produced far more drawing-room comedies and operettas than Nazi propaganda.

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European and German Cinema at the Twenties

European and German Cinema at the Twenties

With the perfection of a moving picture camera in 1892, and the subsequent invention of the peep hole kinetoscope in 1893, the stage was set for the modern film industry. Previewed at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago during the summer of 1893, the kinetoscope could handle only one customer at a time. For a penny or a nickel in the slot, one could watch brief, unenlarged 35-mm black-and-white motion pictures.

The kinetoscope provided a source of inspiration to other inventors; and, more importantly, its successful commercial exploitation convinced investors that motion pictures had a solid financial future. Kinetoscope parlors had opened in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and scores of other cities all over the country by the end of 1894. The kinetoscope spread quickly to Europe as well, where Edison, revealing his minimal commitment to motion pictures, never even bothered to take out patents.

By 1909 motion pictures had clearly become a large industry, with three distinct phases of production, exhibition, and distribution; in addition, directing, acting, photography, writing, and lab work emerged as separate crafts.

Europeans were daring but decadent, sensual but seIf-destructive, charming but dangerous and even evil. They sought, in other words, to do exactly what Hollywood recognized was not permitted to Americans in the new culture of consumption: to enact their desires rather than to sublimate them. While Parisians and Londoners might not recognize themselves easily in such Hollywood-constructed Babylons, a good deal of European silent cinema enacted aspects of the American fantasy. Toppled from its position of world dominance by the war, the French cinema retreated into the parochial concems of Parisian high culture. In films like L’Inhumane (1924) and Le Brasier Ardent (1923) it revealed a concem with seIf-conscious experiment, often in a Cubist-inspired style.

In European countries, notably in France, where pioneer work in moving pictures was even more advanced than it was in the United States, developments followed a quite different course. There was nothing comparable to the nickelodeon madness of this country. Instead of appealing to a mass market, the movies essayed the rôle of sophisticated entertainment. Although foreign producers at first made far better films, their efforts to maintain artistic standards lost them the world-wide market that American producers eventually built up because their pictures had a universal appeal.

American movies would never have become the outstanding popular entertainment they are to-day had foreign precedents been followed, while a limited market would also have prevented their attaining the technical perfection which has been Hollywood’s real contribution to this world-wide amusement. Moving pictures became a leading feature of American recreation because they represented the culmination of the democratizing influences in the field of urban entertainment which had been at work for over a century.

In the interval, the German film developed quite independently in isolation. No foreign films were shown. The former favorites vanished, all save Henny Porten, Lotte Neumann and the exceptionally gifted Asta Nielsen. New figures came into prominence –Werner Krauss, Emil Jannings, Paul Wegener and Pola Negri.

Wegener directed as well as acted; so did Richard Oswald, Eichberg and Lubitsch. Eichberg earned much praise for his Let There Be Light and Ferdinand Lassalle; Wegener for his romantic and Hoffmannesque Student of Prague, in which the German preoccupation with the macabre and fondness for occultism mixed with science are already evident. They were also evident in Nordisk Homunculus.

As for Jannings, he made his screen debut in a Lubitsch film in 1915, then appeared in a version of Daudet Fromont Jr. and Risler Sr., directed by Robert Wiene in 1916. Next he was seen in Arthur Robison terrifying A Night of Horror and in Lubitsch Marriage of Louise Rohrbach ( 1917). Many German and Scandinavian films sought to contrast the complacency of bourgeois life with the precarious yet imaginatively richer community of artists, entertainers and prostitutes.

The decadence that Hollywood imagined was echoed in many of these films, with their assumption that passion’s choice of love-object is arbitrary and often, as in C.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1928), linked to a wish for seIf-destruction. In other respects German cinema shared with the French a greater concern for technique – the almost constantly mobile camera of F.W. Mumau’s The Last Laugh (1925), for example – than for character, psychology or politics.

Many of the contradictions of European cinema derived from its attempts to define a commercial position for itseIf, both within its own culture and in the world market, in the face of the dominance of Hollywood products and styles. But they also resulted from unresolved tensions about the uncertain status of cinema in Europe. lts commercial appeal and its melodramatic plots, frequently derived from pulp fiction, denied it elitist “artistic” value on any quasi-literary grounds of narrative or thematic complexity. lnstead, directors like Murnau or Fritz Lang achieved their cultural status as artists in the way that painters did, through displays of technical virtuosity.

For many foreign audiences, the lure of Hollywood movies had much to do with the physical genius of Americans. In Eric Rhode’s phrase, “They held the secret of movement, and Europeans went to American movies to learn the secret.” In the process, they found themselves seduced into desiring the American things they saw on the screen. Using the maxim, “Trade Follows the Films”, the movie industry and the State Department promoted Hollywood as an advertiser of American culture.

For Hollywood the European film industries were a source of talent, a means by which they could import new ideas and faces. Directors such as Murnau and Emst Lubitsch, and stars such as Pola Negri and Greta Garbo were lured by American money and facilities. There they found that Hollywood’ s narratives did not have time for the complex characterization of the realist novel or naturalist drama; nor did they draw attention to their techniques.

Next Page: The Coming of Sound