Danish and German Silent Cinema: Towards a Common Film Culture, Edited by: Lars-Martin Sørensen and Casper Tybjerg, Edinburgh University Press, 2023
This is a guest post by Alex Barrett for Silent London. Alex Barrett is an award-winning independent filmmaker based in London.
At its simplest, the history of silent film in Denmark and Germany can be seen as a story of two halves, divided by World War I: first, there was the rise of the Danish Nordisk Film Company, a major player in production and distribution throughout Europe whose success was ultimately stymied by the war; and then there was Germany’s UFA, a government-funded consolidation of private film companies ready to capitalise on the creative boom born from the county’s post-war malaise.
In the introduction to their new anthology Danish and German Silent Cinema: Towards a Common Film Culture, Lars-Martin Sørensen and Casper Tybjerg make it clear that such a “simplification” is “accurate enough”, but tends “to focus attention on particular aspects of cinema history and not others”. By drawing upon the notion of “entangled history”, Sørensen and Tybjerg have attempted not “to overturn these established narratives” but to “highlight some new aspects”.
In seeking to reach this new ground, the volume examines the question, as contributor Isak Thorsen puts it, of “how and to what extent did Denmark and Germany constitute a common film culture during the silent era?” and “what actually constitutes a common film culture between two nations?”
Following the precepts of “entangled history” – defined here as a translation of the “research approach” histoire croisée formulated by Michael Werner and Bénédicte Zimmermann – the contributors attempt to answer such questions while embracing the complexity that comes with writing about history, highlighting problems such as the instability of national borders. In all, the notion of “entangled film history” suggests a more multifaceted position than one of a direct influence heading from one side to another.
Such an approach makes for a rich and varied study, ranging from an engaging exploration of the Pat and Patachon films made outside Denmark to an enjoyable jaunt through transmedia Sherlock Holmes texts.
One of the acknowledged by-products of the methodology, however, is that by embracing the way certain ideas, terms and places change over the course of history, it becomes harder to present stable, linear conclusions. Though not necessarily a problem in itself, this does mean that certain moments within the text feel a little too undefined and ambiguously characterised for the reader to be able to derive consequential meanings (e.g. “Sometimes German was synonymous with success and quality… Other times ‘Germanness’ was unacceptable”). Of course, if history isn’t neat and tidy, then there’s no reason why the text should be either, but this, along with the generally academic tone of the volume, may be off-putting for more casual readers.
Perhaps rather appropriately, the most stylishly written of the entries is Vito Adriaensens’ excellent chapter on the development and exportation of the Danish film style, summarised here as “bourgeoisie realism” filmed in long-take, mise-en-scene-driven tableaux. Adriaensens focuses on the work of the cinematographer Axel Graatkjær, whose career began at Nordisk alongside directors like August Blom and stars such as Asta Nielsen, before moving to Germany at the behest of Nielsen and her then-husband, director Urban Gad. Once in Berlin, Graatkjær would go on to impact the evolution of the German film style, working with esteemed directors such as F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Robert Wiene, Lupu Pick and Leopold Jessner, and on key films such as Algol, Tragödie der Macht.
In concentrating on Graatkjær, Adriaensens can be seen as following one of the two levels for exploring transitional crossing outlined by Thorsen in his fascinating chapter on “the Entangled Relations between Nordisk Films Kompagni, UFA, and DNFU”: filmmakers who move from one country to another, and the distribution and reception of films overseas. In a sense, though, Thorsen then goes beyond these levels by focusing on production and the business machinations that fuel it. In outlining the complex commercial strategies at play behind the relationship between Nordisk and UFA, Thorsen demonstrates in full the messy entanglements of transnational filmmaking, while also, perhaps, bringing us full circle back to the story with which this review started.
Indeed, despite the variety of topics it covers, what arguably emerges most clearly from reading the anthology is a portrait of the two silent behemoths that were Nordisk and UFA, alongside the historical backgrounds and cultural contexts of each of the nations from which they sprang. Interestingly, though, Thorsen ultimately concludes that the entangled nature of German and Danish films lies less in a particular bond between the two countries than it does in a commercial connection that forms part of a wider “Film Europe” movement, in which European filmmakers as whole attempted to combat the incoming dominance of American cinema.
Such a conclusion is one of many statements within the book that plays off what has come before it, operating in dialogue with the other chapters and proving, once again, that linear conclusions aren’t easy to come by within the entanglement of film history. Taken as a whole, then, the anthology offers many fascinating insights for the reader to discover and consider.
By Alex Barrett.
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