Eastern Europe as Other in Silent Cinema
Adina Zidon - Lehman College
The following study will discuss depictions of Eastern Europe through the medium of silent film.
My goal is to explore what distinguishes Eastern Europe from Western Europe and how early cinema has played a vital role in modern understanding of this divide. I will focus on three distinct images of the “orient:” traditional Judaism, vampires, and the nascent Soviet Union. It is beyond the scope of this study to fully delve into the cultural and ideological clashes of east versus west throughout history and even within the bounds of individual episodes in the past century. Instead, I have chosen to examine some of the most recognizable elements of what constitutes Eastern Europe in popular consciousness, and I will do it using the medium which has been responsible for much of our understanding - whether accurate or not - of the East. Like any other art form, cinema reflects the time in which it was made and betrays with varying degrees of subtlety the biases, fears, hopes, and desires of the artist. Silent cinema’s brief tenure as the world’s only non-print mass media impacted its audience in ways that are beyond the comprehension of the average person today who can access all the movies and information in the world through the phone in their pocket, yet old stereotypes have not necessarily suffered at the hands of 21st century technology and research. I could never expect to explain why this is so, but it is my intention to help clarify some reasons why contemporary cinema of the years encompassing the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and their aftermaths might be partially responsible for our perceptions.
Introduction The 21st-century perception of “Eastern Europe” owes as much to acculturation as it does geography. In the postmodern world, the Cold War clearly divided the continent into two halves - one progressive, colorful, and comfortably familiar to the Western (read: American) consciousness; the other backward, repressive, and unsettlingly foreign. Now multiple decades removed from the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the structure still lives not simply in fragments as a tourist attraction but in the minds of those who, even if they cannot remember Communism themselves, are made to at any point differentiate Eastern and Western Europe. However, the Berlin Wall served as a tangible symbol not only of the Cold War but of a centuries-old fissure with roots cemented before the fall of Rome. David Fromkin, in a classroom exercise, asked students to divine causes of the First World War, and many of these causes are easily applied here as
they too refer to a continental split:
The decision to divide the Roman Empire between the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East...The Slavs (who were to become Europe`s largest ethnic group) moved into the Balkans, where the Teutons had already arrived...The formal split between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christianity...The conquest of Christian eastern and central Europe by Muslim Ottoman (or Turkish) Empire and deprived the peoples of the Balkans of centuries of experience in self-government...
While these reasons are all true, they might prove a bit too sophisticated for research on the movies’ influence on how we look at a specific culture. It is even too much to ask “where does the West start and the East begin,” since much of what was historically “Central Europe” became stigmatized by years of foreign occupation well before 1945: the entire map between Greater Germany (more simply, “Anschluss Germany”) and Russia would be tossed between these Great Powers for centuries; by the late 20th-century the newly-liberated former Bloc countries would all come out thoroughly influenced by both.
On a personal note, I found during my semester abroad in Prague in 2006 that when asking directions, if the person I asked did not speak English, they would immediately begin speaking German, which was confusing because not only did I not speak German but was also confused that any Czech citizen would after the long struggle for independence from the Habsburg Empire (and, of course, six years of Nazi occupation). Yet the notion of “Central Europe” is not as dated as it seems; Mark Mazower points out that the term came into vogue to an extent during the Cold War as countries of justifiable longitudes “talked themselves into ‘Central Europe’ to distance themselves from the barbarians.” He goes on to quote an unnamed British historian on the then-recent Bosnian war: “‘...a primitive, tribal conflict only anthropologists can understand.’” At the time of Mazower’s writing (my edition dates from 2000 but the original printing was in 1998), Eastern Europe was barely a decade removed from Communism and was an unfamiliar guest everywhere from the European Union to Eurovision. Original audiences of the films below would hardly be shocked by such an outcome.
Der Gelbe Schein (1918) Director Ernst Lubitsch’s early German film Der Gelbe Schein (The Yellow Ticket) is not one of his better-known works and only reached my attention by chance in the spring of 2013, when it was screened at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts as a collaborative presentation of both the Boston Jewish Film Festival and the Boston Jewish Music Festival (there was a live klezmer violin accompaniment). Lubitsch would become famous in Hollywood in the 1920s and well into the “talkie” era for his sophisticated comedies, but Der Gelbe Schein is neither sophisticated nor funny. Its star, thenunknown Pola Negri, would replace Theda Bara as one of the great “vamps” of the silent screen, but here she too deviates from her normal path by portraying the very opposite of a vamp: a bookish Jewish girl in the Pale of Settlement.
Der Gelbe Schein was released in November 1918, a date understood by us to mean the end of the First World War but at the time of shooting was intended as a propaganda vehicle for Germany to expose tsarist Russia as an anti-semitic, oppressive, regressive, and ultimately backward country - hardly a falsehood at the time. Of course, by late 1918, neither Germany nor Russia could claim any victories from the Great War; it is no coincidence that centenary commemorations are curiously absent from both countries today, and of course both countries by the war’s end had undergone radical changes in government. That said, Der Gelbe Schein provides a rare documentary glimpse of Jewish Eastern Europe as it tends to be remembered through collective memory. It was shot in part in the predominantly Jewish Naleweski district of Warsaw during the less “malevolent” of the two German occupations that the city would come to endure. The non-Jewish Negri...was greatly moved by the experience of filming among a ‘bearded and bewigged’ population that could easily have ‘stepped out of drawings of life made there two hundred years ago’, and hoped that despite the prevailing anti-Jewish feelings of many of her fellow Poles, the film she was making, on the eve of her departure for Germany and world stardom, would do something to spread tolerance and understanding.
For the modern viewer, equipped with the knowledge that many “extras” in the background of street shots were in fact real residents of the town, it is almost impossible not to feel haunted by the inevitable fate of these people which awaits them in the then-unforeseen future conflict. Nearly century-old films already come with a subconscious reminder, by virtue of their age, that “everyone in this movie is dead now” but such an end as the Holocaust is a uniquely terrifying causa mortis. Of course, since no global catastrophe can be born in a vacuum, the Eastern Front came equipped with a history of anti-semitism that would bolster the Germans’ efforts in the 1940s, and the film’s very title alludes to one such criterion: the “gold tickets” in question were given to Jewish women so that they might live in St. Petersburg in the only way permitted to them at the time - as prostitutes. Gabriella Safran challenges the notion that “nice Jewish girls” really did this, but the “urban myth” of the “Jewish false prostitute” did exist, and it coexisted with the even less comfortable and more prevalent myth “of the Jew as white slaver.” Safran’s article is actually about a non-Jewish prostitute who provides refuge, if not actual services, to the secular Jew El’ia Isaakovich, who himself defies yet another stereotype about the moral and physical weaknesses of Jewish men, one which would not be eradicated by the mere triviality that Jews had a healthy representation in the tsar’s army during World War One. In 1916, a publication called Shchit (The Shield) would speak out against “the danger it [Russia’s anti-semitism] posed both to the moral equality of the Russian nation and to its reputation abroad,” but to little effect.
Pola Negri’s character is Lea, the adopted daughter of a dying Orthodox Jew named Scholem. She loves to learn (more than one source compares her to Yentl), which is of course out of step for women, particularly in the Orthodox Jewish community of the day, but she tells her father “I want to study every book I can find to help you in your suffering.” Her dream is to study in St. Petersburg, which she is only able to do after Scholem’s death, with the acquisition of a yellow ticket, and with the papers of her former teacher’s dead sister in whose name, Sofia Storki, she is able to enroll in medical classes at the university.
While there she attracts the attention of Dmitri - and later loses it when he sees her at one of her landlady’s wild parties earning her keep under her real name of Lea Raab. Safran notes that the insincerity of the “false prostitute” is in fact nullified by the true sincerity of choosing not to convert to Christianity and thereby do away with all the racist restrictions. Living with the stigma of the yellow ticket and remaining Jewish (arguably a worse stigma in tsarist Russia anyway) was a more honorable choice than to give up one’s faith. However, we are quickly disabused of the notion that Lea is just another poor Jewish damsel in distress: when Dmitri learns her secret, she attempts suicide and is saved by her professor...who just so happens to also be her biological father. Siegbert Solomon Prawer quotes Ring Lardner, Jr. regarding The
Gentleman’s Agreement in which Gregory Peck poses as a Jew to experience anti-semitism firsthand:
“...you should never be mean to a Jew because he might turn out to be a Gentile.” The question then becomes: is the moral of the story really that the Russians are inferior for their anti-semitism when a German-made movie gives a character a Cinderella moment when it is revealed that she is not in fact Jewish and therefore now fully entitled to a happy life? If this is so, perhaps there is no moral at all and we must accept Der Gelbe Schein for its value as a chronicle of a world that would only exist for a few more short years.
Nosferatu (1922) It was tempting to discuss F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu alongside Tod Browning’s even more famous Dracula. No one can dispute the argument that Browning’s version, made in 1931 and starring Bela Lugosi, is the version that has set the standard for the image of Dracula more than Bram Stoker’s novel (or the real Dracula, Vlad Tepes, from the 15th century) ever did. However, space does not permit a deviation from the silent film focus of this study, and while Lugosi’s thick Hungarian accent is indeed legendary, his character is too handsome, too suave, too clean to meet the criteria of “barbarian” that, for the purposes of my research, an Eastern European must be. Of course, it does not hurt that Nosferatu is more faithful to the Stoker novel. Dracula lives as a Halloween icon but Nosferatu is almost too scary even for that. The star of the aforementioned Der Gelbe Schein, Pola Negri, rose to fame as an “ethnic” beauty; “Her public image, molded primarily by Lubitsch in their Berlin years, was based on casting her as the savage, oversexed and irresistible Other.” Yet her variant of “Other” was still safely contained inside a woman who is stunningly beautiful even by modern standards. It is the same with Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula. The fear generated by the vampire of Nosferatu penetrates even deeper because it does not stop at his hideous appearance.
Brenda Gardenour’s analysis of Nosferatu vis a vis the medieval blood libel against Jews is hardly farreaching. Julius Streicher had to have seen the film in order to fashion his ugly caricatures for Der Sturmer.
Nosferatu is hardly a man of the 20th century, of course. His grotesque features - rat-like teeth, gnarled hands, emaciated body, sunken eyes, hooked nose, large ears - are not in line with the modern German mann of the Weimar Republic. Even if Jews were already somehow at fault for Germany’s defeat in the First World War, thus responsible for the country’s financial ruin in the early 1920s, the film takes takes place in a safely judenrein German city that looks like a Grimm Brothers fairy tale. Bremen is thus not simply the most beautiful setting of the films discussed in this study; it is the only one which is aesthetically pleasing. “Was it he who brought the plague to Bremen in 1838?” ponders local historian Johann Cavallius at the film’s outset. This is our spoiler for the film’s ending, but is it really even a spoiler when everyone already knows that bloodsucking Jews spread disease? Streicher teaches young Aryans in his children’s book Der Giftpilz that the Jew is...the most most poisonous mushroom in existence. Just as poisonous mushrooms spring up everywhere, so the Jew is found in every country in the world. Just as poisonous mushrooms often lead to the most dreadful calamity, so the Jew is the cause of misery and distress, illness and death.