Reconstructing Nerven – Berlin vs. Munich

Posted: September 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Nerven, Reconstruction |

There are really just three viable starting points for a narrative-centric reconstruction of Robert Reinert’s Nerven (1919). These are the intertitles in the 1920 Berlin censor card (representing 2054m), the footage in the Munich fragment (1637m), and the footage in the (English language) Library of Congress fragment (777m). The Marmorhaus-Lichtspiele program notes for Nerven (possibly from its 1919 Berlin premiere?) can serve as a useful check or corrective but aren’t detailed enough to determine the exact order of events. All of these sources share significant common elements and significant differences to one another, each to varying degrees. So which source, if any, should have precedence over the other? And if one source can’t serve as a template how should the available evidence be reconciled and consolidated into a coherent whole?

For my purposes, the continuity of narrative in the film is the most important criterion. I will assume that it is possible to produce critical visual analyses of say, the “hallucination” sequences in Nerven even if there is some uncertainly about their exact position in the narrative. But it’s much harder for me to make the case for a figurative reading of this sequence if I can’t place it in the context overall storyline. On visual terms alone, Nerven is an unusually forceful film. As a result it’s all too easy to get swept away by its special effects and breaks with convention in staging and editing and as a result underrate or trivialize the plot. We must remind ourselves that Reinert was first a writer (“Dichter”), then a director, and that he wrote the screenplays for the Homunculus series and Ahasver – neither of which are exactly trivial melodramas. In fact, the sociological themes and political problems that run through his later films were consistently (albeit often critically, and controversially) recognized by his peers in the trade press, in many newspaper reviews, and the occasional private account.

Since I want to focus on the film’s narrative, the logical place to start is the list of intertitles in the Berlin censor card. This is both the longest, and, we have to presume (since submitted by Reinert), the most coherent exposition of the film’s narrative. The Munich footage is 417m shorter and contains no interitles that are not already listed on the Berlin. As we’ll see, with few exceptions, the Munich copy follows the sequence of titles and events in the Berlin censor card exactly with the primary exception of several deleted political scenes which echoed the real events of the Munich Räterepublik of 1918-1919.

This is the first time I’ve tried to reconstruct a film’s narrative so I had to work out some kind of practical working method. I decided to copy the Berlin intertitles into Excel, one title per row, and place the corresponding title from the Munich copy in the column to the immediate right, with a second column reserved for explanatory notes. Deleted intertitles are marked in red, out of order intertitles in yellow.

Below is a reduced size screenshot from Excel that shows how the Berlin censor card intertitle (leftmost data column) in row 186 actually appears three intertitles earlier in the Munich copy (row 182). It also shows that the Berlin intertitles in row 187 and 188 were deleted from the Munich copy.

Berlin-Munich Order

Here is another screenshot. This one shows a series of deletions. The intertitles represented by rows 222 to 227 are missing in the Munich copy, as is row 238 while row 234 shows an inter title in a different order to Berlin.

Berlin-Munich Deletions

I’ve attached the work-in-progress Excel file for the analysis so that you can track all of these changes yourself.

Below is a list of all the intertitles that were cut in the order in which they originally appeared in the Berlin censor card skipping only those deletions which announce the end or beginning of an act. I’ve listed each individual/cluster of deleted titles with a number for ease of reference:

Glückliche Kinder, die Ihr noch nichts von Nerven wißt.
Wehe Euch Völker..von Nervenepidemien ergriffen..und Schrecken und Panik..
..oder von wilder – – zügelloser Lust. – –

Ende des 1. Aktes.
2. Akt.
Marjas Hochzeitstag.
Mächtig und glücklich war Roloff.
Wenn er mit Elizabeth auf der Zinne seines Schlosses stand, breitete sich unabsehbar sein herrschaftlicher Besitz aus.
Tief unten aber lagen die Wohnstätten seiner Untergebenen.

Gegensätze schwerste Art sind zwischen Besitzenden und Nichtbesitzenden entstanden.
..Sie wollen Macht – Ihr wollt Brot.
Niemals aber darf dieser Zwiespalt sich über die Gebote der Menschlichkeit hinwegsetzen.
Die Fahne hoch.
Die Fahne, tödlich gehaßt von unseren Gegnern..für uns ein Sturmruf, das Höchste zu wagen.
Hat Dir der Gärtnerbursche also doch meine Blumen überbracht? – ?
Er ist kein Mörder..gewähr ihm ein christliches Begräbnis.
Er verdient es nicht.
Bedankt Euch bei den Volksverführern!

Heute ist ein Freudentag, die Fahne aufs Dach.
Um Gottes willen, tue es nicht! Nimm Rücksicht auf die anderen.
Herunter die Fahne!
Niemals! Diese Fahne ist ein Symbol der Größe, zu der Ihr wieder gelangen müßt. –

Lassen wir uns durch gewissenlose Fanatiker nicht verwirren.

Die Verblendeten, die da draußen trauern um ihren Liebling, der ein Schurke ist. –
Die Maschine in Betrieb! Die Fahne hoch!

Wo wohnt Marja Roloff?
Ich begreife alles, Marja komm, lass uns ein neues Leben beginnen. – –

Dies ist ein wunderbares Gift, das Vermächtnis eines Arztes, meines Freundes. bereitete es den Unglücklichen, die rettungslos verloren waren, um sie von ihren Leiden zu erlösen und ihren Tod zu verschönen.

Ich habe wie Du alles aufgegeben, Marja, ich will fortan nur Deinen großen Ideen leben.
Elizabeth hat sich nach dem Tode Roloffs auf eines ihrer Schlösser zurückgezogen.
Lehrer Johannes, ich habe Sie überwunden, ich bin nun Richards Frau.

Nun sind wir soweit, Lehrer Johannes: Kampf auf Leben und Tod. –
Sie verzerren meine Ideen durch Kampf und Gewalt.
Wer sich dem Glück des Volkes widersetzt, ist unser Feind.
Im Angesicht des Todes bekenne ich: Nur aus Liebe zu Dir habe ich für die Ideen gekämpft, an die ich nie glaubte.
Er hat mich belogen! Ist alles Lüge auf der Welt?
Auch die Ideale? Wozu noch leben?
Ich glaube an die Ideen, für die ich kämpfte und sterbe.

Ich verstehe jetzt alles. Er schwieg, – weil er Elizabeth liebte. Was suche ich noch auf dieser Welt? ich unglücklicher will ihrem Glück Platz machen.

Bereute Voreiligkeit.
Er will uns verlassen, halt ihn zurück.

Group #1 stems from the Prologue. Based on the prologue footage that has survived I think it’s safe to assume that these titles were cut because of their nudity and sexual content. Group #8 and #11 were probably cut because they advocated or valorized suicide. This is somewhat ironic, since Roloff does in fact take his life, but this act is later interpreted in the film as murder. Such is the logic of the censor. Most striking, however, is that all of the other groups are directly related to class struggle, political actions, and mass violence. Even groups #7 and #9 belong to this category since they show Marja’s fiancé first joining her then dying at her side on the barricades.

More puzzling are the occasional changes (six in all, always paired) in the order of the intertitles. Some, like Rows #81 and 82 (see spreadsheet) appear to be simple transpositions. Were these edits made by Reinert to clarify the narrative? Or are they actually false positives? In other words, errors in the Berlin censor card? A visual continuity analysis may reveal some clues. For now I’ll have to set them aside as to-be-decided.

But overall, the evidence is clear. The missing footage in the Munich copy consist of straightforward sequential deletions following a program consistent with that of a censor mindful of overt sexual and political content. This is turn speaks strongly for the argument that the Berlin censor card was anterior to the Munich copy. A reconstruction of Nerven should therefore be be based as much as possible on the order of titles in the Berlin censor card.

In a future post I’ll discuss how well (or not..) this thesis corresponds with the surviving documentary evidence from trade and press reviews, personal recollections and the film program. You can get an overview of these sources yourself by reviewing all items tagged “Nerven” in the sources section of the site.

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