WWI brought a new agenda for the German film industry. With the entry of the U.S. into the war in 1917, Erich von Ludendorff, Quartermaster General of the Army, concluded that more drastic measures should be taken to meet the general wave of anti-Germany propoganda coming from the well-equiped studio of its new enemy. On December 18, 1917, the German High Command formed UFA (Universum Film A.G.), which brought together prominent financiers and industrialists with the largest film companies in Germany.UFA's raison d' être was clearly propogandistic. As noted by one film historian, "The official mission of UFA was to advertise Germany according to German directives. These asked not only for direct screen propoganda, but also for films characteristic of German culture and films serving the purpose of national education".
The intent of UFA was soon realized by Ernst Lubitsch with his production of Madame Dubarryreleased in 1918. The film achieved a near revolution in the art of film. Lubitsch did with the camera what no previous German director had. Upon its release in the U.S. in 1920, Madame Dubarry, retitled Passion, was acclaimed the most important European picture since the Italian production of Cabiria. With Madame Dubarry, Lubitsch emerged as a director of would stature and the German film achieved its first breakthrough in the international market since the Armistice.
In 1921, the Reich government divested itself of its UFA holdings, with the Deutsche Bank acquiring its shares. Reconstituted as a private company, the primary objective of UFA was to be the production of commercial films of high artistic value that would be capable of competing on the world market, especially the American.
Germany was in poor shape by the end of WWI. Many citizens were dying of starvation as the country was faced with high inflation and widespread unemployment. The anguish of the period was reflected in Fritz Lang's two-part film, Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler), released in 1922. The film depicts an unscrupulous criminal who gambles with lives and fortunes. The Aufklärungsfilme "films about the facts of life" emerged during this period. Most of these films were actually sex films, only thinly veiled as education. Popular demonstrations and legal action against the Aufklärungsfilme occured throughout Germany. The National Assembly proposed the nationalization of the film industry which was rejected in favor of a National Censorship Law, adopted in May, 1920. Under this law children under twelve were prohibited from seeing films while children between twelve and eighteen could only be admitted to films which had been designated with a special certificate. No film could be prohibited due to its content.
The most enduring of the films of the 1920's are those that came out of the expressionist movement. As an artistic movement, German expressionism antedated WWI. Film, the newest of the arts, was also the last to reflect expressionism. Two definitive expressionist films are Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), directed by Dr. Robert Weine in 1919-20, and Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang in 1926-27. . Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari, based on a story by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, suggests the darker aspect of expressionism with its probing of insanity. The authors originally intended for the film to serve as an allegory against insane authority as represented by the tyranny of Dr. Caligari, but the film ends with the harmless doctor telling his piers that he can cure his patient now that he understands the root of his own psychosis.
Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang in 1926, emphasizes the importance of the spiritual as opposed to the material and the notion that through choas and destruction a new and better world will come about. The overthrow of the old order was an essential prerequisite for the coming of the "New Man" and the establishment of the "Kingdom of Love". The final title reads: "There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator."
The pure expressionism of Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, although among the most famous of German films from the 20s, was not characteristic of the several thousand motion pictures produced between 1919 and the end of the silent era. Although both were artistic and remain the quintessential examples of cinematic expressionism, neither Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari nor Metropolis were commercial successes. And while the German film achieved an international renown for the artistry of selected motion pictures, the industry never rested on a firm financial basis. This struggle between artistic expression and financial succuss would plague the German cinema for years to come.
For some German filmmakers, success was measured by American popularity. Ernst Lubitsch was the first of the major German directors to accept an American assignment. He was asked by Mary Pickford (a popular American actress of the 20s) to direct Rosita. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's Der letze Mann earned him an invitation to direct American films. Murnau's American work consists of only four films: Sunrise (1927), The Four Devils (1928), City Girl (1930), andTabu (1931). After completion of Tabu, Murnau died in an automobile accident near Santa Barbara, California. Besides Lubitsch and Murnau, many other German directors and actors entered the American industy during the 20s, a trend that continues today.
Fritz Lang, director of Der müde Tod, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler and Die Nibelungen, was the principle German director to remain outside the American industry during this first wave of immigration. Lang had no desire to move to Hollywood. While visiting America, Lang told an interviewer that while he admired the technical resources of the American industry, he found American directors too commercial and less devoted to art than their German counterparts. Lang clearly had a different idea regarding the potential of film than did the American directors of the time.