Thinking through a Century of European Silent Films: An Interview with Ioana Crăciun-Fischer
Ioana Crăciun-Fischer has been a prominent figure in the Romanian cultural public sphere. She obtained a DAAD research fellowship during the communist period, at a time when it was very difficult for Eastern European intellectuals to travel and study beyond the Iron Curtain, and she earned her PhD from the University of Tübingen based on her work on the modernist poet Christian Morgenstern. An avid researcher of cultural history, she has pursued her teaching and research career in Germany, the Netherlands, and Romania and has received a number of prestigious awards, including a Humboldt research fellowship. Her work was defined early on by transcultural endeavors, especially through a number of initiatives entailing the translation of poetry and theater. In her work on silent films, she exhibits the same cross-cultural concerns that have guided her overall work. In this interview, we focus in particular on her approach to the silent film genre in relation to the history of Europe.
—Arina Rotaru for EuropeNow
EuropeNow You have published extensively on the history of German, Russian, and American silent film. What has your work contributed to the field?
Ioana Crăciun-Fischer In one of my books, Die Dekonstruktion des Bürgerlichen im Stummfilm der Weimarer Republik (The Deconstruction of the Bourgeois in the Silent Film of the Weimar Republic 2015), I focused on the Weimar Republic, one of the most interesting periods of the German and European film history. This period, which began at the end of Word War I and lasted over a decade, saw an impressive level of productivity and originality. I have also focused on fundamental themes in German silent films, such as life in the city and urban psychopathology, state authority and the proletarian revolution, homosexuality and social discrimination against homosexuals, childhood and poverty, prostitution, and criminality and the law. I have shed new light on some masterpieces of the German silent film era, such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) by Robert Wiene (1920), Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) by G. W. Pabst (1929), Nosferatu by F. W. Murnau (1922), Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (Diary of a Lost Girl) by G. W. Pabst (1929), Metropolis by Fritz Lang (1927), Die Nibelungen (The Nibelungs), also by Fritz Lang (1924), and more. I have analyzed the cultural roots of these films, especially their literary foundations. My continuous interest in silent films has been primarily nourished by their particular black and white aesthetics, but I have also been fascinated by interhuman communication beyond the conventions of spoken language and by the deep connections between the themes addressed in silent films and European history.
EuropeNow How do the literary aesthetic features and cultural roots you mention in connection with these films intersect with class and social conditions? Do these intersections result from the Weimar period and its restless political atmosphere or from a transhistorical transfer, reaching into earlier times and finding an echo in the Weimar period itself?
Ioana Crăciun-Fischer The best answer to this complex question can be found in Siegfried Kracauer’s famous book From Caligari to Hitler (1947), in which he showed that films reflect more accurately than any other form of art the mentality of people within a nation and the historic and cultural experience of a nation. Particularly, for Kracauer, silent films reflect a certain predisposition among Germans towards authoritarian and even dictatorial state forms; silent films anticipated several historical events such as Hitler’s ascension to power or the catastrophe of World War II. Although the Weimar Republic was the first democracy in Germany, German silent films rarely depicted social or political conflicts characteristic of democratic rule. Instead, these films focused on tyranny, dictatorship, and other forms of excessive authority, for example within the family or in gender relations.
EuropeNow You have explored cultural translation, which entails the adaptation of content from one medium to another or from a specific cultural context to another. What silent film best illustrates these dynamics?
Ioana Crăciun-Fischer Undoubtedly, the most influential German silent film has been Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang in 1927. For many decades, this film has shaped our visual representation of a frightening future in which humans can easily be replaced, manipulated, and even destroyed by robots. More recently, the ambivalent motif of the android has been used by musicians such as the “Black Eyed Peas,” an American band whose members have dressed like Fritz Lang’s female robot Maria, or by Janelle Monáe, an American singer, rapper, and actress, whose Afrofuturist album “Archandroid” boasts a cover that makes a clear reference to the film. Finally, Freddy Mercury, the leader of the rock music band “Queen,” appeared in the video film “Radio Gaga” (1984), in which he tried to stop a large clock machine. This scene clearly alludes to a similar scene in Fritz Lang’s film where Freder, the son of a wealthy magnate, symbolically replaces the workers on their ten-hour shift and tries to stop their painful ordeal by unsuccessfully trying to block the arms of the clock machinery. Freddy Mercury was a great admirer of Metropolis. Therefore, it is also not surprising that his video film Love Kills (1984) was conceived as a collage of different scenes taken from this silent film.
EuropeNow The history of silent film as a genre has paralleled many of the developments of the twentieth century, such as the rise of technology and urbanization. However, the origins of the genre are deeper than these developments. How do the origins of silent film connect with the history of Europe and the world?
Ioana Crăciun-Fischer This question constitutes an entire field of film research in itself. The emergence of any form of mass culture—such as film—cannot be separated from the technical means that make it possible. Books were a luxury in the Middle Ages and became accessible to masses of people only later, due to Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention of a new book printing technique. Mutatis mutandis, the history of silent film has been primarily connected to the history of a new technology that gave people access to a new form of art. Notably, one hundred years ago, films were considered a trivial and cheap form of mass entertainment, in contrast to theater, which was the most esteemed of the performing arts and was only accessible to the privileged élites. Also important is the fact that, as a genre, silent film, despite originally focusing on the fantastic, the mysterious, or the grotesque, gradually started addressing important topics in Europe’s social and political history, such as the French Revolution, King Henry’s England, or World War I. However, these films cannot be expected to have documentary qualities and to scientifically reflect the historical truth. These films must be understood as aesthetic products par excellence, which is why they have usually been called “Kostümfilme,” i.e. costume movies.
EuropeNow What is specifically European about silent films?
Ioana Crăciun-Fischer To answer this specific question, it is necessary to address a more general question about how Europe and European culture are defined. Greek antique mythology places the birth of Europe in Phoenicia, i.e. in North Africa. Then, Zeus brought Europe to Crete by crossing the Mediterranean. Therefore, Europe can be seen as one of the most prominent imports in the cultural history of the entire world. However, Europe is a modern cultural concept with obvious limitations. Therefore, we must be cautious when deciding what is specifically European about silent films. Philologically, many silent films’ screenplays are based on masterpieces of world literature or on European legends and mythical characters such as Faust, Dracula, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who can also be easily understood in other cultural contexts.
EuropeNow To what extent has German silent film influenced contemporary cultural studies? Recent studies, for instance, have examined German silent films in relation to hauntology and liveness; others, like your own studies, have focused on social conditions and literary motifs.
Ioana Crăciun-Fischer The influence of German silent films has been considerable. I am glad to see that an increasing number of scholars have paid attention to silent films, which they had neglected for many decades. The belief that silent films constitute nothing else than trivial products and cheap irrelevant forms of mass entertainment has finally been overcome.
EuropeNow How are European silent films connected to other world cinemas? What transcultural connections have emerged?
Ioana Crăciun-Fischer Silent film in Europe—when I say Europe, I primarily refer to Western Europe—gained momentum in the shadow of and under the influence of Soviet cinema, which is not limited to the production by Russian film directors but also includes that of Ukrainian directors such as Alexander Dowschenko, who today we would position as Eastern European. Famous Soviet film directors such as Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, Lev Vladimirovich Kuleshov, Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin, and Dziga Vertov created a specific language centered on Russian films. However, this genre has been obviously limited ideologically while at the same time developing an impressive aesthetic substance and suggestive power. One hundred years ago, Russian films embodied the very idea of cinematic perfection. Therefore, the Russian film complex can be understood as having forced European film directors to seek and define their own aesthetic identity rather than compete with Soviet film masterpieces such as Eisenstein’s Potemkin. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was an attempt to address the idea of a proletarian revolution—a real obsession of Soviet filmmakers—from a completely different point of view. It was also an attempt at convincing a Western European audience that a proletarian revolution was futile and nothing else than destructive and that there were other, less dramatic means to make the world a better place. An important shift in establishing transnational connections between European silent films and other world cinemas can be noticed in the very moment German film directors, script writers, and actors of Jewish origin were forced to leave Hitler’s Germany and continued their work in Hollywood, as Fritz Lang did. The latter’s predilection for monumentality, visible in his Universum Film Aktien Gesellschaft (UFA) films Die Nibelungen (The Nibelungs) (1924) and Metropolis (1927), is a vivid proof of the great influence of early American silent films such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) on cinematic taste during the Weimar Republic. Another important German film director—F.W. Murnau—left Europe because of his homosexuality and was able to continue his much acclaimed career in the United States until his tragic death in a car accident in California in 1931 at the age of 42. Finally, although she was mostly unknown in the United States, American film actress Louise Brooks was made famous through the film Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (Diary of a Lost Girl), directed by G. W. Pabst, a European Austrian film and stage director working both in Europe and the United States. Transnational connections between European silent films and other world cinemas were thus extremely productive in the 1920s and 1930s. Even today, silent films continue to engross audiences, as proven by their successful revival as a genre in the French comedy-drama The Artist (2011) by Michel Hazanavicius or in the American film Babylon (2022), directed by Damien Chazelle.
EuropeNow What are your current research interests?
Ioana Crăciun-Fischer My research work is now concentrated on the representation of female characters in German silent films. I am particularly interested in analyzing classical feminine hypostases such as the mother, the wife, the sister, or the prostitute as depicted both in the silent films and German literature of the Weimar Republic. Approaching silent films through gender studies is relatively new; I enjoy the challenge any pioneering work implies.
Ioana Crăciun-Fischer is a professor of German literature and cultural history at the University of Bucharest, as well as a poet, playwright, and artist. She has published several books in German on topics ranging from modernist poetry and silent film to contemporary theater and ancient myth. She has also translated into Romanian several works from German, English, and American literature.
Arina Rotaru is an Assistant Professor at Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University, United International College, who earned her PhD in German Studies and Comparative Literature from Cornell University and her BA from the University of Bucharest. Her research interests include comparative modernities, minoritarian avant-gardes, world literature and film, and diasporic poetics.
 UFA was a renowned German motion picture production company.
Published on May 1, 2023.