Italy’s The Mechanical Man (1921), directed by André Deed, is a mix of science-fiction, horror, and comedy. It tells of a scientist who creates a large robot that is incredibly strong and fast, and is controlled remotely via a series of cranks, wheels, and switches. The scientist is killed and his invention commandeered by a criminal mastermind, a woman named Mado, who uses his creation to burst through doors, steal safes, and wreak general havoc. The scientist’s brother creates another robot to battle it, and there is a final showdown inside an immense opera house.
Unfortunately, anyone who has not done prior research might be forgiven for missing plot points, as only 26 minutes of film remains, which originally ran over an hour. Most of the lost footage encompasses the beginning sequences and cast titles, so it is not always clear watching who some of the characters are. Nevertheless, the present footage hints at a fun movie filled with sight gags, robot destruction, and pulp-like villainy.
Yet as it is, only a select few of genre completionists today will find reason to watch this curio, or at least what’s left of it.
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.
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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)
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.
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).
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.”
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).
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.
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.)
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.
Eerie Tales (1919) is a German film released right on the cusp of the Expressionist movement, predating The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1920) by only a few months, and one can clearly see German cinema moving in that direction through this movie.
This film is one of the earliest examples of the horror anthology, perhaps even the first. The story revolves around a bookshop in which three portraits – the Devil, Death, and a prostitute – come to life and read scary stories from the stacks of books. The three main actors play both the portraits and all of the lead roles in the five stories, and they look like they’re having a blast doing so. The tone of the film is mirthful and a lot of the joy in watching Eerie Tales lies in seeing the actors trying different roles. Most of the stories are the predictable macabre tales of the time, and of course includes one by Edgar Allan Poe. As they nearly all involve a love triangle of sorts, the plots tend to blur together. The movie certainly creaks in places, but overall it’s a nicely paced romp for those acclimated to the filming styles of the time period, particularly the limitations.
Like with The Student of Prague (1913), gaining insight into the people involved makes the work more pleasurable to watch. Their stories tell a great deal about Germany between the wars, and their individual lives are generally fascinating. First is the film’s director, Richard Oswald, who would over the course of his career direct over 100 pictures (he was more prolific than good, unfortunately). Most significantly, in the same year he made Eerie Tales, he also directed the profoundly important Different from the Others, featuring the first gay character written for cinema. What makes this film so amazing is that the portrayal of the homosexual is entirely sympathetic. Not surprisingly, the Nazi censors would end up destroying most copies, but fragments do still exist. When the National Socialists overran Austria, Oswald, being Jewish, fled to America and had a waning career in Hollywood.
And who played the gay character in Different from the Others? None other than Conrad Veidt, who plays Death in Eerie Tales and who is one of my personal film heroes. Truly, Veidt is the only actor that can rival Lon Chaney in his work in silent horror. Fascinated by acting at an early age, he hid his passion from his disapproving father but was quietly encouraged by his supportive mother. In World War I he took part in the Battle of Warsaw but contracted jaundice and pneumonia. After recuperating he was still deemed physically unfit and was discharged from the army, and so he tried his hand at theater, eventually being hired as an extra by the renowned German Theater run by Max Reinhardt. His skills were quickly recognized and his roles increased. He made dozens of films, including of course Eerie Tales, before getting his international breakout role as Cesare in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). He would become the second-highest paid actor in Germany (behind Emil Jannings) and star in the horror films Waxworks (1924), which won him the admiration of American actor John Barrymore, The Hands of Orlac (1924), The Student of Prague (1926), and Paul Leni’s American masterpiece The Man Who Laughs (1928), which would inspire Bob Kane to create the Joker.
Committed to tolerance and liberalism, Veidt was a staunch anti-Nazi and outspoken enemy of Hitler. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, recognized his value and offered an Aryan certification to his half-Jewish wife if he would sign an oath of loyalty. Veidt refused and tried to leave for England but was placed under house arrest by the Gestapo and even ordered executed, but was eventually allowed to leave in order to avoid an international incident. Though not Jewish, once arriving in Britain he signed his religious affiliation as “Jew” and made a pro-Jewish film, thumbing his nose at his homeland’s anti-Semitism. In the era of talkies Veidt’s accent meant that he would be offered many roles playing Nazis, most notably in Casablanca (1942), and he had no qualms about taking them and revealing the horrific nature of the National Socialists. All the while, nearly all the money he made would go to the British war effort. Tragically, he died suddenly of a heart attack on a Hollywood golf course at the age of 50. In the 1920s he was known in Germany as the “Demon of the Silver Screen,” but in addition to being a brilliant actor Veidt was a true hero at a time when such moral fortitude was most needed yet was in such short supply.
The second male of the film’s acting trio playing the Devil is Reinhold Schunzel, who would go on to direct extremely popular films in Germany, so popular that despite his Jewish background the Nazis would name him an “honorary Aryan,” meaning they wouldn’t kill him if he kept making good films. That wouldn’t stop them from interfering, and in 1937 he went to Hollywood where his directing career sputtered. He eventually went back to acting, but after the war he carried the stigma of having stayed and worked in film with the blessings of the Nazis and found work increasingly hard to come by.
Lastly we have the role of the prostitute, and for Anita Berber the part probably wasn’t a stretch. During the 1910s Berber became a popular exotic nude dancer and quickly made a reputation for herself as a voracious lover of men and women. She became the embodiment of Berlin’s debauchery during the Weimar Republic. Many today would never believe that before the Nazis rose to power Berlin was arguably the most liberal and hedonistic city in Europe, mainly a result of the postwar economic downturn attracting foreigners with money looking for fun. Berber obliged. She was known to perform stark nude, the dances named after amphetamines, and was often seen walking around Berlin with her pet monkey wrapped around her neck. Marlene Dietrich could be counted among her lovers. She continued to dance throughout the 1920s while imbibing in copious amounts of alcohol and cocaine. Those substances would rack her body and, like the original candle in the wind, she would die of consumption by the age of 29 in 1928, but not before she would be captured for posterity in a famous painting by Otto Dix in 1925.
On its own, Eerie Tales is a middling effort. But knowing the performers elevates the experience, at least for me. It’s great to see these people working together with such clear bacchanal joy, especially knowing that the dark cloud of fascism is moving ever closer and that so much of what they embody would no longer be tolerated, including tolerance itself.
Oswald would flee. Veidt would defy. Schunzel would collaborate. And Berber would burn out as a symbol of a dying age. Eerie tales, indeed.
1918’s Eyes of the Mummy Ma is a German film which, despite its title, features no mummies. Instead we get Emil Jannings in blackface playing the role of an evil Egyptian who hypnotizes a young woman, the Ma of the title, played by Pola Negri. Jannings’ makeup is applied haphazardly, leaving exposed gleaming white hands, arms and shoulders. I don’t expect cultural sensitivity in films of this era, but I expect a little more effort from filmmakers to assist the audience in suspending disbelief. For her part, Ma spends the film fainting and doing awkward “exotic” dance numbers. The story is too weak to warrant its feature length run-time, and pacing is a serious issue (thank the movie devils they resolve that, for most films, in the next decade).
The director, Ernst Lubitsch, would go on to earn great respect with his talky films, including 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner, which my wife and I enjoy watching during the Yuletide season. But this early effort, and one of his only forays into horror, is easily forgettable, and it makes me sad that films like this survive while those like Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927) are probably lost forever. This would be the first of many successful collaborations between Lubitsch and Negri, who was the first European film star to be invited to Hollywood where she would have a thriving career for the remainder of the silent era.
Emil Jannings had an enormously successful career both before and during the Third Reich, at one point being Germany’s highest paid actor. He would star in other horror classics, notably in Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924) and as Mephisto in F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926). He starred in numerous Nazi propaganda films and was even named by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels an “Artist of the State” in 1936. After the war, Janning’s was unable to work due to denazification and he retired to Austria where he died of cancer in 1947.
The Queen of Spades (1916) is a Russian horror film made upon the eve of the revolution, which would erupt the following year. It is often referred to as one of director Yakov Protazanov’s masterpieces, and he would go on to make films well into the Soviet era. The film’s star, Ivan Mazzhukin, would flee to Crimea and then to France. His career would thrive until the advent of talkies which exposed his thick accent, effectively making his marketability obsolete.
The plot is based upon Alexander Pushkin’s 1834 short story of the same name and is filled with beautiful sets and lavish costume designs. The story follows a young nobleman who learns that an old wealthy countess was once told of a progression of cards that, when played, were unbeatable. He is determined to get the secret and accidentally scares the old woman to death, only to be visited by her ghost and given the secret. He goes to gamble and at first wins before things begin to unravel for him.
There is artistry here, certainly, but pacing is an issue. The camera lingers too long too often and left me staring at the screen wondering if I was missing something when, in fact, the character was just slowly finishing a meal and putting on his coat. This has a lot to do with feature length film still being in its infancy, especially in Russia, but the plot is fairly thin and moves quite slowly through its 84-minute running time. I have considerable patience for silent films, and I sometimes even enjoy those long candid shots. Nevertheless, I found my attention being tried here, especially as the plot doesn’t really kick in until the last twenty minutes, and from there it ironically feels too rushed.
That being said, The Queen of Spades employs novel techniques for the time, such as split screen and retrospection. Additionally, it’s easy to see how this film would have resonated deeply with Russians at the time with its depiction of a slothful upper class having little to do but drink and gamble away their fortunes. One scene even shows the countess returning home while beggars are pushed away from the door, ignored by her as she passes. Her privileged class would be overthrown within a year’s time, and one can’t help but see what the poor and underclass must have been thinking and feeling as that day quickly approached.
Movie Review – The Avenging Conscience: or “Thou Shalt Not Kill” (1914)
1914’s The Avenging Conscience: or “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is the earliest feature length American horror film. A year before D.W. Griffith, the greatest director of his day, would win fame and subsequent infamy for The Birth of a Nation (1915) – a masterpiece of filmmaking whose historical accuracy is less commendable – he used his talents to tell this horror tale inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “A Tell Tale Heart” (1843) and his poem “Annabel Lee” (1849). Griffith had already tackled the macabre in previous shorter works, such as 1909’s The Sealed Room, based on Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), and 1912’s The Unseen Enemy, which had the first appearances of the starlet sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish in a Griffith film.
In some ways The Avenging Conscience is the opposite of 1913’s The Student of Prague from Germany. In that film I praised the effects but criticized the lack of close-ups and the slothful pace of the editing. D.W. Griffith, on the other hand, is a skillful director who effectively employs close-ups to set mood and explore character, and to communicate anxiety and madness. The editing is quite good and the film moves along swiftly enough. The camera placement is also interesting as Griffith has an eye for finding and employing outdoor locations, though the scenes of the garden party in particular become frivolous in retrospect. Griffith also uses symbolism to effectively communicate the inner workings of the main character, such as a spider eating a fly to show his growing murderous intent. Likewise, he uses editing and close-ups in stunning ways when the main character is being questioned by a detective, amplifying the paranoia as the audience is subjected to the subject’s fearful hypersensitivity, much as the narrator of Poe’s tale does.
The acting is not as exaggerated as in many other silent films of the era, and the lead role is played wonderfully by Henry B. Walthall, who manages to hold a screen presence while communicating a wide spectrum of emotions. Also starring as The Italian is George Siegmann who would also appear in the silent horrors The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928), both directed by the masterful Paul Leni. In 1915, the year following the release of The Avenging Conscience, Siegmann would suffer severe injuries in a car crash with future horror director Tod Browning, who was driving and who was also injured, and actor Elmer Booth, who died instantly.
Where The Avenging Conscience has not age well, unlike The Student of Prague, is in its primitive effects, especially in the short fantasy sequence at the end which looks goofy at best and can be a distasteful distraction from an otherwise well-told story of tragedy and suspense. Though the movie takes initial inspiration from Poe it ultimately embodies an undoubtedly Victorian sensibility, substituting Poe’s psychological claustrophobia with a focus on Christian redemption. In this way, the film is far more Griffith than Poe. Nevertheless, one can still admire what Griffith was trying to accomplish – he was undeniably fluent in the language of film – and it’s still exciting for early horror history buffs like me to see the ways directors of the time were beginning to incorporate the macabre into their longer artistic endeavors.
1913’s The Student of Prague is cinema history’s first feature length horror film, and some historians have argued it to be the first feature length film, in general. Earlier filmmakers certainly played with elements of the macabre, most notably George Méliès who incorporated Gothic tropes as early as 1896, but their intentions were almost always to titillate their audience rather than disturb them. Some early short films, particularly by D.W. Griffith, or 1910’s Frankenstein, played with dark elements and could easily qualify today as horror.
It was the pre-war The Student of Prague, however, that helped to launch the German Expressionist movement and first employed camera effects to create ghostly images meant to shock and frighten with a longer running time, attempting to create more complex characters than the short film model allowed. Drawing inspiration from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “A New Year’s Eve Adventure” (1814) and Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839), with a bit of the Faustian mythos added, the original script, written by novelist Hanns Heinz Ewers, revolves around a student and accomplished fencer named Balduin. The cash-strapped student agrees to exchange anything in his mostly barren boarding room to a mysterious man named Scapinelli in return for a magical change-purse which produces endless amounts of gold coins. Scapinelli, to the student’s and contemporary audience’s horror, chooses the student’s reflection, which leaves the mirror and becomes a haunting, murderous doppelganger bent on ruining the student’s life.
The Student of Prague is an intriguing film which uses camera effects that are impressive for the time. The scenes in which Balduin, played by Paul Wegener, is interacting with himself through use of split screen look great, actually better than most other films I’ve seen that attempt this same illusion. His character, though, is the only one that fully succeeds in getting fleshed out. Unlike the source materials which inspired the story, or the popular contemporary interpretations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Balduin’s double does not represent an unsavory element of his personality. The real horror of the tale is that Balduin’s decency means that he is wholly undeserving of the malicious machinations which haunt him. It is a cautionary tale, but not necessarily a moralizing one.
Shot on location in Prague, though the film influenced post-war German Expressionism it is distinct from it in important ways. Notably, the realism of the locations is emphasized – the supernatural is seen to be imposing on a believable reality. This is typical of a story inspired by Hoffmann, whose writing attempted to produce the same effect. This devotion to realism, however, effects the film’s pacing, which can be languorous, lingering too long on location shots. About halfway through watching I sped the film up to 1.5 speed, improving its pacing considerably for this modern viewer’s sensibilities. Other films had already begun to effectively employ close-ups, but the stationary camerawork and wide angles used here sometimes leave you squinting to see just who is on the screen and what they’re doing. Overall, aside from the doppelganger effects, the direction takes a great deal from the stage, perhaps too much, as it’s still early in German filmmaking whereas American filmmakers like Griffith had already begun to master and evolve the film medium to a considerable degree. The film was remade in 1926 by many of the people involved in both The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), but the present state of that film, which is superior in many ways, makes it less watchable than this earlier version.
It is worth pausing and taking note of the men involved in making this film, and what they say about early German cinema and what was to become of it. The screenwriter was Hanns Heinz Ewers, a famed German horror writer who is virtually unknown today due to his eventual ties with the Nazi Party, although his criticism of the party’s anti-Semitism and his own homosexual leanings lost him favor with the National Socialists. Nevertheless, he was among the first to take screenwriting as seriously as literary writing.
The director, Stellan Rye, would die the following year at the outbreak of the war as a POW in France.
The film’s star, Paul Wegener, would go on to make horror history by creating the Golem trilogy (1915, 1917, and 1920), only the last of which survives, which propelled the monster subgenre and served as a major influence upon James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), which was also influenced by 1926’s The Magician, which also starred Wegener. He was horror cinema’s first real star and was among the earliest to take the film medium seriously, seeing it as distinct from and not dependent upon either literature or drama. He would appear in some Nazi propaganda films while secretly financing resistance movements and harboring fugitives from the Nazis. After the war he would help to rebuild Germany’s art scene until his death a few years later.
And finally, the tragic John Gottowt, who played Scapinelli, and who was Jewish, would be banned from German entertainment by the Nazis and eventually murdered by the SS in Poland in 1942.
The Student of Prague will be of interest to those dedicated to seriously exploring the roots of film horror, like myself, but offers little to those not so predisposed. It doesn’t have the strengths of the silent horrors of the 1920s, and while it’s a great effort, it does show its age. Regardless, the scenes of Balduin facing his doppelganger are still impressive and will stick with the viewer long after the film is over.
A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema
Introduction to the Review Series
Any devotee of horror movies will eventually crawl their way to the classics. A small number will tread through the Universal era of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, finding endearment in their depictions of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. Fewer still will explore further back to the silent era, and those that do generally only watch a meager selection of films, notably The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1920) and Nosferatu (1922). Most conversations about silent horror cinema begin with these films, yet there are over twenty years of macabre movies that precede them, including feature length offerings beginning in 1913.
For eighteen years these silent feature films laid the foundation of horror before audiences would actually be able to hear Lugosi in his signature voice utter the lines, “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.” It took filmmakers of the 1930s several years to adjust to the advent of talkies, and in many ways some of the films which preceded them were more ambitious and better crafted. This is mainly because silent filmmakers didn’t need to worry about lugging around heavy sound recording equipment or concern themselves with the noises of the sets. They were artists who could focus purely on their visual aesthetic and tell rich tales of nightmares projected upon screen canvases, their only paints being light and shadow.
In this series of reviews I will dedicate myself to watching every feature length silent horror film I can access from 1913’s The Student of Prague to the dawn of the talkies. Where I am able to I will examine the people who made these films and the part they played in horror movie history, the techniques and focuses of the films and their impact, what these stories meant to contemporary audiences, and what, if anything, these films have to offer a modern audience. On this last point a note should be made about my grading system, which is of course subjective: I am someone who enjoys silent films and I assume the audience for my reviews does so as well. Silent films require more attention from viewers. Often scenes are left to interpretation and the person watching must fill in elements of the narrative with their own logic and imagination. Anyone new to watching movies of this era should be aware that it is hardly a passive experience, though it is, in my opinion, a rewarding one.
I hope that readers will find these reviews helpful, whether in pointing them to unknown selections, finding renewed passion for the movies they already love, or in offering reasons to respect and appreciate the movies of this era, all of which we are extremely fortunate to still be able to enjoy after a century.