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Main article: Silent Film

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
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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
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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

INTOLERANCE (Griffith, 1916), Masters of Cinema Blu Ray

Speaking of Cinema-As-Puzzle (see: yesterday's post about Don't Look Now), probably the grand-daddy of them all, whether by accident or by design, is a film that is as we speak nuzzling up towards its centenniary: David Wark Griffith's Intolerance.

Made in 1916, this behemoth film was ostensibly constructed as an answer to cries of "Racist sumbitch!" which were hurled in Griffith's direction upon the release of his previous work from 1915 .  .  .  the dazzlingly constructed but narratively infuriating Birth of a Nation.

Designed to reveal Griffith as a man whose heart was not only sympathetic to the plight of the oppressed, but a man who was so perturbed by the injustices that men wreak on their brothers and sisters that he was a downright activist of fully blossomed authenticity, a man who reserved his greatest cinematic effort for a groaning, aching plea for empathy, humanism, and respect for one another. Intolerance is by far his most massive undertaking. It might in fact be the most massive undertaking in the history of cinema.

More likely an act of penitence rather than an indication of the measure of the humanist purity within Griffith's heart--there was essentially no way for Grif to undo the obvious appearance of deep sincerity and tremendous nostalgia with which he rendered his tales of the prewar South and the KKK--Intolerance grew to the size that it did not because of the size of the regret or heartache for Birth, but because of the contemporary trends in epic filmmaking surrounding him.  

As for the size of the regret or heartache for being regarded as a Klan sympathizer in Birth, Griffith famously sat down to film an introduction to the re-release version of Birth in the early 1930's with no less a leading light of the day than the legendary Walter Huston (who played Abraham Lincoln for Griffith in this era). In this intro, Grif re-emphasized the spirit of the sympathy he maintained for for the KKK, at least back during the immediate postbellum south. "The Klan was needed, back then," he said, nodding his head in self-affirmation, weaving tales of carpetbaggers and abusive occupiers from the north.

Of course, D. W. himself was a southerner--his father was a Colonel in the Confederacy; he war born roughly ten years after the close of the war, and grew up listening to grownups spin tales of the great conflagration. The war, and his family's side in the war, his very roots as a southerner--all of this was a part of his DNA.

As for the sincerity of his feelings regarding the right of all--regardless of race, creed or color--to pursue the right of liberty and happiness free from persecution, one can only speculate. We can say that after Intolerance, the plight of the oppressed and the misunderstood remained a theme in his work .  .  .  most notably Broken Blossoms (the extremely grim tale of the love affair of a tormented waif under the heel of her abusive father, with an ethnic Chinese merchant) and The Struggle, the dazzlingly brave (and equally grim) early sound era film about a regular, workaday contemporary man's struggle with alcoholism.

*       *       * 

Intolerance began as much smaller, far more intimate tale (versus the end result) about the struggles of a mother (played by the atomically bubbly Mae Marsh) and her husband (played by the tragic Robert Harron) versus the organized forces of moral puritanism. Called The Boy and The Dear One respectively, the couple are forced out of their meager but cheerful small town after a corporate magnate who runs a factory orders a 10% pay cut on his workers in order to finance his resentful, longings-filled sister who, unable to find love and cohabitation, goes all the way in the other direction of total puritanism and starts a crusader organization of "busybodies." Rather than accept the pay cut, the workers strike--a massacre on the  strikers by armed breakers sees the Dear One and the Boy fleeing to the city to find their fortunes. There they find love, crime, pregnancy, disaster and total agony, and lucky redemption in the end.

If one were to strip away the three highly ornate, costumed, set-construction-heavy historical stories intercut with the Mother And The Law tale, and leave the latter contemporary narrative unified and standing in sequence on its own .  .  .  one would be left with a rather trite contemporary reflection of its times, full of interesting camera work and locations, without question cut with a rhythm for the ages, particularly in the final thrilling conclusion of the narrative .  .  .  but in the end we would have nothing even closely resembling the awesome acclaim heaped on what this simple modern tale eventually turned into.

Griffith had been keeping a close eye on the goings on in the grandly operatic Italian cinema of the mid-teens. At this time, the Italians were at the forefront of the development of the plastic and subjective arts that comprise the substance of cinema: set construction and costume, camera movement, massive recruitment of extras, inventive camera placement, special effects including pyrotechnics and miniatures, and the introduction of grand spectacle and high operatic, historical and biblical themes into the cinema.

Obvious examples of this are Cabiria (Pastrone, 1914, and a film which should have been reassembled, restored, and rereleased by now), The Last Days of Pompeii (1913, Caserini), Quo Vadis? (Guazzoni, 1912) and others. We can only speculate about the majority of these titles and whether or not Griffith encountered them, but it is known that he did see the dazzling Cabiria--itself a longtime favorite of mine, a film screaming out for restoration and redistribution on home video, a far more pressing cinematic emergency than rereleasing the same old Chaneys, Langs, and Murnaus.

Filled with slow and elegant camera moves, incredible special effects, and outrageously grand sets (Moloch's temple, the exteriors and the interiors, remain among the four or five most incredible full scale plastic, non-superimposition sets in the history of film; this goes for originality, execution, and scale) Cabiria is a film that we know directly affected Griffith tremendously. We know it inspired him to reorganize the entire project from the ground up. The Mother & The Law was re-imagined as simply one element placed against a who series of historical dramas, interwoven like basket bamboo weaves to form a far grander whole.

It requires very little brainpower to spot the elements of Cabiria in Intolerance: in the temple festival ceremony and dance in the Babylonian episode, which incidentally contains a tracking shot for the ages, one that stumped viewers and cinematographers as to its method .  .  .  the rolling elevator, pushed by what we must consider to be early incarnations of the camera "grip", pushing the descending elevator forward until they reach a predetermined marker which sets the camera right in the midst of the exotic dance of religious celebration.  

Intolerance is a perfect example of the sum of the parts being far greater than the whole. If one isolated any of the individual threads--the hyper melodramatic French Huguenot episode (classic Griffith overwrought intertitle cards), the Jesus Christ Jerusalem episode, the Babylon episode, and the Mother and the Law sequence--one would be left with a bunch of isolated costume dramas, heavily moralizing and editorialized, with one contemporary drama with extremely exciting cutting, ditto on the moralizing and editorialization.

But in the intertwining of these four stories, and framing them with the mystical element of timeless wondering when man's inhumaity to man will cease, exemplified by the image of Lilian Gish rocking the crade of time, Griffith turned the entire film into something sublime, almost hinting at the religious and the sacred and the eternal.

There are few who can grasp how radical the concept was of splitting up four narratives and fracturing them into each other with very little hand holding was--it throws people even today, not understanding the purpose--to develop a larger thesis, to build up a metaphor, to cultivate a third eye in the viewer, to affect the heart of the viewer by packing the world entire right there in a three hour film. It is as revolutionary as Eisenstein's rapid montage, busting little moments of action into quick splits of vantage point and action; Griffith breaks the entire world down into a sequence of rapid montage: Eisensteins moments evolved out of Griffith's centuries (of course Grif evolved the groundwork for in-the-moment rapid montage especially in Way Down East, as Lilian Gish runs out into the icy wilderness and faints onto an ice floe), where time becomes compressed, and the filmmaker extracts that which is essential for the creation in the viewers mind's eye something extra, something ethereal.

Intolerance is a film that affects me like no other--although it perhaps doesn't mean to, it haunts me. The now aged images, portraying what was already then ancient history (the longshot of the crucifixion strikes me as actual footage!), the then-contemporary images, revealing a long gone world of wrought iron, cobble stones and fired brick, they carry with them a hint of the supernatural, as if there are mysteries to be revealed, secrets to be uncovered if one sifts around within the substance of the film.

It strikes me as if some oracle were successfully wrought by the assembly; it's a feeling I rarely if ever get or have gotten by any other film. There is a feeling of oracle that one gets from the sacred books of the world--the Bible, the Koran, Tao Te Ching, and Hindu scripture: because of it's containing so much of the hard and immutable DNA of the film, because of his superhistorical and almost supernatural aspirations, Intolerance strikes me in almost precisely the same way .  .  .  mysteries to be extracted with each reopening.

I urge anyone and everyone remotely interested in the film to go out and purchase the MoC edition of the Brownlow restoration of the film.

Preston Clive/Schreck

3/10/2015*** 

 

 

 


Preston Clive mar 10 15, 23:32
+2 2

Critical Restoration Releases: The Slow Drip . . .

Versus the manic pace that the world of silent cinema once presented to the collector via the endless number of releases in the period running roughly 2000-2009--I want to point out that I am specifically talking about the realm of home video on digital disc--the present market is very slender indeed.

For example, back in these years, we had a large number of companies releasing silent films on DVD at a relatively regular clip: Kino International (pre Lorber days) and Image Entertainment were without question the market leaders. Adventurous titles like Warning Shadows (Robeson 1925), Waxworks (Leni 1924) The Love of Jeanne Ney (Pabst 1927, and one of his best films and my personal favorite by him, even beyond the Brooks films), The Golem (Wegener, 1920), Caligari and Orlac (Weine), A Fool There Was (Powell, 1915, and one very grim picture), Cabiria (Pastrone 1914), Asphalt (May, 1928), A Cottage On Dartmoor (Asquith 1928),  the Stillers, the Sjostroms, the Fairbanks titles, the Griffith titles, the Stroheims, Eisensteins, Valentinos, Langs, Murnaus, and many other one-offs (Gay themed films, odd one-off's like ALIBI, the Jacques Tourneurs) constitute titles that Kino released during the heyday of the DVD age.

Image Entertainment which also included Milestone Films back in those days released their own fabulous litany of titles: the Joe May Indian Tomb two parter, the first DVD of Dr Mabuse der Spieler, the three Eisenstein silents, plus their own releases of some of the Fairbanks classics as well as classic German titles like Nosferatu, Caligari--many of which Kino had released but Image released with David Shepard's Film Preservation Associates, their own one-off's like Lang's Destiny, Chaney's Universal classic Hunchback and Phantom, plus double packages like Shadows/Outside the Law, Nomads of the North/The Shock, along with the DeMille silents, a couple of key Carl Dreyer silents such as The Parson's Widow and Leaves From Satan's Book (both roughly 1920), Louise Brooks double The Show Off/The Plastic Age, The Lost World, the Dziga Vertovs, the Pudovkins (The End of St Petersberg being one of my favorite silents ever), the Dovzhenkos (Earth, Arsenal ditto) .  .  .  and I haven't even moved over to Milestone or Flicker Alley yet.

What has happened?

Well, for one thing, the Eclectic Video Store has perished as a retail species in the life of our big cities. I can't speak to small cities because I don't live in one. But I can only assume that the situation is the same elsewhere as it is here: the street level physical video store is virtually nonexistent.

For one reason or another, the world has changed: art product is rarely if ever purchased from stores any longer. Whether this is because the present generation doesn't perceive artworks or pieces of entertainment to be viable products to be paid for any longer, or they simply have no interest in visiting physical stores for the instant gratification of grabbing a product and taking it immediately home to watch it--or perhaps the online retailer can always beat the price of the brick and mortar retailer .  .  .  or perhaps lastly, the world of online file sharing/torrenting/p2p/general piracy has sucked the viability right out of the concept of storefront retailing of video and audio entertainment. People do not merely wish to pay less--they don't wish to pay at all.

Book stores will be kept for a separate conversation.

An example of the rare and the sublime. (Image courtesy Potemkine)

The tempo mentioned above was a positively manic one. For every title mentioned above, there are probably five to ten not mentioned. I haven't mentioned any Masters of Cinema, any Danish Film Institute, British Film Institute, Transit Films, Divisa Red, or any of the often rather interesting albeit poorly transferred/awful source element products put out by bottom of the barrel distributor Alpha .  .  .  who nonetheless put out some interesting titles--without which we would have no idea what (for example) Roland West's The Bat (1925) would look like. 

Don't get me wrong--titles do come out. As evinced by yesterday's article focusing on E.A. DuPont's Variete (1925), in all of it's bad-score glory. Not long before this we had a revisiting of classic titles from Lang and Murnau from Masters of Cinema and Kino/FWMS, plus the fabulous restoration of Caligari which made it to Blu Ray recently.

But more critically--and more relevant to this article-- is the set put together by French label Potemkine which gathers up the titles of now only-somewhat-obscure French Impressionist master Jean Epstein into a full Coffret Set. Epstein is a man I've been championing relentlessly for almost a decade now. Occasionally by Criterion's Eclipse label we will get some silent Japanese titles by Naruse or Ozu. Or even Carl Dreyer's Master of the House on the main CC label.

And of course, we have Masters of Cinema seeing to it that the classics, when scanned in hi-def by the primary rights holders, will be put out for distribution in their region with wonderful presentations and extras. 

But in the overall, we must admit, the world has changed in a way that makes the tempo of restorations-to-HD scan-to-disc (dvd or BD) extremely slow versus what it once was. The industry has ratcheted back to a virtual creaking crawl. The days of Rupert Murdoch's Fox releasing gigantic boxes appreciating John Ford from the silent era and forward, or Frank Borzage and FW Murnau at Fox, are long gone and likely to not be seen again. Sad for us.

Things often do go in waves, but it is rare to see an industry--once dead-- resurrect itself. The changes that take root in the psyche of a generation often get nailed down for long term posterity.

Will we see video stores start opening up again with tons of DVD's and Blu Ray's up for retail on shelves again? Will all the fabulous titles waiting to be put out on home video after well known restorations--or simple screenings of very good prints--are confirmed as being in existence, will these start suddenly coming out again in a second golden age? Will the Lupu Picks, the Arthur von Gerlach's, the Wegeners, the Karl Grunes, the Lamprechts, the Jutzis, and so many more .  .  .  will these find their way out to the light of day in digital format?

We may as well ask--will we see a day when popular music returns to the qualitative levels of the immortals of yore, ie acts on the level of the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix, Cream, The Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, David Bowie, Velvet Underground, Dylan, Aretha, the Doors, King Crimson, the Fifth Dimension, Johnny Cash, Zeppelin, all the jazz greats of yore like Miles Davis, Mingus, Archie Shepp, Coltrane, Dolphy, Sinatra, etc.

Just think that there was a period where all of these acts were out and about and performing all at the same time. And tickets were five to ten bucks, if even that.

It's a rapidly morphing world, my friends. 

Ciao until next time.


Preston Clive mar 6 15, 23:08
+1 5

"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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