The Famous Zeppelin


We began the week with THE HINDENBURG, now we meet a film featuring a dog called “the Famous Zeppelin.”

One of the perks of being a high-powered media insider is that I occasionally get sneak previews. So I got to see an edit of Mark Cousins’ A STORY OF CHILDREN & FILM, soon to screen at Cannes. It’s quite a different animal from THE STORY OF FILM, since it doesn’t aim to be in any way comprehensive or to chart a history. The grab-bag approach allows Mark to seize on some less familiar choices (though LES QUATRE CENTS COUPS does get another airing) and investigate the nature of cinema using children as a kind of filter. Featured in the film is a clip from EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES so astounding I immediately sought out the film and devoured it. The result is plain to see.


15 Responses to “The Famous Zeppelin”

  1. jiminholland Says:

  2. Excellent! Watch-a-long with The Forgotten.

  3. The only time I saw Emil was on the big screen in Berlin, very disconcerting given how radically different the city looks from its 1930s incarnation even though the theatre was actually right beside one of the locations according to my local viewing companion.

    I like the original book a lot — still very charming.

  4. I remember enjoying the Disney version on TV as a kid, I think in serial form. Yes, I can’t imagine much of the city looks the same, or even identifiable, going by what Wilder recorded in A Foreign Affair.

  5. Armin Jäger Says:

    Hi, since you wanted to know on MUBI what’s worth checking out from Lamprecht, be aware that he is mostly a realist director. He became famous in the 20s for his Berlin millieu films of and Edition Filmmuseum has released two of them recently–Der-f-nfte-Stand—-Die-Unehelichen.html Another recent release was Der alte Fritz his contribution to the Fridericus films which usually are conservative, but his film is supposed to be the best of them all, English subs can be found on the net.
    After Emil he directed steadily throughout the Third Reich without being much compromised. Some of the films are worth rediscovering, Diesel was recently released on DVD, but only for Prinzessin Turandot there are English subs floating on the net.
    And then there’s his last famous film, closely connected to Emil and one of the first Post war productions, Irgendwo in Berlin from 1946 . This one is again about children in Berlin, but obviously the bombed out Berlin after the war.
    As was already written on MUBI his collection was the basis for the Deutsche Kinemathek, he had collected many copies but unfortunately his excellent 35mm copies were destroyed during the war. And beyond running the Kinemathek he compiled a catalogue of German silent films which still is the gold standard if you need a filmography for the silent years.
    But since his films aren’t shadowy or demonic, he isn’t as well known as he should be though all the DVD releases and the three books published now brought him back to attention and the BFI DVD is a welcome addendum.

  6. jiminholland Says:

    ‘But since his films aren’t shadowy or demonic, he isn’t as well known as he should be…’

    Y’know, I was gonna launch from this sharp observation into a crotechety historian’s kvetch about the quite reductive and partial view that now dominates about Weimar cinema — that expressionism and ‘stimmung’ were its defining characteristics, that it embodied/analyzed/repudiated/reinforced (take your pick) Germany’s authoritarian dark side, that it rearticulated its aesthetic sensibilities and ideological imperatives in Hollywood via its emigrees who landed there (e.g., Emil Bundesmann and Johann Altmann, better known today as Anthony Mann and John
    Alton — but, oops, the first-mentioned was born in the USA, and the second, while born in Austria-Hungary, did his professional apprenticeship in Los Angeles, and first worked as a cinematographer in Argentina…).

    This is a silly and simplistic view, out of accord with the majority of Weimar film production, and out of accord with so much much of what we find in Emil und die Detektive, with its extended passages of lyrically quotidian realism.

    That’s what I was gonna do, but it’s all trivial and trifling in the context of an earlier — and also German-themed (!?) — post on this here blog, in which our indefatigably brilliant host/proprietor informed us that:

    ‘Without any particular plan, we watched THE HINDENBURG on Friday. We were supposed to be getting married, but we watched THE HINDENBURG instead.’

    May I ask, WTF?

    Now, I’ve been very busy of late and may have missed earlier posts that provide background info (if that’s the case, links please?), and in any event I’m fully aware that this is none of my business.

    But I’d love, David C, to know the backstory of your (un?) Wise decision.

  7. I’d chip in on the German stuff, where I think you’re spot on, except I’m not up to speed sufficiently on my Kracauer. I do like the idea that stuff in the Jungian unconscious filters its way into a nation’s movies without being deliberately placed, but I also think the kind of evil manifested in Naziism was present in every other western society at the time, awaiting the right circumstances, which thankfully did not arrive.

    As for the wedding, well the date was set (a small affair) but then Fiona’s depression worsened and we postponed it so she could enjoy the thing when it came. Otherwise it had potential of being like an early draft of a Lars Von Trier film. Medication is in progress and we’re awaiting the return of the bluebird with considerable impatient tapping of feet.

    Having canceled the happy day, it was a surprise to me to notice it still on the calendar, after we’d watched Hindenburg. It did occur to me that we could have picked a more romantic (and better) film to watch on our un-wedding day, if we’d realized, but the collapsing balloon which is also on fire did make a serviceable symbol…

  8. jiminholland Says:

    It’s remarkable how much scholarly research on Weimar cinema takes to this day two texts as its basis — Lotte Eisner’s ‘The Haunted Screen,’ and Sigfried Kracauer’s ‘From Caligari to Hitler.’

    These are both great but deeply flawed books, which even though they make very different arguments about Weimar film, got mixed up with each other by later critics and historians, Eisner’s art-historical approach confused/conflated/correlated with Kracauer’s sociological and ideological analysis, with the result that ‘shadowy and demonic’ and ‘Weimar cinema’ became more or less synonymous.

    For all that’s problematically been made of it, and all that’s problematic in its own right, Kracauer’s Caligari to Hitler is a must-read;

    As I tell students in my Weimar film course, I would love to have written a book that, 60+ years later, almost every scholar in the field wants to correct.

    And, for whatever its worth, Kracauer’s writngs as a journalistic cultural critic in Weimar, collected in English in the book The Mass Ornament, are much sharper in their political critique and aesthetic analyses than what he’d later writer after emigrating to the US (which, nonetheless, remain profoundly more important than his most dedicated American enemy, the consistently and profoundly idiotic Pauline Kael).

    A final note: I. too, suffer from mixed-mood disorder: Hey, Fiona! Love and sympathy!

    Living with this means that it is just hell, daily motherfucking hell, trying to deal with changes in affect and behavior that just come on with no warning and for no apparent reason.

    And that apparently defy all the available medication protocols (nembutol numbs it all, but I prefer…)

    As a college professor, I’m fortunate in not having nine-to-five responsibilities, so I can kind of slide and shade things to the moments when I need them.

    For you and Fiona, i leave you with what is literally a strong word in Dutch:


  9. There’s undoubtedly a dark strand to Weimar cinema, but that by no means sums up the era. Also, the darkness was discontinued by the Nazis, who generally liked their films light-hearted. Their apparent enthusiasm for Lang’s Nibelungen saga is the exception rather than the rule.

    Fiona’s diagnosis is brand new, as are a lot of the symptoms (she’d had severe depression and anxiety before, but no evidence of bipolairity) so we’re still rather reeling from the effects…

  10. Armin Jäger Says:

    All national cinematographies are in danger to being reduced to cliches. Japan to cherry blossoms, Samurai and politely bowing characters, GB to a stiff upper lip and social realism comedies and so on. But with Germany the pop cultural “sexiness” of Hitler and the Third Reich tend to assimilate everything in sight before and after and since in the arts field the vaguely dark Romanticism and Expressionism featured also strongly, it’s tempting to mix that in, too. And finally fantastic movies are now very popular and director studies still are which means Murnau and Lang with their fantastic stuff get extra attention.
    It’s already problematic how Weimar cinema is perceived, but outside of Germany the films of the Third Reich as well as the Post War years till 1965 are completely unknown, save for Riefenstahl, Jud Süß and hilariously Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic. Since no one knows the films and about history mostly the deep insight that the Nazis were rather evil, it’s more like an abyss into which Weimar walks into right away. Which is obviously teleologic nonsense, the Nazis were never inevitable and end of 1932 arguably already on the decline. It’s much more profitable to read the films as reflections of WWI, but then again that’s not so sexy.
    As for Kracauer’s book, frankly I could imagine no worse text to use in scholarship about German cinema. Zillions of scholars pointed out that he
    a) willfully and ruthlessly misinterprets the films to fit his master thesis. Where most viewers see collapsing patriarchal figures, he sees the devotedness to chaos and a führer. The most embarassing stuff is the Caligari script legend where Janowitz told him nonsense about his political intentions not knowing that the script would reappear once and prove him wrong.
    b) bases his thesis on a tiny fraction of the films. Some were not successful and the German public watched then as now what all publics do, mostly comedies, melodramas and thrillers.
    c) ignores that half of the films seen by the public were foreign ones, just how does the Hollywood stuff fit into this?
    d) assumes that all artists somehow inhaled all the dark currents in an imaginary national psyche which ignores all the different people working there and molding them into a national consciousness.

    Barry Salt once wrote an article in the 70s which was written in a rhetorical question and answer game and answered the question if Kracauer’s book gets anything right: Yes, titles, director names and most of the relase dates.
    It unfortunately still is a book that is read, but as medicine e.g. aborted theories about the four body fluids from thousands of years ago, so film history could by now move on.

  11. Maybe what we need is a book called “Hey! It’s Not All Sturm Und Drang You Know!”

    Without really being that familiar with Kracauer, I like the idea of a zeitgeist that bleeds into a culture’s movies without the aid of authorial intent. But the place where I would expect to see that happening is in the simplest entertainment films, and Hollywood product does sometimes support this view. Most major talents would be busy filtering things through their own sensibility in such a way as to make that amorphous “national psyche” hard to read. The Lang-Harbou gestalt is perhaps the exception to this, since those movies, born of two distinctly different yet synchronized weltanschauungs, if weltanschauungs is the word I want, do seem to channel the increasingly dark national mood without deliberately addressing the most pertinent topics of the day.

    But what is (possibly) true of Lang-Harbou doesn’t seem to me true of Pabst, Grune, Lubitsch, Oswald…

  12. jiminholland Says:

    Having called Kracauer’s book ‘great but deeply flawed,’ I feel that I have to defend it just a bit, even though I’m mostly in agreement with Armin Jäger’s assessment of it.

    But defending it isn’t easy – those flaws are indeed deep.

    In calling it great, I’m really thinking about the force of its interpretive intervention, which was so massive that it still inspires pushback. Anton Kaes’ recent ‘Shell Shock Cinema,’ for example, announces in its opening pages that it’s setting itself specifically against Kracauer’s teleological historical narrative, with WW1 rather than the ascendance of the Nazis seen as the relevant historical/political backdrop for Weimar cinema.

    Kracauer’s book is a bit like Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure’ essay: wrong, but in such provocative and interesting ways as to generate much valuable scholarship in response.

    That may not qualify as a ringing endorsement, but works producing that kind of effect are quite rare, and it’s an achievement that I think should (with many qualifications) be valued.

    In my Weimar course, I do assign students Kracauer’s ‘Caligari’ chapter – and alongside it, the Barry Salt piece mentioned by Armin Jäger.

    But Salt’s article is also deeply flawed, particularly in its extremely narrow definition of Expressionism (here I think Kracauer is in fact analytically sharper, pointing to the way Expressionism was commodified into mainstream German cultural life in the years directly following the end of the war).

    I do believe that ‘From Caligari to Hitler’ is a ‘must-read,’ but much more for understanding how Weimar cinema has been interpreted than for Kracauer’s interpretation per se.

  13. Armin Jäger Says:

    David, explain to me what the zeitgeist is exactly supposed to be? Especially towards the end of Weimar when part of the people voted for the Nazis or right wing conservatives, another part voted for the communist and another for the democratic powers, mostly the socialdemocrats. A very schizophrenic zeitgeist, isn’t it? Obviously being citizen of a country and its culture shapes people, but so does their profession, social background and so on. And the more modern the era, the more complicated the whole stuff becomes. Distilling a German tendency towards the dark and destructive is a gross oversimplification, one could just as well construct from the vast number of scientists and nobel prize winners until 1933 a strong leaning towards rationality.
    But I think you hit a very major point when you say that if there is something to be distilled, it should be distilled from the whole run of the mill stuff, not from e.g. the elitist tastes of Murnau and Lang, how could the first as cool, refined artist and homosexual be the ideal channel for any zeitgeist? One simply should watch all films of a certain year and look for trends. But I’m always very very wary of major theories which try to explain thousands of films away with a major brush, this almost never works.

    Jim’s defense of Kracauer essentially amounts to studying him from a historical point of view like the Malleus Maleficarum. Myself I think it’s best to forget nonsense and let it slip into oblivion. Certain parts of our cultural heritage are best forgotten until they are so unfamiliar that people wonder how they ever could have been popular.
    As for Salt, his narrow definition of expressionism has the advantage of being quite precise. German film of the Weimar Republic mixes lots of influences, expressionism is a rather minor one, but since the famous art house recognition came with Caligari and that indeed at least had expressionist set design, the label got stuck.
    But most of what you associate with dark Weimar cinema stems from romanticism or even older eras.
    Expressionism manifests itself in three ways
    a) acting which indeed is very hard to pin down since it’s hard to distinguish from broad theatrical acting as was not uncommon in german cinema at the time. Veidt and Krauss in Caligari are obvious, Helm and Fröhlich in Metropolis come to mind or Paul Wegener in Vanina.
    b) writing which is also difficult since expressionist writers wrote poems (not suited for film) and dramas. The rather abstract, archetypal confrontations are rarely found in the German film scripts, Von morgens bis mitternachts is obviously a direct adaptation of a Kaiser play, but otherwise Metropolis is again indeed the best shot. But the rest isn’t expressionist and certainly not the whole fantastic stuff with vampires, golems, dragons and so on.
    c) the design. And with this I mean design not shadows. There are no bloody shadows in expressionist paintings, it’s a 2-dimensional art with strong primary colours and deformed shapes. The latter was obviously the thing that was usable for set design, but again how often does one see this? It’s five, six films and often only in isolated moments. Caligaresque shapes have rarely been picked up throughout film history.

    But like Kracauer such myths about German cinema persist. and people like Lamprecht are the victims of it though the strong realist undercurrent of the German cinema of the 20s and early 30s predates the whole neorealism stuff.

  14. I don’t find anything to disagree with strongly here, but hey —

    Maybe shadows are the way “expressionist” film adapted the distorted shapes of expressionist art to the medium of film? Caligari’s sets are a straight transplant rather than an adapting. Shadows in these films are used not just as modulation of light and dark but to fragment, add dynamic slanting angles, and to project grotesquely enlarged or distorted echos of objects and characters. Also to introduce symbolic forms like spiderwebs.

    This kind of shadowplay doesn’t seem to have anything much to do with romantic art, or with other cinema practice at the time, so I can see it being inspired by expressionism. We might want to make that distinction, however: “inspired by” rather than “a manifestation of”.

    Agree however that expressionism is a much smaller part of the armoury of film in Germany than is usually assumed. Emil’s hallucination scene shows that it was, however, a device that could be grasped when considered appropriate for a film or individual sequence.

    I like both the narrow and broad definitions: in the latter sense, expressionism is now everywhere in commercial cinema, via the drive to mimic the emotions of the characters in the presentation, but the methods used no longer have much, if anything, to do with the original expressionist art.

  15. Also: I’d suggest redefining the 20s/early 30s German zeitgeist as anxious, confused, paranoid, hedonistic and decadent, rather than simply as “gathering clouds of evil” — a stronger case could thereby be made for cinema echoing social conditions.

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