From the collections: ‘The World of Tobacco’ from the Alfred Ehrhardt Stiftung

31.03.2015 Wiebke Hauschildt (Online Editor)

The World of Tobacco’ is a film made in 1956 by Alfred Ehrhardtfor the Reemtsma company. Ehrhardt documents the journey made by tobacco from seed and harvest in countries such as Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe), Turkey, the USA and Greece to its arrival by ship in Hamburg and its processing into cigarettes. During filmmaking a series of several black-and-white photographs were taken, which can now be viewed in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek.

With this film and the accompanying photographs Ehrhardt, who had already received an award at the Biennale in 1950 for his Ernst Barlach film and made his name as a photographer of the New Objectivity school, delivered material that was ‘an unending chain of visual climaxes’, as the Lübecker Nachrichten put it in its review of 30.10.1956.

In the words of the film’s introduction to the world of tobacco and its path taken by the plant on its journey from earth to ashtray: ‘Exotic landscapes flank this road, craggy hills, skyscrapers, the sea. We encounter Orientals and Coloureds, Mohammedans and Baptists. The sun is the sole unchanging element. Although the manufacturing stage is the most important, it represents only one phase of the production process and would appear sterile, were it not for our awareness of the sun-drenched expanses in tobacco-producing countries that suffuses the picture of mechanical precision and uniformity.’

The press organs of the time were unanimous that Ehrhardt had pulled off ‘a happy and well thought-through synthesis’. ‘To his credit, the documentary film maker Alfred Ehrhardt places human labour at the forefront of his work and even manages to draw parallels between individual machine parts and the workings of the human body.’ (Die Welt, Hamburg, 25.3.57). On 12.2.1957 the Nürnberger Zeitung describes the work as ‘a supremely well shot and edited documentary. Even viewers who are not heavy smokers will appreciate the quality of this film.’

The Lübecker Nachrichten (review of 30.10.1956) was very taken with the Hamburg sequences and the insights afforded by Ehrhardt into the industry: ‘Between the images of port warehouses and factory production lines the film presents scenes that not only allow us to grasp the manufacturing process but also are a delight to watch in their own right.’

The material also gave rise to two educational films, ‘Tobacco from Virginia’ and ‘Tobacco Farmers in Macedonia’. The accompanying booklet provides pupils with the background to the ‘physiology of smoking’, the biology of the tobacco plant, the processing of the plant, the different strains of tobacco (the USA, the Middle East) and the history of tobacco. Astonishing historical statistics reveal that tobacco expanded into new regions and along new trade routes as a direct result of wars. After the Crimean War, for instance, troops returning to central Europe and England were responsible for an increase in demand for cigarettes from the Orient, which led to the establishment of the first German cigarette factory in Dresden in 1862.

The ‘Bright Leaf’ brand of tobacco became a household name on the back of the war of secession that raged between the northern and southern states of America between 1861 and 1865. Later, the Second World War was instrumental in raising the profile of ‘American Blend’, a mixture of Virginian, oriental and Burley tobaccos that edged out the Virginia-and-Oriental cigarette.

The ‘World of Tobacco’ series of photos in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

All material from the Alfred Ehrhardt Stiftung in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek