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Tag Archives: Robert Wiene

Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2014

My top 10 favorite new home video releases of 2014 (and 20 runners up):

10. Ravenous (Bird, UK/USA, 1999, Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)

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Director Antonia Bird tragically passed away last year at the too-young age of 62. While she is known primarily for the television and theater work she did in her native England, genre movie aficionados have a place in their hearts for her because of her extraordinary work on Ravenous, a cult classic about cannibalism at an American army post in California in the mid-19th century. Incredibly, Bird was brought in at the 11th hour to replace another director but managed to infuse this horror-western hybrid with a unique, darkly comedic tone and bring a welcome female perspective besides (she changed one crucial supporting part from male to female). A film of enormous political and philosophical interest masquerading as a B-movie, Ravenous is one of the key movies of the 1990s and one that looks better with each passing year. In terms of A/V quality, Shout! Factory’s release does the best it can with source materials that appear to not be in ideal shape but I would never want to be without this on Blu-ray.

9. Faust (Murnau, Germany, 1926, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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F.W. Murnau’s greatest German movie makes the leap to 1080p with the staggering results one would expect from the Masters of Cinema label. In adapting the old German folk tale about the wager between an archangel and a demon over whether the latter can corrupt the titular alchemist’s soul, the legendary UFA studios gave Murnau a bigger budget and access to greater technical resources than he ever had before. The stylistic virtuosity that resulted — nowhere better evidenced than in a magic-carpet ride through an mind-bogglingly elaborate miniature set — trumped even the masterful mise-en-scene of Murnau’s own The Last Laugh. This Blu-ray edition bundles together the inferior international cut of the film (long thought to be the only one in existence) with Luciano Berriatua’s meticulous restoration of the definitive German domestic version. There is also a great, enthusiastic commentary track by critics David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn, both of whom are especially good at tracking Faust‘s considerable influence on subsequent filmmakers and films.

8. Mouchette (Bresson, France, 1967, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)

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A very welcome addition to the growing number of Robert Bresson titles on Blu-ray (Criterion has already released A Man Escaped and Pickpocket) is UK distributor Artificial Eye’s exemplary Mouchette disc. Nadine Nortier, in her only film role to date, is an extraordinary screen presence as the title heroine, a poor, rural teenaged girl who is consistently let down or betrayed by the adults around her: her alcoholic father, her bedridden mother, her unfairly strict teacher and a local poacher who repays the girl’s kindness by raping her. Solace comes only in fleeting moments: walking alone through the woods, riding the bumper cars at a traveling carnival, the chance to comfort her infant sister, etc. Jean-Luc Godard once remarked that Bresson’s previous film, Au Hasard Balthazar, was “the world in an hour-and-a-half,” a remark that seems equally true of Mouchette. Both films have a shattering impact because of the director’s unique ability to elicit empathy for a marginalized protagonist while also ruthlessly avoiding sentimentality. The film-like textures of Artificial Eye’s transfer make this the version that you need to own.

7. The Epic of Everest (Noel, UK, 1924, BFI Blu-ray)

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“Since the beginning of the world men have battled with Nature for the mastery of their physical surroundings. Such is their birthright, and such is their destiny.” So reads a quintessentially British — and vaguely imperialist — opening title card in this mesmerizing documentary from explorer/filmmaker Captain J.B.L. Noel. Newly restored and released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute, this masterpiece is the official record of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain. The film’s focus, refreshingly, is not on the personalities of the men involved but on the arduous task of mountain-climbing itself; most of its power stems from shots of wee man, often not more than a black speck on the horizon, crawling all over the overwhelmingly indifferent, ice-capped peaks of Mount Everest. Some of Noel’s astonishing montage sequences feature shots where the most dramatic thing happening is the way drifting clouds cast shadows over mountaintops, images that resemble moving paintings in their abstract beauty. The best such scene is arguably the last, after the two men spearheading the trek have perished; the final images of Everest, tinted blood-red, conjure up the futility of their mission with an almost unbearable poignance.

6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

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As someone who first discovered many classics of world cinema via VHS tapes of poor quality public-domain prints in the early 1990s, it has been a great joy to see the image and sound quality of certain titles improve over the years — courtesy of new restorations and new advancements in home-video technology. The most impressive instance of an absolutely jaw-dropping upgrade in a movie’s quality over time might be Robert Wiene’s masterpiece of psychological horror The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Long seen in faded, scratchy and often incomplete prints, the F.W. Murnau Foundation’s new restoration — based on the original camera negative — renders a ridiculous amount of never-before-seen detail in the film’s striking visual design, including the Expressionist makeup on the actors’ faces and even paint-brush strokes on the intentionally artificial-looking sets around them. I’m also a big fan of the new techno-ish score by DJ Spooky though Kino/Lorber also thankfully offer a more “traditional” soundtrack option for silent-film purists. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari‘s influence is still very much alive (Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, John Carpenter’s The Ward and Tim Burton’s entire career would be unthinkable without it). It was the big bang of both German Expressionist and horror moviemaking and if you care at all about cinema, you need to own this.

5. Hail Mary (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1984, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)

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Cohen Media Group did the world a big favor by releasing Blu-rays of two of the best films from Jean-Luc Godard’s thorny post-1967 career: 1984’s sublime religious allegory Hail Mary and 1996’s ambitious and political For Ever Mozart. While For Ever Mozart has the better audio commentary track (film critic James Quandt’s invaluable insights into Godard in general and this film in particular, delivered in a conversational style, constitute the best such commentary track I’ve ever heard), I’m ultimately going with Hail Mary as the more significant release simply because the film itself is more significant. Controversial upon its initial release, Hail Mary re-imagines the story of the birth of Christ in a modern setting where Mary plays high-school basketball and works at her father’s gas station, Joseph drives a taxi and “Uncle Gabriel” arrives via jet plane to deliver the annunciation. While this may sound irreverent — and the film does indeed feature Godard’s characteristic absurdist humor — the end result is as serious and deeply spiritual as anything Robert Bresson or Carl Dreyer ever did. The best of the special features here is Anne-Marie Mieville’s, The Book of Mary, a terrific companion short about a young girl grappling with her parents’ divorce.

4. The Nutty Professor: 50th Anniversary (Lewis, USA, 1963, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

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Warner Brothers finally gave Jerry Lewis the respect he deserves with this lavish box set commemorating the 50th anniversary, albeit one year late, of the master’s most enduring creation. The Nutty Professor, a surreal/comedic take on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde legend in which Lewis transforms from the title nebbish into a satire of his own real life ladies-man persona named “Buddy Love,” looks better and funnier than ever. Lewis’s bold use of color in particular (dig that crazy purple!) benefits from the Blu-ray upgrade. Among the treasure trove of extras are DVDs of Frank Tashlin’s minor Lewis-starring comedy Cinderfella (1960), Lewis’s second film as a director, the self-reflexive masterpiece The Errand Boy (1961), as well as a CD of hilarious prank phone calls, “Phoney Phone Calls 1959-1972,” that puts the Jerky Boys to shame. I was also grateful for the new documentary short Jerry Lewis: No Apologies, which offers a snapshot of the still-sharp 87-year-old comedian in concert and in conversation with family and friends. If you do not think this live-action cartoon is hilarious, then I do not want to be your friend.

3. The Essential Jacques Demy (Demy, France, 1961-1982, Criterion Blu-ray)

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Jacques Demy has always been the most underrated of the major French New Wave directors; the Criterion Collection’s essential new box set devoted to six of his best features (plus the usual welcome smattering of bonus material) will hopefully go a long way towards correcting that. Included are Demy’s seminal debut Lola (1961), his doomed romance about gamblers Bay of Angels (1963), a dazzling restoration of his best-known film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), my personal favorite The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), the subversive fairy tale Donkey Skin (1970), and the darkly beautiful, scandalously unknown movie opera A Room in Town (1982). To watch these films together is to realize how unfair it is that Demy has somehow accrued the reputation of being both lightweight and a sentimentalist. His penchant for the musical genre (even when directing non-musicals) and his love of candy-box colors mask what often amounts to a bittersweet if not outright tragic worldview. Among the extras are two excellent feature-length docs by Demy’s wife Agnes Varda (a major director in her own right): The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993) and The World of Jacques Demy (1995).

2. Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery (Lynch, USA, 1990-1992, Paramount Blu-ray)

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This extravagant box set is phenomenal for so many reasons: it contains all 30 episodes of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s beloved cult-classic television show from 1990-1991, plus Lynch’s 1992 feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (much derided at the time but clearly one of his greatest achievements when viewed today), plus the legendary “deleted scenes” from Fire Walk with Me, which have been a holy grail for Peaks aficionados for over 20 years. Best of all: because Twin Peaks was originally shot on 35mm film stock, this Blu-ray sports an impeccable 1080p transfer that perfectly captures the show’s buttery-warm color palette while revealing way more visual detail than anyone ever saw when the series first aired. Lynch and Frost’s daring “Blue Velvet crossed with a soap opera” formula was ahead of its time in the early 90s — the weirdest thing to ever play on network television — doomed to end prematurely but paving the way for today’s current “golden age of T.V.” (David Chase has acknowledged its influence on his own game-changing Sopranos). Fortunately, this box is not quite the entire mystery; Twin Peaks will be rebooted on Showtime in 2016 — where Lynch and Frost can take advantage of television freedoms they never dreamed possible 25 years ago.

1. Intégral Jacques Tati (Tati, France, 1949-1974, StudioCanal Blu-ray)

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A lot of film writers on this side of the Atlantic have anointed the Criterion Collection’s “Complete Jacques Tati” Blu-ray set as the home video release of the year but I’m going to give the nod to Studio Canal France’s similar release instead. Criterion’s set dropped in late October but Studio Canal had already put out an almost identical (albeit “Region B-locked) set back in February, more than eight months previously. As great as Criterion’s “visual essays” and other supplements undoubtedly are, the most important aspect in a box set of this magnitude is its “completeness” in terms of the films themselves and in this regard there is no difference between the Studio Canal and the Criterion: both of them bundle together all of the Gallic comedic giant’s short and feature-length films, most of the latter of which are available in multiple versions. What a joy it was to revisit Tati’s entire filmography in such superb quality and to witness the evolution of his artistry in chronological order — beginning with the uproariously funny (and still underrated) Jour de Fete, climaxing with the staggeringly ambitious Play Time (one of the greatest movies ever made by anyone) and ending with the poignant, made-for-TV Parade (which saw the actor/director returning to his music-hall roots). Let’s hope Criterion doesn’t wait so long to announce their new titles in the future. Full review here.

Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

11. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1974, Criterion Blu-ray)
12. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1955, Criterion Blu-ray)
13. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Double Indemnity (Wilder, USA, 1944, Universal Blu-ray)
15. F for Fake (Welles, USA, 1973, Criterion Blu-ray)
16. For Ever Mozart (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1997, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)
17. The Freshman (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1925, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
19. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Anderson, USA, 2003/2014, Cinema Guild Blu-ray)
20. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984, Criterion Blu-ray)
21. Master of the House (Dreyer, Denmark, 1925, Criterion Blu-ray)
22. Mauvais Sang (Carax, France, 1986, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
23. My Darling Clementine (Ford, USA, 1946, Criterion Blu-ray). More here.
24. Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks, USA, 1939, TCM/Columbia Blu-ray)
25. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)
26. Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959, Criterion Blu-ray)
27. Spies (Lang, Germany, 1928, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
28. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958, Universal Blu-ray)
29. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
30. The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami, Iran, 1999, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)

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Book Review: Shell Shock Cinema

Shell Shock Cinema by Anton Kaes
Princeton University Press, 2010

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As someone who teaches film studies at the college level, I’m sorry to say that I think a lot of academic film writing is garbage. Too much of what passes for “serious” film writing is nothing more than literary theory — particularly as it relates to Freud and/or Marx — imported wholesale by academics who lack a thorough knowledge of film history and aesthetics. For some classes I am, unfortunately, forced to teach from such books from time to time. (If I have a say in the matter, I always use Film Art or Film History by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, two keen analytical writers and true cinephiles whose work straddles the line between academic and mainstream film criticism.) I mention all of this because I recently read a terrific film studies book that I could not recommend more highly: Shell Shock Cinema by Anton Kaes. Not only is this academic study an impeccably researched work of scholarship, it also offers penetrating and new insights into its subject matter — the massively influential and already much-written about movies of Germany’s Weimar era. More specifically, Kaes persuasively argues that several key works of what is often-termed “German Expressionist cinema,” a phrase the author barely uses, can be seen as coded responses to the first World War. This reverses the trend of most academic writing about silent German film, which, following the lead of the critic Siegfried Kracauer, has tended to view the masterpieces of Expressionism as harbingers of the rise of Nazism. Kaes’ view that Weimar-era movies were looking back rather than forward makes so much sense that one wonders why it took 80-odd years for someone to mount such an argument.

caligari The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Kaes’ book is structured around a close reading of four movies: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), and Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927). Proceeding in chronological order, Kaes shows how each of these films can be seen as “entities that arise from and exist in concrete historical moments; that supply aesthetic responses to economic, social, political, ideological and institutional determinants; and that still resonate with us today.” Kaes makes good on this claim by specifically analyzing how all four films feature characters who seem to be exhibiting the symptoms of “shell shock,” a then-new and controversial neurological disorder occurring in soldiers who had participated in the first “technological war.” Many German government officials apparently felt that shell-shocked soldiers were mere “malingerers” who were faking psychological illnesses as a means of avoiding having to serve in the front lines. “War psychiatrists” were then brought in to essentially debunk the shell shock phenomenon, sometimes administering electroshock therapy to its sufferers — not so much to “cure” them than to scare them into agreeing to return to active duty. Is it any wonder then, Kaes asks, that the villain of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the evil director of a mental hospital who may be crazy himself? Or that the protagonist is a patient suffering from hallucinations induced by some unspoken trauma? If there is one flaw in Shell Shock Cinema it’s that this first provocative analysis is the most revelatory one in the book.

nosferatu Nosferatu

In Kaes’ primary reading of Nosferatu, the mysterious title vampire — a character continually associated with the plague — and his apocalyptic arrival in the small (fictional) German town of Wisborg is analogous to the mass death that swept across the country during the Great War. Kaes sees real-estate agent Thomas Hutter’s voyage to Castle Orlock as representing a soldier’s journey to the “eastern” front, and his wife Ellen’s adventures back home as standing in for the homefront experiences of a typical soldier’s wife. But Kaes also wisely refuses to limit his analysis to this single interpretation and also considers that the plot may be read as a disturbing anti-Semitic metaphor for then-contemporary fears about the migration of Jews from Eastern Europe. (I personally don’t buy this interpretation but am glad the author chose to include it.) Kaes then moves on to Die Nibelungen, analyzing its two parts as a reflection of changing German attitudes towards the concept of wartime heroism (i.e., the first part, Siegfired, valorizes fallen soldiers and arguably glorifies war while the second, Kriemhild’s Revenge, offers a somewhat surprising corrective in that it underlines the pointlessness and insanity of revenge). But Fritz Lang’s mythical period epic is also the film that seems to offer the most coded response to World War I and is therefore the book’s least interesting passage. Things pick back up with Kaes’ climactic discussion of Metropolis, a notorious commercial flop on its initial release, which many historians see as representing the final nail in the coffin of German Expressionism. Here, Kaes invokes Karl Marx — in a manner wholly appropriate — in his analysis of Metropolis‘ class struggle as a kind of “industrial battle” in which the members of the working class are seen as human fodder for an insatiable war god.

nibelungen Die Nibelungen

The analysis of this quartet of movies is followed by a swift conclusion that illustrates the connection between Weimar-era German cinema and American film noir, and a discussion of how the lessons of Expressionism remain relevant today. While Kaes could have undoubtedly viewed many other silent German movies through his shell-shocked lens — I think Murnau’s Faust, in particular, would’ve benefitted from the treatment — I applaud his decision to offer his theory as a primer rather than anything more exhaustive; not including the endnotes and bibliography, the entire text runs a succinct and imminently readable 216 pages. The fact that all four of the films under discussion are widely available on home video should only enhance the accessibility of Shell Shock Cinema: Die Nibelungen, Nosferatu and Metropolis have all been restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation and are available in splendid-quality Blu-ray editions (and Caligari, already available in a good quality DVD, will be released on Blu-ray following a new Murnau Foundation restoration later this year). As someone who devotes at least one class to teaching German Expressionism every semester, I am eternally grateful to Kaes and plan on using this text in future classes. Shell Shock Cinema is an ideal book for anyone — novices and experts alike — interested in one of the richest and most exciting periods in cinema’s history.

Thanks to David Hanley for making me aware of this book. Shell Shock Cinema can be ordered from Amazon here: http://tinyurl.com/mlcs7us

Six clips from the Murnau Foundation’s new restoration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be viewed here: http://diastor.ch/2014/01/27/six-videos-of-new-caligari-restoration-now-online/

metropolis1 Metropolis


Halloween Post #2: The Chicago Tribune Reviews The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari . . . in 1920

I recently stumbled across this highly amusing 1920 review of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by the Chicago Tribune‘s pseudonymously named film critic “Mae Tinee” (who also owned the distinction of being the first Chicago journalist to interview Charlie Chaplin when he shot His New Job here for Essanay Studios in 1915). Aside from the faint whiff of xenophobia in the line about “their own backyard,” and in spite of the fact that this is a negative review (she doesn’t like Caligari precisely because it was effective in giving her “the willies”), this is a fun read that I think accurately captures the spirit of the film. Tinee calls it “a weird, mad, fantastic thing whose settings remind you of nothing so much as the disordered groupings of varicolored particles seen through the eye of a kaliedoscope,” before concluding that “Caligari is a Poe Charlie Chaplin!” Good God, have newspaper movie reviews gotten worse over the last hundred years?


Framing the Supernatural in Caligari and Nosferatu

My post for today concerns two of my favorite horror films – the German Expressionist masterpieces The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror. After showing both movies innumerable times in Intro to Film classes, I’ve come to believe that the awesome power of each ultimately lies in their shared sense of a wacked-out story structure: Robert Wiene and F.W. Murnau didn’t just make films about the supernatural, they made films supernaturally.

One of the hallmarks of the German Expressionist cinema is a keen interest in the supernatural. Incorporating techniques borrowed from Expressionist artists in other mediums (painting, theater, architecture, etc.) the major German Expressionist film directors sought to create a new, more personal form of expression that favored the unknown to the known, the power of the human imagination to knowledge acquired only through sensory experience and a cinematographic style that consciously rebelled against the “invisible” techniques of Hollywood narrative continuity filmmaking. The arrival of Expressionism in movies is usually credited with the 1920 release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a low-budget but revolutionary film written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer and directed by Robert Wiene at the Decla-Bioscop studio. Two years later, F.W. Murnau directed the landmark Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, the first movie adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for a small outfit named Prana Film (it would be their only release). These two works, which share a startling, little commented upon framing device, provided a shining example, in both form and content, for many other filmmakers to follow.

One of the key ingredients to the success of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is its narrative structure. Wiene employs a framing device so that the chief action of his film is a story being told within a story. This structure provides a wealth of stylistic and thematic possibilities that allow Wiene to bring out the haunting, mysterious nature of his tale to maximum effect. The movie begins with the protagonist, Franzis, telling his story to an old man on a park bench. These shots (and a few rhyming shots at the film’s conclusion) are the only exterior shots to actually be filmed outdoors by Wiene and his crew. The bulk of the narrative is comprised of Franzis’ story, about the sinister goings-on at a carnival, which Wiene presents as a lengthy flashback sequence. All of the exterior scenes inside of Franzis’ story (and there are many) were clearly shot on interior sets in the Decla-Bioscop studio and have a highly artificial, theatrical appearance. The discrepancy between authentic and artificial exteriors is the first subtle clue as to the fact that Franzis is an “unreliable narrator.”

There are several reasons why the framing device is effectively suited to movies involving fantastic and otherworldly elements. First, it provides the director with an ironic juxtaposition of tone and setting. This is immediately apparent in the opening of Murnau’s Nosferatu. The first several shots of the film are title cards, the first of which reads: “an Account of the Great Death in Wisborg anno Domini 1838.” The second warns against speaking the word Nosferatu aloud lest “. . . haunting dreams will climb forth from your heart and feed on your blood.” The third title card is the most curious as it introduces the mysterious narrator: “I have reflected at length on the origin and passing of the Great Death in my hometown of Wisborg. Here is its story: Once in Wisborg lived a man named Hutter and his young wife Ellen.” Incredibly, it is never made clear who the narrator is, or even if he appears physically within the movie, although several more title cards crop up that indicate what we are seeing represents a first person perspective.

The first shots of Nosferatu (following the opening title cards) depict a scene of domestic contentment between Hutter and Ellen in their small-town bourgeois home. Hutter is excitedly getting dressed in front of a bedroom mirror, preparing to go to work for the day. Nearby, Ellen is laughing and playing with a cat and a ball of yarn in front of an open window. The counterpoint of the spectral opening titles – with their gothic font and multiple evocations of the “Great Death” – against this backdrop of newly wedded bliss allows Murnau to establish a mood of foreboding; a feeling of uneasiness has permeated the setting that will soon explode into horror once the narrative proper begins.

Another function of the framing device is to allow for multiple narrators. The first narrator of Caligari is Wiene himself – omniscient, God-like, paring his fingernails. He is the rational narrator who provides the “frame” for the fantastical portrait of the second narrator, Franzis. Wiene takes care to show the mesmeric effect of Franzis’ story on his listener (the old man) in the hopes that we, the viewer, will become hypnotized too. (The theme of hypnotism next raises its head in this same scene when Jane, the female lead, walks past the two men in a zombie-like trance. This theme will recur throughout the film.) Wiene will not however return to the framing story until the very end of the movie, a device that makes many first-time viewers forget that there even is a framing story. Nosferatu, on the other hand, only has one narrator, the “I” who mysteriously appears in title cards on a semi-regular basis throughout the movie. This suggests that what we are seeing is perhaps the illustration of someone’s diary and, unlike Caligari, we can never be certain whether any of what we see in Nosferatu is “real.”

After Nosferatu‘s opening titles, the narrator’s presence doesn’t crop up again until almost twenty-two minutes into the film, when Hutter has traveled to the Carpathian mountains in hopes of making a real estate sale to the mysterious Count Orlok. After a memorable shot of Hutter crossing a bridge, the following intertitle appears: “As soon as Hutter crossed the bridge he was seized by the eerie visions he so often told me of . . .” At the 38 minute mark, Ellen, at home in bed, is also seized by eerie visions (of her husband in Orlok’s clutches). After a doctor visits her, this intertitle appears: “The doctor described Ellen’s anxiety to me as some sort of unknown illness. But I know that on that night her soul heard the call of the deathbird.” Later, when Count Orlok departs for Wisborg, we see this intertitle: “Nosferatu was coming. Danger was on its way to Wisborg. Professor Bulwer, a Paracelsian who was then investigating the secrets of nature and its unifying principles, told me about it: Caskets filled with dirt were loaded onto the double-masted schooner, Empusa.” What these crucial title cards establish is that, although there may only be one narrator, what we are seeing has been passed through several subjective filters (the narrator’s as well as Hutter’s, Ellen’s, the doctor’s and Professor Bulwer’s).

As in Citizen Kane, what we think of as the “truth” of the events depicted onscreen in Nosferatu is really just the sum total of a bunch of stories that many different people have told to the narrator. The chief difference, therefore, between Murnau’s approach to constructing narrative and that of Wiene lies in Murnau’s self-consciousness in regards to form. While the narrative strategies of the two filmmakers work on the viewer in a similar, almost-subliminal fashion, the repeated intrusions of the unseen narrator in Nosferatu make the construction of narrative itself the subject of Murnau’s film as much as the mass death that Orlok causes to sweep across the German countryside like the plague.

Finally, the most important function of the framing device, at least in relation to supernatural subject matter, is the distancing effect it has on the viewer. When filmmakers set their narratives in the distant past or in faraway lands (as Wiene and Murnau both do), they are, somewhat paradoxically, lending credence to otherwise fantastical tales in the mind’s eye of the viewer. This technique is still common in campfire ghost stories and urban legends today where “Something once happened to a friend of a friend of mine . . .” Because most of us do not experience supernatural phenomena in our daily lives, we are more ready to accept such phenomena when it is packaged in a story taking place outside the realm of our concrete experience. Hence the evocation of “exotic” settings in both of these films: Romania and the mid-19th century in Nosferatu, Italy and the early 18th century in Caligari.

In Caligari, the most obvious narrative function of the framing device is that it allows Wiene to set up his famous “trick ending” (the story Franzis tells turns out to be no more than the ravings of a madman). As disturbing as this conceit is on the surface, it provides the audience on a deeper level with a sense of relief (i.e., it explains why the rest of the film looks so bizarre, it allows us to feel that Caligari’s counterpart, the asylum director, may be able to cure Franzis, etc.). If Nosferatu remains the more unnerving film today, it’s partially because its ending offers the viewer no comparable sense of relief. Towards the end of Nosferatu the narrator informs us, “I have wondered for a long time why it was said that Nosferatu took his coffins with him filled with dirt. I have surmised that vampires can only draw their shadowy strength from the cursed earth in which they were buried.” In other words, Murnau’s narrator is just as clueless as the viewer, merely speculating as to the causes of the horror to which we have born witness. When the vampire is finally vanquished (through the self-sacrifice of Ellen), the abiding tone is one of bleakness and despair. For a country that had just lived through and lost an unpopular war (for which Nosferatu can be seen as an allegory), the end of the “Great Death” was no cause for celebration.

Few movies have proved to be as enduringly popular as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu; Shutter Island and most of Tim Burton would be unthinkable without the former and many key elements of vampire mythology were first introduced in the latter – such as the notion that vampires cannot be exposed to sunlight. As to the reasons for this popularity, some would credit the masterful use of atmospheric lighting, the brilliantly innovative set design, the unforgettable monster make-up or the legendary performances of the villains played by Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt and Max Schreck. Personally, I think both films still resonate today because Murnau and Wiene both illustrated that form is the most direct route to emotion.

The most complete versions of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are available on DVD from Kino Video. The most essential critical writing on the German Expressionist movement is Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen.


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.


Top 25 Films of the 1920s

25. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Russia, 1925)

The film that launched a worldwide revolution . . . in terms of editing! The most famous of all silent Russian movies is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece about a failed revolution that took place twenty years earlier. The crew of the battleship Potemkin rebels against unfair living conditions (including being told to eat maggot-infested meat), which causes them to mutiny and kill their commanding officers. When the ship docks in the port city of Odessa, the revolutionary fervor spreads to their comrades on land until the White Russian army is called in to crush the rebellion. The ensuing massacre is justifiably one of the most famous scenes in film history, a frenetic, rapidly edited montage that purposefully breaks the rules of classical editing in order to convey an overwhelming impression of violence and chaos. Whenever you see a shot of a baby carriage rolling down a flight of stairs in a T.V. show or movie, this is what’s being referenced.

24. Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor, USA, 1923)

As far as silent comedians go, Harold Lloyd was second only to Charlie Chaplin in terms of popularity. Safety Last! is his most famous film and one that anyone who cares about comedy movies should see. Lloyd plays his famous, can-do “Glasses Character” as a country bumpkin who arrives in the big city and gets a job in a department store. He concocts a publicity stunt to bring in more customers, which involves him scaling the exterior of the high-rise building where he works. This leads to a jaw-droppingly funny and amazingly acrobatic climax featuring one of the most iconic images in all of cinema: Lloyd suspended from the hands of a giant clock face near the top of the building.

23. The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh, USA, 1924)

The greatest of the 1920s swashbucklers, Raoul Walsh’s adventure epic stars Douglas Fairbanks as a thief who falls hopelessly in love with the daughter of the Caliph of Baghdad. In order to win her hand, the thief endeavors to best her other suitors by bringing back the rarest treasure before “the seventh moon.” This allows Walsh, one of the most astute directors of action ever, to execute the narrative as a series of exciting, self-contained set pieces, the elaborate special effects of which still impress and charm today.

22. Variety (Dupont, Germany, 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.

21. The House of Mystery (Volkoff, France, 1923)

House

20. A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, Japan, 1926)

Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good representation of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story of subjectivity set within an insane asylum. Silent Japanese films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-commercial work of cinematic poetry like this all the more valuable.

19. 3 Bad Men (Ford, USA, 1926)

John Ford’s first masterpiece is an epic western about a cowgirl (the splendid Olive Borden) who recruits the title trio to help her avenge the death of her father as well as find her a suitable husband. These twin plots unfurl, as happens so often in Ford, against the backdrop of a real life historical event – in this case the Dakota Land Rush of the 1870s. The climactic land rush sequence is presented as an exhilarating, fast-paced montage that rivals the best montage scenes coming out of the Soviet Union during the same period.

18. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 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.

17. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Ingram, USA, 1921)

In 1968′s The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris listed director Rex Ingram as a “subject for further research” based solely on this masterpiece – an epic World War I/family drama that builds on the innovations of Griffith in its incredible painterly images and dynamic cutting, but which adds a more naturalistic acting style to the mix. Rudolph Valentino, in his first starring role, plays a rich ne’er-do-well who enlists in the French Army to impress the woman with whom he’s having an affair. But, once on the battlefield, he finds himself face to face with his German cousin . . . Sadly, Ingram is still a subject for further research; his movies, including this one, remain virtually impossible to see. Needless to say, this should be viewed at all costs whenever the opportunity arises.

16. The Unknown (Browning, USA, 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.

15. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France, 1928)

14. Hindle Wakes (Elvey, UK, 1927)

hindle

My favorite silent British film of all is Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s play about mill employee Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her leisure-time adventures during “Wakes Week,” a traditional week-long holiday for factory workers and students in Lancashire. This is the most shockingly progressive silent movie I’ve ever seen in terms of how it portrays gender relations: Fanny has a tryst with the mill owner’s son who is engaged to be married to another, more respectable woman. The film’s sympathetic — and casual — treatment of a woman engaged in a pre-marital sexual relationship, and the way it attacks the hypocrisy of how society views the behavior of single men and women, makes the tone feel strikingly modern. (This is perhaps best exemplified by a sublime ending suggesting that the resilient heroine will survive and endure.) But the progressiveness of the film’s content is also impressively matched by its innovative form: a scene taking place at an amusement park that uses extended point-of-view shots of characters on rides is as cinematically breathtaking as any similar scenes in more well-known silent masterpieces like Sunrise, Lonesome and Coeur Fidele.

13. Isn’t Life Wonderful (Griffith, USA, 1924)

Polish refugees struggle to survive in post-World War I Berlin in D.W. Griffith’s final masterpiece, a deeply moving family drama shot almost entirely on location in Germany. Among the narrative strands is an exeedingly poignant subplot involving the courtship between Paul (Neil Hamilton), a war veteran whose lungs have been damaged by mustard gas and Inga, an orphan played by Carol Dempster (Griffith’s real-life love interest). A prototype of Neorealism, it is frankly astonishing that Griffith could extend such sympathy to the plight of a people who had been a much vilified enemy of the United States only a few years previously.

12. Lonesome (Fejos, USA, 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.

11. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Lang, Germany, 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.

10. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 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.

9. The Docks of New York (Von Sternberg, USA, 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.

8. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921)

My favorite Swedish movie ever is this silent classic by Victor Sjostrom that masterfully combines melodrama with gothic horror overtones and proved a major influence on both Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick (the latter of whom clearly took his climax for The Shining from here). The irresistible premise is that the last sinner to die on New Year’s Eve must drive the “phantom carriage” that collects the souls of the dead for the next calendar year. A masterpiece of moody atmospherics with special effects that still impress today. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray, featuring an intense experimental score by the band KTL, is a wonder.

7. The Crowd (Vidor, USA, 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.”

6. Pandora’s Box (Pabst, Germany, 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.

5. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Russia, 1929)

Dziga Vertov’s radical experimental/documentary hybrid shows “a day in the life” of Moscow circa 1929 although the film had been shot over a period of several years in multiple cities including Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. The strobe-effect editing is mind-blowing even by today’s standards (the average shot length is less than three seconds) and the film is so densely packed with ideas that even after dozens of viewings, it still has secrets to reveal. But this is more than a “city symphony” film; it’s also one of the greatest movies ever made about the act of filmmaking, showcasing the talents of not only Vertov but his brother Mikhail Kaufman (the cinematographer who also frequently appears on screen as the title character), and his wife Yveta Svilova (the editor and the film’s true hero). The result is a film that playfully calls attention to the filmmaking process and its almost magical ability to record and transform reality.

4. Our Hospitality (Keaton/Blystone, USA, 1923)

Buster Keaton hit his stride as writer/director/star with his second feature, a riotously funny version of the Hatfield/McCoy feud. Not as well known today as The General, this is for my money Keaton’s funniest film and the one with the most impressive physical stunts (the climactic waterfall rescue has never been equalled). Our Hospitality remains the most modern of all silent comedies due in part to Keaton’s hilariously blank facial expressions as actor as well as his beautifully engineered physical gags as director, which he always profitably captures in immaculately composed long shots. One of the best places to start exploring silent movies period.

3. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, USA, 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.

2. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, France, 1923)

1. Greed (Von Stroheim, USA, 1924)

Erich von Stroheim’s nine hour adaptation of Frank Norris’ classic American novel McTeague was brutally cut down to its present two hour and twenty minute running time by MGM executives, who also unconscionably destroyed all of the excised footage. Remarkably, the remaining shadow of Stroheim’s original vision (an excoriating indictment of the destructive power of money about a dentist, his wife and best friend who find their lives torn apart by greed) is still a deathless masterpiece. The powerhouse performances and shot-on-location Death Valley climax are unforgettable.


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