One hundred years have passed since the release of the film long beheld as the very moment cinema came of age, and few films can speak so eloquently as to just how long that century has been. The faiths, ideals, and biases inscribed in the form of The Birth of a Nation, both separate from that form and wound into it with pernicious intricacy, tell us things we don’t necessarily want to remember or countenance, things that appall and beggar as well as things that still stir and fascinate. David Wark Griffith’s achievement with The Birth of a Nation was immediately hailed as a great event in the history of a young art form, but also the spur to furious debate, even murder and terrorism. The frightening power, redolent of some alchemist’s dream of mesmeric influence over a mass populace, of that new art form was confirmed at the same time as its enormous expressive promise. The Birth of a Nation became perhaps the pivotal work of moviemaking’s first quarter-century, overshadowing even Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1922), which it influenced, because it was a colossal hit as well as a successful aesthetic experiment. Griffith’s film would remain the highest-grossing film of all time until at least Gone with the Wind (1939), and perhaps still reigns supreme adjusting for inflation: as costar Lillian Gish put it, it made so much money they lost count. At the time The Birth of a Nation struck many viewers as like a historical document given the vitality and narrative power of legend. Woodrow Wilson reportedly described it as “history written in lightning,” though those words were probably placed in his mouth by his former schoolmate, Thomas Dixon, Jr, who proselytised tirelessly on the behalf of the work taken from his novel. The film premiered 50 years after the end of the Civil War ended, but everyone in the average American movie theatre of the time knew very well that the forces that had caused and ended that hideous conflagration were not yet quelled. Hell, they’re not past even now.
For a long time, no one argued with Griffith’s achievement. Certainly the most hyperbolic descriptions of The Birth of a Nation’s originality were incorrect. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) pushed into the realm of the modern definition of narrative feature film when Griffith was still an actor. A wave of contemporaneous Italian historical films, including Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (both 1913), drove Griffith to compete with their scale and dramatic heft. Most of the editing and filming techniques packed into his work already existed, awaiting the kind of show-off who could synthesise them, and Griffith had laid claim to inventing many in his acts of self-promotion. The famous ride of the Ku Klux Klan at the end of The Birth of a Nation with its cross-cutting structure was actually just a reprise of his earlier work, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913). But the record still tells us that Griffith constructed something his audience felt it had not seen before, defining moviemaking at last as its own continent, for all Griffith’s debts to Victorian-era literature and his conversion of some well-established author’s tricks into visual style.
The Birth of a Nation perturbs now for less abstract reasons: it’s appallingly racist, and not just for modern eyes. In its own time, the film was the subject of bilious protest. Many saw it then as a legitimate account of the era it portrayed; others recognised it as blatant, partisan propaganda and racial libel passing itself off as a common folk-memory. Perhaps the controversy helped its success. The fledgling NAACP gained stature and clout objecting to it. Some blame it for sparking the new Ku Klux Klan campaigns of the 1920s. Violence certainly broke out in some screening locations. Today, the success of Ken Burns’ television documentary series The Civil War (1987) and Edward Zwick’s film Glory (1989) helped restore the Civil War to the centre of modern American mythology in a way that pop culture had rarely seemed comfortable with before, partly by confronting aspects of the war that had long been repressed. For a very long time, the tacit narrative of the postwar period was one of reconciliation between former antagonists, burying the causes for schism whilst inferring that the citizens whose fates were crucial to the war, African-American slaves, were best excised from the conversation, if not in some way to blame for it all. The Birth of a Nation, to put it mildly, records and exemplifies that convention.
Griffith’s film was based on Dixon’s novel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Dixon was a South Carolina minister, politician, and pro-South ideologue who had been convinced by the anecdotes he heard as a kid that the Klan had saved the South from rapacious carpetbaggers and lawless freedmen. The Birth of a Nation was initially to be a straightforward adaptation of the novel, and first screened under its title. The contradictions here are many: Kentucky-born with Confederate roots, Griffith had just a few years earlier made a film where the Klan were villains. During production, Griffith’s adaptation of Dixon inflated into something far larger than intended, as Griffith worked without a scenario or screenplay, but simply kept the book in mind whilst conjuring his visions, creating a grandiose pageant begging for a more sweeping appellation. Griffith already had a reputation as one of the movie’s most innovative and distinctive talents: as cornball as a lot of his plots were, in works like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), The Avenging Conscience, and Judith of Bethulia (both 1914), he had impressed viewers with works of a defined aesthetic density far above the run of mostly mercenary amusements. Griffith developed himself as a brand, and when he premiered his new film, he showcased it with a costly roadshow presentation and charged the then-exorbitant amount of $2 a ticket. Perhaps The Birth of a Nation is more a landmark in the annals of hype.
Still, what about the actual film, the relic shining out from under all the rhetorical dust? Does it still shout out its storied power above the din of its controversy? Yes and no. Even without taking on the sorry race portrayals, The Birth of a Nation is a mixture of the crude and the fine. Portions are undoubted displays of great cinematic effect and art, whilst others drag and slouch. The plotting is naïve and occasionally confused, the acting uneven. At times it’s a stock-standard melodrama of the kind readily found in turn-of-the-century novelettes and stage plays, complete with rosy-cheeked damsels in distress, lascivious villains, good-hearted patriarchs, and bellicose mammies. The characters it describes aren’t really people, but are mostly archetypes of a bygone society’s best self-image and basest anxieties.
The first third of The Birth of a Nation is still a vivid creation for all the qualifications, tethering the microcosmic, presented via the families of congressional leader Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) of the North and Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken) of the South, with the macrocosmic drama of erupting civil conflict. Stoneman upholds radical abolitionist policies, partly under the influence of his black housekeeper and mistress Lydia Brown (Mary Alden). In spite of brewing war clouds at the time of Lincoln’s election, Stoneman’s sons Phil (Elmer Clifton) and Tod (Robert Harron) visit their friends the Camerons, whose ranks include sons Ben (Henry B. Walthall), Wade (George Beranger), and Duke (Maxfield Stanley), and daughters Margaret (Miriam Cooper) and Flora (Violet Wilkey), in their South Carolina town of Piedmont. Ben falls in love with a photo of Stoneman’s daughter Elsie (Gish) given to him by Phil. The settled life of the Camerons, the bustle of household work, the roughhousing of the sons and the scampering of the kids, the quiet reclining of Dr. Cameron, is quickly and skilfully sketched by Griffith in the midst of the decorous, homey beauties of picket fences and rose bushes. The Stonemans also get a tour of cotton plantations, where slaves labour and readily dance gleefully for the visitors. Just after the Stonemans depart, Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) signs his call for volunteers, “using the Presidential office for the first time in history…to enforce the rule of the coming nation over the individual states.” War breaks out, and the Cameron sons join the Confederate cause.
Griffith builds these sequences, shifting from the bucolic to the ecstatic, with gathering force, capturing the mood of being swept up in what its characters see as a great, romantic, classical quest. Bonfires and dancing greet the news of war. “While youth dances the night away, childhood and old age slumber,” a title card notes, as the camera studies the snoozing Dr. Cameron and Flora, establishing a quality of dialogue, the existence of separate modes of life even within the frame of a single story. Griffith’s framings are often studied and still resemble the static state of much early filmmaking: his sequences often tend to comprise a few basic compositions, alternating between them. Two crucial aspects, however, imbue them with an uncommon life: the frames are packed with detail, often with Griffith pushing his actors to be in constant movement and expression in relation to each other, usually with elements arranged along diagonal axes to give the square frame depth and a definite dramatic quality. Griffith’s characters often look as if they’re perching on the edge of something, as in early scenes where they hover amidst the columns of the Cameron house, whose design splits the difference between Antebellum manse per Confederate mythology and normal suburban villa to which more of the audience could relate. Most vitally, Griffith cuts constantly, giving his moving pictures the same sense of velocity and a fluidic, implicit sense of relationship, rather than a flatly grammatical one. The depiction of Piedmont’s soldiers heading off to war thrums with a sense of motion and pictorial eloquence–the gyrating crowds in the town square and columns of parading soldiers, the lasses bedecked with flowers and the horses similarly garlanded, the young gallants stealing kisses before riding off, Ben teasing “pet sister” Flora by dangling the Confederate flag over her face as she naps, and the familial pietas of soon-to-be-bereft loved ones waving farewell. Billy Bitzer’s photography, justly celebrated as a grand technical achievement, is constantly striking, particularly the night sequences of bonfire celebrations. Griffith foreshadows with witty asides. A young kitten and pup, pets of the Camerons, tumble into each other and commence what is described as “hostilities” by the title cards.
The wartime sequences are even more impressive for the sense of rolling, panoramic drama. Freed from having to relate the audience to actors at the centre of focus and understanding, Griffith pulls off coups of pure visual power, covering fields of battle and scenes of history purely according to the needs of his camera rather than the call of an imagined stage, letting his images flow in a manner reminiscent conceptually of book plates and theatrical pageants, and sometimes based outright on artworks, but imbued with the illustrative force of cinema. One of the Cameron sons catches a bullet during an infantry charge. Tod Stoneman dashes in, ready to bayonet him, only to recognise his friend and stay his hand, moments before a Confederate bullet cuts him down in turn: Tod collapses, pulling his friend close and dying, leaving them entwined in a brotherly embrace. This vignette is trite on one level, and yet also a perfectly direct, visually powerful encapsulation of Griffith’s message regarding war, as direct and intelligible as anything in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Another Cameron boy dies during the retreat of the army. The burning of Atlanta is depicted in a crude but startling proto-matte shot, in which extras amidst life-size sets swathed in smoke reel underneath a burning model of the town. A long shot of Sherman’s army on the march through the countryside filmed from a hilltop sees the camera pivot to note a mother and her children looking on, an iris effect zeroing in on them before Griffith cuts to show us their faces beholding the annihilation of their world: the victims of war are privileged by the perspective Griffith takes on them over the distant, anonymous mass of men.
The most spectacular war sequence is set in the waning days of the conflict, where Ben Cameron, now beloved by his men as “The Little Colonel,” leads them in an attempt to break out of siege for supplies, only to be held off by Union soldiers commanded by Phil Stoneman. Ben stirs the admiration and then the cheers of his enemies by first helping a wounded Union soldier and then by defiantly dashing across no-man’s-land and jamming the pike of the Confederate battle flag into a Union cannon. Here Griffith wields but also varies a clear sense of geography, via the battlefield framed like a football field with the opponents on either side, studied first in high vistas and then long group shots, and then close studies of individual actions. At one point, the camera charges with Ben and his men, and the sequence builds to the shot of Ben at the cannon filmed from behind the cannon, capturing the pain and heroism of the gesture. This is all utterly familiar filming and editing method today, but represented the cutting edge of sophistication at the time, and moreover still shines with the peculiar intensity of real creativity. One can still almost share the effect that shot of the cannon spiking must have had in 1915, the animate drama and sensatory power of watching an actor, some sets, crew, and a strip of celluloid interact and be manipulated until it seemed as if the essence of life and death have been depicted. Whilst such oversized vignettes dominate the impression The Birth of a Nation leaves, the film is replete with testaments to the value of small gestures and fleeting, but vital, observations as part of the overall texture. There’s the droll humour of Stoneman letting Elsie fit the wig that conceals his bald pate and a guard in the military hospital sighing over Elsie’s untouchable beauty, and a purposeful linkage of images adding up to ideas, as when Ulysses Grant (Donald Crisp) and Robert E. Lee (Howard Gaye) shake hands at Appomattox, followed immediately by Ben and Elsie doing the same.
Griffith synthesised all of this for his own satisfaction, his own family’s part in the war perhaps lingering in the vividness with which he describes the struggle as well as a sense of discovery, the first poet of a new form to describe such a vista. Tellingly, most of what comes later in adapting Dixon more directly is lacking from this part, though early scenes are interpolated depicting Lydia Brown’s Uriah Heep-like patronisation of Stoneman’s Senate opposite Charles Sumner (Sam De Grasse), alternating with her fire-eyed tantrums motivated by her evident desire to be loftier, a desire she later realises as her hold on Stoneman becomes unshakeable and she begins contemptuously ushering Sumner away. Lydia is described as using her power over Stoneman to ends that will have dire consequences, though how and why, beyond pure wilful egotism, isn’t quite described; in any event, Stoneman uses Lincoln’s assassination to begin a forced social revolution in the reconstructing states after the war. Stoneman and Lydia were clearly based on Thaddeus Stevens, leader of radical Republicans, and Lydia Smith, his housekeeper who was probably also his mistress; The Birth of a Nation implies that this fatal act of miscegenation set the stage for civil war. One revealing aspect of Dixon’s paranoid racism captured in the film is how one could easily tweak this to make it seem heroic (as Steven Spielberg would when depicting Stevens and Smith in Lincoln, 2012), in the theme of the oppressed and disadvantaged released from their shackles and using new-found power to redress the moral books, an idea which The Birth of a Nation cannot countenance, and instead hides behind mendacious suggestions that it was rather the quintessence of duplicity and anarchy.
At the same time Griffith dissembles, referring to certain villainous black characters as “traitors to their own race” as well as to the larger nation, though the film infers that because of the bad actions of these specific wrongdoers, all must be subjugated. A clue as to how confused The Birth of a Nation is, politically speaking, is found in its treatment of Lincoln, who is described early on as trampling on states’ rights, as per Dixon’s outright Confederate propaganda, whilst his determined attempts to force the abolition of slavery are avoided altogether. (One scene purportedly cut from the remaining print after early screenings depicted a gang rape of a white woman by black soldiers with the title card “Lincoln’s solution.”) But the film also plays up the more familiar, positive image of the leader when it suits. When Mrs. Cameron (Josephine Crowell) goes to visit her son Ben in a Union military hospital, she learns he’s going to be shot, so she goes to see the President to beg for his life, and he grants her request.
When Lincoln is killed, Dr. Cameron laments that “our best friend is gone.” The depiction of Lincoln’s assassination is a masterly set-piece from Griffith, perhaps indeed the strongest sequence in the film. Rather than merely present the famous moment as tableaux vivant, Griffith instead depicts events with a flow of documentarylike detail, generating suspense with analysis of the mechanics of the act. He notes Lincoln’s bodyguard setting himself up in the hallway outside his theatre box, but then being drawn into another booth to take a look at the play. This gives John Wilkes Booth (played by future director Raoul Walsh, who was also the husband of Miriam Cooper at the time) the chance to storm the box, his act of violence and flying leap onto the stage and infamous cry of “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” delivered at concussive speed, capturing the deliberately theatrical power of the assassin’s deed. Booth’s showmanship suits Griffith’s, whilst history weaves in with fiction: Elsie and Phil Stoneman are in the crowd, and see the whole thing, whilst the President’s murder gives Austin Stoneman his chance to push his agenda unfettered.
One rarely contemplated aspect of The Birth of a Nation is one it shares with much of Griffith’s cinema: women were at the centre of his movies, and in many ways he helped codify the “women’s picture” with his tales of oppressed waifs, degraded mothers, and plucky gamines who soldier through trials. Whilst in hospital, Ben meets the object of his abstract obsession in the flesh, as Elsie Stoneman is working there as a nurse: Elsie forms a bond with Ben and his mother and helps her make the plea to Lincoln. The framework of Dixon’s story demands the ladies chiefly be used as threatened victims, and Griffith was always happy to serve up images of decorously beautiful young women audiences of the time loved. But Griffith emphasises the moral force of motherhood and the determined energy of the young women. Elsie, Margaret, and Flora are all as active in their way as the menfolk, absent from the battlefield, but guarding the gates of civilisation and dodging the predations of the age, as when the Cameron girls and their parents have to hide in their household cellar to avoid marauding Union soldiers in Piedmont.
One early shot captures young Gish’s mischievous screen quality and Griffith’s feel for actors, as she sets her brother racing off and then skips and jumps her way back toward the Stoneman manse, all distracted and tomboyish energy even as she clutches a kitten and looks entirely winsome. Both Elsie and Margaret hold off the men who romance them because of their ethical dimensions: Elsie holds loyal to her father’s creed when she realises Ben has become involved with the Ku Klux Klan, and Margaret refuses Phil’s overtures in memory of her slain brothers. By comparison, the male characters, apart from Ben, are blank slates, operating robotically according to assigned identities, from the young men signing up for state-sponsored carnage to the black and half-caste characters for whom the sexual conquest of a white woman is both their most verboten and most desired object.
As The Birth of a Nation moves into its second half, the focus shifts from war to fractious peace. It’s here the film becomes truly difficult, to say the least, both in terms of art and meaning. Griffith’s freeform exploration of the Civil War gives way to a more settled, straightforward adaptation of Dixon’s novel. Austin Stoneman relocates to Piedmont with his remaining children to oversee the Reconstruction programme being carried out by a horde of soldiers, carpetbaggers, and freedmen. Stoneman’s protégé is the biracial Silas Lynch (George Siegmann). The congressman gets him installed as lieutenant-governor with the aid of a rigged election where local citizens are refused participation whilst manipulated ex-slaves vote. All of this, the title cards inform, creates a state of lawless anarchy in the district, though little of this anarchy is actually depicted. What we do see is Ben Cameron taking inspiration from seeing a couple of white kids scare some black kids by hiding under a sheet and having the brilliant idea of applying the same principle to his brainchild. He creates a militialike force to strike back at the corrupt and chaotic regime and newly free black citizens seeking their rights without exposing themselves to reprisals: the Ku Klux Klan is born. Meanwhile, Lynch becomes increasingly megalomaniacal, believing he can use the black soldiers under his command not just to bully and oppress the Southerners but to carve out a kingdom that he will rule. He wants Elsie to be his queen, and looks for a chance to corner her, though she clearly prefers Ben. The situation comes to a head when one of the black soldiers, Gus (Walter Long), stalks Flora (played as a grown-up by Mae Marsh) with rape on his mind through the forest outside of Piedmont. Rather than submit, she jumps of a cliff. The Klan avenges her death by tracking down and lynching Gus. Lynch responds by threatening anyone proven to be participating in Klan acts with hanging. When Ben’s Klan costume is found in his house, what’s left of the Cameron family is arrested.
The Birth of a Nation’s pretences to creating a Homeric epic of America hinge unavoidably on a slanted portrayal of events that are still somewhat ill-served by film: there is a void in cinematic depictions of the Reconstruction era, and many that do exist take a similarly Southern point of view. Perhaps, as Buster Keaton said a few years later, when he made a Confederate his hero in The General (1926), that’s because it felt unfair to many to kick the losers much more. Gone with the Wind, the film’s immediate successor both in subject and success (and another work almost certainly influenced by it), bent over backwards to avoid Griffith’s mistakes, but created some thorny issues of its own. If there’s a salutary value to the way The Birth of a Nation depicts the dankest, sleaziest, most perverse fixations of a certain brand of American bigot, it is that it properly recorded them for posterity. This allows anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty to see the way the ideas propagated here still define many of its precepts before various masking tactics were adopted–that black men are essentially lascivious, violent apes waiting for a chance to sexually assault white women and brutalise their menfolk, that attempts to reapportion social justice for African-Americans after the war and even today only facilitate the first point, that vigilante justice by gun-toting “ordinary” people is the only force that can stop it, and so forth. In spite of the film’s controversy at the time, there was nothing particularly uncommon about the historical thesis proposed: even President Wilson, a high-minded idealist in many regards, was also a deeply racist thinker whose writings on the topic of the Klan influenced Griffith’s presentation of it. “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright,” a title card says late in the film when two former Union soldiers aid the Camerons in fending off the black soldiers stalking them, a line that’s deeply depressing but also perfectly revelatory.
One of Griffith’s most brilliant flourishes, a highlight of inspiration in the second half, is woven in inescapably with racist pseudo-history: a shot of the state legislature, empty at first, transitions to a later time when the house has been filled with rowdy freedmen serving Stoneman’s political program. This is another moment one can well imagine stunning an audience in 1915. Dissolves, superimpositions, and double-exposure effects had been used before, but Griffith uses them here to create an active, purely filmic device of satirical insight, albeit a vicious, wrong one. The installed black legislators make a mockery of the solemn institution by drinking whiskey, kicking their shoes off, and generally look like they’re having a good time in a way that’s actually not so far from the Marx Brothers’ similarly anarchic treatment of such settings–except by the 1930s anarchy, at least that plied by impish white guys, was cool. One real crux of the quandary The Birth of a Nation presents is that such sensitivity as Griffith often displays can coexist with such unregenerate contempt, in the process of watching art foiled by prejudice. Perhaps the lowest point of this fantasia comes in the concluding scenes when the Klan, having restored justice and order, keep black voters from going out to vote, presenting the beginning of the century of marginalisation and depression codified under the Jim Crow regime as a heroic, even funny vignette in the film, evident in the way the black would-be voters reel out of the bars, see the hooded, armed Klansmen outside, then promptly swivel and retreat. This moment is as despicable as anything I’ve ever seen in a film.
Ironically, most of the black roles are played by white men in blackface. Roger Ebert proposed this was because staging some of these images with real African-American actors would have been too incendiary, but perhaps it was to avoid production conflicts. In any event, the ridiculous look of these performers gives much of the film the quality of grotesque pantomime, accidentally highlighting the artificiality. The Reconstruction chapter has often been celebrated in spite of all this for exemplifying one of Griffith’s great innovations, as he cross-cuts between sectors and streams of action: the Camerons, who escape their military escort and face siege in a remote shack, Lynch in Piedmont taking Elsie captive for a forced marriage, and the Klansmen gathering and charging to the rescue. The second half, however, often feebly executed by comparison with the first, moving stolidly through its relatively few substantial plot points, with many elements left vague, like Lydia Brown’s fate. Amidst shoot-outs and rescues, the true climactic moment comes when Lynch tells Stoneman that he wants to marry a white woman. Stoneman congratulates and encourages him, but then when Lynch tells him that he specifically wants to marry Elsie, Stoneman erupts in outrage. This could easily be tweaked as a moment of satirical insight, making fun of a shallow form of white liberalism that’s perfectly okay with anything in abstract, and indeed it is after a fashion. But it’s also intended as both revelation and comeuppance for Stoneman, who is forcibly shown the logical end point of his politics, and reacts with the same natural repulsion, the storyline implies, any father would in the face of such depravity.
Much of the plotting here is, again, standard melodrama, with Dixon’s bullshit pasted over already very familiar roles and rituals of penny dreadful villainy. What’s new, however, is that stuff is matched here to a show of filmic technique that thrilled the audience of the day and gave unto later filmmakers a blueprint of how to achieve the same result again and again. Yet it also laid the seed of warning for followers, too, in seeing just how easy it could be to follow a programme of storytelling in the new medium that could manipulate them into siding with monstrosities. The famous ride of the Klan proves rather slow and arthritic for a contemporary eye, however. Radical as such technique was, there was still a long way to go in giving this gimmick the kind of rhythmic intensity it could wield. There are some eye-catching compositions, like the Klansmen riding silhouetted against the sky on a ridgeline, but the interpersonal scenes of Stoneman and Lynch arguing and the Camerons and their comrades in the shack returns to flat, two-dimensional framings. Lynch, if he wasn’t so set on marrying Elsie and arguing with her father, could have ravaged her a dozen times by the time the Klan actually reach Piedmont. Griffith would push his new technique much farther in his follow-up Intolerance (1916), where he cross-cuts not merely related but separate scenes, but whole storylines and timeframes.
Near the film’s very end, Griffith recaptures his visual invention as he shifts into symbolism and surrealism through visuals that evoke medieval artistic styles and literary pictorial plates: a diptych of War on horseback waving its sword over a pile of corpses, and another of Jesus reigning over a court of the faithful. Here, the feeling of cinema as art form as well as populist political sentiment are both revealed as perched on a wickedly sharp edge. Film is gaining its method and its voice at the same time as it is emerging from the influence of other art forms, and an accumulated system of meaning depending on assumptions that cinema perhaps served in part as a stronger beam of sunlight than had ever been seen before. The profound contradiction between the film’s ardent statements of pacifism and brotherhood and its equally ardent preaching of fascist, racialist hegemony is strange as well as appalling to me, as if in that disparity, if only one can grasp it, lies the seed of so much that would transpire in the 20th century. The past had been neatly reconfigured into a myth, but already new realities were pressing, begging their own mythologising.
The Great War was raging across the Atlantic when the film was released, and surely on Griffith’s mind as he questioned “Dare we dream of a golden dawn when the bestial War shall rule no more?” in one of the film’s last title cards. So, naturally, soon the Hun would be serving the same purpose black men had in warmongering movies. At the same time, black Americans could see what many thought of them all too clearly, and found that could be a weapon that cut two ways. Griffith himself would be elevated to the stature of god-king of an art form for a short reign, but at the same time was hurt and bewildered by the forced realisation he had created something deeply troubling. He would take up the themes of prejudice, abuse, and other pressing social problems often thereafter, struggling with films like Intolerance, Broken Blossoms (1919), perhaps his best film after all, and The Struggle (1931) to come to grips with such issues. He would fail politically and commercially, but grow poetically. The conflict between this sense of achievement and the urge for atonement would define the rest of Griffith’s career.
F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) might have won the perhaps more elevated “Most Artistic Production” Oscar amongst the first year’s roll of award winners, but Wings, which took the award for “Best Production,” has been inscribed in posterity as the legendary precursor of every film to capture the Academy’s premier prize. Looked at as a monument to the craft and dynamism of Hollywood filmmaking at the cusp of that first great, wrenching change in the industry, the transition to sound, Wings is indeed a stirring, even staggering relic. Surely taking some courage from the colossal success of King Vidor’s The Big Parade two years earlier, Wings rode the wave of a new popularity for revisiting the dread and grandeur of the Great War. It also virtually invented a cinematic subgenre, the aerial war movie, with the likes of James Whale’s Journey’s End (1930), Howard Hughes’ and Whale’s Hell’s Angels and Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (both 1931), to follow in quick succession. The mythos of World War I’s flying aces remained so powerful that the 1960s and ’70s saw something of a revival, kicking off with The Blue Max (1966).
As a dramatic entity, Wings straddles fashions in moviemaking, mimicking the seriousness of its concurrent bunkmates in the profound statement on war business, like The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but also making a play for a big, broad audience, mixing genres and styles in an all-out quest for audience-grabbing entertainment. In short, it’s a blockbuster, 1920s style. Paramount Pictures bigwigs Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, and B.P. Schulberg saw the cost of the film rise to more than $2 million, a serious chunk of change for the time, on a mammoth production leveraged with the participation of the War Department. At the eye of this storm was a young director who may well have felt fated to helm such a work: 30-year-old William A. Wellman.
During WWI, Wellman, who had briefly played professional ice hockey, had joined up at the age of 21 and flown in the Lafayette Air Corps. This made him the only director in Hollywood with combat air experience. Wellman, bullish, brazen, and all too happy to clash with his actors in the name of art to the point where he was later to be nicknamed “Wild Bill,” had dabbled with acting, which Douglas Fairbanks had suggested to him before the war, after returning home. Deciding acting was an unmanly business, Wellman moved into film production. He worked his way up quickly through crew ranks until he was acting as an uncredited codirector; he released his first two, credited features in 1923. Wings teamed him with two more men with wartime flying experience: actor Richard Arlen and story scribe John Monk Saunders, who would pen many aviator dramas and war films over the course of his Hollywood career and become the biographical subject of John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles (1957). Wings was not exactly to be a warts-and-all vehicle for Wellman to dramatise his youthful experiences. Wellman returned often to tales of war throughout his career, including some of the greatest films of the genre, including The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Battleground (1949), as well as his very last feature film, the sadly low-budgeted and miscast Lafayette Escadrille (1959), where he at least pulled off the stroke of casting his son William Wellman Jr. as himself, a young flyer confronted by the grim truths of aerial combat. Wings, by contrast to the spacious, spare, often melancholy tone of his later war films, is a product of youth–the youth of both the director and the excitable industry in which he worked.
Wings aims directly at the youth audience of the late ’20s by suggesting their own way of life (and not bothering to be too exact about clothes and hairstyles)—that what would eventually become teen culture was already warming up just as the war beckoned. He introduces protagonist Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and his neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow) as two all-American kids, proto-flapper and hot-rod-building adventurer. “Jack had once pulled Mary out of a bonfire – and sometimes he regretted it,” a title card informs, hilariously setting the scene for the duo’s oblique relationship, with Mary jumping in energetically to aid Jack in rebuilding his battered car, which, as another card explains, had already provided Jack with the experience of flight several times. Jack and Mary transform the car into a speed mobile, and Mary sets the seal on the creation by christening it the “Shooting Star,” complete with a hastily painted logo on the side. Jack, however, oblivious to Mary’s ardour, thanks her and zips away to take the object of his own desire for a drive: Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who has the advantage of being a girl from the big city.
Wellman’s introduction of Sylvia and her beau, David Armstrong (Arlen), is one of his cleverest and wittiest visual flourishes, with camera attached to the porch swing the pair are resting in, Sylvia plucking a lilting guitar in a picture of fulsome romanticism, only for Jack to appear in Shooting Star behind them. The motion of the swing lends a stroboscopic quality to Jack’s approach, until he arrests the swinging and drags Sylvia away for a jaunt in his jallopy. The old world of quiet days and gentle courting is giving way to the crash-bang pace of the 20th century even before war starts. Sylvia’s affection remains with David, who is the son of the town’s richest man. When war is declared and David and Jack join up, Sylvia humours Jack by giving him a locket photo of herself, but tells David he’s the one she loves.
The days of youth give way to war, and Jack and David’s march off to serve is repeated by thousands of others, including Mary, who is inspired to join the ambulance driving service, and Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel, patenting his squarehead act), a German-American who confronts folks who deride his patriotism by stripping down to shirtsleeves to show off the tattoo of Old Glory on his bicep. He stops this practice after a drill sergeant assumes he’s getting uppity and clobbers him. During training, Jack and David antagonise each other constantly in their ongoing competition for Sylvia’s affections, but after the sergeant makes them square off in boxing competition, they beat each other to a standstill and bond instead, becoming inseparable partners during subsequent flight training.
Gary Cooper pops up as a cadet named White who wakes from a snooze as the duo enter his tent upon their arrival at flight school, dismisses the usefulness of good luck charms, offers the arrivals a bit of his half-eaten candy bar, and then leaves behind what’s left to do more practice flying. White is immediately killed in an accident, leaving Jack and David with no illusions about the danger of the business they’re engaging in. Cooper’s brief appearance here sent him skyrocketing to stardom as thousands wrote to Paramount demanding to know all about him. It’s interesting to consider why: not as conventionally handsome as either Rogers or Arlen, nonetheless, his subtle expressivity, the contrast between the dark shrewdness of his eyes and the beaming smile he gives just before waving them farewell, has the force of someone born to be in front of a movie camera, his register immediately declaring itself both subtler and more complex than the other men. If the plot of Wings is often naïve and aspects of it remain rooted in its time, Cooper is the sudden, looming emblem of cinema growing up, as well as learning to talk.
Schwimpf flunks out as a trainee pilot but becomes David’s mechanic. David quickly declares a tiny toy bear that was a childhood keepsake his charm, whilst Jack puts his trust in Sylvia’s picture. Sent to the Western front, they debut together in battle, sent up with the Flying Circus of Captain Kellermann, this film’s addition to the many movieland avatars of Manfred von Richthofen, aka, the Red Baron. The two rookies prove themselves, though Jack is forced down and nearly killed, and they soon evolve into hardened warriors of the sky, with Jack an ace famed amongst servicemen as he paints his trademark Shooting Star logo on his plane. Wings followed The Big Parade and preceded Hell’s Angels, which was supposed to be a competing production but which would be delayed for years by Howard Hughes’ outsized ambitions. Wings isn’t as sophisticated as either film in contemplating the social breadth of the war’s impact nor as interested in context, happy to present its two young gallants as heroes and Schwimpf as comic relief rather than straining to observe the many types fed into the doughboy ranks, as Vidor did, or the whirl of shifting worldviews and systems, which fascinated as Hughes and Whale, recalling rather Rex Ingram’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1922) as a blend of vaguely poetic wartime tragedy and big, sexy melodrama. It could be argued, really, that Wings leans mostly closer to something like Top Gun (1986) than to any of these, at least until its last act. The storyline is simple and often more than a little archaic. But Wings is made with such epic élan that it stands tall on its own, mostly due to the richness of Wellman’s filmmaking.
Wings is alight with vigorous cinematic ideas almost to the point of being show-offy, riddled with dynamic tracking shots, geometric framings, or shots with actors lunging at the camera—anything to invigorate the visuals. Sometimes Wellman incorporates outright symbolic flourishes, like boiling the defeat of the German army down to an overhead shot of a dead young warrior lying on a Knight’s Cross painted in a parade ground, and a plane’s propeller winding down and stopping in front of a field of white crosses in the background, signifying the death of a pilot amongst the last to fall in the war. That jokey early shot of Jack racing up to Sylvia and David on the swing sets up a visual motif, as many of the battle sequences are filmed and framed the same way, except with the camera mounted on winged steeds with the looming figure behind an enemy plane lunging for the kill.
High-flying exploits were the drawing card for Wings, of course, and the action sequences are quite something thanks to the stunt flyers, many of whom came from the ranks of the U.S. Army Air Force. Impressive is the climax of Jack’s first-ever aerial battle, which finishes with Jack crash-landing and hanging upside from his plane as the enemy continues to rake the wreck from above, and then dashes after an English soldier off No Man’s Land and through narrow, shallow trenches as cannon shells burst around him. The physical staging of the earthbound battle sequences unfolds on that mindboggling scale of many silent films, as the planes dash over recreations of battle-scarred France that stretch far and wide, where whole towns were been erected to be convincingly decimated in bombardments. The painstaking aerial photography makes the most of it all.
The action in Wings has a thrilling, dashing force that for the most part nudges it closer to action-adventure than the grim exigencies of antiwar dramas, but Wellman’s understanding of what he was portraying constantly declares itself in the teeming physical detail and the sense of force and motion he builds into the aerial sequences. Wellman turns what could have been a very simple sequence, a German Gotha bomber being wheeled out of its hanger and sent up on a mission, into a symphony of shots from ground level to high overhead in the same way filmmakers of a later generation might linger over some colossal spaceship, and with a similar implied sense of awe for technology in beauty and menace. One particularly great sequence sees a small town through which soldiers are moving being attacked by the Gotha, with Mary caught out in the street and forced to shelter under her ambulance as the town is blown to smithereens about her. Soldiers hiding in basements have floors above collapse on their heads, and the town church’s steeple is flung like so much rubbish to land on Mary’s vehicle. Jack and David fly in to save the day, cheered on by Mary and the soldiers below.
Both flyers emerge victorious, and they’re decorated by a French general for their achievement, but both men, David particularly, are left tired and anguished by the experience. Given leave in Paris, Jack goes on a wild bender, losing himself in drink and hanging out with prostitutes vying for his attention. Wellman tests the limits of what he could get away with as he surveys the wild nightlife of the Folies Bergere, tossing in visual jokes like a kilted Scot warrior and his black-satin-hugged floozy both bending down daintily to help with one of her shoes buttons, and another hooker stealing Jack’s flyer pin to use as a slight restraint on her plunging neckline. One startling shot sees Wellman’s camera swoop across several tables, noting the types enjoying their boozy flings, including an older lady paying off a gigolo and a lesbian couple, before zeroing in on Jack as he enjoys his cups, illustrating both the motley gallery of Parisian nightlife at the height of war-stoked frenzy and conveying Jack’s giddy, frantic joy in his forgetful drunkenness.
Mary, cruising the streets in her ambulance, hears that all of the American soldiers are being recalled for a big push, and she sets out to track Jack down, following his trail of painted shooting stars to the Folies Bergere, and tries unsuccessfully to extricate him from the arms of his coterie of clinging demimondaines. David skips upstairs with one lady, but Mary, helped by a kind member of the staff, disguises herself as a floozy to win Jack away: Jack, hallucinating bubbles, visualised as tiny animated circles drifting up from his champagne, decides to go with whichever girl is giving off the best bubbles, and shakes them both. Mary wins, of course, but once she manages to stow him safely in a bed, she’s wounded to see Sylvia’s picture his locket, and then is caught changing back into her uniform by a pair of MPs rounding up flyers: they assume she’s been naughty and tell her this will be the end of her war.
This sequence shows off the blend of the corny and the bravura that distinguishes Wings overall, with Wellman’s risqué, authentic sense of the reality of the young servicemen living it up between duels with death blending with silly, crowd-pleasing touches like those animated bubbles, and the goofy cavorts of the storyline as the film finally brings Mary properly back into the movie only to then write her out through some tawdry morality that becomes all the more gaudily entertaining for the blend. Bow, who had risen to the peak of her stardom after It (1927) to become just about the biggest thing in Hollywood, was essentially shoehorned into the film to increase its marketability in a manner similar to her film debut, Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), where she likewise inserted herself into a macho milieu. Her presence in Wings, plying her ebullient, energetic, blithely sexy yet tomboyish persona, is both one of the film’s great pleasures and also one of its problematic elements, as it creates a more than slight dissonance. The subplot of Mary venturing out to war just like the boys has a feminist flavour that’s very apt for Bow’s persona and the moment of the film’s making, and which Wellman accepts casually, even gleefully. But her presence in the drama is readily dispensable, and Bow herself summarised correctly that she was just the “whipped cream on top of the pie.” Her game physical performing and big, bright acting style seem to belong to a different movie in places, and Wellman pushes the film to the limits of tonal elasticity. It doesn’t help that the way the story is structured keeps Jack and Mary away from any substantial romancing. In fact, Jack’s dedication to Sylvia isn’t dispelled even as David wavers on confronting him about it, almost leading to an ugly quarrel between the two men that is interrupted by a call to battle. David, who’s already been morbidly anticipating his demise, leaves behind his keepsake, and goes down in combat.
A German flyer risks a hot reception to drop off word that David has been killed. Jack goes on the warpath, launching back into battle with hysterical bloodlust, not knowing David managed to escape his crash and the attempts of some Germans to capture him, and is sneaking back across enemy territory. Wings’ climactic scenes go all out in display of production spectacle as it recreates the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, part of the great “100 Days” offensive that ended the war, with a rah-rah tone, as the Yankees set the Germans scurrying on the ground. But Wellman’s tart, forceful vignettes continue to flow: two German officers interrupted as they drink beer in an observation balloon and forced to leap clear; a young American serviceman killed by a shell splinter as he smokes a cigarette without anyone realising he’s dead at first; a tank rolling over the top of a machine gun nest as the age of mechanical war finally renders the trench war slaughter obsolete.
Wellman handed out cameras to cast and crew to grab action any way they could, capturing soldiers, tanks, and aircraft in sprawling images amidst well-coordinated battle footage that is spectacular, if a bit impersonal, a triumph of technical cinema that remains detached from the story at hand. Triumphalism is contrasted by an overt swing towards ironic tragedy in the air. David manages to steal a German fighter plane from the Flying Circus, decimates several aircraft on the ground, and wings his way back to his friends. Except that Jack, who’s been flying around mercilessly gunning soldiers on the ground and shooting down enemy planes in his hunger for revenge, zeroes in on David and, assuming he’s just another enemy, shoots him down, David’s pleas as he realises his friend is trying to kill him unnoticed. David’s plane crashes into a farmhouse near a French unit and a military graveyard, and Jack lands to claim a trophy only to realise his mistake.
Wellman stages a lush pieta complete with a French farmer’s wife and her daughter, whose prayers are interrupted by the crash of David’s plane, to bear witness as incidental Madonna and child, and David’s passing is envisioned as an airplane propeller slowing to a stop. Jack kisses David in his death throes, a brotherly gesture that nonetheless brings the overtone of homoeroticism that often percolates under the surface of their relationship to a boil (and which bobs up again in The Public Enemy, 1931), complete with acknowledgement that their “friendship” ultimately was more important than anything else. A farmer helps Jack bury his friend in the midst of fervently dreamlike images—hand-carved crucifixes, crumbling brick, blooming flowers, leafy woods—in an eruption of pre-Raphaelite romantic melancholy as Wellman stages a funeral not just for one sorry hero but for a generation, one he was lucky not to join. David is laid to rest and with him the war, leaving Jack to head home alone to be greeted festively as a hero, but facing up to the onerous task of visiting David’s parents whose stern mourning crumbles before Jack’s distress, the hair at his temples stained prematurely white. Of course, all ends happily as Jack heads home to embrace Mary, and the two are last seen sitting in Shooting Star and kissing under a real shooting star scoring the night sky.
Wellman went on to have a major career and stands as one of the great underappreciated filmmakers, providing something of a darker, diastolic contemplation of American landscape to John Ford’s in the length of his career, with films that responded to the shifts in the zeitgeist. After Wings, he moved on to contemplate the impact of the Depression and the allure of criminality with The Public Enemy and Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and wryly analyse the cults of Hollywood and mass media with A Star Is Born (1936) and Nothing Sacred (1937). In the 1940s, The Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground, Wellman would get to make the kind of all-but-happenstance war narrative he touches on here, pruning away the box office pretensions and reducing the concerns of his cinema to the experience of men lost in the midst of tumult and agony. But Wings is an exemplar of late silent cinema in its force and visual daring, and still the entertainment machine it was made to be. It deserved, as much as any rival, to be the first Best Picture.
Amongst the giants of silent cinema, Erich von Stroheim looms very large, but not so much for his work, vital as it is, but for his legend, his persona. Von Stroheim all but created the iconography of the larger-than-life, dictatorial, obsessively visionary filmmaker that has echoed in many dimensions through the history of cinema. In his repeated, ultimately degrading clashes with movie chiefs who literally cut several of his great labours to pieces, he helped define two mirroring clichés of studio cinema: the great genius cut down by vulgar moneymen and the egomaniacal poseur incinerating cash to make extravagant follies. Stroheim, son of middle-class Austrian-Jewish parents, carved himself a place in the United States by affecting the style of an strident, Germanic aristocrat and aesthete. He developed a persona in his acting work that played exactly to a certain brand of New World perception of an Old World nabob, a corrupting and depraved roué under a surface of martial rigour and gilded pretence. Stroheim played on the blend of fascination and distaste for such a persona in the American psyche as it entered the First World War, when it wanted to be accepted as a grown-up superpower yearning for the dauntingly elevated aura symbolised by European culture whilst quietly longing to prove native strengths. Stroheim understood this dualism perfectly well, because he was in thrall to it, too, both assimilating himself into the allure of classes to which he didn’t belong and appropriating their glamour whilst relentlessly subverting and despoiling them with an immigrant outsider’s vitriol.
Stroheim found fame as an actor, his turns as German officers in wartime films earning him the immortal tag of “The Man You Love to Hate,” including his infamous turn in The Heart of Humanity (1918), where his embodiment of the most unrestrained propaganda poster’s idea of a villainous Hun, killing babies and ravishing nurses, enthralled viewers in a manner not dissimilar to later iconic bad guys like Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter. He simultaneously gained filmmaking experience working for D.W. Griffith, and quickly parlayed his fame and clout into a directing career. That career was relatively brief, but it swung through poles of great success and total ignominy with such force and clamour in the young industry that it still echoes with ring of myth.
Stroheim repeatedly went all-in on a bet that later seemed like the essence of uncommercial imprudence, but wasn’t actually so unreasonable at the time, that Hollywood could support a wing of ambition similar to the burgeoning European film scene. There, in the early ’20s, it wasn’t uncommon for respected master filmmakers like Abel Gance and Fritz Lang to make multi-episode films that attracted crowds of people willing and ready to be immersed in grand acts of creation. That cultural model was completely opposed to Hollywood’s self-image as a stud farm turning out well-shod, successful sprinters, the model that would win out. Stroheim also sensed that cinema was a drug of allure as well as reflection, a place people went to be delivered from the ordinary, and like Cecil B. DeMille, knew a dialogue of idealism and indulged depravity was part of the appeal, and so at least at first, Stroheim was happy to extend his established persona in his first two films, Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922). (With Greed (1924), Stroheim would reveal his deepest, most adamant artistic convictions, and paid a heavy price for them: the scornful drollery Stroheim exhibited as a director at first was scratched to reveal a much more properly dark and rigorous interest in human degradation viewed through art’s transformative prisms.) Foolish Wives was brutally cut down from the epic Stroheim proposed and was the subject of boardroom arguments with young, newly installed executive Irving Thalberg over its grossly inflated cost, mostly stemming from Stroheim’s fanatical attention to detail. Naturally, however, the off-screen controversy was transmuted into gleeful marketing, with the poster declaring that this was the first “million dollar movie”: Stroheim sold the lifestyle of the rich as the stuff of silver screen dreams, and for a long time afterward, however ruefully, Hollywood played along.
Foolish Wives is much stranger and denser than its sexy melodrama essentials suggest, as Stroheim’s pitch-black humour and fascination with transgressive urges constantly eat at the frame. The filmmaker toys with artistic ideas that still had no name at the time, signalled most unmistakably when, within a film called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim, a character reads a book called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim uses this device to suggest levels of reality in his work, even perhaps to indict it as something the eponymous imprudent hausfraus might hallucinate in the sun after a full day sipping cocktails and thumbing romance novels, their own gleeful vision of depravity on the sunny shores of the Cote d’Azur. Or is it Stroheim molesting those daydreams? He uses this device to insert commentaries that have overt, proto-Brechtian quotation marks around them, highlighting them as distinct from the texture of the work and yet part of them.
From the opening iris shot, the film has the quality of the dark fairytale it is, depicting as it does two relatively innocent characters taking a path into a shady stretch of the forest in search of experience and encountering imps who live off fat American babes in the woods—except that Stroheim prefers the perspective of his imps, casting himself as Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, supposedly a White Russian aristocrat exiled in Monaco. Stroheim never quite elucidates whether or not Karamzin is a phony,that is, a man born to be a user of other people or a convert to the creed, but his so-called cousins “Princess” Vera (Mae Busch) and “Her Highness” Olga Petchnikoff (Maud George) are his mistresses and confederates in maintaining their lavish lifestyle through con artistry backed up by bogus cash supplied to them by counterfeiter Cesare Ventucci (Cesare Gravina).
Stroheim introduces this coterie of reprobates in his opening scene, a sudden plunge into a little world at the Villa Amorosa, where the perverse is instantly rendered cozy, as Stroheim notes the two women taking their place at the breakfast table with their light, jockeying bitchiness, whilst Karamzin is out performing his morning exercise of target-shooting at bottles by the sea. He returns to his villa and indulges what the intertitles call his “cereal” and “coffee,” that is, caviar and ox blood. Ventucci arrives to dole out more of his counterfeit cash, with his feeble-minded but fully-grown daughter Marietta (Malvina Polo) in tow. Olga tells off servant Maruschka (Dale Fuller) by grasping and viciously twisting the flesh of her arm. Karamzin greedily eyes doll-clutching, goggle-eyed Marietta and gives her a bottle of his aftershave as a bauble to remember him by (or whatever it is: Karamzin dabs some of it behind his ears and then tastes it for good measure). This gaudy little crew operate through two-pronged attacks, zeroing in on wealthy, naïve couples, with Karamzin going after the wife and his “cousins” the husband as prelude to seducing and fleecing them. The newspapers announce the arrival of a seemingly perfect mark: the new U.S. Commissioner Plenipotentiary to Monaco Andrew J. Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife Helen (Miss DuPont). The lucky couple are brought into town on a U.S. cruiser and greeted on arrival by Prince Albert I (C.J. Allen). Watching from afar, Karamzin formulates his battle plan, and arranges to meet Helen in an outdoor café where she sits reading (yes, Foolish Wives), paying a busboy to page him and make him seem like a big shot. Karamzin swoops in for the chance to do a gallant turn in rescuing one of Helen’s wind-stirred gloves, to which Helen turns up her nose. A French officer and friend of the Hughes’ gives the pair a proper introduction, and soon he is fully accepted as a friend of the new arrivals, albeit with Andrew’s slightly sceptical regard.
From the start of Foolish Wives, however, the clock is ticking for Karamzin and company, as their many sins gallop to catch up with them. The most pathetic character is Maruschka, but she is also the one holding unrealised power. Karamzin had made her another of his household concubines on a promise to marry her, a promise he, of course, perpetually wriggles out of. “I am, as they say, free, white, and twenty-one,” Helen declares to her husband at one point, making remarkably plain her nascent determination to get a little adventure. Andrew wryly retorts with a salute before slinking off to his separate bedroom: “Well, I’m married—sunburned—and forty-one…but—my eyes are pretty good yet.” Much of the narrative (reminiscent of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe) is built around whether Helen will be seduced by Karamzin into giving him her money, body, or both, willingly or unwillingly, but Stroheim plies no sense of endangered innocence. A glimpse of Stroheim’s “book” in the film offers a diegetic comment that Americans’ obsession with making money leaves them uninterested in the social games that obsess Europeans, which could be seen as the director finding an ingenious way to insult his audience but is also a spur to Helen’s adventuring as she reads the book over and over again; by the finale, it gives a sop that contradicts this possible slight, as Andrew stands up for his moral code and Karamzin’s adherence proves utterly hollow. A wry, slightly horrifying sequence sees Karamzin at the height of his bantam cock parading wowing Helen and a crowd in a sport-shooting contest using live pigeons released from boxes, leaving little doubt about Karamzin’s ability to shoot down anything not likely to shoot back. Once he’s ingratiated himself sufficiently into the Hughes’ company, he contrives to drag Helen off with him to the Hotel des Rêves, a small, out-of-the-way rendezvous.
Stroheim’s acid wit is apparent from the outset in Foolish Wives, and the film often has the tone of an extended dirty joke, a semi-Sadean comedy of manners and immorality. The overtones of cruelty and phoniness intimated in the opening scene at the Villa Amorosa (that name a sarcasm that grows ever more vicious as the film goes on) and the vivid strangeness of the characters border on surreal; Karamzin and the Ventuccis seem to have crawled out of some Gogol-esque fantasia. Stroheim intercuts Andrew being received by Prince Albert with Helen’s introduction to Karamzin, both meeting figures who exemplify the local society and creed, the cockroach scuttling under the gilt. The core sequence when Karamzin takes Helen for a day out in the country becomes an epic burlesque of Victorian romantic fiction. The “hotel of dreams” is a waystation engineered for an adventure into pastoral territory that Karamzin knows so well he “was soon able to get himself — ‘hopelessly lost!’” Weather aids Karamzin’s schemes, as a powerful storm blows in whilst he and Helen are struggling through marshy reeds on the edge of a stream. Lightning shatters the footbridge over the waterway, and Karamzin tries to transport them over in a rowboat, only for it to spring a leak and sink. He plucks Helen up and carries her to shore, transformed into exactly the sort of gallant cavalier he strives so assiduously to look like whilst never actually giving a damn for it. They take refuge in an old woman’s cabin, one that Karamzin has used so often for this sort of thing Olga calls it “Mother Garoupe’s Hotel,” a den of picturesque crudity and pastoral filth. Karamzin hovers while Helen dries off and is installed in the owner’s bed. What should be the moment of irrepressible passion is instead a drooling conman waiting for his chance to leap in between the sheets with the blowsy Yankee lady.
Just as he gets his chance, however (in a scene blurred almost to incoherence to avoid censor furore, but critics still rose to the bait in calling the film as a whole a “slur on American womanhood”), a monk caught in the storm comes looking for shelter: pokes his head through the window and eyes the scene suspiciously. The monk enters and settles down for the night, forcing Karamzin to bitterly nurse a serious case of blue balls in the armchair by the fire until dawn. Throughout this sequence, Stroheim is merciless in mocking not just romantic fancy, but also the kind of idealised rustic melodrama that most other filmmakers, including even Murnau five years later with Sunrise (1927), would ply with ripe sentiment. Olga covers for the duo by phoning the ambassador from the Hotel des Rêves, and once returned to her apartment in the morning, Helen sneaks back into her bedroom. Andrew had responded to her absence the night before with a weirdly patient grin anyway, as if ruefully testing his own limits of tolerance. Stroheim’s reputation as an obsessive craftsman of authenticity has somewhat obscured his great, influential visual talent, though that effort certainly pays off in depicting the teeming street life hovering on the streets of Monaco, brass bands and horse guards turning out to greet the new ambassador amidst gawking tourists, and the central, mammoth recreation of the Monte Carlo Grand Casino. Stroheim’s realistic method represented an alternate tack from the emerging German approach of expressionism, and today might seem to anticipate such later, rigorous, maximalist filmmakers as Kubrick, Leone, or Cimino.
Stroheim’s often vertiginously geometric graphics, seen at their strongest in the opening and in studying the humans with godlike disdain inside the casino, anticipate Orson Welles at his most baroque and invoke Stroheim’s recurring obsession with humans in relation to one another—class, broadly, but also invoking other forms of power and subordination. Stroheim alternates such shots with densely tangled mural-like framings, with faces, flowers, rococo architecture and stray dust specks all privileged to the point of animation, pointing on to the shot-by-shot deliberation, densely illustrative, of Greed. Yet, the photography of Foolish Wives is as vividly chiaroscuro and drenched in inky murk as anything the expressionists were doing, and Stroheim’s filmmaking often seems as fervently mythological as Lang’s Die Nibelungen, complete with his mock fairytale castle consumed by flames, the rustic hovel a den of stygian lightplay, and a character’s suicide filmed as a towering shadowplay against the rising sun on the sea. A scene in which Ventucci ushers Karamzin into his daughter’s bedroom as she lies sleeping is shot as a peak moment of visual beauty. Beams of light slanting through the room’s shutters illuminate dust teeming in the air, suggesting something at once unkempt and numinous about the abode and the way Ventucci enshrines the girl he promises to defend at all costs. Ventucci unfolds a knife and jabs neurotically at the air, miming for Karamzin’s edification and perhaps warning. Stroheim was a realist in the same way Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Zola were, providing a fervent, boiling mass of magnified human strangeness emerging from vividly depicted backdrops. Stroheim is often regarded as a filmmaker who tried to force more mature artistic values in American cinema. Here this pretence manifests as literary awareness, both in the nascent modernist joke of the meta-narrative and also in the weird, fragmented intertitles that appear throughout the film, written with a quality close to stream-of-consciousness. These titles provide a witty approximation of some imagined, talented, poet-layabout expatriate steeped in the local habitués and muttering acerbically beautiful notes (perhaps the “Erich von Stroheim” who wrote the book Foolish Wives): “Mondaine — Cocotta — Kings and Crooks — Amoura! Amoura! — And Suicides!” or “Again morning — sun-draped terrace — Sapphire sea — all the world on a holiday — Rifle Fire — Brooding doves — Brutality of man — and still the sun.”
Karamzin’s success in assaulting Helen’s reputation and good sense on their rural exploit and failure to actually get what he’s after proves a turning point, after which Karamzin’s decline begins. Karamzin’s hunger for erotic satisfaction constantly exceeds his interest in his other projects, whilst his use of other people purely to meet his own desires reaches a hyperbolic point when he manipulates Maruschka into giving him her life savings—a paltry amount by his usual standards, but enough to get him through a night at the gaming tables. Karamzin is at his most entertaining the worse he gets, as when he drips wine on a tablecloth to make Maruschka think he’s crying. Stroheim wasn’t anyone’s idea of a matinee idol, and yet he inhabits his character with such outsized swagger and charisma that he pulls off his own charade of devastating gigolo, his bulbous head, flaring nostrils, and rubbery, sensuous lips like some caricaturist’s attempt to sketch lust, the deadly sin personified—which indeed they often did on film posters. Stroheim plays his role as Stroheim with a glee that’s striking, and hard to find a likeness for in later cinema: he’s just as egotistically masochistic as the wave of Method stars like Brando that would come up much later, always hungry to be nailed up on their crosses, but so willing to play the fiend without a hint of sympathy for the devil, in a drama that takes Mephistopheles from supporting character to centre frame. Obsessed with amorality as it is, though, Foolish Wives is no monument to it—far from it. Stroheim is equally gleeful in tracking his bad characters to ignominious ends and depicting the moments when the worms turn. Actually, Stroheim’s moral compass was rigorous, and to a certain extent, his films boil down to simple lessons—greed is bad, stick with your spouse, marry for love and not gain, etc.—made rich by his realisation, his feel for the contradictory impulses that consume people and poison societies.
Most crucial and disturbing is his feel for how people often subordinate themselves to characters like Karamzin in their desire for him to give them something they lack—here, sexual pleasure and social status—and the way people like him exploit others endlessly. Stroheim would later take up the theme of sexuality coupled with avarice most intensely in Greed, but inverted; there repression fuels the hunger for money as a malformed need. An earlier vignette of an American soldier who failed to rescue the glove Karamzin retrieved is taken up later when the same man neglects to hold the casino door for her; she rears on him irritably, only to realise the veteran has lost his arms. Stroheim’s irony about appearances and the real nature of soldierly duty is obvious, but serves the purpose of radically shifting the film’s tone. Stroheim takes it a step further as Helen wraps herself in the man’s limp jacket arms and weeps on his shoulder. This scene becomes at once a perverse approximation of a lover’s tryst and a sentimental paean that mirrors the emotional amputees seen everywhere else in the film; it is even shot through an undercurrent of morbid eroticism.
Stroheim sarcastically restages the Russian Revolution in miniature as domestic-erotic revolt, as Karamzin’s insults to the desperate, fraying Maruschka, drive the servant to lunacy and revenge. This pivotal moment comes as Stroheim depicts her weeping on her bed in her dingy servant’s room, and then zooms in to capture the moment when infernal inspiration takes hold. This camera move was one of Stroheim’s signature touches, the closing in of the camera’s gaze mimicking entrance into the private emotional experience of his characters, and here, coupled with Fuller’s performance, the effect is electrifying. Karamzin pushes his plan closer to fruition during a night on the town, as he has his “cousins” cordon off Andrew at the casino tables whilst he gambles with Helen: she wins a huge wad of cash, and Karamzin coaxes Helen to the villa, where he lays on her basically the same sob story he told Maruschka to get her winnings. Maruschka, however, her wits snapped, sets fire to the villa, entrapping the couple on a high floor.
The fire department rushes to the scene, along with a mass of rubberneckers, whereupon Karamzin jumps into the waiting canvas ahead of Helen. Sarcastically asked by his soldier friends about town why he did this, he replies coolly that he had to show Helen it was safe. But Andrew, discovering the note Karamzin sent Helen to get her there in the first place, confronts him in the casino. Once Karamzin removes his monocle at his request and tells him, “Go to hell!”, Andrew wallops him so hard he crashes to the floor. During the film’s production, Allen died suddenly, and rather than reshoot his scenes with another actor, Stroheim instead employed a body double. That’s not surprising, as Allen’s performance, subtly comic and intelligent, is excellent. Karmazin tries to brush off Andrew’s humiliation of him, but is left to wander the streets alone at night, disgraced and essentially penniless and homeless, whilst his mistresses quickly pack up their belongings in the villa and flee. Justice, when it comes, is deserved, but merciless: the two women are picked up by fraud police who have been tracking them, stripped of their blonde flapper wigs to reveal the coal-coloured bobs beneath.
Karamzin, on the hunt for some sort of satisfaction, steals into Marietta’s bedroom in Ventucci’s house. Here, the punitive editing the film was subjected to most clearly affected Stroheim’s concluding ironies and epiphanies. Karamzin’s sexual assault on Mariette was cut, as was Ventucci’s vengeful killing of him: the incident is instead merely suggested as Ventucci is depicted dragging Karamzin’s corpse down to dump in a sewer. The point remains, however muted: Karamzin’s gross rapacity finally destroyed him, and his journey to the bottom is completed in the most undignified way possible, anticipating the gangster antiheroes of the early ’30s and their sticky ends. Stroheim also intended to depict Karamzin’s departure as the rhyme to the reconciliation of the Hughes and Helen giving birth, suggesting the cyclical nature of life. This denouement, like much of Stroheim’s oeuvre, is lost to time and rumour. What’s left of Foolish Wives testifies to a great cinematic talent clearing his throat just in time to have it cut.
The United States is undergoing another of its periodic hissy fits over waves of immigration that are disrupting the social pecking order and mobilizing some people to hop up and down on the hands of time to reverse the course of history. Nonetheless, as the saying goes, what’s old is new again. In the first decade or so of the 20th century, immigration set off a wave of concern that the pimps who were luring off-the-boat female immigrants into prostitution would start preying on the flower of white American maidenhood. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that director James Gray took up this type of story just last year in his historical drama The Immigrant .) George Loane Tucker’s 1913 Traffic in Souls, one of the earliest feature-length films and from the same year as our blogathon project, Cupid in Quarantine, pretended a concern with so-called white slavery while offering audiences the titillation they craved in this era of the earliest film femme fatale—the vamp. Traffic in Souls was a huge hit, providing a solid foundation on which Universal Pictures was built, and earning its place on the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” film.
Traffic in Souls is equal parts overwrought melodrama, social indictment, and documentary, which makes it a fascinating film as a crowd pleaser with actual relevance. The film stratifies the worlds of respectable American society, carpetbaggers in morning suits and silk, squalid criminals, and isolated and vulnerable immigrants. The Barton family comprises an invalid inventor father (William H. Turner), responsible eldest daughter Mary (Jane Gail), who is engaged to sincere Officer Burke (Matt Moore), and devil-may-care younger daughter Lorna (Ethel Grandin). Lorna is put in danger when she is spotted in the candy store where she and Mary work by the manager of a prostitution ring (Howard Crampton) run by the wealthy social climber William Trubus (William Welsh), who hides his activities by heading the International Purity and Reform League. Such reformist associations often were hissworthy villains in silent films, with meddlesome social workers tearing babies away from the bosoms of their destitute mothers with some frequency.
Before we get to the main event—Lorna’s kidnapping and rescue—Loane Tucker offers a look at how brothels operate. The film, shot in New York City, offers location shooting at Ellis Island, the Upper West Side, and in Penn Station, where newcomers to the big city from small towns and other countries are waylaid by “helpful” procurers, like the seemingly safe “Respectable” Smith (William Burbridge), who offer to help them find their lodgings or take them to an employment service. Two Swedish girls (Flora Nason and Vera Hansey) looking like low-rent Nestle milkmaids in long-braid wigs, are separated from the brother (William Powers) who meets them at the boat, and lured into the brothel by a homemade sign scribbled in English and Swedish that says “Swedish Employment Agency.” Inside the brothel, the film increases its veracity by showing the African-American madams and prostitutes who actually comprised the largest part of the working girls in New York.
Technology plays a large role in this film. The manager writes the daily returns on a tablet that form magically on a similar tablet in Trubus’ office, the imagination of the film’s creators prefiguring email. Trubus is unmasked for what he is by Mary, discharged from the candy store because of the immorality attached to her sister’s situation—kidnapping is no excuse for low morals, apparently—and hired by Mrs. Trubus (Millie Liston) to replace the sexually loose secretary (Laura McVicker) she has discovered smooching with the manager. Mary learns the truth and brings a microphone her father has invented to eavesdrop on Trubus and his manager—an early phone bug. We also have an early example of product placement—Edison wax cylinders are used to record the conversation the bug picks up.
I quite liked the precision of the police assault on the brothel. Loane Tucker builds suspense as the police get their orders and man various positions on top of and surrounding the building. When the police storm the building, the camera work is kinetic and dizzying, and Burke’s pursuit of the manager to the roof ends in a quick, realistic way with the manager ending as a slick on the cement below, a scene with which moviegoers are now quite familiar.
The ruin of Trubus is the ruin of his family as well—his daughter’s (Irene Wallace) betrothel to the season’s most eligible bachelor unceremoniously ended, an outraged mob screaming for blood at his predatory hypocrisy, and his wife killed by the shock and shame of the double life he has been leading. The audience feels that Lorna has learned her lesson about straying into a willful life of her own, a redemption of their own for having thrilled to the madam’s whip hovering over her quivering, tearful form.
Traffic in Souls has been released on DVD by Flicker Alley, a great friend to precious film history from the silent age. Our blogathon is dedicated to restoring these priceless parts of our cultural heritage. Won’t you please make a donation to bring Cupid in Quarantine back into the world.
During the silent film era, exoticism was all the rage. The original Latin lover, Rudolph Valentino, was the stand-out heartthrob of the age, but Myrtle Gonzalez, Gilbert Roland, Antonio Moreno, and Beatriz and Vera Michelena all had their followings, and Dolores del Rio and Lupe Velez became bonafide movie stars. It took Valentino’s death in 1926 for Mexican singer/dancer/actor Ramon Novarro to become Hollywood’s reigning Latin lover, a place he would have held easily in any open field. Novarro combined the athletic daring and comic wit of Douglas Fairbanks with the dusky good looks of Valentino, and threw in his own dazzling smile for good measure. The camera loved him, and soon, so did audiences all over the world. Novarro almost single-handedly saved MGM from bankruptcy when his star turn in Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ hit theatres in 1925; after that, he made up to four pictures a year through 1934.
The Pagan came about in the middle of Novarro’s heyday, and aside from recycling some popular tropes of the silent era, it lavishes a good deal of attention on Novarro’s sex appeal. It also has a documentary quality to it, filmed as it was in Tahiti, with fascinating footage of workers harvesting coconuts and making copra from it: a title card even tells us what copra is and what its uses are. Perhaps most interesting to me are the musical threads that run through and beyond the film itself.
Stalwart representative of white progress Roger Slater (Donald Crisp) sails to the island where half-white/half-native Henry Shoesmith, Jr. (Novarro) owns a vast coconut grove in hopes of striking a deal with Shoesmith to harvest the crop for copra production. Slater learns from an Asian banker where Henry lives and that the young man takes after his native mother—in other words, he’s too lazy to work the plantation. Slater and Henry meet cute when Slater goes to the manor house looking for Henry and is directed to a pair of bare feet by a servant. Henry is lounging barechested and rebuffs Slater, telling him he should come back later. Henry is much more interested in sleeping and playing his ukulele than in talking business.
I’m not sure why, but every tropical paradise seems to have a white prostitute, and we meet this island’s good-time girl, Madge, (Renée Adorée, a dead ringer for another actress of the night, Shirley MacLaine) as she’s being thrown out of the bank. Unaccountably, we next see her lounging with Henry in a field, playing his ukulele to him. The camera pans up Novarro’s half-naked body as Madge asks with a sigh why Henry never liked her. Of course, she means in the biblical sense, but Henry is such an innocent that he merely answers that he does like her very much. At this moment, Henry’s sexual urgings are awakened when he starts to sing “Pagan Love Song” and hears the song returned by a woman on board a ship anchored near his field. Madge warns him that the ship belongs to a nasty white trader—Slater—but he responds, “she native voice” and swims out to meet the lovely young woman whose voice he heard—Tito (Dorothy Janis), an orphan and Slater’s ward.
The Pagan offers echoes of Sadie Thompson (1928), but with a much lighter and more peripheral touch. Instead of a sanctimonious preacher who falls for the prostitute, Slater is this film’s reformer, and his project is Tito. The film is quiet in portraying Slater’s attraction to Tito, with Crisp underplaying what could have been a cardboard villain role; he gently plays with her hair while she reads scripture aloud to him and projects as much fatherly regard as he does lustful suitor. It’s not clear how long she has been his ward, but when Henry appears as a rival for her attentions, Slater’s affections stir to the point of “sacrificing” himself to her betterment by forcing her to marry him through the power of his parental authority.
More central to the film is the clash of Western progress/colonialism and native culture. The film states its case in the opening moments of the film, remarking that Slater is too busy to notice the natural beauty all around him as the camera scans the tropical idyll. At the same time, Henry is such a naïve nature boy that it’s hard not to see some condescension in the film’s attitude toward native people, though his cluelessness is played largely for laughs. He has no interest in or knowledge of money, accepting no payment for giving Slater exclusive rights to harvest his coconuts because he has too many to eat himself and similarly giving away the goods in his plantation store on the promise of payment as he tries and fails to become a businessman worthy of Tito’s affections. Despite being cheated of his plantation, Henry only becomes angry when Slater snatches Tito away. Even Slater’s comeuppance is dealt by the impersonal hand of nature, not Henry.
It’s safe to say that The Pagan was the Out of Africa (1985) or Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) of its time—an escapist travelogue that allowed audiences to enjoy the attractive island and human scenery and dream about a simple life unencumbered by financial concerns. Novarro and Janis are a gorgeous couple who play extremely well together and provide an island of calm and joyful play to balance the more melodramatic moments of this generally solid film. Because of the location shooting, the film was made as a silent, and employed a MovieTone synchronized score for the musical interludes, though I think I detected a very short scene that seemed to be sound-recorded on one of the interior sets.
It is the music connections of this film that I found most interesting while researching this review. Novarro had ambitions to be a professional opera singer, but his voice lacked the strength to carry it off. Nonetheless, a contemporary review of the film by the New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall says, “Mr. Novarro, who is to make his bow on the Berlin operatic stage within a week or so in ‘La Tosca,’ is heard singing a few songs in the course of this film.” “Pagan Love Song” was produced by the composer/lyricist team of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed (“I Cried for You,” “You Were Meant for Me,” “Singin’ in the Rain”), the latter of whom would play a monumental role in creating and fostering movie musicals in Hollywood. Finally, the beautiful Dorothy Janis, who also sang in The Pagan, ended up marrying popular, Chicago-based bandleader Wayne King in 1932 and retired from movies.
The shadow of Fritz Lang’s early work still falls heavily not just upon many filmmakers, but also upon a swathe of modern pop culture. The remarkable run of movies he made before he was driven to leave Germany by the Nazi ascension helped define, if not originate, a handful of major film genres: the cliffhanger action film, with The Spiders (1919-20); the historical epic, with Die Nibelungen (1924); the science-fiction dystopia with Metropolis (1926); the spy thriller, with Spione (1927); the space opera, with The Woman in the Moon (1929); and even, in his first sound film, M (1931), the serial killer drama. Lang and his major collaborator and wife, the writer Thea Von Harbou, didn’t invent all of the elements loaded into these films, but their increasingly expensive and prestigious explorations of each mode codified these different genres in visual and narrative terms, becoming inescapable points of reference for genre artisans, apprentice filmmakers, and film scholars alike ever since.
Lang’s works also reveal common roots in a stock of archetypes, basic concepts, and linking thematic concerns that Lang was able to transfer onto almost any genre. When he made The Spiders, Lang had clearly been under the immediate influence of Louis Feuillade’s serials, with their secret criminal organisations and insidious masterminds at the centre of an international web of intrigue. With The Weary Death (1921) and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Lang developed that world into something deeper and richer. Dr. Mabuse became one (or, rather, two) of the most legendary works of the silent era, properly defining Lang’s artistry not only in its moment, but for the next 40 years, as he returned to the film’s evil genius twice more, each at a crucial moment in his career, including his swan song.
Luxembourg writer Norbert Jacques’ novel provided Lang and Von Harbou with a template for a new take on Feuillade’s semi-surreal universe, as Jacques had taken Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty and evolved him from the hero’s sketchy antagonist and mirror into a major protagonist, even antihero, overshadowing the law enforcers who chase him. His capacity for evil suddenly matches the modern world’s dark psyche, feeding off both its septic spirit and its dehumanised systems. Mabuse’s DNA is shared by the many nefarious protagonists who followed him—Superman’s Lex Luthor, Batman’s Joker, Ian Fleming’s Blofeld, George Lucas’ Palpatine, and even John le Carré’s KARLA. Whilst Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu did something similar almost concurrently to Jacques’ creation, Fu was more safely rendered as an Other, an exotic fiend, whereas Mabuse is the spidery genius who is both king and exile within his own society. The influence of Mabuse is not just restricted to comic books and pulp fiction, though. Lang helped create the artistic mode that became cinema’s first great aesthetic movement, German Expressionism, when he cowrote the script of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1919) for director Robert Wiene. F. W. Murnau, Lang’s greatest rival in Germany at the time and a subtler visual stylist, took the style further with Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and codified the horror genre in the process.
With Dr. Mabuse, Lang began to render the expressionist visual language in a subtler, less pervasively unreal manner, continuing to cloak sets in chiaroscuro shadows and offering lighting and design effects that take on a quality of abstraction that acts only an overlay on otherwise lifelike methods. The result surely helped transfer Expressionism from a fantastic niche to mainstream cinema and planted seeds for French Poetic Realism and Hollywood’s widespread embrace of a similarly restrained Expressionism that culminated in film noir. The first part of Dr. Mabuse, subtitled “The Great Gambler: An Image of the Age (Der große Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit),” kicks off with an epic sequence of analytical cinema that may well have pollinated Sergei Eisenstein and the Moscow film school’s imaginations as they were thinking about how to encode intellectual analysis into the structure of film, and left some ideas for generations of filmmakers making everything from heist movies to documentaries. With a title card kicking off the epic as “He – and his day,” as Lang depicts one of Mabuse’s plots in systematic detail, from when the villain wakes up in the morning through to the culmination of his plot. Along the way his henchmen stage an intricate robbery, knocking out a diplomatic envoy on a train and stealing a portfolio containing a secret commercial treaty between Switzerland and France from him. The theft has been arranged to send the stock market into a selling frenzy, allowing Mabuse to buy up stock cheaply. He does so whilst standing on a pillar above the churning mass of brokers who hysterically give themselves up to the panic Mabuse has inflicted on them.
Mabuse then contrives to have the treaty discovered. The market rises, and he sells his stock for a vast fortune. All in a day’s work for the extraordinary mastermind, but his thrill is not money, but power—power he works in subtle, intimate, interpersonal ways much more than on a national level. For a 1922 German audience, the inference here would have been clear and frightening, as the country was in the depth of an economic crisis with skyrocketing inflation. Early in the film, Lang depicts Mabuse readying himself for his enterprise by thumbing a set of photos of apparently highly disparate men like a set of tarot cards: this has a sequel at the conclusion of the opening, as Lang holds on a shot of the empty, desolate stock exchange and shows another succession of faces, each of which has been involved in the deception and each revealed to be a different disguise of Mabuse. Whilst aspects of Dr. Mabuse are ripe melodrama, this sense of the tale being based in the bleak realities and the vague but vital workings of modernity’s new, interconnected financial and industrial zones gave Lang’s film a peculiar and important stature. Paranoia was the underlying state of the German psyche, the sense that somebody, somewhere was responsible for the national collapse.
The beauty and alarming quality of Jacques’ creation was that Mabuse was able to take on more definitely political inferences than predecessors like Moriarty, Fantômas, Count Fosco, and Svengali—indeed, Jacques had intended him in that fashion. He sits upon modernism’s fault lines, easily tweaked to become a figure of left-wing paranoia as a titan of predatory capitalism, or more reactionary viewpoints, as he also offers an emblem of new-fangled psychiatry (his actual medical profession) and traditionally immoral pursuits like gambling, which the film presents as the last and greatest existential rush for a rotting society through its capacity to make or strip fortunes according to chance, but with Mabuse subverting this by getting his kicks from eliminating chance and playing the player. Lang already seems to be subverting a familiar structure even as he’s erecting it, as he introduces Mabuse and his aides up front, making them more familiar to the audience than the traditional hero figure whose perspective it is usually forced to take. In spite of his myriad sidelines, Mabuse continues to don disguises and delight in fleecing the indolent sons and daughters of the upper classes by mesmerically manipulating them into losing at cards. Mabuse’s network of agents includes his spindly, cocaine-addled manservant Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga); Pesch (Georg John), his driver and hitman; and Hawasch (Charles Puffy), who runs a counterfeiting operation for his overlord that employs a gaggle of blind men in a dingy cellar. Such a plot touch carries a hint of Edgar Wallace’s grotesquery and also a kind of grim psychological symbolism.
Another of Mabuse’s best agents is a Folies Bergère dancer, Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen), who is able to collect information on high rollers who come to see her performances and pass it on to Mabuse. Attending one of her shows, Mabuse sets his sights on a new victim she points out, young heir Edgar Hull (Paul Richter), and hypnotises him from afar. Calling himself Hugo Balling, Mabuse directs Hull to give him admittance to his gentleman’s club, and there begins to fleece the young man by forcing him to play badly. Once Mabuse has his fill, he gives Hull a card with the address where he can come to pay his debt. Hull, when he snaps out of his stupor, naturally puzzles over what’s happened, and begins to dig, visiting the address and finding that a real Hugo Balling lives there and has no idea what Hull wants. Word of Hull’s vexing enigma soon attracts the attention of State Attorney Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), who contacts the young man and begins to theorise about a hidden criminal mastermind he dubs “The Great Unknown.” Wenk’s entrance into the story gives Dr. Mabuse a hero, and his job, distinct from that of policeman or private eye, gives him both a level of power and status, and flexibility in investigating his white whale. Wenk strikes a deal with Hull to follow him into the city’s gambling communities (which city never quite stated) in search of the mysterious mastermind in an underworld, rubbing shoulders with social elite, gathering in seedy dives and upscale palaces, in search of the same secret nerve of a corrupt society that Mabuse himself has located and presses with sadistic pleasure.
With The Spiders, Lang had suggested a penchant for décor effects that lent his cinematic images a quality of stylisation close to cubism and other nascent forms of modern art, a quality that Caligari made far more explicit than Lang preferred. Here, Lang’s style comes into fuller fruition, before Die Nibelungen would see Lang push his stylisation to extremes. The world he creates in Mabuse is more restrained whilst grazing the edges of an equally strange and dreamy netherworld, full of framings that place characters in traps of space with mysterious design motifs and incipient shadows, and interiors replete with an art deco designer’s idea of limbo’s antechambers. Lang throws in an aesthetic in-joke that partly disguises a serious subtext, as a toff asks Mabuse in his professional guise what he thinks of Expressionism; Mabuse replies with sagacious dismissal, “Expressionism is a mere pastime — but why not? Everything today is a pastime!” Mabuse’s disdain for artistic fashion matches his contempt for the arts he himself has mastered as a healer, which he turns to the only pursuit he does not see as a pastime—the acquisition of power. But Lang’s mise-en-scène contradicts, entrapping and enfolding character, and seems to become all but animated and nearly literal by the diptych’s hallucinatory finale. Lang’s most dynamic cinematic effects are mostly employed to force the audience to share Mabuse’s viewpoint as he commits his criminal acts, with iris shots and crowding fields of black mimicking Mabuse’s intent as he zeroes in on new victims and begins to work his hypnotic will, usually intercut with the victim’s vision of Mabuse’s false faces in leering close-up. Mabuse’s hypnotic gifts coincide with Lang’s filmmaking vision, rupturing holes in reality.
The first encounter between Mabuse and Wenk takes place at the gaming table, except with the two men both in disguise: Mabuse wearing a perversely hooked nose and tufts of wild hair and Wenk done up as a middle-aged milquetoast. Mabuse tries to hypnotise Wenk with his pair of glasses, which Wenk recognises as Chinese-made. “Yes, from Tsi-Nan-Fu,” Mabuse replies. The name of this city becomes a charged and mystic utterance that takes over Wenk’s mind, appearing as printed words on his cars and glowing through the woodwork of the gaming table. Wenk manages to throw off Mabuse’s influence, and with it his disguise, chasing his quarry out of the den and to the Hotel Excelsior. But Wenk is foiled by one of Mabuse’s agents who drives a taxi fitted out with gas to knock out hapless passengers. Wenk, unconscious, is set adrift in a rowboat, but he’s rescued by the coast guard. The close call drives Mabuse to order the deaths of both Wenk and Hull as the duo continue their excursions to night spots. Mabuse assigns Carozza to get close to Hull. She pretends to respond to his playboy charms to insinuate her way into his house and find out what the dynamic duo are up to. When the trio visits a swanky new gambling house, Carozza leads them into a trap: Hull is shot by one of Mabuse’s men, but manages to tell Wenk of Carozza’s involvement before dying. Carozza, fleeing the scene, is encircled and captured by hordes of policemen.
In spite of its influence, Dr. Mabuse stands at a distance from the contemporary thirst for backstory and tales of formative influence on titanic heroes and villains. This is however not quite the same thing as the role-casting of rank melodrama, but something else again: Mabuse is not a type but a force, a product, a symbol. Mabuse’s background is unimportant; he comes from nowhere, and his motives are reduced to singular need, a fully formed monstrosity spat up by the diseased sectors of modernism’s psyche. He exists only insofar as he acts, dedicating himself entirely to mastery of any situation, and succeeds. He is infinitely malleable rather than specific, capable of becoming any figure of covert or overt power, from labour leader to stockbroker to mystic to physician, drawing secret analogies between such roles and conflating worlds that begin to mimic each other—the gaming table and the spiritualist’s séance, the aristocratic drawing room and the sailors’ pub. As physically real as Mabuse is, he retains emblematic power—indeed Lang’s later instalments took him to the edge of noncorporeal subsistence, surviving as a force of will. Wenk’s chief quality is his singular strength of mind which allows him to resist the villain, but even that only stretches so far.
The clash of Mabuse and Wenk hinges around two women and two men who represent uneasy partnerings loaded with deception. Carozza’s fake romance with Hull makes a mockery of the expected niceties of romance between pretty young things living the high life, because Carozza loves Mabuse with a fixated ardour, at once obsessively morbid and yet finally transcendent in her pure worship of Mabuse as a being of Nietzschean power amongst social cattle. Even when thrown into prison, Carozza’s obeisant loyalty cannot be shaken; indeed, it becomes all the more exultant in the chance to prove her sublime devotion. The second coupling is the Count Told (Alfred Abel) and his wife, Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welker). Their home life seems pleasantly dull, the Count a childish soul who delights in games and toys. As a result, the Countess haunts the gaming rooms to watch the gamblers in the throes of agony and ecstasy as a druglike salve for her own lack of sensation, almost a caricature of privileged weltschmerz as she opines, “I fear there is nothing in this world which can interest me for long – Everything that can be seen from a car or an opera box is partly disgusting, partly uninteresting, always boring!” Wenk meets her in the course of his journey through the underworld, and the two connect as outsiders fascinated by the underworld. Wenk even helps Dusy make a getaway when her husband unexpectedly turns up at one of the gambling dens.
Yet, Dusy is linked more precisely with Mabuse in their mutual pretensions to standing above the harrying world and studying the patterns created by the meshing human life driven by desire, greed, and the need for pleasure—except that Dusy remains aloof, whereas Mabuse manipulates. Not surprisingly, then, the Countess becomes an object of erotic obsession for Mabuse once he encounters her. One of Lang’s constant fascinations, especially in his films written by Von Harbou, comes to the fore as destabilising force of sexual obsession rattles humans with pretences to omnipotent power. When he is invited to the Tolds’ townhouse as Mabuse the reputed psychiatrist, the villain stands apart from the Count and his friends as they play cards, discovering kinship with Dusy as an observer with pretences to godlike disinterest and insight. He starts to school Dusy in the nature of his idea of godlike power as he hypnotises her husband and drives him to cheat during a game, prompting a walkout by his friends and the Count’s complete desolation. Then, he subdues Dusy and kidnaps her. The Tolds came into Mabuse’s sights when he attends a séance with the couple, and more properly because of Wenk, who asked Dusy to pose as a prisoner and be locked up with Carozza, a task that turns into an interlude of startling emotional intensity for the two women, as Carozza easily discerns Dusy’s purpose and dazzles the worldly cynic with her own transfiguring faith in Mabuse.
Dusy is profoundly affected, not in being awed by Mabuse, but by the spectacle of Carozza’s ardour, and she writes a letter to Wenk swearing off further involvement because, instead of encountering alienated evil, she met a source of overpowering emotional force that, regardless of its purpose, convinces her that love exists. It’s not a sentimental kind of love that Lang and Von Harbou envision: it’s a deep-riven blend of erotic and emotional sustenance that shatters strong psyches, cripples geniuses, and transfigures the mundane. In that regard, it’s the only force equal to Mabuse’s evil. For his part, once Mabuse ensnares Dusy, his own competence and psyche begin to slip. The great climax of the first part ends on a cliffhanger, with Mabuse apparently triumphant, with Dusy in his clutches and Wenk stymied. The second part, entitled “Inferno: A Game for the People of Our Age (Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit),” sees his victories continue, but with intimations of growing hysteria, as he kills off anyone who could offer a lead to his whereabouts to Wenk, who is hunting him. These victims includes his agent Pesch (Georg John), who is captured after unsuccessfully bombing Wenk’s office, and is shot during a proletariat uprising stirred by Mabuse, and Carozza herself, who is ordered to commit suicide in her cell even after resisting all of Wenk’s entreaties.
If the driving motif of the first part is images of masses of people playing with fortune, whether in gambling houses, stock exchanges, or séances, then the second is dominated by two sequences of mental disintegration. The first comes as Mabuse, playing the psychiatrist again, manipulates Count Told, perfectly under his power, promising to control the compulsion that made him cheat, his bogus “helpful” advice turning him into a sequestered prisoner cut off from the outside world and Wenk’s help. Mabuse tries to blackmail the Countess into yielding to his erotic demands by promising to destroy the Count, and finally he does, sending Told off into a spiral of depressive hallucination where he sees his ancestors, all wearing his face, holding up card hands and displaying the black ace. Told cuts his throat in his bathroom, and his body is discovered by his servant. This maniacal achievement in sadistic legerdemain from Mabuse proves the start of his undoing, however, as it allows Wenk to connect Mabuse with the Count’s death.
Two filmmakers immediately inspired by Lang’s early work were Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock, who both laid down their involvement in film to the aesthetic impact of The Weary Death. Yet, here in Dr. Mabuse, innate and prototypical, I find Buñuel’s viscous, permeable sense of reality and amused punishment of material anomie and Hitchcock’s conspiratorial universe where ordinary people are ensnared in abstract webs. Here, too, is Carol Reed’s third man squirming his way through tightening nets of justice in the sewers, the churning, chiaroscuro moral maelstroms of Josef von Sternberg, Georg Pabst, and Orson Welles. Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) reflected the idiot-savant Mabuse, readying his urban fortress for attack. Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman explicitly drew on Lang’s model for his shadowy villains, whilst Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) repainted its kingpin in shades of Lang as a shadowy unknown and tweaked the cabal of blind counterfeiters into a similar operation of naked women employed as cocaine sifters.
Lang’s edge of oneiric strangeness gives Dr. Mabuse immediate connection to the singular spiritual fable of The Weary Death, with its similar pivots between languid, otherworldly torpor and ecstatic, transcendental passions (Goetzke had played Death in that film). Mabuse’s fantastical present tense also connects inevitably with Lang’s upcoming parables of past and future. As in Die Nibelungen, Richter plays the traditional pretty-boy hero who finishes up as a sacrificial victim to insidious, merciless power-driven plotting. In the film’s coda, Mabuse envisions a monstrous mechanical creation as the image of his own machinations and his personal inferno, looking forward to Die Nibelungen’s dragon and Metropolis’ vision of a great engine as a monstrous visage swallowing workers: the supernatural, symbolic terrors of distant history become the consuming, mindless aspect of modernity, terrifying even Mabuse—or, perhaps, especially Mabuse, whose campaign to gain the untrammelled power of a feudal conqueror works a spell on those around him but finally is defeated not so much by the forces of modern statism, represented by Wenk, as by the impossibility of his ambition to become bigger than the systems surrounding him.
The inevitable, climactic revelation of Mabuse’s identit(ies) to Wenk finally arrives as Mabuse lures the State Attorney into a trap, cunningly approaching Wenk as himself, supposedly to warn him that Told died because he was under the influence of a strong and destructive mind. Mabuse offers a culprit, a stage hypnotist named Weltemann, and Wenk attends the man’s show, only to realise too late that Weltemann is Mabuse: the revelation echoes the early, successive superimpositions as Mabuse’s faces pass before Wenk’s eyes, peeling back each layer until he sees Mabuse for what he is just before he gives in to his mesmeric power. Mabuse sends Wenk out under hypnotic influence from the theatre to drive off to a fiery death, a relished plan to eliminate his enemy with an overt display of power while maintaining a seemingly perfect guise.
But the plot is forestalled by Wenk’s attentive men, who manage to prevent his death. The finales of Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Scarface, and half of the Bond films, as well as the quiet note of assailed solitude of Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se Lève (1939), are all presaged as Wenk leads an attack on Mabuse’s lair. This tumultuous sequence comes in clashing perspectives, as troops pour from trucks to assault the lair, Mabuse’s foot soldiers dying one by one or collapsing in fear like papier-mâché without his will to hold them together amidst a hail of bullets and tear gas. Mabuse’s own attempt to flee with Dusy sees him forced to abandon her and escape by the skin of his teeth to plant seeds of evil somewhere else. Mabuse’s graduated schemes finally do him in as he reaches the hideout where the blind counterfeiters work and finds himself accidentally locked in by his minions’ excess cleverness: in this trap, the lunacy that’s been percolating under Mabuse’s surface emerges in a sequence where, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, the hallucinated shades of Carozza, Told, Hull, and Pesch appear, Told’s prosecutorial vision now Mabuse’s. The mastermind begins to hurl his counterfeit funds about like confetti before the vision of a mechanical monster chews his mind to pieces. The darkly sarcastic title card that greets Wenk’s arrival on the scene describes the husk on the floor as “The Man Who Was Mabuse,” and yet, this phrase signals it’s not exactly a total triumph. Whilst Mabuse the flesh-and-blood being has collapsed, Mabuse the idea, the entity, has slipped such bonds and become legend, perhaps even a world-spirit. Lang revisited the material next in 1933, but found the new film banned because something frighteningly like Mabuse had just taken control of his country.
Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut feature films of: John Ford and Emin Alper, directors
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It isn’t every day that one can watch two films in one day—one from the early days of the motion picture industry and one hot off the presses—and see such a straight line of descent from the early to the new. Add to that “coincidence” the fact that both films represent the feature debuts of one legendary filmmaker and one possible legend in the making, and the experience is all the more powerful. Lucky was I! I had the rare privilege of seeing the first in what would be a long line of iconic Westerns by John Ford, and a more genre-mixed Western by one of the rising directors of Turkey’s emerging national cinema, Emin Alper. I had not realized the strong connection between these films when I made plans to see them, but the discovery was a highly illuminating one.
Straight Shooting was the first feature to emerge from the Cheyenne Harry short-film series Ford shot for Universal. The series’ star, Harry Carey, would continue to play kind-hearted outlaw Cheyenne Harry into the 1930s, though Ford’s working relationship with Carey would largely end by 1921. After getting a few shorts under his belt, Ford knew how to get what he wanted and delivered an action-packed Western centered on a range war, with homesteader Sweetwater Malone (George Berrell) standing fast against the threats of cattle rancher Thunder Flint (Duke Lee), who illegally stakes a claim on the creek they both share and threatens death to anyone who trespasses. Of course, Cheyenne Harry, who’d rather keep himself to himself, gets pulled into the fray.
A seemingly amoral rogue who finds himself pulled into the righteous side of a conflict, often with the enticement of a sweet and beautiful girl as partial incentive, is a stock situation that has been changed up and modified over the years, but never completely obliterated. With such a conventional through line, Ford insisted on injecting more realism with a strategy he would pursue his entire career—shooting on location. He chose Monument Valley (and is credited in some places with its discovery as a filming location), away from the artificial frontier of backlots and California ranches, to people with his ranchers, homesteaders, and outlaws. I can attest that the “hideout” for outlaw Black-Eye Pete (Milton Brown) and his gang—a valley beyond a steep rise guarded by lookouts on either side of the pass—looks very much like what a real gang would use.
Going from a short to a feature-length format may have set up a tendency I’ve seen in quite a few of Ford’s films to include a comic middle act that bears very little upon the main action of the film, and, in fact, could be popped out without any loss of continuity. With Straight Shooting, that middle act takes place in a saloon/rooming house where Harry goes to strike a deal with Flint to run the homesteaders off their land. After this bit of plot is slapped into place, a non sequitur involving the lily-livered sheriff surveilling Harry and Placer Fremont (Vester Pegg), one of Flint’s men, as they get drunk and pursue some burglars provides a bit of comic relief, though I was distressed to see Harry’s horse become so thoroughly spooked by the driving rain Ford engineered that it had to be removed after its opening appearance. In fact, horses and actors in danger during chases and descending the steep path to Pete’s hideout had me on the edge of my seat almost as much as the massing of the ranchers set to attack the homesteaders gathered at Malone’s cabin. One “dead” attacker had to “resurrect” to get out of the way of a horse on a path to trampling him. Although fascinating, such scenes are sobering reminders of how wild the early days of filmmaking actually were.
There’s no question in this fictional universe that there are good people and bad people. While Straight Shooting only goes so far as to indict Flint and his men through the cowardly act of shooting Malone’s son Ted (Ted Brooks) in the back, the film does seem to show a bias for people who settle down on the farm and start families. Malone’s daughter Joan (Molly Malone) switches her affection from her misguided beau Danny (Hoot Gibson) to Harry, and the final clinch inevitably comes after Harry weighs the pros and cons of giving up his crooked, carefree ways. While I haven’t seen the Cheyenne Harry films that follow this one, I reckon Harry slipped free of the marital noose to carry on his unofficial Lone Ranger duties.
The multi-award-winning film Beyond the Hill is a horse of a different color primarily in its insistence on withholding the blood-quickening violence from the audience and siding with the ranchers. The outlines of the conflict come slowly into view, as family patriarch Faik (Tamer Levent) welcomes his son Nusret (Reha Özcan) and grandsons Zafer (Berk Hakman) and Caner (Furkan Berk Kiran) back to the family homestead in a craggy corner of Turkey that quite resembles the Western frontier. Faik has 50 sheep grazing his pasturelands and a large stand of poplars, and Mehmet (Mehmet Ozgur), his wife Meryem (Banu Fotocan), and son Sulu (Sercan Gumus) are his hired hands. Faik declares that they will kill a goat to prepare a proper feast for his family, ignoring Mehmet’s suggestion that they wait a bit. Mehmet correctly susses that Faik means to kill the goat he took from a group of nomads that have been grazing their herd on Faik’s land.
The nomads are instantly recognizable to Turkish audiences as the Kurds with whom Turkey has been fighting a protracted war for decades, and former soldier Zafer is a mental casualty of that conflict. It is also apparent from their dress and customs that Mehmet and his family are Kurds, living under the thumb of Faik in substandard quarters due to a financial debt Mehmet owes that is never explicitly outlined. The political parallels of the story may be lost on a foreign audience, but the relative position of master and servant that allows Faik to bark orders at Meryem, Caner to threaten Sulu and his dog, and Nusret to get drunk and try to assault Meryem is universal.
Unlike in Straight Shooting, the nomads are never seen. Faik assumes they are massing to attack him after he kills several of their goats for trespassing on and “destroying” his pasture—never mind that he has 50 goats of his own that put stress on the land. Like the ranchers in Ford’s West, the nomads’ argument, as communicated to us through Faik, is that they have been grazing the land since the Ottoman Empire; Faik is the newcomer/homesteader who insists on the sanctity of private property and his right to defend it in any way he sees fit, as though history began when his family settled the land.
An interesting parallel between the two films is a character that is essentially a double-agent. Danny belongs to Flint’s gang, but is courting Joan and feeding intelligence to the Malones and Harry about Flint’s impending attacks. Sulu keeps a place of his own away from the Faik compound and is frequently the messenger who speak of thefts and attacks on Faik’s livestock. The morning after Nusret accosts Meryem—whether he completed the rape or she fended him off is never known—he rouses from the spot on the floor where he passed out and goes outside. A figure with a rifle takes aim, and we soon learn from Sulu that Nursret has been shot in the ankle. A parallel scene occurs in Straight Shooting right down to the exact camera angle, similar landscape, and object of attack—the son of the patriarch. In Beyond the Hill, however, the shooter is never revealed. Nonetheless, by the end of the film, the enemy Faik locates as an outside band of intruders may, in fact, be one of his own, someone filled with resentment who may be trying to escalate the disagreement to incite violence that will drive Faik off the land for good.
In both films, the primacy of a manly code that is enforced with guns, not laws, is front and center. The sheriff in Ford’s film is cowardly and ineffectual, and the Turkish police know very well what is going on but choose to accept Faik’s lies while refusing the goat meat, religiously and legally unclean for having been stolen, he offers them. Beyond the Hill goes further in fetishizing guns, as Caner can barely keep his hands off his grandfather’s rifles, and the sound of gunfire provides a dramatic forwarding of the plot. Zafer, plagued by hallucinations of his fallen comrades, offers a corrective to the macho entitlement of his grandfather while ridiculing his younger brother for being a sissy, showing that little that is learned about the atrocity of war is passed on to the next generation. The final image set to upbeat, heroic music, the only nondiagetic music in the film, shows Faik and company marching along a ridge to meet the enemy, the half-lame Nusret dragging behind. We want to laugh, just as we laugh when Harry is domesticated by Joan, but the certainty that history will repeat itself makes for a rueful close to this eastern Western.
The touring show The Hitchcock 9—the nine surviving features from Alfred Hitchcock’s catalog of silent films restored by the British Film Institute—finally hit town this weekend. For those unfamiliar with the director’s formative years, The Hitchcock 9 will prove enlightening, as nearly all of the films represent comedy and melodrama rather than classic suspense. The one exception, and my favorite of Hitchcock’s silent output, is The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. The film, based on the best-selling 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, establishes in one package all of Hitchcock’s major obsessions—the wrong man, blondes, voyeurism, and the threat of nature. The latter, more suggested by the subtitle Hitchcock tacked onto Belloc Lowndes title than an actual menace, nonetheless is used to great effect to veil the title character in mystery and menace.
The Lodger is based loosely on the exploits of Jack the Ripper, and Belloc Lowndes’ book was widely known and read when the film premiered (in fact, it’s still in print today). The key, therefore, to building suspense is to arouse fear in the audience that our heroine, vivacious blonde Daisy Bunting (June Tripp), is to become a victim of the man who has been slaughtering golden-haired women in a pattern that suggests Daisy’s street is the next to be hit.
First, though, one must fill their hearts with dread. A terrified woman looks up into the camera and screams in the night. Too late, as would-be rescuers find only her mangled corpse on an embankment and a note marked with a triangle and the scrawl of “The Avenger” claiming to have done the deed. A witness says she only saw a man with a scarf covering the lower half of his face. A music hall marquee blinks “To-nite. Golden Curls,” ironically taunting the audience that blondes will be murdered over the next 80 or so minutes to provide us with a guilty pleasure perhaps not unlike the killer’s.
Daisy, a mannequin at a London atelier, returns home to her parents’ (Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney) boarding house, where her suitor, Detective Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen), drops by to flirt with her and gossip about the Avenger case. The doorbell rings, and Mrs. Bunting goes to answer it. Enveloped in the fog and a heavy cloak, a pale man (Ivor Novello) stands before her carrying a small grip and wrapped up to his nose in a scarf. When asked to state his business, he raises a ghostly hand toward the “To Let” sign above the door. After being led upstairs to inspect the room, he pays a month’s rent and becomes the lodger. He asks that the various pictures of blonde-haired women be removed from the room, and when Mrs. Bunting sends Daisy up to help carry the pictures out, she and the lodger meet for the first time.
Novello’s acting in the opening scenes is very broad, emphasizing the lodger’s peculiarities and secretiveness, filling him with a torment that seems largely overdone. There’s no doubt that Hitchcock the control freak wanted this type of performance, which shows up one handicap of soundless pictures—the inability to use vocal inflection to inject subtly suspicious tones and phrases. He throws further suspicion on the lodger when Novello admires Daisy’s golden curls and locks away his grip, which looks like a doctor’s bag in direct reference to the theory that the Ripper was a physician skilled in using surgical tools. One night, when the lodger goes out at about the same time another woman is murdered, Mr. and Mrs. Bunting start developing their own suspicions and quake at the thought that the murderer is living under their roof and, as it turns out, romancing their daughter.
There’s nothing terribly subtle about The Lodger. Daisy is a flirt who keeps Chandler on a leash until she finds someone she deems better, and Chandler is an overbearing blowhard who would love it if the girlfriend-stealing lodger were the killer. When we get to the truth that the lodger is wealthy (of course) and lost his sister to The Avenger, we understand his fixations and sensitivities. His promise to his dying mother that he will bring The Avenger to justice has worn on his last nerve, which is better exemplified by Hitch’s trick photography—letting us peer through the ceiling to see him pacing in his room—than with the sunken-eye make-up and fragility Novello displays.
Nonetheless, the murder of one of the Golden Curls dancers (Eve Gray) shows Hitchcock at his suspenseful best. The Avenger has been a topic high on the list of the dancers for weeks. Gray’s character is no less wary than the other girls, but she is often met at the stage door by her boyfriend and feels safe in his company. One night, they have a quarrel, and she storms off without him, blinded by her anger to the danger she has just put herself in. The scene unspools like any fateful encounter, building from the stage door to a secluded square where Gray fumbles with the undone buckle of her shoe. The dreadful build-up and horrible end to this scene, perhaps the best of the film, reflects the economy with which Hitchcock can terrify an audience.
He also knows how to titillate the old-fashioned way. In what a modern viewer can only see as a precursor to the shower scene in Psycho (1960), Daisy prepares for a bath. We watch her strip off her garments one by one until Hitch cuts to the bathtub drain and Daisy’s toes wiggling in the water. The lodger has no peephole like Norman Bates’, but he listens at the door nonetheless, and we get to see Daisy in her all-together, though the rim of the bathtub obscures any flagrant nakedness. Norman would have killed her, but the lodger’s interest is amorous, not murderous. I was quite overwhelmed during a love scene between the two when Hitchcock practically climbed up Novello’s nose with a close-up that took up the entire screen; this is one time I can honestly say the effect—and what Hitch was going for is anyone’s guess—would not be the same watching a DVD at home.
Hitchcock takes a dig at vigilante justice as well, when the lodger is arrested but breaks free, only to be chased by a mob and beaten as he hangs helplessly by his handcuffs from a wrought-iron fence he tried to climb. Carefully placed shadows make the lodger into a Christ figure, and Hitch would return to the court of public opinion with no less than a priest at the center of suspicion in I Confess (1953).
All’s well that ends well, as the lodger is saved by Chandler and his men when they get word that the real Avenger has been apprehended. Failing to give the audience a glimpse of the killer is not only anticlimactic, but also a cheat. We are at the movie because we have a certain bloodlust that needs slaking, but Hitch proves to be more the moralist than usual and scolds us for suspecting the wrong man. The disappointment that must have greeted this omission was not lost on the master, however. He would not make that mistake again.
It was a treat to see this film with its restored color tints, and what looked like two-strip Technicolor in the penultimate scene of the mob chasing the lodger. The title cards, a clear homage to German Expressionism, must have been a delight for the director to work on, harkening back to his days of drawing them for other filmmakers. Finally, the live accompaniment of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was appropriate, elegant, and a huge asset to enjoying this classic from the silent screen. If you have the opportunity, make time to see some or all of The Hitchcock 9, and especially The Lodger.
Silent cinema seems to be making a comeback. Not to the extent that it’s likely to take over the multiplexes, of course, but as a niche of playful experimentation by adventurous filmmakers. Recent works scattered across the zones of international cinema like The Call of Cthulhu (2005), Dr. Plonk (2007), The Artist (2011), and the second half of Tabu (2012), have dared rewardingly to drop the crutch of dialogue. And now we have Blancanieves, a hymn to the beauty of the antiquated and to things that never were, but which retain the palpable texture of shared memory through their totemic qualities. Filmmaker Pablo Berger takes the bare bones of the Grimm Brothers’ transcription of the old European fairy tale Snow White, based in one arcane yet doggedly popular and weirdly powerful art form, and feeds it through the distorting lens of another, the silent film.
Blancanieves is a lush, dreamy, deliriously cinematic work. Following in the footsteps of last year’s diptych of Hollywood takes on the Grimm tale, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, Blancanieves dwarfs them (pun intended), not just in artistry but in the simple joy in telling the story and delight in the texture of the poetic. Unlike The Artist, Berger’s film is more than mere jokey pastiche; it is an aesthetically engaged and solidly dramatic work that recreates the texture of early 20th century filmic art without reducing it to mimicry. Blancanieves, which swept the Goya Awards in Spain, is Berger’s second film. His previous work, the playful Torremolinos 73 (2003), also was fascinated by the vicissitudes of period cinema, except the period was the early ’70s and the cinema was pornographic; Torremolinos 73 captured the national mood on the cusp of the death of Franco and an eruption of a suppressed bawdiness. Blancanieves is far more thorough in its immersive purpose, as Berger gives the material a specifically Iberian tilt not only in recomposing the story to revolve around a world of bullfighters and mantilla-clad doñas, but in the specifically parochial qualities of its black humour and tragedian reflexes.
Berger’s fascination for the plight of a child at the mercy of the world, and its sense of an underlying meditation on historical suffering, are aspects his work shares with Guillermo del Toro’s diptych of Spanish horror films, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2007), whilst also harkening back to Victor Erice’s starkly suggestive The Secret of the Beehive (1973), as a distinct native strand in Spanish cinema. There are also enough hints in the mischievous humour, oddball sexuality, and wry take on class and gender battles flickering through the material to suggest the latter-day influence of Pedro Almodovar. Fittingly, Berger evokes one faded world of heroic entertainers and obsessive audiences, that of film, by focusing on another, bullfighting, as opening frames of the film find a city almost deserted because the great toreador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is going to duel six bulls in one day, an apotheosis for his sanguinary art. Villalta takes out five bulls, but the sixth proves his undoing, and he’s gored before his watching, pregnant wife Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta).
Berger cross-cuts between Villalta splayed and bloody on the operating table whilst his wife goes into labour: fatefully, Villalta lives, but emerges as a quadriplegic, but Carmen dies, leaving a small daughter who inherits her name. Before his surgery, Villalta hallucinates, projecting the face of his wife onto the nurse passing anaesthetic, Encarna (Maribel Verdú). Encarna is all too willing and eager to take advantage of this transference as she aids him in his recovery, and when he emerges from hospital, confined to a wheelchair, he and Encarna are married. The newlyweds promptly disappear behind the gates of Villalta’s country estate Monte Olvido, whilst young Carmen is raised by her grandmother, Doña Concha (Ángela Molina), and watched over by Villalta’s former manager Don (Ramón Barea).
Carmen never sees her father, pining for a visit and drawing his imagined face in flour. On her birthday, her grandmother draws her into a flamenco dance, but suffers a heart attack and dies. Finally, Carmen is taken into the care of Encarna, but far from proving a homecoming, she finds herself the target of Encarna’s sadistic degradations: Encarna cuts off her hair and makes her labour around the house, with only the pet rooster, Pepe, she brought with her and the kitchen maid as companions. With Villalta trapped upstairs in his chair, Encarna has complete control of the estate and the family fortune, and carries on an affair with her chauffeur Genaro (Pere Ponce). Carmen, chasing after her Pepe who sneaks inside the mansion, pursues him upstairs, where she’s been told never to go, and discovers her father, sad, imprisoned, and haunted. Carmen and Villalta connect, and she manages to visit him many times, even doing a flamenco dance for him on his birthday, before Encarna catches them. Villalta is doomed to spend the rest of his days jammed in a corner, whilst Encarna punishes Carmen by cooking and eating Pepe, before returning her to her life of drudgery.
Berger’s clever translation of the story’s motifs into a ’20s milieu, removing magic, but playing up melodrama, accords perfectly with the nature of silent cinema, which always thrived in depicting powerful emotions and rested best on a bedrock of simple, but not simplistic, plot mechanics and character reflexes, which could then drive a synergistic flow of images. One of Berger’s smartest choices was to film a tale that could very well have been an actual silent movie: Carmen is the sort of victimised waif in which Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish specialized, except that Berger then twists the story in a direction that pays a fair sop to a modern audience’s perspective, albeit one not entirely beyond the imagination of early filmmakers.
On the surface, Blancanieves has much in common with aspects of other retro-fetishist works of fantastical cinema, including the likes of Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1991) and the oeuvres of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Guy Maddin, in trying to recreate the ebulliently oneiric qualities of high expressionist filmmaking. But Berger enters entirely into the silent film world’s lexicon and also its populist sensibility, the sense that movie-going is, above all, an inclusive experience, one of the more sadly faded assumptions of cinema. Of course, Berger isn’t trying to proffer exacting pastiche: aspects of the story wouldn’t have flown in 1926, nor the gore and overt sexuality, and Berger happily indulges editing flourishes that would have been radical at the time. Blancanieves pays obvious homage to the world of European cinema before 1930, but resists the trap of referential obsession or film school appropriation: the aesthetics of filmmakers like Murnau, Buñuel, Pabst, Von Stroheim, Tod Browning, and many others are suggested without being specifically mimicked.
The attentiveness to lighting effects, the vivid contrast between textures of flesh and wood and metal and those vibrant rays of luminosity that invested early cinema with its visualised sense of the ethereal and the earthy in close contact, is recreated by Kiko de la Rica’s cinematography. The mystical chintz of show-business crucibles like circuses and bullfight arenas, the hazy, numinous mood of foggy forests and misted rivers, the lancing strangeness of the trappings of modernity in worlds poised on the edge of transformation, and the monolithic power of wealth in largely poverty-stricken and gritty environ—all are familiar images and contrasts in silent cinema, recreated sparingly but consequentially. In this fashion, Berger places his narrative as a whole on the edge of a kind of dream-memory of the past, filled with iconography and commencing with deliriously spiritual overtones of Villalta praying before his bullfight, hanging his locket photo of his wife on a statue of the Virgin. His wife and her mother wait in the crowd, idealised images of Spanish womanhood, just as Villalta is the male equivalent, fronting up to the bulls in spectacularly confident and lissom postures. Pride inevitably presages Villalta’s fall, as he goes from superman to trapped wreck and loses everything except his daughter’s love, which survives years of longing and forced separation. Genetic links prove strong: Carmen has inherited her parents’ talents as well as character. Blancanieves isn’t a film for children, though it’s easy to imagine it being compelling for a young audience, especially considering that like the famously gruelling Pickford vehicle Sparrows (1926) or even Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), it captures the unabashedly dark, phobic qualities one associates with folk tales that tap the genuine fears of emotional abandonment, isolation, and being left to fend for oneself children often have. Berger doesn’t shy away from the often fervent emotional violence in fairy tales, whilst also extracting overdrawn, blackly comic humour, like in the scene in which Encarna gloatingly devours a drumstick ripped from Pepe’s cooked cadaver to Carmen’s revulsion.
Berger’s approach hints at subtext that simmers unobtrusively, but insistently. Historical dimensions suggest historical severance and deposed hierarchies, as well as hints of a quiet commentary on the dread age of the celebrity. Villalta’s calamitous injury is induced by a photographer using a flash just as he’s readying the death-stroke for the last bull. When he’s released from hospital under Encarna’s nominal care, those photographers return to illuminate his ruination. Finally when he’s died, his family and friends have their pictures taken with his dressed corpse, a folk custom transformed into a cruel image of destroyed patriarchy, laced with political and satirical overtones. Carmen later faces grave danger, engineered by a friend turned madly envious by having the spotlight stolen from him.
The Evil Queen of the Snow White tales is defined by pathological intent to destroy a potential sexual rival, but Encarna is motivated less by immediate jealousy than by a determination to entirely assimilate the Villalta legacy, to obtain rather than retain exceptional status. Encarna is the worst kind of talentless parasite, one who attaches herself to the ruined Villalta to achieve wealth and fame. She is glimpsed leafing through fashion magazines, and desiring transformation into one of the glamorous beings she sees, poses for a magazine photo spread ensconced in haute couture—a super-bitch with a Joan Crawford-ish aspect; the film often plays like Crawford swapped parts with Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1964).
The reconstruction of the Evil Queen as Encarna is one of the most inspired touches: entirely egotistical, deeply sadistic, Encarna is a delightfully unrestrained baddie. What works about the characterisation, and Verdú’s mischievous performance, is how adroitly it connects the emblematic evil of the story’s villain with genuinely troubling real-life phenomenon: her grasping greed, exploitation of her disabled husband, and humiliating treatment of her stepdaughter are all acts of evil all too easy to believe in, even as they’re pushed to absurd extremes. True to the fashion of fairy tales, too, Carmen resists being brutalised by her experiences, remaining a good-natured, if haunted girl who grows into a steadfast woman. The happy, but tragically brief reunion Carmen has with her father sees her entertain him by dancing and practising cape-swirling under his tutelage. Encarna inflicts gender reassignment on Carmen by cutting her hair, a consequential act that bends Carmen towards moving into the masculine arts of her father rather than her mother and grandmother, though the nifty footwork and postural awareness flamenco dancing imbue in her fuse perfectly with the flourishes her father instructs her in for bullfighting. Young Carmen finds herself destined to try to live up to the stature of her parents, a union of both emblematic cultural institutions—toreador and flamenco dancer—talents that combine fruitfully once Carmen grows up, and finds herself plunged into the arena.
Berger moves between the first and second parts of his tale in a beguiling sequence, as young Carmen practises her toreador moves mixed with dancing with laundry, using pegs like banderillas, suddenly moving from girl to grown woman (the luminous Macarena García takes over), whereupon she’s informed of her father’s death. Encarna, tired of pretences, has pushed him down the stairs. The minion, who, in the story, is entrusted with Snow White’s murder, was a secretly good-natured figure. Here, it’s Encarna’s chauffeur-lover Genaro, glimpsed by Carmen playing the submissive boy-toy. One hilarious vignette depicts Encarna in the act of having her portrait painted as the image of imperious fashion-plate femininity, getting Genaro to take the place of the dog she’s being depicted as holding on a chain, to the painter’s nonplussed continued labour. Of course, his willingness to be Encarna’s dog belies his own viciousness, which emerges when given the task of taking Carmen to her death. He tries to rape her, and when she manages to knee him in the crotch and make a break, he catches her and drowns her in the river, leaving her for dead—except he didn’t quite finish the job, and she finds refuge with a band of six dwarfs, who work as travelling clowns and bullfighters called Los Enanitos Toreros.
Rafita (Sergio Dorado), the best-looking and most romantic of the band, was the one who plucked her from the river on a misty bank and took her to their caravan. The others in his band, including the nominal chief, the grouchy and jealous Jesusin (Emilio Gavira) and the cross-dressing Josefa (Alberto Martínez), are introduced with their names flashing on screen. When, during their next exhibition in a small town, Jesusin is charged by a bull and knocked about, the other dwarfs won’t intervene because the audience finds it hysterically funny. So Carmen leaps into the fray and astonishes all with a superlative display of cape work. Carmen, who hides her identity more to escape the past, it seems, than concern about Encarna’s wrath, nonetheless finds herself bound to close the family circle, though the fact that she’s dubbed “Blancanieves” by her new friends in recognition her plight is right out of the hoary old story. Berger’s revisions to the original story’s patterns as well as setting have a contemporary flavour, as Carmen casually shatters rigid gender barriers to gain credibility as a toreador, whilst handsome prince and dwarf are no longer exclusive figures, but conflated in the ardent Rafita. Yet such tweaks only seem to solidify the fairytale texture of Blancanieves, for dramatic transformations and protean forms are so vital to such storytelling and part of the way they still capture a unique essence of human existence. The Mephistophelean promoter Carlos de Montoya (José María Pou), complete with forked beard, brings the spectre of Faustian bargains to Carmen, as the girl, who can’t read is talked into signing a lifetime contract. Montoya gets her booked in the same arena where her father met his fate, and the circular narrative is matched by circular imagery, as the same ritualised stations on the way to a duel with fate and death are counted off.
Blancanieves is a gorgeous-looking film, replete with allusive visuals and well-used silent film devices, which range from the broad, like Carmen hallucinating Pepé’s head on a boiled sparrow she’s fed for dinner, to the wittily precise. Berger uses the iris shot, one of those devices associated most insistently with silent cinema, but matches it by literally projecting one on an actual iris, as Carmen is informed of her father’s death, with the flashback dialling in and out from her eye. Berger’s vertiginous framing often adopts violently low or high angles, lending his shots requisite drama and pictorial zest, whilst also invoking the violent state of fortune of his characters. But these gruelling shifts are encapsulated most precisely in an early shot, as Carmen’s communion dress is dyed black after her grandmother dies, streams of inky blighting black flowing from the pristine gown, signalling Carmen’s oncoming date with the devil Encarna. The same note and visual motif are mirrored in a lovingly executed crane shot that later retreats from Encarna’s silvery-draped form standing over a pristine white pool, in which the corpse of Genaro, whom she batters to death after learning Carmen survived, drifts in a cloud of blood.
Carmen proves triumphant in the ring, facing down the colossal bull the infuriated Jesusin has substituted for her smaller intended opponent, proving so invigorating to the audience that they vote for the bull’s pardon. Encarna, however, has taken what was her mother’s place in the crowd, swathed in black lace in perfect Manichaean contrast, proffering the inevitable poisoned apple, a glistening orb that Jesusin recognises after he’s accidentally knocked it from Encarna’s hands. Carmen collapses in a coma after taking a bite during her victory salute, and whilst the stricken Rafita clutches her body, Jesusin leads the others in trying to chase down Encarna, who tries to elude them in the bullpens. Her beautifully dark comeuppance arrives as she finds she’s locked herself in with a monstrous bull, its huge silhouetted horns falling upon her quivering, collapsing form.
As ebullient as his film often is, Berger takes a swerve back to tragedy in his final passage. Carmen, still in a coma and exhibited by Montoya in a circus sideshow as a freak of nature. “Miracle or curse?” Montoya asks repeatedly while sideshow patrons line up for the pleasure of trying to rouse her. Rafita works for Montoya, and wheels her out for the show to lovingly tends to her backstage. The mood here moves into a zone at once ethereal and pathetic, with hints of kink in the morbid sensuality everyone invests in Carmen’s form, with Rafita tenderly kissing her goodnight before bedding down with her, and infinitely sad frustration, as the very last shot reveals a single tear flowing from her eye. The sensibility here suggests the influence not just of silent cinema but later directors’ stylised tributes to the sawdust-and-tinsel mysticism and pathos of the peripatetic entertainer’s world, whilst reconfiguring the Sleeping Beauty image to something close to James B. Harris’ Some Call It Loving (1973), the image of imperishable mystery and beauty of life found even in the seamiest and most degraded exhibition. Even flat on her back, Carmen is beholden to the crowd. That last shot, of Carmen’s tear, encapsulates everything Berger aims for, emotionally and aesthetically.
In 2002, the filmed version of the Bob Fosse/Kander and Ebb musical Chicago won the Academy Award for best picture. It was a stunningly great film with a message for our media-manipulated times. The genesis of these works, as well as William Wellman’s 1942 film Roxie Hart, was a hit Broadway play from 1926 by Maurine Watkins, a Chicago Tribune reporter who sensationalized the stories of two female murderers and contributed to their acquittals at trial. One of the killers was Beulah Annan, a glamorous and adulterous party girl who, in 1924, shot her lover, Harry Kalstedt, when he announced he was leaving her. The other was Belva Gaertner, a cabaret singer who gunned down her lover Walter Law as he sat in his car. The larger-than-life producer and director Cecil B. De Mille grabbed the rights to the play, and the result is the 1927 film Chicago.
Chicago takes up the story of only one of the murderers, Beulah Annan, who from this film onward becomes Roxie Hart. Played by Phyllis Haver, she is a beautiful, golden-haired waste of space who is only interested in money and fame. Her straight-arrow husband Amos (Victor Varconi) adores her. He picks up one of her garters as she sleeps, a gaudy contraption with bells on it, and shakes it lovingly near his ear. Later, he waits on a man at his tobacconist shop. This man, Rodney Casley (the great character actor of silent and sound pictures Eugene Pallette), takes an interest in some cigarettes for ladies whose advertising suggests your woman will stay with you if you buy her these cigarettes. Casley laughs that he’s trying to unload his woman. Amos drips that if Casley had his wife, he’d never want to be rid of her. In fact, we learn they are talking about the same woman, Roxie, when Casley fumbles in his pocket for his wallet and comes up with the other silver-belled garter.
Casley goes to meet Roxie to end their affair. She persists in trying to keep him, but he pushes her roughly against the wall and knocks her bureau over. Out spills a gun. As Casley opens the door and steps out into the hall with the words “I’m through” on his lips, Roxie says, “You’re through, all right,” and shoots. A bullet shatters a mirror on the door, and passes through, hitting Casley. The broken mirror is a brilliant spidery image, followed by an equally brilliant depiction of Roxie’s reaction to what she’s done. We never see Casley’s body, only Roxie looking at it as she tries to maneuver around it. You can see the wheels turning in her, trying to figure out what to do, wondering if he’s really dead, being disgusted by the dead body in her front room. She tears the piano roll out of the player piano; this is a reference to the Annan murder in which it was reported that a recording of “Hula Lou” was playing on Annan’s victrola as Harry lay dying in a pool of blood.
Roxie calls Amos, who comes running and phones the police. They and a male reporter show up. Amos tries to take the blame, but the sly assistant district attorney (Warner Richmond) traps Roxie by saying Amos said she did it. She goes ballistic, accusing her husband of ratting her out. Of course, he did no such thing, and the heartless Roxie realizes she’s been set up. Nonetheless, the reporter is thrilled by her seductive good looks and has his cameraman pose her as remorse itself while a cop stands in for the dead man on the floor.
The scenes in prison while Roxie awaits arraignment are clever and all too short. Roxie’s all-out fight with another woman on murderer’s row, who is strapped in to a hip-reduction machine, is comic and a little frightening. The wit and sardonic humor of this film is just as piercing as in the 2002 film, and most of it is done without words. Haver gives a knockout performance, showing the difficulty Roxie has being anything but a chippie. When her attorney Billy Flynn, played with cynical grace by Robert Edeson, has her rehearse her brave, sweet, innocent, and noble looks before they face the jury, she needs a lot of coaching. He puts her in a cream puff of a dress that we are told is pink and has her carry a bouquet in her hands. She looks like an overgrown infant with a nosegay to ward off the smell of her own rotten character. The trial ends with Flynn snatching the bouquet from her hands, tossing it to the floor, and crushing it underfoot, a symbol of delicate womanhood threatened by a guilty verdict. Roxie flings herself on the broken blossoms and passes out. “The defense rests,” Flynn murmurs. You bet it does!
The director of record was Frank Urson, but the hand of De Mille is in clear view. The basis of the real murder, sex, shows how the canny De Mille always had one eye on the box office in his choice to produce the film and in the bawdiness of many of the scenes. Filming the entire murder sequence with Haver in a negligee starts the ball rolling. Of course there is nothing like a balls to the wall catfight to stir the blood. During the trial, a clever sequence showing Roxie’s legs and the curled toes of the male jury shows the Little Bo Peep routine to be a variation on the sex with a schoolgirl fantasy.
De Mille the moralist shows up in the end, of course, preserving his reputation as a God-fearing man with Urson as his front for the smut on display. Amos Hart is on screen way too much, stealing money from Flynn to make up the rest of the $5,000 he needs to hire the lawyer for Roxie in a completely unnecessary scene, and flinging Roxie into the streets, trashing the apartment, and stomping on her photo in a moralistic rage, knowing that he helped her get away with murder. The film should have ended with Roxie disappearing into the crowd on the uncaring streets of Chicago, but we are shown that good triumphs as the Hart’s maid Katie (Virginia Bradford) cleans up the apartment and is poised to become the good wife Amos always deserved. Too late. The phony melodrama of the main story flings the straight-up melodrama of the happy ending into the brass spitoon where it belongs.
Among the many genius works of renaissance man Charlie Chaplin, City Lights stands as a singular achievement. It is not that other Chaplin films aren’t as funny, and the story for City Lights is certainly not as ambitious as, say, Modern Times (1936) or The Great Dictator (1940). If it were made today, we’d call it, perhaps dismissively, a romcom, a slapstick story of a poor man who loves a blind girl and uses his dubious encounters with the more prosperous outside world to help her.
Some may say that City Lights gets its reputation as Chaplin’s greatest film because of its miraculous last scene. No less a writer and film critic than James Agee had this to say about that famous scene:
At the end of City Lights the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.
As I watched that ending for the umpteenth time, and the hubby saw it for the very first time, our eyes moistened and our hearts agreed—this scene is indeed the finest ever committed to film. He and I, however, didn’t agree about what happened in the scene, and, in fact, I don’t agree with Agee about The Tramp suddenly seeming inadequate to himself when The Girl’s realization of who he really is is reflected back to him. But more on that later.
The film Chaplin made defied the demand for sound that was all the rage following the appearance of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer in 1929. Wary of having his Everyman speak, Chaplin nonetheless wrote a score that used sound to put across some very funny gags indeed with both economy and wit.
The opening scene brilliantly sets up the great divide between the Establishment and The Tramp. Several rich poobahs stand on a dais in a square to unveil a statue they have donated to the city called “Peace and Prosperity.” Chaplin substitutes kazoos for voices, one pitched low for the men and another pitched high for the lady set to do the unveiling. No title cards are needed to understand the ceremonial claptrap that reaches its climax when the draping falls to reveal The Tramp sleeping on the lap of the central figure. Chaplin milks the uproar over the innocent desecration of this solemn moment by having The Tramp contorting with the grace of a born comic mime to free himself from the sword that has skewered his holey trousers; thinking further, one wonders what a figure with a drawn sword is doing in a statue called “Peace and Prosperity.”
From this antic opening, The Tramp moves through the crowded, uncaring streets to his fateful encounter with The Girl (newcomer Virginia Cherrill, discovered by Chaplin at a boxing match). In one of the many small comic moments that fill the film to overflowing, The Tramp negotiates the gridlocked traffic by climbing in one side of a car and emerging onto the sidewalk through the other side. When he closes the door, The Girl holds out a flower she entreats him to buy. Her entreaty startles The Tramp, who wonders why anyone would think he had the need for or the price of a flower for his ragged lapel. With great subtlety, Chaplin investigates this odd turn of events by having his Tramp take the flower and with slight, gentle movements, pass it in front of The Girl. When her eyes don’t register his movements, his heart instantly goes out to her, and he gives her a coin. When the owner of the car at the curb returns, closes the door, and drives away, The Girl calling out that he did not take his change, The Tramp understands the misunderstanding. From that point on, he plays the swell whenever he visits her and finds himself in both comic and dire circumstances as he tries to be her benefactor.
City Lights is chock full of comic set-pieces that showcase Chaplin’s nimble, cartoonlike movements, particularly when The Tramp comes into the orbit of The Millionaire (Harry Myers) who treats him like a brother when he is in his cups, but rejects him without recognition when he is sober. In perhaps my favorite comic bit of the film, The Tramp encounters The Millionaire on a riverfront as he slips a rope around his neck and prepares to lift the rock tied to the other end and toss it into the river. The Tramp runs to his rescue, only to have the rock dropped on his toe and the noose accidentally slipped over his head, dragging him into the drink. Naturally, in trying to rescue each other, both men end up pulling each other in again and again. The gag ends with the arrival of a policeman, but our fear for The Tramp is upended when The Millionaire declares him friend and takes him home.
The Tramp is scorned or asea when facing the work-a-day world. The Millionaire’s Butler (Al Ernest Garcia) does everything he can to get rid of The Tramp, while two boys on a street corner taunt him and pelt him with peas through a pea shooter. He tries to earn money to keep The Girl and her Grandmother (Florence Lee) from being evicted by shoveling manure from the streets. The Tramp watches a man lead a large team of mules down the street and heads in the opposite direction, only to be greeted by the completely unexpected sight of an elephant lumbering past him. It is with these visual surprises that Chaplin startles the audience and adds a certain whimsical warmth to moments of potential drama or romanticism. This is particularly true at the end of the first meeting of The Tramp and The Girl, when he sits quietly watching her as she gets up to freshen her flowers’ water in a nearby fountain. She fills a pot under his loving gaze, swirls the water around, and then flings it out, drenching her unseen admirer. He shakes himself and slinks off as the scene fades on the innocent Girl refilling the pot.
One of the most beautifully choreographed and realized scenes is The Tramp’s boxing match. After his arrangement to take a dive and split the $50 purse with his opponent falls through, The Tramp must do his best not to get pummeled by a fighter (Hank Mann) whose mere touch has sent men into a concussive swoon. The ingratiating smiles and handshakes he offers everyone from his opponent to his seconds are followed by a perfectly timed stutter step that keeps The Referee (Eddie Baker) between The Tramp and his foe. The Tramp manages a punch every fourth step and grabs the angry boxer in a desperate embrace to avoid a return blow. Further gags, again with The Tramp tangled in everything from the ropes to the bell marking the rounds, make for controlled anarchy and a rather suspenseful match. We almost can’t believe it when The Tramp loses, so close did Chaplin make the outcome, but winning is foreign territory to this outsider. Although Chaplin was by this time the most famous man in the world, one who remains an iconic influence today, he was emotionally bound in his work to his own beginnings as a poor boy who spent a good deal of his youth in a workhouse.
And then there is the final scene. Agee described the scene, and I would only draw your attention to something I learned from Roger Ebert. Notice what happens to the flower The Tramp takes from The Girl. In his close-ups, he holds it close to his face and simultaneously chews shyly on his finger while staring uninhibitedly at The Girl. In the reverse shot of The Girl, we see The Tramp’s hand lower, with the flower about chest high. So emotionally focused are Chaplin and Cherrill that this detail only registers after repeat viewings. I was quite reminded of a reader’s theatre performance I saw of Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell with Paul Henreid, Edward Mulhare, Ricardo Montalban, and Agnes Moorehead, in which my focus was so pulled by Mulhare that I never saw Henreid light a cigar. It’s magic in plain sight.
City Lights is, as its name suggests, lit from within because of the emotional depth of the connection between The Tramp and The Girl. The Tramp is a child with an unselfish love that seeks nothing in return, not even The Girl’s good opinion of him. Once The Girl touches and recognizes the hands she held so often, no terrible regard crosses her face; rather, she seems softly astonished and then sees that love, not wealth, has bought her sight. They outshine the brassy bulbs and neon of the metropolis in which they are barely bit players and prove themselves to be, like the painfully divided man and woman in F. W. Murnau’s masterwork Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans(1927), the real city lights.
Director: Graham Cutts
Assistant Director/Screenwriter/Editor/Set Designer: Alfred Hitchcock
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Film fans, the day you’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived! Just a few hours ago, the rediscovered “lost” film that marks the earliest surviving feature for which Alfred Hitchcock received screen credit debuted on the internet.
Although missing its last three reels, The White Shadow, a good-looking melodrama of uncommon richness, has come back to cast its white shadow upon audiences again through the good auspices of the National Film Preservation Foundation, with restoration work expertly rendered for the New Zealand Film Archive by Park Road Post Production, donated web hosting by Fandor, and a magnificent new score by Michael Mortilla with violinist Nicole Garcia funded by donors to this year’s For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon! For the next two months, anyone anywhere in the world can watch this treasure free of charge here, solving one of the biggest problems in film preservation: offering access to films that have long been out of circulation and are not likely to get wide distribution again.
Annette Melville, executive director of the NFPF and the best collaborator Farran, Rod, and I could have had in making the blogathon a success, says this was one of the most significant finds of recent years: “When the film was recovered last year, David Sterritt, who wrote a book on Hitchcock for Cambridge University Press, pointed out that it was quite a find. But a little more research suggests that it is more like ‘the missing link.’ It appears to be the first surviving feature on which he collaborated with his wife Alma as well as the film that established his connection with the Selznick family. Lewis J. Selznick, David O. Selznick’s father, was the American distributor, and the film survives as a Selznick distribution print.”
So how does The White Shadow stand up as a film? Actually, very well. The screenplay, which chronicles the fates of identical twins—one good, one “without a soul”—shows that Hitchcock’s lifelong fascination with mistaken identity and personality splits began quite early and tracks with the style of melodrama favored in silent pictures. Betty Compson plays devil-may-care Nancy Brent and her demure twin Georgina, daughters of a wealthy and authoritarian drunk played by A. B. Imeson. Nancy meets American Robin Field (Clive Brook) onboard a ship returning to England from the mainland of Europe, a cutaway to the white cliffs of Dover signaling to Nancy that she is almost returned to her “beloved” Devon. Field is immediately smitten with the vivacious Nancy and turns up on her doorstep just as she is becoming bored and restless with life at home. Her romance with Robin is cut short when she impulsively runs away, followed by a father determined to bring her back. Both go missing and the failure of a final effort to find them kills Mrs. Brent (Daisy Campbell).
Georgina meets up with Robin and his friend Louis Chadwick (Henry Victor) by chance, and the romance is back on, with Georgina pretending to be Nancy to save her sister’s reputation. However, when Louis, a painter who has returned to his home in Paris, spies Nancy drinking and gambling in a bohemian nightspot called The Cat that Laughs, he rushes back to Robin to prevent him from marrying the woman who is not the person she appears to be.
I can’t pretend to know much about Graham Cutts and his directorial style, but I would venture to say that the depth of the portrayal Betty Compson gives to her twin characters may be down to his coaching. I would expect Hitchcock to direct the evil twin as more cold and duplicitous, even this early in his career. Compson acts like neither a cardboard goody-two-shoes nor a wildly amoral sensualist. In fact, I felt rather sorry for Nancy for having her character judged so harshly by the title cards. A woman who wants to travel, have the upper hand in romance, play poker, and smoke—in other words, have a man’s freedom—seems to have the kind of spirit Victorian women like Georgina were straining after; indeed, this tale of good and evil seems outdated even by 1920s standards, belonging more to the vamp era of the 1910s. Of course, Nancy wishing her father would break his neck while horseback riding and then showing up his poor “seat” on a horse is awfully wicked, but we are told Mr. Brent made his wife and family miserable. It’s no wonder Nancy ran away.
If a film has to end in the middle, the shot of Nancy at the top of the stairs of the Paris nightclub, gaily unaware that she is about to have a vicious confrontation with Robin, is the perfect place to stop. The synopsis of the rest of the film shows that it veered into a kind of Victorian mysticism with the supernatural restoration of Nancy’s soul. I prefer to write my own scenario for a film that is filled with some interesting, full-bodied characters who deserved better than to have a moralizing fate determine their lives. Some truly suspenseful moments and occasionally murderous emotions leapt from the screen, perhaps revealing Hitchcock’s touch. A raft of interesting villians, from Uncle Charley and Norman Bates to the cruel death dance of Judy/Madeleine and Scottie, have some ancient echoes in this substantial blast from the past happily restored to the world again. Go watch it!
The Phantom Carriage has a power which almost defies description, a sense of an overwhelming darkness crowding the edges of the frame and corroding the very flesh and spirit of the characters on screen. It’s a tale of damnation, for whatever remains after death but also on earth too, the poison of psychological fear and anger blighting life as surely as the tuberculosis bacilli eat away its protagonists inside out. Light, with all its redemptive promise, radiates by contrast from the centre of frames, burning candles and lamps stranded in the midst of shadowy rooms, and from the face of the benighted Sister Edit (Astrid Holm). Edit lies expiring on New Year’s Eve, desperately begs her mother (Concordia Selander) and fellow Salvation Army worker Maria (Lisa Lundholm) to track down the one soul and body she’s been trying to save more passionately than any other. That is the soul of David Holm (Victor Sjöstrom), a drunken wastrel tracked down not in the hovel where his wife (Hilda Borgström) and children are trying to stave off hunger and cold, but drinking in a graveyard with two vagrants who listen as David recounts with amusement the fate of his old drinking buddy Georges (Tore Svennberg), who was tormented by an anxiety that used to gnaw at him on New Year’s Eve. As the minutes tick towards midnight, David explains Georges’ obsession with a folk myth that whoever died at the stroke of twelve on New Year’s would be a cursed and sinful person, charged with driving the carriage that collects the souls of those who die during the year. And, as ill luck would have it, Georges died one year ago on the very night he feared. After David chases off the Salvation Army worker who tracks him down for Edit, he fights with his two companions, one of whom smashes a bottle over his head. David is left for dead, and Death’s carriage soon comes rolling around.
Victor Sjöstrom’s career in film climaxed famously with his role in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1958). In casting the aged director and actor in his film, Bergman was paying tribute to Sjöstrom’s status as a father of the Swedish film industry, and as an artist to whom Bergman and others, both in Sweden and around the world, owed a lot. In his heyday, Sjöstrom’s gift for portraying psychological drama and capturing tones ranging from fulminating unease to outright hysteria was second to none, and his cinematic experiments were as rich and innovative as anything that would soon follow in Germany, France, and the US. Along with Mauritz Stiller, Sjöstrom was at the front rank of Swedish filmmakers well before the First World War, labouring like many great early directors on dozens of short features as the quintessential forms of cinema began to evolve, and finally with his 1921 hit The Phantom Carriage, Sjöstrom gained an invite to Hollywood, where he made great films, often with Lillian Gish, including The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). But commercial success began to elude him, and his career essentially waned along with the silent film. Sjöstrom’s passionately visual, rhythmic, intimately composed ideal of cinema was at once highly stylised and fascinatingly realistic, as the director amongst other things helped to bridge early cinema with the Swedish stage and its tradition of dark, neurotic realist spectacle as exemplified by August Strindberg.
Today the horror film, in spite of patchy acceptance by mainstream critics, is still essentially considered a fringe genre. In the first quarter-century of cinema’s existence, however, it was a favourite field for directors who wanted to interrogate the possibilities of the medium, as they contemplated the intrinsic link between the mystery of film’s power and images of mortality, nebulous existence and concrete form. This was true of much important early cinema, including several of Georges Melies’ most striking works, Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience (1914), Murnau’s Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1919), Wegener’s Der Golem: Wie Er in die Welt Kam (1920), Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Christensen’s Häxan (1922), and Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924). The Phantom Carriage itself stands up amidst the most beautiful, eerie, and dazzlingly rendered movies of its time. One reason the horror genre, which was hardly a genre at the time and certainly not called that, attracted such a wealth of early talent was that it presented possibilities for experimenting with the kinds of special effects available to early cinema, in a fashion that later sci-fi, action, and fantasy films would invite, as a testing ground for evolutions in technology and the inspiration to use it. Whereas, apart from Tod Browning, it would take European directors working in Hollywood and, more crucially, the advent of the Depression to shock American horror cinema into its first golden age, in Europe a superlative glut of definitive moviemaking in this mould was closely aligned with the stylistic moment of what became known as German Expressionism. The time was in tune, too, for the great flowering of these films came in the period directly following the Great War, a time in which a great hole had been carved in European society, the pall of death was an everyday, invasive reality, and fascination with spiritualism exploded in a world that felt not at all metaphorically haunted.
But not all of these films were clear-cut in their exploitation of this mood, as many depict the birth struggles of modernism, as artists wrestled with remnants of folk traditions and the detritus of cultures going through painful evolutions, trying to reject the dead-weight of past truisms to embrace rationalism, but often rubbing fears raw in that process. Sjöstrom’s film was adapted a novel by 1909’s Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, and the story is in many ways a familiar piece of post-Victorian abstemious moralism, playing like a darker version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which a sinner sees the error of his ways through a supernatural encounter. For Sjöstrom, who had been adapting Lagerlöf’s novels regularly thanks to a deal she had made with the studio he worked for, the task was however to retain the complexity of the novel and depict the perverse, dramatically difficult elements onto the screen, precisely at a time when it was becoming clear that film was open to all challenges. The Phantom Carriage becomes a psychological epic about cruelty, fear, and pain, as experienced and exacted by David, an antihero who takes on Dostoyevskian dimensions in his anger at humanity even as he cringes before immutable forces. David, a former carpenter and craftsman, has long since slid into the gutter under the influence of the ironically well-educated Georges, whose habitual cynicism and florid bon vivant postures attracted both David and his younger brother (Einar Axelsson). Georges only ever registered disquiet when New Year’s rolled around and revived the folk tale figuration of the phantom carriage in his thoughts like an annual memento mori.
One of Sjöstrom’s significant flourishes in telling his tale is the complexity of the narrative, refusing to simplify Lagerlof’s storyline, shifting perspectives and offering layers of stories within stories in retracing the paths the key characters have taken to this converging night of fate. Starting with Edit’s plight and then shifting to David and his wayside buddies in the graveyard, Sjöstrom then segues into the past, as David recalls his time with Georges, and through Georges the mythology of the carriage is depicted. This cues a lengthy, sepulchral, superlatively realised sequence depicting the carriage and its hooded, scythe-clutching driver, going about their work. They watch over all varieties of human misery and misfortune, standing by as a plutocrat shoots himself in his immaculate mansion, and plucking the spirits of dead mean just drowned in the sea, the carriage trundling carelessly into the waves and the driver descending to the ocean floor for his prize. It’s easy to recognise the influence of these scenes on Bergman’s figuration of Death for The Seventh Seal (1957) and other elements of the visual design – one shot of the carriage travelling over a hilltop against a cloudy horizon recalls the famous shot of Death leading the dance of the dead that climaxed the Bergman work. Sjöstrom achieves his otherworldly emanations with that simplest and oldest of movie special effects, the double exposure, rendering with stark beauty the scenes of the carriage venturing onto the waves or trundling through the streets, and the spirits of dead wandering and conversing, the human world oblivious to their presence and the dead gazing back at the world they’re cut off from with forlorn impotence.
Yet whilst the film’s pictorial and emotional depictions of oneiric gloom are compelling, Sjöstrom is equally adept at capturing the grubby world its characters inhabit. Lagerglof’s novel had begun life when she was asked to write a treatise on tuberculosis control, but as she worked a narrative came to her with an aspect of social realism mediated by and reconceived through the veils of mysticism and mystery. Sjöstrom answered with its cinematic equivalent: the seamy taverns, fetid flophouses, low-rent apartments, midnight card games, the chilly graveyard, all are depicted with a care worthy of Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), with which the film shares a subterranean mood of acidic reportage and neurotic intensity. One function that the narrative complexity serves is to give the tale a sense of haziness about the veracity of what is seen: it could all be David’s alcoholic horrors or dazed dream after getting walloped over the head. But it also suggests that such distinctions mean little in the face of how it summarises the struggle, and attraction, between the all-encompassing nihilism of David and the naïve yet powerful altruism of Edit. Caught between them are David’s victimised wife and brother, early casualties, emotionally and morally if not mortally, for David’s rage, and yet also participants in and causes for it. After David and his brother fell in with Georges, David did a short stretch in jail for drunken behaviour, and as he was released, the prison chaplain (Nils Aréhn) revealed to David with brutal condemnation that his brother is now also locked up, but for the far worse crime of killing a man in a drunken brawl: the chaplain stated that he was of the opinion David should be doing the time instead. David, horrified and chastened, returned home to his family, only to find they had left without any idea of where to find them, turning David’s ill feeling into an unshakeable and near-psychopathic misanthropy.
The existential angst of The Phantom Carriage is aligned with the pain of the post-war period, even if made in a country that was neutral during WWI, as it resembles the nightmare prophecies and structure of Abel Gance’s J’Accuse! (1919) which similarly climaxes with visions of the dead rising up, possibly hallucinated but still urgently meaningful. The difference is that the horror of The Phantom Carriage is microcosmic, a study in personal degradation and damage but with a reformist social agenda. And yet the film slips out of such limits: the notion that David travels deeper into his personal nightmare out of wilful determination and anger at the cheap pieties and soft options that leave him adrift in a bleak world, gives The Phantom Carriage more complexity. Sjöstrom imbues it with a hallucinatory unease that captures that mood of midnight agony anyone who’s drunk to forget the day’s pain might recognise. When David arises from his own sprawled, shattered body to be confronted by Georges, who has spent the last year driving the carriage, except for him every night has been “a hundred years”, collecting souls like a tired garbage man clearing away the refuse of human existence. There’s a quality approaching black comedy as the grim figure of death proves to be the middle-aged, familiar Georges, but his rank melancholia and sombre missives quickly diverge into a form of horror that penetrates far deeper than the later genre’s usual stock visions of psychos in masks killing sundry teenagers, asking instead, what are we most afraid of in life and in death? Whilst Georges ushers David away from Edit’s deathbed in telling him that the job of taking her soul belongs to other, presumably more exalted spirits, there’s no sight of better worlds or paradises in this vision, only of the afterlife as a place where people walk or trundle along in stunned misgiving, staring back at the life they’ve lived with awareness that hell is a place humans create for themselves.
Of course Georges tells David that he’s going to take his place as the driver for the next year, and when David protests, George binds him with invisible strands and forces him to accompany him to Edit’s deathbed, where Edit, not yet dead but standing at the edge of permeable reality, can see Georges, and greets him with confusion: “Death…but too early.” Edit has her own crosses to bear. Her mother had begged her fellow Salvation Army workers to ignore her frantic wish to see David before dying because having given up her life to the cause and now doesn’t want her death to be consumed by it too. As Georges stands over Edit’s bed, he explains her situation to David, thus commencing another lengthy flashback as the narrative retreats one year to the same New Year’s when Georges himself died, and David, drunk and sick, barged his way into the new shelter Edit and Maria had set up, and passed out on a bed. Edit set herself to fixing up David’s torn coat, oblivious to the fact that in doing so she was breathing in all the germs on it, including his chronic TB, which she’s expiring from at an accelerated rate. When he awakened, David ripped off the patches she had put on the coat, stating, “I’m used to it this way,” and she asked him to come see her in a year’s time to let her know how he was getting on. The pair continued to encounter each-other with a quality of combative aggression mixed with erotic fascination, as Edit confesses she fell in love with David, seemingly everything she isn’t, even as she determinedly wrested one of his friends away from him at a Salvation Army rally. David’s wife, for whom he’s been searching for months, was at the same rally, and after seeing Edit and David argue, explained her plight.
Edit, with selfless determination, set about reconciling the couple, but once returned to his family, David’s long-awaited revenge commenced as he refused to give up his drunken ways, preferring to taunt his wife and breathing precariously over his children. David’s vicious misanthropy is at its rarest when he tells a woman at the rally that she shouldn’t cover her mouth when she coughs, as he takes pride in breathing his lethal germs right in people’s faces. When his wife tried to rebel again and locked him in the bathroom whilst she tried to get the kids away, as she fumbled with the sleeping youngsters he hacked his way out with a hatchet, in a sequence that at once suggests a nod to Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) but looks forward too with unavoidable similarity to the iconic “Here’s Johnny” scene in The Shining (1981), complete with the peculiarly intimate terror of the enraged father figure, a potent and toxic vision of masculine violence erupting in the home. And yet when his wife faints, unable to escape, and David gets free, he props her up on a pillow and feeds her water, greeting her awakening with the harshly knowing words, “It wasn’t as easy to run away this time!” To her exhausted reply, “Haven’t you had enough revenge?” As Edit expires, Georges takes David on to his next stop – the slum dwelling where David’s wife and children are living now, as Mrs Holm prepares to poison them all, a final recourse. Finally David’s self-absorption is shattered and he begs with Georges to save them even at the expense of his own total extinction.
The surprisingly naturalistic acting, particularly from Sjöstrom himself, whose husky physicality gives David the insolent charisma the role needs, is littered with gestural marvels that equal the filmmaking. In an early scene, Mrs Holm is brought to Edit’s bedside, the woman a fidgety, dead-eyed wraith who reaches out with clawing, Nosferatu-like fingers at the slumbering Edit in her anger, only for Edit to awaken and immediately smother the woman in kisses in submissive gratitude. When Maria first finds Mrs Holm, she keeps retreating to each corner of the room, standing with back to the room. Just as affecting is the anguished stroke of his brother’s face David gives when presented with him in his jail cell, and in David’s homecoming as he cringes and smoulders in rage as he stands in the midst of the jarringly empty flat, whilst two neighbour women laugh over his misfortune. One stark shot depicts Mrs Holm and her children standing over David who lies sprawled and passed out on the pavement. Sjöstrom’s best moment comes in one of David’s ugliest, as he first clasps eyes on Edit after learning she’s repaired his coat and she waits with eagerness to see his reaction: David’s expression turns as cold as the winter wind as he perceives the embodiment of everything he’s at war with and feels cannot be his, and his frenzied tearing at the patches of the coat delivers his message, but whilst startled, Edit refuses to be fazed, and her fascination for the simultaneously pathetic and grotesque, yet also powerful David is made weirdly coherent. Her subsequent effort to reunite David and his wife see her perpetuate the great Victorian delusion that all you had to do to normalise any experience, any anomaly, any fracture in human dealings, was to slap a pair of decent clothes on it. Thus the story is complicated by its concentration on the way good intentions often crash headlong into harsh realities.
The Phantom Carriage ends happily, after a fashion, but as in Bergman’s work there’s a sense that redemption and facing up to all that’s gone wrong in life can be exhausting, even counter-productive. David, restored to “life” and rushing to intervene in his wife’s seemingly imminent euthanasia, buckles and weeps when she reacts with aggression and disbelief in his sudden show of concern, and it’s clear that even if he really has seen the error of his ways, the same essential cause of both his good and bad behaviour remains a fretful terror of mortality, the disease still in his lungs and the pain that is his burden. The mood of The Phantom Carriage lingers long after it’s over, and its influence on filmmakers, both in the horror mode and outside it, feels deep: as well as Bergman and Kubrick, its atmosphere and original blend of precise psycho-social veracity and the otherworldly anticipates the qualities of Val Lewton’s epochal film series, whilst other aspects vibrate through the works of Murnau and G.W. Pabst, and prefigure a very different film about a misanthrope haunted by past loss, particularly the flashback to scenes of familial happiness for the Holms, in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964). Like many notable silent films, The Phantom Carriage has seen many editions and restorations over the years, but I recommend the version I saw with an aptly spare and eerie score by the electronic group KTL: where many match-ups between silent films and modern scores, like the several Metropolis (1926) has seen, feel arch in the long run, the KTL score expertly captures the sense of nocturnal foreboding, alienation, and bleak emotionalism that fuels the film. Either way, The Phantom Carriage is an early masterpiece of the medium.
The ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tales of Siegfried or Sigurd were vital building blocks for much middle and northern European folk culture. This was true long before Richard Wagner conflated them for his delirious, impossibly long, musically ostentatious opera cycle, and certainly long before J.R.R. Tolkien absorbed them into his The Lord of the Rings tales. Tolkien’s variation, in repositioning the material as a battle against tyrannical evil, tried to present a completely opposite contemporary tilt on the stories to that assumed by Hitler and the Nazis, who annexed aspects of them through Wagner as lynchpins for their own mythology. Siegfried, the pure, anointed hero who defeated the dragon and yet fell to a spear in the back, presented to post-WW1 German nationalists a powerful metaphor for what they saw as the betrayal of their great struggle by politicians. The possibly apocryphal story of director Fritz Lang’s encounter with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who as Lang later recounted asked him to become their master filmmaker, is today known by just about anyone with pretences to film scholarship. It’s one of those singular moments, as with Eisenstein’s contretemps with Stalin or Ronald Reagan’s co-opting a popular sci-fi adventure for a planned weapons system, where cinema history and political history suddenly unite with genuine import. In Lang’s account, he was approached on the back of their adoration of his two-part 1924 film of the epic poem Die Nibelungenlied, and its science-fiction follow-up Metropolis (1926), works riven with Lang’s malleable sense of human masses and colossal design bound together as expressive instruments that seem to dwarf individualism in the face of historic forces. The fact that Lang’s wife and collaborating screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, became a Nazi (albeit, so she said, to protect Indians, like her later lover, living in Germany), and that many of his cast and crew would be doomed, like or not, to keep working in a Goebbels-run film industry, deepened the seeming surety of Lang’s links to the new regime.
However, there were dimensions of Lang, half-Jewish and Austrian-born, and his aesthetics that the Nazis had not understood or had wilfully ignored, and this was one dragon he decided not to cuddle up to. Lang left Germany, arrived in Hollywood as an artistic hero, and finished up as a near-forgotten B-movie helmsman, albeit one who would be rediscovered just as his career was ending. Such is the lay of Lang’s fall from his pinnacle as the world-shaking cinema titan who bankrupted UFA and inspired the likes of Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock to become filmmakers. It’s neither fair nor entirely apt that the original mythology or Lang’s film of it should have to withstand such evil cultural and historical associations, but they still remain. Made nine years before Hitler’s rise to power, Die Nibelungen’s dedication “To the German People” in the earlier context reads as encomium to a beaten and deeply depressed nation trying to struggle its way out of a dreadful collapse in political structures, economic terrors, and appalling loss, whilst the film depicts the pre-war neo-classical movement’s love for mythology and fantasy now scratching beneath the fanciful veneer of the iconography, and finding the real emotion and hard lessons such surviving tales still contained. The tale’s depiction of a maddened clash not only of individuals and peoples, but also values and world-views, fighting each-other to a bloodily apocalyptic nullity, reflects the still sharp memory of the Great War as noble yet incoherent tragedy.
Lang himself hated Wagner’s chauvinistic mash-up, and based his films squarely on the saga written by an anonymous poet who was probably part of the court of the Bishop of Passau at the turn of the thirteenth century. The poem was a product of a phase in European history when rulers were attempting synthesise new loyalties and codes of behaviour, as well as put the burgeoning numbers of poets and troubadours to some use, through formalising national mythologies in the pattern of Homer’s epics: most of the Arthurian tales came out of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court a little earlier. Like such works, Die Nibelungenlied, which obviously combined transmissions of Greek myth, passed on from hazy sources, with folk memories and legends, was a study in medieval ethics and social constructs, which stressed ambiguity on a human level by presenting cast-iron order and morality imbued on a cosmic level: heroes fall because of their blind spots, and the righteous often appear to be uglier than the villainous in attempting to assert an absolute ethic, and finally history, or fate, or society, wins over the individuals even as each venerate the fallen. The poem also neglected most of the oversized mythological details, like Siegfried’s descent from the Norse gods, and instead presented a story squarely set in an historical context, and in spite of fantastical touches like the dragon Siegfried kills and the magical helmet he wears, the tone is largely that of this earth.
The first part of Lang’s work thus kicks off, rather than climaxes with, Siegfried’s greatest mythical hits and, in the total scheme of the films, moves through them at lightning speed. Lang’s film preserves the feudal flavour and fearsome, atavistic sensations of the poem, and yet is also a prototypical version of the same modern moral universe, inflated in scale and resonance but still recognisable, as that Lang explored through less distant prisms in subsequent films as diverse as M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953). Such was a universe where a daemonic quality in human nature wreaks havoc, and mankind on a social level is often disturbingly mindless and reactive. The nobility and ethical strength of the individual barely keeps afloat when such forces are unleashed, the heroes’ loving impulses often transmuting into a hard and unforgiving vengefulness, one that risks becoming monstrous and inhuman in the name of maintaining a human, moral shape to the universe. Lang’s sensibility thus intuitively grasps some of the subtler inferences of the original myth and many like it. In the immediate context of Lang’s run of ‘20s work, where the Dr Mabuse films explored the paranoid mindset of the contemporary and Metropolis posited fables in the future, Die Nibelungen looked for same in the distant past. In each, a similar, sinister sense of plots laid and hatching evil is facilitated by borrowed guises as the means to insidious ends: Siegfried’s use of his magic helmet equates with Mabuse’s use of disguise and the robotic Maria in Metropolis. Lang’s personal art was perhaps most strongly defined in and contained by Die Nibelungen, because, as has been noted, the essential figurations of the tale recur again and again in Lang’s films. Clearly, for Lang, Die Nibelungen was more than a national myth: it was his own.
The early stages recount how Siegfried (Paul Richter), son of the king of Xanten, has been residing for years with bedraggled old blacksmith, Mime (Georg John), of a race of barely-human mountain men, learning hardiness and craft in a lofty cave. Siegfried is introduced forging a sword sharp enough to cut a feather that falls upon its edge, impressing Mime, who tells his charge that his apprenticeship is over, and that he can return to his father. But another mountain man speaks of the castle at Worms, seat of the king of Burgundy, and of the beauty of the princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Siegfried decides instead to do deeds mighty enough to win Kriemhild. Fate gives him his chance right away, as he encounters, on his way, a colossal dragon that rules a mountain grove. Siegfried ventures into battle with the monster in order to present to the world his own vision for mankind’s conquest of death and terror. He kills the dragon and showers under the blood that runs from its carcass, making him impervious to physical wounding, except at one spot on his back where a leaf from a lime tree falls and sticks. This is the first and most overt moment in the film which seems like a progenitor with endless resonance through subsequent fantasy cinema, perhaps the first great leap forward from Georges Méliès’ rough sketches, with the proto-animatronic dragon moved by steam-powered puppetry, glimpsed drinking from a pool and lashing out at the miniscule but dogged attacker with tail and fire: just about every special-effects driven movie made subsequently owes something conceptually or technically to this scene, from King Kong (1933) through to Jurassic Park (1992) and on to the present.
Siegfried’s legend begins to precede his approach, as his deeds are recounted in Worms to Kriemhild, her mother Queen Ute (Gertrud Arnold), and her brothers, the King Gunther (Theodor Loos), and the younger Gernot (Hans Carl Mueller) and Giselher (Erwin Biswanger), by court troubadour Volker of Alzey (Bernhard Goetzke). Meanwhile, Siegfried, continuing his journey, encounters Alberich (John again), a Nibelungen or goblin metal-smith, who possesses a fabulous treasure, as well as the magic helmet, which confers invisibility. Alberich assaults Siegfried whilst wearing the helmet, but Siegfried overpowers and kills him, leaving Siegfried with his treasure and the great sword Balmung. Now, invincible and able to command the loyalty and needs of men, Siegfried conquers and then commands twelve petty kings, and brings them as his followers to Worms. Siegfried, a king in his own right, hopes to forge stronger bonds between the various European kingdoms. Whilst Siegfried and Gunther become friends, and the court’s band of fraternal warriors are dubbed ‘Nibelungen’ to celebrate the new compact, at the insistence of Gunther’s truculent advisor Hagen of Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), Siegfried won’t be allowed to marry Kriemhild until he helps Gunther marry too. For Hagen has convinced Gunther to expand his realm by wedding the Queen of Iceland, Brünhild (Hanna Ralph), who lives in a fire-ringed castle with an army of shield-maidens. The prodigious Queen has set no easy requirements for suitors: they have to beat her in three tests of strength, on pain of death. Gunther is anything but a champion, and he prevails upon Siegfried, donning his magic helmet, first to invisibly guide his actions in the joust, and then to take his own guise to subdue her on the wedding night when she continues to reject him. In gratitude, Gunther not only lets Siegfried marry Kriemhild, but also goes through a ceremony of blood brotherhood with him.
Lang’s eye, with the tools of the amazing set design and decoration by Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht, and Erich Kettelhut, and the costuming by Paul Gerd Guderian and Aenne Willkomm, allows the essential conflicts and thematic tensions of the early stages of this drama accumulate through distilled signifiers. The initial sight of Worms as described by the mountain men appears like a dream vision, rising above the primal landscape of craggy mountains and colossal forest trees, tangles of wilderness and stygian depths of the unknown, through which Siegfried makes his heroic advance. It’s impossible to miss the similarity of imagery in the moment in which Siegfried follows Albrecht into his cavern to the scene in Metropolis where Fredersen follows Rotwang into the catacombs, although the journey is closer in spirit to that of Freder in the latter film, a trek into the underworld where the hero risks his life but emerges with riches. Siegfried, simultaneously, moves from the very fringes of the world, through the midst of the forest via the dragon and various semi-human races he encounters, to Worms, which, with its soaring battlements and radiating aura of centrifugal power and gravitas, seems like a bastion of all humans can achieve.
The formalistic world of the Burgundian court sees the characters and architecture arrayed in geometric precision, revealing the increasing influence of modern art styles like Cubism infiltrating Lang’s visuals, whilst also channelling the simple precepts of medieval heraldic decoration: such motifs do not however merely look impressive, but communicate ancient assumptions of hierarchy and power, encoded in the very scenery of the drama. Individuals are dwarfed by the might of the church and the palace, and they move into place with precision in obedience to feudal hierarchy at the court. When Siegfried, pretending to be Gunther, overwhelmed Brünhild, he did not actually deflower her, but he took her armlet, a symbol of chastity, and kept it as a trophy. When Kriemhild finds it and innocently sports it, Siegfried confesses his loyal act of deception. Meanwhile, Brünhild, still harbouring misgivings and gnawed at by her actual ardour for Siegfried, starts throwing her weight around in preferring to destroy what she can’t have. She describes Siegfried as a vassal and claims pre-eminence over Kriemhild upon entering the church, an act of contempt that angers Kriemhild so much she retaliates by telling Brünhild the truth about her wedding. Brünhild, maddened to mania, lies to Gunther that Siegfried actually slept with her when pretending to be him. Hagen, who has wanted an excuse to pilfer the Nibelungen treasure, sides with Brünhild when she demands Siegfried’s assassination.
The dialectic of values that permeates Die Nibelungen is reflected not only in the visuals, but in the opposition of characters. Siegfried, whilst embodying classical ideals of Germanic tribal youth, is also imbued with the nascent patina of Christian idealism in borrowing St George’s mantle (although some have also suggested, interestingly, that this aspect of the myth could have roots in the infamous defeat of the Romans by the Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, when the Romans wore scaled armour), penetrating the stygian depths of the forest and extending the bulwarks of civilisation, but utterly at a loss when drawn into the orbit of the political, human world. Defined against his virtue is Gunther, whose essential lack of personal direction and strength contrasts Siegfried’s meritocratic gifts carefully imbued by experience and upbringing, a warning against the dangers of mere inherited power. Even more polarised is Hagen, the unrefined old Teutonic, virile, amoral, fearless, shameless, and loyal to the interests of his nation and the improvement of his king, whether the king likes it or not. The demure Kriemhild seems, at first, the polar opposite of the awesome Brünhild: Kriemhild, quiet, eyes constantly downcast, appears the perfectly deferential, decorous medieval maid, whereas Brünhild is a more ancient kind of women, physically dynamic and wildly tribal, carrying associations with Greek mythical heroines and huntresses like Diana and the champion Atalanta, given superpowers by her intractable chasteness, and Lang and von Harbou stack her portrayal heavily towards hues of misanthropic lesbianism. Initial appearances are partly deceiving, as Brünhild proves increasingly volatile and vindictive once her virginity and sovereignty are surrendered, whilst Kriemhild, who early in the film interrupts a violent quarrel between Siegfried and Hagen with a pacific gesture, grows after marrying Siegfried exponentially in character and stature, until she becomes an all-powerful engine of wrath.
Siegfried and Kriemhild embody the persistence of idealism in civilisation, being reconstituted as the Roman world, distant and increasingly irrelevant, is assailed by Attila and his Huns. But idealism is not necessarily positivist in such a realm: it invokes justice and order as well as liberty and socialisation, and the occasional harshness of those concepts. Hagen and Brünhild, who are both, tellingly, constantly sporting helmets with winged crests that evoke more distant tribal roots and totemistic meaning, are refrains from older times, potent and powerful, but also destructive and self-defeating in their extreme sensibilities. Upon her arrival in Worms, Brünhild, who has before clearly been pagan, consulting an old völva who cast the runes, must kiss the cross in the first act of domestication. This historical world depends utterly on codes of behaviour and ritual that enforce and allow assumptions of trust. The gullibility of Siegfried and Kriemhild and the weakness of Gunther are heightened to amusing extremes, and yet of course it’s actually about demonstrating the level of trust invested in those one fights with and lives with. Hagen violates those presumptions in the most profound manner possible, as he tricks Kriemhild into sewing a cross on the back of Siegfried’s robe that marks out exactly where the leaf that despoiled his invincibility stuck, under the pretext of wanting to protect Siegfried in battle. Out on a hunt, whilst Siegfried drinks from a pool, Hagen spears him in the back.
Die Nibelungen is very long – the two chapters in their full-length cuts take five hours to unspool – in part because Lang plays every scene with a smouldering, slow-mounting intensity that registers with electric fixation and precise weightiness the characters’ actions and reactions. In the sequence of Kriemhild’s confrontation with her dead husband, the slow burn pays off for one of Lang’s brilliant little pirouettes of style, as Kriemhild awakens in the night and wanders from her bedroom, the castle now suddenly a trap of voluminous, haunted space, the hunting party returning from the stygian night with Siegfried’s body on his shield. When Kriemhild comes upon Siegfried laid out, she bends over his body in utter devastation. Whilst there’s much less of the overtly experimental and symbolic technique Lang would use in Metropolis here, Lang employs such elements sparingly and exactingly, and here interpolates a livid piece of imagery as Kriemhild envisions Siegfried standing before the blossoming tree where he was kissing her earlier, the tree of spring then waning in wintry fashion to take on the aspect of a glowing skull. Violent tragedy has been prefigured by an earlier dream Kriemhild had as Siegfried first entered her life, of a white bird being torn apart by black ones, rendered in abstracted animation. Kriemhild’s squall of shock soon segues into realisation that Hagen is the murderer, and she rises from Siegfried’s corpse pointing her finger at the warlord with abysses behind her electric eyes, demanding he be punished. But Gunther, who acquiesced to the crime, his brothers, and Volker all, for the sake of the loyalty that is their own, absolute value, step in front of Hagen, announcing their intention to stand by him. Kriemhild vows revenge, and later finds, when Siegfried’s body has been laid out in the cathedral, that Brünhild, having already revealed to her husband that she had lied about Siegfried’s actions, has killed herself there with a dagger in her heart, and rests bent over his corpse, bringing the curtain down on the first chapter.
The bipolar swing from the transcendental adventure of dragon-slaying to this ugly scene seems to chart a grimmer side to the evolution of human civilisation, out of the forest’s shadows and into the different shadows of human emotional and societal conflict. Kriemhild must evolve further and find a way to slay this entirely different kind of dragon. Like her dead husband, she embarks on a single-minded pilgrimage through the forests to fulfil a vow that will change the shape of the world. Strong female characters in Lang’s work were remarkably common even after his marriage to the imperious Von Harbou broke up, and although at first the drama is driven ironically by a clash of intemperate ladies, Kriemhild and Brünhild, later Kriemhild, like the diptych of Marias in Metropolis but contained within one body, is both goddess and succubus, saviour and annihilator, lording over men as she commits unremittingly to her programme no matter the horror that ensues. Whilst Brünhild comes to resemble a femme fatale of the order of Joan Bennett’s Kitty March in Scarlet Street, Kriemhild, like Spencer Tracy’s Joe Wilson in Fury, Henry Fonda’s title character in The Return of Frank James (1940), and Glenn Ford’s Dan Bannion and Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat, is slowly transformed by her dedication to vengeance into a merciless, inhumane force.
If that dedication is held far higher than the mob mentality, here presented in the form of the Huns, invoked throughout Lang’s films, it’s because it retains a fearful kind of beauty, a singular force that stands rigidly opposed to nihilism and defeatism, and thus constitutes as sure a bulwark against utter moral chaos as Worms’ battlements, but which in any other setting but this demands better answers. The formerly demure, ultra-feminine Kriemhild now becomes the baleful icon, resembling Klimt’s vision of Pallas Athena, cowering grown men with her gaze, her brothers downcast and ashamedly tentative before her, as she accepts an offer from Attila (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to become his new wife, as he promises to avenge any offence done to her: Kriemhild forces first Attila’s envoy, Rüdiger von Bechlarn (Rudolf Rittner), a Germanic vassal of the Asian conqueror, to swear this oath. She demands it again when she reaches Attila’s keep, in a spellbindingly intense sequence that sees the magnificently ugly Hun warlord and the beautifully icy German widow find a deep understanding in unflinching gazes and oaths of binding import. Attila is later so nervous about the well-being of his wife and his child she’s giving birth to, he can’t prosecute the siege of Rome he’s started, and when news comes of the baby’s safe delivery, he charges with his men back to his stronghold to cradle his babe with childish glee, and grants Kriemhild’s request to invite her brothers for a stay. Along the way he passes by the film’s oddest piece of symbolism, a gaggle of naked children dancing around the one tree in an otherwise blasted plain, emblems of the endangered but growing state of civilisation in this age.
Whilst Metropolis, with its genetic heritage passed on through so much of science fiction that followed and its giddy, frenetic sense of technique, is the most famous of Lang’s films, Die Nibelungen has all of its virtues and none of its faults, not simply in telling a more lucid story – it is admittedly easier to transcribe a work of great classical literature than compose one’s own parables – but also in conceptual depth, narrative integrity, and consistency of acting. The performing is practically cabalistic in its concentration, particularly from Schön, who does some of the most operatic eye-acting in the history of silent cinema, and that’s saying something. As Metropolis is to science fiction, watching Die Nibelungen feels very much like encountering the ür-text of just about the entire canon of historical fantasy-adventure cinema. Whilst many entries in these genres had been made before, Lang’s boldly composed visions seem to have sunk the deepest roots in the imagination of filmmakers, even those who have never seen them, but rather seen the films they inflected. Beyond the impact of his use of special effects, Lang’s visual alchemy presented an indelible model for anyone working with such material. The temptation to completely reinvent the world presented in a movie according to aesthetic choice and artistic desire is always theoretically open to filmmakers, but as it’s so often a realistic medium, few feel free to do so with material set in the modern world, a choice that is however less fraught in fantastic and historical settings. Thus Lang’s holistic sensibility, turning everything within the scope of his camera into an expressive instrument, could find free reign here, and gave to followers an expressive palate that could be used in endless and intricate variations. The influence spreads over a vast spectrum of cinematic icons: the compositions and stylisation of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1946-58), the historical swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz and epics of Cecil B. DeMille, the visual motifs of Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, and Orson Welles, through to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (over and above the poem’s influence on Tolkien), John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur (1981), and historical dramas like Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Fellini Satyricon (1969). Even sci-fi like Star Wars (1977) bears its imprint; Hagen – or is it Kriemhild? – can be called the absolute original Darth Vader. Lang’s way of settling his camera down to absorb a set composed in precise, static geometry prefigures the self-conscious reproduction of such effects by Sergei Paradjanov. The finale seems to have particularly inspired the core battle sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985).
Die Nibelungen moves with the relentless stateliness of classical tragedy, which is indeed a genre into which the story finally moves, even as the narrative finally erupts with action in an hour-long final sequence of transfixing force. Structurally, it is broken, like an epic poem, into “Cantos” that commence with brief explanatory, pre-empting notes. Kriemhild’s determination to uphold the values she considers sacred – justice and oaths of loyalty – runs headlong into Attila’s own specific absolutes, in this case the nomadic leader’s insistence that an offer of hospitality cannot be violated, so that even whilst he puts the Burgundians in his wife’s lap, he won’t prosecute the vengeance she wants. So, she carefully whips up the Hun warriors, who, wanting to aid the woman whose beauty and statuesque strength seems to them practically god-like, will do anything she asks, so that when the Burgundians arrive, a fight erupts between the partying soldiers of both sides. When a Burgundian soldier runs into Attila’s banquet hall in the keep, shouting, “Treason!”, Hagen promptly, punitively slaughters Attila and Kriemhild’s baby. At the pleading of another of Attila’s German vassals, Dietrich of Bern (Fritz Alberti), he’s allowed to lead Attila, Kriemhild, Rüdiger and others out of the keep, before the Nibelungen close the doors and defend themselves against the waves of Huns who try to hack through the doors and invade via ladders to the roof. The Nibelungen, with their shields and mail as well as fighting prowess, prove near-invincible for the unarmoured, swarming Huns, and so Kriemhild invokes Rüdiger’s oath and demands he lead his own men in, an act which entails the worst possible crisis of conscience: Rüdiger has promised his daughter in marriage to Giselher. But the power of the oath wins out, and Rüdiger moves ominously in to attack. When he tries to strike down Hagen, Giselher leaps in front of the villain in trying to plead with his would-be father-in-law, and dies instead. In the battle that follows, Volker kills Rüdiger, whilst the Huns swarm over Gernot as he pleads with his sister to call them off. Hagen mocks Kriemhild from the keep’s steps after another wave of attackers is beaten off, and finally Kriemhild gives the order to burn the keep to the ground with the remnant Nibelungen inside.
The power of these scenes is virtually indescribable in the infernal concision of the images, especially as the end comes for the Nibelungen, Volker defiantly playing his instrument – in pointed contrast to an earlier scene where he smashed another after Kriemhild left Worms without making peace with any of them – and leading the warriors in song. Attila, outside, in a maniacal trance, rocks his hands to the time of the song, and Kriemhild, at the suggestion from another German vassal that’s she’s been consumed by hate, gestures to the keep and states, “I’ve never been more filled with love,” in admiration for her brothers’ fidelity to their principles. They won’t even let Hagen go out to hand himself over when he proposes to do this. Finally, Dietrich, who, like Attila, is another real historical personage brought into the drama (his real-life analogue was Theodoric the Great, the Visigoth king who conquered Italy), ventures into the keep and overpowers Hagen, dragging him and the king, the last left alive, out to meet the final act of the tragedy. The bleak and dizzying beauty and emotional force of this ending come not simply from the feelings evoked within it and by it, but from the moral ambiguity of it all, as characters one despises suddenly prove themselves heroic beyond measure and true to their private code. Even Gunther gets himself wounded in trying desperately to pluck the fiery arrows from the roof, and Hagen tries to protect the prone king by standing over him with his shield as blocks of masonry crash upon it. The various postures of the characters, their world-ordering sensibilities, finally meet in a mutually annihilating showdown where each major character is forced, one way or another, to destroy what they love most. It’s the darkest possible ending in many ways, and yet bizarrely elating, and it makes, by comparison, most modern descendants of this truly great film experience look childish.
As regular readers here know, there’s not much I like better than finding lost films. Every recovered film fills a hole, however small, in history and provides insight into the artistic or documentary sensibilities of the filmmakers and the culture that influenced their creations. However, some discoveries are truly breathtaking, and the 1971 discovery of A Page of Madness by director Teinosuke Kinugasa himself while going through a warehouse is an extraordinarily valuable recovery. Japanese films from the silent era have one of the lowest survival rates of any national cinema, with only about 1 percent of an estimated 7,000 films still available for viewing in whole or in part. To compound the importance of this discovery, not only is the film silent, but it is also an experimental film, a subset of both silent and sound films that has an even lower survival rate.
Kinugasa, a former actor specializing in female parts, belonged to a group of avant-garde artists called the Shinkankaku-ha (School of New Perceptions). Like the German Expressionists also working at this time, the Shinkankaku-ha attempted to develop mood and subjective experiences through the manipulation of images rather than through traditional narration. Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner in Literature who supplied the story and part of the screenplay for the film, had seen Robert Wiene’s classic German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). He described that film’s experimental effects to Kinugasa, and these descriptions informed Kinugasa’s approach to telling the story of a janitor who works in the mental asylum in which his wife is incarcerated for trying to drown their baby.
The film offers what could have been a clichéd opening of suspense, a scene of a dark and stormy night. However, this storm is unlike anything I’ve seen since the Epstein/Buñuel silent The Fall of the House of Usher (1928). Sheets of rain slant in a skewed camera angle, stylized lightning looking a bit like Japanese calligraphy splitting the sky. A goddess-like creature dancing in front of a spinning sphere interrupts the elemental chaos. The image melds with a young woman (Eiko Minami) in tatters dancing in a cement-block cell, her imaginings of herself as an elegant priestess intercutting with her compulsive movements, unable to stop until she has danced herself bloody.
A stooped and aged janitor (Masuo Inoue) moves down the aisle of the cell block of women both restless and prostrate. He registers nothing until he reaches the cell that contains his wife (Yoshie Nakagawa). She stares blankly, madness alive in her eyes, even as he tries to reach into her mind and reawaken her memories of their marriage. Instead, we see a young woman in traditional garb carrying a baby to the edge of a pond and being pulled back as she starts to lower the infant into the water. Water is an important image in this film, a reference to the unconscious from which these dark and chaotic images emerge.
The daughter (Ayako Iijima) she tried to drown has grown to young womanhood and comes to visit her parents at the asylum to tell them of her engagement. Footage of the daughter and her fiancé appears to be missing, and I mistook her for the janitor’s memory of his wife as a young woman. Yet, this mistake still seems to resonate in the film, as the janitor is haunted by his memories and seems to be losing his grip on reality through constant contact with the insanity around him. A riot in the asylum occurs when the segregated male inmates pour into the women’s lock-up as they yelp in a frenzy over the dancing woman. Grotesque faces assault the screen and linger in the janitor’s mind as he imagines the men posing a danger to his wife—an allusion to his own mistreatment of her before she went mad.
A particularly effective scene has the janitor imagine that he passes out masks from the Japanese Noh theatre to the inmates so they can assume identities to replace the ones that have gone to pieces; donning the masks brings them a calming happiness they cannot find within themselves. When the janitor imagines that he places a mask of a lovely woman over his wife’s face and dons one of a wise man himself, we see him remembering what he feels for his wife and his desire to have his affection returned. Masks are always a bit eerie in film, and to see the collection of pale, immovable faces is to force a comparison to the largely blank, immovable face of the janitor’s wife. It is also a reminder that the janitor’s face, largely frozen in a half grimace, masks the tormented mind Kinugasa makes visible only to the audience watching the film.
Kinugasa engenders disorientation in the audience with the use of superimposed images, skewed camera angles, and quick-cut montages that telescope the chaos of the riot, for example, as well as the sharp contrast between the janitor’s imagination and the reality of his world. For example, he sees one bearded inmate menacing him and his wife, but a cut shows the janitor reclining on his bed as this same inmate, meek and harmless, is escorted past his door. Which is real? It doesn’t really matter. We understand that for the janitor, his chosen life and inner pain will forever keep “real” and “normal” a distant land.
The sense of confusion is quite extreme for the audience, particularly since the film has no intertitles. As was the practice in Japan, this film would have had a benshi narrate the story, interpreting the actions of the characters almost like an additional member of the cast. It would be fascinating to see the film with a benshi, but the powerful imagery and committed performances of the actors, particularly Inoue, communicate volumes. The film score used for the print from the George Eastman House uses atmospheric sound effects and a Japanese flute that I felt enhanced the haunted and alienated quality of the film.
A Page of Madness is an incredible achievement of Japanese cinema and a precious find for all cinephiles and scholars. It is also available for free viewing on YouTube.
Early cinema had no shortage of great innovators whose names roll off the tongue of any film lover, but D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau stand as perhaps the signal triumvirate of the medium’s formative influences, with Griffith as grammarian, Eisenstein as architect, and Murnau as alchemist. Murnau had, with Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), made a film nominally within the limits of the Expressionist style laid out by Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang, but pushed those limits outwards and introduced qualities of aesthetic and technical experimentalism into narrative film that soon began to inflect silent cinema far outside German borders. His subtitle for Nosferatu declared the intent and the effect: he made symphonies in cinema. Murnau’s almost endlessly resonating career was tragically short, for only 12 years intervened between the time when the young former assistant to Max Reinhardt made his first movie and his death in a car accident in 1931, just before his last feature Tabu premiered. Murnau’s influence on filmmakers was less how to put together the specific pieces of film to tell a story than as an exponent of “Unchained Cinema,” that is, the use of every element at the director’s disposal to construct an image on screen operating entirely to express a poetic-artistic vision. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, his first American production and one of the defining films of the silent era’s last few glorious years, was to influence filmmakers from the French Poetic Realists to Orson Welles to the New Wave and on and on.
With his legendary run of UFA films like ThePhantom (1923), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926), Murnau deepened his skill and fame and pushed his belief in pure visual exposition to radical limits. His dramatic sensibility expanded, too: whereas in Nosferatu he presented everyday humanity as literal prey for the emanations of the psyche, he began to more carefully modulate this theme through characters both insignificant, like the hero of The Last Laugh, and titanic, like Faust, who nonetheless are at the mercy of forces within and without that can destroy them or make them indestructible. When Murnau came to Hollywood to make a project he’d been developing back in Germany, Fox Studios’ money and infrastructure was laid at his feet with a boisterous profligacy only given today to the crassest would-be blockbusters. Murnau and his screenwriting partner Carl Mayer set out to create a little drama imbued however with qualities of fundamental allegory, hence the subtitle of “a song of two humans,” which, on the face of it, it like almost a caricature of high-falutin’ pseudo-art. But Murnau’s confidence in his grasp on the poetic lexicon of early cinema and the genuineness of his empathy for characters at the mercy of larger forces was such that he could transmute them into aesthetic riches. Mayer was a specialist at writing chamber dramas about everyday characters, whereas Murnau was interested in the elemental, yet the duo’s disparate interests complemented each other perfectly for The Last Laugh and Sunrise. Sunrise’s unspecific setting, perched somewhere between country and city, old world and new, past and present, artistic traditions and cinematic immediacy, dramatizes its world in terms of such binaries: most important of all, love and hate are entwined here with an inseparable, dizzying potency.
Sunrise tells the exceedingly simple story of a young couple in a state of crisis in an extraordinary manner. Murnau approaches it in a seemingly oblique fashion, starting off with the streams of holidaymakers who come to the tiny village where the main characters live from a city that is darkening and spreading, to quote The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), one of the many films under Sunrise’s influence. The opening shots, utilising overlays and split-screen effects, mimic the style of the era’s travel posters, as if drawing attention to how commercial visions mould our experience of the world, and in particular, the way the urban affluent see places beyond city limits. The very first shot is practically a film school subject in itself in terms of form and function: the artful sketch of a railway station interior and the lettering scrawled across it again evokes advertising, but also the art of the set designers, a touch that allows Murnau to immediately invoke the artificiality of his vision. As the sketch fades into actual set, with a great glass wall allowing us to see the urban context for a departing train, he consciously introduces the organic quality to the way his artificial world is constructed, binding city, train, and the movement of the train together like a museum display of an engine showing all its moving parts. The organic quality of Murnau’s created world extends to later in the legendary sequence on a trolley car where the country gives way first to the detritus-strewn outskirts, then the industrial belts and finally, the urban heart.
Sunrise’s first act is built around erotic obsession, intrusion and parasitism, so it’s fair that the film starts off with the city penetrating the country like a virus, ready to infect it and leech off it. The attitude of “the Woman of the City” (Margaret Livingstone), the vampy vacationer who stays behind in the rural village, is signalled very early when she has the woman renting her a room clean her shoes while she’s wearing them. The Woman is the embodiment not simply of the flashy thrills of urban modernity, but also of irresponsible sexual excitement itself, and her whistle to alert the Man (George O’Brien) that she’s waiting outside his hovel of a farmhouse is the call of the Siren, a Lorelei or female counterpart to Count Orlock. She fills a void of desire and excitement for the Man because the flush of romance has entirely left his life. The Man’s farm is failing, and the Wife (Janet Gaynor), silently aware of her husband’s infidelity and pain, slogs her way through days and nights and takes care of their infant son in glum distraction. With her old-fashioned hair style and sexless persona, she inhabits the idea of a wife from another era where it scarcely has traction, and the marrow has been sucked out of the Man along with the nobility of labour.
The Man leaves his barely furnished dinner table to venture into the reedy fringes of the lake that separates the village from the tramline to the city. Under the moonlight, he meets the Woman, who, in her black coat, has a panther’s aspect. Murnau matches the vamp’s promises of an electric life in the city with gaudy visions of whirling, expressionistic models and a split-screen shot of a bandleader thrashing time before a battery of horns and a dance floor that churns a storm-swell of sensual thrills. Lust and murder are instant bedfellows, as the vamp suggests to the Man that he arrange for his wife’s death by drowning. The Man flies into a rage at the suggestion and almost strangles her, but this is just prelude to carnal frenzies in the moonlight. The Man’s violence only stokes the Woman’s lust, her lunatic dancing and shimmying drives him to bury his face in her crotch in a scene that’s still amazing for the unrestrained manner in which Murnau presents sex and the death wish with raw, Freudian force. A tracking shot following the couple’s footprints in the mud, the vamp’s hard-heeled shoes showing up as utterly impractical, captures the insidious muck of their actions, as she cuts bulrushes for him to tie together and use as a buoy to keep himself afloat after he tips his boat into the water.
Glazed in Murnau’s nocturne eroticism, the first third of Sunrise suggests the distant prototype of all film noir, with a dash of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. If the Wife is femininity rendered stale and mute, so, too, the Man’s masculinity is contorted and volatile. When the Man returns to his home, carrying the guilty bundle of bulrushes, the Wife pulls a blanket over his sleeping form with a care that’s sublime, and when he seems the next day to reach out to her, she’s all too willing to believe he’s coming back to her. The build-up to the Man’s aborted attempt to kill his wife is prolonged when the family dog senses evil in the air and jumps aboard their rowboat, forcing the Man to turn back and take the dog inside. The Wife’s buoyant mood sinks in sensing, but not quite realising, her husband’s nihilistic mood, a mood that finally shows itself when he rises to do the deed, stiff and hunched, arms straight at his sides, like Orlock in Nosferatu But his wife’s terror brings the man back to his senses. He chases after her when, after they reach the shore, she flees onto a trolley, and the two journey into the city barely aware of anything except their own mutual horror and shame.
Much of silent cinema tends to look old—feel old—in a fashion deeper than mere technological modishness: through so much of it there is the incidental depiction of a world rapidly changing. For instance, all those Keystone Kops chase scenes depict a Los Angeles being built, and the shifts in fashion take us from the fading of Edwardian gentility into the sleekness of the Jazz Age within a decade, reminding us that the golden age of silent cinema came at a time when the world made a definitive shift into the one that, more or less, we still live in, but people still cast glances over their shoulder. Cinema of the time also had an eye toward a world beyond American borders: a huge proportion of the population in that time had been born overseas, many in places where the city depicted in the film was as exotic as and equivalent to the new country they came to. The other truly great depiction of marital pain in the new urban age from this time, King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), seems amazingly contemporary because it’s keenly attuned to the pulse of a purely modern, industrial city’s rhythms and realities. Sunrise operates in a different fashion, trying to be universal and timeless, even whilst still describing the world in which it was made. Murnau’s work, with one eye constantly back on a mythic past and the other on an oppressive present, feels like a barometer for the age, and the film’s elemental conceptualism emphasises all this: at its heart it’s a love story, yes, but it’s also about the way people are defined by place and time, and how they also might escape that definition. Just the same as the Man is beset by outsized moments of despair, rage, joy and sensual frenzy, Murnau’s movie operates according to the same bipolar spirit, swinging between poles of menace and anguish, and freewheeling ebullience and liberation. Sunrise, in its way, is a cinematic equivalent of one of Dostoyevsky’s characterisations, embodying and encapsulating multiple impulses and the way variations on the same basic feeling can draw one in diametrically opposed directions.
When the Man and Wife reach the city, however, they find a temporary release from the things that have nearly destroyed them both. Far from being entirely populated by people like the vamp, the city proves as alive with variety and human quality as anywhere else. Here buildings take on the outlook of alien embassies, and human visages are menacing and magnificent all at once. Sunrise, once it reaches the city, isn’t all that great a distance from the films of Chaplin and Keaton in its wry, observant take on individual quirks, from tipsy waiters to comically presumptuous lotharios to photographers who take secret delight in the unruly romanticism of their subjects, and its feel for the individuals contending with an almost-overwhelming new world. Murnau repeatedly makes a gag of situations that seem momentarily threatening, but prove eventually to be all right, as when the Man and Wife get frantic over thinking they’ve knocked the head off a classical statuette belonging to the photographer, not realising that it never had a head, and when an alarm over not being able to pay the bill in a swanky nightclub proves only momentary, as the Wife reveals she’s stashed some funds away for a rainy day. Even the finale renders the same basic idea on an epic and urgent key. Murnau’s visual excitement never gets in the road of his essential material, but rather dovetails with its richly conceived, poetic intensity. When the wife gets off the tram, still dazed, the husband grabs her and swings her through the traffic, constantly in danger of being knocked down; once the pair reconnects, they drift through the traffic with a weightless evanescence, and shift realities back into a pastoral setting before coming back to reality, where their kissing is holding up a river of traffic.
If Sunrise is taken too literally, it could be construed as a portrait in pathology, with the Man’s wild swings between ardour and homicidal feeling the stuff of horror tales. In context, however, it’s a virtually metaphysical portrait of how terrifyingly close such intense emotions are. It’s momentarily bracing to note that Murnau, gay and very Prussian, was one of the cinema’s great portrayers of grand, erotic passion and emotional immediacy, but then again, stereotypes never lasted long with him. The Man’s swing from cyborg-like fixation in the boat scene to crumbling, guilty mess sees the male and female roles reverse, the Wife holding power of life and annihilation in her hands and whose understanding of his emotional fatigue has a maternal element. The crucial scenes of the whole film comes when the pair, still bleary and shell-shocked from the evil morning, stumble into a church, where the spectacle of another couple’s wedding provides catharsis for them, repeating compositions of the man’s earlier tussles with the Woman as he buries his face in her belly, but with completely different emotional meanings. This scene segues into Murnau’s best joke, as our couple emerges from the church like they’re the ones who have just been married, to the bewilderment of the waiting folk outside. It’s both amusing and fittingly alarming then when, as the Man gets a shave, he’s hovered over by a manicurist who evokes the Woman and the Wife is bugged by a moustachioed letch who tries a bit too forcefully to chat her up, stealing one of the flowers the Man had given her. The Man, brushing off the manicurist, rises from his seat, unfolds a pocket knife and, with a triumphal flourish of reclamation and resurgent power, hacks the flower from the stranger’s lapel.
Of course, the film’s diptych of female types, blonde Madonna and vulpine brunette Whore, is reductive, but it does offset the Man, who combines violently opposing temperaments common to all men but stoked to fever pitch in him—just as Murnau had earlier in Nosferatu and The Phantom, and would again in City Girl (1930), presented similarly internally conflicted female characters. Gaynor, who herself won Best Actress in the 1927 Oscars for three performances (the other two were in Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and Street Angel), was used by the directors for her capacity to seem limpid yet luminous, whilst suggesting a less elfin Lillian Gish. O’Brien, mostly a Western actor who much later would star in two of John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy, is a fearsome physical performer, and when he and Gaynor come alight, it’s magic.
The process of the couple’s reconciliation is completed in a gigantic nightspot, memorably depicted on the exterior as a gigantic roulette wheel. There the Man becomes a momentary hero with his simple farmer’s fearlessness in hunting down a prize pig that escapes from the neighbouring sideshow. This sequence is a stream of hilarious vignettes of eccentric, flaky, sexy, ludicrous humanity, culminating as our couple is cheered on in performing the “peasant dance” in a display of deft physicality and pure partnership that delights the city crowd. Again this scene straddles worlds: for Germans Murnau and Mayer, it simply evokes the immediate reality of the national culture and the intrusion of the rural populace upon the urban. In the context of an American movie, the idea of a “peasant dance” evokes the immigrant experience, and at least for me, the curiously similar dancing styles often exaggerated in the Disney Silly Symphonies, which drew their inarguable popularity from aiming precisely at the nexus of audiences who covered a colossal range of cultural references. Simultaneously, the dance resolves what has been schismatic—city and country, male and female, fun and marriage, the world of two and the world at large, new and old.
Whilst the rural environment that the Man and Wife come from is a world of primal environs and singular, transcendent emotions, the city is a place of synergies, frippery, shallow wonders, and real ones, too. Perhaps the only other film that communicates the joy of rediscovering the love in a pained relationship as authentically as Sunrise is Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1951), a film that is in many ways a temperamental opposite: Rossellini’s intimate, ironic realism illuminates the inside of its characters through the tropes of the world as found rather than reordering the world. Sunrise’s finale offers up melodrama, as natural forces as immutable as the emotional ones seen throughout the film endanger the Man and Wife as they sail back to their village. Plot motifs converge with cunning symbolism as the Man gives the bundle of bulrushes that was supposed to save his life to his Wife just before their boat is capsized, an act of perfect charity, though the Man is washed ashore while the Wife is left to drift in the lake under the steadily disintegrating bundle: when the Man and fellows from town return to the becalmed lake, they only find drifting rushes leading the Man to believe the worst, and the vamp believes he’s pulled off the murder.
Murder indeed almost happens, as the Man this time comes out in reply to her whistle to throttle her almost to death, only to be saved by Murnau’s use of a gigantic close-up. More specifically, a gigantic close-up shot of the couple’s maid (Bodil Rosing) shouting out that the wife has been found alive, saving the femme fatale in the nick of time. But the sense of technique, the sheer go-for-broke feeling of Murnau’s employment of Rosing’s face, is inescapable, the purest distillation of form and function he can offer. Murnau follows it up with an equally perfervid close-up of the Wife, long hair at last unfurled, awakening in bed to the man’s kiss, as the pair dissolves in a beatific air. It’s a moment where the opposites in Murnau’s vision of the universe finally melt away, and the carnal becomes spiritual.
They’re back again. The creative team behind the successful OSS 117 spy parodies—filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, his wife and leading lady Bérénice Bejo, and his leading man Jean Dujardin—have turned their talents not only to another subgenre, but to film history itself. The Artist is a backstage Hollywood story made as a black-and-white silent film, complete with title cards and music score. Modern silent films are more numerous than many people think, though The Artist will be a novelty to the majority of people who go to see it. Unfortunately, as a silent-film fan, I found myself quite confused by this film and feel it distorts the record on the transition from silent to sound pictures in a way that further offends John Gilbert, a silents legend who ended up unjustly on Hollywood’s ash heap.
The film begins unlike any real silent film: a spy is shown in extreme close-up being tortured with electroshock treatments by some Russians who want him to spill his secrets. He refuses to talk and is tortured to unconsciousness. Fortunately, the spy’s faithful dog comes to the rescue, the baddies are beaten, and the spy returns to the arms of his lady love. This sequence, the climax of the new George Valentin (Dujardin) film “A Russian Affair,” is intercut with an audience in a large theatre and George and his costar Constance (Missi Pyle) sitting behind the screen waiting to take their bows at this, the film’s premiere. This clever opening signals the modernist sensibilities that will be brought to bear on a film era spanning from 1927 to 1931, from the Roaring Twenties through the 1929 stock market crash and into the Great Depression and the rise of the movie musical.
Following the (silently) thunderous applause of his appreciative audience, George mugs with Dog (Uggi) on stage like the old vaudevillians they must have been, as Constance fumes about not being introduced until the very last moment. George exits the theatre, and one of his fans, while trying to retrieve the autograph book she drops, stumbles into George. He forgives the intrusion, and the young lady, Peppy Miller (Bejo), makes herself an overnight sensation by posing for the newspaper photographers and giving George a kiss that makes it to the front page of Variety. George’s disaffected wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) refuses to believe the innocence of the encounter, particularly when she sees George with Peppy at the studio, where the aspiring starlet has wormed her way into a nonspeaking cameo on George’s new picture. The pair signals their attraction by repeatedly flubbing their brief moment together on camera; studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) wants to fire her, but George uses his clout to keep her on.
In a classic reversal of fortune, Hazanavicius produces credits for several films showing Peppy moving from the bottom of the list, through the common variant billings of the time (“Pepi”), to top-billed star as the studio switches to all-sound pictures and new faces to usher the new era in. At the same time, George, scoffing at talking pictures, heads toward ruin. He loses his fortune in the stock market crash, his wife leaves him, and the studio drops him like a hot potato. He and Dog move into a small apartment, along with his loyal chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell), who works without pay until George fires him for his own good. After George has pawned everything of value and become a full-fledged alcoholic, Peppy rescues him after he has nearly died in a fire of his own making and resurrects his career by turning him into a musical comedy star alongside her. Their final number, a tap dance routine reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell’s “Begin the Beguine” turn in Broadway Melody of 1940, is the only nondream sequence with sound, as the stubborn silent “artist” embraces light entertainment in all-sound pictures.
The character of George is a compilation of classic silents stars, including Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, but he seems most modeled on Greta Garbo’s regular costar John Gilbert. Dujardin’s appearance mimics Gilbert’s, and George’s reason for refusing to make talkies, “Nobody wants to hear me speak,” alludes to the myth that Gilbert did not make the transition to sound because he had a poor speaking voice. Gilbert also got an assist out of obscurity from Garbo, who insisted that he was the only man she’d play with in Queen Christina (1933), and Gilbert was an alcoholic. However, making George an egoist who declared his own film artistry as the reason to reject sound, not to mention a laughable voice test by Constance a la Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), undercuts the real reasons behind Gilbert’s problems and those of other silents stars—high salaries and more power than the studio bosses cared for them to have. George is reduced to an actor whose pride is his only impediment, and that includes having the hubris to declare himself an artist when Hollywood insists that it will support only happy campers who churn out light entertainment for a downtrodden nation.
Filming The Artist without sound seems a very confused choice to me. The big reveal at the end that George has a French accent would seem to confirm his fear of sound due to his voice, but what exactly does the choice do for the rest of the film? I’m afraid I don’t really see the point as anything other than some high-concept conceit that seems a particular attraction of The Weinstein Company, which picked this film up for American distribution. Is it fun to see modern acting styles done without sound or color, or to pick through the film references placed like Easter eggs throughout the film (e.g., the breakfast table scene between Charles Foster Kane and his wife in Citizen Kane  or the verbatim score for Vertigo  in the fire sequence)? Honestly, I felt these were cheap attempts to engage my cinephilia instead of giving me a film that was well conceived with a strong point of view.
The area where this film shines is in the incredible talent and likability of Dujardin and Uggi. The pair works very well together, particularly in the gripping scene when George is overcome by smoke in his apartment and Dog barks desperately at him to get up and leave, finally exiting the scene and racing down the street to attract a policeman (Joel Murray) to the conflagration. This scene plays remarkably true to silent film conventions and maintains its own integrity, with the exception of a comic moment when an older woman (Annie O’Donnell) waiting for a bus tells the cop he probably should see what all the fuss is about.
The extremely crisp look of the film gives a hint of what a new nitrate film might have looked like to audiences in the silent era, though even restored films from nitrate we see today don’t look quite this good. In general, the costumes were a treat, but I was a bit disconcerted to see Peppy in full flapper regalia for a 1930s film she was starring in. The Artist was also surprisingly chaste by both 1920s and pre-Code standards; George and Peppy never act on their attraction, making the relationship one of mentor-protégé despite plot developments that assert it should have been more, for example, Peppy buying all of George’s personal effects at auction and saving them in her mansion for a time when he could be reunited with them.
I enjoyed various components of this film and thought the performances were generally quite good, but perhaps I am too much of a silent-film buff to really give it my full endorsement. And if I’m not the target audience for this film, then who is? This talented team should have thought this one through a little further, as I feel there’s a first-rate film in here somewhere straining to come out.
My love affair with Colleen Moore started the night I saw Ella Cinders several years ago at Chicago’s Silent Summer Film Festival. The most I had seen of Moore before that was in short film clips outside Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry display of her Fairy Castle, built for $500,000 in the mid 1930s and toured around the country by Moore to raise an eventual $650,000 for children’s charities. I never paid much attention to those clips, though they included a scene from Ella Cinders, so anxious was I to see the wonderland in miniature she created just for kids like me. Looking back, it’s easy to see how the woman who inspired this dollhouse for fairies would be exactly the kind of actress who could cast enchantment over an entire nation. After the premiere of Ella Cinders, she did indeed become the most popular actress in America.
At first, no one would make this light comedy based on the story of Cinderella. Some clever promoters decided to drum up demand for the film by launching an “Ella Cinders” comic strip in 1925 with characters from the film script, and a heroine who looked exactly like Moore. “Ella Cinders” was a big hit, not only inducing First National to make the picture, but also establishing a comic strip that would run for 36 years.
Ella Cinders is the put-upon servant of her stepmother (Vera Lewis) and two stepsisters, Lotta and Prissy Pill (Doris Baker and Emily Gerdes). Her only friend is handsome and gentlemanly George Waite (Lloyd Hughes), nicknamed Waite Lifter because he is the iceman who hauls the blocks to stock the iceboxes that fill their home town of Roseville, Colorado. Ella, longing to escape, learns that Lotta plans to enter a local beauty contest whose winner will receive a cash award and a contract with a Hollywood studio. When she goes to the photographer for a headshot to enter in the contest, she is plagued by a fly buzzing around her face. It is the headshot showing her cross-eyed with a fly on her nose that wins the contest for her, providing the judges with a good laugh instead of a dime-a-dozen beauty shot. Shrugging off her rags with the money to buy some new clothes, and with a train ticket in hand, she heads for Hollywood, only to find that the contest was a scam and that there is no studio contract waiting for her, only the same struggle to crash into a studio and get noticed that others face.
Ella Cinders offers some sight gags to tickle our fancy, but they pale in comparison to what Moore does on her own. For example, desperate to win the contest, she steals a book on acting off the chest of her sleeping sister and tries to follow instructions. Notably, the book says that being able to act with your eyes is the key to success (and an interesting take on acting in the silent era especially, with the cross-eyed look that catapulted Ben Turpin to comic fame included in the book). Director Green offers special effects of Moore apparently crossing and swirling her eyes in different directions to get laughs, but I was more impressed with her attempts to match the looks in her mirror. Similarly, when posing for the headshot, she is a mass of uncertainty, putting her hat at different angles, clutching some tulle around her face, leaning her chin on her finger, and other strange poses that are funny and charming at the same time. In Hollywood, she is thrown out repeatedly by a studio guard she is trying to get past. Her final attempt is to wrap a silk throw around herself and put a mannequin head on top to disguise herself. The image is kind of amusing, but when a dog unmasks her, her tear through the studio onto different sets is guilelessly funny.
The most famous scene in the film is her encounter with Harry Langdon. She sees him holding a door closed during a scene, and goes to his aid with the line, “They’re after me, too.” The gags Harry uses to hide her from the guard are pretty standard stuff—bobbing up and down to conceal her behind him, throwing a blanket over her and pretending she’s a table he’s having lunch at. For my money, the best bit is when she accidentally plugs a lion’s tail into an electric outlet and runs for her life. She ends up screaming for help on a set on which a fire is being simulated with blow torches, and the director, thinking she’s the actress he hired, congratulates her even after he sees the real cause of her distress. Naturally, she is put under contract and eventually wins herself a Prince Charming—George is actually wealthy, loves her, and goes to California to marry her.
I could quibble about details, and I certainly think the comedy bits are very routine and not very funny for modern tastes. But none of that matters because my sweet Colleen shines in every frame. She truly is incandescent, a warm and mirthful soul I love to spend time with whenever I can. Indeed, I found myself with an indelible smile on my face throughout my recent re-viewing of the film. Moore herself searched her whole life for prints of her many lost films without much success, but there is always hope that one will turn up somewhere the way Her Wild Oat did. Whenever and whatever it is, I’ll be there, communing with my favorite star.
It has been a few months shy of two years since I first learned about the cache of American films from the silent era found in the New Zealand Archive, and almost as long since I learned that a long-lost film by John Ford called Upstream was among them. Preparing for the first For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, I was let in on the secret by the organization for which we chose to raise money, the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF). A lot has happened since those first organizing discussions: we’ve held another blogathon, one of the films whose restoration we funded (The Sergeant, 1912) is soon to be released on DVD by NFPF as part of a collection of Westerns, and Upstream made its repremiere in Los Angeles last September. The film has only shown in a handful of venues since then, none of them near Chicago.
That changed two weeks ago. A friend of mine told me Upstream was to screen at the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque in Madison in a few days’ time. How had this amazing information escaped my notice?! I was so excited I could barely contain myself. At last, a chance to see what I’ve known about and worked for for so long. And what a show it was! The UW Cinematheque is a wonderful venue for free screenings of a wide range of films during the school year. Jim Healy, the new director of programming, came to UW after 10 years at George Eastman House, so not only are his taste and pedigree impeccable, but he also has a direct line to film sources throughout the world. Upstream was to have played at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema during their “Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus” symposium (which brought my blogathon partner Farran Smith Nehme to town to sit on two panels), but an equipment problem caused the detour to the Cinematheque. Thus, with apologies to Farran for leaving her and the symposium behind, the hubby and I set off for our favorite neighboring state.
The evening Healy had planned was a tribute to the Fords, Francis and John, beginning with a screening of a short film, When Lincoln Paid (1913), directed by Francis (that’s him as Lincoln, too). The nitrate film had been found moldering in a New Hampshire barn and was taken on by Eastman House for restoration; Healy informed us that after the discovery, additional scenes were found elsewhere, so restoration of the title is ongoing. I look forward to seeing the film in its nearly complete form when the “new” scenes are edited in—it’s an extraordinarily gripping story of how Abraham Lincoln pays an I.O.U. to the owner of a boarding house years later, after he becomes president and is conducting the War between the States that caused the unfortunate woman to lose her son, a Union soldier, to a Confederate firing squad. (This film and brother John’s were both given brilliant piano accompaniment by David Drazin, a musician who has quite spoiled silent film lovers in Chicago with his witty, appropriate soundtracks improvised right on the spot.)
John Ford’s recovered film is a much different sort of film—a show biz story brimming with comedy and a lighthearted love triangle. Most of the action takes place in a boarding house for vaudeville performers run by Miss Hattie Breckenridge Peyton (Lydia Yeamans Titus), a former vaudevillian whose several posted signs let “resting” performers know that they must pay in advance. Raymond Hitchcock, in one of his last film performances before his death in 1929, plays the big star staying at Hattie’s with a wonderful shabby gentility. Hitchcock, a true star of the theatre whom audiences of the time were so sure to know that he wasn’t even given a character’s name, uses his reputation and liberal amounts of flattery to get Miss Hattie to overlook his outstanding debt to her. A knife-throwing act made up of the knife tosser Jack La Velle (Grant Withers), his target, Gertie Ryan (Nancy Nash), and their assistant, Eric Brashingham (Earle Foxe), aren’t booked up either. Worse for Jack, Gertie is carrying on a flirtation with Brashingham, the last in the line of an acting dynasty, and like the last in line for anything, he was shortchanged in the talent department.
All of the boarders, even Miss Hattie, hope for a big break when Gus Hoffman (Harry A. Bailey), a booking agent, shows up during their communal dinner. Everyone runs to greet him except Brashingham, who is far too busy slaking his appetite to bother; naturally, Hoffman is there to see him. The Brits want a Brashingham to play in a new production of Hamlet, and talent is no object. Dramatic actor Campbell Mandare (Emile Chautard), who reveres Shakespeare, offers to coach Brashingham. The pair stays up all night rehearsing, and Brashingham makes a breakthrough. He sets sail for London, makes an enormous triumph, and grows a head the size of the Titanic. He returns to New York and visits the boarding house as a publicity stunt on the day Gertie and Jack are married. Will Gertie, who carried a torch for the ham for some time, regret her marriage? Will Jack throw a knife at his former colleague’s fat head to deflate it? Will Brashingham be able to fit his head through the front door at all? It’s for the viewer to see and enjoy.
The performances in the film are uniformly wonderful. Chautard does Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” scene that, regardless of the lack of sound, is magnetic and full of feeling. We see the difference between his rendition and Brashingham’s over-the-top recitation not only in the lack of obvious gesticulation, but also through lighting that offers a dramatic counterpoint to Chautard’s emotive face. The comedy dance team of Callahan and Callahan is wonderful as an odd-couple pairing. Ted McNamara’s face is the map of Ireland, while Sammy Cohen’s is kosher for Passover. They couldn’t be brothers if they tried, but their differences land them a print ad for cosmetic surgery, with Cohen offering a side view of his angular proboscis in the “before” picture, and McNamara showing a diminutive nose in the “after” photo. The partners also dance quite well, and offer an early comic scene as their rehearsal in their room above the dining room sends plaques of thin, loose plaster crashing down from the boards that form both their floor and the diners’ ceiling.
I thought Earle Foxe was a little overstated during his snob phase, though the groundwork was laid very nicely by his half-hearted romancing of Gertie that was more mercenary than marriage-minded. His humanity comes out best when all of his lines go out of his head just before curtain in London, and he’s in a very believable panic. Ford offers a ghostly image of Mandare appearing in a dramatic special effect to bolster Brashingham’s courage. Nancy Nash looked adorable, (I covet her three-piece suit), and Grant Withers didn’t overdo the jealousy. I really felt for him when Brashingham crashed his wedding, sending Gertie into hiding upstairs.
I’ve seen a number of film critics tying themselves into knots trying to “auteurize” Upstream. The truth is that Upstream is a wonderful comedy that wouldn’t be recognized as a John Ford film if you didn’t know he directed it. But it does reveal that he was always great at directing ensembles that could accommodate stars without selling them the deed to the farm and that comedy was in his blood. I could never understand the strange mixed tone of his film Pilgrimage (1933), a rather serious World War I film that unaccountably goes slapstick in its middle act. Now I think I get it.
Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North is credited with being the first full-length, ethnographic documentary in cinematic history. As we understand the term “documentary” today, this film certainly stands as the most famous of its time, that is, a documentary that is not merely a document impassively recording occurrences in front of the lens, as with the “actualities” from the dawn of filmmaking, but one that preserves cultural artifacts with either implicit or explicit points of view about those artifacts. Flaherty would be one of the first documentarians to fiddle with the truth to preserve things he found valuable. In Nanook and Man of Aran (1934), for example, his aim was to document ways of life that were becoming extinct. Flaherty banished any modern tools or methods used by the Inuit tribe he recorded in favor of filming their traditional way of life; in Aran, the fishermen of Ireland’s Aran Islands literally reenacted traditional practices they had already abandoned.
You might call Flaherty something of a Luddite, despite his use of photographic equipment in filming and editing his material, and someone who may have romanticized traditional societies even as he saw the evidence of their hardships with his own eyes. His bias toward simplicity comes roaring out of The Twenty-Four Dollar Island, a 13-minute documentary in which the city of New York itself is the main character. The film is included in Anthology Film Archive’s nine-hour DVD set, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941, a brilliant attempt to make it and other vital and fascinating films unseen no longer.
The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is another startlingly original work, portraying the mechanical organism that is a robust industrial city through its architecture and machines. While I don’t know what the original score for the film sounded like—or even if it had one—the new score by Donald Sosin provides a strong complement to Flaherty’s point of view that a city is something close to a fascistic overlord that, nonetheless, reflects human civilizations through the centuries.
The film opens with an image on paper: an historic drawing of the 1626 trade Dutchman Peter Minuit supposedly made with Native Americans—boxes of trinkets worth $24 for Manhattan Island. Title cards tell us the Dutch immediately built 30 houses. Next, we learn the new city of New Amsterdam grew to 1,000 residents by 1656. The film then juxtaposes a drawn map of the original New Amsterdam settlement with photos of the metropolis that had spread out on the same site by 1926, the year this film was shot. The next title card introduces Flaherty’s subject proper: “New York, symbol of impressive industry, finance, power, where men are dwarfed by the immensity of that which they have conceived—machines, skyscrapers—mountains of steel and stone.”
A couple of men are glimpsed on the edges of the frame as they maneuver some earth-moving equipment into place. Steel clam shovels dig into the sand and move on threads of chain into the air to deposit their loads in a nearby container. The music, which until now had trafficked in Native American motifs, starts to take on a stronger rhythmic intensity, as though it were imitating the heartbeat of the city, and synthesized tones emphasize the mechanistic nature of the subject. Ships belching black smoke and dwarfing nearby ferries and tugboats fill the frame. The Hudson River, visible on the maps shown at the beginning of the film, seems to be brimming with seafaring traffic, like a bathtub awash in rubber duckies and toy boats. Bridges spanning from the island to the surrounding land cut a swath through the sky; when the river traffic and bridges enter the same frame, the sky is all but obliterated. The total encroachment of the urban human habitat on the natural landscape of the island will fill the frame at the end of the film.
New York seems like some ghastly nightmare to Flaherty. Men building the mighty structures of the city work in deep holes, chipping at bedrock with pick axes and sliding down loose earth and rubble. The rock is loaded into a container and lifted by a crane out of the hole. During the scene, my mind raced to the building of the pyramids, which employed devices and many men working with their hands to erect the pharoahs’ tombs. As if by magic, the next image is of a building whose upper half is shaped like a stepped pyramid.
When the film segues to some of the skyscrapers then standing in Manhattan, a tree limb or two break into the frame. Not all of New York is hard and pushy, the film seems to want to say. The music softens with strains reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” but trending in the direction of his more atonal Third Symphony, and the examples of grace and elegance then in existence are boxy or overly fussy, reflecting a basic bad taste. If only the Chrysler Building had been finished in time to be photographed for this film, this section might have made a better case for New York’s softer side.
Flaherty captures the muscularity of New York, its ugliness, and deliberately eliminates most humans from the frame. It’s hard to believe the title card that says there were 8 million people living in the city in 1926, so completely does the island seem entirely populated by buildings and machines. There is nothing left from 1626 for Flaherty to recreate ethnographically, and without the elemental roots of the city—only its bedrock bones being hacked to pieces by drone workers—Flaherty seems to find little to dignify in his portrait. His point of view is clear; The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is a mesmerizing and amazing achievement for him and for its new scorer, Donald Sosin, who captures the spirit of the film and enhances it significantly.