Category Archives: 1920s

The Unknown (1927)

*. Lon Chaney. Tod Browning.
*. I believe they collaborated on some ten pictures. They seemed a good fit. David Thomson on Chaney: “surely one of the greatest imaginative artists of silent cinema, undoubtedly most stimulated by Tod Browning.” But why? Some shared vision of what it was they were seeking to express? I don’t feel like I really know either man well enough to say.
*. The Unknown doesn’t usually rank among their best individual work. Chaney is remembered today mainly as the man of a thousand faces, and for roles like Quasimodo and the Phantom. Browning is known as the guy who directed Dracula and Freaks. But none of these are films they worked on together.
*. Though it’s not one of their best known films, The Unknown is still well worth checking out. With regard to Browning’s oeuvre, I don’t rate Dracula as highly as many do, and Freaks is both a stunt and a stump of a picture. The Unknown is a more accomplished film, and since I think Browning was more used to working without sound anyway it’s better placed within his comfort zone.

*. Browning’s fascination with the circus is also front and center, and the way it draws us in with its promise of horrors. Should we really be enjoying such terrible things? I like how at the end a cutaway shows the audience split between feelings of horror and mirth at Malabar’s predicament because they don’t know what’s really going on. Then when the crew come rushing out what do they do? They don’t try to rescue Malabar or stop the horses but instead draw the curtain!

*. As for Chaney, it’s just a treat to see his real face in action. He really plays it like a musical instrument, taking it through whole ranges of emotion, sometimes without a cut. On the DVD commentary Michael Blake points out some of the highlights, but the whole film is evidence of Chaney being one of the greatest actors of the silent era. He’s also a scary looking guy even without any props or make-up. Not for being ugly or disfigured in any way but rather just for exuding a sense of threat, cunning, and power.

*. Though never without vulnerability. This leads to the biggest question The Unknown poses. How do we feel about Alonzo? On the one hand he’s a serial killer, which isn’t good. But he’s also a lover, and goes to extraordinary lengths to win his love, only to be cruelly betrayed. And the “normal” lovers are so dull, who really cares about their story? Wrap the lens in gauze and forget about them.

*. Both Chaney and Browning were also drawn to these stories of transgressive sexual pairings, with love turning to hate and vice versa. The note is struck in the opening scene with Alonzo holding the rifle between his legs and undressing Nanon by shooting at her. Kind of hard to miss the meaning there. Or Nanon’s final appearance as dominatrix tormentor, cracking her whip over the bound Malabar.

*. As with most such tales of grotesque passions it all seems screwed a bit too tight. Nanon’s fear of men, for example, is sexual hysteria writ large. And that operating theatre! It’s a little much, isn’t it? It’s very size is an expressionist distortion. Browning was concerned about how the story could easily slip into comedy, and indeed the line is a thin one.

*. I’m not sure what the title refers to. It had some role, however, in keeping the film lost for years. It was only found in 1968 at the Cinematheque Francaise. The reason it took so long to find is because there were hundred of film cans labeled “unknown” (l’inconnu).
*. Dialogue cards in silent films were usually used sparingly, only giving us information that’s absolutely necessary. But I wonder what Alonzo and Nanon are yelling at each other at the end. She doesn’t look as though she’s telling him to do anything in particular (like perhaps starting the treadmill again). She just looks angry. Does she realize that he always loved her now? And what is he yelling back? That now he has his revenge? But he still loves her, as the finale makes clear. So what choice words are they sharing? Their true feelings have been so close to the surface for so long, what words could express them when they’re finally released?

Metropolis (1927)

*. Metropolis has gone through several notable cuts and restorations, so when reading about it (and much has been written) you have to check to see which version is being discussed because that will affect what’s being said.
*. The BFI Film Classics volume on Metropolis by Thomas Elsaesser, for example, was published in 2000 and so takes the 1987 “Munich version” as “to date the philologically most accurate print.” Meanwhile, I was surprised to find, reviewing Roger Ebert’s essay on Metropolis included in his first volume of Great Movies, that the best available version he could recommend was Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 disco remix (with the sound turned off).
*. Moroder’s is still a version worth watching (it was the first I saw), but it was superseded by the Munich version and then a painstakingly “Restored Authorized Edition” in 2001 (which won international acclaim) and then a “Complete Metropolis” released in 2010 including another twenty minutes of footage that had just been discovered in Argentina (in a really bad 16 mm print).
*. I’ve seen the Moroder version, the Restored Authorized Edition (where the commentary and liner notes both write off a quarter of the film as “irretrievably lost”) and finally the Complete Metropolis (where much of what had been irretrievably lost had been found, albeit in a damaged state). There are also other, mutilated versions out there that are of historical interest (like the American release version, which was substantially cut and re-written), but at some point you just have to go with what you have and the selections the editors and restorers have made. Due to the way it was filmed, there really is no ur-Metropolis anyway.

*. We might ask if the Complete Metropolis is now too long. Two and a half hours isn’t out of line for such a major production, but if you’re used to the earlier versions you might find yourself wondering if much has been added that was really necessary. For the most part the “new” stuff is transitional material concerning the investigations of the Thin Man, which is a sub-plot that doesn’t really go anywhere (in one of the few contemporary reviews of the film by someone who had seen both the initial release version and a cut version where this had been taken out it was felt to be no great loss). I do like seeing the giant head of Hel though, and there’s a sequence involving a closed gate at the top of a flight of stairs as the children are trying to escape the flooding city that’s worth seeing.
*. The standard critical line, which was taken from the start, is that Metropolis is full of striking, iconic visuals that dress up a simple, sentimental story. Luis Buñuel was one such early critic, and it’s worth quoting at length from his contemporary review: “Metropolis is not one film, Metropolis is two films joined by the belly, but with divergent, indeed extremely antagonistic, spiritual needs. Those who consider the cinema as a discreet teller of tales will suffer a profound disillusion with Metropolis. What it tells us is trivial, pretentious, pedantic, hackneyed romanticism. But if we put before the story the plastic-photogenic basis of the film, then Metropolis will come up to any standards, will overwhelm us as the most marvellous picture book imaginable.”

*. As a rejoinder to this two-film thesis (broadly, Fritz Lang’s direction good, Thea von Harbou’s screenplay bad) here is Elsaesser: “If the most frequent judgment, ever since its Berlin opening, has been: ‘great movie, shame about the story,’ this cannot be the whole truth, seeing how many ‘readings’ the story has by itself provoked. The pot-pourri of motifs may have been opportunist and calculating, gathering up many pseudo-philosophical, social-romantic, decadent-dystopic clichés that in the 20s were ‘in the air.’ Yet despite this apparently self-inflicted handicap, von Harbou’s plotting and Lang’s visualisation must have structured these banal and sentimental commonplaces in ways that successfully imparted the illusion if not exactly of ‘depth’ then of archetypal resonance, reaching down into shared sensibilities and widely-felt anxieties as only myths and fairy-tales tend to do.”

*. What Elsaesser’s getting at, and I think he makes a good point, is it is this “eclectic-encylopaedic scope of the film” that makes Metropolis what it is even more than its impressive visuals. Yes, much of the imagery has gone on to become iconic: the cityscapes with their air machines and buttress-like traffic arteries, the Heart Machine transforming into Moloch, Rotwang in his lab giving life to the mechanical Maria, the workers’ city being flooded. But that imagery is wed to a farrago of a host of timeless SF themes and technologies — the Morlocks (class stratification, with workers below and pleasure palaces above), the man-machine hybrids, the mad scientist, the video phones — with “the radical naivety of mythic clichés” in a way that Elsaesser likens to what George Lucas did with Star Wars. OK, there aren’t any spaceships or time machines or aliens in Metropolis, but it’s hard to think of another film that so defines the genre of science fiction, and it does so just as much for its story as for its look.

*. I like the invocation of Star Wars as another example of the primitive-futuristic SF hybrid. There may be something essential to SF in all of this: as when Shelley’s Frankenstein borrowed the folklore of the Golem, or when Isaac Asimov re-told the story of the decline and fall of the Roman empire in his Foundation novels. Rotwang’s gingerbread house in the middle of the metropolis is the physical embodiment of the fairy-tale in the consciousness of modern life.

*. Are the mythic undertones religious, or more specifically Christian? This is a trickier question, as in the examples I’ve given (Shelley, Asimov, Lucas) religion is something that has largely been overcome or displaced (even in the Star Wars universe the Force turns out to have a genetic base that can be determined via blood test). In Metropolis I’m not sure any of the many Biblical underlayings have much resonance. Freder is crucified by the clock machine, which I guess is meant to suggest his sacrifice in descending into the workers’ city and taking on their suffering. Maria preaches in the Christian catacombs, but her sermon is just a trite retelling of the story of the Tower of Babel. The false Maria is presented as the Whore of Babylon perhaps because she represents the false god of technology and decadence in general. The seven deadlies have a memorable cameo, but are secular failings as much as they are sins. All of this seems both heavy-handed and superficial at the same time.

*. What about the politics? Here’s a way that the retro vision gets the movie into trouble. Personally, I find it a well-meant but reactionary film. Though when it was released UFA insisted that some of the subtitles had to be replaced because they were considered too revolutionary. So we do have to keep the moment of Metropolis in mind.
*. What I mean by a retro or reactionary vision is the sentimental presentation of the city’s elite as the “head” that has a responsibility to rule over the animalistic masses (the brainless “hands” that keep the city going). Joh Frederson (“Masterman” in the original American release, in case you might miss the point) is a true Randian figure, the John Galt of his day. Meanwhile, proles are just a bunch of apes who can’t stop dancing whenever they’re wrecking things. And holy Home Alone! They left all their children behind to be drowned! How could they ever hope to run a city when they can’t even take care of their own kids?
*. That epigraph — “the mediator between the head and hands must be the heart!” — is hard to take, as it still reinforces the notion of a natural hierarchy, that the workers are mere tools to be controlled by the head, or a force of nature that needs to be tamed (the flood of humanity, by the way, rising to the strains of the Marseillaise, which in Germany might have sounded more like a threat than an anthem of liberation). In any event, as soon as they get the pumps going and clear out the workers’ city you can be sure they’ll be heading back to the depths, “where they belong.” They’re not going to be visiting the Club of the Sons or the insipid Eternal Gardens again anytime soon.

*. As with any movie with so many different elements packed into it, it’s no surprise that they don’t all add up. And I think we have to admit that a lot of the tech stuff is window dressing that you can’t consider too carefully. To take just one other design element: why are the doorways so damn big? Are they planning a race of future Mastermen who will be twenty-feet tall?
*. The machinery in the sub-levels was taken to task for not having any clear purpose. I take it they are mostly just power generators, but in any event I think we’re supposed to recognize both the uselessness of the work being done by the prole-machines and our ignorance of it. We don’t know how any of our tech works today any better than people did back then.
*. I do like those teardrop-shaped cars and it’s disappointing we don’t get to see more of them.
*. Why is the false Maria debuted in front of the city’s elite? I don’t see the purpose of enflaming them in such a provocative way when her mission is to be a false prophet to the workers. Or is it just that she’s Pandora (Lulu, before Louise Brooks) and the girl can’t help it?

*. Then there’s Rotwang. He’s an odd duck, isn’t he? Pauline Kael: “a mad, medieval type like Dr. Caligari, with his mechanical arm, father to Dr. Strangelove.” In other words, the physical embodiment in one man of the movie’s mix of old and new. But what kind of a madman is he? Instead of raping Maria he turns her into his idealized sexbot, which he then looses on the city but doesn’t personally take any pleasure in. What’s going on there? Some kind of impotent revenge?

*. Why is the robot always called the Machine Man? It’s obviously feminine and is later made into a mechanical woman.
*. The score by Gottfried Huppertz is itself a landmark, one of the greatest ever composed. I was going to qualify that by adding “for a silent film,” but I’ll let it stand as is. And yet the film’s best known revival was with an ’80s pop soundtrack. It’s interesting how the story and its visuals could be that adaptable.

*. What about the style of the film? What can we call it? It’s been described as the “last Expressionist film” and “first New Objectivity film.” I think it’s a bad fit with both of those labels (the New Objectivity was basically a realistic movement, opposed to the emotional excesses of expressionism). As with the story itself, the visual style seems to me to be an odd mix of elements that don’t always fit together.

*. At times it is geometric, not in an expressionist or gothic way but in a less humanized, technological form. Even people are turned, again and again, into rising pyramids (something which clearly impressed Hitler). But at the same time Lang can go another route entirely, as in the pursuit of Maria through the catacombs until she is captured in the spotlight, or the false Maria’s dance dissolving into a kaleidoscope of leering suitors.

*. What of its legacy? Immediately, it was a disaster: one of the biggest box office bombs in history, with filming going way over schedule and over budget. UFA was nearly ruined. Today it’s a film that is still quoted, but there remains something about it that resists full digestion. The awkward shape of it makes it hard going down, and the fact that it survived so long only in fragmented form may have helped it in some ways. So much of what works feels more like a genre potboiler than a classic.
*. As a hubristic epic it recalls its own vision of the building of Babel. Kael thought it “a wonderful, stupefying folly.” It’s not one film, or even two films, but contains multitudes, and ranges from the primitive to the postmodern, and classicism to kitsch. Personally, I don’t find much of it very involving, and yet every time I see it I feel like I have to take a couple of steps back to take it all in. And even then, I go away with the sense that I’ve missed something new.

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)


*. 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)


*. 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.


*. 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.


Rebus-Film No. 1 (1925)


*. 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)


*. 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.


*. 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.


The Black Pirate (1926)


*. 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.


*. 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.


*. 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.


*. 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.


The Phantom Carriage (1921)


*. 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?


*. 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.


*. 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.


*. 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.


Häxan (1922)


*. 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 more like a historical drama with a scholarly introduction and other asides. But I’m not sure the labels matter 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 you’ll usually find expressed the dream of a popular form of entertainment that will be used to 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.


*. 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 also 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!


*. 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.


*. 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.


*. 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.







*. 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 being made, 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 in doing so 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.