Women behind the scenes in German film

By Eleanor Halsall

As it did elsewhere, the German film industry exerted a magnetic pull on its public. Many women aspired to a career on the screen, only to be disappointed when intense competition meant that they were unable to secure work, even as extras. Film stars of both genders added glamour to the profession and were attributed royal status in the cheap novellas flaunting titles like Der Filmgott, Die Kinoprinzessin and Die Filmdiva.

‘2000 girls want to work in film – the great desire that life does not fulfil’. Blatt der Hausfrau, June 1934, Issue 19, p. 524.

Magazines ran articles advising how their readers might break into film; consequently their letter pages were inundated with pleas for advice. Other publications nurtured readers’ ambitions by hinting at the industry’s allegedly magical qualities – evident with titles such as Im Zauber des Films (The magic of film, Brie, 1920) or Ins Zauberreich des Films (Into the magic realm of film, 1930). But the latter, written by Georg Viktor Mendel whose experience as director, writer, cameraman and film architect qualified him to offer insights into a variety of film careers, was directed squarely at boys.

[Isabel] let the film strip glide carefully through her hands: it did not roll across the floor like a giant snake, as happened often enough with her lord and master, but it was neatly round into rolls. She quickly measured out the scenes and spliced them together

Tanz ums Licht

Tanz ums Licht (Dance around the light, Boehm, 1925) resorted to the archetypal narrative of the hapless female – in this case a film splicer (Kleberin) – who is rescued from the obscurity of the dark laboratory where she pieces together the film strips. It doesn’t matter that Isabel has an excellent reputation for her skills as a splicer and editor, the director insists she must take up the mantle of film star! It must have been pure coincidence that she quickly replaces his recently abandoned lover, an actress whose face has begun to betray her days past 30…

In one case of life mimicking art – at least as far as work was concerned – Irene von Meyendorff, a trainee editor working at Babelsberg, was discovered by producer Karl Ritter and offered a leading role in Die letzten vier von Santa Cruz/The last four of Santa Cruz, 1935. This would be the first in a long screen career.

A leap into the leading role, Sport im Bild, vol. 1, 1936.

Restrictions on working time, a ban on night shifts, the exclusion of specific locations and industries (especially bar work!) – the patriarchal tendency of employment law in the Weimar era stipulated enhanced protection for minors and women. Arguably this may have made it difficult for women to enter certain professions, such as lighting engineers required to work at height, or camera operators who had to manipulate heavy apparatus. More likely, however, is that these technical professions were simply not considered as suitable Frauenberufe – occupations for women.

Summarising the law in 1929 as it applied to actors and film directors, the author explained that ‘specific persons were not allowed to agree their own contracts, including children under 13, minors aged 13-21 and … married women’ (Dienstag: 1929, p. 37). Although he pointed out that a degree of female autonomy was enshrined in the Bürgerliche Gesetzbuch (the Civil Code) which entitled a woman to enter into film contracts ‘without her husband’s consent’ this right might nevertheless be overridden via the Vormundschaftsgericht (the Guardianship Court) if the husband felt that his wife’s activity might ‘impair the marital interests’ (Dienstag: 1929, p. 45). Clearly in this period a woman could not take her right to employment for granted, at least not if she was married.

With their rigid notions of gendered roles, the National Socialist regime agitated against wives who went out to work, shaming their families as Doppelverdiener (dual income families) and accusing women of stealing men’s jobs; rhetoric that no doubt found favour with unemployed men. By 1944, however, the available German workforce had shrunk to 29 million from 39 million at the start of the war. Inevitably, because so many men had been enlisted, these figures were not evenly reflected across genders. The number of eligible female workers – classed as jobless women without children under 14 – barely shifted from 14.6 million in 1939 to 14.9 million in 1944 (Kramer: 2002, p. 46). The pressures of labour shortages intensified across all industries, including film production; demands that were only partly met with foreign workers recruited from abroad, and huge numbers of Zwangsarbeiter (forced labourers).

Post-war film production would create greater opportunities for women to enter a range of film professions, particularly with the establishment of DEFA in 1946 which saw a significant number of women working as editors, camera operators and film directors. 

A membership report from the Reichsfilmkammer (RFK) at the end of 1940 revealed that all film professions remained dominated by men, often to the complete exclusion of women. Only acting had slightly more women than men: 1,429 against 1,408.

Vom Film in Deutschland, Schweizer Film, Vol. 7, Issue 99, p. 21.

The historian of German film has an advantage in the sheer volume of bureaucratic records that have survived. These are documents that tell us not just who worked on a film, but also provide information about contractual arrangements, rates of pay, workplace accidents or disciplinary concerns. It is these lists that enable the names of female workers on the creative and technical side of film production to be teased out. 

Allocation sheet for Wo ist Herr Belling dir. Erich Engel, 1944, listing Elly Rauch as assistant director, Hildegard Grebner as editor, with Berta Bernhard and Luise Lehmann as make-up artists. BArch R 109-II/32.

These documents describe a correlation with political shifts and economic pressures as their numbers ebbed and flowed in the studios. So far our research has collected more than 430 names of women working in different film professions, some of whom had experience in more than one area. 

Although the list includes some women who began work after 1945, accessibility of digitised documents during the pandemic means that the emphasis so far is on women who were working between 1930 and 1945. What the RFK list does not mention, presumably because the role fell under a different section of the Cultural Chamber, is that the profession of script writer, among whom the best known is Thea von Harbou, included at least another 87 women.

Which film careers were open to women before 1945?

In the 1920s, publications explored careers that women might consider. Berliner Leben regularly focused on the employment and rights of women, extolling the work of female pioneers in areas such as aviation, patent law or medicine. The magazine also explored the potential for women to work within the film industry, running features about successful female set designers or animation artists, among them Edith Seehafer and Lotte Reiniger. One Austrian publication invited women and girls to consider other film professions such as the Kleberin (splicer); the costumier, the film secretary, hairdresser, bookkeeper and distributor (Volksfreund August 1930). 

The animation artist / Filmzeichnerin

‘This modern profession for women has good prospects and favourable earning potential’ declared a 1928 issue of Berliner Leben which introduced readers to the work of Edith Seehafer (p. 5). Having been spotted for her artistic talents, Seehafer achieved rapid  success within a year establishing her own company, Werbefilm GmbH, and working independently making short animation films for advertising. Perhaps because of this focus, Seehafer does not appear on Filmportal in spite of having been credited with more than 100 films. Nevertheless, she represented one of the more significant film careers for women. 

Edith Seehafer at the animation desk, Berliner Leben, Issue 31, 1928.

Unlike Seehafer’s experience, for many women who entered this field, the work of the animation artist tended to take the more passive form of copying somebody else’s work. A short documentary made in 1956 Zauber im Zeichenfilm (Magic – again! – in Animation) introduces the viewer to the work of the animation artist. The film intersperses scenes from an animated advertising cartoon with behind-the-scene shots from the studio. Here we see rows of desks furnished with drawing materials. At each desk a woman sits bent over an image, painstakingly drawing individual repetitions to reproduce the tiniest motion on the final film. ‘These women do not run away’, the narrator tells us. ‘They stay at their desks as if rooted to the spot, drawing for hours, days, weeks and months. Is this a profession?’ he asks. ‘Is it enthusiasm or obstinacy or passion? Or might it be all of these combined?’ It is a task demanding exceptionally precise work; and it is a task dominated by women with their more slender hands. The speaker’s avuncular tones marvel at the care and attention to detail, and the endless repetitions they must make, but his tone also implies that they are compliant and obedient – in other words, good employees.

In Frame by Frame, the late Hannah Frank investigated the work of the animation artist in America, there too a field dominated by women. Frank carried out her own painstaking research, scrutinising hundreds of thousands of images to reveal evidence of the person behind each drawing; to lift their anonymised lives from the page through evidence of smudges, hairs, whorls on fingers which laid bare the human essence of the artist as she worked on an image. They were not the original artists and, as was common, their names did not appear in a film’s credits. ‘These women were separated from the creative process, even as what they produced was intrinsic to the final product… it is the traces of their hands that we see on-screen’ wrote Frank (2019, p. 81).

The editor and the splicer / Cutterin und Kleberin

Two significant roles for women during this period were that of the editor and the splicer; the latter generally a first step towards becoming an editor. Both requiring delicate manual work, precise attention to detail, and characteristically sedentary work with long hours. ‘No one speaks about the editor … the person who unites image and sound’, wrote one magazine. ‘It would be an injustice if the cinemagoer did not learn about the huge amount of work, trouble and stress that goes into the editing of the film’. The article discussed the work of Else Baum, a highly sought-after editor rented out as a unit with the relevant machinery but who didn’t even get to the premieres of the films she edited because by that time ‘she is resting in a rented room, pleased at last to have peace and quiet for a day and wondering if this is even a human existence’ (Der Kuckuck. 1932). 

Elsa Baum, one of the best-known editors in Germany. Der Kuckuck.

The continuity girl / Skriptgirl

While an editor’s job was more easily defined, in Germany that of the person responsible for ensuring continuity between shoots appears to have suffered from a lack of, ahem, continuity. Is this vital work carried out by the production secretary or the studio secretary? Is it done by the Filmbearbeiterin or the production assistant? One article described the role as ‘the woman who knows everything’ (Mein Film, August 1946) while an earlier comment stressed the importance of the work at the same time as it patronised the worker: ‘The scriptgirl is essential to every film shoot. She’s at least as important as the cameraman – perhaps even more so. The cameraman can be replaced, but not the scriptgirl. After all, who could quickly pick up those last minute details? It’s not enough to read her notes, for she holds thousands of other details in her pretty little head’ (Das kleine Frauenblatt, 1938). 

A unique position

To round off this blog I would like to mention Herta Jülich who specialised in micro-photography, one of a kind in Germany at the time and, it was claimed, world-wide? Jülich featured regularly in publications and sometimes appeared in Ufa’s promotional newsreels for her work in the world of micro photography. Having worked as a technical assistant to a hygienist during WW1, Jülich became a radiologist and phlebotomist for doctors before she was invited by Dr. Ulrich K. T. Schulz to join him in his work at Ufa making cultural films about the tiniest creatures that required huge amounts of patience, steady hands and good eyesight. Articles about Jülich tend to treat her as a serious filmmaker.   

References 

Anon, Badener Zeitung, Der deutsche Kulturfilm und seine Themenwelt, 10 February 1945, p. 3.

Anon, Berliner Leben, Die Trickzeichnerin: ein neue Frauenberuf, Vol. 31, 1928, p. 5.

Anon, Berliner Leben, Kulissen: ein weites Feld für Frauenarbeit, Vol. 30, 1927, p. 8.

Anon, Der Kuckuck, Eine Frau wird verliehen, 4 September 1932, p. 15.

Anon, Mein Film, Das Skriptgirl, die Frau die alles weiss, 30 August 1946, p. 8.

Anon, Salzburger Zeitung, Mikro-Farbfilm, 7 July 1943, p. 8.

Anon, Schweizer Film, Vom Film in Deutschland, Vol. 7, Issue 99, p. 21

Anon, Sport im Bild, Unser Sprung in die Hauptrolle, Vol. 1, 1936, p. 10.

Anon, Volksfreund, Der Film als Frauenberuf, 30 August 1930, p. 5.

Melanie Bell, Movie Workers: the women who made British Cinema, 2021.

Walter Julius Blöm, Tanz ums Licht, 1925.

Woldemar Brinkmann, Die Filmprinzessin, 1920.

C. Deinzendorf, Die Filmdiva, 1925.

Paul Dienstag, Der Arbeitsvertrag des Filmschauspielers und Filmregisseurs, Schriften des Instituts für Arbeitsrecht an der Universität Leipzig. Hft. 20. 1929.

Edmund Edel, Der Filmgott, 1921.

Hannah Frank. Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons, 2019. Frame by Frame (oapen.org)[accessed 11 August 2021]

Jeanpaul Goergen, Im Schatten von Reiniger und Riefenstahl: Filmwege von Frauen im deutschen Animations-, Dokumentar- und Kulturfilm bis 1945https://mediarep.org/bitstream/handle/doc/13869/Goergen_2002_Im-Schatten-von-Reiniger-und-Riefenstahl_.pdf?sequence=4 [accessed 15 June 2021]

‘Irma‘, Berliner Leben, Lotte Reinigers Silhouettenfilme, Vol. 30, September 1927, p. 13.

Cornelia Klauß, Ralf Schenk (Eds.) Sie : Regisseurinnen der DEFA und ihre Filme, 2019. 

Nicole Kramer, Haushalt, Betrieb, Ehrenamt: Zu den verschiedenen Dimensionen der Frauenarbeit im Dritten Reich, in: Arbeit im Nationalsozialismus. 2002, pp. 33-51.

Otto Th. Kroptsch, Das kleine Frauenblatt, Neue Frauenberufe: Skriptgirl, Schnittmeisterin, Kleberin, p. 10.

H. Leèfbre, Berliner Leben, Sollen Sie filmen? Lassen Sie es lieber! Vol. 30, March 1927, p. 7. 

Dr. Georg Victor Mendel, Ins Zauberreich des Films, Bongs Jugendbücherei, 1930.

Dr Ellen Riggert, Znaimer Tagblatt, Eine Frau filmt die Kleintierwelt, 7/8 August 1943, p. 5.

Dr Josephine Widmar, Blatt der Hausfrau, 2000 Mädchen wollen zum Film, 1933-34, p. 524.

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