Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: German Cinema

Phantom (1922)

For the last movie I review on this site in 2022, I decided to go with an example of German Expressionism in a non-supernatural-horror setting, created by Expressionist master Friedrich Murnau. It also turned out to be an excellent opportunity to look at some of what was going on in the world about one century ago and how it affected film making.

Phantom_1922_film,_german_poster

“Phantom” begins by showing us the author, Gerhart Hauptmann, carrying a book on a rustic road and looking into the camera. Hauptmann was one of the foremost champions of “Naturalism” – a pre-Expressionist literary and theatrical movement that favored realistic dialogue and embraced scientific theory and social commentary. He’d been writing since the 19th Century, and appears here as an elder, but still fit, scholarly type with receding hairline and tweed jacket.  The credits resume after this brief interlude and the film proper gets going again.

Phantom

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Nosferatu (1922)

It looks like this year I may only have time to present a single entry to my “History of Horror” for October, but that one is a doozy! Profoundly influential, in its day controversial, and still significant, we will take a look at Friedrich W. Murnau’s vampire film, which could even qualify as the first indisputable horror film this project has discovered.

Nosferatuposter

The first intertitle to this movie tells you that something a bit unusual is at work, in that it is written in the first-person, as if the story is being told to us by an individual author. Some English prints attribute this to a historian named “Johann Cavallius,” but more authentic prints put it under the header “an Account of the Great Death in Wisborg,” sans author’s name (note that the same prints that give this name tend to follow conventions of Stoker’s novel in naming characters – Hutter is “Jonathan Harker,” etc. I will stick to the names from the Murnau script for this review). Whoever our author is, he or she has a propensity for dramatic statements about “deathbirds” or chilled blood, though what is introduced is homey enough as we see young Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) with his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder), living a comfortably bourgeois life with a garden in this fictional town. Hutter, however, works for an unscrupulous real estate agent named Knock (Alexander Granach), who has decided to sell the grim-looking empty house across from Hutter to a mysterious Count Orlok who comes “from the land of phantoms and thieves.” He assigns Hutter to travel there to meet Orlok and close the deal.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 »