Ambiguous Displays of Emancipation

Andreas-Benjamin Seyfert [UCLA]

Lilian Harvey balancing on a tightrope in front of a film crew in an experimental dream sequence from A Blonde Dream (Ein blonder Traum, 1932) directed by Paul Martin.

Lilian Harvey balancing on a tightrope in front of a film crew in an experimental dream sequence from Ein blonder Traum (1932) directed by Paul Martin. 

In the late Weimar Republic, depictions of modern women filled the silver screen: switchboard operators, secretaries, women at the wheel, manicurists, or aspiring actresses. Films mirrored social and technological advances of their time but, while there were images of strong independent women among them, these displays of progress were usually qualified by conflicting elements of the plot. A recurring aspect in films of the period was the tendency to challenge conservative gender norms, only to return to a heteronormative advisory stance by the conclusion of the film. This re-established a patriarchal order, retroactively marking initial transgressions of traditional values as a temporary phase, a state of confusion on the way to the so-called natural/normal: women’s function as part of the nuclear family. These films cast aside independence and self-reliance as transitional moments in the progression toward true fulfilment. In retrospect, this narrative strategy for depicting modern women in late Weimar films makes an overall ideological stance toward gender emancipation of women within the culture of Germany’s first democracy difficult to narrow down.

Technological progress in the modern imaginary signified a beacon of hope to some, and a threat to others, as it challenged norms perceived as established or natural. Fritz Lang’s famous science fiction film Metropolis (1927) introduces a machine-woman hybrid as something to be desired, but also to be feared. Maria, portrayed in a dual performance by Brigitte Helm, merged widespread anxiety over new technologies with male fear of the emancipated woman. It portrayed the natural woman as nurturing, the perfect mother and wife, while the artificial robot-hybrid is an evil and seductive vamp, a revolutionary threat to the established order. In two lesser-known films (1928 and 1930) based on Hanns Heinz Ewers’ novel Alraune, Helm once again played this emblematic role of a man-made woman, as the product of artificial insemination of a prostitute by an executed murderer. This product of man’s tinkering with nature through technological means becomes Eros and Thanatos personified, wreaking havoc through her sexual appeal as an uncanny seductress. Maria and Alraune capture a misogynistic view of the continuing emancipation of women in public life and concerns that changing gender norms would lead to an eventual emasculation of the modern male, resulting in a failure of patriarchal power structures at the core of early twentieth-century German society.

Male Fear and Desire

In an analysis of Maria in Metropolis, Andreas Huyssen argues that the relationship between technology and women in Weimar film generates a controversial dynamic:

     The film suggests a simple and deeply problematic homology between woman and technology, a homology which results from male projections: Just   as man invents and constructs technological artefacts which are to serve him and fulfil his desires, so woman, as she has been socially invented and constructed by man, is expected to reflect man’s needs and to serve her master.[1]

 Richard W. McCormick and Anjeana K. Hans have both pointed to the relationship between female emancipation and technology as a complex issue which involved female spectatorship,[2] various female character tropes, and the male gaze.[3] These are all interesting angles that help us understand the layers involved in displaying women and machines in these films. The eroticisation of machine-like movement of female bodies is almost a trope of the Weimar mass entertainment imaginary as Siegfried Kracauer points out in his ‘Mass Ornament’ essay which argued that ‘hands in the factory correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls’,[4] or as Béla Balázs put it: ‘At first, machines appeared as soulless and unspiritual in their relationship to the arts, but with time, man felt them as part of his body. They became his fingertips’.[5]

Science fiction establishes an unambiguous medium for the translation of present fears of the near future. Conveniently, caricatures such as Alraune and Maria have allowed us to gloss over more complex female characters, which appealed to the modern woman too, ensuring a film’s ultimate popularity with all sexes. The last years of the Weimar Republic were a time of polarisation on many issues, and chief among them were conflicting views on women’s place in the world. Men largely dominated the film industry as well, which is not to dismiss important behind-the-camera contributions by women that shaped some stories and characters of big-screen Weimar entertainment, such as Luise Fleck, Thea von Harbou, Irma von Cube, Leontine Sagan, or even the likes of Leni Riefenstahl. It is crucial to realise that gender equality for women was far from a reality and, by the end of the Twenties, the women’s rights movement had lost much of its momentum after achieving equal voting rights in 1918.

Screenshot from Menschen am Sonntag

Screenshot taken from Menschen am Sonntag (1929).

In a scene from Menschen am Sonntag (Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, 1930), a young woman wields her curling iron as a weapon to destroy her boyfriend’s photograph of a famous female movie star. She alters the function of a machine typically used for female gender-coded self-fashioning to destroy an unrealistic role-model, a fetishised and artificially mass-reproduced depiction of a woman. Taken out of context, the scene is one of powerful emancipation: an act of rebellion against her boyfriend and a liberation from the feminine beauty ideals featured in mass media which reduce women to sexualised objects. The image is striking and progressive. However, peeling back the layers, one discovers that the young woman was actually reacting to her boyfriend’s actions. He just smeared shaving cream on a card displaying one of her male idols. A group of men scripted the film (Billy Wilder, Robert, and his brother Curt Siodmak) whose primary intention was the depiction of non-actors in everyday life. It is therefore conceivable that their sole intention was to show ordinary men and women destroying pictures of extraordinary movie stars, creating a visual metaphor for the very concept of rejecting stardom in favour of the realism that their film sought to achieve. But it is equally conceivable that the gendered reading of the scene as a rejection of unrealistic standards imposed by movies on women was always present in the film along with alternative interpretations.

Who’s Gazing at You, Kid?

The predominance of men in Weimar cinema meant that male voices often informed displays of women’s emancipation on the big screen. Under harsh studio lights, Jou-Jou (French for ‘plaything’) walks a tightrope as an American executive dressed like the German Kaiser Wilhelm II points and laughs at her. After waking up from this nightmare, Jou-Jou abandons her ambitions of Hollywood stardom and settles into her happy ending with a modest window cleaner (Willy Fritsch) in the Berlin countryside. The surreal scene at the heart of Paul Martin’s 1932 musical Ein blonder Traum, dreamt up by screenwriters Billy Wilder and Franz Schulz, is something of an omen for its star. Shot in German, French, and English versions starring Lilian Harvey in all three, the film caught the eye of the Fox Film Corporation, who put her under contract. Harvey’s rude awakening came when she hadn’t made as big an impact in the United States as she had in Europe and returned to Germany, now under Nazi rule.

There is an ambivalence in Ein blonder Traum, a fine line between conservative and progressive values, that deserves scrutiny, especially considering its relation to technological advancements: film in particular, but also automobiles, radios, typewriters, and photographs. Nowadays, machines in their relation to concepts of gender can help us move beyond patriarchal structures as sketched out in A Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway, an essay in which the author challenges the reader to confront complex gender relations, technologies, and the society that embeds them, abandoning the stable ground of gender binaries of the masculine and the feminine.[6] In the Weimar Republic, most dominant groups saw gender binaries as immovable, but this did not prevent some women from finding work that allowed them to live independently without a man’s support. Some late Weimar films display women moving about freely, but their male counterparts often immobilise them by the very end of the story. As Maite Zubiaurre points out, this type of narrative alludes to ‘progression but only recreates the circular plot of seduction and marriage’.[7] According to Zubiaurre, the act of trapping women to machines such as typewriters is part of the male heterosexual erotic imaginary, because it paralyses the female body with motionless entities, the very function of which it is to make movement possible.

Phantom of the Operator

Switchboard operators, often likened to ‘weavers of speech’, alluding to another profession previously mainly associated with the female gender, implied movement by bridging voices separated by distance. Conceived from the outset as restrictive and binding, the space allocated to each individual woman within switchboard designs prohibited side-to-side elbow movement. Women were facing the machine with their backs to one another. The set-up allowed supervisors to easily reprimand any regulation transgression. Documentaries about switchboard operators stressed that working in this profession taught self-effacing service with a smile, a quality that would later be of benefit to women as good wives and mothers.[8] As Michele Martin puts it:

 [switchboard operators] represented both a necessary element in and an obstacle to the production of instantaneous private interactive communication . . . as ‘human mediators’ whose activities could delay or intrude on the privacy of telephone calls ... The telephone companies attempted to produce operators with particular habits, skills, and attitudes.[9]

Switchboard operators and close-up on Magda Schneider in Wrong Number, Miss (1932).

Switchboard operators and close-up on Magda Schneider in Fräulein – falsch verbunden (1932).

One such switchboard operator is the subject of the 1932 comedy of errors: Wrong Number, Miss dir. by E. W. Emo. The German title Fräulein – falsch verbunden is a play on words since both phone connections (telefonische Verbindungen) and romantic unions (Liebesverbindungen) get muddled in this story. Inge (Magda Schneider), the switchboard operator protagonist, gets an unexpected date from a stranger on her phone line. To recognise one another, they agree to hold white handkerchiefs in their right hands to identify each other. Inge’s new boss published an ad in the local paper to find a potential fiancée; both blind dates have settled on the same place and the same sign to recognise each other. Upon meeting up, the two blind dates find themselves swapped around, leading to confusion. But despite it all, Inge and her boss fall in love. His marriage proposal involves two lampshades which are symbolically reunited at the resolution of the film, signifying a happy home life in domesticity after clearing away all remaining misunderstandings.

Happy Endings in Hegemonic Masculinity

In their oxymoronic modes of representation, late Weimar talkies like Fräulein- falsch verbunden hint at freedom of movement and speech for working women. Strapped to a machine as its mechanical wirepuller, Inge enables the connection of voices, bridges distinct spaces in service of others, rather than holding her own private conversations or travelling for her own amusement. While the film features a financially independent woman, she also relies on men for protection throughout the story. The first is a father-like figure, August Sperling, the canteen chef at the telephone company, described in the film program as ‘the father and protector of all the little switchboard operators’. He defends Inge when confusion first arises. Finally, her boss removes her from a temporary self-sufficient state and brings her back to where the film can resolve in a happy ending: in marriage. A foil to this couple of Inge and her employer are a cheating husband and a greedy young woman that were initially supposed to meet Inge and her boss respectively on the blind dates. The film makes a case that these two deserve each other, as they are both morally tainted. It displays Inge as reliant on men’s favour until finally, by the end, she returns to her intended function as a fulfiller of men’s wishes, nurturing and procreating within the sacred institution of marriage.

Screenshot of the final frame of Hallo Hallo! Hier Spricht Berlin (1932)

A young man and a young woman fall in love over the phone in Hallo Hallo! Hier spricht Berlin (Julien Duvivier, 1932), a story about two switchboard operators who work from Berlin and Paris, respectively. Along the same line as Fräulein, falsch verbunden, other plot points involve two side characters, colleagues at the switchboard, who try to come between our heroes by pretending to be someone they are not. Since the two lovebirds never met face-to-face, the male antagonist of the story, impersonating our hero, travels to Paris to win over his girl. However, she turns down his advances. Our hero and heroine lose their jobs for making personal international calls, only to find out that their colleagues had been double-crossing them. Having been hired as the secretary of a Frenchman, our heroine visits Berlin and arrives at the hotel where her love interest now works. Finally, the two find each other and live happily ever after. In the last frame of the film, their hands join over a table on which a phone is lying off the hook. The female characters in the film do not travel unless accompanied by men. The young heroine must work as a secretary for a man in Berlin to physically move there. Women in the movie are confined to a machine and punished when they do not follow the rules imposed upon their bodies, or they must follow a male figure, such as an employer or a husband.


In his edited volume The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema: Rediscovering Germany’s Filmic Legacy, Christian Rogowski notes that influential Weimar scholars focused primarily on authoritarianism in relation to art cinema, which caused them to overlook critical issues of gender and aesthetic pleasure in popular genre cinema. We know relatively little about only a minority of the movie output produced during the Weimar period, which amounted to around two hundred per year on average. We have paid little attention to box-office successes, supposedly because of their lack of aesthetic relevance. They represent but a fraction within the Weimar scholarship canon. The books From Caligari to Hitler, The Haunted Screen and later Shell Shock Cinema focus to a great extent on the same group of films of either expressionist or realist style. Light entertainment, also known as escapism, remains largely unexplored by most film historians. In 2010, the essays collected in Rogowski’s book began breaking apart the limitations that had kept a vibrant and diverse set of films from receiving proper critical consideration.

In Weimar Germany, more than half of film audiences were women, and the German film industry produced a wide variety of domestic melodramas and romantic comedies to cater to their desires. As a cultural reflection of the past, these films appealed to contemporary audiences and reveal their hopes and dreams, their prejudices, and expectations, all of which make it worth revisiting today. Through the male gaze, filmmakers were attempting to decode perceived needs and desires of the opposite sex. But by returning to the bounds of marriage and the subjugation of women to men, male Weimar film creatives were ultimately, it would seem, creating images according to their own fantasies.

Further Reading

Ganeva, Mila, Women in Weimar Fashion: Discourses and Displays in German Culture, 1918-1933 (Rochester: Camden House, 2008)

Hales, Barbara, Black Magic Woman: Gender and the Occult in Weimar Germany (Oxford; New York: Peter Lang, 2021)

Hans, Anjeana, Gender and the Uncanny: In Films of the Weimar Republic Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014)

McCormick, Richard W., Gender and Sexuality in Weimar Modernity: Film, Literature, and ‘New Objectivity’ (London: Palgrave, 2007)

Petro, Patrice, Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989)

Rogowski, Christian, The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema: Rediscovering Germany's Filmic Legacy (Rochester: Camden House, 2012)

Schlüpmann, Heide, The Uncanny Gaze: The Drama of Early German Cinema, translated by Inga Pollmann (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010)


[1] Andreas Huyssen, ‘The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang's Metropolis’, New German Critique, 24/25 (1981), 221-37 (p. 227).

[2] ‘The excess associated with gender destabilization in Weimar cinema also “exceeds” male paranoia and any misogynistic intentions. To some extent, then, the cinema served a public function in addressing spectators of both genders and of various classes concerned about their roles and status within Weimar society.’ Richard W. McCormick, ‘Private Anxieties/Public Projections: “New Objectivity”, Male Subjectivity, and Weimar Cinema’, Women in German Yearbook 10 (1994), 1-18.

[3] See Anjeana K. Hans, ‘From Dangerous Hybrid to Self-Sacrificing Woman’, in Gender and the Uncanny in Films of the Weimar Republic(Detroit, Illinois: Wayne State University Press, 2014), 216-266. Both Hans and McCormick are indebted to previous work by Patrice Petro and Heide Schlüpmann who brought scholarly attention to issues of female spectatorship and the male perspective that has shaped female characters on the German screen. See: Heide Schlüpmann, The Uncanny Gaze: The Drama of Early German Cinema (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2010). See also: Patrice Petro, Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989).

[4] Siegfried Kracauer, ‘The Mass Ornament’. in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, ed. by Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), 75-86 (p. 79).

[5] ‚Auch in der Kunst erschien jede Maschine zuerst als das seelenlose, ungeistige Prinzip. Aber der Mensch assimiliert sich die Maschine allmählich zu seinem Organ. Sie wird zu seinen Fingerspitzen.’ Béla Balázs, Der Geist des Films (Halle (Saale): Wilhelm Knapp, 1930), 132-133.

[6] Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Social Review, 80 (1985), 65-108.

[7] Maite Zubiaurre, ‘Imported Techno-Eros: Bicycles and Typewriters’, in Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898-1939 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012), 223-253 (223).

[8] See short documentaries on the subject in the AT&T Archive series, which can be watched on YouTube: and

[9] Michele Martin. ‘Hello, Central?’: Gender, Technology and Culture in the Formation of Telephone Systems (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991), p. 50.