Old school History’s the hero at Berlinale film fest

The annual festival in Berlin featured a slew of historic movies spanning a showcase of works from the Weimar Republic to a film about a mysterious protest group in the seventies.
Historic visions.

On a cool evening in 1932, dusk was falling – but in a thicket in the countryside outside Berlin, all hell was about to break loose.

“The factory is up, the courtyard is full of petrol cans and cars. But then there’s smoke, a huge shaft of fire, and sparks rain down. Next comes a huge detonation and an inferno; the chimney wobbles and the whole building collapses."

These notes spelled the order for a scene being filmed on a small island in a river under the guidance of director Fritz Lang and captured by 16 cameras. The pictures ran as part of “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse,” a noire thriller.

Mr. Lang, a master filmmaker better known for classics such as “Metropolis” was more pyrotechnician than director at this moment. The Austrian-German-American filmmaker carefully timed a series of explosions, watching the wind direction.

This was the heyday of Weimar filmmaking and, in terms of the efforts made to create the scene, a typical day at UFA, the film production company based outside Berlin. In some ways though, Mr. Lang’s outdoor explosions were unusual, given they were set in nature. Most directors at the time created opulent sets that were constructed on tidy lawns or inside huge studios that resembled warehouses.

This was the heyday of Weimar filmmaking and, in terms of the extensive effort made to create the scene, a typical day at UFA, the film production company based outside Berlin. In some ways though, Mr. Lang’s outdoor explosions were atypical, set in nature. Most directors at the time created opulent sets, constructed on tidy lawns or inside huge warehouses. These had formerly been used for building aircraft such as the zeppelin, before Germany lost the war and they were converted to studios.

German expressionist movies made during that period spanned thrillers, comedies and the filming of classic novels such as “Berlin, Alexanderplatz” by Alfred Döblin, or "Emil and the Detectives" by Emil Kästner. Topics ranged from ethnographic movies to histories of Westminister and the kings of England, to social questions from a dockworkers’ strike to soldiers traumatized by World War I.

Visitors to Berlin’s annual film festival, now in its 68th year, watched many of these in the last two weeks. The festival ran 28 programs of features, documentaries and short films made between 1918 and 1933 in a tribute to one of the most creative periods of German movie-making, which came to an abrupt end when the Nazis took over.

But these were not the only historic films on show. A slew of films addressed events from the 1970s and 80s. One that raises questions was “SPK Komplex,” telling of a small group opposing the medical establishment in 1970s Germany. Director Gerd Kropke showed how the protesters wanted to radically question the relationship between doctors and patients; many took on a broader social critique suggesting capitalism was damaging to people’s health. Of the protest groups, many later joined the Red Army Faction, while the group’s original leader disappeared entirely, suggesting future possible investigations.

Another addressed the Waldheim affair, when the former boss of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, ran as a candidate for Austria’s president in 1986 but was accused of covering up his Nazi past. Ruth Beckermann used archive material to create "Waldheims Walzer" or the "Waldheim Waltz" recapitulating the time and showing the continued controversy over his election. The film won the best documentary award when the festival prizes were announced on Saturday. Emotions continue to run high, suggesting the past isn't over yet.

This story was updated on February 26. A different version originally appeared in Tagesspiegel. Allison Williams contributed to this article. To contact the author: [email protected]