The Rene Clair Moment and the Overlap Films of the Early 1930s: Detlef Sierck's April, April!

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The periodization of German cinema used to seem an easy question to film scholars, given the fairly neat fit between different cinematic epochs, various configurations of the film industry, and Germany's seven different types of government over the course of the twentieth century. Viewed close up, such categorizations prove slightly less tidy. Beginning with the movement from the Wilhelmine Kaiserreich to the Weimar Republic (a transition marked by a failed Soviet-style revolution), each shift between state forms involved a complicated, confused, messy transitional period. In recent years, film historians have become interested in the so-called Oberlauferfilme. Made in 1944 and 1945, in the studios of the Third Reich, these transitional or overlap films were released only after the end of the war, whether because Goebbels (for a variety of reasons) had ordered them banned or because by the time they were finished, there was no longer any possibility, amidst the panic of defeat, for them to be premiered or reviewed or watched. These films seem interesting on two rather different counts. They were made in a climate of rising hysteria, a moment marked not only by acute, war-induced material shortages but also by the rapid breakdown of studio supervision and government censorship. Seen in retrospect, at least, many of them seem different, both politically and aesthetically, from earlier films made during the Third Reich. For some film historians, indeed, both the stylistic experiments and the overall mood of these films suggests the breakdown of one order and the anticipation of the next: the return to older indigenous aesthetic traditions like Expressionism or, as in Italy during these same years, an attempt to forge a neorealist aesthetic (Witte, "Film im Nationalsozialismus," 164-170; Gottler, 171-175). Other historians, however, see the situation differently. For them, the postwar release of these films, especially given the simultaneous re-release of a large percentage of the Third Reich's "entertainment" films, helped to forestall a full break with the cinematic aesthetics of the Third Reich and impeded any new beginning for the postwar cinema.

Could some of the films made during the first years of the Third Reich also be considered as overlap films?(1) Would German cinema in the early 1930s look different, indeed, if Hitler's rise-to-power were not seen as a cinematic caesura, if the last films made during the Weimar Republic and the first films made during the Third Reich were considered together? As Karsten Witte and Eric Rentschler have recently noted, traces of the stylistic innovations of Expressionism and of the Communist workers' films of the early 1930s reappear in films from Hans Steinhoff's 1933 Hitler Youth Quex/Hitlerjunge Quex and Luis Trenker's 1934 The Prodigal Son/Der verlorene Sohn to J.A. Hubler-Kahla's 1936 The Violet of Potsdamer Platz/Das Veilchen vom Potsdamer Platz (Witte, Lachende Erben, 119-121 and Rentschler, 72-96). (Gustav von Uckicky's 1933 Dawn/Morgenrot, E.W. Emo's 1935 Last Stop/Endstation, Frank Wysbar's 1936 Ferryman Maria/ Fahrmann Maria, and Werner Hochbaum's 1936 Shadows of the Past/ Schatten der Vergangenheit might also be added to this list, along with E.W. Emo's 1937, Musik fur Dich, an Austrian recasting of The Three from the Gas Station.) The mid-thirties saw both the Nazi consolidation of political control over filmmaking in Germany and the consolidation of a new film aesthetic. Yet this was also a period in which a new, self-consciously fascist realism continued to coexist, for the moment, with still-novel forms of socialist realism and with vestiges of visual modernism.

For other national cinemas, of course, the usual line of period demarcation is the coming of sound and the transformation of studio filmmaking around it. In German film historiography, however, the rise of fascism has usually eclipsed the rise of sound, although as in other countries, this period of technological transition for the cinema is also one of aesthetic innovation. …