1910s, Crime/Detective, German cinema, Horror/Eerie, Silent

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

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Director: Robert Wiene
Screenwriters: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer

By Roderick Heath

Imagine what it must have been like, to be someone who just bought a ticket to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari way back in 1919. Perhaps some ex-soldier just back from the abandoned trenches, curious to see that crazy new film someone told him about, or perhaps just in need of some cheap seat to rest a tired backside on. What reached out on a shaft of projected light and touched the cinema screen might well have seemed perverted gibberish to some or an internal landscape finally given shape to others. Maybe some later commentators were right, that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari represented a strange new psychic frontier not just in cinema but in social and political life, particularly for the battered and seething nation in which it was made, and also that nation’s challenge to the rest of the world in winning the peace with fearsome works of creation before a more sinister project took hold. More securely, the film gave birth to the movement today labelled as German Expressionism in film, and every genre and mode of cinema that mode inflected, from French Poetic Realism to Film Noir and the myriad children of Citizen Kane (1941).
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If films like Cabiria (1914) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) represented one great stage in the development of cinema, a stage defined by tethering visual technique to basic storytelling precepts, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seems to have inaugurated another in exploring how the technique of film structuring and elements placed before the camera could be manipulated not simply to feign a coherent flow of association in cause and effect, but to imply other levels to drama, to throw off the former raison d’etre for cinema, its illusory realism, and instead pursue its potential as an expressive instrument to depict more ethereal realms. States of mind. Hallucinations. Dreams. Nightmares. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also, of course, arguably the first masterpiece of horror cinema, albeit one with an unusual and contested genesis and a much-pondered legacy. Horror certainly existed on screen before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Georges Méliès had teased its outskirts with some of his fantastical works. D.W. Griffith likewise, with his Poe variation The Avenging Conscience (1914). Paul Wegener had already tried once to film the Golem legend he’d heard about in Prague, as he would again more famously in 1922. J. Searle Dawley’s Frankenstein (1910) had brought Mary Shelley’s novel to life over 16 thrilling minutes; Joseph W. Smiley’s Life Without Soul updated it with epic pretences.
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But The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari gave the genre a new and certain form and a special cinematic status, as a place where many familiar rules of movies could be suspended. It wasn’t the first film to try and transpose a set artistic style into a filmic context, either. Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s Thaïs (1917) had done the same thing with Futurism, with a similarly implied fragmentation of ways of being and seeing. Futurism’s rigid, rectilinear elements however asserted form over becoming, suggesting method and pattern under surface chaos, whereas the liquid flow of Expressionism and its associated dramatization of emotional states proved far more potent as a tool for filmmakers. Some of the value of Expressionism was purely mercenary, as shadow-drenched and highly stylised sets that required far less effort to build and dress and light were cheaper. Indeed, the makers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari adopted the style in part for just such a reason, working as they were in the anxiously straitened months after the Great War’s end. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari began its genesis when Czech poet and author Hans Janowitz and writer met screenwriter Carl Mayer, when both men were broke and flailing. Both had become committed pacifists during the war: Janowitz had served in the army, whilst Mayer had avoided service by feigning insanity and going through a gruelling examination by a psychiatrist.
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Janowitz and Mayer were left angry and disdainful of authority by their experiences, and channelled their feelings and circumstances as Janowitz provided the concept and Mayer developed it into a screenplay. Enterprising producer Erich Pommer, impressed with their work and enthused at the prospect of an interesting and provocative film that could be shot cheaply, initially hired one of the brightest young talents on the German film scene to film the script, a young Austrian screenwriter turned director named Fritz Lang. Lang did preparatory work on the project and was probably the one who invested it with a key idea that was to prove at once inspired and influential, and, eventually, controversial, in regards to the film’s accepted meaning, by coming up with a different version of Janowitz and Mayer’s proposed flashback structure, and devising a new sting-in-the-tale ending. Lang had to leave the project as he was working on his The Spiders (1919-20) at the same time, so Robert Wiene, a slightly more established director, stepped into his place. Set designer Hermann Warm enthusiastically proposed not merely stylising the film’s visuals but embracing an approach close to what was already being done on the stage, and aiming for dreamlike abstraction. Expressionism was actually something of a dated movement by the time The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was made, having been founded in the 1890s and practiced by artists like Gustav Munch, whose famous painting “The Scream” gave the movement its most emblematic work in 1893, defined by attempts to describe mental and subliminal states through visualisation. Modern painting was to continue a drive towards abstraction, but Expressionism could have an outsized and more permanent effect on cinema, because it offered a clear conceptual basis for manipulating the unavoidably concrete persons and objects the young art form required to pass before its lens in order to exist.
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The actual plot of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is exceedingly simple, but its suggestions and evocations run like artesian water. For Janowitz and Mayer it was an experiment in storytelling that was also a disgusted shout of anger at the collapsed social order in Germany and the many annexes of authority. For Wiene and Warm it was to be a perfect exercise in dramatic style, allowing them to do something new on screen. The opening credits promise a film in six acts, each act announced and departed with a title card with ceremonious exactitude. The opening sees two men seated on a bench in a garden-fringed courtyard, tangled and denuded tendrils of bushes casting shadows on the flagstones and brickwork, as the older of the two men (Hans Lanser-Ludolff) begins to narrate with wide and frazzled eyes: “There are spirits – they are all around us. They have driven me from Hearth and Home, from Wife and Child—” Immediately the audience is encouraged to enter into a zone of credulity as to the possibility of the numinous as well as immersed in a mood of devastation, a place where weary and shattered survivors of mysterious conflicts are swapping accounts. The immediate horizon is entirely personal, the general outlook invoking the entire post-war mood. The other man on the bench, Franzis (Friedrich Feher), sees a young woman draped in white (Lil Dagover) strolling towards them, and fixes on her with hopeful adoration even as she passes by in glaze-eyed distraction. “That is my fiancé,” he tells the older man, and begins to narrate a tale he promises is even stranger than his companion’s experiences.
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Franzis’ narrative recalls the “little town where I was born,” the town of Holstenwall, strongly inspired by Janowitz’s native Prague and transposed into a fantastical landscape of painted buildings on a hillside in a manner reminiscent of medieval art. A carnival rolls into town, bringing with it a peculiar plague infection, in the shape of a rotund old man wearing a top hat and black coat, round glasses balanced upon his nose, an expression of grim humour usually on his lips and fanatical intent in his eyes. Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) himself. The carnival’s arrival stirs the hopes of Franzis, then a student, and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) for a bit of jollity and distraction. As they head out to check out the fair, they move through pathways that are violently stylised simulacra of real streets yet evoking the tight, twisted, somehow paranoid alleys of an old Germanic town. They pass by Caligari, who’s out seeking a permit from the town clerk to stage his peculiar entertainment as part of the carnival, exhibiting a somnambulist, or sleepwalker. He enters the clerk’s office and finds him seated high above the hoipolloi in a stall, barking commands and dismissive comments at those who deign to require his aid, and Caligari is passed on to one of his juniors to get the required permit. That night, Caligari unveils his unusual attraction to the crowd, before Wiene fades out to end the first act.
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Act II dawns upon the sight of investigators hovering over the bed of the town clerk, where he lies murdered by an unknown intruder. Meanwhile Franzis and Alan decide to attend Caligari’s exhibition, and gaze on with tantalised regard as Caligari unveils his attraction, the somnambulist himself Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a man the doctor claims has been asleep for all of his 23 years, but his sleeping existence allows him to tune into levels of existence unknown to others, allowing him to know the past and foresee the future. “Awaken for a moment from your dark night!” Caligari intones, whereupon the somnambulist’s eyes slowly flicker open, and Cesare gazes out on the audience without really seeming to see them, his gaze instead fixed upon a source of cosmic dread only he can perceive. At Caligari’s promise Cesare can answer any question, Alan enthusiastically asks how long he will live. Cesare answers him with sad assurance that he will die at sunrise. Alan and Franzis leave the fair in disquiet, and the glum mood is reinforced as they come across a poster offering a reward for aid in capturing the clerk’s killer. Their spirits are lifted as Franzis meets a woman he knows, young Jane, recognisable as the woman glimpsed in the opening, and the daughter of a prominent local physician, Dr Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger). Alan is instantly smitten as badly as Franzis already is, and the two men make a pact to stay friends no matter who she prefers as a suitor. That night, however, Alan is awakened by the sight of a stranger invading his room, and cowers in terror before the fiend, unable to fight him off as he’s stabbed to death.
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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari helped define many of its cast members, including Veidt, Dagover, Krauss, and Klein-Rogge, as definitive faces of Weimar cinema. The film incidentally invented the mystique of Veidt, who would go on to gain a level of stardom outside Germany, starring in films in Britain and America. Veidt would meet an early death just after appearing in Casablanca (1942), but remains most potently identified as Expressionist film’s weird yet charismatic muse. When he helped bring the Expressionist aesthetic to Hollywood through starring in Paul Leni’s iconic The Man Who Laughs (1926), his leering visage, charged with inherent perversity and tragic stature, gave the movement one of its most indelible mascots. Veidt’s Cesare is a pale face with black rings around his eyes, a visage of phthisic, spiritually and physically famished humanity, attached to a body clad in black hose. When he goes out on his forays under Caligari’s command he’s an inky squiggle writhing upon the painted sets, hints of a mime’s precision of movement and gesture as Cesare moulds his body for a world of windows and alleys as tight as his coffin home, a shock of black hair swept over into paltry obedience. Most male horror movie villains still aren’t allowed the same charge of bizarre erotic appeal the young, rubber-limbed, intense-looking Veidt wields, as part of the films texture demands identifying Cesare as not merely the animated minion of Caligari but as the dream-self of Franzis, the lean and rapacious projection of his id out to kill his friend-rival and snatch Jane away for nefarious ends.
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Veidt and the other actors move through the sets that seem at times to twist and swim like seaweed in deep water or form to ruthless angles, the liquid state of dreaming constantly stricken with the sharp edge of the murderous will, which finds expression in the triangular edge of Cesare’s knife. The filmmakers put their set design to satirical as well as psychologically significant use. The town clerk and the policemen are all seen perched at absurd heights, looking like hunched and patient vultures waiting for a meal as emblems of tin-pot authority. Caligari targets the clerk as punishment for his brusqueness and mockery, an anarchic gesture that has an irony as one source of jumped-up egotism attacks another through the personified apparatus of the subconscious. Wiene and his creative team might have been borrowing some ideas in turn from Louis Feuillade, the French serial maker and proto-surrealist, after the war’s end allowed cultural traffic again. Feuillade delighted in his own visions of black-clad marauders scuttling across rooftops and assaulting the bourgeois order. That Cesare in his bodystocking and heavy eye makeup is similar to Musidora’s look in Feuillade’s Les Vampires, 1915-6, has suggested an intriguing edge of sexual ambiguity to Cesare, another realm of breakdown this time in terms of gender. Cesare certainly bears an odd resemblance to Jane herself, Dagover’s face a plain of pure white and black pits where her eyes live: the virgin and the monster are mirrors.
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Feuillide’s narratives were still nominally contained by the borders of the crime and thriller genres where the forces of law and order are plain heroes and the wrongdoers eventually punished. Despite of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s famous twist, and indeed because of it, the impression of order in Wiene’s film is infinitely more tenuous, threatening collapse. Amidst the stylised settings, which aim for a sense of having stepped out of an immediate liminal zone, the costuming and absence of electrical lighting and other signifiers of modernity suggests the film is set about a quarter-century before it was made. This could be for the same reason a lot of filmmakers today set movies in the ’70s and ‘80s, to escape omnipresent technology for a better sense of narrative integrity and mood. A dark-tinted mode of nostalgia is often a fascinatingly pertinent aspect of the Horror genre, a longing for the past mixed out with attempts to relive and remaster the outsized anxieties of childhood. But it also has strong implications for the type of story being told here, looking back to a time certainly pre-war and regarding the start of a subtle fracturing in society, a sense of intense anxiety in the face of an oncoming century and its threating modernity. There’s a whiff of Victorian sentimentality in the white-clad maiden and the friendly romantic rivalry of the two students, sentimentality brutally erased as the real story becomes clear. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the story of the death of illusion, of the petty comforts and assurances as well as everyday oppressions and pomposities of the pre-war life.
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Wiene’s work on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often downplayed in commentaries by comparison to its writers and designers, and the director often regarded as a one-hit-wonder. To be sure, Wiene did not become a figure of great subsequent renown like Lang and some other Expressionist directors, but he continued to try and augment his conception of Expressionism’s possibilities with Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (1919), an admired take on Dostoyevsky, Raskolnikow (1923), and The Hands of Orlac (1924), also featuring Veidt. Here Wiene’s camera often seems happy enough observing his actors moving around the weird sets from a perched perspective. The immobility of the camera seems dictated by the carefully composed sets that can only deliver the intended effect when viewed from a certain, rigorous viewpoint. But Wiene’s calm and poise, his minimalist sense of how to generate a sense of dislocation and hallucinatory transience, certainly helps knit the eerie mood, attentive to the way the design presses upon the actors and warps them to a new behavioural bent. Perhaps the film’s most striking moment in directorial terms comes in a little scherzo of cuts that comes when Alan is murdered: quick close-ups of his thrusting hands trying to ward off his killer give way to the sight of the murder glimpsed in silhouette on the wall. Surely Alfred Hitchcock remembered this moment when, forty-one years later, he would shoot the shower murder for Psycho (1960), as his technique is nearly identical, only more sophisticated in delivery.
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Many more essential clichés of the horror movie, particularly those that would follow in the next twenty-five years, are sketched out here. The lurking, sepulchral killer. The murders in silhouette. The flight across rooftops. The assault on the silk-draped lady in her boudoir. The mad scientist. The twist ending. James Whale would model many scenes in his Frankenstein (1931) upon Wiene’s, although Whale’s monster is childlike and exposed in trying to synthesise a reason for existence rather than insinuatingly erotic and directed by malign will. The twisted, bizarrely canted rooftop landscapes of Holstenwall and alternately cavernous and onerous interiors would return throughout a legion of imitators in subsequent years in the likes of Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), mostly with the Expressionist mimicry offered as vaguely psychosomatic decoration. More crucially, Wiene’s oneiric setting offered up a new possibility for filmmakers, the hope of finding new expressive methods to encompass individuals and communities in dialogue. Lang would unleash an infinitely greater scale of production concept on this ambition with Metropolis (1926), in presenting a city as a living organism and product of the mind. Obtaining such a conceptual scale and breadth was to become a major ambition for filmmakers in the ‘20s including Lang, Sergei Eisenstein (although he and the other Soviet filmmakers would be obliged to swap the psychological for the sociological), and King Vidor, just as others like Paul Leni, Teinosuke Kinugasa, Luis Buñuel, and others would pursue its ideas deep into the inner world.
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The medieval landscape of the town mimics and transforms the physical architecture and social landscape of Central Europe, often regarded as quaint and attractively old-fashioned, into a threatening realm, charged with disquiet and danger as new forces sift the town’s hierarchy with the intention of attacking it. The buildings on the horizon become serrated teeth in a shapeless maw, the strasses and platzes pinched and oppressive, as if anyone walking them is a mouse in some laboratory experiment. Which is what they are, as Caligari seeks the perfect instrument to realise a cherished ambition of enacting a sick fantasy out in the world, with Cesare his tool and the citizenry the specimens. Caligari comes to town with the carnival, that vehicle of transformative wonder and alien anxiety reaching back into the Middle Ages (seed here for a bunch of Ingmar Bergman’s films as well as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes), Trojan horse for his malign project. Of course, the circus is also cinema itself, the moveable feast with its panoply of enriching and disturbing exhibits, offering the perverse thrill of encounters with monstrosities. Caligari is actually a warden of the insane, abusing authority to attempt casting a spell on a mass crowd, to infect the world with madness. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is its own monster, its own act of mass mesmerism and huckster bravura.
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After Robert’s death, the sick and depressed Franzis tells Jane what happened to him, to her dismay, and then sets out with her father to Dr. Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger), to investigate Caligari and his sleeping imp. Eventually Franzis discovers, by pursuing Caligari until he enters a stark, lonely, high-walled building beyond the town’s fringes, that he is the director of an insane asylum. The Director had become obsessed with a story he found in an old book in which a fairground mesmerist named Caligari conducted a reign of terror with a somnambulist, and awaited the time when he would be charged with an inmate with the same disorder so he might reproduce those events. The Director’s fixation with this perverse anecdote urges him to try and turn a dubious, possibly spurious event (note that it supposedly happened in Italy, long in folklore and pulp literature the land where outlandish and perverted practices always seemed to be possible to their rubbernecking European neighbours) into reality. Caligari cunningly puts Franzis and Olsen off the scent by replacing Cesare in his coffin with a dummy, so that the somnambulist seems to be secure when someone is out marauding in the town. A man (Klein-Rogge) is arrested when he breaks into a house with a knife in hand and seems to be intent on murder. Pounced on by police, the man is imprisoned and presumed to be the killer at large, but when he’s interviewed by Olsen and Franzis, he confesses to hoping to use the other killings as an alibi to commit his own crime. Still the police hold him a cell, chained up like some troll at bay.
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The Great War had cruelly torn apart minds as well as bodies through the manifold terrors of the trenches and the new and alarming phenomenon called shellshock. Such phenomena stoked angry disbelief in some quarters, including amongst leaders who could well be likened to Caligari as those hell-bent on animating the mindless, somnolent body of the pathetic citizen and shoving it to do battle on its behest. Ruined people were returning from the war, and the evolving arts of dealing with mental illness and psychological distress were gaining a new currency, implacably tests the fabric of everything about it. But just exactly what psychiatry was in 1919 was still a vaguely mythical and frightening realm for many at the time. Mayer’s brush with a headshrinker in staying out the army had provided ammunition for the script, in the suspicious sense that the new profession presented a method for the powers that be to manipulate the mind as well as the body. Like many another puppet master to follow in horror cinema, Caligari is undone by one, singular, vastly powerful force: lust. Jane, searching for her father, comes to the circus, and encounters the rotund exhibitor and his imp. Caligari plays the charming helper even as his eyes shine lasciviously behind his round glasses, but Cesare unnerves Jane. Soon Caligari sends Cesare out to steal Jane away from her house. Cesare manages to snatch Jane away and carries her away across the Hollstenwall rooftops and reaches the fringe of town, but pursuers force him to drop her, and he’s later found dead in the countryside, having burst his weak heart trying to make it back to his master.
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Cesare’s kidnapping foray proves a relative anticlimax, despite the feast of iconic images it provided to define the film ever since, and subverts a cliché even as it invents it. Other fiends snatching away maidens in the night would be made of sterner stuff in subsequent horror films, needing to be chased down by torch-wielding lynch mobs and muscular heroes. Cesare, a being without mind or will, proves pathetic by comparison, used until he breaks down by Caligari, obliged to leave Jane behind as he desperately scrambles away. Focus shifts then on Franzis tracking Caligari back to the asylum, discovering his identity, and learning about his motives. The Director is the true monster, of course. As Franzis and the other medical men working under the Director read through his diary, Wiene illustrates the fit of electrifying obsession gripping the Director as he dances about the laneway outside the asylum, Caligari’s name and cosmically dictated demands he step into the fakir’s place and obtain mastery over men flashing on screen: “Du Must Caligari Werden”, or You Must Become Caligari. This might be another touch from Lang, or one he took away with him, as it powerfully anticipates the driving notion of his Dr. Mabuse films, in which temptations to omnipotence ultimately consume individuals but also bless them with a form of immortality, transforming them into a world-spirit of mad ambition that likely candidates can wear like a cloak. When Cesare’s body is found, Franzis contrives to have the Director confronted with the corpse: the sight sends the Director off in paroxysms of mad grief. Soon the mastermind is wrapped in a straightjacket and hurled into a cell by some big strong orderlies. Tyrant is toppled, order restored.
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Except, of course, for the sting in the tale. Franzis ends his narration to the old man, and they rise from their bench, moving across the asylum courtyard where “Cesare” and “Jane” are clearly inmates, lost in their own private psychoses, just as Franzis is, his tale of Caligari and Cesare confirmed as the fantasy of a disturbed man. Franzis’s insistence that Jane is his fiancée is met by her haughty insistence that she cannot love anyone as she’s a duty-bound queen. Cesare drifts with a bunch of flowers clasped preciously to his face, floating in dreamy melancholy. Another inmate raves on in what looks a hell of a lot like a proto-Hitlerian manner, suggesting the urges of demagoguery were already plainly nascent and alarming the filmmakers. The Director appears, now a well-dressed, calm and commanding man: Franzis begins to stir up the inmates, declaring that the Director is Caligari, and then attacks him. This gets Franzis tied up and tossed into a cell in the same manner Caligari was just moments before. The Director manages to placate him, before turning away and declaring meditatively as he removes his glasses that now he finally understands the nature of Franzis’ delusion, he now sees a way to cure him. One of the first and surely the greatest of movie twists, a total upending of what movie narrative is supposed to be and a radical reorientation of all that’s been seen. But what does it mean in the face of the film before it?
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The critic Siegfried Krakauer famously penned a thesis in his 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler, suggesting that Wiene’s film as it stands offered up a disturbing forecast of the oncoming fascist wave, demonstrating that post-war anti-authoritarian impulse was a sign of madness begging for a strong-minded leader to take it all in hand. Janowitz echoed the theory as he complained his and Mayer’s intentions had been distorted by the imposed framing, turning what should have been a clear-cut anti-authoritarian tale into something more familiar. Krakauer’s thesis was very attractive for some obvious reasons in providing a grand and sinister narrative for art divulging life, but commits its own crime of oversimplifying. More likely that Lang proposed his twist with a common form of distrust imposed upon fantastical material; there was a fantasist in Lang but also an ironic realist, elements that would always war in his movies, and his gift to the Expressionist credo was just such a tension. Lang probably wanted something better attuned to his instinct for moral complexity as well as sheer believability. The same touch is evinced here that would surface again in works like Fury (1936) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), a sense of ordinary people undone in the face of both social evil and personal frailty.
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Part of the potency of the final revelation lies precisely in how it makes perfect sense: the story as recounted comes across much more like the ravings of a paranoid man than a likely set of events, creating doppelgangers and projecting evil intentions upon physicians. The form of the fairy tale here crashes against a cold reality, a hard and unforgiving sobriety where dream logic is at the mercy of technocrats and the new breed of psychic cartographers. Wiene hardly offers a reassuring ending, despite Caligari’s announcement that he might have Franzis’s cure in his grasp. Rather the film leaves off with the sinister suggestion we might all be as detached from reality as Franzis, writing appropriate characters to fit the faces we know and constructing narratives more soothing to our minds than reality. For a 1919 audience this ending surely would hardly have been soothing, but rather deeply disturbing, implying that the substance of knowing goes no farther than our own limited senses and awareness. Caligari’s own project of transmuting obsession into reality both resembles an act of demagoguery but also a piece of anarchic performance art, just as Franzis reorders reality to suit his own perspective. Far from cutting off the arsenal of the subconscious as a tool for attacking authority, the film ultimately confirms that possibility. Soon the anarchists of the subconscious would run amok in the cultural zone and twisting the nose of rousing beast. Just how effective a weapon was in their grasp was and remains one of the great questions of modernity.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be viewed here.

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1910s, Epic, Silent

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Director/Coscreenwriter: D.W. Griffith

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By Roderick Heath

One hundred years have passed since the release of the film long beheld as the very moment cinema came of age, and few films can speak so eloquently as to just how long that century has been. The faiths, ideals, and biases inscribed in the form of The Birth of a Nation, both separate from that form and wound into it with pernicious intricacy, tell us things we don’t necessarily want to remember or countenance, things that appall and beggar as well as things that still stir and fascinate. David Wark Griffith’s achievement with The Birth of a Nation was immediately hailed as a great event in the history of a young art form, but also the spur to furious debate, even murder and terrorism. The frightening power, redolent of some alchemist’s dream of mesmeric influence over a mass populace, of that new art form was confirmed at the same time as its enormous expressive promise. The Birth of a Nation became perhaps the pivotal work of moviemaking’s first quarter-century, overshadowing even Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1922), which it influenced, because it was a colossal hit as well as a successful aesthetic experiment. Griffith’s film would remain the highest-grossing film of all time until at least Gone with the Wind (1939), and perhaps still reigns supreme adjusting for inflation: as costar Lillian Gish put it, it made so much money they lost count. At the time The Birth of a Nation struck many viewers as like a historical document given the vitality and narrative power of legend. Woodrow Wilson reportedly described it as “history written in lightning,” though those words were probably placed in his mouth by his former schoolmate, Thomas Dixon, Jr, who proselytised tirelessly on the behalf of the work taken from his novel. The film premiered 50 years after the end of the Civil War, but everyone in the average American movie theatre of the time knew very well that the forces that had caused and ended that hideous conflagration were not yet quelled. Hell, they’re not past even now.

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For a long time, no one argued with Griffith’s achievement. Certainly the most hyperbolic descriptions of The Birth of a Nation’s originality were incorrect. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) pushed into the realm of the modern definition of narrative feature film when Griffith was still an actor. A wave of contemporaneous Italian historical films, including Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (both 1913), drove Griffith to compete with their scale and dramatic heft. Most of the editing and filming techniques packed into his work already existed, awaiting the kind of show-off who could synthesise them, and Griffith had laid claim to inventing many in his acts of self-promotion. The famous ride of the Ku Klux Klan at the end of The Birth of a Nation with its cross-cutting structure was actually just a reprise of his earlier work, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913). But the record still tells us that Griffith constructed something his audience felt it had not seen before and immediately responded to as something new and amazing. He had helped define the cinema at last as its own continent, for all Griffith’s debts to Victorian-era literature and his conversion of some well-established author’s tricks into visual style.

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The Birth of a Nation perturbs now for less abstract reasons: it’s appallingly racist, and not just for modern eyes. In its own time, the film was the subject of bilious protest. Many saw it then as a legitimate account of the era it portrayed; others recognised it as blatant, partisan propaganda and racial libel passing itself off as a common folk-memory. Perhaps the controversy helped its success. The fledgling NAACP gained stature and clout objecting to it. Some blame it for sparking the new Ku Klux Klan campaigns of the 1920s. Violence certainly broke out in some screening locations. Today, the success of Ken Burns’ television documentary series The Civil War (1987) and Edward Zwick’s film Glory (1989) helped restore the Civil War to the centre of modern American mythology in a way that pop culture had rarely seemed comfortable with before, partly by confronting aspects of the war that had long been repressed. For a very long time, the tacit narrative of the postwar period was one of reconciliation between former antagonists, burying the causes for schism whilst inferring that the citizens whose fates were crucial to the war, African-American slaves, were best excised from the conversation, if not in some way to blame for it all. The Birth of a Nation, to put it mildly, records and exemplifies that convention.

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Griffith’s film was based on Dixon’s novel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Dixon was a South Carolina minister, politician, and pro-South ideologue who had been convinced by the anecdotes he heard as a kid that the Klan had saved the South from rapacious carpetbaggers and lawless freedmen. The Birth of a Nation was initially to be a straightforward adaptation of the novel, and first screened under its title. The contradictions here are many: Kentucky-born with Confederate roots, Griffith had just a few years earlier made a film where the Klan were villains. During production, Griffith’s adaptation of Dixon inflated into something far larger than intended, as Griffith worked without a scenario or screenplay, but simply kept the book in mind whilst conjuring his visions, creating a grandiose pageant begging for a more sweeping appellation. Griffith by this time already had a reputation as one of cinema’s most innovative and distinctive talents: as cornball as a lot of his plots were, in works like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), The Avenging Conscience, and Judith of Bethulia (both 1914), he had impressed viewers with works of a defined aesthetic density far above the run of mostly mercenary amusements. Griffith developed himself as a brand, and when he premiered his new film, he showcased it with a costly roadshow presentation and charged the then-exorbitant amount of $2 a ticket. Perhaps The Birth of a Nation is more a landmark in the annals of hype.

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Still, what about the actual film, the relic shining out from under all the rhetorical dust? Does it still shout out its storied power above the din of its controversy? Yes and no. Even without taking on the sorry race portrayals, The Birth of a Nation is a mixture of the crude and the fine. Portions are undoubted displays of great cinematic effect and art, whilst others drag and slouch. The plotting is naïve and occasionally confused, the acting uneven. At times it’s a stock-standard melodrama of the kind readily found in turn-of-the-century novelettes and stage plays, complete with rosy-cheeked damsels in distress, lascivious villains, good-hearted patriarchs, and bellicose mammies. The characters it describes aren’t really people, but are mostly archetypes of a bygone society’s best self-image and basest anxieties.

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The first third of The Birth of a Nation is still a vivid creation for all the qualifications, tethering the microcosmic, presented via the families of congressional leader Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) of the North and Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken) of the South, with the macrocosmic drama of erupting civil conflict. Stoneman upholds radical abolitionist policies, partly under the influence of his black housekeeper and mistress Lydia Brown (Mary Alden). In spite of brewing war clouds at the time of Lincoln’s election, Stoneman’s sons Phil (Elmer Clifton) and Tod (Robert Harron) visit their friends the Camerons, whose ranks include sons Ben (Henry B. Walthall), Wade (George Beranger), and Duke (Maxfield Stanley), and daughters Margaret (Miriam Cooper) and Flora (Violet Wilkey), in their South Carolina town of Piedmont. Ben falls in love with a photo of Stoneman’s daughter Elsie (Gish) given to him by Phil. The settled life of the Camerons, the bustle of household work, the roughhousing of the sons and the scampering of the kids, the quiet reclining of Dr. Cameron, is quickly and skilfully sketched by Griffith in the midst of the decorous, homey beauties of picket fences and rose bushes. The Stonemans also get a tour of cotton plantations, where slaves labour and readily dance gleefully for the visitors. Just after the Stonemans depart, Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) signs his call for volunteers, “using the Presidential office for the first time in history…to enforce the rule of the coming nation over the individual states.” War breaks out, and the Cameron sons join the Confederate cause.

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Griffith builds these sequences, shifting from the bucolic to the ecstatic, with gathering force, capturing the mood of being swept up in what its characters see as a great, romantic, classical quest. Bonfires and dancing greet the news of war. “While youth dances the night away, childhood and old age slumber,” a title card notes, as the camera studies the snoozing Dr. Cameron and Flora, establishing a quality of dialogue, the existence of separate modes of life even within the frame of a single story. Griffith’s framings are often studied and still resemble the static state of much early filmmaking: his sequences often tend to comprise a few basic compositions, alternating between them. Two crucial aspects, however, imbue them with an uncommon life: the frames are packed with detail, often with Griffith pushing his actors to be in constant movement and expression in relation to each other, usually with elements arranged along diagonal axes to give the square frame depth and a definite dramatic quality. Griffith’s characters often look as if they’re perching on the edge of something, as in early scenes where they hover amidst the columns of the Cameron house, whose design splits the difference between Antebellum manse per Confederate mythology and normal suburban villa to which more of the audience could relate. Most vitally, Griffith cuts constantly, giving his moving pictures the same sense of velocity and a fluidic, implicit sense of relationship, rather than a flatly grammatical one. The depiction of Piedmont’s soldiers heading off to war thrums with a sense of motion and pictorial eloquence–the gyrating crowds in the town square and columns of parading soldiers, the lasses bedecked with flowers and the horses similarly garlanded, the young gallants stealing kisses before riding off, Ben teasing “pet sister” Flora by dangling the Confederate flag over her face as she naps, and the familial pietas of soon-to-be-bereft loved ones waving farewell. Billy Bitzer’s photography, justly celebrated as a grand technical achievement, is constantly striking, particularly the night sequences of bonfire celebrations. Griffith foreshadows with witty asides. A young kitten and pup, pets of the Camerons, tumble into each other and commence what is described as “hostilities” by the title cards.

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The wartime sequences are even more impressive for the sense of rolling, panoramic drama. Freed from having to relate the audience to actors at the centre of focus and understanding, Griffith pulls off coups of pure visual power, covering fields of battle and scenes of history purely according to the needs of his camera rather than the call of an imagined stage, letting his images flow in a manner reminiscent conceptually of book plates and theatrical pageants, and sometimes based outright on artworks, but imbued with the illustrative force of cinema. One of the Cameron sons catches a bullet during an infantry charge. Tod Stoneman dashes in, ready to bayonet him, only to recognise his friend and stay his hand, moments before a Confederate bullet cuts him down in turn: Tod collapses, pulling his friend close and dying, leaving them entwined in a brotherly embrace. This vignette is trite on one level, and yet also a concise, visually powerful encapsulation of Griffith’s message regarding war, as direct and intelligible as anything in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Another Cameron boy dies during the retreat of the army. The burning of Atlanta is depicted in a crude but startling proto-matte shot, in which extras amidst life-size sets swathed in smoke reel underneath a burning model of the town. A long shot of Sherman’s army on the march through the countryside filmed from a hilltop sees the camera pivot to note a mother and her children looking on, an iris effect zeroing in on them before Griffith cuts to show us their faces beholding the annihilation of their world: the victims of war are privileged by the perspective Griffith takes on them over the distant, anonymous mass of men.

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The most spectacular war sequence is set in the waning days of the conflict, where Ben Cameron, now beloved by his men as “The Little Colonel,” leads them in an attempt to break out of siege for supplies, only to be held off by Union soldiers commanded by Phil Stoneman. Ben stirs the admiration and then the cheers of his enemies by first helping a wounded Union soldier and then by defiantly dashing across no-man’s-land and jamming the pike of the Confederate battle flag into a Union cannon. Here Griffith wields but also varies a clear sense of geography, via the battlefield framed like a football field with the opponents on either side, studied first in high vistas and then long group shots, and then close studies of individual actions. At one point, the camera charges with Ben and his men, and the sequence builds to the shot of Ben at the cannon filmed from behind the cannon, capturing the pain and heroism of the gesture. This is all utterly familiar filming and editing method today, but represented the cutting edge of sophistication at the time, and moreover still shines with the peculiar intensity of real creativity. One can still almost share the effect that shot of the cannon spiking must have had in 1915, the animate drama and sensatory power of watching an actor, some sets, crew, and a strip of celluloid interact and be manipulated until it seemed as if the essence of life and death have been depicted. Whilst such oversized vignettes dominate the impression The Birth of a Nation leaves, the film is replete with testaments to the value of small gestures and fleeting, but vital, observations as part of the overall texture. There’s the droll humour of Stoneman letting Elsie fit the wig that conceals his bald pate and a guard in the military hospital sighing over Elsie’s untouchable beauty, and a purposeful linkage of images adding up to ideas, as when Ulysses Grant (Donald Crisp) and Robert E. Lee (Howard Gaye) shake hands at Appomattox, followed immediately by Ben and Elsie doing the same.

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Griffith synthesised all of this for his own satisfaction, his own family’s part in the war perhaps lingering in the vividness with which he describes the struggle as well as a sense of discovery, the first poet of a new form to describe such a vista. Tellingly, most of what comes later in adapting Dixon more directly is lacking from this part, though early scenes are interpolated depicting Lydia Brown’s Uriah Heep-like patronisation of Stoneman’s Senate opposite Charles Sumner (Sam De Grasse), alternating with her fire-eyed tantrums motivated by her evident desire to be loftier, a desire she later realises as her hold on Stoneman becomes unshakeable and she begins contemptuously ushering Sumner away. Lydia is described as using her power over Stoneman to ends that will have dire consequences, though how and why, beyond pure wilful egotism, isn’t quite described; in any event, Stoneman uses Lincoln’s assassination to begin a forced social revolution in the reconstructing states after the war. Stoneman and Lydia were clearly based on Thaddeus Stevens, leader of radical Republicans, and Lydia Smith, his housekeeper who was probably also his mistress; The Birth of a Nation implies that this fatal act of miscegenation set the stage for civil war. One revealing aspect of Dixon’s paranoid racism captured in the film is how one could easily tweak this to make it seem heroic (as Steven Spielberg would when depicting Stevens and Smith in Lincoln, 2012), in the theme of the oppressed and disadvantaged released from their shackles and using new-found power to redress the moral books, an idea which The Birth of a Nation cannot countenance, and instead hides behind mendacious suggestions that it was rather the quintessence of duplicity and anarchy.

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At the same time Griffith dissembles, referring to certain villainous black characters as “traitors to their own race” as well as to the larger nation, though the film infers that because of the bad actions of these specific wrongdoers, all must be subjugated. A clue as to how confused The Birth of a Nation is, politically speaking, is found in its treatment of Lincoln, who is described early on as trampling on states’ rights, as per Dixon’s outright Confederate propaganda, whilst his determined attempts to force the abolition of slavery are avoided altogether. (One scene purportedly cut from the remaining print after early screenings depicted a gang rape of a white woman by black soldiers with the title card “Lincoln’s solution.”) But the film also plays up the more familiar, positive image of the leader when it suits. When Mrs. Cameron (Josephine Crowell) goes to visit her son Ben in a Union military hospital, she learns he’s going to be shot, so she goes to see the President to beg for his life, and he grants her request.

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When Lincoln is killed, Dr. Cameron laments that “our best friend is gone.” The depiction of Lincoln’s assassination is a masterly set-piece from Griffith, perhaps indeed the strongest sequence in the film. Rather than merely present the famous moment as tableaux vivant, Griffith instead depicts events with a flow of documentarylike detail, generating suspense with analysis of the mechanics of the act. He notes Lincoln’s bodyguard setting himself up in the hallway outside his theatre box, but then being drawn into another booth to take a look at the play. This gives John Wilkes Booth (played by future director Raoul Walsh, who was also the husband of Miriam Cooper at the time) the chance to storm the box, his act of violence and flying leap onto the stage and infamous cry of “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” delivered at concussive speed, capturing the deliberately theatrical power of the assassin’s deed. Booth’s showmanship suits Griffith’s, whilst history weaves in with fiction: Elsie and Phil Stoneman are in the crowd, and see the whole thing, whilst the President’s murder gives Austin Stoneman his chance to push his agenda unfettered.

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One rarely contemplated aspect of The Birth of a Nation is one it shares with much of Griffith’s cinema: women were at the centre of his movies, and in many ways he helped codify the “women’s picture” with his tales of oppressed waifs, degraded mothers, and plucky gamines who soldier through trials. Whilst in hospital, Ben meets the object of his abstract obsession in the flesh, as Elsie Stoneman is working there as a nurse: Elsie forms a bond with Ben and his mother and helps her make the plea to Lincoln. The framework of Dixon’s story demands the ladies chiefly be used as threatened victims, and Griffith was always happy to serve up images of decorously beautiful young women audiences of the time loved. But Griffith emphasises the moral force of motherhood and the determined energy of the young women. Elsie, Margaret, and Flora are all as active in their way as the menfolk, absent from the battlefield, but guarding the gates of civilisation and dodging the predations of the age, as when the Cameron girls and their parents have to hide in their household cellar to avoid marauding Union soldiers in Piedmont.

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One early shot captures young Gish’s mischievous screen quality and Griffith’s feel for actors, as she sets her brother racing off and then skips and jumps her way back toward the Stoneman manse, all distracted and tomboyish energy even as she clutches a kitten and looks entirely winsome. Both Elsie and Margaret hold off the men who romance them because of their ethical dimensions: Elsie holds loyal to her father’s creed when she realises Ben has become involved with the Ku Klux Klan, and Margaret refuses Phil’s overtures in memory of her slain brothers. By comparison, the male characters, apart from Ben, are blank slates, operating robotically according to assigned identities, from the young men signing up for state-sponsored carnage to the black and half-caste characters for whom the sexual conquest of a white woman is both their most verboten and most desired object.

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As The Birth of a Nation moves into its second half, the focus shifts from war to fractious peace. It’s here the film becomes truly difficult, to say the least, both in terms of art and meaning. Griffith’s freeform exploration of the Civil War gives way to a more settled, straightforward adaptation of Dixon’s novel. Austin Stoneman relocates to Piedmont with his remaining children to oversee the Reconstruction programme being carried out by a horde of soldiers, carpetbaggers, and freedmen. Stoneman’s protégé is the biracial Silas Lynch (George Siegmann). The congressman gets him installed as lieutenant-governor with the aid of a rigged election where local citizens are refused participation whilst manipulated ex-slaves vote. All of this, the title cards inform, creates a state of lawless anarchy in the district, though little of this anarchy is actually depicted. What we do see is Ben Cameron taking inspiration from seeing a couple of white kids scare some black kids by hiding under a sheet and having the brilliant idea of applying the same principle to his brainchild. He creates a militialike force to strike back at the corrupt and chaotic regime and newly free black citizens seeking their rights without exposing themselves to reprisals: the Ku Klux Klan is born. Meanwhile, Lynch becomes increasingly megalomaniacal, believing he can use the black soldiers under his command not just to bully and oppress the Southerners but to carve out a kingdom that he will rule. He wants Elsie to be his queen, and looks for a chance to corner her, though she clearly prefers Ben. The situation comes to a head when one of the black soldiers, Gus (Walter Long), stalks Flora (played as a grown-up by Mae Marsh) with rape on his mind through the forest outside of Piedmont. Rather than submit, she jumps of a cliff. The Klan avenges her death by tracking down and lynching Gus. Lynch responds by threatening anyone proven to be participating in Klan acts with hanging. When Ben’s Klan costume is found in his house, what’s left of the Cameron family is arrested.

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The Birth of a Nation’s pretences to creating a Homeric epic of America hinge unavoidably on a slanted portrayal of events that are still somewhat ill-served by film: there is a void in cinematic depictions of the Reconstruction era, and many that do exist take a similarly Southern point of view. Perhaps, as Buster Keaton said a few years later, when he made a Confederate his hero in The General (1926), that’s because it felt unfair to many to kick the losers much more. Gone with the Wind, the film’s immediate successor both in subject and success (and another work almost certainly influenced by it), bent over backwards to avoid Griffith’s mistakes, but created some thorny issues of its own. If there’s a salutary value to the way The Birth of a Nation depicts the dankest, sleaziest, most perverse fixations of a certain brand of American bigot, it is that it properly recorded them for posterity. This allows anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty to see the way the ideas propagated here still define many of its precepts before various masking tactics were adopted–that black men are essentially lascivious, violent apes waiting for a chance to sexually assault white women and brutalise their menfolk, that attempts to reapportion social justice for African-Americans after the war and even today only facilitate the first point, that vigilante justice by gun-toting “ordinary” people is the only force that can stop it, and so forth. In spite of the film’s controversy at the time, there was nothing particularly uncommon about the historical thesis proposed: even President Wilson, a high-minded idealist in many regards, was also a deeply racist thinker whose writings on the topic of the Klan influenced Griffith’s presentation of it. “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright,” a title card says late in the film when two former Union soldiers aid the Camerons in fending off the black soldiers stalking them, a line that’s deeply depressing but also perfectly revelatory.

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One of Griffith’s most brilliant flourishes, a highlight of inspiration in the second half, is woven in inescapably with racist pseudo-history: a shot of the state legislature, empty at first, transitions to a later time when the house has been filled with rowdy freedmen serving Stoneman’s political program. This is another moment one can well imagine stunning an audience in 1915. Dissolves, superimpositions, and double-exposure effects had been used before, but Griffith uses them here to create an active, purely filmic device of satirical insight, albeit a vicious, wrong one. The installed black legislators make a mockery of the solemn institution by drinking whiskey, kicking their shoes off, and generally look like they’re having a good time in a way that’s actually not so far from the Marx Brothers’ similarly anarchic treatment of such settings–except by the 1930s anarchy, at least that plied by impish white guys, was cool. One real crux of the quandary The Birth of a Nation presents is that such sensitivity as Griffith often displays can coexist with such unregenerate contempt, in the process of watching art foiled by prejudice. Perhaps the lowest point of this fantasia comes in the concluding scenes when the Klan, having restored justice and order, keep black voters from going out to vote, presenting the beginning of the century of marginalisation and depression codified under the Jim Crow regime as a heroic, even funny vignette in the film, evident in the way the black would-be voters reel out of the bars, see the hooded, armed Klansmen outside, then promptly swivel and retreat. This moment is as despicable as anything I’ve ever seen in a film.

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Ironically, most of the black roles are played by white men in blackface. Roger Ebert proposed this was because staging some of these images with real African-American actors would have been too incendiary, but perhaps it was to avoid production conflicts. In any event, the ridiculous look of these performers gives much of the film the quality of grotesque pantomime, accidentally highlighting the artificiality. The Reconstruction chapter has often been celebrated in spite of all this for exemplifying one of Griffith’s great innovations, as he cross-cuts between sectors and streams of action: the Camerons, who escape their military escort and face siege in a remote shack, Lynch in Piedmont taking Elsie captive for a forced marriage, and the Klansmen gathering and charging to the rescue. The second half, however, often feebly executed by comparison with the first, moving stolidly through its relatively few substantial plot points, with many elements left vague, like Lydia Brown’s fate. Amidst shoot-outs and rescues, the true climactic moment comes when Lynch tells Stoneman that he wants to marry a white woman. Stoneman congratulates and encourages him, but then when Lynch tells him that he specifically wants to marry Elsie, Stoneman erupts in outrage. This could easily be tweaked as a moment of satirical insight, making fun of a shallow form of white liberalism that’s perfectly okay with anything in abstract, and indeed it is after a fashion. But it’s also intended as both revelation and comeuppance for Stoneman, who is forcibly shown the logical end point of his politics, and reacts with the same natural repulsion, the storyline implies, any father would in the face of such depravity.

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Much of the plotting here is, again, standard melodrama, with Dixon’s bullshit pasted over already very familiar roles and rituals of penny dreadful villainy. What’s new, however, is that stuff is matched here to a show of filmic technique that thrilled the audience of the day and gave unto later filmmakers a blueprint of how to achieve the same result again and again. Yet it also laid the seed of warning for followers, too, in seeing just how easy it could be to follow a programme of storytelling in the new medium that could manipulate them into siding with monstrosities. The famous ride of the Klan proves rather slow and arthritic for a contemporary eye, however. Radical as such technique was, there was still a long way to go in giving this gimmick the kind of rhythmic intensity it could wield. There are some eye-catching compositions, like the Klansmen riding silhouetted against the sky on a ridgeline, but the interpersonal scenes of Stoneman and Lynch arguing and the Camerons and their comrades in the shack returns to flat, two-dimensional framings. Lynch, if he wasn’t so set on marrying Elsie and arguing with her father, could have ravaged her a dozen times by the time the Klan actually reach Piedmont. Griffith would push his new technique much farther in his follow-up Intolerance (1916), where he cross-cuts not merely related but separate scenes, but whole storylines and timeframes.

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Near the film’s very end, Griffith recaptures his visual invention as he shifts into symbolism and surrealism through visuals that evoke medieval artistic styles and literary pictorial plates: a diptych of War on horseback waving its sword over a pile of corpses, and another of Jesus reigning over a court of the faithful. Here, the feeling of cinema as art form as well as populist political sentiment are both revealed as perched on a wickedly sharp edge. Film is gaining its method and its voice at the same time as it is emerging from the influence of other art forms, and an accumulated system of meaning depending on assumptions that cinema perhaps served in part as a stronger beam of sunlight than had ever been seen before. The profound contradiction between the film’s ardent statements of pacifism and brotherhood and its equally ardent preaching of fascist, racialist hegemony is strange as well as appalling to me, as if in that disparity, if only one can grasp it, lies the seed of so much that would transpire in the 20th century. The past had been neatly reconfigured into a myth, but already new realities were pressing, begging their own mythologising.

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The Great War was raging across the Atlantic when the film was released, and surely on Griffith’s mind as he questioned “Dare we dream of a golden dawn when the bestial War shall rule no more?” in one of the film’s last title cards. So, naturally, soon the Hun would be serving the same purpose black men had in warmongering movies. At the same time, black Americans could see what many thought of them all too clearly, and found that could be a weapon that cut two ways. Griffith himself would be elevated to the stature of god-king of an art form for a short reign, but at the same time was hurt and bewildered by the forced realisation he had created something deeply troubling. He would take up the themes of prejudice, abuse, and other pressing social problems often thereafter, struggling with films like Intolerance, Broken Blossoms (1919), perhaps his best film after all, and The Struggle (1931) to come to grips with such issues. He would fail politically and commercially, but grow poetically. The conflict between this sense of achievement and the urge for atonement would define the rest of Griffith’s career.

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1910s, Silent

Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

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Director: D. W. Griffith

By Roderick Heath

D. W. Griffith is a difficult filmmaker to approach. So vital to the history of cinema and so problematic in the shadows of his unforgivably racist The Birth of a Nation (1915), the irony of Griffith’s career was that he destroyed it in trying to answer the criticisms leveled at his greatest success. Intoxicated by the melodramatic swoon of Thomas Dixon’s KKK-propagandising source novel and dismayed by the forced realisation he had produced a work that offended many, Griffith was to take up the theme of prejudice and social conflict again and again: an opening title for Broken Blossoms suggests there is a warning in its tale of a cold-hearted brute that the most casual insults are essentially the same as physical assault. His sophistication in cinema accompanied an artistic sensibility solidly rooted in the sentimental codes of Victorian fiction. Broken Blossoms itself is built around the most discomforting and titillating of themes for audiences of the era—miscegenation—as a Chinese hero and an English waif are thrown together as a match more or less made in heaven.

For such a director, a triangular character drama set in a slum might have seemed a comedown from recreating and demolishing Babylon for the colossally ambitious Intolerance (1916), and yet Broken Blossoms became a landmark in the career of Griffith and its star, Lillian Gish. Initially met by producer Adolph Zukor with dismay, the film proved a huge hit that revived Griffith’s career, and it’s still a tremendously intense and provocative experience 90 years later. Griffith used his innate gifts to create a statement confirming less as more, constructing a compulsively exciting melodrama and a cultural parable out of the most minimal elements.

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Griffith, though inevitably wary and teasing in portraying interracial eroticism, isn’t subtle about reconfiguring audience sympathies. Its hero, Cheng Huan, referred to as The Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess), is a conscientious, idealistic missionary, and its villain, “Battling” Burrows (Donald Crisp), is a vicious, depraved icon of Anglo-Saxon brutality. In between them is Lillian Gish’s victimised heroine Lucy, the epitome of the endangered, fragile feminine archetype in the Victorian pantheon. Three stock figures, but also three figures of nuanced realisation play in a work that seriously interrogates the nature of humankind as both impossibly aspiring and irrevocably bestial.

The opening scenes, set in a Chinese treaty port, establish the story and the theme of a clash of cultures and peaceful and warlike impulses. Here are the clearly organised and repeated images of yearning and transcendence: the sight of a ship steaming out of Cheng’s home port, and the act of a monk ringing a temple bell. Cheng Huan’s ambition, amusingly enough, is to take the Buddhist teachings of tranquility and peacefulness to the “barbarous Anglo-Saxons, sons of toil and strife.” His religious instructor encourages his desire and implores that he remember his creed out in the world. Cheng’s first encounter with rough Western ways happens before he even gets on the boat: a gang of American sailors who are brawling playfully. Mistaking this for serious conflict, Cheng Huan intervenes and offers a quote that evokes the common ideals of Buddhism and Christianity in a variation on “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Cheng Huan is immediately knocked over as the scrap continues, literally and metaphorically turning his perspective upside-down.

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Several years later, Cheng’s fortunes have reduced his to a dispirited, opium-addicted “Chink store-keeper” in Limehouse. The only bright spot in his day is the sight of Lucy, who drifts aimlessly around the docks and alleys and delights at the dolls in his store, before returning home to face the relentlessly abusive Burrows, a professional boxer. Harried by his manager for his overindulgence in drink and women before a return bout against the Limehouse Tiger, Burrows is in an especially vicious mood. When he accidentally knocks a frying pan Lucy is holding to serve him supper and spills hot fat on his hand, he delivers to her a terrible beating, before departing for his training residence across the river. The physically shattered girl stumbles through the streets to Cheng Huan’s shop and collapses on the floor.

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There are still very few commercial films that depict domestic violence with such unvarnished, unforgiving ferocity. “The manager’s complaint about drink and women puts Battling in a rage – he cannot take his temper out on him – he saves it for a weaker object,” a title-card puts it, explaining Burrows’ taunting of his daughter, who is so habitually unhappy she can only “smile” by pushing the corners of her mouth up with her fingers. The film is defined rhythmically by the build-up to Burrows’ two great explosions. The first, after the fat-spilling, sees father herd daughter with a whip in hand, Lucy trying to dissuade him by cowering and cleaning off his boots. She senses that her abuse can only have one end and begs her father to stop, not for her own sake, but because he’ll be hung for murder eventually. The second outburst comes, of course, after Burrows removes Lucy from Cheng Huan’s shop. Lucy, knowing what’s coming, locks herself in the cupboard, with ever-increasing terror as her father hacks at the door in a sequence that anticipates just about every horror movie ever made.

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It’s Griffith’s technique that makes Broken Blossoms more than a tawdry melodrama, though his success is as manifest in the sense of realistic environment and attentiveness to the performances of Gish and Barthelmess as it is in the montage and structural showiness. Once the action shifts to London, Griffith puts us into the headspace of his three protagonists with associative flashbacks. Yellow Man, Lucy, and Burrows are introduced in their respective situations, and Griffith bends the narrative arc back to illustrate their lives: Cheng Huan reflecting on the world of vice and opium dens he’s trapped in; Burrows on his most recent pulverisation of an opponent; and Lucy on her alternatives, from the housewife with a filthy household who advises her, “Whatever you do, dearie, don’t get married,” to being “Warned as strongly by the ladies of the street against their profession.” Cheng Huan has arrived “where the Orient squats at the portals of the West,” as an intertitle puts it, scratching out a living and expending it in an opium den where the refuse of many nations congregate and, it’s hinted, copulate. “Fifteen years before one of Battler’s girls thrust into his arms a bundle of white rags – So Lucy came to Limehouse” explicates Burrows’ contempt for his daughter and her own desperate clinging to a scrap of velvet that is her mother’s only inheritance.

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Although Griffith didn’t leave the backlot, there’s a documentary feel to the observation of Chinese musicians and the seamy environment of Limehouse. Griffith keeps his narrative moving, and its elements constantly interrelate structurally, such as the scene in which Burrows’s second bout with Tiger alternates with Cheng resisting his urge to make love to Lucy. Perhaps the most vital manifestation of his cinematic vision when the camera takes Lucy’s point of view in two crucial, late sequences that posit the two men who battle for her in likeness. Cheng Huan, almost overcome by his desire for Lucy in kissing her, and her father in his wrathful rage, are both photographed in looming, first-person ultra-close-up, each man rendered threatening and alien. The difference is in the resolution. Cheng restrains himself, and the title-card assures us that his love remained “a pure and holy thing.” Burrows has no such restraint. The film’s bitterness is remarkable, though leavened by an often corny, but heartfelt poeticised idealisation, in which Cheng renames Lucy with the “love-name” of White Blossom.

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The narrative’s ironies extend from an opening in China where the everyday activities of the local families and promenaders are disturbed by foreigners, to Cheng’s encounter at his Limehouse shop with two friendly Christian ministers. One tells him that “My brother leaves for China tomorrow to convert the heathen.” The Yellow Man, suppressing a wry smile, offers, “I – I wish him luck,” before they give him a book on Hell, about which he already knows too much. Later, when Burrows discovers that Lucy is living with Cheng Huan, the card tells us, “Battling discovers his parental rights,” outraged at the notion of his daughter “with a dirty Chink.” The film becomes an almost cosmically realised battle of the sacred and profane, beyond the reach of the tawdry interracial dramas Sessue Hayakawa was starring in at the time. Cheng’s capacity to retain his humanism and defend Lucy’s femininity even when confronted with incredible degradation and temptation is the story’s great question; and even the peace-loving Cheng is finally driven to kill Burrows, if only in self-defence.

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When Burrows’ sleazy mates discover his body and run to fetch a policeman, the bobby is discussing a story in the newspaper commenting on war news: “Better than last week – only 40,000 casualties.” It’s the only confirmation that the film is set during World War I, a virtual throwaway touch, and yet it confirms the film as a broader study of the destructive capacity of humankind in general, in which the only bulwark is Cheng’s religious and romantic idealism. Griffiths even subverts his own clichés, the climax employing his already-famous cross-cutting techniques in a race to the rescue. He ratchets up the tension as Cheng, arming himself with a revolver, dashes to Lucy’s aid as Burrows breaks into the cupboard, but he gets there too late to save her from a fatal beating. Griffith proved that manipulative cinematic techniques could be used to make tragedy as thrilling as triumph, and could then be used in a fashion that’s critical and not merely involving.

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Broken Blossoms is not without faults, chiefly in some pretty overripe title cards, the presence of Cheng’s Chinese foil Evil Eye (Edward Peil Sr.), who doesn’t contribute anything to the story other than some stock ethnic sleaze, and Crisp. Crisp would develop into one of the talkie era’s more restrained actors and is physically fine for the part, but his idea of telegraphing psychotic rage is to warp his mouth in odd shapes like a grade schooler trying to be scary. That said, he does offer up a splendidly insidious touch in his final rampage of holding Gish down and repeatedly tapping the stock of his whip on her forehead in dreadful prelude. Whilst, obviously, Cheng ought to have been played by an Asian actor, Barthelmess nonetheless is splendid as the Yellow Man, particularly in the early scenes, with his resigned smile and air of cynical equanimity. He even indulges in a bit of stoner comedy when Cheng still intoxicated with opium, returns to his shop and thinks that the prostrate Lucy is a hallucination. When he and Crisp finally confront each other over Gish’s dead body, the mutual, animalistic hatred fairly vibrates. And Gish herself is quite remarkable in her understatement, whether drifting through scenes in dour misery, contending with Cheng’s attentions with a gentle, almost amused distraction, or building terrified hysteria when her father’s rages approach. She had protested to Griffith that she was too old for the part, but you’d hardly imagine it.

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