Gerhard Lamprecht (1897-1974), a passionate filmgoer and film collector from boyhood on, participated in nearly 70 films in the capacities of actor, screenwriter and director. A director first and foremost, he created his films in a familial environment with a fixed team of technical collaborators and while he dealt in many genres, it is Lamprecht’s films of Berlin that rise above the others.
Throughout the tremendous political changes that led from the Weimar Republic, through to National Socialism, and two differently oriented post-war German states, Lamprecht continued to produce films–a rarity for a German filmmaker. Since childhood, he had collected films, stills and posters, and sustained this collectors sensibility throughout his lifetime. In 1962, the city of Berlin acquired the Kinemathek Lamprecht and now his once private collection lives on as a public resource and major international institution: The Deutsche Kinemathek.
Gerhard Lamprecht was born on October 6th, 1897 in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, and lived in the city for the remainder of his life. Berlin would become one of the most prominent features and marks of consistency in his broad body of work, as Lamprecht’s films rigorously reflected the dynamic shifts which so rapidly and perpetually transformed the city. From a young age, Lamprecht was thoroughly immersed in cinematic culture – something remarkable for an individual who was only two years younger than cinema itself. He played with a laterna magica as a child and had seen his first film before entering elementary school, as his father was a prison priest who would often screen films for the prisoners.
Lamprecht collected his first films at the age of nine and began working as a projectionist i 1911 at the age of fourteen which provided him with the opportunity to expand his collection of posters, prints, and programs. When his father screened Victor Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm (1913) at the prison, Lamprecht became certain that he wanted to be a film director. This Swedish film painted a dark and critical portrait of the country’s welfare system and ultimately led to widespread debate and some legal reforms. The film is credited by some as being the first social realist film – a mode that manifests later in Lamprecht’s own work. In 1914, he sold his first script to Berlin production company Eiko-Film. Little else is known about the script or the film, which has been lost.
Upon graduation from secondary school in 1916, Lamprecht enrolled in the Art History and Dramatics program at Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität (now Humboldt University) in Berlin. He took acting classes and first performed under the stage name Gerhard Otto this same year. In 1917, he signed a contract to work as a dramatic advisor with Messter-Film GmbH, but was drafted into the military only two days later. At some point during the First World War, unsure about the future of his career, Lamprecht sold his first film collection, however, when he was wounded in 1918, he continued writing scripts while recovering in a military hospital. The following year he became the chief dramatic advisor at director Lupu Pick’s production company Rex-Film-Gesellschaft.
Lamprecht’s directorial debut arrived in 1920 with Es bleibt in der Familie; it is unlikely that the film has survived. Lamprecht directed eleven more films (and wrote the scripts for six), including the box-office successes of Die Beichte der Ausgestoßenen (1921), Die Beichte der Mörderin (1921) and Die Beichte der Krankenschwester (1921), before the release of his first major success, Buddenbrooks (1923). Buddenbrooks was based on Thomas Mann’s best-selling novel of the same name, which later earned him a Nobel Prize in Literature, although Lamprecht’s film version of the novel updates the 19th century narrative, setting it in 1923. He had acquired the rights to the story through scriptwriter Luise Heilborn-Körbitz’s brother, who was a friend of Mann’s.
The narrative follows a wealthy family’s gradual genealogical deterioration and decline from power over the course of four generations, though Lamprecht’s adaptation focuses on the third generation. The film deals with topics of alienation, inflation, unemployment and bankruptcy, which unsurprisingly struck a chord with German populations suffering from the economic consequences of the Treaty of Versailles. This film’s success brought Lamprecht to the fore as a talented German film director.
Social Realism and ‘Zille Films’
In the mid-1920s, with the production of Die Verrufenen (1925), Lamprecht began innovating an early form of cinematic social realism. On this film, he collaborated with famous 67 year-old artist Heinrich Zille, whose caricatured drawings of often brutal living conditions in Berlin were perceived as honest depictions of urban working class life in Weimar Germany. The subjects of Zille’s drawings – vagabonds, alcoholics, former convicts, street children, prostitutes – were to become the protagonists of Lamprecht’s films, his goal being “to depict life realistically within a feature film plot.”
Such depictions of urban poverty are especially significant during the Weimar Republic, which was economically devastated by the harsh penalties imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, such as the payment of immense reparations to the Entente Powers which led to drastic inflation and unemployment. During this time, the German middle class lost all economic stability and the class of urban poor expanded dramatically. This was the milieu whom Zille is credited with portraying so genuinely. Initially, producer Franz Vogel had great difficulty securing funding, as many studios rejected the notion that films about poor people could be lucrative. Die Verrufenen was marketed as being ‘based on the experiences of Heinrich Zille’, and tells the story of a hardworking, sympathetic ex-prisoner’s difficulties reintegrating into society.
The film was a commercial success, commended for its serious treatment of urgent social issues and declared “der erste Zille film” – the first Zille film – by the Social Democratic Party’s newspaper Vorwärts. The opening sequence depicts Zille drawing in his studio, in an ostensibly documentary context, and offers a close-up of his drawing of four men at a bar before the shot dissolves into an actual bar setting, where the same four men now inhabit a cinematic world. Some critics have suggested that Zille’s involvement in the filmmaking process was overstated by producers as a sort of publicity stunt.
Indeed, Lamprecht’s longtime cameraman Karl Hasselmann recalls that “Zille only came to the studio two or three times”, though he was very happy with the film. Hasselmann also reveals that the aforementioned shot of Zille in his studio was, in fact, a true-to-life recreation of his living room built in Lamprecht’s studio. It seems that Zille was more of a conceptual muse and inspirational figure than a key creative member of the production team. Regardless, it is certain that this opening sequence which frames the film as literally entering and animating Zille’s drawing – and the title card indicating that the film is based on his experiences – would have granted the film this claim to social authenticity that was at the core of Zille’s public image.
The implications of depicting these ‘authentic’ working class environments are twofold: they endow the images with a journalistic truth status akin to that of bearing witness in documentary, which is compatible with social critique; however, they also exoticise poor and working class subjects, evoking the history of ‘slumming’ in which destitution is rendered as entertainment.
Some of Lamprecht’s production techniques, such as shooting on location and employing non-professional actors, also connoted a cinematic realism that prefigures Italian Neorealism’s more radical use of these methods. For example, in his 1958 interview with Hasselmann, Lamprecht recalls that they recruited extras from a homeless shelter and a brothel, brought them to the studio, and paid the amateur extras for their time. The use of colloquial language in the intertitles – often quoting the Berlin dialect that captioned Zille’s drawings – enhanced these films’ realist sensibility even before realism really existed as an aesthetic category describing film form.
Lamprecht had begun experimenting with this almost documentary-realist style in his previous film, Hanseaten (1925), which was shot on location in Hamburg. Hanseaten depicted working class life and incorporated footage of city life such as industrial ship workers into the narrative framework. These Zille films are often understood as cinematic examples of ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (New Objectivity), an artistic movement in Weimar Germany that countered the romanticism of abstraction and expressionism in favour of socially engaged realism. Die Verrufenen also inaugurated in German cinema a trend of representing the urban working-class misery that so profoundly saturated daily life during the Weimar era.
After the release of Die Verrufenen in 1925, Lamprecht founded his own production company, Gerhard-Lamprecht-Filmproduktion, where he worked with the same key crew members on most films. Scriptwriter Luise Heilborn-Körbiz was a longtime collaborator beginning in 1920, writing the scripts for sixteen of Lamprecht’s films and all of his major works from the decade. Other notable partnerships were with cinematographer Karl Hasselmann, executive producer Franz Vogel, and composer Guiseppe Becce. During this period, Lamprecht continued his explorations into the social realist ‘Zille films’, which would be some of his most commercially successful works, including Menschen untereinander (1926), Die Unehelichen (1926), and Unter der Laterne (1928).
At the Deutsche Kinemathek, Rolf Aurich and Wolfgang Jacobsen have each recently published volumes on Lamprecht which, along with a collection of interviews conducted by Lamprecht and edited by Eva Orbanz, are the most comprehensive and authoritative works on him to date. Aurich and Jacobsen observe that Lamprecht “made films almost like a collector – driven by a documentary interest in the world… and observational orientation that discerned essential realities in an apparently trivial object or glance at the mundane.” One distinctive stylistic element in Lamprecht’s Zille films is the intentionality pronounced by his poetic close-ups of seemingly peripheral objects. This attention to detail parallels the documentary impulse behind his desire to capture a milieu. Lamprecht’s story development is often prudent and leisurely, editing footage to a slow rhythm that emphasizes the passing of time. Given his films’ archival quality, one can detect similar projects at work in Lamprecht’s filmmaking and his objectives as a film collector.
The Zille films are all characterised by their commitment to exploring the hardships of urban life in Weimar Germany, and especially in Zille’s working class milieu of Berlin. The films’ consistent depictions of virtuous suffering somewhat resembles the melodramas of Classical Hollywood, only with a greater proximity to social and aesthetic reality. In an interview, Lamprecht explains the realist impulse behind his attraction to melodramatic tragedy: “Life is not the way one reads about it in children’s books, rather I learned to know realism. My clever parents, especially my mother, gave me answers about this early on; if I read stories or novels in which the bad, rather than the good, won, then I was told, yes, that’s what life is like, one has to get used to it. Good is not always rewarded – and that left its mark already very early.”
Certainly, the tragic endings of films like Unter der Laterne are resounding and intensify the film’s social commentary with affective force. However, several of the Zille films – including Die Verrufenen, Menschen untereinander, and Die Unehelichen – end with optimism. Many have criticised Lamprecht for these films, arguing that they reinforce a myth of upward economic mobility.
The question of Lamprecht’s cinematic commitment to politics is at times baffling. He certainly addressed issues of inequality with devoted regularity, however he failed to offer any meaningful critique of the institutions that produced these conditions. For instance, Die Verrufenen (subtitled Der fünfte Stand / The Fifth Estate) ends with an intertitle claiming that “poverty and misery, vice and alcohol turn people into what is called the Fifth Estate,” with no suggestion that “poverty, misery, vice and alcohol” might be symptoms of greater institutional problems rather than hermetic problems in themselves. Lamprecht had a Christian upbringing, and was fundamentally both a humanist and a conservative. He was aware of and compassionate to the struggles of the poor, but believed that these struggles could be overcome through the navigation of existing social structures, solidarity and hard work.
Menschen untereinander presents a microcosm of Weimar Germany’s stratification in an apartment building, where injustice is resolved when the building’s new ownership introduce a period of compassionate cooperation. Another example is Die Unehelichen, which Lamprecht and scriptwriter Luise Heilborn-Körbitz based on an official report from the Association for the Protection of Children against Exploitation and Abuse, as well as anecdotal evidence from the employees who also granted them access to many foster children’s files. Die Unehelichen depicts the abuse of orphans under foster care, which Lamprecht says he was compelled to represent because he had known destitute children during his childhood. This film drew attention to the issue of mistreated children and, according to Lamprecht, led to at least one intervention into a specific instance of abuse.
Many critics praised Lamprecht for this, however the Left criticised him for the “essentially mistaken welfare character of the film.” He formalises class dialectics in several of these Zille films, frequently juxtaposing lavish wealth against extreme poverty. However, the upper class are not criticized, but are most often depicted as benevolent and compassionate saviours who might assist in the emancipation of oppressed peoples. For example, in Die Unehelichen, Peter – the protagonist, a thirteen year-old child in foster care – is adopted by a wealthy, loving mother. Lamprecht was criticised for this decision because it proposes the impracticable, utopian solution of simply finding better parents for these children.
In an interview with Gero Gandert, Lamprecht claimed of Die Verrufenen that “for those days, the film was so daring that nobody believed it would get past the censor.” Producers and distributors saw potential censorship as a serious and valid threat to the film’s financial success. Despite this, Lamprecht rejected any suggestion that he was a politically critical filmmaker, and had no desire to be one. In 1925, influential Weimar satirist and journalist Kurt Tucholsky wrote of Zille: “He doesn’t judge, he draws. He doesn’t condemn, he feels.” The same could be said of Lamprecht. He regarded it his duty to encapsulate the reality he observed, infused with compassion but no critique or interpretation.
Der alte Fritz (1927/1928) – not a Zille film but a Prussian military costume drama – has been criticized for aligning authoritarian monarchism with working class values. Critics have accused Der alte Fritz of undermining the value of republicanism, by insinuating that an authoritarian government in Germany may not have been as devastated by post-World War I treaty negotiations. While this interpretation certainly holds, it seems highly unlikely that Lamprecht would have been considering such political implications. He was fundamentally concerned with capturing the working class reality of urban modernity, often with little critical intervention, and was smitten by traditional 19th century romanticism.
While Lamprecht’s Zille films may not have been exceptionally radical or anti-institutional, they encapsulated and dramatised the everyday hardships with which many then-contemporary audiences would have been all-too-familiar. In doing so, Lamprecht distilled into his films the lamentable realities of Weimar life, as Zille had done in his drawings. Both Lamprecht and Zille produced a popular culture that was socially engaged and deeply relevant to contemporary concerns, while simultaneously preserving it for future audiences. Their attention to social reality, and the aesthetic orientation facilitating this proximity, would become a central feature of some of the 20th century’s most important cinematic movements.
Emil und die Detektive
Following the Zille films, Gerhard Lamprecht’s next great success was Emil und die Detektive (1931), perhaps the most celebrated film of his career. Billy Wilder adapted the script from Erich Kästner’s popular 1929 novel. Wilder was praised at the time for writing a ‘perfect’ script in terms of tone and narrative development, and for its appeal to both children and adults. Favourable reviews from the film’s premiere suggest that it would ‘put Wilder on the map,’ although there seems to be a general consensus that this had already occurred with his second screenplay, Menschen am Sonntag (1929). Emil und die Detektive tells the story of a boy, Emil, who is traveling to Berlin to visit his grandmother when he is drugged and robbed on the train. Emil then mobilizes the support of a group of urchins in the streets of Berlin, ultimately recovering his money and leading to the criminal’s arrest.
In Emil und die Detektive, Lamprecht remains invested in depicting Berlin’s working class milieu, foregrounding the city’s identity through close-ups of signs and street names, as well as aesthetic strategies which convey Berlin’s dynamic character as the novel does. At this time, the impacts of the Great Depression were being felt in Germany. The postwar economy’s already precarious reconstruction was formerly buttressed by American loans, which were now being withdrawn, provoking a further catastrophic rise in German unemployment. This period of crisis was accompanied by growing political instability, as the Nazi Party penetrated the Reichstag with one fifth of the vote.
Before writing Emil und die Detektive, Erich Kästner had been a satirical author very critical of the Weimar government’s incompetence and their betrayal of those fighting in the First World War. His 1929 novel remained conscious of the struggles of the working class poor, however it treats these hardships within a framework of optimism which only grew more necessary into 1931, when Lamprecht released the film at the height of the Great Depression. One reviewer commented that “it’s not just a children’s story, but a matter for grown-ups as well… It brings delight and the warm, sincere cheer that we urgently need especially during these bleak times of depression”. The narrative reinforces the importance of community and solidarity in pursuing a just society, while holding the older generation accountable for the destitution being suffered on a national scale. Collectivity and public engagement are posited as heartwarming solutions to the contemporary crisis.
As in Die Unehelichen, children feature prominently, and Lamprecht directs them expertly. Critics were captivated by the child actors’ apparent naturalism, attributing their success to Lamprecht’s direction. Many credited the children with helping older audiences sympathize with the youth of Germany. Aurich and Jacobsen observe of Die Unehelichen that Lamprecht was sensitive with child actors and “able to avoid overburdening them, instead respecting their childish seriousness.” This was also true of Emil und die Detektive. Lamprecht not only obtains naturalistic performances from the children, but cultivates a cinematic timbre that is distinctively youthful, though by no means immature.
He crafts a world in which children and adults alike can live out their childhood fantasies. No mere exercise in escapism, this fantastical journey is also productive. The film’s childlike quality does not invalidate children’s views. Often, it is quite the opposite, as youth are shown to encounter the world with the simultaneous romanticism and pragmatism–’childish seriousness’–necessary to elevate Germany out of its contemporary crisis.
Emil is in some ways a silent-sound film hybrid, reflecting the formal uncertainties that preoccupied the transition to sound film, which had only begun one year earlier in the German mainstream, most famously with Josef von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel (1930). The film features many exciting action sequences, several of which are devoid of diegetic sound but rely instead on music to generate suspense. Lamprecht’s formal vocabulary is less restrained than in the Zille films, including, for example, a hallucinatory dream sequence engorged with special effects after Emil is drugged, and a stylized car chase composed of perfectly framed close-ups and physical comedy. These stylistic choices generate a film with tremendous box office potential, and indeed, it went on to become one of the most popular films of the late Weimar Republic, as well as an international success, playing in New York and London for a year.
Lamprecht under the Third Reich
In 1933, the German political landscape transformed dramatically as the Nazi Party rose to power and began structuring a totalitarian state, infiltrating every aspect of daily life, including film production. Lamprecht effectively maintained a career under National Socialism, while also directing several French versions of his films in France before the outbreak of World War II. From 1933 to 1945, he directed twenty German films and five French versions, predominantly melodramas, crime films, and adaptations of literary works. He continued to work with cinematographer Karl Hasselmann and composer Giuseppe Becce until 1941. Although Lamprecht resisted propagandistic subject matter, some degree of acquiescence was necessary for anyone producing mainstream culture during the Third Reich.
Gerd Albrecht became one of the first German scholars to write about film production under the Third Reich when he obtained funding from the West German government in the early 1950s. According to Albrecht, fifteen percent of the films released during this period had categorically propagandistic objectives, and Lamprecht did not participate in their production. Albrecht explains that the remaining eighty-five percent of Nazi films “were intended to be escapist and offer reassurance in the face of everyday hardships. The further that these films were removed from reality, the better they functioned in National Socialist terms. Almost all references to political life and the everyday life of the viewers were missing.” In other words, although these films did not necessarily indoctrinate viewers as the prototypical Nazi propaganda films did, they nevertheless deluded audiences by evacuating all social awareness and political critique from popular entertainment, thereby fostering a culture of conformity. The vast majority of Lamprecht’s films made from 1933 to 1945 were melodramas (for example Was wissen denn Männer (1933), Madame Bovary (1937) and Die Geliebte (1939)) or crime-adventure thrillers (for example Ein gewisser Herr Gran (1933), Die gelbe Flagge (1937), and Frau im Strom (1939)), all featuring romantic love as a central plot point.
With these films, Lamprecht contributed to the trend of producing escapist films that distracted from the contemporary reality. Conventional in their form and content, they departed from the social realist tendency that was prominent in his Zille films and Emil und die Detektive – a tendency strictly forbidden from National Socialist film production. During this era, scripts underwent thorough censorship review in preproduction. Lamprecht had very little agency in determining which films he would direct, unlike his films from the twenties for which he often co-wrote the scripts.
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels swiftly reorganized the German film industry into an authoritarian hierarchical structure governed by Nazi ideology. This was achieved through such mechanisms as the creation of the exclusive Reichsfilmkammer (Reich Film Guild), membership to which was a requirement of working in the industry. Nazi influence over film production was also secured through the centralisation, monopolisation, and eventual Nazi ownership of Universum Film AG (Ufa), the most important studio in pre-World War II Germany where Lamprecht made eighteen of the twenty-five films he directed under the Third Reich. National Socialist ideology can be detected more explicitly in some of these films, such as Der höhere Befehl (1935), which suggests that individual freedom is always subordinate to the glory of the nation. Der höhere Befehl, as well as Mädchen im Vorzimmer (1940) and Clarissa (1941) also feature anti-Semitic representations of ostensibly Jewish characters.
In the penultimate sequence of Die gelbe Flagge, an entire Indigenous tribe in South America are slaughtered by the Western coloniser protagonists, in a glorified display of military might and implicit ethnic superiority. Despite the political violence of such representation, Ufa expert Klaus Kreimeier claims that compared to most filmmakers under the Third Reich, Lamprecht was “always trying to subvert the ideological structure of the Nazi film and to break through the established clichés.”He was certainly not a high-ranking Nazi filmmaker, however Lamprecht remained productive during this period and was well-paid, receiving 32,500 Reichsmark per film. Although he resisted participating in the most destructive Nazi propaganda films, he certainly adapted to the new conditions of Nazi film production with little dissent.
In 1945, all of these films would be banned. The Allies’ attempt to eliminate Nazi ideology from German culture involved the seizure of all prints of German films made between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945, amounting to 1094 feature films and approximately 2000 documentaries. The subsequent process of reviewing these films’ ideological content, which occurred through the 1950s, found that most of Lamprecht’s films were not harmful to de-Nazification efforts and were suitable for release. Some exceptions are Spione am Werk (1933) and Der höhere Befehl (1935) which were both Staatsauftragsfilme, meaning that they were “produced by Order of the German Reich and entirely financed by it.” Die Geliebte (1939), Mädchen im Vorzimmer (1940) and the unfinished Kamerad Hedwig (1944-1945) were also barred from rerelease.
Under National Socialism, Lamprecht was also a target of censorship beyond the self-censorship required in acquiescence to Fascism. Zwischen Nacht und Morgen (1931) was banned in 1933 for crude depictions of violence and sexuality, and Emil und die Detektive was banned after 1937 due to source author Erich Kästner’s expressly anti-Nazi political views. Der Spieler (1938) was also banned three days after its late October premiere because lead actress Lída Baarová’s two-year-long affair with Joseph Goebbels became public, and Hitler himself subsequently ordered her departure from Germany and her elimination from cultural memory.
During the Third Reich, Lamprecht also diversified from filmmaking and focused more efforts into his archival work. On February 4th 1935, he attended the opening of the first film archive in Germany, the Reichsfilmarchiv, an event which Hitler and Goebbels also attended. For the next six years, Lamprecht had his 35mm prints duplicated onto 16mm reversal film, which he stored in his Berlin apartment to project for himself and his friends. In 1943, he sent his 16mm prints to Dresden – an act which proved vital to his collection’s survival when his valuable 35mm nitrate prints were destroyed in a bombing at the end of the war. Many of the stills collected by Lamprecht were later used in books and exhibitions about World War II. Through the course of his career, Lamprecht would come to prioritize his archival work over his filmmaking.
DEFA and Lamprecht’s rubble film
Following the end of World War II, Lamprecht resumed his pre-Third Reich role as an autonomous filmmaker. He became involved with the Filmaktiv, a group founded by previously exiled communist filmmakers who sought to revitalise German cinema, especially by enlisting it in the Soviet zone’s reeducation and denazification efforts. In the other occupied zones in postwar Germany, there was great reluctance and resistance to institutionalising film production due to the alarming propagandistic potency of Nazi cinema. However, film production in the Soviet zone resumed very swiftly, beginning with the Filmaktiv’s newsreels which were intended to promote a sense of respect for other people and other nations.
On November 22, 1945, Lamprecht attended a meeting held by the Filmaktiv to discuss the future of German film production. Also in attendance were directors Wolfgang Staudte, Peter Pewas, and Boleslaw Barlog, and writers Hans Fallada and Friedrich Wolf, among others. Having consistently produced these newsreels for the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD) for several months, the Filmaktiv had effectively revived German film production, and applied for a license to be officially recognized as a production company. The Filmaktiv became Deutsche Film AG (DEFA) on May 17, 1946, at a founding ceremony which Lamprecht attended. DEFA’s official mandate was to “restore democracy in Germany and remove all traces of fascist and militaristic ideology from the minds of every German.” Lamprecht was very active at DEFA and spent time teaching young film practitioners, especially through lectures about silent film and the transition to synced sound. He also directed DEFA’s third feature film: Irgendwo in Berlin (1946).
Irgendwo in Berlin premiered on December 18, 1946 and was very well received by critics and the public alike. It is the second German Trümmerfilm (rubble film) after Die Mörder sind unter uns (1946), resembling contemporaneous Italian Neorealist films in their on-location confrontation with the recent trauma of fascism and World War II. Rubble constantly overwhelms the frame in both Trümmerfilm and their Italian counterparts. The prominence of rubble in these postwar cinemas performs a documentary function of exposing the physical devastation that occurred, while on an ideological level positing the rebuilding process as a hopeful one. In Irgendwo in Berlin, Lamprecht returns to his Weimar era disposition of creating socially relevant films, with a renewed commitment to realism – the antithesis of his Third Reich films. The film formally opposes the paradigmatic Nazi film by rejecting the intrusion of lavish aesthetics and the artifice of studio production. Lamprecht also fashions a film that is in line with the communist ideology of East Germany in his refusal to accommodate the star system that predominated Nazi cinema.
Irgendwo in Berlin echoes Lamprecht’s Weimar era works, especially Die Unehelichen and Emil und die Detektive, in its proximity to a milieu of children who are thoroughly immersed in Berlin’s temperament. The film’s immediate postwar production, and Lamprecht’s willingness to directly confront the attendant trauma, endows the film with a richness of allegorical and political complexity that has stimulated much scholarship on the work, compared to Lamprecht’s other films. Irgendwo in Berlin can be regarded as cinematic Vergangenheitsbewältigung: the process of addressing a traumatic past.
In an interview, Lamprecht explains: “We had to make the correct choice of subject matter. That was the most difficult. Because you can only gently re-educate a people who had to go through so many years of hardship, the majority of whom are disappointed and bitter after the exposure of their ‘leader-seducer’, and are inclined not to believe in anything anymore. Undoubtedly, the film has an educational task. But the best teachers are those who impart a lesson without revealing their intention. That is why I try to seize the audience by showing them humanity.” Lamprecht’s ironic justification of propaganda here indicates the extent to which he was committed to the Soviet reeducation efforts and to DEFA’s mandate. It seems he was willing to reinstitute some of Goebbels’s dangerous tactics in an effort to eliminate Nazi ideology from the German public.
Irgendwo in Berlin prominently stages themes of inter-generational conflict, crises of masculinity, and oppositional discourses of anarchy and tyranny as methods of exploring and reconciling national division. As in Emil und die Detektive, optimistic solidarity is the proposed solution to national devastation. Like most German Trümmerfilm, collective guilt for National Socialist crimes is not explicitly addressed, but is abstracted and displaced into certain characters’ subjectivities, such as Gustav’s father’s struggle with what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder. The children’s loss of innocence is pronounced, especially when compared to the children of Die Unehelichen or Emil und die Detektive. The children of Irgendwo in Berlin roam the ruins of Berlin playing reckless military-inspired games, shooting fireworks as if they were artillery, and reawakening in older generations the distressing memories they are attempting to overcome. Looking back at the film nearly seventy years later, the spectrality of sustained violence anticipates the failures of denazification that would continue to haunt Germany for decades.
Irgendwo in Berlin – and Trümmerfilm in general – examined life in immediate postwar Germany with a realist intimacy that was soon to vanish from the nation altogether. With the rise of escapist Heimatfilm, the social honesty of Trümmerfilm would not resurface in a popular German context until the emergence of New German Cinema.
From director to archivist
After Irgendwo in Berlin, Lamprecht’s films deteriorated into generic entertainment-oriented pictures. They still concerned themselves with contemporary issues, especially the hardships of reintegrating into a rebuilding nation, however they were not urgent nor socially engaged in the way that Irgendwo in Berlin had been. Instead, they incorporated postwar themes into conventional genres such as melodramas and historical epics. The first of these films was Lamprecht’s only other DEFA film, Quartett zu fünft (1948/1949), which depicts a former prisoner-of-war’s difficulties returning home. Lamprecht had initially hoped to live in West Germany, but ended up joining DEFA due to the lack of film production opportunities outside of the Soviet zone. However, in 1949, he moved to West Germany and directed four more similar feature films – domestic dramas as well as the successful epic Meines Vaters Pferde (1953/1954). Though not as escapist as his Third Reich films, Lamprecht’s post-Irgendwo in Berlin works were insistently conventional. They lacked the realist proximity to urban working class society that had distinguished his best works.
During this period, Lamprecht began doubting himself as a director. On March 29, 1947 at a screening of Irgendwo in Berlin, he had met Henri Langlois, a pioneer of film preservation, the co-founder of the Cinémathèque Francaise and the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), and a key figure in the development of the French New Wave and auteur theory. Lamprecht subsequently developed a relationship with Langlois, film critic and archivist Lotte Eisner, and the Cinémathèque Francaise. In 1954, Lamprecht wrote a distressed letter to Eisner admitting that he was unhappy with every film he had directed since Irgendwo in Berlin, and that the contemporary climate of film production was incompatible with his artistic ambitions. In the letter, he asked Eisner to relay to Langlois that he was in need of comforting words and confirmation of his continued support. In 1952, he had turned down an offer from Theodor Baensch, the leading film official at the Central Administration for Popular Education, to found and head a German film archive. However, he ultimately terminated his filmmaking career in favour of film preservation. His last film was Menschen im Werk (1957), an industrial film commissioned by the Federation of Employers’ Associations in the German Chemical Industry which depicted a variety of workers as complex individuals existing beyond their occupations. The film’s blend of empathic social engagement and archival formal characteristics somewhat resembles Lamprecht’s earlier works.
During the 1950s, Lamprecht’s interest in film preservation gradually replaced his filmmaking work. Since the Third Reich, he had built relationships with emerging archival institutions, contributing to the development of the practice before its methodologies and social function had been established. Lamprecht had been involved with Germany’s first film archive, the Reichsfilmarchiv, since its founding in 1934. The second director of the Reichsfilmarchiv was Frank Hensel, FIAF’s first president, and an ideologically committed Nazi.[xxvii] In spite of their tremendous political differences, Hensel and Langlois were frequent collaborators; they were both founding members of FIAF, and Hensel assisted Langlois and Eisner with hiding films that were under threat of being destroyed or confiscated by the Nazis, such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940).[xxviii]
Lamprecht was embedded in this circle of key developers and institutionalizers of film preservation. He was also close friends with Herbert Volkmann, who had overseen the development of the Filmaktiv and went on to become the head of the Staatliches Filmarchiv der DDR (the State Film Archive of the GDR) from 1958 until 1969.[xxix] Beginning in the late 1940s, Lamprecht often held screenings of silent films accompanied by lectures, for instance at the Cinémathèque Francaise in 1951 and the Berlinale in 1952. In 1953, the Cinémathèque hosted a reception in his honour which was attended by many important figures in French cinema, including some with whom he had worked in the thirties on the French versions of his films. Lamprecht also received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in February 1956, at an event where some short films from his silent film collection were screened.
In spring of 1960, Lamprecht attended International Film Studies Week in Vienna and denounced the inaccuracy of German film history books that had been published after the war. One subject of significant criticism was Heinrich Fraenkel’s authoritative tome Unsterblicher Film (Immortal Film), of which Lamprecht boldly claimed that seventy percent of its contents were inaccurate. Lamprecht’s intentions in building a film collection had always been to preserve silent films, especially those from the pre-World War I period. He regarded the preservation of these early films as a pursuit of vital academic importance. In 1961, the Berlin Senate commissioned Hans Barkhausen to assess the value of Lamprecht’s collection. Many criticised the absence of key German Expressionist works, which were highly regarded on an international scale and thus very desirable. However, Barkhausen noted that Lamprecht’s main goal had been the preservation of pre-World War I films, which were at huge risk of being lost; at the time when Lamprecht was building his collection, it was not yet clear that these formally radical films from the twenties would be endangered by a similar threat of destruction during World War II.
In 1962, the Berlin Senate purchased Lamprecht’s collection, which – together with the private collection of Albert Fidelius – formed the basis of the Deutsche Kinemathek film archive. Lamprecht was the first head of the Deutsche Kinemathek from 1963 to 1966, though he was incapacitated and unable to work for almost one year after having a heart attack in 1964. During his time as head of the Deutsche Kinemathek, there were many conflicts regarding the institution’s social role. Younger film enthusiasts were frustrated by 67 year-old Lamprecht’s traditionalism and longed for an institution that would screen more contemporarily relevant films to promote audience engagement. These critics founded a parallel organisation: the Friends of the Deutsche Kinemathek. In January 1966, with his health failing, Lamprecht left his position as the head of the Kinemathek. He conducted extensive research on the German silent films produced from 1903 through 1931. In the following few years, he would publish his findings in a ten-volume catalogue, Deutsche Stummfilme 1903-1931, which built on his private collection of index cards. Deutsche Stummfilme preserved generic information about a vast selection of silent German films, and was intended to be a foundation which would facilitate the conducting of more research. This index of silent German film history was the only one of its kind for decades and remains one of the most authoritative reference works on early German cinema.
The rediscovery of Gerhard Lamprecht in recent years offers a unique case study through which to approach the history of German cinema. The historical scope of Lamprecht’s career is truly singular for a mainstream German director. Making his debut during the silent era, as German Expressionist films were attaining international prominence, Lamprecht’s Zille films contributed to an alternative tradition of social realist cinema not usually associated with the silent era, and especially not with German silent film. Later, his films register the transition to synced sound, the rise of Nazism and the attendant political conformity, the trauma of reconstruction, and the postwar bifurcation of Germany. The historiographical significance of Lamprecht’s expansive career is bolstered by the documentary sensibility that governed not only his archival practice, but also his filmmaking. A pioneer in film preservation, Lamprecht’s career as a filmmaker attests to the importance of the archival practices he was pivotal in developing.
(Sources: Gerhard Lamprecht und die Welt der Filmarchive; Zeit und Welt – Gerhard Lamprecht und seine Filme; The Concise Cinegraph: An Encyclopedia of German Cinema; Nobelprize.org; Deutsche Kinemathek; The Concise Cinegraph: An Encyclopedia of German Cinema; Berlin Coquette – Prostitution and the New German Woman; Reworking the German Past: Adaptations in Film, the Arts, and Popular Culture; Kinematograph, No. 280; Gerd Gemünden, A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films; Klaus Kreimeier, The Ufa Story: A History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company; The Catalogue of Forbidden German Feature and Short Film Productions; Sebastian Heiduschke, East German Cinema – DEFA and Film History; Mira Liehm & Antonin J. Liehm, The Most Important Art – Soviet and Eastern European Film after 1945; Frank Hensel and the Reichsfilmarchiv. In R. Daudelin; Wolfgang Klaue, Every Film an Adventure.)