My research was born out of two fields of interest that interlink surprisingly neatly on closer inspection. Firstly, I was fascinated with American stage musicals and their transition to film in the 1930s. Having studied some Cole Porter music as part of my MA in Music at Queen’s University Belfast, it became clear that Broadway musicals had substantially influenced those produced for sound film, both in terms of music and visual aesthetics. Secondly, I have been interested in popular culture of the Weimar era, with regards to theatre, cabaret, revue, Schlager and cinema for a number of years. In collaboration with my supervisor I then developed the idea of investigating the influence of the Hollywood musical of the early sound film era (from 1927/1928) on the production of music films in Germany around the same time (from 1929 onwards). The period of research thus spans not only the last years of the Weimar Republic but also the beginning of the National Socialists’ regime. Whilst I recognise the importance of the Nazi party’s impact on cultural production and consumption, this is not my main focus. I would like to make a point of highlighting the stylistic continuity that stretched from Weimar film production to the last films shot in Germany before the industry fell to pieces towards the end of World War II. There is evidence to suggest that American film musicals inspired German filmmakers, producers and composers in multifaceted ways; German films not only copied a popular trope of American scriptwriting, which came to be known as the backstage musical, but also incorporated camera techniques, dance and music styles they encountered in American film productions. After an import ban on cultural commodities was finally lifted two years after the end of WWI, American films saturated the German market and at times outnumbered German productions in the cinema programmes. Film was arguably the strongest factor in an overall cultural ‘Americanisation’ that swept over Germany and its capital. The taste for American film, music and lifestyle remained intact despite the anti-modernist, racist ideology introduced by the Nazi regime from 1933 onwards.
In order to not only detect and analyse stylistic features that German filmmakers copied and appropriated for their own audience but also gain a clear idea of what contemporary viewers perceived as ‘American’, I rely on two main sources of material. On the one hand, I compare a core repertoire of American and German film musicals in terms of cinematography, casting, scriptwriting and most importantly, dance/music and its embedding in the story. Films I look at comprise for example the revue-style films such as Hollywood Revue of 1929, Golddiggers of 1933, Broadway Melody of 1936 and musical comedies such as Ernst Lubitsch’s Love Parade or German productions with dream-team Lilian Harvey and Willy Fritsch in films such as Einbrecher, Die Drei von der Tankstelle and Glückskinder.
On the other hand, I consult contemporary German film press and newspapers published in Berlin in order to gain insights into the perception and opinions of urban communities. This investigation is particularly exciting and allows me to trace a passionate fascination with America and its cultural industry, which often does not rely on facts or reliable information, but a set of imagined values and ideas.
In the second year of my PhD I plan to extend my research to contemporary music and lifestyle magazines to complement my study of film press. One aspect I have increasingly grown interested in is the use of only thinly disguised swing and jazz music in musicals during the ‘Third Reich’. Despite jazz and its reliance on Big Band arrangements being deemed ‘degenerate’ (‘entartet’), film composers continued to write music with clear connotations of these styles. I wonder to what extent did audiences recognize these sometimes-subtle references to the American film culture they had learned to love in the 1920s. So far, my research has been very rewarding and, as trivial as it might sound, plenty of fun. Some of the challenges I face while studying film musicals of this particular era are the richness of the research topic and the vast catalogue of films I could potentially cover, both of which make it difficult at times to keep myself on track. One side effect of my PhD work is being eternally hooked on catchy tunes and songs, which in 80 odd years certainly haven’t lost any of their qualities as ‘Ohrwürmer’!
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