Competing Models of Motherhood and Reproductive Choices in Weimar Cinema

Online talk by Molly Harrabin as part of the seminar series Cultures of Legality in Weimar Germany

Date: 14th May 2024
Time: 10.00 h to 11.00 h
Location: Online via Zoom


The Weimar Republic is often characterized in terms of progress and modernity, and gender is typically at the heart of these discussions. Women were granted suffrage in a new constitution that emphasized equality and freedom, and they also gained increased representation in the workforce in industries and professions that had previously been inaccessible to them. Women saw greater control of their own bodies in this period, for example through the increased availability of contraception and birth control, and there was a new-found openness about sexual matters and sex reformers sought to improve awareness about sexual pleasure and techniques. Simultaneously, however, Weimar cities, and particularly Berlin, became identified as sites of depravity, and urban life was perceived as seducing German women into unnatural reproductive behaviours due to the array of nightclubs, drugs, pornography, and sex workers that one could find there.

Conservative forces grew concerned by the declining birth rate and interpreted this development as evidence of a threat to the German national community. Thus, whilst women may have technically had more freedoms and independence available to them than ever before, it seems that, for some Germans at least, traditional attitudes prevailed. Discussions about woman’s role was not restricted to conservative circles, as Katherine E. Calvert’s recent study of left-wing writing in this period highlights. Making motherhood an appealing option for German women was therefore a task that transcended political divide. Not only did Weimar politicians make a constitutional commitment to protecting and providing for mothers and their families (Article 119), but they also enacted legislative changes that provided maternity benefits and Germany became the first country to ratify the Washington Convention in 1927. Additionally, classes were provided to prepare the female population for their role as housewives and mothers, and a renewed cultural emphasis on motherhood was found when Mother’s Day was introduced in 1923. Efforts were also made to ensure that the ‘right’ women were having babies through the adoption of social eugenic policies in sexual health clinics, and Paragraph 218 threatened women and doctors who chose to terminate their pregnancy through abortion.

This talk considers how cinema from the Weimar period responds to these legislative changes, irrespective of how successful such measures were in encouraging women to become mothers. Such an approach requires revisiting films that have become part of the Weimar cinematic canon, for example Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1929) and G. W. Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) but also encourages an examination of films that are lesser-known or considered to be lost, such as Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück (Phil Jützi, 1929).

Molly Harrabin is a PhD candidate in German Studies at the University of Warwick. Her thesis focuses on representations of women across the Weimar films of Fritz Lang and G. W. Pabst, where she is particularly interested in how the directors represent the female role within the German national community. Molly also founded the Weimar Film Network in 2021 and she collaborates annually with Ian Roberts on the Weimar 100 project, which celebrates the centenaries of Weimar cinema, both well-known and hidden gems alike. Molly’s work has been published in Studies in European Cinema and she has forthcoming work examining codified queerness in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box and she is also co-editing a volume on the Netflix adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.

The seminar series is part of the project Imagining Justice: Law, Politics and Popular Visual Culture in Weimar Germany, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

International Start Times: 09:00h BST / 18:00 AEST