Sunday, March 4, 2012

What I've Been Watching

Silent Film Edition: Part II

      In Part II of my Silent Film Marathon, I discuss two groundbreaking German films, their style reflective of the highly influential German Expressionist movement and their function emblematic of the horror/surreal/fantasy genres. Enjoy. And please feel free to impart some wisdom below. I'm eager to engage discussion. 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) - Robert Wiene

The most pungent fear native to the human heart is fear itself. FDR's first inaugural address illuminated this belief. Every living man and woman can attest. Malicious beings, equipped with the power to terrorize, best serve this function by looming ostensibly in the dark but within grasp of humanity. The terrors they provoke manifest in a variety of ways. Commonalities emerge because of their unique ability to haunt man's conscience. Screenwriters Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, enamored with the artistic expression offered by the new, evolving film medium, and confused by the post-World War I German landscape, sought to inject in their work a "radical anti-bourgeois art." Their willingness to impart this newfound radical expressionism, driven by accepted doctrines of fear, lead to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. 
      Rober Wiene was tasked with directorial duties. His nascent skill-set in what was his feature-film debut proved most advantageous. Much like the imprint of German Expressionism found in Murnau's Nosferatu, which would arrive only three years later, Caligari conveyed an unrelenting affinity for the burgeoning movement. In fact, Caligari was really the prototype. These cinematic cohorts, Wiene foremost among them, were yearning for abstract meaning. Their distorted, highly stylized sets were punctuated by both bizarre geometric patterns, painted on canvas backdrops, and strange, theatrical acting techniques. These techniques were underscored by frenetic, swinging movements. The collective illustration, of these artsy functions, formed the parameters for German Expressionism; parameters that Murnau would ultimately put to impeccable use. As an early influence of film noir, the horror film genre, and as a model for future directors such as the darkly imaginative Tim Burton, Wiene's direction would prove instrumental to the artistic evolution of cinema. 
      Siegfried Kracauer surmised that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be considered "an allegory for German social attitudes in the period following World War I." In his analysis, he contended Caligari represented a "tyrannical figure, to whom the only alternative is social chaos." Some critics, such as Thomas Elsaesser, championed a different stance. Elsaesser adopted the "historical imaginary" theory. That meant the dual writers overtly Expressionist style conveyed not prescience, but "a method of product differentiation, establishing a distinct national product against the increasing importation of American films." In other words, the talented team behind Caligari did not premeditate any kind of sociological assault. Any salient insights gleamed from their work are purely coincidental, a result of their pseudo-jingoistic desire to establish a marketplace which reflected their specific cultural agenda i.e. Less American Films. 
      Whether man accepts the anthropological decree of Kracauer or the secular dictum of Elsaesser, this much is true: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was an exemplar of criticism from a motivated fanbase, an entreaty for inquiry en masse that signaled the increasingly heuristic dissection of film, where an ambiguous agenda is often the most acceptable explanation.  
      F.W.Murnau and Fritz Lang were the standard bearers of German Expressionism; their collective resumes revealed an array of masterpieces, conceptually synonymous and illustrative of the prodigal movement. The movement's influence would stretch to modernized canons, specifically film noir, which in a similarly compelling case was predominantly the result of a filmmaker affected by the German pedagogy. You know him by his full name Billy Wilder.  
      Dr. Caligari is not simply famous because of its early evocation of horror, its fantastical manifestation of a distorted psychical state, but also, in a world deluded by M. Night Shyamalan's impetuous lust for the twist ending, Wiene's Caligari was the de facto culprit, forging an ending so unexpected audiences surely had no faculty to react. I suppose in this regard The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was both a blessing and a curse. 
9 out of 10

Nosferatu (1922) - F.W. Murnau

Bram Stoker, a marvel of literature renowned for his command of horror, conceived a monster. His principal work, Dracula, a landmark novel imbued with the dank aesthetics which occupy supernatural horror, configured the modern tenets for dark romanticism, a motif enhanced by the convergence of European folklore and vampire mythology. Assaulted by this submergence of gothic realism, the pop cultural pacemaker, for which it shall be described, was cast adrift in a rising sea of horror. These menacing tides reached an apex as this creature universally recognized by man was thrust into lore; the archetypal vampire was born on screen and his name, Count Dracula. 
      The producers of Nosferatu, Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau, soon recognized the brilliance of Stoker's novel and they tasked Henrik Galeen, a screenwriter bathed in the murky nuances of dark romanticism, with the screenplay (which is identical to Stoker's Dracula in all aspects except the inclusion of certain secondary characters, character's names, and minor plot points). The inimitable F.W. Murnau, the chief German Expressionist filmmaker who was cognizant of the unique advantages visual language provided, was the magician behind the camera. The distinguishing mark of his technical virtuosity emblazoned on film an imprint impossibly indestructible. 
      Murnau told his stories with gusto. A confluence of shots, aggressive angles, stark movements, tense dramatics, and perceptible visual cues signaled his enormous talent. He was truly the first director who understood the mechanics of the "moving camera," serving as a progenitor of stylistic craftsmanship and provocative mise-en-scène. He created phantasmagoric visions that seemed to exemplify the motivations of his characters; the nightmarish prophecies forecasted by Ellen Hutter and Knock demonstrated his knack for fantastical imagery. Their surroundings, cultivated with unmistakable detail, elucidated their purpose. This quality was intrinsic to German Expressionism. Storytelling was subservient to, what I will term a bombastic stylistic dictatorship, where bold, exaggerated visuals underscored the composition. 
      The German Expressionism movement was, more specifically, defined by the effective compositional marriage between bizarre shadows, stylized narratives (as told through intertitles), distorted perspectives, surreal sets, and atypical camera angles. These flourishes insinuated a dysfunction of mood, simplifying plot points that were germane to the story. Count Orlok's sinister nature was therefore understood with pristine clarity. Juxtaposing the townsfolk's nightmarish fears with the heroic disposition of their savior, Ms. Hutter, Murnau furnished an effective, tonal inversion. Furthermore, expressionist artists sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality. Murnau underlined this psychological objective by suggesting these dark fears (madness and disease) through his calculated visual flourishes. Much of the film was shot in shadow. The corners of the screen were emphasized; characters lurked in the ghastly peripheries. 
      Drama, it can be stated without fault, is governed by tension. A fundamental rule of composition, moreover, expressed the widely-held belief that tension is best achieved when the subject of a shot is omitted from the center of the frame. Murnau understood this principle with unflinching resolve. 
      Nosferatu has enjoyed a legacy reserved for the pantheon achievers. As a dark, inventive manifestation of terror, as a fluent exercise in genre filmmaking, and as a prodigious indicator of a new movement, Nosferatu will continue to be recognized, not only as a classic, but as a forerunner of horror. It's haunting power unrivaled. It's legendary status unassailable.
10 out of 10 


  1. Beautiful reviews of two amazing movies. I love me some expressionism; and Max Shreck (which translates as Max Terror) is one of the scariest movie vampires of all time, and he's surrounded by some exemplary filmmaking as well. I'm really enjoying this series, Mr. V. Will you be seeing Metropolis as part of this round of the quietest viewing of all?

    1. Thanks, Craig!

      I did not know Max Schreck translates as Max Terror, but the connotation, after witnessing his marvelous turn as Count Orlok, is perfectly fitting. And he was indeed one of the most terror-inducing vampires of all-time.

      I'm happy that you are enjoying the series. To be perfectly honest, I did not envision it would generate any hoopla. But your endorsement galvanizes my purpose. So thank you :)

      And I have seen Metropolis (twice actually). I imagine I'll be sharing my thoughts. It is such a groundbreaking film and Lang is a pantheon director.

  2. Both films are classics and proof a film doesn't need all the bells and whistles to be effective.
    Did you ever see Shadow of the Vampire with Willem Dafoe? Added an extra layer to Nosferatu.

    1. My thoughts exactly, Alex. A film need only be provocative.

      I did not see shadow of the Vampire, but I'd be curious to give it my consideration. Thanks for the recommendation :)

  3. Both of these films are what I consider the the grandfathers of my fave genre, horror. Weine and Murnau created visionary masterpieces that amazed not only for their time, but still continue to do so.

    Weine's Caligari reminds me a lot of a painting by C.R.W. Nevinson called The Fatherland. It features a French military hospital at Ypres. Haunting, strange and hard to look at for a long time. I also see a bit of Paul Nash in this as well.

    1. Yep, Mel. "Grandfathers of horror." These are two landmark films and their timeless imprint of excellence is undeniable. Your appraisal is significant as I consider you a fine connoisseur of horror films/literature.

      I'm very curios to steal a glimpse of this painting called "The Fatherland." Your description is intriguing. ON CUE: *Googling it* :)

      Thanks for the artsy suggestion.

  4. I have to be honest... I'm not a fan of silent films. The last time I saw one was so long ago, I can't even remember when it was. I've heard great things about Nosferatu though, and your excellent review is another proof that the film is a timeless classic.

    1. Thanks, George!

      I very much appreciate your honest assessment of silent films. They are not for everyone (and this is not an indictment of taste as some of my closest friends also disavow of the era).

      I do strongly encourage you to devote one sitting to Nosferatu when you get a chance. It is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch it online. I believe there is a channel on YouTube that houses many of the classics and Nosferatu should be among them.

  5. German silent cinema is the cornerstone of film storytelling. Murnau and Lang were brought to Hollywood to help define the nature of American cinema and that remains true today. What's shocking is that American cinema became the dominant voice of film while European cinema faltered.

    I watched Nosferatu again over Christmas and forgot what a creepy film it is. Your review is very right in praising its design and dramatic tension. Without German Expressionism, Tim Burton wouldn't have a career.

    1. Thanks for the response, MOMY!

      Agreed. German expressionism was the prodigal movement, its influence stretched to film noir, surrealism, horror, and many other genres. Even Lang's M portends prodigious importance; it was the first real "serial killer" film, launching the mystery/investigative/murder genres.

      Hollywood's Golden Age definitely took the baton from Europe and ran with it. The French New Wave critics (Cahiers du Cinema, from Godard to Truffaut) recognized the brilliance of American Cinema from the 30's to the 50's, elevating its importance and stimulating more "academic, artistic" interest from the critical community (the legacies of such directors as Howard Hawks and John Ford were beneficiaries of this French New Wave revisionism). And European cinema experienced a dormant period, but Italian neorealism made sure their influence did not falter for too long.

      Awesome. I've seen Nosferatu twice most recently last weekend. "Creepy" is an appropriate insight. And thanks for the endorsement.