A Book Review by Brandon Konecny.
Having reviewed books on cinema, one of its main pleasures is discovering unexplored clefts in the art’s brief history. There’s always something new. Did you know, for instance, that in the early days of cinema, studios employed photographers to capture onset moments rather than extract stills from dailies? Did you know that these photographs were used for fanciful movie posters, embroidered with attractive lettering denoting the film’s title and dramatis personae, and then circulated to build publicity around the production? And did you know that this was popular practice in the Weimar Republic? Me either. And it’s this novel topic, plus a huge index of stills collected in a handsome coffee table book, that makes Hans Helmut Prinzler’s Sirens & Sinners: A Visual History of Weimar Film 1918-1933 a particularly exciting publication. This title comes to us from Thames & Hudson, a publisher which consistently puts out extraordinary illustrated books on art and visual cultural. Thankfully, this book doesn’t betray that reputation, giving its readers images which not only testify to the beauty of their referents but also their own inherent beauty.
This present text has everything the Weimar film cognoscenti would want in a book of this sort. It begins with a helpful 56-page overview of the Weimar Republic and its cinematic landscape, and discusses such matters as the political climate, the short-lived liberalism of the period, suspension of any governmental censorship, film technology, film magazines, and popular genres. Appropriately, Prinzler devotes the majority of the book to 433 stunning photographs from these films (335 in duotone), which he prefaces with succinct plot summaries and lists of their respective major players. Fans of German cinematic history certainly won’t be disappointed in them. All the major works are here. There’s Passion (1919), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), Metropolis (1927), Pandora’s Box (1929), M (1931), as well as a long litany of other notable works that would be way too exhausting to list here (there’s 70 films represented in all!).
An obvious observation, I think, is that such a format befits the presentation of cinema known for its visual stylization and subliminality, as well as one that’s had a decisive influence on cinemas outside its national borders, with such notable examples as film noir, horror, and early Japanese street films. We should be careful, though, not to think this text just a simple anthology of photographs to remind us of Weimar films’ visual magnificence, as many of the reviewers seem to have done in recent months. To do so, I claim, would yield a disrespectful, if not insulting assessment of Prinzler’s work, relegating it to a sort of wow-look-at-the-pretty-pictures book. To my knowledge, none of these reviewers note that Prinzler sets out these stills as a means, not an end. They aren’t just for our passive ogling or to inspire in us nostalgia for a time when studios were able to produce films that were at once commercially successful and artistically ambitious, but to inform us of a hitherto little known crevice of film history which houses the details of this now outmoded profession.
The book’s description of these still photographers’ duties is itself fascinating. As I mentioned earlier, German film studios hired these so-called still photographers, “a specialist job in itself,” to hang around onset and capture singular moments of the dramatic action during filming (11). As Rainer Rother and Werner Sudendorf write in the Foreword, filmmakers and still photographers alike didn’t think highly of the profession, each finding it both disruptive to the flow of production and reductive to their artistic abilities. It was just business, a paycheck. A few of these photographers, however, took their work seriously and managed to produce some remarkable stills, many of which now serve as a visual record of “some famous [Weimar] movies…[as well as some that] have even faded into oblivion” (13). Unfortunately, this profession has joined this latter category of films in such a historical oblivion, and the “names of very few of these photographers have survived from the days of the Weimar Republic” (12). The task of this present text, then, is a noble one: with its overview and images, it directs readers’ attention toward the work of these scarcely known artisans, and prompts us to query if this still photography is—could be—a bona fide art form itself. It’s a question the book poses but never answers, leaving it up to us to decide (12). I like to think it is.
Since receiving my review copy of Sirens & Sinners, I find myself constantly revisiting it, and proudly display it for guests to see, eagerly waiting for them to say, “wow, that’s a nice book—what’s it about?” I grin (internally readying to unleash on my spiel) and pose the same questions with which I opened this review. Besides being slightly annoying, I’m sure, my behavior indicates the two-fold success of Prinzler’s book. First, its photographs demonstrate why these films were so remarkable in the first place, and does so in a way that prose never could. Second, it gives visibility to an especially novel and deserving topic. It’s these kinds of books that remind me why I love film. Although the study of cinema is barely half a century old, and although the field seems at times totally excavated by minds more intelligent than our own, scholars continue to unearth some microscopic, neglected area of study, these precious terra incognitas that await our attention. That’s just the kind of mission that Prinzler is on here, and he succeeds marvelously. His text proves why no serious student of cinema should ever be bored with the field.
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.