The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York, NY 10019
Admission: $10, $8 seniors, $6 students, members free
Tel.: +1 (212) 708-9400
Naturally, I am including below the titles of only those films that have yet to be shown in this behemoth film exhibition. Where I have written about a film on my blog, I have included what I wrote—but many of these films I have always wanted to see and haven’t, and I hope that some of you will fill me in. I regret to say that the live musical accompaniments will obstruct perhaps the most expressive aspect of a silent film: its silence.
Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares
VARIETY (Ewald André Dupont, 1925, silent)
Sunday, November 28, 2010, 2:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Wednesday, December 1, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Heavily censored for its U.S. release [although the version that is part of this exhibition will likely be restored], E. A. Dupont’s atmospheric Variety recasts an adulterous pair as a married couple (a fabricated title card identifies them as such), a trapeze act, thereby losing the springboard symbolism of their moral slipperiness and risk. For this woman, orphan Berta-Marie, the protagonist has abandoned wife and child. Taken from Felix Hollaender’s novel Der Eid des Stephan Huller, the film begins with a prologue in which a prison warden summons no. 28, Huller, who hasn’t “opened up” in ten years of incarceration. An angled overhead long-shot of prisoners, including Huller, walking in a circle in the prison yard ironically conjoins the ring of the circus, what had passed for Huller’s freedom, with the idea of predetermined fate. Huller is locked into his past, present and future, and the warden’s getting him to tell his story is ambiguously motivated—a moral murkiness possessing the appearance of utmost clarity; is the warden really aiming at having the prisoner unburden himself, or is he idly, cheaply curious, a transplanted patron of the sensational circus? Dark and expressionistic, Dupont’s German film passes from one triangle—wife, husband, mistress—to another: faux-husband, Berta-Marie, the trapeze artist Artinelli, who seduces Berta-Marie as had Huller. Violence results; Huller kills Artinelli and abandons Berta-Marie (as he had his wife), “orphaning” her yet again. The circle continues.
An introductory angled overhead long-shot of the circus conjures a lurid waking dream, a phosphorescence; it is here that Huller, the “catcher” of his act with Berta-Marie, feels alert and alive. Transformative editing and strange camera angles reinforce the sense of phantasmagoria but imply as well Dupont’s analytical approach to the material. But there is little doubt that the film loses its edge and withdraws into the familiar jealousy plot. Léon Moussinac was not wrong about the film: “One is aware of the coarse thread of melodrama that is saved from vulgarity only by the clearly defined personality of the characters and by the rich and easily exploitable photogenic background.”
Although ridiculously overweight for a trapeze, Emil Jannings is magnificent as Huller—and a reminder of how indebted Variety is to Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924).
DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS (Richard Oswald, 1919, silent)
gay-themed; haven’t seen
Sunday, November 28, 2010, 5:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
THE PLEASURE GARDEN (Alfred Hitchcock, 1926, silent)
Monday, November 29, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
ALGOL (Hans Werckmeister, 1920, silent)
never even heard of; stars Emil Jannings, though
Monday, November 29, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Thursday, December 2, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (Phil Jutzi, 1931)
have always wanted to see this; the script was primarily written by Alfred Döblin himself, the author of the novel
Wednesday, December 1, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Sunday, December 5, 2010, 12:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert and Curt Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann, 1929)
Thursday, December 2, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
A documentary fiction, a fictional documentary: Menschen am Sonntag, ein film ohne Schausppieler, written by Curt Siodmak and Billy Wilder, and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert and Curt Siodmak and, to a minor extent, Fred Zinnemann, is the last notable silent film from Germany—an experiment in which young filmmakers flex their love of cinema. [Apparently a sound version was filmed in 1930, and that is what MoMA is showing.] It is indeed “a film without actors”; the five main characters are played by nonprofessionals, who, titles tell us, returned to their ordinary jobs the next day.
Cab driver Erwin joins friend Wolfgang, a wine merchant, and Wolf’s new girlfriend (yesterday’s pick-up on the street), Christl, at the beach, leaving behind live-in Annie, a model, with whom Erwin quarreled the previous day, the tension between them signaled by a dripping faucet in their apartment. (Great introductory shot: Annie, reclining and comfortably bent, filling the whole frame head to toe.) Christl has also brought best friend Brigitte, who sells phonograph records, whom Wolf seduces after Christl (in the water!) rebuffs his advances; but in front of all these girls, the boys take up with others. At the end of the day, Brigitte still hopes she will see Wolf again next Sunday. Monday, everyone is back at work in Berlin.
The brilliant cinematographer is Eugen Schüfftan, who would photograph seminal black-and-white films, including Marcel Carné’s Quai des brûmes (1938). He and the filmmakers collaborate on a spontaneous air and fresh, crisp, exuberant, sometimes volatile images. Much of the framing surprises—and yet makes total sense: for instance, when Brigitte changes into her swimsuit she occupies a small lower portion of the screen and is surrounded by tall reeds that fill up the screen.
Charming: tots at the beach. Gripping: pans of tenement exteriors.
THE SONG OF LIFE (Alexis Granowsky, 1931)
haven’t seen this but would love to; Granowsky was the founder of Moscow’s State Jewish Theater, and MoMA promises that the film, a “paean to personal freedom, sex and childbirth[,] is like nothing else in cinema.”
Friday, December 3, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Wednesday, December 8, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
FRÄULEIN ELSE (Paul Czinner, 1929, silent)
haven’t seen; the first of Czinner’s collaborations with actress Elisabeth Bergner, his wife (and the model for Margo Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, 1950), and based on the novel by Arthur Schnitzler
Friday, December 3, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Monday, December 13, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 2, T2
F.P. 1 DOESN’T ANSWER (Karl Hartl, 1932)
haven’t seen; along with Walter Reisch, Kurt Siodmak adapted his own novel. MoMA explains that F.P. “stands for Flugplatform, a fictional landing strip afloat in the Atlantic, where planes flying between Europe and America can land. The film’s elaborate set was a contemporary marvel, providing a dramatic backdrop for a story of romance and international intrigue.”
Saturday, December 4, 2010, 2:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Friday, December 31, 2010, 3:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
WAXWORKS (Paul Leni, Leo Birinsk, 1924, silent)
have seen it; haven’t written about it; don’t much care for it
Saturday, December 4, 2010, 5:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Monday, December 20, 2010, 7:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
HERR O.F.’S SUITCASES (Alexis Granowsky, 1931)
how I would love for one you to see this “charming fable” and report back
Saturday, December 4, 2010, 8:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Wednesday, December 8, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
WHITE ECSTASY (Arnold Fanck, 1931)
haven’t seen and do not wish to; Leni Riefenstahl stars
Monday, December 6, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Friday, December 10, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
The German Film Musical Before and After 1933
An illustrated lecture by Richard Traubner, author of Operetta: A Theatrical History.
Monday, December 6, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
SUNRISE (F. W. Murnau, 1927, silent)
Thursday, December 9, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Saturday, December 11, 2010, 8:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
F. W. Murnau’s first American film, Sunrise, is cherished for its lyricism and transplanted German expressionism. A critics’ poll in the 1990s voted it the greatest movie ever made.
The marriage of a young farm couple, splintered by the husband’s dalliance with a vampish visitor from the city, becomes whole again as the two become reacquainted—ironically, in the city. The film delights with its symphonic visual beauty and highly expressive technique. Murnau employs the liberated camera that distinguished The Last Laugh (The Last Man, 1924) back in Germany, as well as the most accomplished subjective use of back-projection in cinema. As the couple walk, the background—their surroundings—magically transforms correlative to shifts in their feelings. There is also a tram ride they share that lyrically condenses the whole course of their relationship.
Even with its cribbing from Theodore Dreiser’s much greater novel, An American Tragedy, and although a tad heavy, Sunrise is irreplaceable. It certainly seemed to predict Murnau’s success in Hollywood. But the film, while applauded by critics, was a popular failure. The first year of the Oscars, Sunrise won for “artistic quality”—a category subsequently canceled, ostensibly not to confuse the American public with two “best picture” prizes (Wild Bill Wellman’s Wings took the other, familiar one), but really so as not to encourage art over profitable entertainments. The fact that there were two such prizes in 1928 was an acknowledgment of the difference between art and manipulative entertainment, between individual expression and committee-determined commercialism. The dropping of the “artistic” prize was tantamount to a declaration of war on art and artists in the maniacal pursuit of quick, enormous profits. The industry ordained the sun should set on Sunrise.
Only it didn’t. It hasn’t. Who today, given the choice, would go with Wings rather than take in Sunrise?
M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
Thursday, December 9, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Saturday, December 11, 2010, 5:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Giving birth to the police procedural, Fritz Lang’s M, though talky, retains a grim fascination. It is about two city-wide hunts for the same man—one by the police, the other by the underworld, which hopes to put a stop to the police search of which their criminal business is running afoul. The hunted man is a pedophile and serial killer of little girls. When they wrongly suspect someone on the street of being the killer, people become an enraged mob and assault him, taking the law into their own hands, just as the criminals are doing. Moreover, they reflect something of the compulsive killer’s own inability to control himself. Primarily, the film identifies the two investigating groups: police and criminals. Eventually, the latter group captures and tries the killer, occasioning a stunning pan shot of the massive “jury,” and satirically pricking the modern concept of justice—trial by peers.
M is a pitiless film except regarding the mother of one of the victims, who waits for her child to come home for dinner, and the hunted man, whose sickness draws Lang’s full measure of pity. Even children are casually monstrous. The film opens starkly, with an angled overhead shot of girls in a circle and one in the middle, who recites a gruesome variation on “eeny meeny miney moe” to determine which child is “it”: something to do with a man in black who is coming to chop up whoever is chosen.
Humanity is often portrayed at a haunting remove: men are gesticulating shadows on a wall; the unseen killer is the tune he whistles from Grieg’s Peer Gynt whenever he is about to strike. Indeed, this is how he is identified by the balloon seller, who is blind.
Young Peter Lorre is brilliant as the hunted man.
LIEBESKOMMANDO (Géza von Bolváry, 1931)
haven’t seen; musical starring Dolly Haas
Friday, December 10, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 2, T2
Monday, December 13, 2010, 8:30 p.m., Theater 2, T2
BERLIN: A SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (Walther Ruttmann, 1927, silent—MoMA doesn’t indicate this, but every version that I’ve seen has been silent)
this film made my list of the one hundred greatest films ever made
Saturday, December 11, 2010, 2:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Wednesday, December 15, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Inspired by Mikhail Kaufman’s Moscow (1926) and other Soviet documentaries by Dziga Vertov, as well as abstract German experimental films, Berlin, Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt is a rhythmic documentary. The idea for Walther Ruttmann’s film came from Carl Mayer, who had scripted F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924). Shots were selected and edited to compose a day in the life of Berlin, from dawn to deep in the night.
The sweeping opening movement is the camera’s approach to Berlin: over rolling water, across train tracks, including over a bridge. A montage of overhead shots portrays a dense metropolis; commercial advertisements on the sides of buildings perhaps introduce a disquieting note. Sewer; tall buildings. A solitary cat walks the street. A few people become visible, then more and more as the workday begins, with men in suits off to one kind of job, and laborers off to factories. Commuters enter Berlin (trains again); children are off to school. Here is a city that works.
Only, marching soldiers remind one of Great War defeat and Germany’s subsequent economic hardship. Are there other clues of stress? Magnets for a crowd, two “respectable” men push one another on a street corner. On another corner, a rabble-rouser of some political stripe attracts his own crowd. In a blatantly staged sequence, a woman commits suicide from a bridge. Before she takes the plunge, we see her eyes bulging in horror and madness—the film’s one closeup. A patron’s-eye view of a roller coaster ride insinuates more stress, as does the quickened pace of the film’s editing.
Most viewers, though, see Ruttmann’s film as harmonious. My reading of Berlin’s discontent may be wrong. It must be wrong.
VAMPYR (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1931)
this film made my list of the 25 best films ever made; it is a ranked list, and Vampyr came in at no. 14
Sunday, December 12, 2010, 2:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Monday, December 20, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Most of the best horror films, for a host of reasons, have come from Germany: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919), Nosferatu (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, 1922), Jonathan (Hans W. Geissendörfer, 1970—this, from West Germany). From both Germany and France, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (Vampyr—Der Traum des Allan Grey) is probably the finest horror film ever made.
Dreyer had already collapsed the difference between historical reality and its fictional representation in his portrayal of Jesus and his disciples in the beautiful opening segment of Leaves from Satan’s Book (Blade af Satans Bog, 1919), from Denmark, and in his portrait of Jeanne d’Arc’s trial in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), from France. But Vampyr, for three reasons, is very different. Like Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921), it fully enters a magical world, in its case, a realm of sinister enchantment. Moreover, its images and sounds across a spectrum of fictional and nonfictional, and objective and subjective, suggestions is correlative to its attempt to bridge the worlds of sound and silence. The film’s additions of sound effects and spoken dialogue, both sparse, interrupt and unsettle its silent or eerily quiet dreamlike realm, helping the film to realize its central theme: humanity’s anxieties as a result of (our species presumes) its peculiar awareness of its own mortality. The dreaminess of Vampyr suggests more than an anxious dream, however; on one level, it is a desired or somehow willed dream whose aim is to relegate elements of anxious reality to the realm of dream so that the possibility exists of waking up and having these elements dissipate and dissolve. The film implies, then, a permanently objective world the fear of whose loss requires the landscape of a dream as a kind of safety hatch or escape route. The blend of elements is so complete that, throughout much of the film, there is, simultaneously, a quiet sense of stability and a disquieting sense of instability and loss. Vampyr exists within a dream, but, within that dream, it exists at the crossroads of possibility and impossibility, loss and the hope of defeating loss, subjectivity and objectivity, nonfiction and fiction. Not coincidentally, it is the grayest film among all black-and-white films.
The film opens with sound: the low, ominous strains of Wolfgang Zeller’s musical theme, perfectly suited to the theme of mortal anxiety. It immediately posits Vampyr as a sound film but then visually opens as a silent film, or as a throwback to silent films, when a long title card appears, identifying the hero of the about-to-unfold adventure as young David Gray, whose study of evil and vampires from past centuries has rendered him a “dreamer, for whom the boundary between the real and the unreal has become dim.” (The dream state of Gray’s existence is reinforced by a subsequent reference to his “aimless journeyings.”) In effect, we the viewer relate to this title card, and the one that follows establishing the setting, the village of Courtempierre in the nineteenth century, as though they are documents: documentary guideposts. This will later connect to a huge document about vampirism portions of which we will intermittently read over Gray’s shoulder, as it were, as Gray himself reads it. On one level, this is an attempt by Dreyer to bring credibility to the fantastic, as Lang attempts to do by other means in Die Nibelungen. On a more pressing level, though, this is an attempt to use an element of silent films in order to stabilize the new anxiety-ridden territory of sound cinema (this was Dreyer’s first sound film)—anxiety that is correlative to, and perhaps even representative of, anxiety related to human mortality. That the object of Gray’s study is vampires makes the point perfectly, for vampires—the undead—are projections of this anxiety of ours over our finite condition. The peculiar nature of this printed language, however, is to encapsulate the anxiety that the language would seem to counter, much as, when a patient reads about a terminal illness he or she has, with the aim of mastering fear through knowledge, he or she may nevertheless be reinforcing the original anxiety. Facts about illness do not necessarily dissipate the fact of the approaching death. Attempts at objectifying often deepen a soul’s subjectivity. To say the same thing in another way: One does what one can to reduce one’s level of anxiety, but in reality, in certain situations, there is nothing one can do. The one possibility that is open is to go through the motions of doing something. Our fear of death stubbornly resists transcendence.
In the authentic kind of cinema in which Dreyer engaged, images take primacy over language, whether the language is spoken or written. After the two title cards, the film per se materializes; but it materializes in a kind of dematerializing way. Carrying against his shoulder a long-handled net, Gray appears walking up a hill with the sea in close proximity. Although he is fully dressed and dry, the shot is framed so that the “dream possibility” arises that Gray has just walked out of the water, and, in any case, because of what we have just read about his being a “dreamer,” we immediately associate the water with the unconscious—a common symbolism predating Freud’s naming of the unconscious. The complexity of the image speaks to the complexity of the film’s tack: Gray is on land, which implicitly means he is firmly in reality, but the water, coupled with the butterfly net he totes, renders the image dreamlike, casting Gray symbolically adrift. He is, recall, an aimless journeyer.
The next images find Dreyer renewing this tack—as, indeed, will the entire film. Having mounted the hill, Gray arrives at the inn where he will stay. This is grounded in reality, for the event implies the mundane arrangements that must have been made in advance so that Gray would have a place to stay while in Courtempierre. Such arrangements counter the idea of a dream by suggesting a continuity of behavior on Gray’s part. What we see next, though, counters the countering. Gray is at the door of the inn, but he finds no way of getting in. He knocks and calls to no avail; just when it seems that the implied “arrangements” have dissolved into nothingness, as things precisely do in a dream, a bespectacled woman opens an upstairs window, calls to Gray, and appears downstairs to let Gray in. Dreyer’s choice to keep the camera on Gray rather than follow the young woman downstairs (the shot of Gray at the door is from inside the inn), though, deliciously holds us in suspense as to whether the innkeeper will in fact let Gray in or simply vanish. (Who knows what might happen in this film?) Meanwhile, a man who is carrying a scythe descends the hill and rings a suspended bell, with the water again in close view. The scythe, which traditionally is something that the figure of Death might tote, identifies the man whose face is invisible to us because the camera is at his back as Gray’s reverse or contrary image: old instead of young, going down the hill that Gray has just ascended, and carrying the solid scythe instead of Gray’s airy net. The tolling bell, too, replaces Gray’s hello-ing, and, because of its visual juxtaposition with the sea, suggests the loss of human lives. Although the scene, and indeed the entire film, is wondrously light, there is an unmistakable presence here of human fear of death. This is reinforced to a stunning degree by a shot of the man, indeed old and now obliquely facing us with his scythe, shown against the quickly flowing water that now appears much closer than we have thus far seen it. We almost feel that it might carry us away.
The ridiculous plot of Vampyr, with its conspiracy to enslave a man and his daughters by a vampire and an evil doctor out of Caligari, comes from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s story “Carmilla” in In a Glass Darkly. The film’s immense value owes little or nothing to its debased literary source. It’s the magical quality of the film that matters, such as in those shots, in shadowy silhouette, where a man is digging a grave and we see, in reverse motion, the earth sail through space to the spoon of the shovel. What matters most is the “not-quite-rightness” of the world that David Gray navigates, which achieves its culmination when he witnesses the movement of his casket towards burial, with himself, open-eyed, in it. It is the blending of anxious fantasy and objective reportage, subjectivity and objectivity, fiction and nonfiction that makes Vampyr cinema’s preeminent (if uncredited) evocation of Edgar Allan Poe, the nineteenth-century American newspaperman and fantasist whom critic Harold Bloom has unwisely dismissed.
Vampyr’s script is by Dreyer and Christen Jul. Dreyer’s inspired cinematographers—like Dreyer, they have tapped into their dreams—are Rudolf Mâté and Louis Née.
NOSFERATU (F. W. Murnau, 1922)
Sunday, December 12, 2010, 5:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Saturday, December 18, 2010, 4:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
In the context of silent German cinema, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu looms, perhaps, a bit larger than is fitting. The film cannot compare to Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Destiny the same year, or the two parts of Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), or to G. W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925). Even Murnau, most agree, is better represented by The Last Laugh (The Last Man, 1924). But we tend to place Nosferatu into a smaller category where its renown is entirely appropriate: the horror film; more specifically, the vampire film; more specifically yet, films based on Bram Stoker’s nineteenth-century novel Dracula. In this last subcategory, only one other film may have a greater claim to brilliance: from West Germany, Jonathan (1973), by Hans W. Geissendörffer, lensed in delirious, dark colors by Robby Müller.
Hardly anyone is unaware of the premise of the plot. A vampire-lord sucks the blood of the living in order to maintain its own posthumous existence—an eerie, decadent variant of the ancient figure of the Wanderer (Cain being an example), in which human life is indefinitely extended, along with, ironically and tragically, both human fear of and sorrow over death. But Stoker departed from the religious significance, usually attached to this figure, that identifies it with the redemptive capacity of human suffering. Instead, Stoker courted sensationalism by relating his nocturnal fiend to the sexual anxiety and repression of its victims—a slant that Murnau will have nothing to do with. Nor, to tell the truth, is he all that interested in the story per se, which the scenarist, Henrik Galeen, has reduced to its bare bones. Rather, Murnau gives his material a fresh and captivating theme: a woman’s torment in an unfulfilling marriage.
The woman, Eillen, is deeply in love with Hutter, her spouse. Knock, the real estate agent for whom Hutter works as a clerk, has the boy travel from Bremen to the Carpathians and the castle of Count Orlock. The count—in reality, the vampire Nosferatu—is a client; Hutter’s mission is to convince him to purchase a home whose location, oddly, is exactly opposite his and Eillen’s own residence. The young clerk succeeds, but at an unexpected forfeit when his strange host drinks his blood, enfeebling him, and locks him up—a parody of the employer Knock’s tyrannical treatment of the boy. Hutter escapes, finally; back home, meanwhile, mystical nightmares visit Eillen, impressing on her a widening danger. Nosferatu takes up its new residence. Through the window it stares at Eillen, who, guided by her love for her husband, knows she must decisively act. In order to save her husband, and to free Bremen from the pestilence Nosferatu has brought with it, she avails herself of the one proven way to destroy a vampire; thus she submits to its loathsome advances in her bed chamber, detaining the thing until the crowing of the cock, whereupon Nosferatu dissolves into nothingness, like a nightmare, at the dawn’s light. For Eillen, the necessary forfeit is her own life.
Murnau does not dwell on the momentousness of this strong woman’s heroic sacrifice; he is, however, moved by it, and so are we. Murnau’s primary interest lies instead in rigorously analyzing this material in order to show that Eillen can more easily embrace a course leading to her own death for the release it provides from a perpetually frustrating marriage. As part of his analysis, Murnau establishes a series of fascinating correspondences. For example, the lowly clerk’s blood enters the lordly Nosferatu; the puncture left on the boy’s neck, from the bite, is a grotesque parody of a signature on a contract, in this case certifying the “business transaction” between the clerk and Nosferatu. In Bremen, there are the face-to-face living quarters and the “wife”—legal, for one; symbolic, for the other—that they share. Cumulatively, this mirror-imaging links the two “male” characters Hutter and Nosferatu.
On the surface, perhaps, this linkage is perplexing. But its basis is given early on, prior to Hutter’s trip, before we have even set eyes on Nosferatu. In an “idyllic” passage outdoors, we are able to glimpse the character of Hutter and Eillen’s marriage. The boy acts most lovingly; he is kind, affectionate, doting. However, Hutter’s frolicsome behavior, especially when contrasted with Eillen’s graver, more mature demeanor, suggests a life-partner less than it does a playful child. Hutter, then, seems “outside” his own marriage, much as Nosferatu is outside of life. He brings Eillen wildflowers, which he has (absurdly) rompingly gathered; she responds, tellingly, by longingly caressing the bouquet as though it were a baby—the child, the image implies, that marriage to Hutter hasn’t given her. Blissfully unaware, Hutter fails to respond to Eillen’s heartache. Acting more like a toy husband than a real one, inattentive to how unfulfilled the person he most loves is, Hutter is draining Eillen’s lifeblood. He is an “innocent” version of Nosferatu.
So disconsolate is Eillen in her stunted marriage that she desires Nosferatu, which is to say, death, as much as it desires her. Murnau makes this plain when the two neighbors stare at one another across the square. For Eillen, Nosferatu is a husband-substitute. But to submit to Nosferatu, even to save Hutter from also becoming the living dead, is to betray her marriage. In effect, this would mean admitting to herself the pointlessness of her marriage. Eillen’s death, then, releases her from a loving though disastrous union. As it happens, it is the very end that her nightmares foretold.
Murnau’s film achieves a captivating form in the phantomlike effects he conjures; he locates, in imaginative space, a twilit blending of fantasy and reality, shadow and substance, death and life, and, following Kierkegaard, the twin components of dread, attraction and repulsion, revulsion and desire. In the same vein, Nosferatu’s sea journey to Bremen impresses as a journey of the mind—Eillen’s shrouded, twisted, storm-tossed unconscious to which the failure of her marriage has given birth. Some of the film’s most powerful and hauntingly, eerily lovely images shows the “death ship” sailing across the sea or, toward the camera at an angle, out of the frame. Finally, there is the frightening image of Nosferatu itself, evoking indefinable horror. A critical contributor to the effectiveness of this image is the silence of the silent film itself; it is as if sound had been suspended, as in a dream. Above all, in a masterpiece of makeup, the actor playing Nosferatu, Max Schreck, brilliant here, is at once so hideous and yet so bodily insubstantial that the thing’s final disappearance seems as natural as a dream’s passing.
Spare, chaste, analytical, Murnau’s Nosferatu is the stylistic opposite of Werner Herzog’s sweeping Romantic remake (1978), where the wife’s submission and sacrifice yield no benefit in order to accommodate a pessimistic view, of the continual rebirth and rejuvenation of evil, that looks back to Lang’s fine, silent Mabuse films (1922), and dismally ahead to the misogynistic Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), a vampire film in disguise. The genre’s masterpiece remains, of course, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931), which immerses us the viewer in a shifting dream of mortal anxiety; it and Lang’s Destiny are the two most magical films in creation. And there is the haunting, intensely violent Jonathan (1970), where Geissendörffer relates his Dracula material to Germany’s Nazi past, creating a vision of evil so somber, so sorrowful and full of pain that it suggests our inhumanity as it weighs upon a loving God.
THE LAST LAUGH (F. W. Murnau, 1924)
Thursday, December 16, 2010, 4:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
Saturday, December 18, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 2, T2
Following the lead of Grune’s The Street (1923), F. W. Murnau discarded title-inserts to create an uninterrupted flow of images in The Last Laugh. (The German title actually translates as The Last Man.) But, for this study of a demoted hotel employee, Murnau came up with originality of his own that widened the expressive vocabulary of film. His camera moved. A lot. And with purpose, for the film’s continuously moving shots—tracking shots—are ironic counterpoint to the toppled worker’s disintegrated self-esteem.
Nevertheless, The Last Laugh isn’t quite the masterpiece its reputation suggests. While Murnau captures every nuance of his protagonist’s fall from elegantly dressed doorman, a position of visible élan, to washroom attendant, he eschews every opportunity for probing analysis. Murnau skips by any consideration of the warped basis for the man’s self-image. Like his protagonist, Murnau is fixated on the shiny-buttoned uniform. Why should status be determined by what a person’s job is? The hollowness of such a yardstick could be connected to the capriciousness of the demotion. In some larger view that Murnau doesn’t take, there may be food for thought about how employers jerk around employees, attempting to decide even their souls for them.
That said, the film fascinates, not only because of its use of camera, but also because of the towering performance that Emil Jannings gives in the lead role. The film’s worldwide success brought both Murnau and Jannings to Hollywood, with Jannings winning the first best actor Oscar (for Josef von Sternberg’s 1928 The Last Command) before returning to Germany to follow his Nazi heart.
The tacked-on happy ending, in which the crushed employee becomes rich: this has never bothered me. Indeed, it is thematically consistent, because yet again the man’s fortunes are out of his control.
Two Narratives of Urban Dread
Bad things happen on public thoroughfares.
Sunday, December 19, 2010, 2:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
Tuesday, December 28, 2010, 4:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
POLIZEIBERICHT ÜBERFALL (Ernö Metzner, 1928, silent)
Ernö Metzner, the art director for G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1928), himself co-wrote (along with Grace Chiang) and directed Police Report: Assault. Although the film’s protagonist is a coin, I will refer to the pop-eyed man who picks it up off the street as the protagonist; but when the police at the last ask him to identify whoever assaulted him and he imagines the coin spinning in space, we the audience know what he blames.
Metzner’s middling short film, set in Berlin, depicts desperate, impoverished lives in Weimar Germany. It would seem that the protagonist’s luck has picked up once he finds the coin by the curb that we know many other passers-by missed; but we also know that the coin’s previous owner collapsed before losing it to the street. Indeed, once he tries buying cigarettes with it, the protagonist discovers that the coin, as currency, is obsolete. What to do? The man slips it into a game of dice and wins. However, he is pursued through the street by someone else who is financially desperate, and who is toting a club. Two more stressed persons, a thin-lipped prostitute and her pimp, first, provide protection for the protagonist and then danger, once they also try to rob him. It is his original stalker, though, who gives the protagonist a whack across the noggin that causes his head, at the launch of an expressionistic passage, to stretch itself into distorted mirror-images.
How can it be that the Berlin street in daylight is utterly deserted but for the pursuer and the pursued? Siegfried Kracauer suggests the film’s method: “. . . it is as if the sordid real-life streets, rooms, and underpasses that crowd the film were hallucinated by its panicky protagonist. All these shots converge toward his mind . . . .”
being shown with THE STREET (Karl Grune, 1923, silent)
A middle-class man, in a rut at home, dreams of the excitement of “the street.” One evening, foregoing dinner, he leaves wife and apartment to pursue his dream but is lured into misadventure by a prostitute. He is arrested for a murder in her apartment he did not commit. As he is about to hang himself in his cell, he is released, the real killer, one of the prostitute’s accomplices in conning, having been inadvertently exposed by the killer’s toddler. The film’s entire action occurs in a single night.
It is something of a miracle that The Street (Die Straße), with its melodramatic plot, should turn out to be so brilliant and one of the most influential films of all time. But both are the case here. Karl Grune’s silent German film, dispensing with title-cards to achieve an uninterrupted flow of images, captivates with its vision of Parisian night life. In the midst of experiences pitched between dream and reality, the protagonist gets more than he bargained for and retreats. His return to his wife at the end of the film encapsulates both German defeatism and the overreaching nature of German idealism that his dreams portend, the combination of which, for Germany and the rest of the world, would have disastrous consequences. Grune may not have set out to provide political or social analysis, but, in the context of unfolding history between Germany’s World War I defeat and the rise of Nazism in Germany, his film isn’t limited by its intentions. Nor should its being set in France dissuade us of its penetration of the German psyche.
The film’s formal accomplishments, however, owe everything to Grune’s intentions. In this light, let us begin by addressing the film’s portrayal of those dreams which propel the protagonist into the street. These are presented as a chaotic series of alarming images. This is film analyst Siegfried Kracauer’s description of the passage, in From Caligari to Hitler (1947): “Shots of rushing cars, fireworks, and crowds form, along with shots taken from a roller coaster, a confusing whole made still more confusing by the use of multiple exposures and the insertion of transparent close-ups of a circus clown, a woman, and an organ-grinder.” The series of shots immediately follows the protagonist’s looking into the street from a window, but, of course, all this cannot actually be what he sees. Rather, as Kracauer puts it, the protagonist sees an “hallucinated street.” What is disclosed, then, is the depth of his dissatisfaction with his home life, and with the routine of his life in general, because in and of itself the series of “hallucinated” images would not inspire any reasonable person’s departure from a secure environment. The expressionistic images that Grune has conjured are fraught with danger—the danger that the protagonist will indeed find once he enters the world of the street. This isn’t academic irony. Rather, by not heeding the menacing nature of his own dreams, but propelling himself instead into them, the protagonist reveals his recklessness, his lack of self-control.
However, the film doesn’t stop thematically at a point of individual psychological disclosure. Instead, the protagonist’s lack of self-control is suited to another, more widely resonant theme: lack of self-determination—the lack of control over the course of his own life that the protagonist shares with the rest of us. For Germans, the problem was enormously deepened by the degree to which ordinary German lives were being affected by the economic burdens imposed on Germany by World War I victor nations.
The plot itself, in which the anonymous protagonist is manipulated and conned by the prostitute and her two male cohorts, speaks to his inability to control his own destiny. In a sense, even prior to that, the protagonist’s dissatisfaction with his home life implies the same thing; there is a clear discrepancy between his lot in life and the life he would prefer to live. His solution to remedy his dissatisfaction is counterproductive and ironic, because his venturing into the world of the street, rather than freeing him, entangles him in a nightmare that clarifies his inability to direct his own course and confirms his dissatisfaction when he returns to his wife, defeated, at the end of the film. The omnipresent silence of this silent film beautifully expresses his lack of self-determination by robbing him of a voice. He cannot even speak up for himself—a point that the general absence of dialogue on title-cards reinforces. Moreover, a central visual symbol for the extent to which “the street” controls the protagonist is the gigantic neon sign of eyeglasses outside the optometrist’s office, which lights up when he passes by. He doesn’t see it, but it “sees” him. In a sense, the protagonist is blind as well as mute, his life and his senses at the mercy of forces beyond his control.
As it happens, there is a character in the film who is literally blind: the grandfather of the toddler, the killer’s son. Throughout the film, characters (again, as in a dream) assume symbolical overtones that relate to the protagonist’s disposition and predicament. The slinky, glamorous prostitute, the antithesis of the protagonist’s stocky, fastidious wife, a bourgeois who sweeps clean a crumbless table, is his fantasy version of his wife—a dream that turns into nightmare. The man whom the protagonist is accused of killing is his doppelganger, a revelation, perhaps, of a self-destructive tendency. The toddler is the child the man feels that he is, someone entirely unable to direct the course of his life. Released from jail, the man returns to his wife, setting his head on her shoulder as a child might when seeking consolation. All this has the effect of fragmenting the protagonist’s personality and undermining its integrity, and this outcome, again, has the effect of taking his life out of his hands.
One of the most notable aspects of The Street is its complex, intricate mise-en-scène, such as in the streets, at night, with bristling human activity in the background while a car curves around in front of the camera in the fore-. Humanity often appears as flickering lights entering and sometimes emerging from deep shadows. (Grune’s brilliant cinematographer is Karl Hasselmann.) This mise-en-scène contributes to another of the film’s outstanding elements: the blend of reality and artifice—the “streets” are detectably studio-bound sets—that moves the material toward abstraction and generalization. Indeed, it is this method that invites us to interpret the characters symbolically, as psychic fragments of the protagonist.
Perhaps the film’s most extraordinary and heartfelt image comes near the end of the film: a wide-angle shot of the man, released from jail, walking home through the street at dawn. There is no lingering magic to the street that we see here; it is simply a pedestrian means for getting from one point to another. Yet it still controls his life, as it takes the man back to where he didn’t want to be in the first place. The aura of defeat that also accompanies him denies the image and the scene that follows, the man’s reunion with his wife, of any sentimental suggestion that he is now content with his lot, having learned of the worse alternative. The man goes home because he has nowhere else to go.
A shot very much like it, but one of weariness rather than defeat, occurs in Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitaï’s stunning Kippur (2000). But the influence of The Street goes well beyond subsequent borrowings of its vast array of terrific shots. Its City of the Mind is essential as a concept to countless important films, including F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), John Ford’s The Informer (1935), Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967).
1923. Germany. Directed by Karl Grune. Screenplay by Grune, Julius Urgiss, from a story idea by Carl Mayer. With Eugen Klöpfer, Lucie Höflich, Aud Egede Nissen, Max Schreck. Courtesy of Murnau Foundation. Silent, with English intertitles. Approx. 75 min.
THE WAY TO STRENGTH AND BEAUTY (Wilhelm Prager, 1925, silent)
haven’t seen; wouldn’t want to
Sunday, December 19, 2010, 5:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Tuesday, December 28, 2010, 7:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS (Richard Oswald, 1919, silent)
I still haven’t seen it; see above
Wednesday, December 22, 2010, 4:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
VIKTOR AND VIKTORIA (Reinhold Schünzel, 1933)
haven’t seen the film upon which Victor/Victoria , starring Julie Andrews, is based; would love to have someone tell me about it
Wednesday, December 22, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Sunday, December 26, 2010, 2:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
CONGRESS DANCES (Erik Charell, 1931)
Thursday, December 23, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Sunday, December 26, 2010, 5:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
“Why should Europe’s fate be decided in Vienna, of all places?” a citizen bemoans. Set in Vienna during the 1815 Congress, dazzlingly directed (as well as choreographed) by Erik Charell, Der Kongreß tanzt is a light, tuneful German operetta mixing ordinary characters with the powerful, for instance, Austria’s Prince Metternich and Russia’s Tsar Aleksandr I. Marked by political intrigue, this delightful film has rare charm—although Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) always provides me with similar pleasures. Both films, set earlier and coming after, reflect on the Great War and the absurdity of all wars. (Olivier’s film, of course, followed both world wars.)
The heroine, Christel Antonia Weinzinger, sells gloves. During a wildly applauded street procession, she enthusiastically tosses flowers, hitting the Tsar in the head; she is promptly arrested. Hilariously, the bouquet, which has landed on the ground, arouses mob panic as people anticipate an exploding bomb! But the Tsar isn’t worried, and his adjutant, Bibikoff, gets in a good line: “I believe we’ve had our fill of assassinations today, Your Majesty.” When informed that the “bomb” was really only a bouquet, the Tsar gets in an even better line: “Not even the anarchists can be trusted anymore!” Norbert Falk and Robert Liebmann have contributed a wonderfully witty script.
The Tsar has Christel released from jail; the two fall into romance. Meanwhile, Metternich plots to distract Aleksandr with another woman so that he, Metternich, can stake a claim to superior influence at the Congress. But there are two Tsar Aleksandrs about, one of them being an official substitute/impersonator. Meanwhile meanwhile, Christel’s boyfriend feels shut out.
Written, directed and produced by Jewish artists (Erich Pommer produced), and thriving on a spirit of liberation, Der Kongreß tanzt was banned by the Nazis.
EARLY TO BED (Ludwig Berger, 1932)
Thursday, December 23, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
IHRE HOHEIT BEFIEHIT (Hanns Schwarz, 1931)
haven’t seen; Billy Wilder contributed to the script; MoMA: “In this adorable Ruritanian comedy, a princess, craving escape from the formalities of her position, disguises herself as a commoner and finds love.” But does she look like Audrey Hepburn?
Friday, December 24, 2010, 3:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
THE THREEPENNY OPERA (G. W. Pabst, 1931)
this film made my list of the one hundred greatest films ever made
Monday, December 27, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Thursday, December 30, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera portrays an impoverished Soho one hundred years after John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728)—satirizing elitist high opera, the people’s ballad opera that Bertolt Brecht’s play updates. Its London reflects post-First World War Berlin, another hundred years later, exposing the social disease and discontent that had fomented the allure of National Socialism in the Weimar Republic. Pabst’s film, like the play, is a musical about something.
It takes us into the criminal underworld. Mack the Knife, king of thieves, dandy and bully, preys on the weak in the dockside slums. He dumps prostitute Pirate Jenny (wonderful Lotte Lenya, wife of the play’s composer, Kurt Weill) and marries Polly Peachum. When Mackie next visits the brothel, Jenny betrays him to the police. Will he hang?
Slow tracking and panning shots, and deep shadows, characterize the film’s atmospheric visual style, along with sharp images of teeming humanity, such as when a street singer sings the most famous tune in the Weill-Brecht score, “Mack the Knife,” and couples move toward the camera as it pans leftward across the backs of the large gathered audience—a separate shot places Mack himself at the scene!—and, also, during a beggars’ demonstration at Queen Victoria’s coronation. (In her pompous carriage, Victoria uses her bouquet to block her sight!) Veterans, whose “rags do not cover [their] wounds,” are also demonstrating—against military wantonness and false promises. The film closes famously: at night, the camera at the backs of an army of the poor and disenchanted filling the frames with foreboding—the dangerous raw edge of expectancy.
Brecht, unhappy with Pabst’s film, unsuccessfully sued.
The Nazis destroyed the film’s original negative and prints.
Die Dreigroschenoper remains the most brilliant film musical of all time.
A CRAZY IDEA (Kurt Gerron, 1932)
haven’t seen this musical-comedy; investigate the filmmaker’s tragic history at the hands of the Nazis
Monday, December 27, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Thursday, December 30, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.