Category Archives: 1920s

The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)

*. For all its importance, I find there actually isn’t that much discussion of The Golem these days. When you do hear it mentioned it’s usually seen as a precursor to Frankenstein or as an example of early German horror. I think both approaches are a bit misleading.
*. There had actually been a production of Frankentstein in 1910 that still survives. Mary Shelley’s novel is often considered one of the first works of science fiction, with the corpse being reanimated by an electrical charge, but in that 1910 film science is tossed out the window for magical effects. The Monster rises out of a sorcerer’s cauldron that a bunch of chemicals have been thrown into.
*. In The Golem magic is again made to do all the work. Rabbi Loew’s creature is also not a corpse but a clay model, though his book on Necromancy does state that the “life-giving word will awaken any and every thing, whether corpse or man’s creation.” So this is not really a Frankenstein story in that regard. The fantastic lab in the 1931 Frankenstein was something new on film.
*. I think it’s also a stretch to think of The Golem as a horror film. I don’t say that because it’s not a scary movie. I think we can agree that most scary movies from a hundred years ago aren’t very scary today. But I don’t think The Golem even tries to be a scary movie. The Golem isn’t a monster to be revealed like in those shocking jump cuts in Frankenstein. Within the film he’s not a source of fear but a figure to be marveled at, with the children of the ghetto following him around like he’s the friendly giant. The only time he seems scary is when he hunts down the foppish lover, who he is perhaps jealous of (they both like smelling flowers). But even in these scenes he looks to me like the Stay Puft marshmallow man at the end of Ghostbusters.

*. The Ghostbusters reference probably isn’t fair, though I can’t not see it. I also think the people behind Iron Man must have been thinking of this movie when they gave Tony Stark a power source in his chest not unlike the amulet here. And that’s what the Golem really is more than a horror icon: a superhero out of a folk tale (the comic books of yesteryear). His reverse-Samson being the most obvious Superman moment.
*. Is the Golem still a Jewish superhero? It seems more to have been a fixation of Paul Wegener’s, and this was in fact his third Golem film (his appearance being much the same in each). As far as its representation of the ghetto though it strikes me as problematic. I’m not sure what we’re to make of the way that the knight Florian is disposed of. Sure he’s a fool, but is he a bad guy? And is Loew’s assistant, who Miriam is apparently reunited with at the end, any better? What is he asking forgiveness for? What he did to Florian, or for burning a big chunk of the ghetto down? It seems as though there’s some kind of fear of miscegenation driving all this.

*. This point is left up in the air, but I feel that it’s important, as the relationship between the Jews and the other townspeople is a major theme in the film. I don’t know how, or if, it’s resolved.

*. For the most part this seems to me to be a film of mainly historical interest. Cinematographer Karl Freund would go on to shoot Dracula and directed The Mummy and Mad Love, allowing him to play a big role in defining the visual atmosphere of American horror in the 1930s. That said, The Golem doesn’t strike me as a particularly rich film visually. It looks good, but it’s not striking in the way that Caligari or Nosferatu still are, and its eponymous hero never achieved the same iconic status as the vampire or mad doctor. Meanwhile, the story doesn’t hold my interest as much as those films either.
*. Classic American horror films were B pictures, and sometimes not even very good B pictures, that for one reason or another struck a nerve and kept on growing. Despite its production values, The Golem feels like a B picture that still is.

Othello (1922)

*. Silent Shakespeare. There was a lot of it, but what was the point?
*. What I mean is, Shakespeare isn’t known for his great plots, which he often borrowed anyway (as he did in the case of Othello). A Shakespeare play is a text, that is, it’s language. You can present and adapt that language an infinite number of ways, but still it’s an experience built around the spoken word. But a silent film is going to have to be something else. When Orson Welles was asked if Shakespeare would be a film director if he were alive today (this was in the 1960s) he said of course. But would Shakespeare have been a film director in the silent era? I don’t think so. I don’t think he would have thought it worth doing.
*. That said, if you really have to do Shakespeare without dialogue then this early version of Othello is about as good as it’s going to get. The story is essentially the same, but changed in numerous ways in order to make it more visual.
*. To take an obvious example, there’s a wholly original but very effective scene where Iago reveals the handkerchief to Othello to cool him down after one of his jealous rages. This is a nicely arranged shot between the two of them, with both facing the camera and Othello’s eyes only coming open as Iago makes a fuss over his pillows like a knowing lover (the whole thing is done in an almost erotic fashion). It works really well, without any dialogue, but there’s nothing that corresponds to it in the play.

*. Or take as another example the opening. Instead of tossing us into the middle of an argument between Iago and Roderigo (which would be impossible without a dozen dialogue cards), we get a scene of pomp and ceremony of the kind that movies are accomplished with. This actually takes us back in time to an event that occurs before the beginning of the play as we have it, with Othello returning to Venice as a conquering hero and announcing his choice of lieutenant. Iago is confident he’s the man, but Othello adopts Cassio, leading to Iago’s plans for revenge.
*. That’s all there is, by the way, to explain Iago’s much-debated (at least among scholars) “motiveless malignancy.” There’s nothing said about Iago’s own sexual jealousy or any other grudge he holds against the Moor. He’s just angry at being passed over.
*. Another change is that Othello kills Iago at the end, before doing away with himself. Is that because this is a movie, or because it was 1922? Shakespeare was adapted in quite radical ways right from the early going. Nahum Tate’s King Lear, which had a happy ending (Lear and Cordelia both live), held the stage from the 17th to the 19th century. Othello killing Iago was only a minor change, all things considered.
*. So overall I think the way this is a terrific adaptation, turning the play into a fast-moving drama dependent on lots of well choreographed physical action rather than layered language. What’s perhaps most surprising is how restrained it is. The sets look great, but they’re not overwhelming or expressionistic. They look suitably grand but not theatrical.

*. Then there are the performances: Emil Jannings as Othello and Werner Krauss as Iago. Given the conventions of silent-film acting, and the heightened emotionality of the play, you’d be forgiven for expecting them to out-Herod Herod. Instead they are, if anything, underplayed. Jannings is reserved and never flies into a rage. The closest he comes is when he writhes in his sleep while dreaming of Cassio and Desdemona together, or when he tears the handkerchief apart with his teeth (a bit which seems almost restrained in context and was probably a bit of stage business anyway). Krauss gets to ham things up a little more as the Vice of the piece, and when he’s scampering around the palace stage-directing things and even taking a tumble in his excitement he seems only missing a devil suit complete with a tail and a horned hood. But even this manic exuberance isn’t totally out of keeping with some interpretations of the role.
*. In fact, what’s most outré about the two leads are Othello’s loud pyjamas and Iago’s upswept winged moustache. I wonder what the correct name for that moustache is. I tried looking it up online, but couldn’t find it.
*. So all-in-all I think this is a great film. But is it Shakespeare? Only sort of. It’s a tale from Shakespeare made into a movie. Not something less, but different.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

*. The first thing you have to do is clear your head of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel. This movie takes Stevenson’s premise and some of its basic elements as its starting point, but it’s really based on a play written by Thomas Russell Sullivan that came out right after the book. There was nothing new in this. Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein were both similarly indebted to stage productions as much as they were to the novels by Stoker and Shelley. It just made things easier.
*. The big addition to the story is a love interest. Or two love interests, if you include Jekyll’s girl Millicent with Miss Gina, the vampish object of Hyde’s desire. There are no female characters in Stevenson’s story, aside from a housekeeper. Hyde is a brute, but not a sexual predator. But while you can get away without having pretty women in a novel, they really are essential for a film adaptation. And thus Hyde as the monster of unchecked libido enters into the mythology. From here on, sex is going to be in the driver’s seat.
*. Another big change from anything in Stevenson has Sir George Carew become a shockingly louche Satan figure given to quoting Oscar Wilde on the need to give in to temptation. In the novel Jekyll is very much the author of his own moral degradation, which results from the bastard breedings of his scientific curiosity with his baser instincts. By making Carew into a tempter figure Jekyll sheds some of this responsibility.
*. Note also that Carew is Millicent’s father. Why is he taking his prospective son-in-law to strip parlours anyway? This is weird.
*. Stevenson famously leaves the appearance of Hyde vague. He is only “deformed” in some hard-to-pin-down way, and much smaller than Jekyll. Needless to say, this is not the way he has been portrayed on screen. Usually he’s just shown as growing a lot of hair, giving away his obvious connection to the Wolf Man (or Wolfman). I think Altered States (1980) was one of the few Jekyll-Hyde stories where Hyde is shown getting a lot smaller.

*. In this film John Barrymore’s Jekyll doesn’t get much help from special effects. The transformation scenes are rendered by way of the usual broad silent-film contortions. Indeed, Barrymore’s gesticulations are so violent at one point that he shakes one of his prosthetic fingers off. But give him credit for doing it all (mostly) on his own. Hyde is a hunchback with long greasy hair and even longer fingers (Barrymore uses those hands well, like a lot of silent stars). He’s not the ape played by Frederic March that would appear just ten years later.
*. I like Barrymore here, but not much else. The story is messy, with too many characters and awkward elements. There’s even a historical flashback to Gina’s poison ring, an item that needn’t have been introduced in the first place.
*. What’s missing is that expressionist note out of Germany, which seems all the more notable for its absence here since it would seem to belong more to such a tale of psychological horror than in Frankenstein. The only flourish in this direction is the very odd appearance of the spider-Hyde crawling into bed with Dr. Jekyll. I’m not sure where that bit of weirdness came from but I wish there were more moments like it.

Anna Boleyn (1920)

*. It’s testimony to just how powerful the Tudor myth has been that this epic German production was made about the marriage of Anne Boleyn, a figure I wouldn’t have thought anyone living in Germany in 1920 would have known or cared about much at all.
*. The title may be a bit misleading, as it’s a story as much about Henry VIII (Emil Jannings) as it is Anne. In the U.S. it was released as Deception, which has a kind of trashy allure but may be even less descriptive. Who was being deceived here?
*. Of course any movie with Henry VIII as a character in it is going to feel like it’s about Henry, as he was a larger-than-life figure who dominated the court. But Anne Boleyn was no wallflower herself. Or at least the historical Anne wasn’t. Here, played by Henny Porten, she’s not given a lot of agency. There’s nothing cunning about this Anne. Rather, she is an innocent victim, ravished by a Henry who won’t take no for an answer. She isn’t playing hard to get but genuinely doesn’t want to be gotten, and becomes a very reluctant queen. This is not at all like the real Anne, who played a cunning game to become queen, and was only undone by her inability to give birth to a male heir.
*. Casting Anne this way is fair enough, if ahistorical. Audiences in 1920 wanted a virtuous Anne being wronged by her lecherous husband, a woman roughly wooed and then scorned. Yes, she has a courtier pining for her in the wings, Henry (Heinrich) Norris, but this is a love that cannot be. The Tudors weren’t quite this bourgeois, or Victorian.
*. Also not as Victorian was the Tudor taste in wallpaper. Royal palaces used tapestries instead. I did some research and apparently there was wallpaper back around this time, but it wasn’t the modern repetitive print style but something made to look like a tapestry. I other words nothing at all like what we see in the big staircase scene as Henry leads Jane Seymour past the protesting Anne.

*. Jannings is excellent as Henry. Mary Pickford counted this one of her favourite films and singled Jannings out: “It was the first time on the screen that a King had been made human. It has subtle, satirical humor.” As iconic as Charles Laughton’s Henry would become, it’s worth registering that Henry as the man of massive appetites is already here. Our first sight of him has him tearing into a massive side of beef while drinking out of a huge tankard, prefiguring Laughton ripping into a chicken. Henry was a man who liked to eat. But I wonder where this particular image of him got started. We don’t see Henry eating like this in any Holbein portraits.
*. Capably directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Nothing groundbreaking, but I like the use of the iris to show the focus of Henry’s gaze, and the meet cute between Henry and Anne resulting from her dress getting stuck in a doorway. But otherwise, this is big-picture filmmaking and a showcase for Jannings.
*. All the Tudor pictures are costume dramas, with the wardrobe being one of the most essential parts. It is again here. There is also spectacle, in the form of an impressive jousting yard. It’s interesting that Henry, whatever his self-illusions, was no warrior, so there are few if any battle scenes in movies made about him. The closest we come here are some shots of masses of horsemen charging across a field, but they are members of the king’s hunting party. Instead of swordplay the focus is always on the king’s “private life.”
*. It’s a beautiful restoration. Aside from Jannings though there’s not much interesting going on. Even Anne’s destruction fails to register much in the way of pathos, despite her constant humiliation, and at a full two hours I was impatient for the hooded executioners to do their work at the end. Not to fear though, as the movies weren’t going to get tired of Tudormania. Over a hundred years later, they’re still with us.

Behind That Curtain (1929)

*. A movie that probably deserves to be forgotten entirely today, its one claim to minor fame being that it’s the earliest surviving appearance of the detective Charlie Chan on film (a couple of earlier silent Chan films are now lost).
*. Despite that billing, Charlie Chan doesn’t show up until the movie is nearly over, and even then plays a very minor role. The novel by Earl Derr Biggers is very freely adapted, making the Scotland Yard detective Sir Frederick Bruce the hero. So it’s not really a Charlie Chan movie despite its pedigree. It’s also about twenty minutes longer and a lot duller than the Warner Oland films. That said, there are a few points worth noticing.
*. In the first place, Charlie is played by a Korean-American actor named E. L. Park who looks like a bouncer. Not ethnically Chinese then, but Asian. Though this may also be why he was relegated to such a bit part and we have to make do with the boring old stick from Scotland Yard.
*. Also worth flagging is the presence of Boris Karloff, pre-Frankenstein, as Beetham’s manservant. Not a big role, but he does stand out, even if he doesn’t have many lines.

*. It’s 1929, and Iran is still called Persia and China has an emperor. Another world! It’s also a time when women were more worried about the scandal of divorce than about marrying a murderer. Frustrated passion leads to some poetry in the desert: “If you think it easy to be a man and to know that you, a woman like you, is in the next tent, looking out over the same desert, feeling the same loneliness, staring up at the same moon wandering, with only a bit of tent between us . . . ” Whew!
*. At one point, while interviewing a suspect, Sir Frederick stops to ties his shoes. I was amazed by this. I couldn’t think of another movie where I saw a character tying their shoes. I still can’t.
*. Kind of hard to get excited by this one. It’s not a Charlie Chan movie. It’s not a mystery since the killer can only be one of two people and we’re shown who the “bounder” is pretty early. The script sounds like a radio play. The direction is uninspired, begging for the various conversation scenes to be broken up with the odd one-shot or close-up. This never happens. Oh well, it was the early days of sound. Just hearing anything was novelty enough back then.

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.