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Hitchcock Annual (1999) - Early Hitchcock: The German Influence





Hitchcock prided himself on being an Englishman and an English filmmaker, and in his early writings on film he emphasized the need for British directors to further explore British subjects (see, for example, "Films We Could Make," 165-67): especially the countryside and landscape of Great Britain as well as the city, and the middle and lower classes, largely neglected, he felt, by filmmakers (see "More Cabbages, Fewer Kings: A Believer in the Little Man," 176-78).1 Hitchcock was always shrewdly aware of some of the advantages of a "national" cinema, one that appealed to a "home" audience by a skillful manipulation of familiar stories and characters and that rested on the director's confident understanding of the audience's sense of humor and their enjoyment of fear and suspense. Nevertheless, during a time of a routinely international cinema, many of the early influences on Hitchcock were "foreign."2 These influences are sometimes summarized by reference to particular filmmakers or films, an approach that perhaps works best in analyzing the French influence on Hitchcock, which may well have centered on a few experimental or avant-garde films, such as Beulet Mecanique and Entr'acte. But other "foreign" influences were much more far-reaching. For example, the American influence involves a particular debt to D.W. Griffith but also a more general notion of how to organize one's cinematic practices and work within a particular kind of studio system. (Hitchcock frequently remarked that his initiation to film was in a British-based but American-operated studio, and he prided himself on the fact that in some ways he was an American filmmaker even before he moved to America.) The Russian influence may revolve around Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Dovzhenko, but involves, more than a few particular works like Potemkin, a theory of montage, critical to Hitchcock throughout his career, and a sense of the political nature of filmmaking, an aspect of Hitchcock's films that deserves far more attention than it usually receives. Finally, the German influence, arguably the most significant, involves not only Hitchcock's debt to a few great filmmakers and a few important films but also an immersion in a broad based production environment, culture, and aesthetic of cinema.

Perhaps the best way to suggest the range and depth of the German influence on Hitchcock and the complexity of his response is to set up a few section headings. All are overlapping and interrelated, but each focuses on the topic from a different vantage point. First, we can examine the stylistic, thematic, and generic aspects of the German influence on Hitchcock. Second, we can look briefly at the relationship between Hitchcock and several key German directors. Third, we can examine how Hitchcock's "idea of cinema" — his vision of the ideal production system, the role of the director, the definition of film as art and entertainment, and so on — was deeply influenced by the German model.


Pure cinema

Hitchcock frequently referred to the importance of his "German years" in his writings and interviews. He worked on several films as an assistant director with Graham Cutts and a British crew at the Ufa studio in Neubabelsberg, made his first two films, The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle, partly in the Emelka Studios in Munich, and reminisced about his German experiences in charming and perceptive detail throughout his life: see especially his early memoir, "Life Among the Stars" (27-58) and late interview, "Alfred Hitchcock: The German Years." But while in these pieces he related many interesting anecdotes about his often hilarious adventures and misadventures, he is his own best critic when he comments seriously on the most important lesson he learned from German filmmakers:

The Germans in those times placed great emphasis on telling the story visually; if possible with no titles or at least very few. In The Last Laugh Murnau was able to do that, to dispense with titles altogether, except in an epilogue.... I've always believed that you can tell as much visually as you can with words. That's what I learned from the Germans. ("The German Years," 23-24)

Throughout his life, Hitchcock practiced what he called "pure cinema," emphasizing the visual dimension of film. Sound pictures, he frequently warned, had to steer clear of being "merely pictures of people talking" ("The German Years," 24), and it is interesting to see how Hitchcock's later films frequently contain long stretches without dialogue. In a letter to Hitchcock that was the first step toward setting up the interviews that would form the basis of the most important "Hitchbook" ever published, Truffaut pays Hitchcock perhaps the ultimate compliment from one filmmaker to another. The main critical point of Truffaut's remarks introducing the interviews "might be summarized as follows":

If, overnight, the cinema had to do without its soundtrack and become once again a silent art, then many directors would be forced into unemployment, but, among the survivors, there would be Alfred Hitchcock and everyone would realize at last that he is the greatest film director in the world.3

But Hitchcock knew that even silent pictures must avoid the easy temptation to be static and filled with explanatory and "talky" intertitles. Although whenever we speak of the German influence we tend to think first exaggerated images, melodramatic actions, shadows, stairs, sudden eruptions of inexplicable violence, and so on, Hitchcock sets us straight ...

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Sidney Gottlieb is Professor of English at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut. He is currently editing volumes of writings by Orson Welles and D.W. Griffith, and a collection of essays on Rossellini's Open City


  1. Writings by Hitchcock referred to in my essay are from Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. Sidney Gottlieb (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), and are identified by title and page number in the text. The only exception is "Alfred Hitchcock: The German Years," an interview with Bob Thomas, published in Action (January-February, 1973): 23-25.
  2. In the context of a brief but extremely illuminating discussion of Hitchcock's relationship to German Expressionism and Soviet montage, Robin Wood states that "I find it significant — having in mind the whole Hitchcock oeuvre — that he should build the foundations of his style out of elements inherently 'artificial,' borrowed from cultures other than his own, and detached from the conditions that originally gave them their meaning" ("Retrospective [1977]," in Hitchcock's Films Revisited [New York: Columbia University Press, 1989], 208). I am well aware that for some critics the term "influence" is problematic and much-maligned, but in my essay I attempt to follow Wood's lead in his careful analysis of what he calls the subtle and complex "process of absorption into [Hitchcock's] style and method of these major influences," especially the German filmmakers and film industry of the 1920s and early 1930s. Theodore Price surveys much useful information about Hitchcock and German silent films of the Weimar period, but in some places his speculations and conclusions about possible influences are somewhat incautious and unconvincing; see Hitchcock and Homosexuality: His 50-Year Obsesswn with Jack the Ripper and the Superbitch Prostitute — A Psychoanalytic View (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1992), 288-354.
  3. Francois Truffaut, Correspondence, 1945-1984. Ed. Gilles Jacob and Claude de Givray. Trans. Gilbert Adair (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 179.
  4. Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), 77-78. Further references to this book are indicated in the text of my essay by page numbers only.
  5. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films. Trans, by Stanley Hochman (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980), 86.
  6. On Hitchcock and the British documentary filmmakers, see Tom Ryall, Alfred Hitchcock and British Cinema (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1986), especially chapter 2, "British Film Culture in the Interwar Period," 7-31.
  7. Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It (New York: Knopf, 1997), 494.
  8. Rohmer and Chabrol, 152, 28.
  9. Kinematograph Weekly, February 3, 1927; from The Lodger scrapbook in the Hitchcock Collection, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library.
  10. Downhill scrapbook, Hitchcock Collection.
  11. Bioscope, March 1, 1928; from The Farmer's Wife scrapbook, Hitchcock Collection.
  12. March 15, 1939, newspaper unidentified; from the Hitchcock clippings file, New York Public Library.
  13. Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. Trans, by Roger Greaves (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 282, 284.
  14. Eisner, 283.
  15. I also leave for another time a discussion of Hitchcock's possible influence on Lang and Lang's feelings about Hitchcock. Patrick McGilligan notes that "Lang himself detested the comparisons [between himself and Hitchcock], feeling that in the category of thrillers and suspense the critics tended to favor the upstart Englishman — who, after all, borrowed shamelessly from him" (Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast [New York: St. Martin's, 1997], 122). McGilligan refers to Hitchcock as "Lang's bête noir" (372n.), but also comments briefly on how deeply Lang was affected and perhaps influenced by Rebecca (353).
  16. Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock, rev. ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 138.
  17. Truffaut, 139.
  18. Truffaut, Hitchcock, 138.
  19. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), 149.
  20. Truffaut, Hitchcock, 26.
  21. Letter to Helen Scott, June 20, 1962, Correspondence, 184.
  22. Klaus Kreimeier, The Ufa Story: A History of Germany's Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945. Trans, by Robert and Rita Kimber (New York: HUl and Wang, 1996), 196.
  23. Erich Pommer, "Commercial and Artistic Film," quoted in Kreimeier, 97.
  24. Kreimeier, 104.
  25. Kreimeier, 104.
  26. Quoted in David Cook, History of Narrative Film. Second edition (New York: Norton, 1990), 348n.