Online festival: “The Golden Twenties”

Into the realm of dreams

The medium of film and its music in the 1920s

Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola in “Der blaue Engel”
(Photo: Wikimedia commons)

The 1920s were a vintage decade for film. The number of cinemas, which multiplied rapidly, offered people information, entertainment and a break from their daily routine. As part of our online festival, conductor Marie Jacquot and the scholarship holders of the Karajan Academy perform Suite No. 3 from the film Kuhle Wampe, an early sound film with music by Hanns Eisler. All of which is a good enough reason to take a look at the film scene of the time as well as the development from silent to sound film and the resulting consequences for music.

Experiments combining film and sound had been going on since the end of the 19th century. However, the breakthrough only came with a process developed in the 1920s that made it possible to simultaneously play back image and sound from the same apparatus. For the first – but not the last – time in film history, the introduction of a technical innovation was read by many contemporaries as an artistic crisis: did film not seem to forfeit its autonomy, achieved in works by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang and Sergei Eisenstein, vis-à-vis traditional epic and dramatic art forms based on spoken language? Wasn’t the specific form of acting in silent film, in which functions of dialogue were translated into gestures and facial expressions, in danger of being lost? And hadn’t it been precisely the lack of language that guaranteed the international viability of film?

End of an era

The end of the era also marked a dramatic change for film music. The musicians of the cinema orchestras lost their jobs, as did the pianists and organists employed at smaller theatres. Nothing could be done about it, the development took place very quickly. The Jazz Singer, the first successful American sound film, had been released in 1927, and only five years later, after the studios and cinemas had been refitted, not a single silent film was being produced in Germany. This did not change the social function of cinema as an entertainment industry for the masses. A look at the masterpieces of film history occasionally obscures the fact that it was mainly entertainment for the mainstream that was produced. This is particularly true for Berlin: population growth and economic misery meant that crisis mode was a permanent feature in the city. The need for distraction grew all the stronger. Adventure films evoking the allure of the exotic, operettas imported mainly from Austria, comedies and crime stories were all box-office hits. Music, of course, played a key role in all of this.

Dawn of new cinematic worlds

Despite experiments with opera, such as Max Ophüls’ film version of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, the decisive stimulus did not come from so-called high culture, but from the world of cabaret and the coffee house.  The hit song Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame delighted people at the time, and so a plot was conceived around this hit song in which the young Marlene Dietrich is wooed by the celebrated silent film star Harry Liedtke. The star tenor Richard Tauber lends his voice to the actor during the performance of the song, which is heard as a sound interlude in the otherwise silent film. While Harry Liedtke’s star sank after that – his voice is not suitable for sound films – Marlene Dietrich made her international breakthrough shortly afterwards with the role of Lola Lola in Der blaue Engel.  The music for this film was written by Friedrich Holländer; he and fellow composers such as Werner Richard Heymann and Mischa Spoliansky wrote one film hit after another in those years which still rank among the all time favourites today.

Film as a commodity

By comparison, political films had a hard time with producers and censors alike. Berthold Brecht, for example, had nothing against entertainment in principle, as the triumph of the Threepenny Opera showed. However, as is well known, he viewed the “commodity logic” of the film industry with skepticism. For example, the writer and Kurt Weill sued the producers of the Threepenny Opera film for not taking their artistic intentions into account. Addressing the audience, Brecht clarified in an article that “the art sold to you in the sound film first must be marketable in order to be sold”. In other words, a film could only be used as a “commodity” after it had been cleansed of its critical intentions.

A glimpse into the world of the workers

Brecht did not have to fear interference from producers in the case of the film Kuhle Wampe oder wem gehört die Welt, on whose screenplay he collaborated: Prometheus-Film GmbH was close to the Workers International Relief and had helped Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin to its succès de scandale in Germany in 1926. Kuhle Wampe was made in 1931 in a collaboration of director Slatan Dudow and composer Hanns Eisler and, according to Eisler’s biographer Friederike Wißmann, is considered the “first proletarian talking film”.

It tells of the sorrows and hardships of a working-class family in Berlin during the economic crisis. After the unemployed son takes his own life and the family loses their flat, the daughter moves with her parents to the “Kuhle Wampe” camp at the Müggelsee, a lake near Berlin. The plot progresses, dealing with love, pregnancy and abortion before, at the end, the young generation of the working class marches into the future to the sounds of the famous Solidarity Song. The work is interesting not least because it was created in the transitional phase between the silent and sound film era. Elements of silent film are unmistakable in Kuhle Wampe: when the young protagonist goes looking for a flat, the potential landlords only react with expressive gestures instead of saying “no”.

Film music as a counterpoint

Hanns Eisler agreed with his friend Brecht on the concept of film music in its rejection of a tonal language based on “empathy”. Consequently, the opening scene, in which men cycle from factory gate to factory gate in their futile search for work, is not accompanied by despairing sounds but by energetic, exhilarating music; as if Eisler wanted to say to the audience: “Don’t let yourself be put down or discouraged”. The aim of Brecht’s epic theatre, to motivate the audience to think through alienations and contradictions, also applies to the relationship between cinematic narration and its music used as a counterpoint to the action. The film Kuhle Wampe shows us Eisler as an unorthodox film composer whose musical language captivates us with its austere, unsentimental and distinctive character marked by subtly inserted barbs.

 

The cinema in Haus Vaterland on Stresemannstraße
(Photo: Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia commons)
Fritz Lang, one of the foremost directors of the 1920s
(Photo: Bundesfilmarchiv/Wikimedia commons)
Silent film star Harry Liedtke
(Photo: Wikimedia commnons)
Film poster for “Kuhle Wampe”
(Photo: Wikimedia commons)
Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)