Category Archives: 1920s

Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929)

*. Experimental art needs wealthy patrons since it is, almost by definition, not going to be aimed at mass tastes.
*. Enter the Vicomte de Noailles, a big supporter of avant-garde and surrealist art who had a fancy new modernist home, the Villa Noailles, that he wanted to show off. Apparently he also wanted to present a film a year as a present to his wife. As a model for the funding of the arts, this is almost medieval. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
*. It may sound a bit churlish starting off in such a way, but at the end of the day I’m not sure this little film is much more than a vanity project. As the camera strolls and pans its way about the villa we start to feel like we’re in one of those virtual-reality real estate tours of fancy homes: wealth porn from the 1920s. Avant-garde it may be, but hardly revolutionary.
*. I do like the approaching dissolves at the beginning, perhaps more than anything that follows. It’s like how we’re drawn into Xanadu at the beginning of Citizen Kane. I wonder if it’s too much of a stretch to think that Welles had seen this film and had it in mind.
*. As with a lot of experimental films, then and now, there are shots included that seem more to have been done just to see what the results would look like rather than for any thematic or narrative purpose. And some of the tricks were already clichéd, like running the film backward and turning the camera upside-down.

*. Man Ray was mainly known as a surrealist, but there’s not much surreal here aside from the mannequins. With the wooden hands, faces wrapped in stockings, uniform-like bathing costumes, and dramatic posing, the humans are made to seem like just another form of statuary, though less abstract.
*. It had its premiere alongside Un Chien Andalou, a far more daring and even poetic film. The poetry in this film is all in the intertitles, most of which struck me as obscure.
*. The house itself is the real star of the show, though I don’t think Ray makes as much out of the architecture as he might have. Nor does he do much with the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, which I thought had a lot of potential.
*. All-in-all, I didn’t find this very interesting. Ideas are hinted at — the villa as a decadent house of games, for example — but they aren’t developed. None of the camerawork or photography stands out. Even as a portrait of a place it doesn’t register as anything special. The patronage model for the arts can produce great results, but here it just leads to something idle and self-indulgent. The thing is, I’m not sure if it was ever meant to be anything more.

October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928)

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*. One of the first things you have to get out of the way when talking about this film is that it’s not a realistic depiction of Russia’s revolutionary year of 1917. As the famous line has it, more people were injured in the re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace than were in the actual event. The opening scene of the statue of Alexander III being pulled apart refers to an event that happened in Moscow, not Petrograd, years after the events of October 1917. The presence of Trotsky was all but eliminated from the final cut at Stalin’s direction (Trotsky had just been purged). And there are many other examples.
*. This isn’t a real critique of October, however, since Eisenstein never had any intention of making a faithful documentary account of the revolution. As a film (one of several) commissioned by the Bolsheviks to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their taking power, what they were looking for was propaganda.
*. A bigger knock against the movie, in my opinion, is that it isn’t effective propaganda. This was something it was criticized for right away. Too much of Eistenstein’s “intellectual montage,” it was felt, was sailing over proletarian heads. Even Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, got in on the act, saying that much of the film’s symbolism would be unintelligible to the masses (always the target audience in Soviet ideology).
*. It’s a complaint I have sympathy for. This is a film that demands to be read, and to have a correct reading. One has to be fairly knowledgeable in the history being recounted, as well as the various symbols being employed, to understand what is going on. Krupskaya, for example, was complaining about the statues of Napoleon being too difficult, and they are actually some of the more obvious referents in the film (with their meaning underlined by the title cards).
*. Another image Krupskaya singled out for its obscurity is the sea of scythes raised by the peasants in the opening scene of the statue being toppled. This was meant to suggest the common identity of the soldiers with the peasantry. Does it work? Or is it just confusing? I opt for the latter. And I still couldn’t tell you what the significance is of the montage of religious statues, even after reading Eisenstein’s explanation (where I think he says that it’s meant to reduce the idea of god to the absurd by drawing us into different cultural expressions of divinity that the viewer will find alien and ridiculous).
*. Here’s another reading that I came up with: is Kerensky climbing the same flight of stairs over and over a reference to Trotsky’s famous barb that Kerensky’s best speeches were a pounding of water in a mortar, sending up a halo of steam? Perhaps. It might even fit with the statue’s wreath. But I’ve never heard of that connection being made so I may be just imagining it.
*. In all of this Eisenstein was experimenting, and he would later look back on October and judge some of his experiments failures. He called it a baroque film, which suggests (at least to me) a hit-and-miss approach. Some things work. I like the multiple shots of the statue of Alexander III, making him out to be an Ozymandian figure too large to fit in a single frame and prefiguring his imminent dismemberment. Other things, like the machine-gun editing to mimic the action of the man firing the machine gun on the crowd, are strained or otherwise ineffective.
*. Statues were a sort of crutch for Eisenstein, an easy objective correlative. Instead of evoking an idea or emotion through editing or photography — as the lion statues are used at the end of Battleship Potemkin — here they only enable crude or bizarre analogies. Alexander III is a giant, oppressive figure, shot from below. Napoleon (or Napoleon-Kerensky) is a toy-like miniature, a wannabe master of the universe. Rodin’s Le Printemps rebukes the woman soldier. The First Steps shows the birth of a new society. So it goes, a sort of shorthand in marble.
*. The result is to make the movie both obscure and heavy-handed. Montage, even of the intellectual variety, doesn’t have to be this abrupt or dislocating (the peacock! that Buddha!), but Eisenstein wants us to notice what he’s doing. There’s nothing subliminal going on. But at the same time it’s not always obvious what is.
*. I really hope they didn’t kill that horse just for the movie, and found some dead stock to use instead. But given the time and place they may not have given it a thought.
*. Lenin doesn’t actually have much of a role after dramatically appearing at Finland Station. This may have been Stalin’s doing as well, since he wanted Lenin’s part edited so he wouldn’t appear to be too liberal. Stalin, by the way, only appears in the one scene which is also one of the few remaining scenes showing Trotsky. Trotsky is making an argument that is about to be overruled by Lenin, who Stalin is (pointedly) sitting beside. Meanwhile, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko becomes the closest thing to a hero in the movie. He would later be purged (that is, executed) by Stalin in the 1930s.
*. Instead of the big names, who are mainly relegated to cameos, Eisenstein celebrates anonymous heroes and faces. This was one of his trademarks, and also a remarked upon difference between Marxist doctrine (history made by collective action of the masses) and “Western” filmmaking’s focus on the heroic individual. I don’t think it’s a raised-by-Hollywood bias, however, that has me disliking so many of the Bolshevik heroes. The idle stablehand who is meant to represent “neutrality” and the wheedling older comrade who manages to turn the Savage Division’s tide of wrath strike me as particularly unpleasant types.
*. Quite often they weren’t actors. Eisenstein cast by appearance. Lenin, for example, was a then unknown worker. They didn’t have to act much, but only react. Eisenstein rarely shows people thinking but instead has them expressing simple emotions like joy or anger. Violence is either exuberant or vicious, revolutionary or counterrevolutionary (the umbrella-wielding maenads).
*. The (dialectical?) movement of ebb and surge, forward and backward action, revolution and counterrevolution, informs the entire film. The statue comes down, the statue goes up; the blade is drawn from its scabbard, the blade returns to its scabbard.
*. This same back-and-forth movement, only from mass and crowd to face and individual, is also noticeable in Triumph of the Will. It may be characteristic of political filmmaking, where group identity and the image of the leader (or the leader as image) is so important. Come to think of it, Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927) has a similar dialectic.
*. I just don’t think it works that well. As I’ve said, it’s not really successful as history or as propaganda. I don’t think it’s a favourite even among fans of Eisenstein. Individual sequences are great as stand-alones, with their own beginnings, middles and ends, but the film as a whole has a weak narrative structure and without some preliminary grounding in the events depicted I think most viewers will feel lost.

Polizeibericht Überfall (1928)

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*. The labels we put on artistic movements and periods are of limited utility. You can use a term like expressionism, for example, and this conjures up a stylized mise-en-scène distorted to reflect strange psychological and emotional states, and which flourished in Germany in the 1920s. But just applying the label doesn’t really tell you much that isn’t obvious anyway, and it may in some cases only confuse things.
*. Which brings us to the New Objectivity. What was this? You may wonder what the Old Objectivity was but I can’t help you there. I think in the 1920s everything was new. In any event, the sources tell us that in film it was a movement associated with realistic settings and characters and a minimum of stylistic flourishes (in other words, no fancy camera work or editing). The emphasis was less on emotional states than the social and material world. It was anti-expressionism.
*. The sources also tell us that Polizeibericht Überfall (which you’ll see variously translated, often as Accident, but seems to be best captured in English as Police Report: Assault) is considered to be a representative work of the New Objectivity, a style that its director Ernö Metzner was closely associated with.
*. All of which tells us next to nothing, and some of which is probably misleading. I don’t see much in this film aside from the general subject matter that suggests documentary realism. Then again, I’ve heard critics who insist that Metropolis exemplifies the aesthetic of the New Objectivity as well, so I guess it’s an elastic label.
*. Instead of a matter-of-fact police report of some shady dealings among members of Berlin’s not-quite-working class, Überfall introduces itself as a moral fable. A man is run down in the street by a car, his hand releasing a fateful coin he had been stopping to pick up that then rolls into the gutter. It will be later picked up by a pedestrian.
*. The single Reichsmark coin is apparently a counterfeit (the cigarette shop owner rejects it) but it works as a talisman: seeming to be a sign of good fortune (who doesn’t like to find money lying in the street?) but leading to calamity.

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*. The man who picks up the coin (played by Heinrich Gotho) is too odd to be realistic, and Metzner works hard to play his oddity up. He has an egg head (whose battering will be prefigured in the restaurant), buggy eyes, a comic walk, and a habit of pulling out a hanky to dab his face whenever he gets flustered. His adventures are also something out of comedy. He immediately uses the bad coin to make good money in a dice game, then has to lose a ruffian tailing him by diving into the arms of a prostitute, which turns out to be a case of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire when her pimp threatens to kill him. After being hit on the head and regaining consciousness in a hospital we last see him with his head swathed in bandages, which always make someone look funny. The victim is a Chaplin figure who doesn’t get to win in the end.
*. Is it wrong to view the film as a comedy? Was that what Metzner intended? I don’t see how it couldn’t have been, but at the same time this was a film that was banned by German censors for its “brutal and demoralizing effect.” Did they not get the joke? Or did they just not appreciate Metzner’s sense of humour? My guess is the latter.
*. It also strikes me as a self-conscious exercise in style, whatever the tenets of the New Objectivity might say. Even before we go through the final sequence of hallucinations, where the victim relives the various events of the day in distorted form, as though reflected in the fun-house mirror of the teapot he’d played with earlier, there are numerous other artistic points being scored.
*. Chief among these, I would say, is the isolation of hands — grasping, clutching, pointing, shaking dice, drawing faces on eggs, cleaning up an apartment. Hands are returned to throughout, beginning with the hand that rips the curtain from the main title and the dead hand releasing the coin into the street. If that isn’t a note of “style” then I don’t know what is.
*. Also noteworthy is the giving of objects and items symbolic weight. This is most obvious with the coin (the root of all evil that is not what it seems), but it’s also something done with the egg, the dying candle, the tarot card of death, and the teapot. These are all signs that are meant to be read. Getting them right might even save your life.

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Rebus-Film No. 1 (1925)

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*. The rebus (or puzzle) film was a form dependent on a particular context that no longer exists. Imagined and directed by Paul Leni, these were a series of short films that came in two parts, the first presenting a crossword puzzle introduced by a cartoon Mr. Rebus figure and the second (only shown after the feature) providing the solution.
*. We don’t watch movies like this any more. Indeed, I’m not sure if there many theatres that still show shorts before the main feature, though I can still remember when some of them did. That’s prime trailer time. And what audience would sit all the way to the end of the credits just to see the solution of the puzzle? Waiting for post-credit sequences is bad enough.
*. The Rebus films were made in Germany, and I’m guessing that 1925 is the date for the German release version and 1928 for the English-language one. The Kino DVD gives the latter as the date, and it is the English edition.
*. I’ll confess that I don’t care for crossword puzzles. I don’t understand the sort of mind that finds them interesting. A lot of the time the clues, even after explained, make no sense to me at all.
*. With that said, if you’re very proficient at crosswords I think you’ll find Rebus-Film No. 1 very easy. I managed to get four of the six words right away. Two of them I answered wrong, but (and here I will announce a spoiler alert, in case you want to play the game yourself first) I have to register a couple of complaints.
*. The first word is eight letters and the visual clues show various musicians playing their instruments and people dancing. The text clue was that it made a lot of noise. I guessed “jamboree.” Made sense to me, but the correct answer is “jazz band.” I thought the rule was that if the answer was two words you had to say as much?
*. Jamboree didn’t get me into trouble right away because the second letter was the same in both cases, which gave me one of my other clues. When it came to naming the mystery city, however, I knew it was wrong. But I couldn’t think of an alternative.
*. The other word I didn’t get was the last one, which was a number with four letters. As the middle letter was “i” and the last letter “e” I guessed “five.” Five worked. The correct answer, however, was “nine.” Even after they revealed it, I couldn’t see how nine was any better an answer than five. They both fit equally well, and while there were various “9”s in the visual clues for that word, there were also other numbers as well.
*. In short, I lost but I thought the whole thing was a cheat.
*. But for the credits (Leni directing, photography by Guido Seeber) I don’t think this one would have any interest today as a film. Its use of montage is unremarkable and the animation only functional. Instead it’s more of an artifact from a now vanished era of movie-going. At the time the idea of a visual crossword puzzle might have seemed a bit daring, but clearly they never caught on and in today’s more fully interactive media environment it’s just a curiosity.

Vormittagsspuk (1928)

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*. Hans Richter was one of the original members of the Dada movement, and this film is usually considered to be a Dada work. But I’m not sure the label fits. Yes, in so far as Dada was about experiment and play. But no, in so far as Dada was against meaning or message. It was a political movement, born of a reaction against the First World War, but it didn’t want to be “read” in a political way.
*. For what it may be worth Vormittagsspuk (Ghosts Before Breakfast) strikes me as more surrealist. Maybe it’s those bowler hats, which seem to have blown in from Magritte’s Brussels. And those hats do have meaning as symbols of bourgeois conformity and respectability. Here they are tossed about, just out of reach, but at the end order will be reasserted, the tea (or breakfast) service will reassemble and the hats float onto their rightful heads.

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*. The Nazis banned it as an example of degenerate art. And yet isn’t there a relation of some sort between Dada’s anti-art aesthetic, the violent imagery in this film, and the notorious line from the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst, despising “the rubbish of 1918”: “When I hear ‘culture’. . . I release the safety on my Browning.”
*. It’s that sense of violence that makes me question the Dada label. These aren’t just playful poltergeists. That bow tie has a will of its own and could easily strangle the man. The breakfast service is smashed to pieces. Pistols are drawn, people are shot at, bodies are shattered. To me this does suggest a point beyond the usual early-cinema showcase of magic tricks.
*. But if it isn’t just da-da-da, then what is the message? That civilization is only a thin crust of conventions that are easily upended. That when this happens, you’d better look out (take the safety off your Browning) because things might be about to get ugly. It might all seem like fun and games but then targets turn into bodies and a laugh reveals rotten teeth. Better, in the end, to accept the absurdity of business as usual. Keep your hat on your head and don’t even think of skipping the most important meal of the day.

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The Black Pirate (1926)

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*. Genre filmmaking, and proud of it. The opening titles promise a shopping list of “golden galleons, bleached skulls, buried treasure, the plank, dirks and cutlasses, scuttled ships, marooning, desperate deeds, desperate men, and — even on this dark soil — romance.” Not all of this is delivered, but they come pretty close. It’s Return to Treasure Island!
*. Pauline Kael called it the Fairbanks movie best loved of children, and apparently an eight-year-old Jackie Coogan may have put the bug in Fairbanks’s ear to make it. But it’s gruesome for the kids, isn’t it? In the opening scenario one of the prisoners swallows a ring and the head pirate (Anders Randolph) has one of his men cut it out of his stomach with his knife (we see him hand the ring over to Randolph, his knife dripping with blood). Later we’ll see the same head pirate fall backward on to a dagger planted in the sand, and Sam De Grasse test a stolen sword by stabbing a bound prisoner in the guts.

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*. Acting in silent films, and being a silent “star,” was something different from being a film star in the sound era. It involved other techniques and demanded other qualities. But the main ingredient for an action star hasn’t changed much. Douglas Fairbanks was very fit, looked it, and flaunted the look. He even shaved his chest with a straight razor, saying it was “common practice in the Orient.” Just in case you thought all the buff physiques of today’s manscaped bodybuilders and action stars was a new development.
*. An ability to handle acrobatics was another part of it, but a not insignificant one. I couldn’t help thinking of Lon Chaney swinging his way up the façade of Notre Dame when watching Fairbanks climb all over the pirate ship here. They both knew how to play the monkey well.
*. It was shot in the then new two-colour Technicolor process, which I love, though here it seems somewhat bleached as they were still working out the bugs in the process, which at this early stage involved sticking two layers of film together. I can’t imagine how difficult the restoration was.
*. Fairbanks also consciously wanted to make the colour easy on the eyes, as it was a concern at the time that too much colour would tire people out. Technology is always scary.

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*. Though the colour effects are a bit underwhelming (especially in the night scenes, which even disappointed Fairbanks), the stunts and effects are terrific. Who can forget Fairbanks sliding down a sail that he’s cutting open with this dagger? Or his swinging on ropes through the rigging (a “stunt” that was achieved by simply reversing the film)?
*. The most impressive shots, however, are of the aquanauts swimming in formation underwater to attack the pirate ship. I couldn’t figure out how they did this, given the requirement of awesome amounts of light to film in the Technicolor cameras. On the DVD commentary Rudy Behlmer explains that they aren’t really swimming underwater but are being suspended by a crane and pretending to do the breaststroke against a backdrop, with a foreground of water with bubbles rising from it. Which sounds very complicated, but looks terrific.
*. Tell me with a straight face that you watched the scene where Donald Crisp cuts Fairbanks’s bonds and didn’t laugh. He’s standing behind Fairbanks, with the tip of the dagger sticking out over the top of his belt buckle, rubbing up and down against Fairbanks’ backside. It’s indecent!
*. Fairbanks is really a duke! Hooray! That means he can marry the princess! Because otherwise the classes don’t mix. In Imperial Spain or 1920s America.
*. It’s almost sad the way MacTavish tries to give the pirates’ buried treasure to the royals as a wedding present. Keep it for yourself, matey. They don’t need it.

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*. At the end, after Fairbanks kills De Grasse (in what seems a really awkward manner), he uses the dead body as a shield to block the shot from a pistol that one of the other pirates fires at him. I wonder if this was the first movie to show someone doing this. In more recent years we’ve seen the body-as-shield used to almost comic overkill effect in movies like Total Recall and Payback. James Cagney also did it to Abner Biberman in The Roaring Twenties (1939). But this may have been the first time ever, albeit with a corpse.
*. As a genre, the pirate film has shown itself to be curiously impervious to change: through later films like The Sea Hawk and The Black Swan right up to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Though there are twenty-first century pirates, mostly hailing out of Somalia, you can’t really have a modern or neo-pirate story. Pirate movies are strictly circumscribed in terms of time and place, which means they all look the same: with the same costumes, props, and other genre elements (like those listed in the argument before this film). And so while among the first, The Black Pirate is also unsurpassed.

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The Phantom Carriage (1921)

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*. Sentimentality has a genealogy. It got its start in the eighteenth century as a heightened emotionalism grounded in an excess of empathy (then known as “feeling,” or “sensibility”). It had its merits as a literary movement, but always walked a thin line, in danger of slipping into mawkish, melodramatic tears and pity.
*. Today we live in a far harder-hearted world. We are deeply suspicious of tears, seeing them as a sign of weakness not to be indulged in an environment of constant Darwinian struggle. We look back upon the popular fiction, theatre, and film of yesteryear and smile and shake our heads. Do we cry over the death of Little Nell today? And Chaplin, isn’t he a little much?

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*. The Phantom Carriage is based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but is largely unread today (which is indicative of that shift in sensibilities). The Nobel committee praised her writing for its “lofty idealism,” which, by ours standards, would have really been saying something in 1909.
*. The screenplay, however, seems to owe more to Dickens’ Christmas Carol. And Chaplin thought it the greatest film ever made. So there’s the genealogy of sentimentality playing out. This is a pre-modern, nineteenth-century film despite its tricks and scrambled narrative structure.
*. Nothing dates like sentiment, not even the science of filmmaking. The technique of multiple exposures used here to present the ghosts was impressive at the time, but it soon came to seem an easy gimmick and clichéd convention.
*. The most sentimental works of art also contain their opposite, as the other side of the melodramatic coin. The Phantom Carriage is a movie filled with human evil and brutal squalor. The cinematography is beautiful, but it gives us interiors that recall the urban photography of Jacob Riis. And could you find a worse piece of wreckage than David Holm, who even threatens to infect his children with his tuberculosis as a way of getting back at his wife (and the world)? But then even his wife plans on killing the children when she takes her own life. Sentiment spreads its roots in the ground of dirty realism.

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*. I don’t mean to suggest by any of this that The Phantom Carriage is a bad film. In fact, it’s a great film. But there are reasons why it isn’t well known today. It describes an alien time and sensibility, one we feel little sympathy for. Just the notion that a monster like David Holm can be redeemed strikes most of us as false. Who really believes in his spiritual evolution/transformation? People like that don’t change. Of course the film is a fantasy, but its moral is fantastic as well.
*. Then there is the bizarre love triangle between David, his wife, and Edit. There’s no denying the sexual element here, and the psychic bond David and Edit seems to share only amplifies it. They belong together, and I don’t mean on a spiritual plane. This gives the ending a rather odd flavour, as it’s a let-down that David is reunited with his family. He should have moved on. He’ll be back drinking again soon.

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*. I think the other reason it isn’t watched as much today is that the things it does really well are things that are no longer that important. I think the performances are very good silent film performances, managing to be understated in a way you don’t often see. I think the fact that Victor Sjöström was such a large man helped. He didn’t have to play the role big because he already was: a big face on a big frame.
*. The other element that stands out is the photography I mentioned earlier. Not, however, the ghost effect, which I didn’t much care for (and which in the case of the drowned man is actually kind of funny). But the bedroom and tavern scenes are wonderfully lit and have impressive depth of field, shooting through doorways and such. I imagine being able to shoot at a brand new, state-of-the-art film studio helped, but all the various tricks of the cameraman’s trade are here invested with artistic and emotional weight.
*. It all adds up to a movie that I respect a great deal, but one that seems too much like a historical artefact now. Not all art is timeless.

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Häxan (1922)

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*. The allure of the odd. At the beginning of his audio commentary on the Criterion DVD Casper Tybjerg describes Häxan as “a film like no other.” And it wasn’t just unique in its day; it’s never really been imitated.
*. Is it sui generis? Tybjerg spends some time discussing whether or not it can be considered a documentary (making it one of the first). I wouldn’t apply that label. It seems to me to be to just be a historical drama with a scholarly introduction and other asides. But I’m not sure it matters anyway.
*. Writer/director Benjamin Christensen claimed he wanted to present “a cultural history lesson in moving pictures,” and I think he may have been sincere. In the early days of any new medium there has been a dream of a popular form of entertainment that would educate the masses. It is a dream with a long history: through radio, film, television, and now the Internet. We’re still waiting. The masses seem less interested in instruction than delight. They don’t look to a new medium for its potential to educate. They don’t want cultural history lessons.

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*. Can we call it torture porn? That may be going too far, but it’s easy to forget how sadistic, violent, and even gory early films were. They were as nasty and shocking as they could be given the censors of the time and technical limitations. In the first dramatic sequence here, for example, we have a witch snapping a finger off the hand of a thief’s corpse (a scene that was cut from some prints).
*. The prurience is also undeniable. The meaning of the devil pumping away on his butter churn is kind of hard to miss. Christensen justifies showing nudity by saying it was the custom in the past to sleep naked in bed and for witches to travel about in the nude. So he’s just being historically accurate! As he also is when he points out that it wasn’t just ancient crones who were accused of being witches. Pretty young women were hauled before the tribunal too!

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*. Apparently his other idea for a documentary at the time was something on hermaphroditism and sex hormones. One can scarcely imagine how that would have turned out.
*. Of course there are pitfalls when it comes to doing something a little different. A movie imagined as a mosaic, with no single coherent narrative, no heroes or heroines, no spectacle and no suspense, was going to have a hard time finding an audience.
*. I’m not sure how popular Häxan was, but I don’t think it made money. It was very expensive, but not because of anything you see on screen. According to Tybjerg there were massive costs associated with the Swedish backers buying Christensen’s old film studio in Denmark (where the film was shot) and completely refurbishing it for him. Christensen also had a nocturnal working schedule that required lots of overtime for his crew. Why he thought it was somehow appropriate for such a film to be shot at night when he was shooting in a studio anyway is beyond me. I think he probably just liked working at night.
*. It is a very dark film, visually. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think Christensen makes full use of the frame very often.

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*. So despite the big budget this is not a historical epic filled with massive sets and a cast of thousands, and doesn’t even feature much in the way of special visual effects (compare Murnau’s also very expensive Faust just a few years later). Instead it recycles the same handful of actors and small sets. That may have hurt it as well.
*. There’s Pazuzu! We wouldn’t see him again on screen until The Exorcist.

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*. As already noted, some material was cut by censors. I’m not surprised. There are some pretty crazy scenes here, what with babies being tossed in stew pots and women lining up to kiss the devil’s ass. I think the freakiest bit though is the woman giving birth to the demons. It made me think of that maggot-birth scene from David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly.
*. It’s impossible not to see the influence on Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in all of the close-ups, particularly with the tear-streaked, uplifted faces of persecuted women. Tybjerg is good on the background here, pointing out how the close-ups were seen by the censors at the time as indecent. You just weren’t supposed to see faces that big.

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*. Many people see the final section, set in modern times, as a let down. I wonder if that’s because we’re more familiar with the argument: that mental illness explains a lot of what was considered to be black magic in the bad old days. Psychiatry was still a new field in 1922.
*. The burning witches is an odd image to end with, isn’t it? It yanks us back out of time present into the demon-haunted world, with no explanation. Tybjerg doesn’t comment on it. Perhaps Christensen just wanted a strong visual and he couldn’t come up with a contemporary one. Or perhaps the burning figures are deliberately juxtaposed with the woman entering the healing shower in modern times.
*. Christensen aspired to do something different, but I think he also wanted to lay out a path to a different role for film than just cheap entertainment. No one followed his lead. Cultural history lessons are not best taught by moving pictures. You can always learn more from books.

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The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928)

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*. Mr. John Jones (he does have a name before the studio gets hold of him) arrives in Hollywood with a letter of introduction from the Almighty. He “would like to become a motion picture player in Hollywood.”
*. The term “player” had a more innocent meaning back then. Mr. Jones only wants to be an actor. In Altman’s movie a player refers to something else, as does our modern admonition to not hate the player but the game. And yet even in a film from this period there are some of the same negative associations. Poor 9413 may be talentless, but the Star is a vacuous figure who just seems to understand the game better.
*. The Crash and the Depression were still a year away. This was the last good year of the roaring ‘twenties. But the feeling is nevertheless one of gloom. The original title was The Suicide of a Hollywood Extra, and with those bills sliding under the door we get the sense of a man being ground to dust by the system, unable to find employment or self respect.
*. Hollywood was not a town of skyscrapers in the 1920s, but the buildings were symbolic of the commanding heights of the entertainment biz. They also looked good as cut-outs.
*. It has the superficial appearance of a morality play, with 9413 as an Everyman seduced by Vanity Fair before reclaiming his soul. But that’s not how it feels. 9413 is too empty a vessel, with his wide staring eyes and his lips moving like a guppy making baby noises. Do we care what happens to such a creature? And what would be the difference between the vision of heaven here and what’s shooting in the studio hangar next door?
*. Shot by Greg Toland (who would go on to bigger things) and made for under $100. Prints were over half the cost. It’s a mere curiosity, notable for how quickly cynicism and even despair came to Hollywood. What are those twisting cut out shapes in the background? They look like origami scorpion tails.

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The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)

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*. This is often considered to be the first surrealist film. It’s a fair claim as the imagery has that flavour, it’s based on a scenario by Antonin Artaud (though he was apparently upset or disapproved at what Germaine Dulac did with it), and came out a year ahead of Un Chien Andalou. So then . . . what is a surrealist film?
*. Surrealism speaks in the language of dreams. People always want to interpret dreams because they seem as being full of personal significance. But the science on dreams is still cloudy and we’re still not sure what they’re for or what they mean. Is there a collective unconscious filled with universal archetypes corresponding to something in a common human nature? Or are the images totally random and individual?
*. Some surrealists insisted that their images had no meaning, but I think they were kidding themselves. Nevertheless, they were honestly sceptical of the whole project of interpretation.

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*. And so a door opens and the Clergyman is revealed sitting at a table pouring fluid from a giant seashell into beakers. He then breaks the beakers. This action is repeated. It’s not even clear if it is a consecutive action, filling one beaker after another, or if we’re seeing the same action repeated in an endless loop. The number of beakers on the table in front of him always seems to remain the same, and the pile of smashed glass on the ground beside him isn’t growing.
*. This is how I read the passage: We are driven to interpret our experience of reality, just like that man doing his bizarre experiment. But it’s an absurd activity that doesn’t really take us anywhere: what we get out of our perceptions is what we put into them. Like the Clergyman, we’re only pouring old wine into new bottles. Then the bottles (the experiences) are gone and we do it again. I’ve heard it suggested that this is all our dreaming amounts to: a way of keeping our brains busy at some basic level while our bodies rest.
*. Put another way: Some seashells seem to make a sound like the ocean when you hold them up to your ear. It’s not the ocean, but amplified background noise, including the sound of your own blood flowing. That’s the Clergyman’s blood he’s pouring, or that he’s dreaming of pouring, into those beakers, in an act symbolic of circulation. Then the General comes in and breaks his heart.

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*. There’s usually some sexual, possibly Freudian, angle thrown onto this film. I’m not sure it’s that important. What makes the Clergyman mad at the General doesn’t seem to be anything sexual. The General smashes, or symbolically executes, his seashell, and then usurps his function at the confessional. The Clergyman has to lash out, and does so physically in the long strangulation attempt.
*. Enter the General’s Woman. The Clergyman seems angry at her more than aroused. Even her partial disrobing is violent more than erotic. Later he will imagine strangling her in much the same way as he tried to throttle the General. Is she an object of desire? We’re used to thinking of priests as being tortured cases of repression, but that’s not a necessary reading of what’s going on here.
*. I will confess I find something very sexual about the room full of fetish maids fluffing the Clergyman when he is turned into an objet d’art. But perhaps that’s just projection again.

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*. Along with sex, another constant with surrealism is its antagonism toward authority and its desire to tear down systems and symbols of order and hierarchy. Breaking things is a leitmotif here and if you want to see that as political I don’t think you’d be off course. The British Board of Film Censors famously reported that while the film was “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.” I don’t think they were referring to the bare breasts. Instead, the presentation of a violent, unhinged clergyman, and the lack of respect shown toward a military figure were probably more upsetting.
*. Throw in the maids and you have a lot of uniforms in this short film. This, along with their movement, makes the characters seem almost puppet-like. The Clergyman is the only one who doesn’t act like an automaton, even though his stiff, upright running style suggests strings being pulled.

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*. The less clear the meaning, the more work the score has to do. I think I’ve seen this film with three different accompaniments and it seemed quite a different picture each time. I like the film a lot more or a lot less depending on the score, and the music definitely has a role in interpreting the images and supplying a kind of narrative.
*. Indeed, the entire emotional register of the film is set by the score. Is the scene of the Clergyman crawling in the street comic, or creepy? What about the room full of maids? Or the General floating like a balloon? You can read each of these as sinister, threatening, or slapstick.
*. This, in turn, is another indication of how fluid the game of interpretation is. A simple musical cue can change it from horror to comedy.
*. I’d also add that it’s a silent film that’s worth watching with no sound. This leads to yet another kind of experience. One of the first things you’ll note is how much rhythm the images have in their juxtaposition and transitioning. Look at how the smoke billows over the pile of broken glass like a pulse.
*. In general, I think the special visual effects are poor, even for this period. Dulac had an eye, but you can tell she wasn’t always getting what she wanted on screen. Though I’ll admit there are also moments when you wonder if some of the shortfalls are deliberate, a way of drawing attention to their own artifice.

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*. It has the abrupt, fragmented rhythm that is characteristic of surrealism (since dreams don’t follow any kind of logical continuity), but there are at least two moments that last: the fracturing face of the General and the Clergyman crawling through the streets. Once seen, they are hard to forget.
*. But again, if you try and ask what either of those scenes “means” you’re not going to come up with much. Surrealism was the most liberating of artistic movements, and the most limited. Like therapy, it’s something you have to work at. And it doesn’t always produce results.

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