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Movie Review – The Penalty (1920)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Penalty (1920)

The Great War (1914-1918) left countless scars, both apparent and hidden, among the Lost Generation. The conflict slaughtered men on an unprecedented scale. Yet as the weapons technology which dismembered young men had advanced, so too did the medicines used to treat the injured. Whereas gangrene would often finish the work that a bullet or bomb had begun, soldiers now stood a chance of surviving their injuries at the cost of their limbs, their teeth, or even their face. The U.S., which only entered the war after years of fighting had already claimed countless lives in Europe, could count more than 4,000 amputations. At first these returning amputees were viewed as heroes, yet as the costs of long term pensions and welfare assistance began to worry government officials, efforts were put forth to re-enter these so-called “war cripples” into the workforce as quickly as possible. The American Red Cross founded organizations such as the Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men in New York, which worked to get prosthetic limbs for these young men and to get them the necessary job training. For various reasons these efforts were largely unsuccessful, but nevertheless the public could not deny the presence of these disfigured men, and the horrific reminders of that tragic, senselessly violent conflict.

American Red Cross. Future Ship Workers—A One-Armed Welder, 1919. Halftone poster. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (182.01.00)
American Red Cross. Future Ship Workers—A One-Armed Welder, 1919. Library of Congress.

Whereas German Expressionism focused more upon the psychological costs of the war, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, American post-war cinema, which largely shunned the supernatural and leaned more towards Romantic realism, dealt more directly with the obvious physical costs of the conflict. There is no argument that the actor who most embodied these examinations of physical horror, both figuratively and literally, in the 1920s was Lon Chaney.

1920’s The Penalty is considered Chaney’s breakout role, and it is his first starring one. The plot, based on the 1913 novel of the same name by pulp writer Gouverneur Morris, revolves around a gangster named Blizzard, played by Chaney, who had his legs mistakenly amputated as a young boy and who now seeks revenge on the doctor, Ferris, who performed the surgery and lied to cover the error. This plan of retribution includes corrupting Ferris’s daughter, Barbara, and forcing the doctor to cut off the legs of Barbara’s fiancé, Wilmot, and graft them onto Blizzard. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that silent film plots are boring.

It’s easy to see how Chaney became a star after this role. His dedication and screen presence are incomparable. In order to create the illusion of being a double-amputee, Chaney devised a harness made of buckets and leather, where his knees sat in the buckets and the leather straps pulled his lower legs back. The actor was wiry, and to compensate for the thick legs he padded his chest and arms, making him look like a hulking bruiser. The effect is shockingly realistic and Chaney sells it completely. It was also extremely painful and he could only wear the harness for up to twenty minutes at a time before the pain became unbearable. The studio doctors cautioned him against it but the man was dedicated entirely to his craft, and he would suffer problems with his knee muscles afterward. It would not be the last time he was physically damaged in pursuit of his art, though it can be difficult at times to distinguish fact from Hollywood promotional fiction when it comes to the tortures it is said Chaney endured. The effect, however, is entirely convincing, and Chaney is even able to closely imitate the illustrations by Howard Chandler Christy of Blizzard which were found in the 1913 novel.

The Penalty 1913 illustration.
Illustration by Howard Chandler Christy, from the 1913 novel.

In addition to his impressive illusion, Chaney’s acting is filled with primal aggression. Even as an amputee he is intimidating, a dominant force of nature in every scene. Blizzard’s criminal hideout is filled with pegs, ropes, and various contraptions that allow him to move about independently, and Chaney uses them with the graceful ease of a man who has had to rely on such things for a lifetime. The other actors do a capable job but always pale in comparison when he is in the frame. This is wholly Chaney’s picture.

The Penalty 1920 still
Lon Chaney, force of nature.


The direction here by a talented Wallace Worsley, who had been wounded in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and who would go on to direct Chaney in A Blind Bargain (1922) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), is also quite good and the editing moves the pace along nicely. The film breaks away from the trappings of the stage and uses cut scenes to allow the viewer to be at two places at once. The cinematography and lighting are also beautiful, particularly in a sequence of scenes where a female undercover agent named Rose is searching Blizzard’s secret underground tunnels. The film also pushed the boundaries of acceptability at the time, featuring drug addicts knifing women and a nude model, things which would have not been allowed in the later years of the Hays Code.

The script is, for the most part, quite good, and improves upon the melodrama of the book. A motif of Satan’s fall from grace runs throughout and there are some choice lines uttered by the characters, such as when Blizzard states, as he plays the piano while a girl he wants to kill pushes the instrument’s pedals expertly, “I can murder anything but music.” Chaney’s acting is spotlighted in this scene as he goes from murderous rage to musical euphoria to contemplation and regret. And then there is this great line: “Don’t grieve for me, dear – death interests me.” The plot is often dark and makes one who loves the macabre excited to see where the story is heading.

The Penalty 1920 gif

And that’s when it falls apart. The tension and menacing story that builds for the first 80 minutes is suddenly, well, amputated in favor of a deus ex machina that leads to a sappy redemption story. The last ten minutes are unrealistic, hokey, and sour a lot of what had come before.

There are other elements that do not age well. Modern women will not appreciate Wilmot when he says to Barbara, as he tempts her away from her art, “True women need love, a home, children” – and they will certainly not appreciate the female character who then immediately concedes to marrying such a man. Barbara is a talented artist and both Wilmot and Dr. Ferris treat her as a miscreant for not giving it up to make babies. The more Wilmot was on screen the more I looked forward to seeing his legs sawed off. Blizzard is a villain, but he’s more sympathetic to a modern audience than these chauvinists. And before such criticism is dismissed due to the era in which it was made, it should be remembered that women were highly active in film throughout the 1910s (Mary Pickford co-founded United Artists in 1919) and many female characters were written as being strong and counter to the preceding Victorian mold, being independent and sometimes even saving the men. The Gibson Girls and the New Women were popular models for womanhood, emphasizing independence and education among females. This was also an era when film was more influenced by the sexually egalitarian world of the stage. After WWI, however, this began to change as movie budgets increased and the world of finance – a decidedly male world at that time – became more assertive. I can’t help but see a parallel between Barbara’s artistic impulse being suppressed and the time when women were beginning to be pushed out of the artistic realm of film. There was promise in the role of the undercover female agent, Rose, who at first is fearless and strong-willed before the character inexplicably becomes emotionally driven, swooning as a lovesick mess and bowing to the machismo of Chaney’s Blizzard.

And this is admittedly nitpicky to mention, but we also get an odd “sissy” archetype cameo that has no bearing on the plot. Such an archetype was already well known to audiences of 1920 even though it would not see its heyday until the 1930s. There isn’t much to say here other than that its inclusion solely provides an opportunity for Wilmot to bully one of Barbara’s artistic friends and solidify his alpha-male status. I’m not sure if we’re meant to dislike Wilmot for this or cheer him.

Attention should also be paid to the depiction of the handicapped in this film. Chaney’s Blizzard is clearly capable and self-reliant, but people react with distaste when they first see him as a cripple. In the pre-war novel, such sentiments are magnified and can say a lot about people’s sensibilities at the time, with lines such as, “Some pitied him because he was a cripple; others, upon suddenly discovering that he had no legs, were shocked with a sudden indecent hatred of him,” or “She forgot that he was a cripple, a thing soured and wicked.” Wilmot says of Blizzard that he “isn’t a man. He’s a gutter-dog, a gargoyle, half a man,” and after railing about his criminality goes on to add, “And at that – good God, you might stand it, if he was a whole man! But he isn’t. It’s horrible! He has no legs – and you want to stamp on him till he’s dead.” Such reactions to Blizzard are tempered in the film, though not entirely absent. To Chaney’s credit, though Blizzard is a killer, the actor manages to convey sympathy and understanding to the crime boss’s personal plight and his feelings of inadequacy. One can only imagine how Chaney’s depictions would have affected those veterans just returned from Europe only two years before, and would have “spoke suggestively of the impotent rage of maimed war veterans who were being assimilated back into society in unprecedented numbers” (Skal 65). It would not be the first amputee Chaney would effectively portray, and “although he never appeared in a movie in which his disfigurement was blamed on battle, his physical and mental victimization in story after story clearly struck a chord in this post-war audience” (Haberman 118). His later famous characters would also serve as ghostly reminders of the war, with Quasimodo and The Phantom both resembling the thousands of facially scarred veterans seen by bystanders in the Armistice Parades.

The Penalty 1920 advertisement
Advertisement for The Penalty (1920)

Finally, a few words must be said about Lon Chaney. He is without a doubt one of the greatest actors of all time and any fan of horror should be proud to count him among our disrespected pantheon. He was born to deaf and mute parents and learned from the start the importance of pantomime while cultivating an intense empathy for those who were different, which would no doubt affect the roles he chose and the way he chose to play them. He was considered a premier actor of his day and a pioneer in the field of make-up effects, even writing the 1929 entry for the subject in the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was very private, seldom giving interviews, and stayed out of Hollywood drama, preferring to entertain close friends at his home and spend time with his family. Unfortunately, he would pass away from cancer in 1930, perhaps from a flake of fake snow that lodged into his lungs while filming. Of course, most horror fans will know his son, Lon Chaney, Jr., who would play the title role in The Wolf Man in 1941 and in several sequels after.

Yet do a Google search for the best silent film actors and you’ll be unlikely to find him on a Top Ten” list. When people think of the silent era, they often think of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp or Buster Keaton’s stone-faced stoicism, men who finely crafted their personas and characters over many years, or a charismatic romantic like Rudolph Valentino. They were geniuses, absolutely, and what they achieved deserves reverence and remembrance. But Chaney took the opposite road, morphing himself into different characters continuously, becoming known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” unrecognizable behind makeup that still has the power to shock and awe. Perhaps because of this and his untimely passing at the dawn of “the talky” the general public has largely forgotten him. Of course, being an icon of horror means an artist will rarely receive the recognition they deserve from those outside the genre.

When I saw The Phantom of the Opera for the first time as a young man I was stunned by him, and in The Penalty Chaney gives all indication of the magic he would put to film in the decade to come. The final ten minutes of the film disappoint me, but Chaney never could.

Grade: C+

Works Cited

Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Film. Midnight Marquee Press, 2003.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Faber and Faber, Inc., 1993.

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Movie Review – Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (1920)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (1920)

In February of 1920 German director Robert Wiene released the groundbreaking horror classic and German Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a transformative milestone in cinema. Later that year he released another work of Expressionist horror, Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire, to much less success. In fact, contemporary critics considered the film a failure (fortunately, his 1924 The Hands of Orlac would reestablish his reputation as a horror master).

Genuine is the titular “vampire” – which at the time was a reference to her status as a femme-fatale. Vampires in film were not generally associated with blood-suckers until F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), but were instead seen as beautiful, manipulative women (“vamps”). Genuine, the former priestess of a conquered tribe who is sold into slavery, seduces men and drives them to madness, pushing them to commit heinous acts.

What is available to the public today is a 44-minute condensed version, only half of the film’s original length. The longer version can only be viewed at the time of this writing at the Munich City Film Museum archives. This trimming could of course account for the many confusing aspects of the narrative, which is brimming with plot holes. However, other aspects of the film, having nothing to do with editing, weigh it down like a wet blanket, and inevitable comparisons to Caligari only serve to accentuate its overall inferiority.

Whereas the sets of Caligari evoked a dream-like world with skewed perspectives and sharp angles, the sets designed by Expressionist painter César Klein, while interesting in many respects, are too busy and cluttered. The fact that the costumes often appear designed to blend in with the background, which was in part keeping with Expressionist cinema by matching the wardrobe to the sets, creates a combination which is ultimately an eyesore.

Genuine the Vampire still

The writing and acting are equally broad and melodramatic. Genuine’s presence, with costumes as busy as the sets, is more irritating than compelling. She is played by the American actress Fern Andra, who was popular during the German silent era. Interestingly, in 1922 Andra would be in a plane crash with German WWI ace pilot Lothar von Richthofen, the younger brother of the Red Baron. Richthofen would perish but Andra would survive, spending a year recovering from her injuries.

The role of Florian, one of Genuine’s conquests and her ultimate nemesis, is played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski. He was a homosexual who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and went on to star in prominent anti-Nazi films in America throughout WWII, including the creature-feature-sounding Hitler – Beast of Berlin (1939).

Greater appreciation of Genuine has not been forthcoming in the near century since its release, and the condensed version does nothing to whet one’s appetite for the original installment. Unlike Wiene’s two other horror classics, there’s nothing to recommend this film to modern audiences.

Grade: D

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

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

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

While filming The Student of Prague (1913), Paul Wegener heard the 16th century legend of Rabbi Loew, who tradition says saved the Jews of Prague from persecution by creating a Golem – a clay statue infused with life – to protect them. Wegener became captivated by the story and made a film version inspired by it in 1915 called The Golem, and then in 1917 The Golem and the Dancing Girl, considered the first film sequel (if one does not count serials). Wegener was dissatisfied with the first film, which was set in a modern Germany in which a Golem is found and raised by an antiques dealer and goes on to commit murders before falling to its own demise from a tower, and also with the sequel which was more of a comical take on the legend. Unfortunately, both movies are lost, though a few minutes of footage from the first remain and serve to confirm Wegener’s feelings about it. Nevertheless, his 1915 performance appears to have affected viewers much in the way Boris Karloff would do sixteen years later. As one reviewer, Arnold Zweig, writes in a contemporary issue of the theater magazine Die Schaubühne, “What makes the film worth discussing is only Wegener’s embodiment of the Golem… In lyrical passages Wegener demonstrates possibilities of the film which transcend those of the theatre” (as quoted by S.S. Prawer in Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror).

Golem 1915
The Golem (1915)

In his 1916 lecture Wegener described his inspiration for the creature and what his first Golem film meant for his vision of the future of cinema:

“I got the idea for my Golem from the mysterious clay figure brought to life by the Rabbi Loew, according to the legend of the Prague ghetto, and with this film I went further [than The Student of Prague] into the domain of pure cinema. Everything depends on the image, on a certain vagueness of outline where the fantastic world of the past meets the world of today. I realized that the photographic technique was going to determine the destiny of the cinema. Light and darkness in the cinema play the same role as rhythm and cadence in music.”

In 1920 Wegener again returned to the legend, rounding out his horror trilogy (another first), with The Golem: How He Came into the World. As the title implies, this story establishes the origins of the creature, making it perhaps the first prequel, as well. In it Rabbi Loew reads danger in the stars for the Jews and soon he’s informed that the Christian Emperor has decreed that the Jews must be expelled from Prague. Loew creates a Golem, possessed by a demon, to help his people and brings it to the emperor’s court where he has been called to entertain, not so much to intimidate as to astound. As Loew shows them magical images of the Jewish patriarchs the court laughs and the palace begins to crumble, but the Golem is instructed by Loew to save them and does so, securing the promised safety of the Jewish people by the emperor, at least for the time being. The Rabbi returns to tell the good news, however, the Golem begins acting odd and Loew soon learns that the Golem is destined to turn on its creator and so decides to deactivate it by removing a star, the source of the Golem’s power, from its chest. However, another plot involving an illicit affair collides and the Golem is reactivated, causing havoc in the ghetto.

the golem demon

The Golem is a prime example of German Romantic cinema, though it’s often mistakenly classified as Expressionist. As Steve Haberman writes in Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film:

“Expressionism and Romanticism have much in common. Both emphasize emotion over intellect, and both conjure dreamscapes of the mind over objective reality. But Expressionism responds with despair over the lust, violence and hate of society, especially following the horrors of World War I. In cinema, this results, of course, in distorted sets and sharp, tortured camera angles, all lit with chiaroscuro shadows” (pg. 52).

The Golem is Romantic in nature because, though it is still stylized, it is meant to be a believable world, unlike the nightmarish landscapes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which resemble shards of broken glass. Expressionism seeks to evoke negative reactions from its audience – to shock and disturb them – while Romanticism seeks the general acceptance of its viewer, even if certain aspects of the film are exaggerated for artistic effect. Indeed, though Caligari deserves credit for influencing the genre to immeasurable degrees, it remains that the majority of silent German horror films which followed took their cues mainly from Wegener’s work.

golem still

Rather than embracing Expressionism, Wegener was most influenced, as were most of his fellow German filmmakers, by the experimental stage director Max Reinhardt. Reinhardt was a pioneer in the use of lighting on stage to evoke atmosphere and to signify scene changes, making the most of limited budgets and churning out productions at near lightning speed. Many of Reinhardt’s most successful innovations would be lovingly imitated by German silent film directors and production designers. The production designer which Wegener chose for The Golem was the revered architect Hans Poelzig, who in his lectures proclaimed that, “The effect of architecture is magical”. When Poelzig conjured images such as magic, he wasn’t just speaking figuratively. He was a student of the occult and an adherent of mysticism, hosted séances in his home for his medium daughter. In his notebook he wrote: “Film… the magic form… the form of magic… Devil’s Mass”. During his time working on The Golem he mentored a teenaged Edgar Ulmer who would go on to direct 1934’s The Black Cat, and Ulmer showed his appreciation by naming Karloff’s villainous character (who was also an architect and Satanic high priest) “Hjalmar Poelzig” in his honor. When Poelzig died in 1936 Wegener, in his eulogy, called him a “gothic mystic” (Haberman, pg. 45).

What Poelzig designed was indeed impressive. It did not resemble reality but still felt real and created a world unto itself. As Wegener boasted proudly in an interview, “It is not Prague that my friend, the architect Poelzig, has built. Not Prague and not any other city. Rather, it is a city-poem, a dream, an architectural paraphrase on the theme ‘Golem.’ These alleys and plazas are not intended to resemble reality; they create an atmosphere in which the Golem breathes” (Haberman, pg.45). The architecture of the Jewish ghetto of which Wegener speaks is made of leaning lines, as though the buildings have grown organically from the soil, like hovels, or have been crafted from clay like the creature. Many of the set pieces are massive and triangular, and I wonder if this was meant to evoke the Star of David which is featured heavily in the film.

golem set

The Golem’s birth scene is imaginative and memorable, and the difficulty of pulling off such effects at that time, which had to be accomplished in camera, is no doubt underappreciated by most modern viewers. The unblinking performance of Wegener, cinema’s first horror icon, as the Golem effectively evokes menace and inhumanity. His vision for the Golem had an undeniable influence upon James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), and many scenes here clearly inspired those in that later film. Unlike Karloff’s monster, the Golem is at first far less sympathetic, especially as it drags a young woman around by her long pigtails as though she were a plaything that has captured its curiosity. However, like Karloff’s monster, the Golem shows eventual signs of yearning for humanity, which ultimately proves its undoing.

All of this is filmed with the terrific lighting and cinematography of Karl Freund, a master of his craft, who would go on to film Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which many consider to be a defining masterwork of the silent era. In 1929 Freund immigrated to the United States and in 1931 he filmed Dracula for Tod Browning. However, the scheduling was so chaotic that Browning was sometimes absent, and therefore many consider Freund to be an uncredited co-director (ironically, there’s little cinematography to appreciate in that film). The following year Freund would sit in the director’s chair to helm The Mummy (1932), starring Boris Karloff, and then again in 1935 for Mad Love, starring Peter Lorre. In 1937 he would briefly return to Germany to fetch his daughter as the Nazi pogroms began to protrude their claws. His ex-wife would be interred in Ravensbruck concentration camp during the war. (As an odd addendum to his career, given his horror credentials, Freund would be hugely influential in television as the cinematographer for I Love Lucy, designing the “flat lighting” system which eliminated shadows and allowed cameras to be moved between shots but the lighting to remain the same. It’s still the standard for TV sitcoms.)

The Golem was well-received upon its release, and when it arrived in the U.S. in 1921 American critics were once again forced to concede the superiority of the German offerings at that moment in time. A review from The New York Times sums up the sentiment:

“The black magic of the Middle Ages, sorcery, astrology and all of the superstitious realities of people so legendary in appearance and manners that the unnatural seems natural among them have been brought to screen… in The Golem, the last motion picture to come from the explorative innovators of Germany. The photoplay gives the impression of some fabulous old tale of strange people in a strange world, fascinating, exciting to the imagination and yet so unfamiliar in all of its aspects that it almost seems remote, elusive even, when one would like to get closer to its meaning… This power is derived mainly from a combination of exceptional acting and the most expressive settings yet seen in this country” (Haberman, pg.  47).

Golem still 2

All of this is well and good and entirely deserving of praise, however, one cannot discuss The Golem, given its subject matter and the time and place in which it was made, without addressing the subject of anti-Semitism. Is the film anti-Semitic? Wegener would go on to become the actor of the state for Nazi Germany, making many propaganda films, so one might assume the answer is an obvious affirmative. The Jews in the film are depicted as the exotic “other” who dabble in black arts, and some stereotypes certainly make themselves shown, such as the camera locked onto the hands of a bribed Jewish gate-keeper, eagerly taking the silver coins being offered to him. Wegener clearly had no real understanding of Jewish religion, as the symbols and rituals which are shown have nothing to do with actual Judaism. The Jews in this film have about as much in common with real Jews as the “Injuns” of classic Western cinema have with real Native Americans. They’re stage Jews, meant to reflect the existing notions of the viewer. Furthermore, is the Golem meant to be evidence that Jews can only make flawed works of art? Perhaps.

Nevertheless, there’s more nuance here for which Wegener deserves credit. The Jews here are seen as the sympathetic party. We’re meant to feel their plight as they suffer in poverty. Their very safety is at the whim of a frivolous Christian emperor. Loew is well-intentioned and, though flawed, not at all a villain. He simply wants the best for his people. The Christians, on the other hand, are entirely depicted as self-centered, arrogant, and vain. When the Christian women of the court see the Golem, they are clearly sizing him up, if you catch my meaning. The anti-Semitism in the film is more by circumstance and perhaps Wegener’s own limited understanding than in anything intentional.

To further focus on Wegener and his intentions, and rather than present only the opinions only of this author – a white male American humanist of Christian upbringing – I offer a quote from a website offering rabbinic commentary on films called “Rabbi at the Movies”. It states, “Paul Wegener was no Nazi. He was an actor and a pacifist, interested only in telling his stories…  [The film is] worth studying by the student of anti-Semitism, precisely because Wegener had no axe to grind:  he was simply telling a good story, using images that he thought would captivate.  What those images reveal about the hearts of his audience, however, may be truly chilling.”

Additionally, S.S. Prawer, whose family was among the last to flee the Nazis in 1939, has said this about the subject of the  anti-Semitism of this era’s German cinema, and may very well help to support the claims above:

“Each age, each nation, incarnates the uncanny in a different way. It is fed by, and may be made to nourish, popular prejudices: sinister monks and nuns invade the Gothic novel in the wake of the Gordon Riots, sinister scientists appear in greater and greater numbers in the course of the nineteenth century, and the use made of grotesque Jewish figures in the consciously uncanny works of such writers as Meyrink, Ewers, Panizza, and Strobl should have given the wise food for thought.

The same might be said of the use of actors with pronounced Jewish features, or made up to simulate such features, in German films made during the Weimar Republic. There was rarely any conscious anti-Semitic intent in this… [Most often just copying what they saw] the film-makers were usually oblivious of what they were doing; but the subliminal influence of their work was none the less powerful for that” (Caligari’s Children, pg. 132).

I’ve been unable thus far to substantiate the claims, but I’ve read that Wegener secretly hid people from the Nazis, financed resistance groups, and scrawled anti-Hitler speech on walls. After the war he indeed helped to rebuild Berlin’s art scene. It’s of course difficult to know just what Wegener thought as he made The Golem, but it appears to me that he was perhaps accidently anti-Semitic in certain aspects of his storytelling, but considering what the film could have been it is remarkably and undeniably on the Jews’ side, perhaps for the last time in Germany until the fall of the Third Reich.

Grade: B

Movie Review – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

From July 1914 to November 1918 the Great War raged – a tantrum of metal, fire, and pride that rent the earth and chewed flesh. A generation of men would be decimated, their views about life, government, authority, and mortality inextricably altered. Gone were the delusions of glory and nationalism and the jingoistic jingles to which they marched to the front. By the end more than nine million combatants and seven million civilian lay in graves, many unmarked. Anyone who reads the literature of this period, from Erich Maria Remarque’s unforgettable All Quiet on the Western Front to the potent poetry of Wilfred Owen, cannot but feel overcome with the profound sense of bitterness and betrayal these men felt toward society, authority, and their own families. The French war drama J’accuse (1919) dealt with this directly by depicting dead soldiers rising from the battlefield to confront their families and neighbors for their complicity in the war. Such resentment was felt by both sides.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

– Wilfred Owen (1918)

Caligari Millers Theater

In the spring of 1921, though the war was over, American anger was still fresh, particularly toward the Germans. Veterans, many of them baring the tell-tale marks of battle-born disfigurement, marched on Miller’s Theater in Los Angeles to protest the opening of a German film for which the theater advertised, with a signature from the owner scrawled upon it, as “a fantastic European picture, which will… undoubtedly have a significant effect on American methods of Production. It brings to the screen an absolutely new technique, and its influence, I believe, will be tremendous.” For the protesters, it was not just that the film was German was their anger fueled, but also the implication that it was superior to America’s offerings. In the end the protesters won and Miller’s Theater pulled the film, but it was eventually shown in Los Angeles five years later when tensions had cooled. Nevertheless, 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a film that changed cinema forever.

Caligari la times
The LA Times, May 8, 1921

As cultural historian David J. Skal writes in The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, “It is difficult to overstate the kind of revelation Caligari represented to much of its audience, which felt it was witnessing an evolutionary leap in cinema, one comparable to the coming of sound…” for it was a film that “reconfigured the possibilities of space and form for the general public” (Skal, pg. 39). The movie hit contemporary critics like a gut-punch, exciting them to new possibilities in movie-making (and established countless precedents that the horror genre is still mining today). This new approach was as much a psychological reaction from the Great War, which will be discussed below, as it was a calculated move for German filmmakers who sought a style distinct from Hollywood, against which it knew it could not compete on equal terms with similar movies. As Erich Pommer, head of the Decla Bioscope production company which made Caligari, once explained:

“The German film industry made ‘stylized films’ to make money. Let me explain. At the end of World War I the Hollywood industry moved toward world supremacy… Germany was defeated; how could she make films that would compete with the others? It would have been impossible to try and imitate Hollywood or the French. So we tried something new: the expressionist or stylized films. This was possible because Germany had an overflow of good artists and writers, a strong literary tradition, and a great tradition of theatre. This provided a basis of good, trained actors. World War I finished the French industry; the problem for Germany was to compete with Hollywood” (as quoted by S.S. Prawer, Caligari’s Children, pg. 165).

Cabinet_of_Dr_Caligari_1920_Lobby_Card

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not only the first great horror film; it is also the first German expressionist masterpiece. Expressionism was an artistic movement which emphasized the portrayal of emotion over realism, and was largely a reaction to the contemporary popularity of Naturalism and Impressionism. Heavily influenced by such works as Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” expressionists blurred the lines between what is real and what is conceptual, often offering distorted visions of people and their environment. What they created is both beautiful and inherently grotesque. As German cinema began to adopt the style, with inklings to be found in 1913’s The Student of Prague, the subject matter became necessarily cerebral, and the skewed perspective naturally horrific.

The highly stylized expressionist movement in Weimar Republic cinema, with its absurdly piercing angles, bold shadows, and leaning architecture that looks poised to crash down upon the inhabitants, was born as much by necessity as by creativity. As the Great War engulfed Europe, Germany banned all foreign films, creating an exclusive domestic market for its films. Due to effectively non-existent budgets and unreliable electricity, the closed sets had to be controlled. Instead of creating shadows with light they painted them in broad strokes that stabbed at the rest of the scenery. The themes of expressionism often understandably dealt with madness and matters of the psyche, as Germany particularly had just witnessed a war-torn world seemingly gone insane. Haunted by war, the film opens with the lines: “Spirits surround us on every side… they have driven me from hearth and home, from wife and child.”

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The roots of silent horror drink from many wells, with the Gothic literary tradition being the most obvious. However, less discussed is the role played by carnivals and their macabre attractions. Customers would pay to see the grotesque and the deadly, from the prevailing freak shows to a young Tod Browning’s own act of being buried alive for up to two days at a time, coining himself “The Hypnotic Living Corpse.” It is from this tradition that Caligari’s script, written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, partly takes inspiration, as we see the unhinged Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) present his somnambulist sideshow of the hypnotized Cesare (Conrad Veidt). It would also not have been forgotten by contemporary filmgoers that movies were once the subject of side-show curiosities, much like Cesare. Janowitz was also inspired by a macabre event in his life which occurred just before the war. He had been attending a fair and spied a beautiful girl. He was searching for the girl he had only glimpsed when he thought he heard her laughing in some nearby bushes. Suddenly, the laughing stopped. A man step out from the bushes and he briefly saw the shadowy face. The next day he saw a newspaper article recounting sexually tinged homicide of a girl at the fair and attended the funeral to see it was the same girl he had been admiring. There he saw the man who had stepped from the bushes, and the man seemed to recognize that Janowitz had spotted him. This eerie event lingered in Janowitz’s mind for years as he wondered how many murderers, if indeed this man was one, roamed free.

Janowitz and Mayer both became pacifists due to their experiences in World War I. Janowitz served as an officer in the Germany infantry regiment. Mayer’s early life had been tough – his father was a chronic gambler who committed suicide when Mayer was sixteen, leaving him to care for his younger siblings – and when the war arrived officials forced him to undergo traumatic psychiatric examinations to determine his fitness for service. Both gained a healthy distrust for those to whose will they were supposed to bend. Unsurprisingly, the script they conceived presented an image of authority drunk with power, sending a sleepwalking soldier to do its killing. The metaphor for the soldier’s experience, and the way they felt used by those they trusted, is apparent, even if it was clearer in hindsight than it was to them when they wrote it. As Janowitz would write: “It was years after the completion of the screenplay that I realized our subconscious intention… The corresponding connection between Doctor Caligari, and the great authoritative power of the Government that we hated, and which had subdued us into an oath, forcing conscription on those in opposition to its official war aims, compelling us to murder and be murdered” (as quoted by Steve Haberman, Silent Screams, pg. 36).

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Fritz Lang was first signed on to direct the film and supposedly (accounts seem to differ) it was he who suggested the famous “twist” framing story – revolutionary for its time – of a mad man recounting his delusions. Sigmund Freud and his influential psychoanalysis, it may be noted, were then experiencing their heyday. Janowitz and Mayer claim to have protested the change, believing it diluted their pacifist message by revealing the maliciously insane authority to be the mere ravings of mad man. The writers appear to have been justified in their criticism for contemporary audiences focused on this later mental aspect, yet it also appears to have allowed them to more easily swallow the radically expressionist sets, performances and narrative. The anti-war message appears to have gone unnoticed, at least upon its initial release. Regardless, Lang left the project and Robert Wiene signed on, keeping the new framing story intact.

However, the framing device does not discount the cautionary symbolism of the film, it merely adds another level of unease, inviting the audience to question their own perceived reality. Additionally, these story elements are there for a reason, no matter what twist comes in the end. To illustrate by way of a more popular and beloved film, Dorothy awaking with her family around her bed does not make the messages about friendship, self-worth, and appreciating  one’s home now null and void. Even in delusions and fantasies can valuable lessons be learned.

It must also be recognized that the film’s last scene hardly lets the audience off the hook. The naturalistic framing scenes in the garden provide a contrast to the expressionistic visions of Francis’s insanity, which the audience has been made to share, but the cell in which he is placed at the end is identical to that which he envisioned in his supposed delusions. Add to this the last long shot of the film as the camera stays upon Werner Krauss’s face, where once we knew him as the insidious Caligari he has now been revealed to be the asylum’s supposedly benevolent director. Yet the look he gives is unfeelingly eerie, leaving the viewer to once again question his motives, his sincerity, and whether or not Francis was right all along – or whether we have not come to share Francis’s own paranoia. Perhaps it even serves to challenge the audience: Would you recognize insane authority, even if it’s staring you in the face? Is the destruction of evil authority merely an illusion, and do we actually remain beneath its boot-heel? Furthermore, the ambiguity of what we have witnessed serves to add a layer of paranoia as we’re compelled to ask if the hero who we’ve invested in is the true danger, or has our only hope been made impotent by the real threat? All these questions conspire to create unease, and they reflect with distorted clarity the anxieties and wounds of the era. As S.S. Prawer succinctly writes in his examination of the film’s terror iconography:

“[We may consider] the profound disorientation the film conveys, the questions it leads us to ask about authority, about social legitimation, about the protection of society from disrupting and destructive influences, and about the shifting points of view that convert enemies into friends and friends into enemies, whose origins may well be sought in the German situation after the First World War. Like any genuine work of art, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has its roots deep in the society of the time; but its significance, its appeal, and its influence far transcend its origins” (Caligari’s Children, pg. 199).

Wiene had directed Conrad Veidt’s first known appearance on screen in the 1917 horror film Fear, which deals with similar themes of madness, though most of his films up to this point had been dramas and comedies. Nevertheless, watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – whose sets were designed by Hermann Warm, whose oft-cited credo was that “the cinematic work of art must become a living picture,” and influenced by the stage work of Max Reinhardt (of whom many of the film’s actors were former students) – is like watching a disturbing dream. Indeed, when I look back on it now I remember it like it was a dream of my own. The actors move through the surreal landscape, moving intentionally unnaturally, like ghoulish porcelain dolls. Conrad Veidt as the sleepwalking Cesare looks like he belongs in this nightmarish world, unnerving viewers as he slowly awakens and stares into the camera with his wide, expressive eyes. And yet Veidt is able to retain sympathy for the somnambulist assassin, no doubt influencing the pitiable monsters which would follow in the decades to come.

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The other performances, particularly by Werner Krauss as the titular Caligari and Lil Dagover as Jane, are equally strong. Krauss’s look was inspired by a photo of an elderly Arthur Schopenhauer, whose philosophical pessimism and belief that humans  were driven only by their own basic desires fits well with Caligari’s own selfish motivations.

Robert Wiene would create two more horror films, the largely forgotten Genuine, filmed the same year as Caligari, and 1924’s The Hands of Orlac, which also stars Conrad Veidt, and he would find success with many non-genre films. In the 1930s he left Germany, never to return, though it’s unclear if his reasons were political. He would die of cancer in 1938.

Hans Janowitz would retire from the film industry in 1922 and go into the oil business, eventually moving to the United States. Carl Mayer would write many other successful film treatments, including 1921’s The Haunted Castle, directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, and Murnau’s American work, the brilliant drama Sunrise (1927). Being a Jew and a pacifist, he fled to England to escape the Nazis but anti-German sentiments meant he could not find adequate work in the film industry. He died of cancer in 1944 practically penniless. His epitaph reads: “Pioneer in the art of the cinema. Erected by his friends and fellow workers.”

Werner Krauss specialized in playing villains, both on stage and in film. He appeared as an antagonist in Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924) and in 1926’s The Student of Prague, both of which also starred Conrad Veidt. However, unlike Caligari’s pacifist writers or co-star Veidt’s defiant anti-Nazism, Krauss was an outspoken anti-Semite and supporter of the Third Reich, becoming a cultural ambassador for Nazi Germany and specializing in playing cruel Jewish villains. This is ironic as Veidt, who fled Germany and supported the war against Hitler, spent much of his later career playing Nazis in American and British films. The late Oxford scholar S.S. Prawer, whose own family fled to England to escape the Nazis in 1939, found an interesting insight into these two great actors’ on-screen choices that’s worth pondering, suggesting that each man donned the monster mask they feared the most. As he states:

“It is perhaps not without significance that of the two masters of macabre acting who combined their talents in Caligari Werner Krauss stayed in Germany during the Second World War and played a whole congregation of uncanny Jews… while Conrad Veidt went to Hollywood where the parts he was given included the sinister Nazis he played so well… In real life, of course, as these very performances serve to show, it was Werner Krauss who sold himself to the Nazis and Conrad Veidt who shared the lot of German Jews that managed to escape the holocaust. Some of the most effective screen performances may thus be seen as projections of inner fears and loathings, or of usually invisible aspects of their personality by the actors, as well as the writers and directors, of a given film” (Caligari’s Children, pg. 62).

After the war Krauss was banned from acting and forced to undergo de-Nazification. He died in Austria in 1959. (For more on the life of Conrad Veidt, see my review of 1919’s Eerie Tales.)

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What The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari deals with is madness, abuse of power, and the ways in which people might be compelled to circumvent their better nature and commit acts of murder. It became the subject of 1947’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film by Siegfried Kracauer, the first truly influential study in German film. Kracauer’s argument was largely teleological, arguing that one could see the coming of the Nazis through an examination of films from the Weimar Republic. Unfortunately, his reasoning is often undermined by his fuzzy recollections of the films (which he would not have had readily available to him) and by the subsequent findings of evidence that run counter to his claims. Nevertheless, he recognized the symbology of Caligari which affected Germans at the time and saw what the film said of their fears and anxieties. Fortunately, the twist only slightly softens these aspects while serving to explain the dreamlike quality of the film.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari transformed cinema in immeasurable ways, spreading its influence through generations of artists, musicians, and filmmakers. Even the late David Bowie in his last music video, “Lazarus,” evoked the film. We see Bowie dressed similar to Cesare, making exaggerated gestures in the way some silent film stars acted broadly, and in the end retreats into a wardrobe that looks eerily like Cesare’s box. These allusions and more are difficult to miss and impossible to dismiss, and what Bowie meant by them may be interpreted differently by individual viewers. Nevertheless, it proves that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari still has the power to create unease and to fascinate, and the questions it raises, along with the disturbing answers it suggests, have lost none of their importance or potency.

Grade: A+

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