Cinema in Germany can be traced back to the very beginnings of the medium at the end of the 19th century. German cinema has made major technical and artistic contributions to film.
In its earliest days, the cinematograph was perceived as an attraction for upper class audiences, but the novelty of moving pictures did not last long. Soon, trivial short films were being shown as fairground attractions aimed at the working and lower-middle class. The booths in which these films were shown were known in Germany somewhat disparagingly as Kintopps. Film-makers with an artistic bent attempted to counter this view of cinema with longer movies based on literary models, and the first German "artistic" films began to be produced from around 1910, an example being the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Student of Prague (1913) which was co-directed by Paul Wegener and Stellan Rye, photographed by Guido Seeber and starring actors from Max Reinhardt's company.
Prior to 1914, however, many foreign films were imported. In the era of the silent film there were no language boundaries and Danish and Italian films were particularly popular in Germany. The public's desire to see more films with particular actors led to the development in Germany, as elsewhere, of the phenomenon of the film star; the actress Henny Porten was one of the earliest German stars. Public desire to see popular film stories being continued encouraged the production of film serials, especially in the genre of mystery films, which is where the director Fritz Lang began his illustrious career.
The outbreak of World War I and the subsequent boycott of, for example, French films left a noticeable gap in the market. By 1916, there already existed some 2000 fixed venues for movie performances and initially film screenings had to supplemented or even replaced by variety turns. In 1917 a process of concentration and partial nationalisation of the German film industry began with the founding of Universum Film AG (Ufa), which was partly a reaction to the very effective use that the Allied Powers had found for the new medium for the purpose of propaganda. Under the aegis of the military, so-called Vaterland films were produced, which equalled the Allies' films in the matter of propaganda and disparagement of the enemy. Audiences however did not care to swallow the patriotic medicine without the accompanying sugar of the light-entertainment films which, consequently, Ufa also promoted. The German film industry soon became the largest in Europe.
Ufa had been privatised in 1921 by a sale of the state's holdings to the Deutsche Bank and had become the mainstay of an industry that produced up to 600 feature films a year in the 1920s. In addition to Ufa, there were some 230 film companies in business in Berlin alone at this time. However, film industry financing was a fragile business in the unstable economy of the Weimar Republic, and this, coupled with the industry's tendency to overreach itself financially (such as in the production of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), perhaps the most famous German film of this period), frequently led to bankruptcies and financial ruin. Ufa itself was forced to go into a disadvantageous partnership called Parufamet with the American studios Paramount and MGM in 1925 before being taken over by the nationalist industrialist and newspaper owner Alfred Hugenberg in 1927. The company's financial travails did not prevent it from producing numerous significant films throughout this period, among them, Ernst Lubitsch's Madame Dubary (1919), Lang's epic production of Die Nibelungen, and Murnau's The Last Laugh (1925), and the development of the studios at Babelsberg, originally established in 1912 but later taken over by Ufa and expanded massively to accommodate the filming of Metropolis, gave the German film industry a highly-developed infrastructure.
In addition to developments in the industry itself, the Weimar period saw the birth of film criticism as a serious discipline whose practitioners included Rudolf Arnheim in Die Weltbühne and in Film als Kunst (1932), Béla Balázs in Der Sichtbare Mensch (1924), Siegfried Kracauer in the Frankfurter Zeitung, and Lotte H. Eisner in the Filmkurier.
After the influence of Expressionism began to wane a variety of other genres and styles developed in the 1920s. Movies influenced by New Objectivity with socially concerned themes and a return to realism, among them films by Georg Wilhelm Pabst such as Joyless Street (Die Freudlose Gasse) (1925), Pandora's Box (1929), and The Loves of Gene became widespread in the later 1920s. The movement is best characterized by tendency to understand reality and characters in terms of inanimate objects and personal possessions. Often associated with "street films." The influence of New Objectivity may also be seen in the trend towards so-called "asphalt" and "morality" films which dealt with "scandalous" subjects like abortion, prostitution, homosexuality and addiction. Contrastingly, in the same period the genre of the Bergfilm was also developed, mainly by the director Arnold Fanck, in which individuals were shown battling against nature in the mountains. Animators and directors of experimental film such as Lotte Reiniger, Oskar Fischinger and Walter Ruttmann were also very active in Germany in the 1920s. Ruttman's experimental documentary Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927) epitomises the energy of 1920s Berlin. The polarised politics of the Weimar period were also reflected in some its movies. A series of patriotic films on Prussian history starring Otto Gebühr as Frederick the Great were produced throughout the 1920s and were popular with the nationalist right-wing, who strongly criticised the "asphalt" films' "decadence".
Many of the films during that came out of Germany at this time were historical spectacles designed to pull in a large crowd and international release all while adhering to a smaller budget. Ernst Lubitsch's Madame Duberry explored the French revolution through window of the intimate life of King Louis' mistress. Many of his films tended to how the intimate and petty passions of the rich and powerful are ironically responsible for huge historical events in the public realm.
The fourth key artistic movement of German cinema at this time was that of Kammerspiel or "chamber drama." Associated in particular with the screenwriter Carl Meyer and films such as Murnau's Last Laugh, this movement was in many ways a reaction against spectacle and expressionism. These films tended to revolve around ordinary people living in often dreary, ordinary settings. Often called "instinct" films because they emphasized the impulses and intimate psychology of the characters. The number of sets was often kept to a small number as well. This movement also relied heavily on the use of camera movements to explore the rather intimate and simple spaces.
The arrival of sound at the very end of the 1920s produced a final artistic flourish of German film before the collapse of the Weimar Republic in 1933. Sound production and distribution were quickly taken up by the German film industry and by 1932 Germany had 3,800 cinemas equipped to play sound films. Der blaue Engel (1930) by the Austrian director Josef von Sternberg was Germany's first talkie (shot simultaneously in German and English) and made an international star of Marlene Dietrich. Other early sound films of note include Berlin Alexanderplatz, Pabst's Bertolt Brecht adaptation The Threepenny Opera and Lang's M (all 1931). Brecht was also one of the creators of the explicitly communist film Kuhle Wampe (1932), which was banned soon after its release.
Aside from the major movements already addressed, German filmmakers at this time were known as innovators for their creative usage of Mise-en-scene and camera movement.
See also List of German films 1919-1933
The uncertain economic and political situation in Weimar Germany had already led to a number of film-makers and performers leaving the country, primarily for the United States; Ernst Lubitsch moved to Hollywood as early as 1923, the Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz in 1926. Some 1,500 directors, producers, actors and other film professionals emigrated in the years after the Nazis came to power. Among them were such key figures as the producer Erich Pommer, the studio head of Ufa, stars Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre, and director Fritz Lang. Lang's exodus to America is legendary; it is said that Metropolis so greatly impressed Joseph Goebbels that he asked Lang to become the head of his propaganda film unit. Lang fled to America instead, where he had a long and prosperous career. Many up-and-coming German directors also fled to the U.S., having a major influence on American film as a result. A number of the Universal Horror films of the 1930s were directed by German emigrees, including Karl Freund, Joe May and Robert Siodmak. Directors Edgar Ulmer and Douglas Sirk and the Austrian-born screenwriter (and later director) Billy Wilder also emigrated from Nazi Germany to Hollywood success. Not all those in the film industry threatened by the Nazi regime were able to escape; the actor and director Kurt Gerron, for example, perished in a concentration camp.
Within weeks of the Machtergreifung, Alfred Hugenberg had effectively turned over Ufa to the ends of the Nazis, excluding Jews from employment in the company in March 1933, several months before the foundation in June of the Reichsfilmkammer (Reich Chamber of Film), the body of the Nazi state charged with control of the film industry, which marked the official exclusion of Jews and foreigners from employment in the German film industry. As part of the process of Gleichschaltung all film production in Germany was subordinate to the Reichsfilmkammer, which was directly responsible to Goebbel's Propaganda ministry, and all those employed in the industry had to be members of the Reichsfachschaft Film. "Non-Aryan" film professionals and those whose politics or personal life were unacceptable to the Nazis were excluded from the Reichsfachschaft and thus denied employment in the industry. Some 3,000 individuals were affected by this employment ban. In addition, as journalists were also organised as a division of the Propaganda Ministry, Goebbels was able to abolish film criticism in 1936 and replace it with Filmbeobachtung (film observation); journalists could only report on the content of a film, not offer judgement on its artistic or other worth.
With the German film industry now effectively an arm of the totalitarian state, no films could be made that were not ostensibly in accord with the views of the ruling regime. However, despite the existence of anti-semitic propaganda works such as The Eternal Jew (1940) - which was a box-office flop - and the more sophisticated but equally anti-semitic Jud Süß (1940), which achieved commercial success at home and elsewhere in Europe, the majority of German films from the National Socialist period were intended principally as works of entertainment. The import of foreign films was legally restricted after 1936 and the German industry, which was effectively nationalised in 1937, had to make up for the missing foreign films (above all American productions). Entertainment also became increasingly important in the later years of World War II when the cinema provided a distraction from Allied bombing and a string of German defeats. In both 1943 and 1944 cinema admissions in Germany exceeded a billion, and the biggest box office hits of the war years were Die große Liebe (1942) and Wunschkonzert (1941), which both combine elements of the musical, wartime romance and patriotic propaganda, Frauen sind doch bessere Diplomaten (1941), a comic musical which was one of the earliest German films in colour, and Wiener Blut (1942), the adaptation of a Johann Strauß comic operetta. The importance of the cinema as a tool of the state, both for its propaganda value and its ability to keep the populace entertained, can be seen in the filming history of Veit Harlan's Kolberg (1945), the most expensive film of the Nazi era, for the shooting of which tens of thousands of soldiers were diverted from their military positions to appear as extras.
Despite the emigration of many film-makers and the political restrictions, the period was not without technical and aesthetic innovations, the introduction of Agfacolor film production being a notable example. Technical and aesthetic achievement could also be turned to the specific ends of the Nazi state, most spectacularly in the work of Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935), documenting the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, and Olympia (1938), documenting the 1936 Summer Olympics, pioneered techniques of camera movement and editing that have influenced many later films. Both films, particularly Triumph of the Will, remain highly controversial, as their aesthetic merit is inseparable from their propagandising of Nazi ideals.
The occupation and reconstruction of Germany by the Four Powers in the period immediately after the end of World War II brought a major and long-lasting change to the economic conditions under which the industry in Germany had previously operated. The holdings of Ufa were confiscated by the Allies and, as part of the process of decartelisation, licences to produce films were shared between a range of much smaller companies. In addition, the Occupation Statute of 1949, which granted partial independence to the newly created Federal Republic of Germany, specifically forbade the imposition of import quotas to protect German film production from foreign competition, the result of lobbying by the American industry as represented by the MPAA.
Amidst the devastation of the Stunde Null year of 1945 cinema attendance was unsurprisingly down to a fraction of its wartime heights, but already by the end of the decade it had reached levels that exceeded the pre-war period. For the first time in many years, German audiences had free access to cinema from around the world and in this period the films of Charlie Chaplin remained popular, as were melodramas from the United States. Nonetheless, the share of the film market for German films in this period and into the 1950s remained relatively large, taking up some 40 percent of the total market. American films took up around 30 percent of the market despite having around twice as many films in distribution as the German industry in the same time frame (Schneider 1990:35, 42 & 44).
Many of the German films of the immediate post-war period can be characterised as belonging to the genre of the Trümmerfilm (literally "rubble film"). These films show strong affinities with the work of Italian neorealists, not least Roberto Rossellini's neorealist trilogy which included Germany Year Zero (1948), and are concerned primarily with day-to-day life in the devastated Germany and an initial reaction to the events of the Nazi period (the full horror of which was first experienced by many in documentary footage from liberated concentration camps). Such films include Wolfgang Staudte's Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers are among us) (1946), the first film made in post-war Germany, and Wolfgang Liebeneiner's Liebe 47 (Love 47) (1949), an adaptation of Wolfgang Borchert's play Draußen vor der Tür.
Despite the advent of a regular television service in the Federal Republic in 1952, cinema attendances continued to grow through much of the 1950s, reaching a peak of 817.5 million visits in 1956. The majority of the films of this period set out to do no more than entertain the audience and had few pretensions to artistry or active engagement with social issues. The defining genre of the period was arguably the Heimatfilm ("homeland film"), in which morally simplistic tales of love and family were played out in a rural setting, often in the mountains of Bavaria, Austria or Switzerland. In their day Heimatfilms were of little interest to more scholarly film critics, but in recent years they have been the subject of study in relation to what they say about the culture of West Germany in the years of the Wirtschaftswunder. Other film genres typical of this period were adaptations of operettas, hospital melodramas, comedies and musicals. Many films were remakes of earlier Ufa productions shorn of the nationalistic Blut und Boden traits of those Nazi-period films.
Rearmament and the founding of the Bundeswehr in 1955 brought with it a wave of war films which tended to depict the ordinary German soldiers of World War II as brave and apolitical. This period also saw a number of films that depicted the military resistance to Hitler.
The international significance of the West German film industry of the 1950s could no longer measure up to that of France, Italy, or Japan. German films were only rarely distributed internationally as they were perceived as provincial. International co-productions of the kind which were becoming common in France and Italy tended to be rejected by German producers (Schneider 1990:43). However a few German films and film-makers did achieve international recognition at this time, among them Bernhard Wicki's Oscar-nominated Die Brücke (The Bridge) (1959), and the actresses Hildegard Knef and Romy Schneider.
In the late 1950s, the growth in cinema attendance of the preceding decade first stagnated and then went into freefall throughout the 1960s. By 1969 West German cinema attendance at 172.2 million visits per year was less than a quarter of its 1956 post-war peak. As a consequence of this, numerous German production and distribution companies went out of business in the 1950s and 1960s and cinemas across the Federal Republic closed their doors; the number of screens in West Germany almost halved between the beginning and the end of the decade.
Initially, the crisis was perceived as a problem of overproduction. Consequently, the German film industry cut back on production. 123 German movies were produced in 1955, only 65 in 1965. However, the roots of the problem lay deeper in changing economic and social circumstances. Average incomes in the Federal Republic rose sharply and this opened up alternative leisure activities to compete with cinema-going. At this time too, television was developing into a mass medium that could compete with the cinema. In 1953 there were only 10,000 sets in West Germany; by 1962 there were 7 million (Scheider 1990:49) (Hoffman 1990:69).
The majority of films produced in the Federal Republic in the 1960s were genre works: westerns, especially the series of movies adapted from Karl May's popular genre novels which starred Pierre Brice as the Apache Winnetou and Lex Barker as his white blood brother Old Shatterhand; thrillers and crime films, notably a series of Edgar Wallace movies in which Klaus Kinski, Heinz Drache, Wolfgang Völz, and Joachim Fuchsberger were among the regular players; and softcore sex films, both the relatively serious Aufklärungsfilme (sex education films) of Oswalt Kolle and such exploitation films as Schulmädchen-Report (Schoolgirl Report) (1970) and its successors. Such movies were commercially successful and often enjoyed international distribution, but won little acclaim from critics.
Despite the foundation of the Kuratorium Junger Deutscher Film (Young German Film Committee) in 1965, set up under the auspices of the Federal Ministry of the Interior to support new German films financially, the directors of this New German Cinema, who rejected co-operation with the existing film industry, were consequently often dependent on money from television. Young filmmakers had the opportunity to test their mettle in such programmes as the stand-alone drama and documentary series Das kleine Fernsehspiel (The Little TV Play) or the television films of the crime series Tatort. However, the broadcasters sought TV premieres for the films which they had supported financially, with theatrical showings only occurring later. As a consequence, such films tended to be unsuccessful at the box office.
This situation changed after 1974 when the Film-Fernseh-Abkommen (Film and Television Accord) was agreed between the Federal Republic's main broadcasters, ARD and ZDF, and the German Federal Film Board (a government body created in 1968 to support film-making in Germany). This accord, which has been repeatedly extended up to the present day, provides for the television companies to make available an annual sum to support the production of films which are suitable for both theatrical distribution and television presentation. (The amount of money provided by the public broadcasters has varied between 4.5 and 12.94 million euros per year). Under the terms of the accord, films produced using these funds can only be screened on television 24 months after their theatrical release. They may appear on video or DVD no sooner than six months after cinema release. As a result of the funds provided by the Film-Fernseh-Abkommen, German films, particularly those of the New German Cinema, gained a much greater opportunity to enjoy box-office success before they played on television (Blaney 1992:204).
The artistically ambitious and socially critical films of the New German Cinema strove to delineate themselves from what had gone before and the works of auteur film-makers such as Kluge and Fassbinder are examples of this, although Fassbinder in his use of stars from German cinema history also sought a reconciliation between the new cinema and the old. In addition, a distinction is sometimes drawn between the avantgarde "Young German Cinema" of the 1960s and the more accessible "New German Cinema" of the 1970s. For their influences the new generation of film-makers looked to Italian neorealism, the French Nouvelle Vague and the British New Wave but combined this eclectically with references to the well-established genres of Hollywood cinema.
The new movement saw German cinema return to international critical significance for the first time since the end of the Weimar Republic. Films such as Kluge's Abschied von Gestern (1966), Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), and Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984) found international acclaim and critical approval. Often the work of these auteurs was first recognised abroad rather than in Germany itself. The work of post-war Germany's leading novelists Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass provided source material for the adaptations The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975) (by Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta) and The Tin Drum (1979) (by Schlöndorff alone) respectively, the latter becoming the first German film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The New German Cinema also allowed for female directors to come to the fore and for the development of a feminist cinema which encompassed the works of directors such as Von Trotta, Helma Sanders-Brahms and Helke Sander.
Having achieved some of its goals, among them the establishment of state funding for the film industry and renewed international recognition for German films, the New German Cinema had begun to show signs of fatigue by the 1980s, even though many of its proponents continued to enjoy individual success. In addition, the "aesthetic left" nature of New German Cinema (in the words of the critic Enno Patalas ) no longer coincided with the spirit of the times.
Among the commercial successes for German films of the 1980s were the Otto film series beginning in 1985 starring comedian Otto Waalkes, Wolfgang Petersen's adaptation of The NeverEnding Story (1984), and the internationally successful Das Boot (1981), which still holds the record for most Academy Award nominations for a German film (six). Other notable film-makers who came to prominence in the 1980s include producer Bernd Eichinger and directors Doris Dörrie, Uli Edel, and Loriot.
Away from the mainstream, the splatter film director Jörg Buttgereit, the experimental film director Werner Nekes and the provocative Christoph Schlingensief all came to prominence in the 1980s. The development of arthouse cinemas (Programmkinos) from the 1970s onwards provided a venue for the works of less mainstream film-makers.
From the mid-1980s the spread of videocassette recorders and the arrival of private TV channels such as RTL Television provided new competition for theatrical film distribution. Cinema attendance, having rallied slightly in the late 1970s after an all-time low of 115.1 million visits in 1976, dropped sharply again from the mid-1980s to end at just 101.6 million visits in 1989. However, the availability of a back catalogue of films on video also allowed for a different relationship between the viewer and an individual film, while private TV channels brought new money into the film industry and provided a launch pad from which new talent could later move into film.
In total DEFA produced some 900 feature films during its existence as well as around 800 animated films and over 3000 documentaries and short films. In its early years, production was limited due to strict controls imposed by the authorities which restricted the subject-matter of films to topics that directly contributed to the Communist project of the state. Excluding newsreels and educational films, only 50 films were produced between 1948 and 1953. However, in later years numerous films were produced on a variety of themes. DEFA had particular strengths in children's films, notably fairy tale adaptations such as Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel (Three Nuts for Cinderella) (1973), but it also attempted other genre works: science-fiction, for example Der schweigende Stern (The Silent Star) (1960), an adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem novel, or "red westerns" such as The Sons of the Great Mother Bear (1966) in which, in contrast to the typical American western, the heroes tended to be Native Americans. Many of these genre films were co-productions with other Warsaw Pact countries.
Notable non-genre films produced by DEFA include Wolfgang Staudte's adaptation of Heinrich Mann's Der Untertan (1951); Konrad Wolf's Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven) (1964), an adaptation of Christa Wolf's novel; Frank Beyer's adaptation of Jurek Becker's Jacob the Liar (1973), the only East German film to be nominated for an Oscar; The Legend Of Paul And Paula (1973), directed by Heiner Carow from Ulrich Plenzdorf's novel; and Solo Sunny (1980), again the work of Konrad Wolf.
However, film-making in the GDR was always constrained and oriented by the political situation in the country at any given time. Ernst Thälmann, the communist leader in the Weimar period, was the subject of several hagiographical films in the 1950s and although East German filmmaking moved away from this overtly Stalinist approach in the 1960s, filmmakers were still subject to the changing political positions, and indeed the whims, of the SED leadership. For example, DEFA's full slate of contemporary films from 1966 were denied distribution, among them Frank Beyer's Traces of Stones (1966) which was pulled from distribution after three days, not because it was antipathetic to communist principles, but because it showed that such principles, which it fostered, were not put into practice at all times in East Germany. The huge box-office hit The Legend of Paul and Paula was initially threatened with a distribution ban because of its satirical elements and supposedly only allowed a release on the say-so of Party General Secretary Erich Honecker.
In the late 1970s numerous film-makers left the GDR for the West as a result of restrictions on their work, among them director Egon Günther and actors Angelica Domröse, Eva-Maria Hagen, Katharina Thalbach, Hilmar Thate, Manfred Krug and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Many had been signatories of a 1976 petition opposing the expatriation of socially critical singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann and had had their ability to work restricted as a result.
In the final years of the GDR, the availability of television and the programming and films on television broadcasts reaching ino the GDR via the uncontrollable airwaves, DEFA's productions' importance was reduced, although its continuing role in producing shows for East German television channel remained. Following the Wende, DEFA had ceased production altogether, and its studios and equipment was sold off by the Treuhand in 1992, but its intellectual property rights were handed to the charitable DEFA-Stiftung (DEFA Foundation) which exploits these rights in conjunction with a series of private companies, especially the quickly-privatized Progress Film GmbH which has issued several East German films with English subtitles since the mid-1990s.
Apart from the international releases, a number of intimate German films have enjoyed critical success in France, where the term Nouvelle Vague Allemande as been applied to smaller productions mostly coming out of Berlin. A circle of directors of penetrating, realistic studies of relationships and characters informally constitute the "Berlin School" of filmmaking. Among those directors are Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan, Valeska Grisebach, Christoph Hochhäusler, Benjamin Heisenberg, Henner Winckler and Angela Schanelec.
Other notable directors working in German currently include Sönke Wortmann, Caroline Link (winner of an Academy Award), Romuald Karmakar, Harun Farocki, Hans-Christian Schmid, Andreas Dresen, Ulrich Köhler, Ulrich Seidl, and Sebastian Schipper, as well as comedy directors Michael Herbig and Sven Unterwaldt.
Germany has recently experienced an influx of independent and underground films (mostly pertaining to the horror genre). Directors in this popular circle include Andreas Schnaas, Olaf Ittenbach, Jorg Buttgereit, and Timo Rose.One of the most original, and definitely independent Directors with unique body of works "Seven Servants" that have helped shaping underground films and influenced German Independent Cinema is doubtlessly Daryush Shokof.
The new decade has also seen a resurgence of the German film industry, with bigger-budget films and good returns at the German box office.
In recent years, German production interests have become more and more involved with American television and film production to help offset the costs of such productions, as evidenced by the copyright credits in certain films and TV shows.