Sound or silence, loss or gain?

The Weimar Cinema debate about the transition of sound

Essay 2005 10 Pages

Communications - Media History


“Put speech into films, and you will get speech plus film but you will not get a film.”[1]

Although, initially, sound films were considered to be only a temporary phenomenon that would never replace the silent picture,[2] the transition to talkies proceeded more and more in Weimar cinema of the late 20’s, and, in 1931/32, the sound film completely replaced its predecessor, which had gone out of fashion finally.[3] Yet, the new invention unmistakably evoked numerous debates about whether the addition of sound to cinema pictures rather should be seen as a pro- or regress within the evolution of film art. In view of that, this essay discusses the advantages and drawbacks of silent as well as of sound films.

On the one hand, the numerous critics of sound had many arguments against the upcoming of spoken words in pictures: Despite the fact that silent movies were growingly condemned to be old-fashioned and unsatisfactory, in the end, they had reached a very high stage of development concerning its artistic ways and means of expressing feelings, thoughts and actions.[4] Sophisticated unspeaking movies with unconventional or even subversive images often were considered to come upon levels below the dimension of consciousness. The newborn and, therefore, still absolutely inexperienced sound picture, of course, lacked all these artful features in the beginning of its existence.

Also from an economic point of view the transition from silence to sound was fairly problematic. The production of sound films, obviously, required completely new film equipment to fit out the picture with the voices of the actors – complicated microphone techniques, various cables and diverse technical implements were needed, which, of course, had to be purchased first. This inevitably meant extremely high costs coming up for the film company.[5]

As a result, countless small companies went bankrupt or were bought by bigger rivals, which can be seen as process of economic concentration, since only large studios gained the much-needed capital thanks to alliances with media conglomerates and electrical concerns.[6] Besides, many of the celebrated silent stars did not have sufficiently strong voices for sound pictures, and, therefore, lost their money-spinning effect – and often their jobs, too.[7] Correspondingly, Siegfried Kracauer emphasizes the suffering of trade during sound transition: “Thousands of musicians were fired; many small movie theatres disappeared because they were unable to finance conversion to sound.”[8]

Also the total number of films changed dramatically because of the increased production costs: An amount of 224 films in 1928 declined to merely 132 productions in 1932, and “[f]ilm attendance fell from 328 million tickets sold in 1929 to 238 million in 1932.”[9] The latter regression obviously cut down the (urgently needed) profits in German cinemas and can particularly be attributed to the overall deteriorated economical and political situation: In the days of the Great Depression money was rare everywhere;[10] and only very few film production companies were able to cope with this.[11]

Another deficiency of talkies: They were at first no objects for an international market, but could – in times of condemned sub- or intertitles – exclusively be distributed within countries speaking the same language.[12] There was the option to produce multi language versions, but these translated and differently cast ‘remakes’ of original films within the same setting were usually quite unprofitable, since it was almost impossible to assemble a professional foreign crew with congruent qualifications and skills. All one could achieve, most of the time was a clumsy translation of the first work, which never had the same peculiarities or identical sentiments as the original.[13] An instance for this is the multi language version of G.W. Pabst’s Threepenny Opera, which was produced in German and French: Here, principally the characterization of the tough German protagonist differs a lot from his soft French counterfeit.

For Weimar cinema productions, the restriction to a national market was a grand regression, as silent films had been boundless concerning this – after all, written intertitles could be translated and adopted very easily.[14] Due to pecuniary problems the completion of process of equipping cinemas with sound projection facilities was only done in 1935.[15]


[1] Betts, p. 89.

[2] This is supported by Jerzy Toeplitz. Cf. Toeplitz, (2), p. 34.

[3] Cf. Korte, (1978), p. 49.

[4] For more details on this cf. Toeplitz (1), p. 541.

[5] Altogether, the upcoming costs for German cinemas that had to be faced on account of the conversion to sound movies amounted to around 50-55 million marks until the end of 1932. (Korte, “Der Spielfilm und das Ende der Weimarer Republik”, p. 91.)

[6] Cf. Hake, p. 51.

[7] Cf. Korte (1998), p. 91f. (Korte, moreover, points out the problematic quarrels about patents for sound recording systems, which involve the danger of becoming dependent on American studios, as they already had patents on successful techniques. This struggle was only to be solved in the “Pariser Tonfilmfrieden” (“Paris Sound Film Peace”) from 1930.)

[8] Kracauer, p. 204.

[9] Hake, p. 51.

[10] This fact is discussed by Helmut Korte. Cf. Korte (1978), p. 85. Also cf. Hake, p. 51.

[11] Cf. Jürgen Spiker, p. 48.

[12] This only changed with the progression of synchronization.

[13] For more information on this cf. Toepitz (2), p. 40f.

[14] Likewise, of course, the import of international movies also decreased. (Cf. Korte (1998), p. 92.)

[15] In the USA the conversion had, for example, already been successfully completed in 1926. (Cf. Korte (1978), p. 85.)


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University of Southampton – University of Southampton - School of Humanities: Film Studies
Sound Image Narrative Late Weimar Cinem




Title: Sound or silence, loss or gain?