A study in passion and compassion, filmmaker Gerhard Lamprecht was a prolific pillar of mainstream German cinema from the 1920s through the 1950s. His unique ability to sustain a career before, during, and after the Third Reich can be attributed to an exceptional talent for telling lucid, rousing screen stories suffused with genuine empathy. A steadfast naturalist who eschewed social criticism, Lamprecht depicted the world as he saw it, but without an overriding desire to stimulate improvement or transformation. He was, more than anything, a dedicated craftsman with a bottomless enthusiasm for filmmaking and cinema’s potential for gripping, emotional entertainment.
Born in Berlin in 1897, Lamprecht became obsessed at an early age with the revolutionary medium. He began collecting (and cataloging) films at around ten years old and soon became a projectionist, amassing a collection of prints and related materials. When he was 17, he sold his first script. (For a two-reeler, but still an impressive display of writing and initiative.) Lamprecht studied acting and appeared onstage, augmenting his formal education in theater and art history with performance experience.
The next step in Lamprecht’s career—a job as writer and editor at a production company—was derailed by the Great War, and the wounds he suffered in uniform. Laid up in the hospital, he filled the hours and his notebooks with screenplays. Several were turned into short films after the war, providing Lamprecht with speedy entrée to the movie business. Wasting no time, he made his debut behind the camera in 1920 with one of his scripts, Es bleibt in der Familie (It Runs in the Family).
A quick study in the grammar of writing, shooting, and editing motion pictures, Lamprecht was more interested in plot than poetry. He wasn’t drawn to the expressionist movement and the stylish innovations of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Lamprecht didn’t see himself as an auteur, but as the linchpin of a team working in sync. It was on those terms that he scored a hit with a deft adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1923).
Lamprecht’s respect for craft and story found its symbiosis in Mann’s richly textured chronicle of a middle-class family over several generations. Naturally empathetic to the small details, everyday struggles, and dramatic dilemmas of ordinary people, Lamprecht embarked on a trilogy inspired by the working-class Berlin milieu and characters depicted by illustrator and photographer Heinrich Zille.
Simplistically described by critics of the time as “social problem” films, The Slums of Berlin (1925), Children of No Importance (1926), and The Folks Upstairs (a.k.a. People Among Each Other, 1926) vividly conveyed Lamprecht’s compassion for the poorest members of society. His goal was to provoke the audience’s sympathy, not to advocate for change. Years later he said that he made films “the way I really was, and didn’t force myself in order to get the effect: ‘Aha, he’s attacking society.’”
Lamprecht didn’t need to scapegoat bureaucrats and tar manufactured villains to impact audiences with the Zille trilogy. No one was immune from unemployment, inflation, and insecurity in 1920s Germany, and the formerly stable middle class was acutely aware that very little stood between them and a slide down society’s rungs into poverty and misery.
His movies offered moving evidence of the inequality, suffering, and humiliation the German people endured. But in the years to come, perhaps because he was an observer and a storyteller who didn’t traffic in agendas, Lamprecht retained his dignity, avoided recruitment as a propagandist for the Third Reich, and continued to make films with barely a hiccup straight through to 1946. We may glean some insight into his temperament from this, and some idea of the way his films were received by audiences.
Under the Lantern extended the writer-director’s fascination with Berlin’s powerless, preyed-upon, and feverishly scrambling citizens. Released in 1928, the film’s use of nonprofessional actors and commitment to shooting on location evoke a documentary-style immediacy that presages neorealism. Although remaining emotionally detached from the plight of his characters proves impossible, Lamprecht lays on the sentiment with a trowel just to be sure.
The film follows a nice young woman, Else, from her ultra-strict father’s house to her boyfriend’s flat, and eventually to the stage in search of success and its comforts. The cabaret world has its own pitfalls. Reflecting the reality that survival in Berlin was increasingly a matter of working angles and cutting corners—while avoiding those who were more skilled and less ethical than you—Else becomes vulnerable to the manipulations of a venal agent. The loss of self-respect, and the need to eat, pushes her into prostitution. And once a good citizen has fallen to the lower depths, there is only one way out.
Lamprecht’s ensuing films included the utterly delightful Emil and the Detectives (1931), adapted from Erich Kästner’s children’s book by screenwriters Billie Wilder (before he fled Germany and Americanized his name) and an uncredited Emeric Pressburger. One of the first talkies produced in Germany, and a masterful bridge between the sound and silent eras, it became an international hit.
As this most fraught of decades progressed, his reputation and commercial success allowed Lamprecht a measure of independence but not absolute autonomy. He made the melodramas Barcarole (1935) and Die Geliebte (1939), at the behest of the regime, sandwiched around Madame Bovary (1937, starring a 40-year-old Pola Negri) and a French-language comic drama Le joueur (1938, codirected with French helmer Louis Daquin).
Lamprecht got through the war years in Berlin, shooting films from other people’s screenplays. At the end of the war, his beloved city a pile of rubble, Lamprecht was the right man in the right place to write and direct Somewhere in Berlin for the newly created Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA). Released at the end of 1946, the powerful story centered on a boy who passes the time playing in the ruins with his friends, waiting for his POW father to return. The drama contained the hallmarks of Lamprecht’s artfully honed approach: characters grounded in their environment and piercing empathy.
In the mid-1950s, Lamprecht stepped away from filmmaking to focus on his activities as a film historian and archivist. Still a figure of renown in film circles, he sat on the jury for the 1958 Berlin Film Festival with, among others, Frank Capra and Jean Marais. In 1962 Lamprecht accepted the post of founding director of the Deutsche Kinemathek, where his extensive collection of films, documents, and equipment from the early years of German cinema found a home. After five years as head of the museum, Lamprecht was feted with an honorary German Film Award and embarked on another writing project, Deutsche Stummfilme, a ten-volume catalog of German silent films spanning 1903 to 1931, which remains the go-to reference on work of the period.
Lamprecht died in 1974, and with the passing decades his array of accomplishments faded from memory, at least outside of Germany. In spite of his devoted efforts to preserve the work and legacy of countless pioneering directors, writers, actors, and cameramen, his own contributions were primarily known only to film scholars and visitors to the Deutsche Kinemathek. Thankfully, the museum’s recent 50th anniversary provided an impetus to commission restorations of his Zille trilogy in addition to Under the Lantern. The pleasure of rediscovery is all ours.
Presented at SFSFF 2014 with live music by the Donald Sosin Ensemble