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Nosferatu &. Destiny/Der Mude Tod (Murnau/Lang, 1921): Lest We Forget . . . .

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Nosferatu &. Destiny/Der Mude Tod (Murnau/Lang, 1921): Lest We Forget .  .  .  .

The whole idea of a Silent Film Smackdown or kickboxing match to pronounce a "winner" in the end is an act bordering on a level of absurdity so profound its virtually without equal.

At the same time the idea of bunching these two supernatural films together just set upon me five minutes ago (approximately 12:45pm EST in NYC, 3/30/2015... we still have a little bit of time left before the planet blows up in a great fiery orgy of apocalypse because when a supermoon gets funky with a solar eclipse on the vernal equinox and god knows what-all else, being toasted down to a shivering microscopic cinder is the only possible outcome .  .  .  if you don't believe me then listen to Mystic Momma

: she knows everything). I found the idea of a comparative appreciation unbearably alluring so I'm diving in without prep to close out this second calendar week of my resurrected blog.

Two foundational films from two foundational directors in Germany: Nosferatu by Murnau, and Der Mude Tod (aka Destiny) by Lang. Both made in 1921. Both the first undisputed masterpieces by either director. Both gloomy and dreary and filled with the inky charcoal of chiaroscuro. Both soaked with a cold damp wind of grey death. Both tone-setters for the way that Weimar Cinema would be perceived up to this very day. 

Both films are underpinned by awesome performances by singularly grim looking male actors portraying incarnations of death personified in worn, almost shabby costumes that have a perfectly weathered appearance, matching their heavily weathered faces.

Both films imbue the viewer with a hope that--as the narratives wend their ponderously gloomy way toward resolution--the forces of darkness can be defeated with a cipher of human innocence and genuine selflessness. And both crush that hope in conclusion with a rare power of precious, dismal poetry.

Both films harness the power of shadow in one of the earliest examples of sets bathed in shadow, soaked in broad swathes of inky darkness--aside from Evgeni Bauer, these are some of the first films to concretize the yet unspoken maxim of the great cameraman John Alton: it's not what you light, it's what you don't light.

Both films obsess over the rarest esoterica of the supernatural, a subject that was extremely rare in the cinema and would remain so for at least another ten years until the advent of the sound era in Universal Studios and the youthful risk-taking of Carl Laemmle Jr. From the birth of the full length five reeler in the teens and forward, most tales of the supernatural turned out to have rational explanations in the end: scheming relatives trying to scare an inheritor away from a fortune, a cop dressing up as a supernatural creature to scare the competition away, and on and on.

*           *           *

Not only did the two of these films concern themselves with the supernatural, they obsessed for obscurest esoterica of the supernatural. .  .  secret ciphers and glyphs of forgotten hidden societies, mysterious roots and bulbs that were believed to give off healing powers under the glow of a seasonal moon. .  .   the whirling of Muslim dervishes to celebrate the Sufist concept of God (in the much larger Earth of the early 20th Century, how many Europeans knew much about Islam beyond the Arabian Nights?), Paracelsian esoterica, the vampiric myths of eastern Europe and the legends about the foggy, hard-to-reach crumbling castles high on little-traveled passes .  .  .  ideas that in their actual form are as obscure today as they were back then almost a hundred years ago.

Through books like The Demoniac/Haunted Screen by Lotte Eisner, or From Caligari To Hitler by Siggy Kracauer, it's easy to fall into the ridiculous trap of thinking that the German screen of post-war Weimer was filled with little else but doom, gloom, death and the supernatural--but it's not true.

Nosferatu &. Destiny/Der Mude Tod (Murnau/Lang, 1921): Lest We Forget .  .  .  .

Like the films of Douglas Fairbanks or Llloyd or Chaplin here in the USA from the same period, these are simply the films that, because of their budget, skilled craftsmen, unusual quality and thus broad exhibition, gained great popularity with the public and thus were 1) duped and exhibited voluminously whereby 2) copies wound up surviving here and there and thus made it to the modern era in a far greater percentile versus the ordinary Westerns, adventure films, romances, serials, comedies by transitory flavor-of-the-moment actors and actresses, and newsreels that came out with far far far greater frequency. Eighty percent of the films from the silent era at very least have been lost. The number is probably greater.

Even the studio planet of UFA, known for its Pommerian universe of artifice and grand scale, was a factory grinding out typical studio fare. UFA was no more the studio of super-expensive giant sized productions any more than Universal in the 1920's was a studio that put out nothing but Stroheim and Lon Chaney million dollar super jewels. Universal Hollywood in those days was essentially a B studio--cranking out low budget westerns, serials, comedies, romances, and all the other drek that comes in between. They put out a super jewel feature complete with glossy printed magazine size programs, sheet music sold to the public, etc once a year. Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback, The Man Who Laughs, the Stroeheims, you'll notice that you will almost never find a year where a Universal film with towering, mindbendingly expensive sets is released alongside another of equal budget but of completely different pedigree and subject and art direction. The studio finances just couldn't handle it.

As far as UFA was concerned, it was the stretch from 24-27 where they attempted to ratchet up the studio superproductions to simultaneity (Faust/Nibelungen/Metropolis) that saw the studio stumble right into financial trouble and right into Alfred Hugenberg's mitts.

The point is this: even in the hallowed halls of the old UFA in the first half of the twenties, just pre and post acquisition of Decla Bioskop, the vast majority of cinematic fare in Germany was the same boring fluff made for as little as possible that plagues any era of film. At least when it comes to the connoisseur, with a taste for something different and somewhat more substantial.

How miraculous are both of these films--how so are both of these men. What different temperaments, yet how similar are both of these breakthroughs for both of them. Nosferatu's influence over the years has been endless, although upon its initial release its success was staggered by the Stoker family suit. Der Mude Tod--we know it floored Luis Bunuel; we know it bowled Hitchcock over and remained his favorite film. We know--speaking of the American swashbuckler-- Douglas Fairbanks freaked for the Lang film and bought its rights so he could cruelly shove it in a closet and first copy, then release a flying carpet sequence lifted straight out of the Oriental sequence first, before the appearance of Der Mude Tod in the states. Uncool.

It's very easy in this age of all manner of films everywhere, our senses dulled by porn and CGI and terrorism and apps and all manner of strange information available at the click of a mouse, to miss the impact of Nosferatu and Der Mude Tod

In a field of endless homogeneity and unspectacular, average, mindless prattle as far as the eyes can see--an occasional decent mind here and there, okay, it's true--suddenly two men walk in out of nowhere with completely overwhelming talent and brains, and demonstrate at the same time the strangest taste and aesthetic inclinations. People stop, stunned, staring at the screen, jaws agape. 

How is it that this happens? Just a few times every century? Men arrive almost as if they landed from Saturn, with minds concerned with subject matter that baffle ordinary folks .  .  .  strange men who scare people .  .  .and nonetheless awe the chilled common man to the marrow with the hitherto unseen level of talent that hurls all that originality flowing naturally through their veins direct into the beholding viewer as if by injection?

Almost above all other films from the era--there are others of course--savor these films. Never allow yourself to become numb to their meaning and what they say about the young, barely experienced men who made them and dazzled the planet .  .  .  still to this day. Generation after generation.

Schreck/Clive

3/20/2015***

    

 

 


Published by Preston Clive , 20.03.2015 at 23:09

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Owen Stone
Owen Stone 23 March 15 15:27 The artwork in these pieces are really amazing. The cover photo just reeks of communism tension, it's rare that you see art that packs so much power today. Text hided expand
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