The Weimar Republic’s “golden twenties”, stretching from 1923 to 1929, were characterized by economic stability and increased social order during which the liberal attitudes of the young republic blossomed. The most contested and celebrated symbol of the nation’s social revolution was the “neue Frau” (“New Woman”). With her short skirt, Bubikopf (“bobbed hair”), and cloche hat, the neue Frau freely roamed the streets of Berlin, working and socializing in department stories, coffeehouses, and the newly built movie palaces. Freedom and constant movement marked the body and fashion of the modern woman as increased visibility of women in the workplace revolutionized the image of the metropolis. By 1925 there were 1.5 million female workers in Germany, three times the amount in 1907. (1) The streets of Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg were no longer the sole domain of men, and the flood of shop-girls, stenographers, and secretaries demanded clothing “that would be both comfortable and presentable all day at the work place and that would also allow them to move around the city on foot or using public transportation.”(2) Supply went hand-in-hand with demand; although lacking the designer appeal and glamour of Parisian haute couture, the Weimar “Konfektionsware” (“ready to wear”) industry was one of the largest in Europe. Although it could not boast of employing fashion visionaries the likes of Coco Chanel, the Berlin fashion industry proudly “employed over a third of the city’s work force in the mid-1920s.”(3)German designers regularly travelled to Paris in order to view the latest fashions, which would then be mass-produced in the modern, rationalized factories of David Leib Levin, Rudolph Hertzog, or Hermann Gerson. The average woman spent 25% of her income on clothing, a staggering amount that critics viewed as a symbol of feminine frivolity and decadence. Theodor Adorno considered fashion “painfully hostile to subjective spirit” and compared it with authoritarianism. (4) Sociologist Georg Simmel focused on fashion and gender, theorizing that clothing serves as “a valve, as it were, through which women’s need for some measure of conspicuousness and individual prominence finds vent, when its satisfaction is more often denied in other spheres.” (5)For the woman working in the instable Weimar economy, however, inexpensive, mass-produced clothing was a way of overstepping class lines, and offered women the promise of social betterment. “Day-time fashion for working-class women were now much the same as those for the petit bourgeoisie,” and clothing was seen as the key to middle-class affluence. (6) Fashion was viewed as an investment in one’s future, and in the uncertain economy, a chic haircut and stunning dress could be the difference between a steady job and standing in the unemployment line:
“Weimar girls, if they were to compete in the job market, had to sell themselves on their appearance. The new jobs in department stores demanded a code of dress and behavior that recognized that the girl was attracting customers based on what men felt about her rather than on the quality of her wares… she had to offer sufficient fuel for male fantasies without stepping over the mark.” (7)
The ubiquitous image of the “Weimar girl” with her Eton crop hairstyle and felt hat is as much a reflection of style as it is of economic need. The felt cloche was perfect for mass-production, demanding little material or millinery work, and was therefore the choice of working women who needed a fashionable, inexpensive design. The formfitting hat called for shorter hair, which was also desirable for factory work. This simple style could be individualized with feathers, ribbon, or a brooch, allowing one hat to be altered and worn through multiple seasons. In many ways, women’s fashion can be seen as symbolic for the dreams of the Weimar Republic: mass-production and modernity with freedom and personal choice. Working women constantly searched for an aesthetic that would be stylish and modern, suited for the department store or the cabaret, and it was in the movie theatre that they found their inspiration.
By 1930 there were 5,000 movie theatres in Germany, offering a variety of choices and experiences for the moviegoer. After work, a Berlin secretary could visit the “Admiralslichtspiele” movie theatre for “Ku-Ka-Ki” (“cake-coffee-cinema”), stop by a local “Kinotop” for a flick and ten-cent beer, or even enjoy the glamorous atmosphere of a Kinopalast (“movie palace”). (8)No matter the venue, Berliners found glowing images of modernity inside the movie theatre, and women used the cinema as a form of ersatz fashion-show. Women “working office jobs and in the public realm were particularly interested to know what the up-to-date fabrics, designs, and haircuts were, how make-up and lipstick were applied, and what clothes were appropriate on what occasion,” and found fashion idols in Marlene Dietrich, Brigitte Helm and Greta Garbo. (9) Clothing in Weimar cinema, however, goes far beyond simple eye-candy and aesthetic pleasure. It is a site of discourse and criticism, transforming the woman’s body and clothing into an arena for social and political tension. Just as clothing functioned as a highly refined code for working women, representation of clothing in film reflects back upon the fraught issue of women’s place in Weimar culture. Feminine consumption and display forms the basis of these films, and betrays a deep ambivalence and distrust of women’s visibility in modern culture. Asphalt (Joe May, 1929) stands at the edge of Weimar’s golden years and creates a narrative of social disruption. Taking cues from the Konfektionskomödie, which concentrates on the milieu of the department store, this film models its heroine on “the star mannequins who embodied, despite their humble backgrounds, a mixture of professional confidence and impeccable elegance, emancipated independence and irresistible eroticism.” (10) The lighthearted comedy of these earlier films, however, is replaced by a jaded cynicism towards the neue Frau and an attempt to reestablish social order.
Asphalt premiered on March 11, 1929 in Berlin, at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo. Produced towards the end of the silent era, the film is a romance between Else (Betty Amann), a jewel thief, and Albert Holk (Gustva Fröhlich), a police officer. The story revolves around Else’s seduction of the young police officer, and his eventual involvement in a murder. The film begins amongst the speeding cars and traffic of the city, and montage serves to disorient the viewer while creating the impression of constant motion and confusion. We transition to the Holk family apartment, where Officer Holk Sr. (Albert Steinrück) sings to a caged canary as Frau Holk (Else Heller) serenely sips her coffee in a tableau of traditional family harmony. The camera lingers on the discarded police officer’s hat, and then moves to the hallway, where Albert adjusts his own uniform cap in a mirror and pulls on a pair of white gloves. The identical clothing of father and son reinforces the traditional nature and uniformity of the men and establishes them as the defenders of order. Back on the street, Albert directs traffic, and May provides the audience with a duplicated montage of cars, with Albert’s white-gloved hand in the center. A long shot establishes Albert standing on an island amongst cars and trolleys, creating order and directing modern machines and men. Crowds of pedestrians, both men and women, cross the street as traffic zooms past, and Albert self-importantly uses the symbols of authority, his hat and white gloves, to bring order out of chaos. Order, however, is temporary, and a series of fast cuts shows traffic picking up speed, and Albert rapidly loosing control. A young woman suddenly crashes her car into the cement island upon which Albert is standing. She wears a cloche hat adorned with a jeweled brooch and a fur coat with a full, high collar. Other drivers shout as she tries to free her car from the accident, and a cut shows us Albert’s face in close-up. He struggles to help the woman while keeping traffic moving while cars and buses pause to gawk at the accident. The lone female driver, itself a fairly novel concept, disrupts the masculine order and becomes an attraction, slowing the regular pace of the city. The implicit attraction of consumption symbolized through the car and clothing, becomes a theme throughout the film.
Night falls on the city as the camera guides us past crowds of shoppers, neon signs, and massive billboards. A long shot shows a crowd of men and women gathered around a display window, with only the word “Strümpfe” (“stockings”) initially visible. The camera moves until we are directly in front of the window, in which a live model sits trying on stockings. A cut shows us a man and woman’s face in close-up as they stand before the window observing the model, and a sudden cut places us inside the display with the model, looking out on the crowd of men and women. Superficially, the scene quite literally plays out a politics of looking in which the woman is to-be-looked-at and the man is the bearer of the look: “in their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”(11)The window display frames woman as an erotic object, and the female shopper outside the glass assumes a masculine/active gaze when staring at the model. I would argue, however, that fashion and its connotations complicate the exchange between crowd and model. The department store is the first place in which the female gaze was granted free rein, elevating the shopper to indoor flaneuse. Especially for middle-class women, the department store allowed a measure of freedom, in which women could explore the public space without companion or chaperone and still remain inside the safe, feminine world of consumerism. The development of the display window opened the city streets to women as well: “And when the department stores turned their wares outward to the street, when the new construction techniques of reinforced concrete and plate glass enabled them to develop broad window displays…they made the streets, not just the interior of the stores, ‘safe’ for respectable women.” (12) The woman on the street looks in at the model, seeing the other woman’s body, as well as the product she sells, employing what Charlotte Herzog describes as the “critical, evaluative ‘shopper’s eye.’” (13) The fashion model in film teaches the audience inside and outside the diegesis of the film “how to transform themselves into a ‘look’ by comparison with another woman who is ‘looked at.’” (14)The shopper thus compares herself to the model in the window “from a point of comparison of her own body,” engaging the critical shopper’s eye. (15)Herzog suggests we consider this shopper’s eye as another “cinematic ‘look,’” which frees the window-shopper and model from the active/masculine, passive/feminine hierarchy of looking. (16)The reverse-shot through the plate glass towards the crowd demonstrates the model’s awareness of the crowd, and jars the viewer out of the soft-core eroticism of the stocking display. The confusion surrounding women’s sexual freedom and liberation is cleverly referenced in this shot, as the distinction between model and female observer becomes unclear. The craze for shorter skirts and increased presence of women on the streets “meant that it was difficult to tell the difference between women of different classes, and even between prostitutes and respectable women,” which disturbed bourgeoisie notions of woman- and motherhood. (17)The reverse shot questions who, exactly, is the model: the woman inside the glass, or the female crowd on the outside looking in. There lies a deep ambivalence towards the image, which is seductive, but challenges the traditional limits of public and private space. The model, “by way of selling herself,” represents “an inverted function of both ‘shopping’ and ‘working,’ the two accepted female activities in the public sphere.” (18)Women are no longer confined to the private sphere, and the department store model makes public that which is traditionally hidden from view, stretching the limits of acceptable activities. The sequence ends with the woman in the crowd falling victim to a pickpocket, illustrating the dangers of the public realm, and placing the woman in a position of helplessness.
The camera fluidly leaves the shop window and travels across the street, following wandering crowds around the corner to the door of another shop: “I. Bergen: Juwelier”. Through the large window we see two men at a counter, with a young, female customer sitting before them. A cut brings us inside the store, where an older gentleman is modeling a diamond for the customer. A series of shot-reverse-shots establishes the situation, and allows the audience to enjoy the consumption on display. Extreme close-up of the diamond shows beautiful detail and unnatural sparkle, and the subsequent shot of Else, the customer, reveals high fashion costuming and flawless make-up. A pale cloche hat, improved by an almond-shaped brooch, frames large eyes that are highlighted by a smoky eye shadow, and the viewer is struck by the full fur collar and hydrangea accent on the dress. Else flirts with the jewelry store attendant, fluttering her eyelashes and looking to the side, and his smitten expression is shown in a reverse-shot. The camera cuts to behind Else, and her bare knees fill the screen as she seductively runs her umbrella against her leg. The viewer slowly realizes, however, that the display of interest and sexuality masks Else’s true intention, which is to distract the jeweler and steal a diamond. His face is again shown in close-up, entirely focused on Else’s suggestive smile, and she coyly looks away while taking the jewel. The scene appears at first to follow the traditional rules of spectatorial desire, with the image orchestrating “a gaze, a limit, and its pleasurable transgression. The woman’s beauty, her very desirability, becomes a function of certain practices of imaging- framing, lighting, camera movement, angle. She is thus, as Laura Mulvey has pointed out, more closely associated with the surface of the image than its illusory depths, its constructed 3-dimensional space which the man is destined to inhabit and hence control.” (19) It becomes apparent, however, that the woman is carefully using her femininity as a tool, maneuvering herself physically and socially in order to steal the diamond. The excess of femininity expressed in Else’s dress and mannerisms highlight the performative aspects of gender, and makes her performance a masquerade of womanhood, which “acknowledges that it is femininity itself which is constructed as a mask- as the decorative layer which conceals a non-identity.”(20)As a filmic device, masquerade denies the “over-identification” of the female subject, and “in flaunting femininity, holds it as a distance. Womanliness is a mask, which can be worn and removed. The masquerade’s resistance to patriarchal positioning would therefore lie in its denial of the production of femininity as closeness, as presence-to-itself, as, precisely, imagistic.” (21)After stealing the diamond, the camera provides a close-up of Else’s smiling face and coy glances, signaling to the viewer that such gestures are a tactic used to distract the clerk, which impresses upon us the potential power of such representations of femininity. The camera immediately follows this exchange with a cut to Albert, whose shift is ending. He is approached by a fellow officer, who wears a nearly identical uniform; the contrast between the woman’s luxurious clothing and the bland uniformity of the officers delineates between a sensual, hedonistic world of women and the ordered, militaristic world of men. The woman’s unregulated, disruptive qualities are embodied in Else’s disregard of law and order, as well as her breaking of the social norms. Else exits the store with the diamond hidden in her umbrella, but it is not long before a young clerk discovers the missing jewel and gives chase. The pair draws a crowd on the sidewalk as the clerk tries to convince Else to return to the shop. The viewer is given the perfect view to admire Else’s full ensemble, and her pale, asymmetrical dress stands in contrast to the darker fabrics favored by the observers in the crowd. Albert, seeing a commotion, pushes to the center of the crowd, using his uniform as the symbol of power that allows his claim to authority. With a sharp salute he greets Else and the clerk, and convinces her to reenter the jewelry store for questioning. The transition from street to store moves the action from interior/feminine to exterior/masculine; interestingly, for Else it is this feminine realm that poses a threat to her freedom and safety. Alfred draws her from the freedom of the streets into the claustrophobic interior space through application of masculine and civil authority, symbolized via his uniform. The group bypasses the airy showroom and passes deeper into the jewelry store, to a smaller back room. Else’s belongings are searched without revealing the diamond, and the group transitions back to the showroom. This more public space holds the potential of freedom for the woman, and the street is visible through the display windows of the shop, promising the anonymity of the public realm. Those hopes are dashed, however, when Albert discovers the diamond. Else turns from seduction to tears, demonstrating the poles of female-coded expression as masquerade serves to “double representations; it is constituted by a hyperbolisation of the accoutrements of femininity…Sylvia Bovenschen claims, “…we are watching a woman demonstrate the representation of a woman’s body.’’ (22)An abrupt cut shows the front of the jewelry store, where a crowd has gathered and is gazing eagerly at the drama developing inside the shop. The cluster of men and women at the window and high camera angle reflects the earlier sequence with the stockings model, and visually links the two scenes through their identical staging and camerawork. Like the model, Else sells her looks and body to evade capture, assuming a mask of femininity that becomes spectacle and excites a crowd. The camera peers over the heads of the bystanders and through the door of the shop, turning the power of the gaze on the woman. The viewer becomes aligned with the crowd in the voyeuristic experience, and the hungry looks of the diegetic crowd mirror that of the audience in the movie theatre. The look strips Else of her freedom of movement, and a cut shows her exiting the building through a narrow opening in the crowd and stepping into a taxi with Albert. He has taken possession of the woman’s body by taking her into custody, and the camera becomes equally constrained, shooting inside the claustrophobic space of the taxi.
The openness of the city street and the large plate glass windows that marked the earlier sequences of the film are replaced by constraint and narrowed field of vision. The camera is placed opposite Else and Albert, and a medium shot shows Else filling the majority of the frame, while only Albert’s hand and leg visible to the right. The camera slowly tracks in to show Else’s crying face in close-up, and a series of reverse shots sees Albert ignoring her distress. Else asks him for a fresh handkerchief, and she soon moves closer to him, gripping the collar of his jacket, requesting leniency. We see Else’s profile from Albert’s perspective in close-up, with her beauty on display for the male’s gaze. At the police station, however, Else flings herself on Albert, sobbing and asking to at least be allowed to return home and collect her papers: “You can come up with me!” Albert reluctantly agrees, and as he looks away, Else quickly powders her nose, preparing for the seduction that is to come. The desperation and tears function as a mask which allows her to bypass social rules, and she switches with ease from the figure of sobbing innocent to smoldering temptress; “this type of masquerade, an excess of femininity, is aligned with the femme fatale …‘It is this evil which scandalizes whenever woman plays out her sex in order to evade the word and the law. Each time she subverts a law or a word which relies on the predominately masculine structure of the look. By destabilizing the image, the masquerade confounds this masculine structure of the look.’” (23) Else uses femininity as a tool, carefully gauging Albert’s reaction to her display, and “does” gender in the name of personal interest. She literally paints on a mask with makeup, crafting her image and directing the gaze. Else evades the law through her sexual allure and destabilizes the social order by removing Albert, the symbol of paternal righteousness, from his place of power.
The Weimar Republic was a potent combination of social disorder and liberalism, where economic strains, the shadow of war, and newfound artistic freedoms birthed a country torn between dueling desires. Asphalt, filmed four years before the National Socialist ascent to power, enacts these strains through its portrayal of femininity. In this “Oberflächekultur” (surface culture) clothing becomes a potential battleground upon which dueling pressures find expression and women’s position in society is contested. The neue Frau, with her thin, athletic body and modern fashion, comes to symbolize the “tension between nurturing, motherly women who could heal, and nasty, sterile sexual beings who were both the cause and symptom of Germany’s destruction.” (24) The cinema projects this conflict on the big screen, creating fashionable characters that arouse admiration and desire, and simultaneously create chaos, disorder, and destruction. Else’s crime is not the theft, but rather her masquerade of femininity and displacement of the look. Her arrest attempts to restore the social order and reinforce masculine power structures, yet the image of the independent femme fatale remains long after the lights have come up and the illusions are over.
- Frevert, Ute. Women in German History: From Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation. Trans. Stuart McKinnon-Evans. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1990. p.36
- Ganeva, Mila. “Weimar Film as Fashion Show: Konfektionskomödien or Fashion Farces from Lubitsch to the End of the Silent Era.” German Studies Review 30.2 (2007): 288-310.
- Ibid., 293
- Adorno, T.W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C. Lenhardt. London: Routledge, 1970. p. 435-437.
- Simmel, Georg. “”Adornment”" The Rise of Fashion: a Reader. Ed. Daniel L. Purdy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2004. 79-86.
- Sharp, Ingrid. “Riding the Tiger: Ambivalent Images of the New Woman in the Popular Press of the Weimar Republic.” New Woman Hybridities: Femininity, Feminism and International Consumer Culture, 1880-1930. Ed. Ann Heilmann and Margaret Beetham. London: Routledge, 2004. p. 119
- Ibid., 132
- Flickinger, Brigitte. “Cinemas in the City: Berlin’s Public Space in the 1910s and 1920s.” Film Studies 10 (2007): 72-86.
- Ganeva, 293
- Ibid., 301
- Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. p. 719
- Weitz, Eric D. Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. p. 56
- Herzog, Charlotte. “”Powder Puff” Promotions: The Fashion Show-in-the-Film.” Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. Ed. Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog. New York: Routledge, 1990. p. 150
- Ibid., 158
- Ibid., 158
- Ibid., 158
- Sharp, 119
- Gleber, Anke. The Art of Taking a Walk: Flanerie, Literature, and Film in Weimar Culture. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998. p. 79
- Doane, Mary Ann. “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator.” Feminist Film Theory: a Reader. Ed. Sue Thornham. New York: New York UP, 1999. p. 138
- Ibid., 138
- Ibid., 138
- Ibid., 139
- Ibid., 139
- Sharp, 120