In 1927 Weimar Germany, amid escalating social conflict, Friedrich Zelnik, known only for his genteel musicals, was the last person anyone figured to direct a film version of Gerhart Hauptmann’s classic The Weavers, a contentious and controversial play about a proletarian uprising. The story of the 1844 Silesian Weavers revolt was akin to a roman á clef about the current state of affairs.
The Weimar Republic, Germany’s postwar experiment with parliamentary democracy, proved incapable of solving the overall crises of the nation, yet it at least allowed for great freedom and creativity in the arts. In the aftermath of the First World War’s unprecedented destruction, escapism flourished and Zelnik’s cheery musicals were as popular as the dark, expressionist films of Murnau, Lang, Pabst, and Wiene, which are better remembered today.
In many ways Zelnik was the cosmopolitan man of the world he portrayed on stage and screen. Born in 1885, he became a debonair leading man in German cinema in the 1910s and rose to stardom over the next few years playing high society gentlemen. In 1915, he began to produce his own starring vehicles with his own company and went on to great success as a director and producer of period operetta films in the 1920s and early 1930s.
In 1918 he married the singer and dancer Lya Mara and cast her as his leading lady. He then gradually withdrew from acting to focus on starring vehicles for Mara. His series of costume melodramas invariably featured his lovely wife, with her onscreen lover played by established stars, including Wilhelm Dieterle in The Bohemian Dancer (Die Försterchristl, 1926). The film he made immediately prior to The Weavers was The Gypsy Baron, a tale of Gypsy fortune tellers and hidden treasure, based on the operetta by Johann Strauss Jr.
The story of the Silesian weavers was a radical departure for Zelnik. The revolt of the weavers in 1844 in the mountain settlement of Peterswald (now in Poland) has become a flash point in German history. The weavers worked in their own homes on primitive looms weaving the yarn the manufacturer gave them into cotton cloth, which they then sold back. A financial crisis led to a fall in the price of cotton. To become more competitive, the manufacturer used the arrival of new mechanical looms as a pretext to pay the weavers even less. Pushed to the brink of starvation, the weavers stormed the boss’s offices and mansion and destroyed everything inside. They then went to the neighboring town and, with the help of those workers, destroyed the machines that had ruined their lives.
The poet Heinrich Heine saw the revolt as a harbinger of a coming revolution against the “Old Germany” of monarchy and conservatism, a patchwork country of kingdoms and duchies, and immortalized the weavers’ rebellion in what has become his most famous poem, “The Silesian Weavers” (1844), written in the voice of the weavers. The young Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels saw the revolt as an indication that the nascent working class was going to rise and fight for its interests; the weavers were a key inspiration for the ideas that led to The Communist Manifesto in 1848.
Hauptmann’s play depicted the downtrodden weavers as they gradually come to condemn not only their greedy employer, but also religion, the king, and capitalism itself. There were some stage productions, but relentless opposition from the authorities resulted in the play being repeatedly banned until 1902, after which it was staged hundreds of times to enthusiastic audiences.
While the film closely follows Hauptmann’s work, Zelnik created an engaging cinematic experience, not just a filmed play. He used crosscutting between locales and action to intensify the pace. And more significantly, while the crowd scenes in the play have to take place offstage, in the film they can take place on camera.
For the role of the manufacturer Dreissiger, Zelnik cast the prominent actor and director Paul Wegener, who had become indelibly imprinted in the minds of the German moviegoing public as the Golem, the massive humanoid formed from mud. Wegener’s relentless Dreissiger has a dismissive answer for every complaint of The Weavers. If, for example, a child is going hungry, it’s due to bad parenting. Yet behind the façade of Wegener’s ruthless capitalist, a little furrow of the brow reveals a deep fear of the masses he has wronged.
Just as the murmur of resistance begins to spread among the weavers, stooped and listless from overwork and undernourishment, in steps a brash and pugnacious youth, Moritz Jäger, who has just returned to his hometown from military service. The energy and magnetism of young Jäger sparks the action. He immediately steps to the fore, and the weavers suddenly come to life. For the critical role of Jäger, Zelnik cast the well-known actor and director Wilhelm Dieterle. Some might call it typecasting.
Dieterle had been born in poverty, but through sheer energy and ambition he became successful as a stage actor and was recruited by Max Reinhardt for his legendary theater company in Berlin. Before long, Dieterle left Reinhardt to form his own company. He financed his own first film Der Mensch am Wege (1923), starring Marlene Dietrich. A decade later he went on to a great career in Hollywood, although it ended with his being “graylisted” during the McCarthy witch hunt and his return to Germany.
As art director, Zelnik used his collaborator of many years, Andrej Andrejew. The versatile Andrejew had become one of the most distinctive and sought-after designers in German cinema. His style was more typically expressed in the atmospheric sets for classics, including Pandora’s Box, The Threepenny Opera, and The Golem.
The Weavers was the sole film credit for the man nicknamed “the bright-red art executioner.” Iconoclastic artist and caricaturist George Grosz was responsible for the hand-painted, angular, expressionist intertitles, a unique and memorable title style that seemed to “yell” when the characters raised their voices. Grosz was a radical leftist who delighted in deflating German pomposity, especially that of the reactionary rich and powerful. The weavers themselves couldn’t have chosen a more kindred soul to memorialize their words.
The film was well received and is considered to be one of the most politically and socially significant films to come out of the Weimar Republic. However, in 1927 the leftist government, unable to find a way out of its perennial financial crises, became increasingly polarized between political extremes and crumbled within a few years.
After The Weavers, Zelnik made Dancing Vienna, starring his wife Mara. It is often regarded as an early heimatfilm, sentimental paeans to rural life and family values. When sound came to cinema, Mara was unable to make the transition, but Zelnik embraced it. He was the first director in Europe to post-synchronize a film (The Crimson Circle, 1929). In 1930, he paid a visit to Hollywood, and on his return directed his first sound film, a remake of his The Bohemian Dancer (1931). After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Zelnik’s Weavers was once again banned. Zelnik and Mara emigrated to London, where he directed and produced Happy, an English-language version of his last German film, Es war einmal ein Musikus (1933).
His British directing efforts in the mid-1930s failed to match his earlier successes. He also made two films in the Netherlands in 1938 and 1939. He became a British citizen and remained in London after the war and continued to work as a producer until the late 1940s.
Presented at SFSFF 2013 with live music by Guenter Buchwald