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Main article: Murnau

Coming Soon (FOR REAL): Nosferatu, (Murnau, 1921)

When approaching any project, this whether medium you are working in is film, music, writing, painting, whatever, there is one basic thing that you begin with, and there is one essential thing that you end with.

You begin with your vision for the project--that is, what you would like the end product to look like. This is motored by the energy of inspiration, ratcheted up or down via the level of motivation the material actually injects into your artistic heart and soul.

And you end with the output product itself, what the energies and labor on yours and-- in the case of the cooperative arts-- your collaborators' parts ultimately and finally produced.

An extremely inspired artist often begins with an interior sensation, an inner disposition of emotion, of atmosphere, of statement, of excitement, something sublime .  .  .  that he dreams of getting across to his audience. A feeling that the material stimulates in his inner life, which is rarefied in the world, that he wishes to inject direct into the hearts of his audience. Depending on his sensibility, certain situations or juxtapositions excite him because of the way they make him feel. Certain combinations set off interior responses that are very precious .  .  .  the reasons that these sensations are set off, and why they are very precious are part of the essential mystery of life. Who knows why bare twisted branches against a grey sky and falling leaves on a damp foggy day in November were very precious and pleasurable to the French and Russian Impressionists of the Twenties and Thirties. 

Who knows why some people endlessly gravitate towards trouble in their lives and grow very uncomfortable when life is on a regular, positive keel? Who knows why certain depressive people gravitate to a certain type of sadness, and crash and burn and drink and grow erratically aggrieved during moments that typically trigger supreme happiness in most others? Who knows what emotions are in the first place, the function that they serve, and why they modulate so profoundly from person to person? All in the end are chemical reactions in the brain, set off to certain combinations of stimuli; why one person should experience one chemical reaction to a certain stimuli while another experiences secretions of an entirely opposite nature--this is the essential mystery of life. It's the kind of thing that challenges the marketing departments of large corporations around the world, and will continue to do so for time immemorial .  .  .  and large scale purveyors of product for sale would like the responses to stimuli and thus the buying habits of the general public to be simple, neat and predictable. Politicians wouldn't mind that sort of streamlining either. . it would make elections a hell of a lot more simple.

I single out the depth and the strength of the impressions of a person's inner life because the difference between the intentions for the inner life of an artwork, versus the end result, can be extraordinary. One can enter into a project with great excitement for the idea of injecting this or that Stuff of Life into the minds of the viewer, and complete the project completely crushed for the difficulty of transmitting this essential substance of the life process. Some things get across easier than others--often times a narrative element that once was easy here, is almost impossible there.

*           *           *

One of the most difficult things to transmit from the inner gates of the human soul over the life of a complete artwork are those things we find "chilling." Not "BOO!" scary, not gory, not shocking .  .  . but eerie .  .  .  creepy .  .  .  frightening down at the true level of the ancient and the human and the supernatural as pertains to the mass of human substance throughout time. One might set down into a work of art, souped up with ambition and energy, feeling--because the creative individual is so familiar with those flashes of ancient shadows that flicker in and out of the soul down through the ages, has sifted between his mental fingers that decayed remnant of human civilization that sits off to its side and haunts it through every age--that he can master these elements on the medium of his art. .  .  seeking to render the feeling behind flashes of the Long Dead sensed on dirt roads of an old town at night, of not being alone on deserted staircases, in forests, in abandoned amusement parks in dark winter night.

Most horror films are fun. They're fun in the same way that the Fun House and Coney Island or Rye Playland are fun. Most people enjoy being scared--scared in a way that reminds of the innocence of childhood, irrational fear of those things we don't understand--then we grow up and no longer feel those fears of Under The Bed, or Down In The Dark Cellar. Fun in the way that a rollercoaster is fun for an adult: your body tells you you're going to die during the loop, but your mind overrides the sensation and knows all will be well, and the excitement translates as rarified exhilaration.

*           *           *

On the other hand, there is a fear that is eternal in that it stretches through the sum of an individual's life: there are some fears that remain in the hypothalamus no matter how rational or old one becomes. They're also eternal in that they remain frightening to humans in 2015 just as they were in 15 BC. No amount of sophistication and advancement in human learning can completely erase these things--the human soul is apparently neverendingly capable of being chilled when confronted with certain combinations of stimuli that evoke a sense of the shadows of the supernatural and the ancient, when a sense of the past seems to push unnaturally into the present, and this past image is warped with something subtly unnatural, subtly warped or deformed or decayed .  .  .  something unseen but strongly sensed. The hairs on the back of the neck go right up.

This is the stuff that--because so much of it must be felt rather than directly seen--is enormously difficult to translate into an artwork.

F. W. Murnau had been working in the medium of the cinema for little more than two years when he shot and assembled Nosferatu; he had virtually no precedent for this kind of genuinely supernatural material shot in a largely naturalistic style, shunning the manipulation of exaggerated sets and choosing to shoot outdoors in nature. Yet somehow this eternal freight of the unseen supernatural soaks through the frames of this film.

The conception and the execution--clearly Murnau, Galeen, and Grau (and Fritz Wagner, the highly skilled cameraman) came to this material all on the same page .  .  .  and we miraculously (I say this confidently owing to the vast acclaim for this film) get out of this film to this day what the makers in large part likely intended to put into it. There is virtually no disconnect between intention and output--no diminution from concept to execution.

That, my dears, is a rare miracle, to this day. 

Clive/Schreck

3/27/2015***

 

 

 

 


Preston Clive mar 27 15, 22:06
+1 1

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.

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***

    

 

 


Preston Clive mar 20 15, 23:09
+1 1

Paul Leni: Loss of a Jolly Master

When we think of great directors from the German Silent Era who died far too young, I think of three gentlemen: one is quite obvious, two are far less well known. 

The first would of course be F.W Murnau, who famously died in March 1931 via a Pacific Coast Highway auto crash just before his film Tabu was set to appear in California (an interesting piece of strange synchronicity: I unknowingly put up my appreciation of Murnau on the anniversary of his death, March 11th). 

The second, far less well known director who died under far more obscure circumstances in the haze of the early 1930's in Weimar Germany--on March 7th 1931, incidentally, four days before Murnau--was Lupu Pick, a pioneer German filmmaker to whom F. W. Murnau owed a great debt for the heavy prep work that his partner Carl Mayer cultivated working with Pick, essentially taking the more obvious, strange heaviness of atmosphere effected by unusual costumes and sets in the late teens and very early twenties, and injecting it more subtly into the very air of the film itself via light and shadow, camera movement, and an ethereal sum aura viz the proceedings via skillful mise en scene. Lupu Pick and his wife Edith Posca's death by suicide are not only extremely tragic and ignominious, but incredibly eerie, as it is foreshadowed by what was perhaps Pick's greatest accomplishment--the film Sylvester, aka New Year's Eve from 1924 .  .  .  a film that without doubt was contemporaneously celebrated more than any other title of Pick's (and more than most other directors, at the time).

The third, somewhat less well known (than Murnau--but better known than Lupu Pick) director from the German silent era whose death was an incredibly great loss to the cinema was Paul Leni .  .  . a director whose departure from earth was tremendous because of his great uniqueness of character, skill and hugely original style.

*          *          *

Paul Josef Levi was born in the summer of 1885 (just in time to be conscious of the world when Jack the Ripper struck across the northern seas in England three years later... Jack would find his way into a Leni film much later) to a Jewish family in Stuttgart. If I had the budget I would fly around Europe and excavate a lineage back to Leni's family in attempt to locate some surviving members that might have outlasted the extremely perilous WW2 years and fill in the blanks of this extremely important director's childhood. 

What I like so much about Leni is how much of the anti-Murnau he was. Whereas F. W. Murnau (and to a slightly lesser degree, Fritz Lang) was an extremely sophisticated art historian who never tired of quoting great paintings in his work, setting other historians off on detective work to pick out quote after quote, Leni seems entirely opposite. His images crackle with entirely original life--bursting with a unique mind, filled to the brim with its own emergency procession of self-generated images that he had to get out on the screen, Leni had no interest in arranging his actors and his set dressings in direct quotations of pre-existing vintage oil paintings. He was too busy painting his own new ones.

What marks Leni versus his contemporaries is his unique emotional temperament: equally preoccupied with the freight of death and gloom, Leni was the only of the grand trilogy of himself, Lang and Murnau who consistently injected the absurd into the mix .  .  .  thus coming up with completely unique combinations of the absurd, the ridiculous, the hideously exaggerated, the outrageously funny, with the dismal, the shadowy, the Grand Guignol, the genuinely frightening.

Leni, from what little we know about him, developed an early interest in art and by his mid teens was a devotee and practitioner of the avant garde. His sensibility was of a purely visual nature--he eventually studied at Berlin's Academy of Fine Arts, and worked his way through various assignments as an illustrator and painter for various journals, poster art publications and so on. Of this period, the New York State Writers Institute states,

"Leni began his career associated with the influential 1910's German avant-garde journal Der Sturm. A writer and illustrator .  .  .  "

Clearly, if the generally accepted chronology is to be trusted, by 1911 Leni somehow wound up nailing a job with Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater as a set designer. Dates for Leni are unclear, but we know beyond doubt that, for example, during this prewar period in Berlin Reinhardt's theater also played host to the talents of Alexander Granach, F. W. Murnau, Conrad Veidt, and many many more. Unlike, for example, Murnau, Leni rode out the war years in Berlin, not serving in the military--probably as a result of his advanced age by the time the war broke out (he was thirty).

Is this escape from the mechanized death and destruction of the Great War the reason that Leni remained a jolly cinematic prankster, whereas Lang and Murnau were more preoccupied with sturm and drang? Who knows?

We know due to surviving film records that Leni got his start in the Berlin film industry by as early as 1913--a very early start in the business versus that of many of his contemporaries. Murnau, returning to Berlin after the close of the war in 1918, didn't begin shooting his first film The Blue Boy until 1919; ditto Fritz Lang for Halblut the same year.  

Thus, by the time that Lang and Murnau were just getting their start in the business, Paul Leni was a fully established veteran, having already directed The Diary of Dr. HartDornroschen, The Mystery of Bangalore (with Conrad Veidt, with whom Leni would frequently work) among others .  .  .  not to mention a large handful on which he worked as art director.

Playing a very large part in the man's distinctive and thoroughly modern--and hugely innovative--style was the fact that the vast bulk of the films that Leni directed, he also served as designer .  .  . if not designing the film sets himself, then having a large hand in the overall look and feel of the film by working very closely with his art director. Interestingly this worked in the opposite direction as well--the man's facility with the medium of film was so profound that those films that he worked on as art director, he also had a hand in as director: a perfect example of this is the positively stunning Hintertreppe/Backstairs.

During this period of the teens Leni bounced from company to company--Gloria Film GMbH, May Film, Union Film, PAGU and others, a journeyman director working with the cream of the crop of writers, directors, actors and producers. Examples of his stature include his ongoing work with Conrade Veidt, his working with venerable stage director Leopold Jessner, and grand national frau Henny Porten, Harry Leidtke, among others.

Sadly, a great amount of his directorial work running up to the early 1920's is lost, save for Dr. Hart, Dornroschen, and Backstairs. A recovery of Bangalore and Prinz Kuckuck - Die Höllenfahrt eines Wollüstlings (1919) would be key discoveries allowing us to peek into the development of a critical artist at the cusp of development into what would constitute an earth shattering style which would leave its imprint on the medium forever.

We do see in Backstairs the clear evidence of a man coming into his own in terms of direction, in terms of visualizing a psychological canvass upon which to move his characters. Here we see in action the following quote by Leni put into action:

"If the designer merely imitated photography to construct his sets, the film would remain faceless and impersonal. There has to be the possibility of bringing out an objects essential attributes so as to give the image style and colour... This is particulary necessary for films set wholly in a world of unreality. For my film DAS WACHSFIGURENKABINETT. I have tried to create sets so stylised that they evince no idea of reality. My fairground is sketched in with an utter renunciation of detail. All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines and curves. It is not extreme reality that the camera percieves, but the reality of the inner event, which is more profound, effective and moving that what we see through everyday eyes, and I equally believe that the cinema can reproduce this truth, heightened effectively.I may perhaps cite the example of CALIGARI... and DER GOLEM, in which Hans Poelzig created a town's image. I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for a designer to shun the world seen everyday and to attain its true sinews... It will be seen that a designer must not construct 'fine' sets. He must penetrate the surface of things and reach their heart. He must create mood, even though he has to safeguard his independence with regard to the object seen merely through everydays eyes. It is this which makes him an artist. Otherwise I can see no reason why he should not be replaced by an adroit apprentice carpenter..."

This deep warping of the set with dreamscape touches finds itself in evidence in greater and lesser degrees throughout his work in the 1920's for Richard Oswald, Karl Grune, Ernst Lubitsch, E. A. DuPont and others. But without question the most famous example of Leni's use of Expressionist dreamscapes (literally, as the film I'm about to mention contains a tour de force final scene that is the dream landscape of a dozing Wilhelm Deiterle, playing a carnival writer) as filmic canvass is Das Wachsfigurenkabinett.

Written by legendary German writer of fantasic and eerie titles, Henrik Galeen (who also penned The Golem as well as Nosferatu and the 1920's Student of Prague), Waxworks--as the film is known in the English speaking world (and the way I'll refer to it since it's less of a mouthful)--is undoubtedly the film that broke Paul Leni as a global figure in the cinema. 

Original as original is likely to get, Waxworks is as strange today as it was the day it was released. Here we see Paul Leni completely unleashed, unchained by constriction and free to indulge both his appetite for the bizarre as well as the humorous. If ever there was a Jolly Gargoyle of the world of the cinema, surely that creature was the entirely harmless person of Paul Leni.

There are those who come to Waxworks expecting a horror film, and walk away disappointed as they are not "frightened." This is not a film for this kind of a viewer: this is a film for the lover of dreams, for those who download binaural beat apps for lucid dreaming, who take various supplements and eat loads of turkey to bug out on the excess L-Tryptophan. It's a film for lovers of envelopment in the unfamiliar, who treasure the reactions within the human system triggered by elements of the obscure, the ethereal, crooked leaning streets in ancient cities at night, strange texts and chants from bizarre societies from long long ago. These things do not "scare" one, but they cover one in a unique atmosphere of the unreal .  .  .  like laying in the dark and rubbing one's eyes and enjoying the phosphene burst in kaleidoscopic waves. Just like the director's peculiar returning to this kind of strange terrain of injecting the effect that the mind has on reimagined architecture, faces of long dead relatives a long time ago, childhood nightmares in the dark of the half-forgotten infantile crib, so will those viewers who truly connect with this material have a joy of sifting through this odd currency of the mind made plastic for all to view.

Take something extremely simple at the very beginning of Waxworks: at the start of the Baghdad episode, cop a gander at the window through which Dieterle views his beloved while he bakes out in the front of the dream world rock and mud contraption that constitutes their apartment/hut/house/something. She stands in a misshapen, lopsided window with a strange set of cross-hatched cutouts that look as though they were drawn by a child without the slightest sense of geometry or perspective, and then constructed by an architect. What exactly this arrangement is, what it does, why it's there--there isn't a soul on the earth that can answer this question. This piece of architecture is not there to serve that side of the mind... it is speaking entirely to another side of the brain, which fully understands .  .  .  .   

Clearly what we have here is the massive afterburn of Caligari, the last gasp of capital E Expressionism and--for my scorecard--perhaps its most tour de force incarnation. The impact of this film, via its use of a dreamlike conceit that was virtually dead by this time via the turning by Carl Mayer away from these drastic examples of viewer impact towards the more subtle tonalities of the Kammerspielfilm with Lupu Pick and finally F.W. Murnau, the impact is essentially impossible to overstate. Whereas Caligari was a global shocker, a first cracking open of the door so wide that it stunned and shocked, Waxworks blew the industry away as well as the public. There would be no Waxworks Foxtrot won by Leni in the New York and Paris dance halls, but he did win an invitation to America by Carl Laemmle for a very fruitful contract with Universal.

The big difference between the work accomplished by Leni in Germany and that in the Hollywood is, to these aging eyes, the following: the culmination of the work that Leni had been doing in his home country was the Jack The Ripper sequence in Waxworks, which Signfried Kracauer said famously was “a very short sequence which must be counted among the greatest achievements of film art.”

A statement with which--rare for much of Kracauer's psychobabbling--I wholeheartedly agree with. 

Let me go on with my difference between German and Hollywood work. With the Jack the Ripper sequence, Leni essentially took the cinema to such a high artistic, wordless, elegant, crystalline level of visual perfection there was basically nowhere to go with it (a criticism that is often, incidentally, levelled at Expressionism in general because of its high volume lack of opportunities for modulation).

The culmination of Leni's work in Hollywood is the sum of all of the parts, all through the pictorialism of The Cat & The Canary, The Last Warning, and the sublime Man Who Laughs are of the loftiest, most unique heights of the filmic art--and these films have been mined endlessly by the greatest directors and the greatest films in the world, particularly those that work in the world of the fantastic film .  .  . James Whale, Georges Franju, any suspense, arthouse or horror film that combines a high pictorial art of the greatest greats with the strangest of the strange.

There is a place to go from his Hollywood work--other directors can take this material and move profitably sideways. With the Ripper episode in Waxworks, there is no place to go but down

 

Those who mix the finest cinematography possible with the most imaginative use of the moving camera, played out against a backdrop of Gothic strangeness and absurdity (sound era Eisenstein, Terry Gilliam, Roman Polanski) are honoring the strange foundational example of Paul Leni in Hollywood.

It is very rare--and thus hugely refreshing--when we have in our midst or our past a man bursting with such rare genius who is at the same time completely unpretentious and takes the piss out of his work at every turn. Without the ridiciculous milk truck driver,  psychiatrist in Cat & The Canary, peeping-tom messenger or guitar-breaking cheek puffing Dirry Moir in Man Who Laughs, or Spiderwebbed female stooge or bouncy Bert Roach in The Last Warning, we'd likely have no Doctor Praetorious, Horace Femm, or--strictly in terms of art direction-- DNA for the Universal Horror Film (and thus the horror film) in general. 

Paul Leni's death, whether we realize it or not, was one of the profoundest to strike cinema; in my view, via his ability to work so well with actors and consistently get that special brand of absurdity into his narratives (he obviously created a jovial atmosphere on his sets), and combine these fruits so seamlessly into flawless and inventive pictorialism, he was well primed to pivot beautifully into the sound film.

He was obviously set to become the premiere sound era director for the Laemmles .  .  .  he died just as the sonorized silents he was making were beginning to give way to sound films at Universal. Who can fail but wonder what Frankenstein, or Dracula, Murders In The Rue Morgue, or so many other films (The Raven!) would have turned into under his expert hand. Who knows where he would have moved afterwards? Leni in Technicolor!

His death by blood poisoning as a result--of all things--a tooth infection is for me among the top two or three losses the cinema has known. He had so much to give, great movies to make, and recognition to earn among a more modern audience. It's a great shame.

Preston Clive/H. Schreck

3/16/2015*** 

 


Preston Clive mar 16 15, 23:12
0 1

Hangmen Also Die (Fritz Lang, 1943), Part the First

How talented was the person of Fritz Lang, what an artist! Every bit the cinematic compatriot of F.W. Muranu, subject of yesterday's rhapsody, the two men yet could not be more different in terms of sensibility and personality.

Far more concerned with the concrete aspects of the darker side of humanity, Lang rejected the ethereal side of darkness and somber dreams, a la Murnau; he was far more interested in the nightmare going on right outside his front door on the dingy, dirty streets of first Europe and later America. The criminals, the beggars, the obsessive manipulators, the cranks and the crooks, the ways government traps a man in his own mind, with his own fears, and manipulates his world like a hidden puppeteer. These are the areas that Lang's mind regularly gravitated towards.

This is not to say the two men were complete opposites-- both (especially during their German phases in the first half of the 1920's .  .  . for Lang in the pre Gerda Maurus days, for Murnau the pre-Fox days) were strict perfectionists, working within the totalitarian state of the UFA studios of producer extraordinaire Erich Pommer's golden years to labor endlessly over images until a product of extreme lustre and burnishment was at last achieved. It is known that Lang admired Murnau on the record (after seeing Der Letzte Mann)--I'm not clear of Murnau's feelings for Lang's work. I have not encountered--or if I did I just don't recall it at the moment--an on the record statement by Murnau in which he is responding to a film of Lang's.

The man's biography is so studded with hyperbole and buildup, hype and flat out taletelling that I'm not going to get into a detailed chronology of his life leading up to his golden Weimar years of Destiny, the two Mabuses--Testament and the preceding Der Spieler--Nibelungen, and of course Metropolis, or relate his tale about how he "invented" the frame story of Caligari, or alternately suggested the Expressionist design of the film, nor relate to his self-promoting "Good anti-Hitler German"tale, since proven by the stamps on his passport to be false, of his fleeing Germany the moment Josef Goebbels sat him down and asked him to be a minister in the propaganda department oversseing the medium of the German cinema.

Probably my two favorite films from Lang's German period are Der Mude Tod, aka Destiny, and the subsequent Die Nibelungen epic. For a moment there in Germany, while making the sprawling epics of Mabuse's two-parter, the Nibelungen two parter, as well as the now recovered original epic cut of Metropolis, Fritz Lang had become everything that Erich von Stroheim was already attempting to accomplish in America--with equal measures of talent and perhaps even more innovation than Lang--but was continuously getting butchered by his studios with every attempt in the manner that Lang suffered but once, with Metropolis. This was Pommer's genius where Louis B. Mayer and the Laemmle's failed the annals of history. Lang commanded outrageous budgets, monumental effects, armies of extras and craftsman on sprawling sets and locations; he geometrically moved his elements like Rommel on the battlefield: exuding power, velocity, innovation, special tactics, inspiring future maniacal behavior from William Friedkin by firing Walther pistols on set to command his actors and craftsmen attention.

*         *         *

For reasons that we assume were indeed political and decent--but not of the heroic slap in the face of blatant desertion viz Joe Goebbels--Fritz Lang did indeed flee to the United States via an intial interlude (Liliom) in France to make a new start in Hollywood, while leaving his wife and constant screenwriting partner Thea von Harbou, regular actor collaborators like Georg John, Paul Richter, the cuckolded then rewarded-with-starring-roles Rudolf Klein-Rogge (husband of von Harbou who Lang snatched from Rogge's arms), Gerda Maurus, Willy Fritsch, and of course Otto Wernicke as the venerable, gutbagged Inspector Lohmann.

Lang flourished (at least to the degree that he consistently made films.. Langian films) in America in spite of himself--he survived entirely owing to his 1) filmmaking power, and 2) legend in Germany, which saw him always generating interest in the mind of ambitious independent producers like Walter Wanger, small studios like Republic, and any number of others.

 

Despite the journeyman quality of his life running from the Thirties to the postwar years in the USA, Lang's sound era Hollywood films are a startling mishmash of titles and genres. Beginning with the stunningly raging Fury with Spencer Tracy (where it is rumored that there was a legitimate murder plot afoot onset among the carpenters and other crew--apparently some ceiling rigging was set to "fail" right above Lang during shooting, sending heavy equipment and set material right down onto Lang's exposed kopf and coiffure.

Thankfully this attempt was nullified by cooler heads--were it not we'd have been deprived of blazing subsequent titles full of ripsnorting Langian paranoia and angst like You Only Live Once (with the delicous Bronx girl Sylvia Sidney starring with young Henry Fonda), The Woman In The Window and Scarlet Street with Eddie G Robinson, all of these acidic titles foundational entries in the then embryonically darkening genre of fatalist, white knuckle, high contrast crime drama that eventually wound up taking the tag of Film Noir.

But between these first couple of American titles with Tracy and Fonda (Fury and You Only Live Once) and the Robinson duo in 1944, just after a couple of first dips of the toe into the genre of the western, we come at last to the title that I wish to speak about. The title is my favorite of all of Lang's American films; it's a film rich with literary quality, glorious acting, silly humor, profound and legitimately gutsy war statements while WW2 was raging in Lang's home country. It's a film as complex as scripts are likely to come--they don't come out of Hollywood this supremely complicated very often. The film has its own circulatory system as complex as that in the human body. The film is full of off-ramps, reroutes back in, false trails, layered realities piling one on the other according to false information and covert action, and a Brechtian (hmmm... I wonder why....) self-reflexivity that calls attention to the tempo of its unfoldment.

Hangmen Also Die is the film of course. Distributed by UA in the year 1943, and produced by a Pressberger (not the guy you're thinking of), it's a film I can literally watch over and over again, year after year. The film is a miracle, even if its home video releases have been a bit shabby.

More--Part Two-- tomorrow, to close out the week. 

P. Clive/Schreck

3/12/2015***


Preston Clive mar 12 15, 23:51
0 1

FW Murnau: Twice As Bright, Half As Long

A rare peek at the lighter side of the man. (IMG: Fox films)

Cinema to me will always be embodied by the DNA of the output of two men:

James Whale in the sound era, and F.W. Murnau in the silent era.

This isn't necessarily because I claim historical supremacy of these two particular men above all other directors (though for the latter I do). Rather, it's because--in my head--these were the two men who laid down the first cinematic images apprehended by my prepubescent mind: these were the first directors whose films set off a serious reaction, a chase, a pursuit, a longing, an obsession.

I can't emphasize how important library books were to a young child's mind back then in the mid-1970s when a was a kid forming an identity by responding to those things that he found he had a natural magnetic pull to. Back then there was no home theater: no VHS, no DVD, no BD .  .  .  no not even cable television. Youtube for silents and old horror itches needing a scratch? 

Forget about it.

If you wanted to see a movie, you had to wait half a year, a year. Sometimes more. I recall The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919, Weine) coming on a grand total of once, on PBS throughout the entirety of my boyhood.

And I was very thorough--my mother subscribed to the TV Guide throughout my entire youth, and as soon as it came in our mailbox, I would run immediately over to the living room couch and flip instantly to the movie section. Ordered by day of the week, it would instantly tell me what movies would be on television the upcoming week--what days and what times. I never missed a week because the subscription never was interrupted. Caligari came on once, and there probably wasn't a single time that I opened that TV guide from the age of roughly 9 or 10 forward, that I didn't hungrily peel page off of page through that section hoping to see the words Cabinet and Caligari in the same title.

I saw it once--and nearly blasted up through the ceiling up into the third floor of the house, through that ceiling and up through that roof to go sailing across the north Bronx, leaving behind me a rocket contrail of ecstasy.

While these movies actually came on, you pinched yourself. Heaven. Couldn't believe it. Major event. God forbid your brother or parents wanted to watch something else. We had a big black and white TV down in our first floor play room so if I got squeezed out, I had another TV to default to.

Which is why books at the public library were so important. They helped you--a kid in fourth grade without no job couldn't pick up Famous Monsters of Filmland--remember what these films looked like in the first place. There was a large coffee table sized book on the horror film that my local Bronx library had back in those days which outlined the history of the horror film from the beginning of the silent era up to that point in time, meaning it probably cut off in the late sixties. I remember gazing even at films from the fifties and early sixties that I never got to see until many years later: young Michael Landon in I Was A Teenaged Werewolf, plus Carnival of Souls, and many others.

But it was the films from the silent era and the initial run of Universal sound-era classics from the early to mid 1930's which exerted the biggest pull on me. Those faded images of Paul Wegener's Golem, the terrifyingly eerie persona of Max Schreck's Count Orlok standing in his "salt warehouse" doorway with his fingers extended into impossibly long claws in faded scratchy black and white; the impossibly warped phantasms of Caligari, rendered in strange Expressionist sets my young mind failed to completely comprehend but loved; the grim, solemn seriousness of Karloff's face in the first Frankenstein, the terrifyingly somber mountebanks played by Chaney--these all carried a stern, stoical, sinister quality that was somehow different from anything and everything else on the earth. These weren't just movies, to my young mind--they carried the aroma of something extra that wasn't injected in other movies. Something frightening, something unfriendly, something demonic. Something that was very very different from my family and I; that dark, forbidding atmosphere exerted a pull on me. I would take the book out from the library, then have to return it. Each week searching the new issue of the TV guide, mostly only getting lucky with Son of Frankenstein, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, Son of Kong, and Japanese Monster Week on the 4:30 movie on ABC TV after school. Godzilla for days.

But as too much time would go by without ever getting to see any of the movies I just mentioned from the silent and early sound era with Chaney, Karloff, etc, the distance I felt from those images that haunted my mind would need to be closed again, and I would go and take the book out once again so I could stare at those loaded images all over again, and give the whole era of the 20's and 30's a refresh in my young brain. The difficulty of finally getting to see these films only added to their ominous quality in my impressionable head; the more time went on without finally getting to tick a title off the Sacred List, the more important the list became, and the greater the import of the titles. Somebody was trying to keep something from me about these films--maybe they were truly evil! Maybe they were Just That Scary!

*         *         *

As for James Whale, we can leave him for another column--but FW Murnau for me has personally been a cornerstone of what constitutes the cinema, for years. This quiet, reserved German from the earth of Westphalia, this solidly middle class Plumpe, this determined obsessive, this in a certain sense stereotypically Teutonic hard worker, seeker of impact, chaser of dreams, this private homosexual, this sailor and admirer of Crux the Southern Cross, this tragic loss at far too young an age, this epitome of all the cinema strived to be back during the age of his professional output and during the present age--this single man was this and so much more, all during the briefest of cinematic careers .  .  .  a career which, when measuring impact against number of years as craftsman, may be the most concentrated in the whole of the cinema.

As a youth, young Murnau (a name he took from a period spent with an artists colony around Murnau am Staffelsee in the southernmost region of Bavaria) gravitated instantly to the world of acting and the stage; during his schooling he attracted the attention--during an acting performance-- of the legendary Max Reinhardt of the critically acclaimed and aesthetically vital Deutsches Theater in Berlin, were he mixed with future collaborators like Alexander Granach (a close friend), Lothar Muthel (ditto) Conrad Veidt. For an insight into Murnau's character we listen to the memoirs of Granach--who played Knock for Murnau in the director's legendary Nosferatu--who remembers the tall, handsome Murnau defending the short, squat Granach from the antisemitic attacks of their cohorts and especially those of a (Jewish, no less) professor, called Held. He also recalls episodes of the two of them slithering into private theater boxes and laying on their bellies to peer down and watch and listen to the great Reinhardt give his private lessons in the theater, which he insisted remain private and unattended by general classes.

This phase of his life was, like many others, interrupted by the coming of WW1. During the Great War Murnau served as an officer on the Russian side of the war, maintaining a life of strict regimentation and order in the miserable surroundings of the trenches. He passed the time writing letters to his close friend and probably romantic companion, Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, as well as the young man's family--particularly after suffering the loss of young Hans early on during the war.

During the latter phase of his war service he enrolled in the air corps, and served on the European/French front near Verdun, where his meticulously maintained (some say obsessively labored over) plane went down numerous times (between 7 and 9 crashes/unplanned landings by some counts), until he finally took his plane down in fog one fateful last unplanned time into neutral Swiss territory--this ended the war for him.

It was during his internship in Switzerland, riding out the rest of the war on the Swiss side of the border, Murnau re-involved himself with the world of the stage while interned at Andernatt. During this period a production of a renowned Swiss national drama was being put together, and solicitations for production were put out. As internees were allowed to submit, Murnau assembled his own version of the drama, and won first prize and even won himself a modicum of national acclaim in Switzerland when the play was mounted in Berne.

*         *         *

As the war ended and Murnau returned to Berlin, he set himself to the business of the burgeoning world of the cinema. From the war experience, the green eyed young suburbaner had become hardened, learning loss, witnessing endless death, facing his own mortality over and over again on a fantastically industrial scale. He had come home with a highly educated, deeply learned mind set free to a degree by the tutelage of Reinhardt, abstracted by the experience of flight, darkened by death and crashes .  .  .  and yet, rather than succumbing to indulgence or an overwrought disposition, these grimmer elements of humanity were absorbed by an already hyperactive mind obsessed with the world of dreams, flights of fantasy, aches and pains for a lost loved one. One can only wonder--reading the endless ciphers of personal heartbreak in Murnau's films, whether or not he knew real love beyond the loss of the ideal of Hans Degele.

For such an incredibly hyperactive and emotional--and yet severely reserved, occasionally icy but always decent--individual, his monstrous amount of devotion to the new world of the Berlin cinema seems as much a result of his severe work ethic as it does his probably requirement for an outlet for all of that churning, deeply responsive interior life. Without the outlet of the cinema, it's likely that Murnau would have had to do battle with temptation towards some form of indulgence.

*         *         *

Flights in physical space and flights of fancy; the lawless world of dreams, where the hard rules of reality are battered by the escaping mind; smooth movements in space and time; the expressive quality of nature, architecture, weather for narrative punctuation, speaking for character and speaking for a situational mood; clashes between the sensibilities between good and evil, between commerce and the dreamer, between the uncorrupted innocent and the functioning-in-the-world pragmatist, between the city and the country, between civilization and between the instinctual, between man and woman, natural and supernatural, truth and little white lies, between religious hypocrisy and human decency without a congregation, between great fun with the devil and deprivation with the angels, between parent and child: all these elements are very rich in the world of F. W. Murnau. All of these things can be picked speculatively out of his life like an apple picker sifting through a tree for ripened granny smiths. 

The war, his sexual proclivity versus his family's bourgeois inclinations, the tragedy of Degele's untimely death, the repression of an overly severe and perhaps personally unforgiving disposition--all of these things are there in Murnau's life to speculate about, to pick apart if one is so inclined.

But there is little profit there: the joy is in the beholding of the end product of this assembly line of elements that overtook Murnau's mind, and which Murnau's mind overtook when he was making a film--the expressive joy of the artist achieving, venting in code, pointing someone else's fictional finger at this or that personal torment .  .  .  director as worker of puppets, of grand theatrics, of playing god in a universe created all on his own.

The fascinating thing about Murnau, as much as we might be inclined to consider him (and rightly so) an auteur, is that he wrote very very little of his canon: this was left to men and women like Carl Mayer, Thea von Harbou, Galeen, Hauptmann, and others.

But what makes Murnau's film so essentially Murnau is the power of the images, as well as their assembly; and what makes their images and their assembly so powerful is exactly what makes the cinema as a medium so powerful when the cinema does what it does best: tell a story in pictures.

A script is a script indeed--but a silent film scenario generally does not exert quite the power of the proceedings of the final product as does a sound film script. Poorly spoken lines and bad acting can sink a sound film. Poorly spoken lines are not noticed in a silent film, which blimps towards the heavens when a man like Murnau is at the helm because of the power of its images to absorb the viewer, to trigger unspecific poetry quietly in the mind of the viewer--unspecific poetry that is different every time the same viewer beholds the same film. This unlike sound film, which can be-- subconsciously or on purpose--memorized by the viewer, and repeats precisely at each time.

Murnau took the silent film--with other directors, undoubtedly--away from the proscenium, away from the tens and teens concept of a filmed play where the blank camera lens was merely a General Eye of Generic Audience Member. Murnau turned the cinema into a world that viewers simply couldn't believe then, and still marvel incredulously at today: the world of legitimate dreams .  .   . good dreams, bad dreams, phantasms of the everyday, iconic dream images of country, of urban jungle, of supernatural castle. Murnau was the first to consistently bring into the image that thing that the human mind adds to its surroundings-- the glistening sheen of our desires, our love for a mate, our dark and damp and chilly terrors, the dark shadows of our sins, the idealized longings for fame, for home.

Why does the town we live in or were raised in as a child hold such a special quality? Why do we relive in our minds the place and time of good memories? Because what our mind has done to those affairs: Murnau was the first man to consistently take this mysterious human freight of the mind, of life, and put it up onscreen consistently, film after film after film.

Murnau could find the humanity in a script handed to him, find the netherworld side of the mind in a certain tension or conflict, and stamp it with his visual vocabulary--a foundational point in the development of film grammar.

How extraordinary that a man could walk out of WW1 and walk right into Berlin and start making films and in two years, by 1921, start rattling off masterpiece after masterpiece, soaring cinematic towers, one after the other. Walk out of Berlin by 1925 and enter the alien world of Hollywood and make masterwork after masterwork, and leave your stamp on the greatest filmmakers that country would ever produce. Exit that country at the end of the decade and pick up the tatters of a disbanded collboration with Robert Flaherty, and make one of the most unusual, most original, and most heartbreaking (and also, for Murnau, atypical) films ever made.

And exit the making of that final film and enter at last into the netherworld, the ethereal world that haunted all of his films... the intangible and the eternal, where his name and his films will forever reside. He's been my favorite director since I--at last, long after my childhood spent laboring over library books and TV Guides, looking for his most famous film Nosferatu, which I craved manically--had the chance to explore the rest of his canon, little by little during the VHS age, during the 1980's.

They say that the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long--that's surely FW Murnau.

Here's to you, sir.

Preston Clive/HSchreck

3/11/2015***


Preston Clive mar 11 15, 23:34
+1 2

"Variete", E.A. DuPont, 1925: FW Murnau Foundation Blu Ray 2015

The first of the year's truly critical home video releases has arrived, and it is one incredibly mixed bag of emotions. 

On one hand we have the superatomic orgasm that constitutes the result of digesting the news that Variete itself has been restored on 35mm fine grain and scanned at HD and coded onto Blu Ray.

In these simple terms alone, the news blew me sideways and sent me stumbling like a drunken sod. I couldn't believe it--I had no news of such a thing even being in the works (partially owing to my out of the loop ness resulting from such a slow pace of key restorations of really obscure titles making it to home vid; eventually your mind just drifts elsewhere). Even if I had been paying attention and somehow missed it, I certainly wouldn't have expected Variete to make it out there in the land of home video, especially not on Bluy Ray, as the title has virtually no brand recognition out there on the street with casual cinephiles.

Very very few individuals know who the hell Ewald Andre DuPont was in the first place, and likely just as few have ever heard of the title itself. Variete is the intellectual territory of dudes like me and many of the folks I correspond with on web forums and via email: guys like Flixy, serdar, Tomasso, Lubitsch (I use their screen names here to protect their identities) .  .  .  professionals like Janet Bergstrom, Tag Gallagher, David Kalat and the like.

So my surprise roughly four weeks ago was complete when I heard that the restoration-to-disc was even underway. I pretty much creamed in my dry goods. For all intents and purposes, when I received the email that mentioned the forthcoming release, I giggled and squirmed and lubricated and flew across the skies powered by a Tinkerbell-like purity of joy and ecstasy.

Now the restoration has landed in my greasy mitts, and I repeat once again: what a god damned pile of mixed emotions is this thing. Happy-sad, joyful-pissed, content and ready to throw down with the disc's producer.

First the good: the image has been restored to a level of purity and cleanliness that I would have hitherto thought impossible on this particular title. I am a maniacal persuser of the upper and under-grounds when it comes to obscure corners of silent film land and the titles that might be tweezed out therein to have the dust blown off of them. I have seen Variete via Grapevine VHS (with the same transfer put to DVDR), television rips, and all manner of in-between... and everything that I'd seen had always indicated to me that (and this is based on television broadcasts from Europe, which can be a good indicator of things to come) the film didn't survive in very good shape.

Imagine my cooing and squiggling and giggling when I popped in this sucker and saw how gorgeous everything looks. The film recaptures its sense of the Berlin nitty grittty, of the sideline netherworld of carny hype and riff raff and ripoffs, with performers living on the outer fringes of the world and on campgrounds in wagons. Some of the subconscious seeds forTod Browning's Freaks, especially concerning the way that Huller and his wife live early on in the film, are visible in the environment that the characters move through in Hamburg. Karl Freund, the cameraman for Variete, clearly had a love for the substance of German life, and this love penetrated right down into the very ground that he walked upon. His love affair with the city of Berlin is keenly on display here in this film--and this regardless whether exteriors are real exteriors shot on location or assembled on sets within the plastic world of UFA; his masterful ability to conjure up within the viewer all of those same interior responses to the dizzy panoply of real life when watching his films--this is in abundance here. Freund would explore this conceit to much greater dept in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) with Carl Mayer and Walter Ruttman for Fox Europa.

Freund here takes the inventive spirit which he brought to his immediately preceding work with FW Murnau, and goes full on nuclear. Despite claims to the contrary by those with nary a clue what Expressionism truly constitutes, this film is nowhere near utilizing ways and means of German Expressionism.

However, the film is rich with stimmung--rich deep expressive atmosphere that beautifully punctuates the story. The film is tinted very much along the lines of Murnau's Tartuffe--a simple ongoing brown sepia tone throughout. This tone lends a sense of shabbiness and age to the proceedings... the grim environment of the prison where the film opens; the sleazy carny hype of Boss Huller living his hustling midway life up in Hamburg with his scantily clad charges on display; in the backstreets of Berlin and the Wintergarten, the smoky pubs, the late night parties with circus freaks and vaudeville acts getting drunk; the dark world up near the ceiling of the Wintergarten inhabited only by the trapezists.

And then there are the camera movements--swinging, diving, sliding, crawling .  .  .  this film signaled the start of what Karl Freund called the beginning of the Era of Cameramen Crawling Around On Their Bellies, as other cameramen jumped on the bandwagon to set their cameras off like rockets high into the skies.

Telling the story of a love triangle set off by the arrival of a "motherless" Berta Marie (a gypsy brought in off of a ship, from which she inherits her name, by a sleazoid sailor played by the omnipresent Georg John) played by a sultry Lya DiPutti whose sexuality draws Emil Janning's Boss Huller away from his brokenhearted wife and their newborn babe.

Running away to Berlin with his new squeeze, Jannings (all told in flashback to a prison warded who elicits a confession from his longtime charge) eventually sets himself up with a trapeze act in a carny in the capital. A famous acrobat named Artinelli (of the fictionally-famed Artinelli Brothers), scheduled to perform a high ticket trapeze act in the top of the line Berlin Wintergarten, has just arrived in town to tell the hall's promoters that he has lost his brother from his act owing to a fall.

Known for his triple sommersault, Artinelli is about as high class as trapeze acrobats can come; a promoter of the Wintergarten who is aware of Boss Huller and Berta's act out in the sticks of Berlin suggests Huller as a new catcher for his sommersault act. "He is the best catcher in the business," he assures Artinelli.

Artinelli at first snickers doubtfully at the idea of a mere common carnival acrobat working with him, but ultimately winds up convinced after going out to the carny grounds where Jannings and Lya's characters are performing their routine.

I'll stop short here to avoid specific spoilers, but it is enough to say that immediate sexual sparks erupt between the wealthy acrobat and Berta Marie. The man who walked away from his wife and child up in Hamburg now has done to him what he did to his loved ones. It is a tale of depravity, redemption, of lust, of vice, of life on the fringes, of the obscure corners of the world that few people consider (and is also vanishing before our very eyes here in the 21st Century) .  .  .  and it is a sublime exercise in cinema.

An example of what we're used to seeing in the past.

E. A. Dupont clearly had an interest in the world of shabby entertainments, of the workaday grind of those folks who transit the shadowy world of vaudeville for their daily bread; the back rooms, the backstage world, the meager pay, the misshapen souls, the grotesquerie, rooming houses, bars, moments of the sublime colliding with the gross and the absurd. He would go on to explore these themes again in the sublime Piccadilly with Anna May Wong, and again with Moulon Rouge.

The less we talk about Neanderthal Man (1953), the happier we will all be in the end. We all need to eat, speaking of shabby .  .  .   . 

*   *   *   *   

This gorgeous potpourri of humanity and colliding plastic elements in Variete is all well and good on the visual plane; however, on the audio plane for the primary product there on the disc--the restoration of the primary German version--the producers have seen fit to commission what might perhaps constitute the most inappropriate score ever married to a silent film in the history of home video. 

To start we should say the obvious: all but the most ill-informed neophyte knows-- any time the human voice finds its way onto a silent film score, it's a problem. There have been examples of this before, and both involve the person of Donald Sosis and his Farmhouse Window Productions: first I think of a presentation of Nosferatu for home video release--Sosin's wife exlaimed "HUTTER!!" on the soundtrack when Greta Schroeder's character woke up in the middle of the night while her husband was under attack by Orlok in his castle. The other is for the Criterion King of Kings, where Ms. Sosin elucidates words like "Amen" and other prayers on the soundtrack, moving the film from cinematic experience to Christian Forced Church Interlude.

In all cases this requires the viewer to turn down the volume so that he or she does not become distracted from the going's on in the film. It always constitutes a pulling away, a bit of unwanted noise; it's almost like somebody talking to you while you are reading a book. It breaks the engagement of the subconcious mind--itself busy responding to the subsurface implications of the goings-on, and maintaining its immersion in the soupy sea of silent film atmosphere.

It is for this reason that the soundtrack commissioned for this disc by the F. W. Murnau Stiftung (Foundation) is Public Offender #1 in the whole pantheon of Bad Silent Film Soundtracks. Commissioned to the Tiger Lilies, a band that very well may be out in the regular world a perfectly enjoyable and functional band, this is a Bad Score For The Ages, an Abomination of Abominations, an example for all to observe, illustrating All That A Silent Film Score Should Never, Ever, EVER Be.

The score begins by offing itself right away: the famous scene, so wonderfully gloomy and shabby, shot in the dark halls and corridors of the prison when the warden summons Boss Huller to his office, to try and compel him to confess and unburden himself of his sins and perhaps earn an understanding that might lead to some form of profit .  .  . this scene is sung over with an utterly bizarre recitation, some bad poetry running along the lines of (I only listened once for a few moments and slammed the sound right off, this will be a parody to capture the spirit)

"They go down and Huller's brought-in

To the office of the ward-en

And so our tale begins

As Huller recites his sins .  .  ."

It's genuinely about as bad as bad can get. I understand that this underlining of the action with a recitation in words of what is clearly obvious onscreen via the action, this continues unabated.

I've done a decent share of audio commetaries in my time on my schreckbabble audio blog; us commentators have a self-editing function which causes us to internally cringe and make a right hand turn when we hear ourselves committing the cardinal sin of reiterating/narrating the surface action onscreen. I call this William Friedkin Syndrome--the man gives the most godawful frigging audio commentaries. "And this is where Charnier let's Popeye know that--"

Nothing is a bigger waste of the viewer's time than duplicating the onscreen action with words. You don't waste people's time telling them something they already know. You give them somthing new, even if it's just a theory or heartfelt appreciation. People love fanaticism--it's infectuous.

Thus this soundtrack commits two cardinal sins and kills itself completely dead: it speaks words over the silent film where a purely musical score is expected; and the words it speaks are patently obvious.

A friend of mine who has recorded audio commentary for my audio blog has identified a desparate attempt to gloss over the affair on behalf of the Murnau foundation here: apparently spotted by a wary observer who caught and recognized the last name of the poster as an employee of the Murnau Foundation.

I can't verify either way--but it is a truly sad situation indeed. The good news is that included on the disc is a cleaned up rendering of the Lasky Players / Paramount cut of the film taken from the US Library of Congress, and this has a more expected score: a stereotypical but welcome pipe organ style score in the spirit of the silent era.

Preston Clive/HerrSchreck

3/5/2015**


Preston Clive mar 6 15, 00:07
0 2
All topics: 6

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serdar202 The Conversation (Coppola, 1974); A Nasty One From the Heart
Owen Stone
I always like to check out the artworks for these classic movies.
Owen Stone The Conversation (Coppola, 1974); A Nasty One From the Heart
Owen Stone
Do you find these movies in public domain or how do you get access to these old classics?
Owen Stone Coming Soon (FOR REAL): Nosferatu, (Murnau, 1921)
Owen Stone
I still come back to read these blogs daily, just to get a glimpse of these awesome artworks.
Owen Stone The Shabby, Greasy Joys of the Ralph M. Like Production
Owen Stone
This is a cool looking movie.
Owen Stone T-Men & Raw Deal (Mann/Alton, 1947): A Cry Into The Void
Owen Stone
Preston Clive
serdar202
I guess I must watch Operation Daybreak now ;)
serdar202 Atentát (1965) Vs. Hangmen (1943) Vs. Operation Daybreak (1975)--The Mirror of Murder Has Three Faces
Owen Stone
The artwork in these pieces are really amazing. The cover photo just reeks of communism tension, it…
Owen Stone Nosferatu &. Destiny/Der Mude Tod (Murnau/Lang, 1921): Lest We Forget . . . .
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