Christian Wolff & The German Cinema

The influence of Protestantism and the Aufklärung cannot, as so often is the case, be neglected in the analysis of German, Hungarian, Austrian, Dutch, Latvian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Swedish cinemas.  Philosophical concepts took root under the Prussian and German Empires of the 19th century, derived from Protestant theologians, that would have ramifications running through to the 21st century.  Despite inevitable changes in government over the course of two centuries, the popular ideas of the 18th century have become so rooted in the psychology of these masses that they have evolved.  Germany, whose history is perhaps the most well-known of these European nations, gives evidence that the ideas that first took root in the late 1700s continued to dictate practice and the motive for these practices through the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, to its contemporary federal parliamentary republic.  The “ideas” at work here are those of Christian Wolff and his predecessor Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz.


In these Germanic nations Pietism and the Aufklärung (or Enlightenment) captured the zeitgeist simultaneously and would continue in their development on a parallel course.  However, by the 19th century, philosopher Christian Wolff’s notions of “pure logic”, born out of this congruent development, had become widely accepted.  Wolff, building upon the earlier work of Leibnitz, proposed that the world at large operated as a machine, and that human beings, endowed with a soul, seek to understand themselves, their surroundings, and ultimately gain control of these things through that understanding.  That is to say that the more completely one understands a thing, the more complete one’s pleasure becomes, and vice versa.  This emphasis on “pleasure” stems from the influence of Pietism, whose symbiotic relationship with the Enlightenment is entirely unique to these regions of Europe.

By the early 1800s Wolff’s emphasis of knowledge (“understanding’), and the cold analytical means by which he believed that knowledge could be achieved, had become part of the bureaucratic machinery propelling not only the Prussian and German Empires, but also the Austrian-Hungarian Empires.  In the latter works of Theodor Fontane, particularly Effi Briest (published in 1894) and the characterization of Innstetten, one can find these principles of Wolff’s logic as elements of characters existing in autocratic positions of authority in which such elements of character are derided for the benefit of comic relief and social satirizing.

It is from this point that I wish to leap into a cinematic comparison between the character of Innstetten (Wolfgang Schenk) in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 cinematic adaptation of Fontane’s novel with that of Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) in Fritz Lang’s M-Eine Stadt Sucht Einen Mörder (1931).  Both characters, despite some unique neurosises, represent characterizations of the infamous “cold German logic”, a character trope popular with audiences internationally, born out of Wolff.  It speaks volumes that in 1931 elements of Wolff was still so much a part of the German political machine that it should surface in Wernicke’s Lohmann (just as it would again in 1933 in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse).  Fassbinder’s treatment of Innstetten, though not as campy as Lang’s treatment of Lohmann, also functions upon similar assumptions and takes into account the same truths.  However, Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974) has stylistic concerns with emotional realism worlds apart from Fontane’s emphasis on the psychological in his novel.  Despite this aesthetical difference, elements of the broader depiction of Wolff’s impact evident in Lohmann still manage to surface in Schenk’s Innstetten.

Logically such characterizations have found their most popular outlet in depictions of Nazi and Soviet officials.  These depictions exude Wolff’s principles to cartoonish proportions, distorting much of their relevancy to the psychology of these nations today.  There are still examples of characters in authoritative positions that conform to Wolff’s principles to be found, for sure, however they tend to be marginalized when compared to the Nazi/Soviet stereotype.  One such exception exists in Béla Tarr’s The Man From London (2007).  The character of Inspector Morrison (István Lénárt), despite being British, conforms to the mold of Fritz Lang’s Lohmann.  This reveals Tarr’s Hungarian background as well as to reenforce the notion of this archetype’s (which is surely what it has become) contemporary relevancy since Morrison is neither an overt figure of fun nor a parody.

Yet, what is perhaps most compelling, is the influence of Wolff upon the construction of montage and image composition.  Despite the fact that rapid montage and the “city film” are distinct products of the Soviet Cinema, both found a sort of purity in the hands of the Germans.  Consider first Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony Of A Metropolis (1927), a film whose montage is a rapid fire depiction of images even more succinct in their content than Vertov’s film.  This approach to dynamic compositions to capture quick and telling moments became a staple in the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl.  By the 1970s, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg had adopted the style of Ruttmann and Riefenstahl for his own post-modern spectacle Hitler: A Film From Germany (1977) to dispel the very web they spun with the same cinematic tactics.  Likewise, this same approach first found a foothold in narrative realism in Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s People On Sunday (1930) that would evolve into the pulpy film noirs of German Expatriates during the decline of the Hollywood studio system.

The Man From London

What unifies all of these films is their priority on narrative progression.  Where Jean-Luc Godard may use a cutaway to infer a political motif these films would advance toward one ultimate goal devoid of subtext.  Parallels between these German films and the films of Czech and Polish animators are perhaps the most obvious.  Though one may also propose that Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2001) represents the same basic technique but with a far less rate of montage.

The underlying factor that separates the Wolff influenced alignment of images, including the rate of montage, is that none of these films has any allegiance toward social realism.  On the contrary they are stylistically concerned with the fantastique, even when they assume to be non-fiction films.  In no other region is this style of film apparent than in these areas of Europe to whom the Enlightenment came late in the 18th century.  For these reasons there has been an evolution within the culture of Wolff’s philosophical teachings that have become inexplicably bound with national identity.

-Robert Curry


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