Chair of English Literature and Culture
Transatlantic Cinema

Transatlantic Cinema

"Production – Genres – Encounters – Negotiations", 27-29 October 2016

The concept of transatlantic relations originally dates back to the European settlement of North and South America during the Early Modern Period when earlier, i.e. pre-Columbian forms of political and social organization were gradually displaced by colonial rule. When the former colonies developed their own sense of identity, these independent states, notably the USA, veered between periods of splendid isolation as formulated in the Monroe Doctrine and phases of intense transatlantic cooperation and military intervention as witnessed during the two world wars in the last century. Transatlantic relations have been characterized by various sites of conflict, including politics, security/defence, trade and technology, as well as cultural relations.

The projected conference would like to explore this last mentioned arena of conflict. Despite political difficulties and differences, there is a time-honoured tradition of cultural exchange between Europe and the Americas among intellectuals/artists who have shared their ideas on politics, philosophy, literature, architecture, and the visual arts including cinema. A fine example of this exchange is the intellectual life during the 1830s and 1840s in Concord, Massachusetts, whose literary circles have frequently been likened to Goethe’s Weimar. Due to the influence of German (and English) Romanticism, American Transcendentalism flourished under the pens of writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and American literature found its first characteristic voice through writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott. The comparison between Weimar and Concord was drawn by Henry James who is in more ways than one an early embodiment of transatlantic relations. If America had predominantly received cultural input from Europe until the mid-nineteenth century, the following decades witnessed a growth of American influence on Europe and gave rise to what James famously described as the “international theme.” Technological advances like the telegraph and the steamship made communication easier and faster, thus creating contact zones where Europeans and Americans would be able to meet. As a result the cultures on both sides of the Atlantic began to define themselves and to sharpen their national and cultural profiles in contact with and in contradistinction to each other. If the historian Frederick Jackson Turner had identified the experience of the Frontier as a movement away from old Europe (including its “Germanic roots”) and towards a genuine American identity, James argued that the Atlantic served a similar purpose: “Europe only makes sense due to the existence of an America, and vice versa” (qtd. in Oltean 272). While James found harsh words for “the absolute and incredible lack of culture that strikes you in common travelling Americans” (James Novels), he nevertheless praised his compatriots because they have “exquisite qualities as a race, and it seems to me that we are ahead of European races in the fact that more than either of them we can deal freely with forms of civilization not our own, can pick and choose and assimilate and in short (aesthetically &c) claim our property wherever we find it” (James, Selected Letters 15). Considered in balance, James felt that the past belonged to Europe while the future was bound to be American: “On the one side stand Liberty, Happiness, Innocence, and Simplicity, pointing toward the Future, while separated by a pool of water […] stand Despotism, Misery, Corruption, and Sophistication, wrapped in the shrouds of the Past” (qtd. in Spiller 114).

James’ idea of transatlantic relations may serve as an excellent starting point for the transfer of the international theme from literary production around 1900 to cinematic production since the 1920s. Next to the fact that early Hollywood was mostly in the hands of Jewish immigrants from Europe to begin with and that the Weimar Cinema had a considerable impact on early American film, the more than 2000 individuals from the film industry who emigrated to “Tinseltown” after the Nazi takeover of the German film industry in 1933 might be the most prominent – and most concentrated – example of transatlantic cinematic exchange. In Otherness in Hollywood Cinema Michael Richardson points to what he describes at the paradox of Hollywood: “Most of those who founded Hollywood were Jewish, generally second-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe. Hollywood cinema is thus paradoxical, as paradoxical as the concept of America itself. Founded and made great above all by Jewish immigrants and providing a refuge for foreigners in the United States, in many ways it has been a somewhat 'un-American' institution, just as it is at the same time the most American of institutions” (3). He even goes so far as to quote Jill Robinson who asserted that “the American Dream -- is a Jewish invention” (4). However, these aspects are mainly covered by film historians tracing the influence of German Expressionism on the early Hollywood film style (see, most recently, Retrospective of the 2013 Berlinale, “The Weimar Touch”). Although transatlantic relations have been a fruitful field of academic research, by and large most scholarly work to date has been carried out by sociologists and by political scientists whereas there is as yet no book-length study about the representation of European-American relations on the silver screen. Given the enormous influence which cinema has wielded on international audiences since its inception, it is high time that the cinematic aspects of transatlanticism were thoroughly explored. This is the overriding aim of the projected conference.

It may sound like a commonplace to describe Hollywood as the transatlantic (and indeed international) movie ‘factory’, as the smithy in which images of transatlantic relations (amongst others) were forged, but it must not be overlooked that Hollywood from its infancy right up to the present day has been inspired and enriched by influences from Europe. Bearing these aspects in mind, the projected conference will broach a large number of intriguing issues.