Before World War I, cinema was largely an international affair. Technical and artistic discoveries made in one country were quickly seen and assimilated elsewhere. The war, however, disrupted the free flow of films across borders. Some national industries benefited from this disruption. A few countries were partially or wholly cut off from imports, yet the demand for films remained.
Before 1912, the German film industry was relatively insignificant. Its films were not widely exported, and imports dominated its domestic market. Cinema had a low reputation in Germany.
By the late 1912, however, the boycott was broken, as film producers competed to sign those same playwrights, directors, and actors to exclusive contracts. Similarly, film firms sought to adapt prestigious literary works and to have established authors write original screenplays. During 1913 the Autorenfilms, or “authors’ film”, were born. The term author did not mean then what auteur means today – the director of the film. Rather, the Autorenfilm was publicized largely on the basis of a famous writer who had written the script or the original literary work from which the film was adapted. The Autorenfilm was, in effect, Germany’s equivalent of the Film d’Art in France and other attempts at creating an artistic cinema.
The most successful and famous Autorenfilm is “The Student of Prague”(1913, Stellan Rye). It was based on an original screenplay by the popular writer Hanns Heinz Ewers and marked the entry of theater star Paul Wegener into the cinema. The fantasy elements of this film would become a prominent trait of German cinema, culminating in the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s.
Italian cinema flourished in the first half of the teens. The success of exported films and the establishment of the feature film attracted talented people to the industry and led producing companies to compete energetically.
Historical epics continued to have the most significant triumphs abroad. In 1913, Enrico Guazzoni’s “Quo Vadis?” was an enormous hit and confirmed the epic as the main Italian genre.
The diva films played up luxurious settings, fashionable costumes, and the heightened acting of the performers. “Ma l’amor mio non muore!” ( “But My Love Does Not Die!” 1913, Mario Caserini) established the genre.
After the war, Italy tried to regain its place in world markets but could not make inroads against American films.
Russia (tragic endings)
Like Germany, Russia developed a distinctive national cinema in near isolation as a result of World War I. Before the war, Russian production had been largely dominated by Pathè, which opened a studio in Russia in 1908, and Gaumont, which followed in 1909.
During this era, Russian filmmakers innovated a unique approach to the new art. First, they explored subject matter with a melancholy tone. Even before the war, Russian audiences favored tragic endings. As one film trade journal put it:
All’s well that ends well!
One film trade journal
This is the guiding principle of foreign cinema. But Russian cinema stubbornly refuses to accept this and goes its own way. This slow pace derived from a fascination with psychology.
In 1913, the largest company, Pathè Freres, took the first of several steps that ultimately would harm the French industry. It cut back on the increasingly costly production side of the business to concentrate on the profitable areas of distribution and exhibition. In the United States, French films were being squeezed out by the growth of independent firms. Pathè dropped its membership in the Motion Picture Patents Company, forming an independent distribution firm in 1913. This firm released several widely successful serials during the 1910s, including “The Perils of Pauline”.
Unlike Pathè, Gaumont expanded production in the years just before the war. Two important Gaumont directors, Leonce Perret and Louis Feuillade, did some of their best work during this period. Pathe’s response to the war was to focus its efforts on its American distribution wing, releasing films made by independent producers in the United States. With the huge success of “The Perils of Pauline” and subsequent serials, Pathè remained profitable. It was, however, no longer providing a stable leadership for French film production. Through its distribution, Pathè was also helping American films gain a greater share of the French market.
French intellectuals and the general public alike adored the new American stars they discovered during the war: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and Lillian Gish. Serial queen Pearl White was idolized in France after the release of “Les Mysteres de New York”, the French title of her second Pathè serial, “The Exploits of Elaine” (1915). During 1917, American films passed the 50-percent mark in French exhibition.
In Denmark, Ole Olsen’s Nordisk films continued to dominate production, though a small number of other firms operated during the 1910s. From 1913 to 1914, Nordisk and other companies were moving toward longer films of two, three, even four reels. One historian has summarized the typical style of Nordisk’s films:
The lighting effects, the stories, the realism of interior settings, the extraordinary use of natural and urban lo cations, the intensity of the naturalistic acting style, the emphasis on fate and the passions.
The work of August Blom, Nordisk’s top director of the early teens, typifies this style. His most important film was “Atlantis” (1913), at eight reels the longest Danish film to date. Its plot offered a fairly conventional psychological melodrama, but the film dwelt on beautifully designed sets and spectacular scenes, such as the sinking of an ocean liner (inspired by the Titanic disaster of the previous year). Atlantis was triumphantly successful abroad.
The Motion Picture Patents Company had dominated the American film industry between 1908 and 1911, but it lost much of its power after a 1912 court decision rendered the Latham-loop patent void. Independent firms soon regrouped and expanded into a studio system that would form the basis for American film making for decades. Certain filmmaking roles – the role of the producer and not the director – became central. In addition, the star system gained full strength, as celebrities came to command enormous salaries and even began producing in their own right.