Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: German Cinema

The Haunted Castle (1921)

Originally released with the more prosaic title “Schloss Vogelöd” (“Castle Vogelöd”), this early work by F.W. Murnau skirts the edges of horror and Expressionism, without fully committing to either. Murnau does show his talent for psychological drama here, as well as atmosphere and narrative structure.

The movie begins by showing us a large manor, drenched in rain. We learn from intertitles that this is the home of Lord von Vogelschrey (Arnold Korff) and that the traditional hunting season has been rained out for several days. We move to the interior of the castle and see the host and his bored guests, who are playing cards, smoking, reading newspapers and the like. A servant enters the room and announces Count Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert), which seems to disconcert everyone. Count Oetsch enters and Vogelschrey takes him aside to another room. The guests outside gossip and we learn that the count got his title a few years ago on the death of his brother by shooting, and that he is suspected of the crime. This rumor gets nourished by a retired Judge of the District Court. Vogelscrhey informs Oetsch that his brother’s widow will soon be here, implying that he (Oetsch) should leave, but Oetsch acts nonchalant and makes it clear he intends to stay.

Read the rest of this entry »

Destiny (1921)

Originally titled “Der Müde Tod,” which in German means “The Weary Death,” this feature film by Fritz Lang is the first anthology film to be added to my “history of horror.” Less outspokenly Expressionist than some of the movies I reviewed last year, it is nonetheless an important film in the rise of the German film industry as a standard-setter in the cinematic art.

Der Mude Tod

The movie begins by showing a young couple (Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen) on a carriage ride in the country. They are annoying the old woman in the carriage with them by constantly showing how in love they are. A tall figure in dark clothing (Bernhard Goetzke) flags down the carriage and boards. His aspect is so sinister that the old woman chooses to walk the rest of the way. He is referred to as “the Stranger” in the subtitles, and he settles on a piece of land near the cemetery, alarming the leading citizens of the town, who are portrayed as venal and selfish, and appear to conduct important business at the local tavern. The Stranger erects a huge wall around his property, with no evident door, gate, or other aperture, though he can get in and out, as shown by his frequent appearances in town. Although the townsfolk fear the Stranger, they are eager to discover the secret of his wall, perhaps suspecting that he keeps treasure hidden inside. One day the Stranger and the loving couple meet again at the tavern, and the young man leaves with the Stranger, which terrifies the young woman when she finds out and she goes to the wall and sees the images of dead people there – the last of which is her lover – entering the wall.

Der Mude Tod1 Read the rest of this entry »

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920)

At long last, here is my discussion of the feature that often begins the list of any “history of horror” films. It’s probably one of the most analyzed and written-about films of the Expressionist period, perhaps of German silent film in general, so I’ll be trying to see if I can add something new or at least interesting to consider.

The movie begins with a shot of two men sitting on a bench in front of a high stone wall. A tree with no leaves nearby establishes the time of year, and that they are in a park or similar outdoor space. The camera quickly cuts to a close-up on the older of the two men, and he speaks about spirits being “all around us” (“überall sind sie um uns her”), which seems to establish the supernatural or otherworldly nature of the tale, and he claims that they have separated him from his family. An ethereal-looking woman in white approaches the pair from the distance, and the younger man watches her in fascination. He identifies her as his fiancée, although she gives no sign of recognizing him, and tells the first man that their experiences are even stranger (“still seltsamer”) than what he has lived through. He offers to tell his tale, and then with a gesture evokes “The little town where I was born,” and from this point the movie takes place within his narrative (although see below about this).

Read the rest of this entry »

The Golem (1920)

This German feature film directed by Paul Wegener enters our History of Horror among the first movies modern fans easily recognize as “really” a horror movie. But its place in history remains disputed, with many possible interpretations available, so let’s take a closer look.

The movie begins with a shot of a starry sky above gnarled rooftops, with seven stars in a strange over-lapping configuration. We cut to an old man atop one of those rooftops, peering through a telescope and learn in an intetitle that he is Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), and that he sees bad days ahead for the Jews of Prague in the stars. Close-ups then introduce us to his household – an assistant named Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) and a daughter named Miriam (Lyda Salmonova, in reality the wife of Wegener). These two are both young adults, and they gently flirt as they assist on some alchemical experiment or other. Rabbi Loew interrupts to tell them of his prophecy, then he puts on a tall peaked hat and goes out to inform the other elders of the Ghetto. He advises them to begin a 24-hour vigil of prayer to avert coming disaster. Since he’s a  respected rabbi, the community elders follow is advice.

Read the rest of this entry »

Carmen (1918)

Alternate Title: “Gypsy Blood”

Coming early in the careers of Ernst Lubitsch and Pola Negri, this filmed version of the famous novella/opera gave them an opportunity to work with “serious” cultural material. Does this European interpretation of the story work better than its American predecessors?

The movie opens with a group of gypsies sitting around a campfire at night. One of them launches into the story of “La Carmencita” and the man she ruined. We now see Don Jose (played by Harry Liedke), who visits his mother and sweetheart in the hills before he arrives in Seville to receive a promotion to the rank of Sergeant. This is a great honor for a man of humble beginnings. We can see from his shy interactions with his fiancé that he has little knowledge of the ways of the world. At Seville, we see a parade at the changing of the guard, which seems to be a big draw for crowds, including the girls at the local tobacco factory, who wave at the soldiers and flirt with men on the street. The most beautiful, and aggressive, is of course Carmen (Negri). She sees Don Jose mooning over a letter from his sweetheart and resolves to have some fun with him. She teases him with a rose, which he mostly ignores until she leaves, then notices how marvelously sweet the odor is once she’s gone. Read the rest of this entry »

The Oyster Princess (1919)

Another Ernst Lubitsch sex comedy starring Ossi Oswalda, this one is a bit less transgressive than “I Don’t Want to Be a Man,” but still racy by the standards of the time, especially compared to American comedies. Lubitsch again shows the talent he will be bringing to movies for some time to come.

Ossi this time plays Ossi Quaker, the daughter of an American magnate (Victor Janson) who has made his fortune selling oysters. She seems to delight in destroying things, throwing newspapers when she runs out of vases to break. When Victor asks what the matter is this time, he finds it’s because the daughter of the “Shoe Cream King” is marrying a count. Of course, she demands better, so Mr. Quaker agrees to find her a prince. He goes to a matchmaker (Max Kronert) who looks in his files and discovers a confirmed bachelor by the name of Prince Nucki (Harry Liedke) and sends him an invitation to meet the Quakers. The reticent Nucki, on receiving this note in his bachelor pad, sends his buddy Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to scope out the girl in question, setting him up to play his valet. Meanwhile, Ossi is “instructed” in married life by practicing with a baby doll.

Read the rest of this entry »

I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)

This gender-bending sex comedy from German director Ernst Lubitsch demonstrates the sophistication and defiance of taboo for which he would become famous, already in place just slightly after the end of the First World War. While it might seem tame to some audiences today, it still has the power to shock or at least surprise, when seen in context of the work Hollywood was producing at the time.

Unacceptable Behavior

Ossi Oswalda stars as “Ossi,” a spoiled rich tomboy who likes to play cards, smoke, and drink liquor, but is told these are not “ladylike” by her uncle (Victor Janson) and governess (Margarete Kupfer). The uncle receives orders to travel abroad for his job, which each believes will liberate them from the constant clashes. The uncle discovers that he hasn’t the stomach for sea travel, while Ossi learns the he and the governess have hired Dr, Kersten (Curt Götz) as a new tutor  for her, to instruct her in discipline and proper etiquette. He is very strict, but Ossi is very responsive to him – instead of rebelling, she obeys his commands, possibly because she is attracted to him.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Spiders Episode 2: The Diamond Ship

The second and final installment of Fritz Lang’s serial “The Spiders,” like the first one, owes a great deal to earlier silent cinema, but shows the innate talents of the still new director as he works in a somewhat formulaic genre.

The movie opens with a shot that could have been lifted directly from Maurice Tourneur’s “Alias Jimmy Valentine” – an overhead image of a jewel heist that shows a labyrinthine shop floor layout as various people move about and evade one another (it was a bank in the original). The Spiders break into the vault and take the jewels back to their base, but they are discouraged to find that the “Buddha Stone” is not among them. The Buddha Stone is a much sought-after prize that supposedly would “make Asia mighty” and  liberate its people from foreign rule if returned to them, so the Spiders want to sell it to the Indian-led “Asia Committee.” Apparently, they have looked everywhere for this precious and powerful jewel, but cannot find it. Read the rest of this entry »

The Spiders (Episode One): The Golden Sea

This first episode in a crime serial was one of Fritz Lang’s first movies as a director, and is the earliest one that survives today. It shows his talent as well as how far the European movie business has come since the beginning of the First World War, but it also wears its influences rather obviously on its sleeve.

The movie begins with a kind of prologue in which we see an old hermit-type man throw a bottle into the sea just before being shot in the back with an arrow by a fellow wearing an elaborate feathered head dress. This is soon explained in a fancy club in San Francisco when a sportsman/adventurer by the name of Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt) tells of finding the message in the bottle, which claims to be from a missing Harvard professor who has discovered and been held captive in a surviving Incan civilization. Hoog has verified the professor’s standing and lost status, and now decides to forgo a major boat race in order to head to Chile and try to find the immense treasure these Incans possess. Among his listeners is the lovely Lio Sha (Ressel Orla), who secretly works for the Spiders, an international crime syndicate of immense power and evil.

The spiders send some thieves who look like cut-rate Fantômas clones over to knock Hoog out and steal his map, leaving a large toy spider and a warning behind. Then the leader of the Spiders assigns Lio to lead a rival expedition to recover the treasure. Once in Mexico, she hires a bunch of roughnecks to assist her, and Hoog starts dressing like a cowboy. There’s a bar-room hold up in which he manages to recover a document that tells him about a mysterious “diamond ship,” though now the Spiders are in pursuit. He meets a professor (Georg John) who plans to fly in a balloon over the plateau where the Incas are, and he manages to climb aboard at the last instant despite the efforts of the Spiders to delay him.

Once we get to the Incan city, a lot of the movie is typical serial capture-and-escape material, with the Incans eager to sacrifice at least one of the trespassers, Lio Sha eager to kill Hoog, and her followers mostly interested in stealing the gold for themselves. Hoog meets  the Priestess Naela (Lil Dagover), and rescues her from punishment for refusing to sacrifice Lio. Lio and her gang are able to find the treasure, but chaos breaks out as the men start fighting over the treasure. Of course, at that moment the volcano erupts and wipes out the Incans as well as all of the Spiders except Lio Sha and one nugget-obsessed henchman.

Hoog and Naela are able to escape in a large floating basket and make their way back to San Francisco to be married. Lio Sha comes to him and asks him to join her, saying they would make a great team if they worked together and became lovers. Hoog refuses and Lio kills Naela in revenge.

This movie’s debt to the crime serials of Louis Feuillade would be less painfully obvious if Lang hadn’t cast Orla and dressed her to look so much like Musidora. She comes across as decidedly more German than French, however – she’s domineering and masculine rather than sexy and conniving. I find that de Vogt reminds me of René Cresté, who played “Judex,” though other reviewers compare him to a young William S. Hart. Hart played an Aztec in one movie, so maybe Lang was going for that here. I find it amusing that Lang thought “Kay” was a good first name for his all-American manly man hero. It’s not really clear to me why the “good” character is motivated to steal treasure from a civilization that has avoided Western contact, although all he does in fact is to fall in love with one of their priestesses and save her life. That said, the Spiders work well as a “Vampires”-style crime organization, and some of the best parts of the Feiullades sprang from the illogic of the series.

Overall, the film making technique of this movie is way ahead of the work Gaumont was putting out before and during the war. There are frequent close-ups, cuts within scenes, cross-cutting to enhance suspense, creative camera angles, and lighting. The camera moves to follow actors, and sometimes to reveal things at the right moment. In one scene, Hoog stands in front of a window of the cantina while Lio Sha carouses inside. Both of them are in perfect focus, and the edits each time Hoog peers inside allow us to think she might spot him at any moment. There’s a good use of silhouettes on the plateau at night, and we get actual darkness for night scenes, rather than just tinting a brightly-lit scene and expecting the audience to go along with it. When I was collecting screenshots for this article, I became especially aware of how fast the editing is compared to the movies I’ve reviewed up to now. Usually, I have plenty of time to choose my shot, but with this one, I had to hurry or it would cut away. The costumes and sets for the Incans are elaborate and beautiful (though probably not terribly authentic). Another break in logic came for me when the head-dress fellow snuck up on one of the Spiders’ guards and took him out. How did he not see that huge feathered thing coming right up to him?

The “diamond ship” subplot is a setup for the next episode, which came out in 1920, so I’ll be reviewing it soon as well.

Director: Fritz Lang

Camera: Emil Schünemann, Carl Hoffmann

Starring: Carl de Vogt, Lil Dagover, Ressel Orla, Georg John

Run Time: 1 Hour, 9 Min

You can watch it (together with part two, “The Diamond Ship) for free: here.

Fear (1917)

This movie represents the only contribution to the “history of horror” from 1917 that I’ve been able to identify and locate. The now-iconic team of Robert Wiene and Conrad Veidt would return in two years to produce the classic “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but this movie gave them a chance to cut their teeth on madness and mystical curses.

Count Greven (Bruno de Carli) returns to his old castle after spending several years touring the world. We see his carriage pull up to the gate from a high angle, and then he comes into the castle to be greeted by his staff. An Intertitle tells us he was a “cheerful and happy man” when he left, but we see that he is now restless and furtive. He orders the castle locked and the gate barred, claiming he wishes to see “no strange faces.” He goes into a room and shutters the light. Once alone, he opens one of his traveling cases and takes out an Indian statue (the script calls it a “Buddha,” but it’s kind of skinny and looks more Hindu to me). For a moment, his face shows pleasure before returning to fear. He carries it through the halls and puts it in a display case hidden behind an arras – thus concealing it and displaying it at the same time.

After a few days of watching his odd behavior, his chief servant goes to the local minister and tells him that his master needs help. The minister visits and Greven confesses his sins. His “unhappy passion for art collecting” has led him to steal the statue from a temple in India, where the “Buddha priests” have sworn revenge on him. He claims that they will kill him to retrieve the statue, using magical powers no one can understand. The minister concludes that he has gone mad.

Greven is at his wits’ end. He now longs for death as a release from his terrible dread of not knowing when the blow will come. One night, he has a vision of one of the priests (Conrad Veidt in a turban) appearing on his lawn. He tries to shoot at the image without effect, then he begs it to kill him. The priest tells him that he will not kill him until he has “learned to love life” and that then he will die by the hand of “the one dearest to him” in exactly seven years.

With this temporary reprieve, Greven launches into a life of dancing, drinking, gambling, and parties to try to “drink the dregs of life” while he has time. When this lifestyle becomes dull, he begins a feverish program of research to discover a means to “transform nitrogen into protein” thus curing world hunger forever. When he succeeds, a crowd of people hails him and lifts him to their shoulders, just before he lifts up a hammer and smashes the flask. He has now experienced the fame of glory and the impulse to destroy all at once. Next, he pursues a love affair with a lovely young woman (Mechthildis Thein), who agrees to become his wife. After they are wed, he plans to leave her and go on a world tour, but he finds he cannot part from her and stays.

 

Finally, the appointed day arrives. Once again his fearful persona comes to the forefront. He tries to get rid of the curse by hurling the statue into the water, but it reappears in his display case. He demands that his butler taste his tea before drinking. When he sees his wife holding a dagger (presumably from his art collection), he takes a shot at her. He flees from everyone, unable even to trust the coachman not to crash and kill him. Finally, the pressure becomes too much. He turns his pistol on himself, shooting himself and becoming his own executioner. Once again, we see the image of the “Buddha priest.” He rises from the lawn, becoming transparent through multiple exposure and walks to the barred gates, which open at a gesture form him. He walks through the halls and stairs, finally retrieving the statue and carrying it back out of the castle.

 

If you’re hoping for Expressionist photography or wild sets, as in “Caligari,” you’ll be disappointed here. There aren’t really any creative shadows or silhouettes as we’d expect from Maurice Tourneur. No scene is more than slightly underlit. The scene of the confrontation on the lawn is shot in full daylight, we have to accept that it’s night based on the Count wearing his nightgown. I think the movie would have benefited from more close-ups, to give us a better sense of the characters’ emotions, but with a better quality print than is currently available on home video, this might not be as much of an issue.

In terms of the story, however, this is a classic horror tale. I was reminded right from the start of the structure of an H.P. Lovecraft story, with the character returning changed from an experience abroad, then revealing what happened to another character who concludes that he’s insane. That level of disconnect forces the audience to question how much of the story is true, even as we know that for narrative purposes the story will proceed as if the character’s perceptions are real. Wiene would return to this theme of the unreliable narrator in “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but it is used effectively here as well. The structure of the middle part, where Greven goes from wild partying to scientific research to pursuing love, reminded me of the story of “Faust,” which seems to be a part of all early German horror.

 

The movie also reminds me of “The Mummy” in showing how a white man’s blind passion for collection results in his being cursed by the unknown powers of an “exotic” culture. There are definite themes of colonialism and “othering,” and Wiene is somewhat ambiguous as to who is the monster and who the victim here. It never seems to occur to Greven to just give back the statue he stole, or to show remorse for taking it. Even when he begs for death it is to relieve his own suffering, not to make amends. It’s all the more fitting then, when “the hand of the one dearest” to him turns out to be his own.

Director: Robert Wiene

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Bruno DeCarli, Conrad Veidt, Mechthildis Thein, Bernhard Goetzke, Hermann Picha

Run Time: 1 hr

I have been unable to find this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.