The Power of Existential Weimar Cinema from the Roots to the International Expansion essay

Weimar Republic was the first German democracy that has influenced not only political but also art life and development of the country the strength and uniqueness of which have echoed across the world. A specific emphasis should be put on Weimar cinema, the genre overwhelmed with expressionism, as an artistic juxtaposition of realities and expectations of the nation labeled as a loser after the World War I with a continuing impact on different countries worldwide. One of the sufficient features of the Weimar cinema period of 1919-1933 was the evolution of cinematography from the silent to sound film production, notwithstanding that an opinion exists that it was degradation of this art form rather than its enhancement. Apart from the specified technological improvement of movie-making, pictures’ belonging to the Weimar epoch were characterized by distinct attributes. For instance, they embedded darkness and cynicism of the film itself from production and plot development’s standpoints, violence, criminal offences, and shocking symbolism on the verge of tensed human psyche and horror, to name a few. This is due to that expressionism is “a highly psychological form of art that seeks not to record what is happening on the outside but to express what is happening on the inside, within the psyche of an individual human being”.

Moreover, a stigma of all-embracing darkness as psychological reflection of pressing external environment was relevant not only for Germany of the identified period but also the post-war USA. Although the country was among the allied winners in the war, the domestic affairs were indeed discouraging for human full and trouble-free life. For this reason, German expressionism of Weimar cinema immigrated to the US in a form of a film noir genre. In the essay, Der Golem, Berlin-Alexanderplatz versus Rebel without a Cause are compared in order to demonstrate the continuing influence of Weimar cinema within and across the German borders. In light of characteristics of these films, film-makers aimed to manifest acute problems in their milieus as a result of nationwide alienation and ignorance.

Der Golem

To start with, Der Golem has managed to embody the initial traits of expressionist vision of German reality of the 1920s on the grounds of anti-Semitism as a distinct way to reveal ignorant and disrespectful attitude from German-to-Jew perspective. This film should be ranked first among the three movies chosen for analysis whereas it can be boldly called a starting point in evolution of Weimar cinema and German expressionism at large. Trying to emphasize the national cultural strengths in contrast to political and military weaknesses, which the country experienced in the period of producing the film, this picture contributed to “radicalization of the despised masses” based on the message conveyed through its content. To be more precise, with this movie, the director has implicitly communicated about the stereotypical dividing line that allowed “good/ bad split . . . between rational Christianity and irrational Judaism”. Within these contrasted perspectives, the problem of religions and social positioning of Jewish are expressed in the forefront of German-to-Jew relationships.

The whole picture is based on the futile attempts of the Jews to demonstrate that their faith is their life-long savior from all hardships, though it is ridiculed with cynicism of the plot itself. While Jewish people are stereotypically associated with evil spirits among Germans, Der Golem has perfectly embodied a number of stereotypes and racial prejudices against these people. From the first minutes of the movie, the viewer appears in the world of occult alchemy performed by the Rabbi that tries to make up a clay Messiah for his people’s rescue from the cruel emperor and his alienation policies. Omer Bartov, who explored the stereotypical prejudices against Jews in the 20th century art, has aptly noted

But what is most important to recognize about this early venture into cinematic stereotypes is the extent to which it reflected existing notions about Jews, further popularized them among ever-larger audiences, and provided models for their depiction that generations of filmmakers with very different goals and agendas have employed or have tried to avoid until the present day.

Instead of promotion of at least certain-degree understanding between the Germans and Jews, the film further expands the alienation of the latter within the mystified circumstances of the aforementioned rescue mission. Hence, Jewish stereotypes are incorporated in the main characters. A rabbi is shown as a magician and alchemic. Messiah is a technology-born creature who becomes a demon for his creators, while the rabbi’s wife, an object of Golem’s admiration, is an unfaithful woman, thus morally impaired. It follows that the film shows seemingly a nationwide disrespect of Germans towards Jews.  

The other side of conflict’s revelation is the technology-centered aspect of the movie that overemphasizes the role of machine-based opportunities to solving societal problems. This misbelief in technological superpowers is manifested in a twofold manner. First, the movie is silent. Nonetheless, it cannot be called simplistic from the perspective of film production. In contrast, all cinematic techniques are well organized and integrated in order to convey the central message of the picture. For instance, simultaneity is a distinct characteristic of Der Golem. This factor refers to the oneness of the image, the specificities of the plot, the light-darkness disposition, and musical framing of the film. Jews are positioned as masters of dark affairs. Therefore, they live in dark setting, with strangely shaped small buildings, and wear similar clothes and similar mood, so to speak, as well as rather frightening or poorly made make-up. All these darkening features are perfectly shaped with appropriate musical tunes which are mostly sad, horrifying, and accenting on upcoming danger that allows keeping the audience in constant tension. On the contrary, the emperor and judges are in well-lit settings, all nicely dressed, with beautiful make-up, having fun all the time. In this way, viewers clearly observe the shocking contrasts between the compared nations whose representatives simply seek their own approaches to either showing their dominant superiority or addressing their minority position in society.

Second, technology as part of the plot, namely, Golem as a technological creature, helps to reveal specific characteristics of the two peoples contrasted in the film in light of their socio-politic and religious conflict. Drawing upon Baer,

On the one hand, the film appears to valorize technology as a possible solution to the German-Jewish question of the 1920s, and on the other hand, Rabbi Loew, in essence, destroys the film in the ‘film in the film’ scene at the court, thus suggesting that Jewish history is more crucial to the Jewish community than technology.

Once again, Christian judges are shown as humans who follow the technological advancement for sustaining and thorough improving of their wellbeing. In the same way, Germans hoped to balance their post-war lives and retain their previous fame and prosperity. Conversely, Jews failed to do so whereas they have wished to use technology for preserving their traditional beliefs. Hence, apart from the horrifying oppression, the film enticed to sense-making of life after psychological traumas and finding a crucial moral stance for unity and revitalization of self-consciousness of the German people.


Berlin-Alexanderplatz is a more mature embodiment of expressionism that focuses on depiction of dark sides of the German society with an implicit emphasis on their ordinariness. Through an individual story of Biberkopf, the audience is presented with an insight into human’s attempts to establish and maintain decent life after the occasional involvement in the criminal offence. This picture, in contrast to Der Golem, is an example of sound cinema introduction that made movies “more national and less international”. Apart from developing localized characters who acted within country-specific circumstances, this film adaptation of a novel by Alfred D’oblin about post-war Germany spoke in German to the viewers revealing the hidden sides of national identity. At the same time, the notes of existentialism are evident in Berlin-Alexanderplatz, such as all-embracing violence of the world around, seeking of the self within depth of own consciousness, a quest for rightfulness and salvation by all means that are oftentimes wrong, or at least unethical, to list a few. In other words, the film cannot be called a simple reproduction of reality in which early sound movies, as well as development of this movie-making technique at large, were accused by the critics. The film is an individualized pursuit for betterment through violence and criminal behavior as ordinariness of human being.

As opposed to Der Golem, Berlin-Alexanderplatz emphasizes human entrepreneurship rather than solely technology as a means to address individual’s routine bad luck and flawed existence. Nonetheless, the protagonist simply gets habituated to violence and tends not to notice this phenomenon rather than fight against it. To be more precise, he wows to be decent and believes that he acts accordingly. From the first seconds of the film’s duration, the funeral-like sounds accompanying Biberkopf’s release from the dark, high-walled prison become a sign of potential danger, risks and threats, and this feeling remains evident throughout the film. Violence simply goes unnoticed in his life and becomes an integral and inevitable part of it. The protagonist sings songs, talks on routine and philosophical issues, such as a dialogue with death, namely, has a broader scope of self-expression opportunities in contrast to previous silent movies. Nevertheless, his naive wellbeing within violent environment, sexual freedom, female emancipation, and overall moral decay along with his naïve innocence seemingly show the way to human resurrection.

At the same time, the picture has a strong emphasis on existentialism, or revival of the previous powerfulness of Germany as a whole, despite violence and criminality the people encounter. In particular, the character’s dialogues and self-reflections are oftentimes supplemented with focusing on the pictures of technological advancement of the country and a growing pace of its development through implementation of innovations and building roads as one of the examples. In this way, an individual fate of Biberkopf is a background of the entire nation that gives hope for all people’s resurrection. As aptly noted by Dimendberg and Kaes, “German cinema faced the task of making sense of the catastrophe, attributing guilt, and establishing a moral compass for both individuals and the state”. Based on the discussed film, such a conclusion can also be drawn. However, like in Der Golem, this conclusion must be an attribute of individual thinking over the sense of all these phenomena at the same time rather than provided by the film’s director as a ready-to-use life strategy.   

Rebel without a Cause

In addition to the previously reviewed films, Rebel without a Cause is another survival-stating movie, though it has also incorporated the darkness of American society that was due to the nationwide ignorance of family-based and acute federal problems. While the picture is not an explicit example of expressionism, it indeed incorporated its primary features in a renewed US-centered movie genre, film noir. In accordance with Dimendberg and Kaes, “film noir injected the American cinema with a psychologically acute vocabulary for exploring the trauma of recent history [World War II] beyond the framework of action film”. Being created after the Second World War as opposed to the earlier discussed existentialist movies of the post-First World War period, the US drama revealed the same acute problems traced in American society. The plot is build in such a way, that the post-war US experiences squeezing moral dilemmas and inability to understand how their nation can be among the winners in the war, which was another unnecessary intervention, when the human spirit is confused and broken, especially with relation to teenage generation. Similarly to other existential movies of the Weimar cinema epoch, violence is used as a means and background to find the answer to this question.

In the same way as in Berlin-Alexanderplatz and Der Golem, three central characters in Rebel without a Cause seek for a solution to erase their abandonment by families and society. Indeed, the truly existential German movies demonstrated humans’ pursuit for betterment of their social position in light of violence and the US film noir followed the same outline. On a similar note, the Americanized version of existentialist ideas is even more overwhelmed with “brutality and antidemocratic tendencies” as well as “atrocities and sadism”. The adolescent protagonists occasionally get involved in antisocial and criminal behavior, such as Jim’s drinking at the beginning of the movie and knife fight near the planetarium, racing on the stolen cars that lead to deathful consequences, usage of a gun among other issues. Simultaneously, this “prophylactic dose of violence” encourages the audience to look for the means better than violence and cynicism for elimination of the problem.

Under the curtain of aggression and criminal offence, teenagers try to understand the essence and solve the dilemma faced by the whole nation, just like the other films analyzed in the essay. While violence is a bad means to address a problem or conflict since it worsens the situation only, this phenomenon allows to observe possible more appropriate alternatives in a clearer way. In Der Golem, the rabbi makes a demon to save the Jews, but fails. In Berlin-Alexanderplatz, the character wishes to be decent, though remains naïve in his aspirations because of frequent rage attacks. In Rebel without a Cause, the symbol of conflict’s resolution is presented from the start of the movie, but is thoroughly ignored until the consequences are inevitable and at least two children’s deaths happened. This solution was a toy monkey that a drunken Jimbo embraced with tenderness in the opening scene of the movie. Indeed, instead of caring about their children, parents tended to ignore their needs and existence at all being too worried about their individual concerns. Therefore, a general rule conceptualized by Weimar cinema was also evident in this film noir, namely, violence is a means to show the problem and entice to think about the difference, before it is not too late, rather than solve a problem.


The essay tried to demonstrate that the analyzed movies, regardless of the time of production and the country of origin, manifested acute problems in their milieus as a result of nationwide alienation and ignorance. Moreover, this violence-centered approach that was started during Weimar cinema times in existentialism has expanded the scope of its influence from solely Germany as the country of origin to other states, such as the USA. While the movie genre in the US, film noir, was somehow distinct from German existentialism of Weimar era, the essence and numerous features remained the same across the time and distances. The essay demonstrated how the ideas of finding the essence and attributing guilt in socio-economic and political changes have evolved through film industry with roots in Germany and further spreading overseas. For instance, the starting point was a silent movie Der Golem with the mythical depiction of the struggle between nations looking for their own ways for self-worth and recognition. Further, introduction of a sound film, such as Berlin-Alexanderplatz, has broadened the extent to which the individualized vision of nationwide problems and concerns can be demonstrated from survival-seeking viewpoint. Finally, this enhancement of individualistic worldviews reached the US, as shown in Rebel without a Cause. Therefore, the influence of Weimar cinema ideology was both large-scale and continuous.

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The Power of Existential Weimar Cinema from the Roots to the International Expansion essay

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