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Small-Gauge StorytellingDiscovering the Amateur Fiction Film$

Ryan Shand and Ian Craven

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780748656349

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748656349.001.0001

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. Crafting Life into Film: Analysing Family Fiction Films From the 1930s

. Crafting Life into Film: Analysing Family Fiction Films From the 1930s

(p.83) 3. Crafting Life into Film: Analysing Family Fiction Films From the 1930s
Small-Gauge Storytelling

Martina Roepke

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Academic scholarship has usually explored family films in terms of authenticity and memory, framing them as spontaneous documents of everyday life, and valued as catalysts for acts of reminiscence or confirmations of kinship. Any status they might have as crafted stories has, for the most part, been ignored. The fictional character of family films has been largely confined to a sense that they present us with ‘idealised’ moments of life, rather than any more verifiable ‘truth’. This chapter approaches family filmmaking in relation to fiction, in a rather different way, in what could probably best be described as a quest for the ‘historical poetics’ of a lost sub-genre. Unlike family footage in general, ‘family fiction’ explicitly employs strategies of staging, acting and directing, and is frequently based on a prepared script. When and under what circumstances (technological, cultural, social) family fiction was regarded as an appropriate genre for hobby filmmakers, forms a core concern throughout this chapter. The chapter argues that such works should be of interest to any amateur film collection, not due to some supposed ‘authenticity’ or ‘uniqueness’, but as evidences of the way in which cinematic techniques and styles were appropriated by amateurs, and thus extended the cinematographic experience from movie theatres into the daily life of moviegoers.

Keywords:   Family films, Crafting, Historical poetics

‘This is not our Sunday,’ I explained to her, ‘but more the principle of our Sunday, a highly condensed version of it.’1

In one of his manuals for the novice amateur filmmaker, Berlin-based author and father Alex Strasser chronicles the ups-and-downs of a complicated but very productive ménage à trois involving a young man, his wife and their newly purchased cine camera, which he refers to as Kurbulus.2 From the day that the camera enters the family home, the relation between the three develops in problematic ways, only made worse when a baby daughter is born to the young couple – the reason why the camera was bought in the first place. Questions of what to film and when, and how to bring the baby into the moving picture properly, often culminate in comic arguments, followed of course by the formulation of imaginative filmic solutions. Written in the form of a diary, the book is decidedly humorous and often ironic, especially concerning respective gender roles. It provides tips and tricks, not only about how to make a good film, but also about how to maintain a healthy domestic relationship whilst doing so. Although Strasser makes it very clear to his potential readers that there are numerous obstacles to be overcome whilst filming, he always reassures the anxious that in the end, of course, the product will have been worth it.

Instructional guides such as the one mentioned here provide valuable insights into the practice of family filming in specific contexts. Although the author clearly exaggerates the number and extent of possible disasters that may eventually occur when filming in domestic situations, he also points us towards emphases that have long been overlooked by film scholars: namely, that the happy and apparently spontaneous moments that fill home movies are (p.84) actually the result of a complex process of more or less ambitious, more or less planned, and more or less skillfully coordinated activities going on in front of, as well as behind, the camera. In this respect, home movie practice has little in common with forms of filmmaking commonly associated by scholarship with ‘cinema naïveté’, a term introduced by American anthropologist Richard Chalfen in his much-quoted studies, to refer to a kind of domestic film-making that ignores questions of form, and in which artistic ambition, planning and rule-following are conspicuously absent. As Chalfen observes, reporting on his research:

An idea often mentioned in the interviews was that home movies were not an outlet for artistic expression. Just as there would be little artistic motivation when making a tape recording of something, there was little or no concern with making a home movie in an ‘artistic manner’.3

Despite the fact that the filmmakers interviewed obviously lacked aesthetic ambitions, family members still enjoyed the screenings of the resulting footage, and did not bother about the ‘bad’ quality of the films themselves. On this basis, Chalfen concluded that filmmaking in domestic settings mainly served a social function, and suggested that this might be so because the participants agreed about not paying too much attention to rules and conventions. Although Chalfen’s approach has had a major impact upon research into domestic film practices in general, recent scholarship has taken issue with its firmly synchronic approach, detaching as it does the practices in question from their concrete historical, social and technological contexts, which vary in terms of geography and change constantly over time. Several writers have pointed towards a reduction in scope here, given the fact that Chalfen a priori excluded films from his study that showed evidence of commitment to the more formal conventions of filmmaking. Ryan Shand, for example, has succinctly formulated the limitations involved:

The analysis of how these representations are constructed formally continues in what might be considered a contradiction in terms: dealing with the formal characteristics of a filmmaking practice that is not in the least interested in form.4

In similar vein, French semiotician Roger Odin has pointed to the crucial relation of form and social function in filmmaking of this supposedly ‘naïve’ kind. In his approach to domestic movie-making, he distinguishes more specifically between various kinds of engagement with film, among which the family mode is simply one distinctive variant. In this mode, the films screened function primarily to prompt viewers to articulate memories, and to exchange visions of a common past. To some extent, Odin thus shares Chalfen’s general assumptions concerning the social power of film in family settings, but sees a direct (p.85)

. Crafting Life into Film: Analysing Family Fiction Films From the 1930s

3.1 The use of artificial lighting requires planning in advance to avoid harm and damage.

relationship between the formal characteristics of the films and the types of engagement that they stimulate. Far from representing failures of realisation, their open, repetitive, redundant and fragmented character actively cues family members to comment on the images, fill in missing information, and thus engage creatively in the construction of a shared version of the past. Odin goes so far as to argue that the editing and staging of family films actually works against this function.5 For both Chalfen and Odin, then, domestic filming becomes synonymous with unplanned and spontaneous shooting, carried out in a domestic context without reference to established conventions, or in other words, a modern cinema naïveté.

Until now, scholars and archives alike have been rather reluctant to recognise family films that do not correspond with this formulation of cinema naïveté.6 The reasons are various and complex. First of all, more calculated works, as opposed to supposedly spontaneous or naïve filming that does not seek formal perfection, are clearly driven by ambitions and a striving for formal accomplishment that are very likely to be judged as ‘poor’ or ‘awkward’. While the supposedly unplanned and spontaneous visuality of home movies has served as a source of inspiration for scholars and filmmakers alike, who have appreciated their almost experimental use of technique, films that seem to aspire to more standard–commercial conventions are often regarded as false imitations. The German filmmaker and collector Michael Kuball, for instance, regards staging and editing in family films as producing a certain ‘loss of authenticity’ and a reduction of their potential value as historical evidence.7 According to the US film scholar Patricia Zimmermann, staged and edited family films only (p.86) demonstrate the extent to which Hollywood has succeeded in ‘colonising’ the bourgeois subconscious, leaving the films produced effectively obsolete ideologically.8

This chapter broadens these views and takes a closer look at a form of domestic film practice that, unlike those associated with cinema naïveté, is clearly guided by aesthetic ambitions and a respect for convention. Part of the pragmatic motivation here is to bring materials that have been widely over-looked so far to the attention of archivists and museum curators, in a way that may inform future selection and presentation policy. In more theoretical terms, what follows departs from assumptions widely held within media and cultural studies that media practices, understood as cultural practices, contribute to the construction of a domestic sphere and shape the processes of identity formation that take place within it. As media sociologist John Thompson and others have argued, these processes are shaped by the media themselves, as well as the rules and protocols of their practical use.9 To understand better how the protocols and rules of filmmaking shape domestic participation in the activity, I propose to conceptualise this filmmaking practice as a form of ‘crafting’. As Richard Sennett has recently reminded us, the concept of crafting points to the effort it takes to make something, and in this sense is most obviously opposed to naïve practices, which frequently exhibit a certain casualness and lack of investment.10 The concept of ‘crafting’ also usefully accentuates the interaction of human agents with basic tools.11 From this perspective, a series of questions are explored: what rules and conventions inform this unexplored practice in this particular historical context? In what way are they adapted in family films of those years? Can we see anything of the crafting in these films? How does this crafting relate to the identity construction that takes place in the domestic context?

As cultural practice, domestic filmmaking is imbedded into larger cultural processes and historical contexts. What follows focuses on a particular historical moment: specifically, the inter-war period in Germany, the era when approaches to family filmmaking are first explored and conventionalised. The 1930s was a time in which access barriers to small-gauge technology were lowered significantly and ‘expert’ knowledge was made available for rapidly growing user groups. Stimulated by this new accessibility, a flood of instructional literature set out to turn a rather specialist hobby for cultural élites into a popular leisure-time activity, suitable for the whole family. In this context, a whole range of aesthetic norms and conventions are adapted for amateur use and appropriated by family ‘filmers’. What can we say about this process of appropriation? Is it visible in the films?

Fictionalising the Family

Eine Nacht und ein Morgen (A Night and a Morning, 1937) is an 8mm family film with a clear narrative.12 It depicts events that take place over one night (p.87) and one morning in the life of the parents of two children, a twelve-year-old daughter and a son who is around ten years old. Although we cannot be sure, the events we see could have taken place in the ways in which they are represented. However, the varied use of filmic techniques, including the introduction of montage and titles, makes it clear that the film is the result of a complex process of staging and editing with the purpose of entertaining an – eventually extended – home audience. The character of the film is thus twofold. On the one hand, it projects an image of the idealised family back on to the group of participants it features: a loving wife and mother, a faithful husband and well-behaved children. On the other hand, it incorporates various ingredients that good narrative entertainment is often made of: romance, rivalry, a happy ending – and even a real star, as we will see later. The term ‘family fiction film’ might, then, be of value to refer to such a film, one that draws its material from the lives of the participants to tell an engaging story, often with a clear and distinct message assigned to its conclusion.

Eine Nacht und ein Morgen illustrates these emphases well. The film’s opening sequence shows us a man and a woman returning home late in the evening. They have a cigarette in the living room before the woman goes to bed, while the husband remains seated in his chair. Gazing at the ceiling and enjoying his smoke, he recalls the few last hours, and in particular the performance of a female dancer at a theatre. He then retires to bed, where he dreams about the dance performance and other parts of the evening’s entertainment, while his wife dreams of dressed-up children dancing in rows. The next morning, the couple is slow to rise, while their children get up, take a bath and play quietly in the living room and outside, and they finally all prepare breakfast together. After eating, the whole family departs for a walk. The children enjoy themselves, whilst the husband and wife fall into conversation about their family life and what it offers them. The question comes up of what is more preferable – a nightlife full of entertainment or a quieter life with the family? The film ends with a clear commitment to the family.

Although the film starts as a chronicle of family events, the final scene, where the parents share their conversation, makes it clear that the actions depicted earlier actually served to prepare us for the central question raised in the film: what kind of life should be chosen? Is a family life with kids or a more hedonistic nightlife preferable? ‘So?’ ‘Oder so?’ – the titles formulate the problematic whilst the parents look out over the landscape. At this point in the film, material that has been shown earlier – the playing children, the dancer at the club – is re-introduced to illustrate the guiding opposition: family life versus nightlife. The organisation of the footage clearly works towards a predetermined end: namely, the answer given by the husband and father that family life is to be preferred. Certain doubts perhaps remain, however, as the last shot of Eine Nacht und ein Morgen shows only a cloudy sky.

One of the most obvious devices supporting the narrative is the variation in shot length and framing, and throughout the whole film there is a clear sense (p.88) of motivation for the image stream. Orienting shots give the spectator an idea of the place and time in which the action occurs: for instance, in the opening scene, where a medium close-up from outside shows the door of the family home. The recollection scene in the living room that follows is covered with a medium shot of the parents that brings the important characteristics of the location into the picture, such as the table at which they smoke. Editing is used to imply spatial and temporal relations and to create continuity. A close-up on the clock at various moments indicates how time ‘flies’; a parallel montage of the sleeping parents and the children playing suggests the simultaneity of the two actions; conventional shot-reverse-shot is used when the parents talk together; a shot showing the kids looking through the keyhole is followed by a shot of the sleeping parents and so on. At other points, editing is used to cue dreams or possible worlds, an effect most obvious in the repeated use of similar shots. The scene with the dancer, introduced as the husband remem-bers that particular night, is later re-used to visualise his dreams; and in the final sequence, the shots of the dancer are used to refer to a kind of life – in opposition to the family life – whose appeal is ultimately deemed superficial. In all of these instances, ‘blurry’ images – probably the result of some kind of double exposure – are used to indicate changes of reference. Finally, in terms of performance, all interaction between the person behind and the person in front of the camera is carefully avoided throughout the film. Rather, the members of the family clearly ‘act’ in accordance with their actual role as a particular family member, effectively ‘playing’ themselves. The fact that, in almost all the scenes filmed inside, additional lighting was set up, suggests that planning and coordination of camera behaviour and action must have taken place in order to avoid harm and damage.

Even this short analysis suggests that this is not the kind of film that Richard Chalfen had in mind, in discussing movie-making in the home. Eine Nacht und ein Morgen is a film that very obviously strives to achieve a form, and is driven by aesthetic ambitions as much as a desire to ‘record’. Some of the events might have taken place in this family’s life. Others might be made up. Rather than being a truthful ‘aide-mémoire’, this film wants to be a film, it wants to tell a story and to communicate a message in order to entertain a home audience. Such ambitions recognised contemporary formulations of domestic filmmaking, and the new technology that might realise them.

In 1931, Siemens introduced a small-gauge projector for 16mm on to the German market, which was designed for classroom screening, as well as for home use. Advertisements for the projector show us the members of the family gathered in front of the screen, apparently delighted by what they see: happy moments from the past summer. As the text suggests, these kinds of home screenings will be enjoyed by the whole family, especially during the long winter nights. In her book Making Room for Television, Lynn Spigel has offered a close analysis of the ways in which advertisements for television paved the (p.89)

. Crafting Life into Film: Analysing Family Fiction Films From the 1930s

3.2 Advertisements for home projection technology promise a new kind of entertainment for the whole family in the 1930s.

(p.90) medium’s way into the middle-class home of the 1950s, and has argued that the new technology was supposed ‘to bring the family together but still allow for social and sexual divisions’.13 One might read the advertisement for the Siemens projector in a similar way, as foregrounding the social potential of the new technology while maintaining gender-specific roles: the father acts as the ‘savvy’ operator, whilst his wife and children, who enthusiastically jump from their chairs when they see themselves on the screen, participate as the ‘adoring’ audience. As this image suggests, families with young children were clearly a significant target market for purveyors of early home movie technology. Whilst Dutch historian Susan Aasman has spoken of the camera as an ‘ideological apparatus’ that works towards binding the couple together, strengthening their inter-relations by visualising their symbolic reproduction, the Siemens advertisement suggests complication in this context, since it also shows another person is present at the screening.14 We see her in the upper part of the image, a young short-haired woman dressed in masculine style, clearly a representative of the modern ‘new woman’ of the Weimar years, and as such very much the counterpart of the caring and more emotionally engaged mother and housewife. But even from her more distanced position, she seems to be interested in what is going on during the screening. One could say, then, that home cinema in this advertisement brought the family together in the usual way, while also extending the family and allowing for alternative viewing positions.

Advertisements aim at all times to sell products, which they depict in an idealised and promissory way. They seek to create desires on the part of the potential customer and promise satisfaction as a result of purchase. But how can we go beyond these ideologies of the happy family? A rather different idea of home screening is conveyed by another source: namely, manuals for the novice amateur that were published in those years. Such works communicate practical knowledge that a potential reader seeks to acquire, with the goal of creating finished ‘films’. Since they promise solutions to problems, they offer insight into the kinds of problems that typically occur, and thus a sense of film-making conditions. When these manuals talk about screening, for example, they highlight not the seamless pleasure of the spectator ‘lost’ in the image, but rather the problems and difficulties that often accompanied the advent of home movie technology in the home. Screenings are surprisingly often described here as disastrous and dangerous, although frequently in a rather humorous way. One of the most pressing ‘problems’ articulated in those texts is simply that of boredom. Manuals are very open about the fact that family films are often not exciting, or at least grow tedious after a while. As a consequence, they aim at educating the new filmmaker in how to make films that will prove entertaining, even after repeated viewings. What, then, is regarded as the best way to put one’s own family on to the screen of home cinema in 1930, without boring the audience?

(p.91) Educating the Amateur

In one of his popular books for the new amateur cine enthusiast, author Hellmuth Lange described in detail why family films are often such an unpleasurable aspect of home cinema:

During his lifetime the author has seen some dozen films of newborns. They resemble each other even more than amateur films already do. What is it that a baby does? He sleeps, he drinks, he cries and he misbehaves. And occasionally he looks confident.15

Domestic filming, Lange and others observe, tends to restrict itself to the documentation of family events and routines, with the newborn baby in particular often at the centre of all attention. As a result, the films lack variation, surprise and fascination. A limited number of subject topics, a lack of variation in shot length, and poorly composed framing are seen to make such family films boring, almost a ‘torture’ for the audience to watch. Authors of manuals therefore encourage their readers to select their subject matter imaginatively and to treat it dynamically, so that variation and thus pleasure will be provided.

Hellmuth Lange was an active member of the German Amateur League and a popular author of the 1930s and 1940s, remaining a significant presence on the cine scene even after the Second World War. The League had been founded in 1927, as a direct response to the arrival of Kodak’s new 16mm safety stock in Germany. Founding members were mostly representatives of the cinemato-graphic industry, the association of cinema owners, interested journalists and individual amateur filmmakers, who pursued a common aim: largely, to create a market for the new gauge by promoting ‘sub-standard’ filming in the broadest sense.16 The excellent optical and technological qualities of the 16mm format attracted amateurs and professionals alike and contributed greatly to the development of an organised cine ‘movement’. When a new, even smaller and cheaper gauge reached Germany, however, such fusion of amateur and professional filmmaking was somewhat lessened. Kodak’s 8mm stock and its competitors clearly separated the amateur filmmaker from public or semi-public exhibition venues, while conquering the domestic sphere as a medium for the family film or home movie. The light, easy-to-handle cameras were designed for a new market that was less technically versed and experienced than the first generation of organised and ambitious club amateurs. As discussion within the League showed, club amateurs feared that the lowering of the access barriers to small-gauge technology would lead to a lowering of filmmaking standards and, in the long run, would discourage novices from keeping up their hobby.17 In this situation, a plea for pedagogical intervention in the growing market for family filmmaking emerged from within the League, and was supported by manufacturers interested in the long-term (p.92) commitment of their new clientele. The 1930s, then, mark the beginning of a flood of instructional literatures for the new amateur, written by amateurs for amateurs, that set out to teach the new generation how to bring their own life as cinema into the home, as a kind of entertainment that would allow every-body to act like a star, if only for one rainy afternoon. In order to maximise its appeal to this new generation of consumers, filming had to transform itself from a hobby activity for the individual male into a socially acceptable leisure-time activity for the whole family.

Family stories told for home cinema audiences should be based on real-life experiences and events, but be manipulated in such a way as to be entertaining, even after multiple viewings. To this end, manuals encouraged planning and scripting beforehand, as well as careful editing after shooting. In the case of ‘baby movies’, Lange, for instance, suggests inserting similar images from other films into one’s family films, such as images of baby animals, to broaden the referential scope of one’s own work and open it for additional readings. Elsewhere, Lange asks his – supposedly male – readers: why not try making fun of ourselves for a change? Family fathers, Lange recommends, should not hide behind the camera, but participate in the staging and show themselves in a new and surprising way. How about a film about things that go wrong in our daily routines, a film about our shortcomings? Why not make a film about the turbulences that occur when a family is preparing for guests on a Sunday?18 Scripts, he suggests, should encourage family members to perform and parody their own failings openly. The father starring in the role of the ‘enfant terrible’ who disturbs the household routines under female authority is a returning theme, but such controlled forms of misbehaviour are also allowed for the little ones. Far from restricting itself to recording family rituals and providing memories of the past, this kind of home cinema encouraged storytelling strategies that openly introduced a mocking or parody of everyday routines, and of the conventional gender roles usually inscribed in them.

Among the numerous authors of those years, Hellmuth Lange was probably the one who put the most emphasis on scripting. His book, Filmmanuskripte und Filmideen: 123 Themen für den Kino-Amateur, first published in 1931, included a substantial list of possible scripts that were defined in different genres, including those of reportage and types of comedy that amateurs could easily incorporate into their family filmmaking. And it seems he was very popular. The first edition of his book quickly sold out and was reprinted several times before the 1940s. Alex Strasser, who had also started his film career as an amateur filmmaker in Berlin during the 1920s, promoted a very different strategy. Strasser was especially interested in the technical possibilities of small-gauge technologies and favoured the experimental in his own practice, as the illustrations in the book taken from his own films clearly show. Although little is known about Alex Strasser, there is evidence that he had close contacts with avant-garde circles, and in 1929 joined the International League of the Independent Film at their first meeting in La Sarraz, Switzerland. (p.93)

. Crafting Life into Film: Analysing Family Fiction Films From the 1930s

3.3 Guidance for home filmmaking proliferates through the 1930s.

It is not clear whether he ever joined the League officially, but he can be seen as a typical amateur of the Weimar years, who frequently crossed the boundaries between the professional, avant-garde and amateur ‘movement’ sectors, and who shared an interest in film as a medium through which to explore the rapid changes of modern life around him. He seems very much inspired by Neues Sehen, a style of photography commonly associated with photography at the Bauhaus, which favoured dynamic forms and diagonal lines, and experimented with extreme lighting and angles to explore objects in their relation to each other.19

Strasser’s Mit Kind und Kegel vor der Kamera, first published in 1932, quickly reveals its roots in documentary and avant-garde aesthetics. The author invites his readers on a journey through an unknown country, named ‘everyday life’, with the camera functioning simultaneously as instrument of exploration, surprise and compassion. Discovering the ‘poetics’ of everyday situations for Strasser seems to be merely a question of finding the right view-point. This is well illustrated by shots from the book, a number of which are taken from a high angle. One shows a little child sitting at a round table that covers almost three-quarters of the image and leaves little space for the child positioned in the lower right side of the frame. Another image shows a young woman hanging up the washing. The woman occupies the upper right corner while the washing lines run diagonally through the whole image, and form a sharp contrast with the dynamic shape of the drying clothes buffeted in the wind. Strasser is thus clearly interested in the home environment as much as its occupants as a subject for filming. He organises the domestic space through drawing visual relations between humans to things mostly by choosing camera angles from slightly above.

The camerawork of the Weimar film was also clearly a key source of (p.94)

. Crafting Life into Film: Analysing Family Fiction Films From the 1930s

3.4 Laundry in the wind: authors like Alex Strasser instruct their readers in the poetics of everyday life.

inspiration for Strasser. Canting or mounting the camera on a vehicle, and filming in ice and snow, are only some of the tropes of Weimar film aesthetics that he translated into the world of the novice amateur. The use of montage is also highly recommended. Recycle your archival footage and enrich your family film, Strasser writes, echoing the emphasis of constructivist film literatures. When it comes to montage, the amateur also apparently has a lot to learn from Weimar documentary filmmakers. Alexander Stüler, for instance, suggests that amateurs could make their own cross-section film, on the model of Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Symphonie einer Grossstadt (1927), with random shots or left-over footage re-used to illustrate dreams or nightmares.20 Richard Groschopp, an amateur enthusiast who later pursued a successful professional career as director and filmmaker, strongly advocated the close-up as a proper filmic device for the domestic context, apparently recognising its neglect by amateurs. Once praised by Béla Bálasz as a specifically filmic means to capture reality, the close-up seemingly posed severe problems for the amateur filmmaker, especially in situations involving indoor filming.21 Close-ups require planning, the coordination of on-camera behaviour and, in most cases, additional lighting. However, for Groschopp, the close-up was the ultimate way to portray the beauty of everyday life, and an important device for even the most basic of amateur filmmaking.

(p.95) Family Filming as Crafting

In their attempts to promote home cinema as a new entertainment medium, authors embraced a wide range of cinematographic strategies drawn from the cinemas of the Weimar Republic and the years before, including gender comedy and the documentary avant-garde. From reading these manuals, it becomes very clear that the aesthetic conventions of the professional realm needed to be adjusted for the new amateur context. Amateur filmmakers operated under specific economic and social conditions that needed to be accounted for in terms of aesthetics. The idea was not therefore to copy the techniques of professional cinema, but rather to appropriate cinematographic conventions as a means of amateur self-presentation. This meant adapting techniques to the specific social, technological and economic conditions under which filming takes place in domestic contexts.

In Alex Strasser’s ‘confessions’ of an amateur filmmaker, from which this chapter’s introductory quotation is taken, we can learn more about this kind of crafting. The first-person narrator is a young man who buys his first 16mm camera around the time his wife becomes pregnant with their first child. Once the baby is born, his wife expects him to document the beauty of the child and the happiness related to this new arrival. The young father is obviously interested in other things, however, and tries to abscond from the social obligations articulated by his wife. On his first visit to the hospital, he films the measuring and weighing of his daughter; and once mother and daughter are at home, he captures the laundry fluttering in the wind; both subject choices are, of course, fully determined by his wife. Baby films, she claims, should first of all show a happy baby. Meanwhile, the author confesses his jealousy of the newborn, resenting all the attention the child receives from the mother. He experiences difficulty in identifying his place in the new domestic order, in which day and night effort is now dedicated to fulfilling the needs of the baby. But as time passes, the narrative of the book suggests, he learns more about both, filming and caretaking with equal enthusiasm. His wife, on the other hand, expands her housekeeping capacities from laundry and kitchen technology to replacing light bulbs and fixing wires. After many sleepless nights, the author finally agrees to make the kind of portrait for which his wife has begged him. In the logic of the narrative, this means a compromise on the part of the amateur filmmaker, but also his integration into the film, and finally the new social regime at home.

The story of the filming couple is a story of two people learning to make a film, but most importantly about learning to make it together. Along the way, they dispute questions of taste and their respective aesthetic ambitions; they argue about additional costs; they explore technological possibilities and, in doing so, they negotiate the role that small-gauge technology is going to play in their domestic routine, and most importantly, in the way it is visualised. In order to stage their life as film, they re-arrange the whole house from the attic (p.96) to the cellar, and make room for a home cinema in which they will act as the stars in both a literal and a figurative sense. Throughout the book, Strasser makes it very clear to his readers that this process is far from easy. He keeps constructing situations in which the social obligations and technological determinations of the central characters clash: for instance, when the intense light of the lamp causes the happy baby to cry and thus ruins the portrait. The need for collaboration and compromise that equally applies to all involved is clearly present throughout the book. An amateur should temper creative ambitions, Richard Groschopp once wrote, or otherwise he will end up all alone.22

Strasser composes his tutorial for the new amateur as a succession of larger and smaller catastrophes, to prepare his reader for the worst case. With this in mind, we should be cautious about taking the text as a truthful historical record of domestic film practices during these years. Rather we should acknowledge the genre’s very nature and take it as what it is: namely, a selective representation of typical problems that might occur during filming. What this book makes clear is that, in the domestic context, aesthetic ambitions had to be coordinated with the social expectations of the other participants, always with an eye on the budget, of course. Some techniques would fulfil the specific need of the domestic filmmaker better than others. Editing in a cross-section film, for instance, was a way to save everything that might be of value for one of the participants, while still adding form to the fragments and thus making them ready for home projection. Equally, we could say that the close-up could function as an aesthetic as well as social device within home cinema. It spoke to the amateur’s desire to portray everyday life and, at the same time, it helped to avoid eye contact, one of the most obvious problems when filming in the domestic setting. This complex process, in which aesthetic conventions, technological determinations, social obligations and economic constraints are negotiated within the group of participants, is perhaps well described as ‘ crafting life into film’.

Eine Nacht und ein Morgen clearly introduces many of the tricks that authors like Lange and Strasser write about in their manuals for the amateur filmmaker embarking on a new leisure pursuit. There is a great variety of shots; there is careful acting that obviously required planning; there is purposeful editing; and there is a narrative that makes the perspective of the father central. Rather than being a redundant display of ‘happy’ shots taken on typical occasions such as weddings and birthday parties, this film reflects on family life itself, and especially the position the father occupies within it, very much in the ways recommended by the manuals. But what can this film tell us about the act of crafting that brought it about? To answer this question, we should approach the film as a remnant of the practice in question. It is only the first step, then, to reconstruct the conventions and rules that were available to the amateur at that time; it is a second step to point to the visible moments in the film, where they obviously have been applied. But to understand the dynamics of crafting, we need to form an idea of how those rules and conventions are put (p.97) into practice by this group of participants. How can the product itself tell us anything about the process of its making? Is its creative construction visible?23

A closer look into a few moments in which the film’s careful narrative erupts offers us an insight into the dynamics of crafting. Consider, for instance, the moment when the two children peek through the doorway to see whether their parents are still asleep. The girl here puts the boy’s head in the right position by pulling his ear. During the breakfast scene, we see him in a profile shot eating, while for a brief moment he somehow manages to grimace at the camera, and later when he is at play there are long close-ups on his hands moving model trains. In general, the boy’s behaviour seems more insecure than the behaviour of the girl. When the camera is directed towards him, he becomes uncertain, and is corrected by his elder sister. But he also displays some resistance to the visual and social regime of this film, most obviously when he grimaces at the camera, obviously breaking with the rule that seems so central in this production: namely, to avoid any visible eye contact with the camera. With this in mind, the close-up of his hands indicates a cinematographic choice that testifies to the aesthetic ambitions and technical skills involved here. It is a shot very much in accordance with the ideas articulated by Strasser, Groschopp and others: that is, to search for the poetic moments in everyday life. However, the choice of the close-up clearly also cuts the boy off from the possibility of making eye contact with the person behind the camera, and of thus further sabotaging the rules that govern the practice of crafting, as exemplified by this particular group of participants.

Very much in contrast to the boy, the girl performs her role according to the rules and conventions, no matter what. She never looks into the camera, even in situations where the camera must have been positioned very close to her face. Even with intense light on her face, she is able to perform housekeeping duties, such as grinding coffee, without visible irritation. The narrative, which gives the children room to act as little adults during that particular morning, provides lots of possibilities for the girl to be a little housewife and mother. Apparently, she is aware not only of what is expected from her in this situation, but also of what is expected from others, and she acts accordingly. This becomes most visible in the moment when she directs the little brother, where she switches role from being an actor herself to being the director’s assistant. The different levels of cooperation we can detect in those moments might partly be explained by the age of the children, but they are also clearly supported by the narrative and its inscription of gender roles. The story is set up almost exclusively in the domestic sphere and, as a consequence, gives the girl plenty of opportunities to perform the role of her mother, but leaves practically no room for the boy to perform as a grown-up man. The narrative shows her as a little housewife who, in the absence of her mother, easily takes over her role, preparing breakfast and taking care of her little brother. We are thus left with a little boy who obviously struggles to find his place in this picture, in a literal and figurative sense.

(p.98) In the array of performances, the father is clearly the most coherent with respect to the narrative. His gestures are clear and efficient, always functional and never redundant. Compared to the other ‘actors’, he seems to overplay at times, and it seems he is doing more than just performing his part as father of a family. He also demonstrates to the other family members what acting in this movie should be like. His wife’s performance again is very different. In the smoking scene, she is wearing a long, elegant dress. When she has taken her seat, she bends forward to rest her head on her left hand while holding the cigarette in her right hand. She inhales briefly and with visible discomfort. This is neither the position to enjoy a cigarette, nor the position to relax in when you come home. What this gesture actually communicates is a kind of disinterest in the whole situation. The question of why this is so must remain unanswered at this point. Whether the filming just took too long and she felt exhausted, whether she was a non-smoker and disgusted by the cigarette, whether this was just her way to perform the role of someone who comes home early and is about to go to bed – we do not know. But as a glimpse into the making of this film, this bending, this clumsy smoking, tells us about the effort it takes for this woman to perform the role of an elegant lady enjoying her cigarette.

Throughout the film, the smoking and the dress remain the only props that link her to a life outside the home and the family. For the rest of the film, she is the typical mother, who even dreams about her children and does everything to keep her husband content. The role she performs in the film makes a sharp contrast with that of the dancer in the nightclub, her rival, the independent and professional performer, a representative of an obviously very different world. The images taken at the club or theatre show us an acrobatic dance act, with a female performer attired in elegant swallowtail. This is not the most feminine outfit, and neither do we see a kind of dance that could properly be described as erotic or seductive, but the scene does show a very famous UFA (Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft) star; we see her clearly, the dance-wonder of the ‘Third Reich’, Marika Rökk. The footage must have been shot in a theatre during one of her live performances, a context that was probably not at all eroticised. However, in the narrative of the film, she is presented as the mother’s rival. Although the housewife and mother finally ‘wins’, and con-vinces her husband to value family life more highly than the seductive appeal of ‘nightlife’, the real star of the film is clearly Marika Rökk. The shots of her return three times, and it seems that the film’s whole narrative is arranged in a way to make the most effective use of this footage. Displaying the material to refer backwards in time or to illustrate the husband’s dreams makes the film a true celebration of the ease with which the domestic sphere becomes permeable to public glamour. The display of this fragment must have been a triumph for the ambitious amateur. Besides that, it is a very effective and economic way to recycle footage and to ‘upgrade’ a family film at the same time. After all, the film now has a real star to offer, which makes it a show to watch, not only (p.99) for family members but also for a potentially wider audience. Integrated into the completed film, the footage of Marika Rökk gains a meaning that goes beyond its purely referential function. It is ‘narrativised’ as an alternative life that the father dreams about but finally abandons. Preserved in this form, the footage of the UFA star will inform the stories told and jokes made in this piece of home cinema, and thus become part of the family’s way to tell their story into the future. It will allow them to remember, every time they see the film, how they succeeded in the collaborative effort to craft their life into films: an entertaining story for the whole family.


In her book, Mediated Memories: Personal Cultural Memory in the Digital Age, José van Dijck has convincingly argued for a mutual shaping of memories and media, and has suggested that ‘people derive their autobiographical memories from both personal and collective media sources.’24 This chapter has shown how the rules and conventions for family filming, articulated at a given time, actually inform the way people negotiate a sense of self and their identities within the domestic sphere. This practice has been described as a crafting, to indicate that it is a process that involves social and aesthetic, as well as technical and economic aspects. It has been argued that, rather than it being an individual exercise, we should think of this as a collaborative act, carried out by a group of participants with diverging needs, competences and agendas. As a consequence of this, it has been suggested that we should approach family films as ‘remnants’ of this process, and search for traces that can tell us more about the practice at stake. This led to proposals concerning ways to analyse domestic films from this altered perspective. Scrutiny of Eine Nacht und ein Morgen reveals how various agents negotiate aesthetic ambitions and social obligations in a situation shaped by economic and technological constraints. This process seemingly loosens the ties of social expectations and everyday life routines to test alternative behavioural roles (in the case of the husband), undermine existing power relations (as in the case of the boy) and practise confirmative behaviour (as in the case of the girl), and it is in this role play that home cinema contributes to the identity work of this family.

The broader aim here has been to contribute to a better understanding of the ways in which media practices relate to the notion of the private sphere. The argument subscribes to the widely held thesis that the distinction of a private and a public sphere never is, and never was, decisive. It assumes, rather, that we should be aware of the historical construction of a private sphere, and think critically about the use and function of the political, social and cultural fabrication of a private sphere at a given time. In the particular historical context dealt with here, we see how domestic filmmakers adopt very diverging aesthetic strategies, ranging from gender comedy to documentary avant-garde, and use them for their particular purposes and needs. Similarly, (p.100) we see that those practices draw on the images and ideologies displayed by a wide range of media products of those years. From 1933 onwards, the documentary qualities of family filmmaking gain increased attention within the German Amateur League, where attempts are made to prove the genre compatible with the ideologies of ‘Heim und Herd’ (‘hearth and home’), as propagated by the new political regime. Against this particular historical back-ground, it seems urgent to elaborate further a perspective on domestic making that frees family films from their reputation as naïve documents, and draws more attention to aspects of crafting as proposed here. If we better understand the processes of staging and performing, and of mocking and faking revealed by this analysis, we may learn more about a culture and society at a given time than supposedly naïve family documents will ever disclose. For it is here, in the moments of staging and performance, that amateur domestic films tell us the most about the past.


Bibliography references:

Eine Nacht und ein Morgen (unknown, 1937) 8mm, 12 mins, black and white, silent. The film is retained in a private collection


(1) . Alex Strasser, Mit Kind und Kegel vor der Kamera (Halle/Saale: Wilhelm Knapp, 1932), p. 86.

(2) . Derived from the German verb kurbeln: to crank (something).

(3) . Richard Chalfen, Snapshot Versions of Life (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press, 1987), p. 135.

(4) . Ryan Shand, ‘Theorizing amateur film: limitations and possibilities’, The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2008, pp. 36–60 (quotation, p. 40).

(5) . Roger Odin, ‘Le film de famille dans l’institution familiale’, in Roger Odin (ed.), Le Film de famille: usage privé, usage public (Paris: Méridiens–Klincksieck, 1995), pp. 27–42.

(6) . There are remarkable exceptions, however, among which is Susan Aasman’s dissertation, published in Dutch. See, for example, Susan Aasman, ‘“Gladly breaking bread”: Religious repertoires and family film’, Film History, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2007, pp. 361–71.

(7) . Michael Kuball, Familienkino: Geschichte des Amateurfilms in Deutschland, Vol. 1 (Reinbek: Rohwohlt, 1980), p. 16.

(8) . Patricia Zimmermann, Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

(9) . John B. Thompson, The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).

(10) . Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008).

(11) . This is an approach inspired by Bruno Latour, lately adopted within media studies.

(12) . I came across this film while researching material for my book on the history and theory of home cinema. See Martina Roepke, Privat-Vorstellung: Heimkino in Deutschland vor 1945 (Hildesheim, Zurich and New York: Georg Olms, 2006). The film is in a private collection.

(13) . Lynn Spigel, Making Room for Television: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 37.

(14) . Susan Aasman, Ritueel van Huiselijk Geluk: Een Cultuurhistorische Verkenning van de Familiefilm (Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis, 2004), pp. 21–38.

(p.101) (15) . Hellmuth Lange, Filmthemen Noch und Noch: 150 Filmvorschläge für Eifrige Amateure (Berlin, Vienna and Leipzig: Otto Elsner, 1940), p. 76 (translation by chapter author).

(16) . Michael Kuball, Familienkino: Geschichte des Amateurfilms in Deutschland (1980).

(17) . Anon., Film für Alle, No. 11, 1932, p. 317.

(18) . Hellmuth Lange, Filmthemen Noch und Noch: 150 Filmvorschläge für Eifrige Amateure, pp. 76–7, 143.

(19) . One of the most important representatives of this style was László Moholy-Nagy, who, at a certain point of his career, regarded the amateur realm as the only remaining place for independent filmmaking. Strasser worked with Moholy-Nagy on a theatre production at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz in Berlin, before they both left Nazi Germany in the mid-thirties. See Jeanpaul Goergen, ‘Die Avantgarde und das Dokumentarische’, in Peter Zimmermann and Kay Hoffmann (eds), Geschichte des Dokumentarischen Films in Deutschland, Vol. 3 (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2005), pp. 493–526; see in particular p. 511.

(20) . Alexander Stüler, So Wollen Wir Filmen: Anregungen für die Inhaltliche Gestaltung des Amateurfilms (Stuttgart: Franckh’sche Verlagshandlung, 1932), p. 9.

(21) . Bálasz describes close-ups as ‘dramatic revelations of what is really happening under the surface of appearances’, in his Theory of the Film (London: Dennis Dobson, 1952), p. 56.

(22) . Groschopp’s culturally uplifting family films were very much applauded by those who, after 1933, eagerly tried to demonstrate the cultural value of family filmmaking for the new political regime. The German National Socialist Party pursued, in the years to follow, what Hans-Dieter Schaefer has called the construction of a seemingly apolitical private sphere, which was conceived as a safe place for the family and offered distraction from political developments. Home cinema as domestic entertainment technology fits well with this strategy and clearly makes it, in this context, more than ideologically obsolete. For a more extensive account of family filmmaking as part of amateur cine culture during the Third Reich, see Martina Roepke, Privat-Vorstellung: Heimkino in Deutschland vor 1945 (2006).

(23) . Ann-Sophie Lehmann has pursued this question with regard to creative practices in the digital domain. Although the subject matter is different, of course, our approaches clearly share a concern to develop appropriate analytical tools with which to analyse processes of production.

(24) . José van Dijck, Mediated Memories: Personal Cultural Memory in the Digital Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), p. 18.