Monday, August 2, 2010

New Book on Weimar Cinema

Belated congratulations to our Amherst colleague Christian Rogowski on the publication of a new anthology on Weimar film:
THE MANY FACES OF WEIMAR CINEMA:  Rediscovering Germany’s Filmic Legacy (Camden House, June 2010)

Traditionally, Weimar cinema has been equated with the work of a handful of auteurist filmmakers and a limited number of canonical films. Often a single, limited phenomenon, “expressionist film,” has been taken as synonymous with the cinema of the entire period. But in recent decades, such reductive assessments have been challenged by developments in film theory and archival research that highlight the tremendous richness and diversity of Weimar cinema. This widening of focus has brought attention to issues such as film as commodity; questions of technology and genre; transnational collaborations and national identity; effects of changes in socioeconomics and gender roles on film spectatorship; and connections between film and other arts and media. Such shifts have been accompanied by archival research that has made a cornucopia of new information available, now augmented by the increased availability of films from the period on DVD. This wealth of new source material calls for a re-evaluation of Weimar cinema that considers the legacies of lesser-known directors and producers, popular genres, experiments of the artistic avant-garde, and nonfiction films, all of which are aspects attended to by the essays in this volume.

CONTRIBUTORS: Ofer Ashkenazi, Jaimey Fisher, Veronika Fuechtner, Joseph Garncarz, Barbara Hales, Anjeana Hans, Richard W. McCormick, Nancy P. Nenno, Elizabeth Otto, Mihaela Petrescu, Theodore F. Rippey, Christian Rogowski, Jill Smith, Philipp Stiasny, Chris Wahl, Cynthia Walk, Valerie Weinstein, Joel Westerdale.

CHRISTIAN ROGOWSKI is Professor of German at Amherst College. 
The individual essays span a broad range of topics  (the publisher's website provides a list).  What I like about this work is that it embodies some of the principles of cultural history in the classic sense as well as insights from the new cultural studies.  There has traditionally been a certain tension between the notion of studying and teaching "the best that has been thought and said in the world" (Matthew Arnold) versus what was typical.  The emphasis periodically shifts in one direction or the other, but this should not be a matter of "an either-or choice." (1, 2) Each can be valid in its way, and we simply need to make clear what we are doing.  To call attention to the films treated here does not necessarily mean that they were "better" than "Caligari" or "Metropolis"—or worse, for that matter.  And in some cases, it really is a matter of apples and oranges; a hygiene film is not a drama, though we may fruitfully compare, say, the representation of gender and sexuality across genres.  Rather, examining these films in this manner tells us something important about production, viewership, the market, technique, and aesthetics in that day.

To take the case of German literature rather than film, a generation of new scholars in the 1970s delved into quotidian and prosaic texts, reportage, and political poetry, thus greatly expanding our view of the literary landscape.  Rare is the terrain containing only an Olympus surrounded by flat desert. At the same time, another stream of critical theory, represented by the great Marxist critic Georg Lukács (d. 1971), certainly no stranger to the political, continued to insist on the uniqueness of the aesthetic as a category.  Both undertakings were salutary, and in recent decades, the results have begun to converge.  Whether we retain, discard, or revise the canon, a study such as this one provides insights into why that canon was formed in the first place, and what assumptions—historically contingent and often unarticulated, as well—went into its formation. In so doing, it should in turn help us to make more explicit the assumptions about our own cultural and aesthetic choices.

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