The 1920s was a time of great change for the world. The traumatic first world war just ended, opening a new era for Europe and the world, with new boundaries and countries, political systems and a huge economic boom.
The 1920s were pretty much the birth of what we call modernism, inaugurating mass consumption society, global and massive industrialization and trade, building metropolises and dramatically changing the middle-class’ way of life. It’s also the establishment of mass entertainment, creating the first major cinema studios and the star-system.
The 1920s also saw the Art Avant-garde blossom, with the emergence of Surrealism, Expressionism, Abstraction, Futurism, Modernism, and so on and so forth. This intense artistic activity clearly shows intense societal changes, willing to be captured by artists, trying to invent new languages to express new phenomenons. Everything was about experimentation, and cinema didn’t escape from it.
German cinema was at the time as big as was Hollywood, Berlin being the Los Angeles of Europe, a fast growing, multicultural new metropolis. One of the era’s master piece was actually about Berlin: Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis), 1927 by Walter Ruttmann. Ruttmann wanted to explicitly show the great changes, and the new very fast pace the society had taken. Visually, this translated with cutting edge montage, new and unusual associations of shots, and absence of a conventional scenario. Other major German movies of the era include Expressionist masterpieces such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920 from Robert Wiene and Nosferatu, 1922 by Friedrich-Wilhelm Murnau.
Post World War I Europe was also the ground of growing totalitarian regimes. Those new powers were very aware of their time and knew how to utilize cinema as a propaganda mean. The newly constituted USSR was still establishing its power on Russia’s own soil in the 1920s, and therefore used movies extensively to propagate communist ideology. Броненосец «Потёмкин» (Battleship Potyomkin), 1925 by Sergei Eisenstein is still considered as one of the most influential propaganda movies of all time . Despite it’s relatively loose scenario, Eisenstein could not stop experimenting and express himself through a newly invented cinematic language, still silent at the time, giving even more power to the images.
Towards the end of the decade, the cinema world was revolutionized by the advent of sound movies. Before that, films were usually accompanied by an orchestra or a solo piano player. Street Angel, released in 1928 and directed by Frank Borzage can be seen as the quintessential silent movie. It was a state of the art, beautifully written and performed silent film, expressing the most a movie could without sound.
But the change was inevitable: in 1927, The Jazz Singer was released as the first « talkie ». Some actors, directors or producers quickly fell outdated, unable to adapt to this new and now standard way of cinematic expression. The issue was assessed creatively in the 2011 french movie The Artist directed by Michel Hazavicius, winner of the Academy Award for Best Movie and Best Director in 2012.
And let’s not forget that the 1920s was also the decade when Einstein was awarded the Nobel Price in Physics for his groundbreaking general theory of relativity, and Sigmund Freud’s ideas were becoming more and more spread and accepted. Those elements show once again the boiling times of change the 1920s were.
These Roaring Twenties came brutally to an end when the New York stock exchange crashed, November 9 1929. The financial crisis engendered a dramatic economic crisis, hitting hard the poor and the newly prosperous middle-class, shutting the world down for almost ten years. This was probably the final trigger to the rise to power of totalitarian regimes in some European countries, and the start of new issues for art, and cinema, to deal with and express.