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The Weimar Screenplay: “Expressionism” and Literary Adaptations

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The Modernist Screenplay

Part of the book series: Palgrave Studies in Screenwriting ((PSIS))

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This chapter argues that two literary phenomena had a great impact on the development of screenwriting in Weimar Germany: popular neo-romantic fiction and literary adaptations. The chapter refutes the common viewpoint that literary expressionism influenced the German screenwriting of the 1920s. It shows that expressionist films mostly relied on conventional screenplays, while the latter borrowed motifs and writing techniques from neo-romantic literature. At the same time, literary authors in Germany and Austria often saw film as inferior to literature and attempted “elevating” its cultural status by adapting literary works into screenplays. The film industry rejected most of these screenplays because they relied on theatrical means of storytelling. In conclusion, the chapter singles out the few experimental German screenplays from the 1920s.

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  1. 1.

    A comparison I conducted between the published excerpts and Harbou’s original manuscript available at the archive of Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin shows that they are indeed authentic.

  2. 2.

    The reluctance of publishers and researchers to rediscover Harbou’s work today primarily has to do with her compliance with the Nazi authorities: “Harbou, like [Leni] Riefenstahl, refused to explain her involvement in the Nazi regime and went on making movies in the Federal Republic of Germany in the early 1950s” (Scholz 2015, 377).

  3. 3.

    A somewhat loose English translation of The Plague appeared in January 1923 in the New York magazine the Smart Set.

  4. 4.

    Hauptmann’s screenplay Phantom served as the basis for his novel of the same name, which in turned served as the basis for Harbou’s screenplay Phantom, which Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau realised in 1922 as the film Phantom.

  5. 5.

    On the differences between the versions of the script, see Hoefert (1996, 32).

  6. 6.

    All Schnitzler’s film projects were meticulously documented in a recently published volume (Schnitzler 2015), which includes texts from different stages of work, comparisons between them, extensive commentary, and bibliographies.

  7. 7.

    In particular, Hofmannsthal’s two original screenplays from the 1920s, [Daniel Defoe] and Film for Lillian Gish (Film für Lillian Gish), often present in one sentence information about multiple events that occur over a significant time span. The history of Hofmannstahl’s film projects is traced in great detail in the 2003 study by Heinz Hiebler.

  8. 8.

    For that reason, Heinz-Bernd Heller’s (1985) influential study of film-literature interactions in Germany, which explores the period between 1910 and 1930, hardly moves beyond the year 1923.


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Correspondence to Alexandra Ksenofontova .

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Ksenofontova, A. (2020). The Weimar Screenplay: “Expressionism” and Literary Adaptations. In: The Modernist Screenplay. Palgrave Studies in Screenwriting. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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