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Tag Archives: Paul Leni

A Silent American Cinema Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of last week’s list of essential silent American films. The thirteen titles listed here begin with Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven from 1927 and continue through F.W. Murnau’s late-silent swan song, the Robert Flaherty co-directed Tabu: A Story of the South Seas from 1931.

In chronological order:

7th Heaven (Borzage, 1927)

Frank Borzage’s best-loved film details the touching romance between Parisian sewer worker Chico (Charles Farrell) and waifish prostitute Diane (Janet Gaynor), unforgettably set against the outbreak of World War I. Borzage believed in romantic love as a kind of transcendental force and nothing, not even death, could keep his lovers apart. Borzage’s sense of the spiritual aspect of love is conveyed nowhere more memorably than in the remarkable crane shots that follow the lovers in 7th Heaven up seven full flights of stairs to reach Chico’s garret apartment.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, 1927)

William Fox brought German Expressionist master F.W. Murnau to Hollywood in 1926 and gave him carte blanche to create this masterpiece, one of the most artistically ambitious silent films. The story is a simple “folk tale” about redemption concerning a farmer who very nearly murders his wife after being seduced by a wicked city girl. The low-key lighting and elaborate tracking shots changed the way films in Hollywood were made overnight (neither Frank Borzage nor John Ford would ever be the same again). One of the most influential films of all time and a kind of Citizen Kane for the silent era.

The Unknown (Browning, 1927)

Tod Browning is best known today for early sound-era horror classics like Dracula and Freaks but I think this dark and sinister tale of a love triangle set in a traveling circus represents the high point of his entire career; Joan Crawford (young and dishy) is the daughter of a circus owner who is torn between the affections of an armless(!) knife thrower (Lon Chaney) and the circus strongman (Norman Kerry). This singularly grotesque wonder unfolds with the terrible illogic of a nightmare and remains for my money the best of all silent American horror films.

The Crowd (Vidor, 1928)

King Vidor was the king of Hollywood following the boffo box office of The Big Parade and he admirably used that clout to realize this downbeat story of the dark side of the American dream: John Sims (James Murray) was born on the fourth of July in the year 1900 and dreamed of becoming President of the United States. Instead he ends up an anonymous office drone in a very impersonal New York City, which Vidor relates in a series of stunning (and hugely influential) tableau images. “The crowd laughs with you always but it will cry with you for only a day.”

The Docks of New York (von Sternberg, 1928)

Arguably Josef von Sternberg’s greatest film, this ravishingly photographed tone poem tells the story of a virile stoker (George Bancroft) who is tempted to give up his love ’em and leave ’em ways after saving the life of a suicidal prostitute (the revelatory Betty Compson). This sublime romantic melodrama is perfectly complimented by von Sternberg’s amazingly atmospheric mise-en-scene, which captures New York City’s dock-front milieu with an exquisite interplay of light, shadow and fog.

A Girl in Every Port (Hawks, 1928)

Louise Brooks’ most well-known American film is also Howard Hawks’ first notable directorial effort, although she is given a relatively thankless role as the “love interest” in what is essentially a homoerotic comedy about the adventures of two brawling sailors played by Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong. Nevertheless this is unmissable as an early example of the same plot, themes and even dialogue that the mighty Hawks would continue to rework for the rest of his lengthy career.

Lonesome (Fejos, 1928)

Paul Fejos’ unjustly under-seen classic is a kind of smaller-scale version of The Crowd – though arguably an even better film. It begins by intercutting between the workday of a man who operates a punch press (Glenn Tryon) and a woman who works as a switchboard operator (Barbara Kent) in New York City. The two narrative strands become intertwined when these lonely people meet by chance at Coney Island and share a night of magic and romance. Tragically, they find themselves separated and realize that, since they never even learned one another’s names, they may never meet again. The plot is simple but the execution is passionate, capturing some universal and timeless truths about urban living.

The Man Who Laughs (Leni, 1928)

Director Paul Leni (Waxworks) and star Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) were major players and collaborators in the silent German cinema before migrating to Hollywood where they re-teamed for this influential Expressionist take on Victor Hugo’s novel. The plot concerns Gwynplaine (Veidt), the son of a Lord in 17th century England who, due to the sins of his father, is denied by King James II of the title that should be his birthright and has a hideous permanent smile carved into his face instead. He ends up becoming a popular stage performer (where his disfigurement is a source of morbid curiosity), but one day his past comes back to haunt him. This is similar to earlier literary adaptations/historical epics made by Universal like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, only it has the virtue of being directed by a real director; Leni, who started out as a set designer, makes the “period” truly come alive in this melodramatic quasi-horror gem.

The Wind (Sjostrom, 1928)

Letty (Lillian Gish in one of her finest performances) is a young woman who moves from the East to live with relatives in Texas. Once she arrives she finds that she must contend with a harsh, arid landscape, sinks into a depression and marries a man she doesn’t love (handsome Lars Hanson). The wind that is constantly swirling and blowing the sand into the air is a perfect metaphor for characters whose hearts are in tumult. The climactic sandstorm (shot, like the rest of the film, on location in the Mojave desert) is a thrilling piece of cinema, one of the highlights of the entire silent era.

Lucky Star (Borzage, 1929)

My personal favorite Frank Borzage film is this late silent masterpiece about a love triangle between farm girl Janet Gaynor and two World War I veterans – the duplicitous Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and nice guy Charles Farrell (whose war wounds have confined him to a wheelchair). Gaynor and Farrell made many films together and more often than not her fabulous acting is the point of interest. Here, Farrell is a revelation as a good-hearted man whose attempts to come to terms with his disability are heartbreaking. But, this being a Borzage film, the rural farmhouse setting is turned into a mystical, impressionist dream place where miracles can happen – and you’ll be very glad that they do. Originally released in a part talkie/part silent version, the lone print that survives today is completely silent and probably all the better for it.

City Girl (Murnau, 1930)

F.W. Murnau’s final Hollywood movie was lost until the early 1970s, then seriously critically reappraised when excellent quality DVD and blu-ray versions appeared in the 21st century. The film charts the relationship between a young wheat farmer (Charles Farrell) and his city girl bride (Mary Duncan) through blissful courtship, disillusion with meddling in-laws and the austerity of farm life and, ultimately, hard-won and believable reconciliation. As with all of Murnau’s best work, documentary realism is combined with breathtaking and poetic flights of fancy: Farrell and Duncan’s “run through the wheat” is probably my favorite 30 seconds in any movie ever.

City Lights (Chaplin, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin had more success than any of the silent clowns in transitioning to the sound era – in part because he delayed doing so for as long as possible. City Lights was his last true silent and the penultimate outing of his beloved “Little Tramp” character. Here, the Tramp falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. Alternately funny and poignant in the best Chaplin tradition, this film also provides the best example of Chaplin’s still relatively unheralded genius as filmmaker: the only close-ups that occur in the entire film are in the final moments, which make them all the more impacting.

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (Murnau/Flaherty, 1931)

F.W. Murnau teamed up with Robert (Nanook of the North) Flaherty for this independently produced, ethnographic excursion into the lives of native Tahitians. The documentary-minded Flaherty abandoned the project early, leaving Murnau the Romantic Artist to finish it on his own. And it’s a good thing he did: the story of a doomed romance between a fisherman and a young woman deemed “taboo” by the island’s Old Warrior in deference to the Gods – an exotic version of the Romeo and Juliet story – is a fitting epitaph for Murnau (who tragically died in a car accident on the way to the premiere) as well as the entire silent era. The film’s visually stunning images and Paradise / Paradise Lost structure would influence everything from Shohei Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

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A Weimar-Era German Cinema Primer

As a result of the popularity of my “South Korean New Wave Primer” post (in terms of total number of views), I have decided to launch a “Primer series” – a periodic listing of capsule reviews of 10 – 20 films that exemplify a particular historical movement or national cinema style. These lists are in no way meant to be definitive. Rather, they represent a sampling of films that I consider essential to understanding a given period in film history. They are also meant to be an ideal introduction to various movements for students in my film studies classes who would like to broaden their knowledge of world cinema, although I will always throw in a wild card or two for the benefit of my more seasoned cinephile readers.

The second post in the Primer series deals with one of my favorite eras, Germany during the Weimar Republic (1919 – 1933). Although today this period is beloved for being birthplace and home to the movement known as German Expressionism, there were many remarkable films of different styles and genres made during this time, as the below list should make abundantly clear.

Madame DuBarry (Lubitsch, 1919)

Polish-born Pola Negri was a major international movie star and sex symbol during the silent era and Madame DuBarry, a biopic of Louis the XV’s mistress set (incongruously) against the backdrop of the French Revolution, is one of her finest star vehicles. Funny, tragic and sexually provocative for its time, this historical epic allowed German film studio UFA to break into the international market. Four years later, director Ernst Lubitsch would become the first of many German filmmakers to migrate to Hollywood (where he would achieve even greater fame).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) (Wiene, 1920)

This is the definitive German Expressionist film, in which all of the elements of director Robert Wiene’s mise-en-scene (lighting, set design, costume design, the movement of figures within the frame) have been deliberately distorted and exaggerated for expressive purposes. The end result, a view of the world through the eyes of a madman, single-handedly inaugurated the Expressionist movement, which dominated German cinema screens for most of the rest of the decade.

The Golem (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam) (Boese/Wegener, 1920)

A fascinating horror movie/political allegory about a Rabbi in 16th century Prague who creates the title character, a giant monster designed to defend the inhabitants of a Jewish ghetto against religious persecution. The Expressionist sets and monster make-up still impress today.

Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit) (Lang, 1922)

The first in a cycle of Fritz Lang films about a diabolical criminal mastermind and master of disguise who crashes the stock market and swindles countless innocents out of their money seemingly for no reason other than the sheer fun of it. Indebted to the mystery serials of Louis Feuillade, this four-hour movie (split into two parts of equal length) remains a fast-paced, rip-roaring entertainment from start to finish.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens) (Murnau, 1922)

The first and in my opinion best adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this influential horror movie introduced many now-familiar elements of vampire mythology (such as the notion that vampires cannot be exposed to sunlight). Max Schreck’s frightening incarnation of the title character is unforgettable, as is director F.W. Murnau’s equation between the vampire and the plague – a clear allegory for the senseless mass death that had recently swept across Germany in the first World War.

Warning Shadows (Schatten: Eine nächtliche Halluzination) (Robison, 1923)

A magician arrives at a dinner party and performs a shadow puppet play that seems to dramatize the desires, jealousy and romantic maneuverings of the various partygoers in attendance. This is the single best example of an Expressionist film using light and shadow in an explicitly symbolic way to underscore a film’s themes, which is saying a lot. Also notable for containing no intertitles.

The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann) (Murnau, 1924)

Murnau’s second masterpiece tells the sad story of a proud but aging hotel doorman whose entire world crumbles when his employers demote him to the position of bathroom attendant. Murnau’s new contract with UFA afforded him money and resources way beyond the relatively meager budget of Nosferatu and he put it all to good use by executing complex, elaborate and highly innovative camera movements.

Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) (Birinsky/Leni, 1924)

A lighthearted triptych in which the owner of a wax museum hires a writer to compose stories about his statues for the benefit of his customers. This clever framing device allows the filmmakers to juxtapose stories set in different historical eras, à la Griffith’s Intolerance, while simultaneously dabbling in the Expressionist style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang’s Destiny.

Variety (Variete) (Dupont, 1925)

One of the major masterpieces of the entire silent era that, for reasons unknown to me, has only ever been released on VHS in the United States. This tragic, darkly ironic crime tale concerns a love triangle between trapeze artists that ends in betrayal and murder. Emil Jannings is at his best as the cuckolded husband but it’s Karl Freund’s brilliant cinematography that really makes Variety fly.

Faust (Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage) (Murnau, 1926)

The well-known story of an alchemist who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a second shot at youth is, in the hands of F.W. Murnau, an extravagant, virtuoso piece of filmmaking that shows why some film writers, including me, consider him one of the greatest directors of all time. Indeed, out of all the silent films I’ve seen, I can only compare it to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis from the following year in terms of sheer ambition. Disappointing box office returns for both films was a major factor in the decline of Expressionist cinema.

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt) (Ruttmann, 1927)

The “city symphony” film, an experimental/documentary hybrid in which filmmakers composed images of a typical day in the life of a major city, was briefly in vogue as the international art film of choice in the late silent era. Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Sypmphony of a Great City is a terrific piece of eye candy and a fascinating documentary window into Weimar-era Berlin. It also exerted a huge influence on Dziga-Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera.

Metropolis (Lang, 1927)

Metropolis is the most famous of all silent German films – a massively influential science fiction epic about class warfare in a futuristic Germany that dazzles with its visionary architecture and pioneering special effects. But the formidable formal qualities are nicely balanced by a stellar cast including veteran screen actors Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Alfred Abel and newcomer Brigitte Helm (terrific in a dual role). The “complete” version unveiled in 2010 is the great film restoration story of our time.

Spies (Spione) (Lang, 1928)

The Mabuse-like leader of a spy ring finds out about a romance between one of his employees, a beautiful Russian woman, and suave government agent “Number 326” who has been assigned to bring him down. Spies contains many incredible set pieces including political assassinations, heists of government secrets, a train wreck and a finale involving a clown performance that has to be seen to be believed. This is the real birth of the modern spy thriller, without which the James Bond series would not be possible.

Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) (Pabst, 1929)

A lot of German stars have tried their luck in Hollywood. In the late 1920s American actress Louise Brooks did the opposite, moving to Germany and teaming up with director G.W. Pabst for a trio of memorable films. Pandora’s Box is their masterpiece, a realistically told, naturalistically acted story of a woman forced into prostitution who meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Although her career went into decline immediately after she returned to Hollywood, Brooks was rediscovered in the 1950s and today has become one of the most iconic visages (and bobbed haircuts) of the silent cinema.

White Hell of Pitz Palu (Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü) (Fanck/Pabst, 1929)

A major reference point in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, White Hell of Pitz Palu is a good example of the “mountain climbing film,” a popular genre in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The story concerns a young married couple hiking in the Alps who meet a doctor looking for the wife he had lost on a similar hiking expedition years earlier. This is chock-full of exciting climbing and rescue sequences and the minimal intertitles make it easy to focus on the film’s spectacular snowy scenery. The female lead is played by future director (and Nazi propagandist) Leni Riefenstahl.

The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel) (von Sternberg, 1930)

The Blue Angel is notable for many reasons, including its status as the first German talkie and the film that launched Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. The story is reminiscent of Variety with Emil Jannings again playing a man who is driven to ruin by a treacherous woman, this time a cabaret singer of loose morals named Lola Lola (Dietrich at her most iconic). This was the only German-made film by Austrian director Josef von Sternberg.

People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) (Siodmak/Ulmer, 1930)

A remarkable documentary-like narrative film about a weekend in the life of ordinary Berliners, People on Sunday centers on five characters who are portrayed by non-actors with day-jobs similar to those of their counterparts in the story. The film is also fascinating in that it was made by a collective of young amateur filmmakers, all of whom would soon go on to notable careers in Hollywood: it was directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann based on a script by Billy Wilder.

M (Lang, 1931)

My favorite German movie of all time is this police procedural/serial killer thriller based on the exploits of several real-life German murderers of the 1920s. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his innovative use of dialogue, sound effects and music (the killer’s habitual whistling) was hugely influential on subsequent movies. This was also the screen debut of theatrical actor Peter Lorre, chilling and believable as the killer, who would soon follow his director in carving out a memorable Hollywood career.

Maedchen in Uniform (Froelich/Sagan, 1931)

A beautiful film about a teenage girl sent to a boarding school where she falls in love with a female teacher, this is one of the earliest portrayals of an explicitly homosexual character in the history of cinema. The taboo-breaking content of the film, as well as its function as a plea for tolerance, are made exceedingly poignant knowing in hindsight that the rise of Nazism was just around the corner. Superbly directed by Leontine Sagan, one of the very few women to get behind a camera in this era of German movies.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse) (Lang, 1933)

Fritz Lang’s farewell to German cinema resurrects his supervillain Dr. Mabuse from more than a decade earlier (again played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and has him match wits against Otto Wernicke’s Inspector Lohman character from M! Many critics and historians have interpreted the film as an anti-Nazi parable in which characters belonging to the criminal underworld are equated with the Nazi party. Indeed Joseph Goebbels promptly banned The Testament of Dr. Mabuse from German cinemas and Fritz Lang soon headed to America where he became one of the most prominent directors of film noir.


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