1920s, Action-Adventure, Romance

The Sheik (1921) / The Son of the Sheik (1926)

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Directors: George Melford, George Fitzmaurice

By Roderick Heath

This essay is offered as part of the Allan Fish Online Film Festival, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish.

Rudolph Valentino. Over ninety years since he died aged 31, his name is still familiar to people who have never watched any of his movies. As the first great heartthrob of Hollywood film, his impact lingers like background radiation in pop culture. Valentino was the defining archetype of the Latin Lover and icon of silent film’s budding cosmopolitan promise, and is still the subject of legend and feverish speculation, particularly in regards to off-screen escapades and omnivorous sexual tastes. Young Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella acted out the essential myth of early Hollywood. He arrived in America as an eighteen-year-old immigrant, struggling in his early days in New York and skirting the outer edges of a scandalous tragedy before taking to the road as a travelling actor. Valentino took the advice of movie actor Norman Kerry to go to Hollywood and try his luck there, but found himself initially typecast as a villain for his dark, exotic looks. Then he was cast in the lead of Rex Ingram’s adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s bestseller, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, produced by Metro Pictures and released in 1921. Valentino was catapulted to stardom, and in spite of the film’s seriousness as a World War I drama, what everyone remembered afterwards was Valentino’s tango scene.
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Valentino still found himself patronised by Metro and after two throwaway vehicles grabbed the chance to head over to Famous Players-Lasky, where George Melford’s The Sheik, an adaptation of a novel by Edith Maude Hull, who like Valentino was a displaced cosmopolitan who found her life reshaped by travelling. Her wanderings began as a child alongside her parents, including a trip to Algiers, where most of her fiction would be set. The novel had been a colossal bestseller, a perfect vehicle for the star deemed fit to fill the role. Billed second to Agnes Ayres, Valentino was cast as Arab sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. Except that, well, he’s not really Arab. Ahmed is ultimately revealed to be half-Spanish, half-English, one who was found orphaned and raised by a real Sheik in his traditional lifestyle. This was nominally a sop to Valentino’s Latin Lover image but was also designed to ward off the anti-miscegenation crowd who might have been infuriated by the central theme of romance between a white woman and a dark-skinned man. The sight of Valentino draped in a headscarf is up there with Charlie Chaplin’s bowler and moustache and Mary Pickford’s curls as one of the instantly recognisable points of iconography from the silent era regardless, from a day when cinema meant opening horizons and the images projected upon the screen blazed with an intensity of deliverance from the mundane that’s difficult to imagine in our screen-saturated day where our fantasy lives are serviced so often if not always so well.
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Close to a century has elapsed since The Sheik was released, and aspects of it remind me just what a long century it’s been. But it also feels peculiarly familiar in its similarities to more recent phenomena in its queasy, artful exploitation of a perverse romantic dynamic of threat and attraction, a reduction of the world to a pre-modern zone of hot-blooded men who know what they want from a woman. The Sheik opens with a scene in which Sheik Ahmed oversees the purchase of a selection of new brides for his tribe from another, where he sticks up for the right of one man (George Waggner, who would go on to direct The Wolf Man, 1941) to claim a woman he’s in love with over other, higher bidders, an early sign Ahmed is a covert romantic in a world defined otherwise by a crude and transactional sense of male-female relations. Meanwhile, Lady Diana Mayo (Ayres), a character who seems to have been based on Gertrude Bell, has arrived in the Saharan oasis town of Biskra, intending an exploratory venture into the desert and has hired one of Ahmed’s friends Mustapha Ali (Charles Brinley) as a guide. She’s accompanied by her flimsy brother Aubrey (Frank Butler), who tries in vain to talk her out of her expedition.
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Diana is an interloping emblem of modernity with her proto-feminist independence and wilful adoption of a masculine mode of dress for her planned venture. But she also finds herself enticed by the stir Ahmed makes when he breezes into town with his followers and their new selection of brides. Ahmed takes over the town’s casino for the night and bans all foreigners from the building so he and his men can stage a raucous celebration and watch the new wives dance. Diana, seeing a challenge, borrows the costume from a dancer in her hotel and uses it to enter and watch as the Arab men gamble to marry the various women. Diana is discovered when she’s grabbed to be the next lot on offer, and when Ahmed strips off her burka finds she’s carrying a pistol and uses it ward off any harassers before escaping. Ahmed’s interest is stirred and he enters her hotel the next morning to catch a glimpse of her in her room, and she hears him singing a love song outside her window without knowing who’s singing it. Soon Ahmed decides he must possess Diana, so he sabotages her gun and snatches her away, taking her to his desert camp.
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Hull’s book was a racy tale laced with a heady, violent erotic streak, and pushed the implied the rape fantasy much further than the film (quote: “Chattel, a slave to do his bidding, to bear his pleasure and his displeasure, shaken to the very foundation of her being with the upheaval of her convictions and the ruthless violence done to her cold, sexless temperament.”) Director George Melford congratulated himself on restricting to this element to only the faintest implication, as Diana finds herself at the mercy of the imperious Ahmed, who laughs at her mode of dress and declares that she makes a very pretty boy, but he doesn’t want a boy, so he forces her to dress in Arab female clothes. Unlike in the book Ahmed stops short of seeming to actually rape her, declaring “I could make you love me!”, but holds her captive in the expectation she will eventually succumb to the pure force of his throbbing passion. The ritualised stripping back of Diana’s arch western, liberated pretences before the might of an idealised figure of masculine entitlement is nonetheless reproduced exactingly, but that same force is then in turn tamed by the vicissitudes of romantic respect as Ahmed finds himself paralysed by his desire to be loved rather than to merely possess.
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Of course, The Sheik is very dated even as some of the things it exploits have proven insidiously difficult to extract from the modern mindset, exploiting a sexual fantasy of domination not really that far from the kind evinced in recent phenomena like the Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey books and films, mixed up a dubious conception of Arabic men as lascivious brutes, even when they’re actually Anglo-Spanish. One could read it all as self-aware role-play, an idea the film’s 1926 sequel takes up a little more brazenly. What’s undeniable is that The Sheik struck audiences of the day right where they lived. Or, at least, female audiences. Many male viewers reportedly found Valentino irksome in his liquid good-looks and willingness to enact erogenous fantasies for women, and his screen image was a violent switchback from the sort of hale and hearty American leading men prominent at the time. Charges of insidious effeminacy pursued the actor as well, accusations that eventually drove Valentino to stage and win his famous bout against the New York Evening Journal’s boxing writer, Frank O’Neill.
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Part of the problem might well be evinced in the way Valentino readily plays a character here who is supremely powerful in his little world but who, once he finds the woman who will obsess him, then places her at the very centre of all thoughts and ambitions. He is forgiven for his transgressions towards Diana because he at least wants her in absoluteness – there’s no playboy affectation or dilettantish indifference in his persona. Either way, Ayres and Valentino commit to their roles with gusto, and in many ways Ayres gives the more interesting performance in her registers swaying passing haughty self-possession to tremulous fear before her captor-lover and, at last, ardent amour. Valentino’s charisma is still amazingly potent when he’s charged with hawkish attention and brooding lust: his look of supreme erotic intent seems to x-ray whoever the object of that gaze through to the bone marrow. This quality is dramatized when Ahmed first sees Diana, his returned attention shunts her through a rapid succession of involuntary responses, anxiety, embarrassment, desire, revelation.
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Valentino does tread close to the boundaries of the overripe when his Ahmed flashes his eyes and gives an eagerly lustful smile. But what’s most obvious is his excellence as an actor attuned to silent cinema as a vehicle, conveying his character’s states of mind and attitude entirely through gestural and expressive affect, but also most entirely avoiding the hokier screen acting templates of the day: his on-screen stances and motions have a feline concision and fluency. One reason many of Valentino’s vehicles aren’t given much shrift today beyond retaining the man’s image itself is because he worked with no regarded directors, except for Ingram, who wasn’t particularly excited by the young star. But Melford’s direction of The Sheik is better than it’s often given credit for. It’s easily Melford’s best-known effort although he directed movies for over twenty years. Another of his odder claims to repute was handling the Spanish-language version of Dracula (1931) produced simultaneously to the Tod Browning film and which is, in its way, another variation on this kind of demon-seducer tale. Melford also made several imitations of his most popular work like Burning Sands (1922) and Love in the Desert (1928).
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Despite his relative anonymity, Melford’s direction is a great part of the strength of The Sheik, in his lucid sense of atmosphere and drama, establishing a visual motif through his use of the period movie camera’s depth of field in multiple planes of action often subdivided by physical elements, finding of ways of bringing theatrical integrity to the expanse of the desert with his columns of horsemen zig-zagging across the landscape. Archways and doorframes in Biskra, the flaps and panels within Ahmed’s tent, the dunes of the desert, render the film a succession of penetrated layers and chambers, apt for a journey that’s about getting to the heart of a certain way of seeing relations between the genders. The scenes of Diana’s first arrival at Ahmed’s tent and prostration before him are particularly strong, as the winds pummelling the desert set the whole structure about Diana shuddering and swaying, mimicking her psyche’s extreme tumult, and culminating in the affecting sight of her and one of Ahmed’s female servants, Zilah (Ruth Miller), embracing in sympathy.
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For some reason Diana’s brother never gets around to looking for her, and for a complicating flourish Ahmed instead is happy to receive his old friend, the writer Raoul St Hubert (Adolphe Menjou), who’s been his friend since Ahmed was schooled in Paris. Ahmed fears that Raoul might prove a romantic rival, but he really stands in for the side of Ahmed that has been ‘civilised’ by his western roots and education, whilst bandit chief Omair (Walter Long) represents the primitive and bestial facet that only wants to snatch Diana and make her a sex slave. Omair first glimpses Diana when she makes an attempt to ride out of the desert after fooling Ahmed’s French manservant Gaston (Lucien Littlefield): she falls from her horse and Omair’s caravan, returning to the city he controls, happens upon Diana, but Ahmed tracks her down before the bandit can pluck her from the sands. Raoul shames Ahmed for making Diana sustaining the façade of dressing in western clothes again and fronting up to another westerner who will comprehend her subjugation. Omair soon leads a raid, snatching up Diana and carrying her away after she and some of Ahmed’s men valiantly try to fight them off, leaving Gaston and others dead. Ahmed quickly gathers together the rest of his tribesmen and sets off in pursuit.
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The film’s most wistful image, reproduced on one of the posters, is that of Diana’s missive scratched idly in the sand declaring her love for Ahmed, a message that remains in place to spur Ahmed’s resurgence to chase down and take back his woman. Glimpses of Omair’s city deliver the film up to a sense of total immersion in a fantasy concept of a foreign world as a zone totally dedicated to erotic display and intent, with its teeming streets, ecstatically writhing dancing girls, leering male choruses and, at last, the sight of Diana lying unconscious and prostrate on a couch under the watchful eye of a hulking black manservant. In another, significant touch of character mirroring in the play of possession and desire, Omair has a wife who has attempted to talk him out of his kidnapping and when confronted by the sight of her man about to ravage the young white woman tries to knife him in a jealous rage. Omair easily fends her off, but the delay gives Ahmed time to arrive at the gates. He sneaks over the walls, penetrates Omair’s home, whilst his men batter down the gate and defeat the bandits. Ahmed enters Omair’s home and strangles him to death, but is in turn struck down by the manservant. Diana sits by Ahmed’s bed and waits to see if he will recover. Long story short: he does.
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H.L. Mencken’s fascinating meditation on Valentino’s life and death published after his funeral converted the late star into a different kind of archetype, that of the instinctively poetic and philosophical young man who gains all he wants in worldly terms but found it essentially worthless even before he’s cruelly cut down. This narrative connects Valentino less with many other live-fast-die-young movie stars than it does a later brand of idol more associated with rock music, like Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. Five years after The Sheik, Valentino returned to Hull’s property to film a sequel she had written. Just how long a five years it had been seems perfectly encapsulated in the way the film casts him as both an older Ahmed Ben Hassan, now grizzled and long married to Diana, and his grown son, also named Ahmed: Valentino seems have lived just as many lifetimes in that short time. In spite of his star stature, Valentino was in need of a hit, after a couple of less successful films, and quarrelling with another studio, and although he was tired of the image The Sheik had stuck him with, he resumed the part with gusto, carrying over his costar from The Eagle (1925), Vilma Bánky, to play his new love interest. Valentino liked Bánky, who had been brought to Hollywood and billed as “the Hungarian Rhapsody.” The Son of the Sheik finds a reasonably clever way of redeploying the original film’s essential tension as young Ahmed takes a woman captive, whilst offering a different spin on it.
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Here young Ahmed is in love with Yasmin (Bánky), the daughter of a French emcee, Andre (George Fawcett). Andre has fallen so low he leads a band of performers who double as thieves, with the Moor Ghabah (Montagu Love) a glowering and terrible figure barely kept in hand by his nominal boss, who holds his leash with vague suggestions he’ll marry Yasmin one day. It’s Yasmin who really keeps the band with her alluring dancing, a talent that’s also drawn in Ahmed. Yasmin arranges to meet Ahmed in some ruins close to where the troupe camps, but her companions catch wind of this. Ghabah leads them out to take Ahmed captive, tie him up, and plan to ransom him back to his family. Ghabah, recognising Yasmin’s connection to Ahmed, also tells the young man she deliberately drew him into their clutches. Ahmed is rescued the next morning by faithful family retainer Ramadan (Karl Dane), and taken to a friend’s house in the town of Touggourt. Ahmed sees Andre’s troupe enter town advertising their upcoming engagement at a town nightspot, the Café Maure, and when Yasmin sees her lover waves to him, only for Ahmed to sternly ignore her. Ahmed can’t shake loose his apparent betrayal, and he soon reproduces his father’s crime in snatching Yasmin away and taking her into the desert, vowing to her that “I may not be the first victim – but, by Allah, I shall be the one you’ll remember!”
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This central situation, as young Ahmed holds Yasmin captive, offers a great revenge that seems to consist merely of Ahmed standing about in lordly postures and chewing her out some, again with some not-quite-rape heavy romancing as the two bark mutual protestations of loathing at each-other but also can barely keep their hands to themselves. The Son of the Sheik was directed by George Fitzmaurice, whose handling betrays the quickly evolving sophistication of Hollywood cinema. Fitzmaurice was probably picked as director because he had helmed Bánky’s Hollywood debut The Dark Angel (1925). The film lacks the pictorial beauty of Melford’s but makes up for it in lunging storytelling verve and Fitzmaurice’s attentiveness to the essence of the vehicle’s intent turns the act of being loved by Valentino. This crystallises in a scene when Ahmed kisses Yasmin in the very eye of their apparent mutual hate, Valentino stalking towards the camera as it takes Bánky’s point of view and then reversing the shot, gliding in towards Bánky’s face and then cutting to a huge close-up of her teary yet erotically mesmerised eyes. Character experience and audience wont are churned together in a moment of cinematic shamanism, the kind of near-surreal pictorial intensity filmmaking and worship of the star visage from this era could wield effortlessly and which would obsess experimental filmmakers of later years.
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One of the main tweaks The Son of the Sheik makes on its predecessor was to beef up the swashbuckling, and in this the film also represents rapidly solidifying formulas for this sort of thing, the transformation of the cinema art from act of atavism into industrial product. This is clearest in the quick alternations of high drama and comic relief, most of it coming from Ahmed’s sarcastic pal Ramadan, and the physical tussles of the mountebanks Ali and Pincher (Bull Montana and Bynunsky Hyman) in Andre’s crew. The film has a tongue-in-cheek aspect that never overwhelms the drama but keeps it all in perspective as pure daydreaming. Certainly it’s all a template for the maturing ideal of the action movie of a brand where Errol Flynn would soon readily step in to fill the hole left by the death of Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks. Valentino also seems to have been determined to butch up his image a bit: his costuming leaves his arms bare, the better to show off his rippling muscles as he grips and compels Yasmin, before launching into an extended action finale that sees Ahmed performing some quintessential stunts like swinging on a chandelier and making a bold jump onto a horse’s back. There’s even a torture sequence of the kind Flynn would also be often subjected to with heavy whiffs of S&M and homoerotic appeal, when Ahmed is held captive by the criminal band, leaving Valentino’s body scored with dark welts.
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The most substantial subtext lies in the casting of Valentino not simply as the young doppelganger of his father but also playing the old Sheik Ahmed as well, made up with grizzled beard. There’s a kind of audience appeal joke in this – more Valentino for your dollar, folks! But it’s also a commentary on Valentino’s awareness of his improving skill as an actor and a more than vaguely meta gag on his inability to shake the Sheik image. The son is cast in the father’s mould and finds himself entrapped by his father’s psychology even as he attempts to resist his will, a tough voice for the Jazz age scion of the stern old-world father, illustrated when Ahmed straightens out the poker his father bends to demonstrate his strength. The Sheik intends for his son to marry Diana’s cousin Clara, who’s about to visit, but young Ahmed remains aloof. Diana, still played by Ayres, prods the Sheik with awareness of his own wilful, unstoppable determination, cueing a flashback to his kidnapping of her, putting a wryly guilty smile on the old rogue’s face. Valentino plays the two rolls distinctly, occasionally letting the old man show the same florid grins and rolling-eyed glares, whilst young Ahmed is a study in the actor’s more refined sense of effect. Fitzmaurice pulls off some clever, simple special effects in scenes where Valentino plays against himself, including shots where the old Sheik puts his arm around his son, and the two men hold hands whilst duelling side by side in the finale.
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The narrative, such as it is, eventually sees Ahmed decide to send Yasmin back to Touggourt, but her father, Ghabah, and cohort surprise her and Ramadan in the desert. Ghabah makes the mistake of gloating to Yasmin at poisoning Ahmed’s mind against her whilst Ramadan can hear, but Ahmed’s already trying to find her again. The troupe return to the Café Maure, where Ghabah makes it clear he intends to possess Yasmin one way or another. But Ahmed sneaks in disguised: Fitzmaurice reverses the early shot of Yasmin’s swooning before Ahmed as the man now beholds Yasmin again in the delivering ecstasies of dance, eyes glowing from under his shadowing hood, before leaping into action to save her from Ghabah. His father, defying the windstorm thrashing the desert, tracks him and helps him battle off the Café denizens. The eruption of action here is terrific, showing off Valentino’s physicality to the max as the two Ahmeds swing their scimitars and wield off opponents with table, barrels, and improvised firebombs, dodging thrown knives and hurling them back. Father and son fend off the ruffians but Ahmed still has to chase after Ghabah and Yasmin on horseback, duelling his enemy as the pound across the sands. Ahmed loses his sword so he springs upon Ghabah and throttles him on the ground before embracing Yasmin just in time for the fade-out.
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The Son of the Sheik would surely have been the big hit Valentino was chasing even if he hadn’t died when gearing up to publicise it, as it’s a great entertainment by any measure in spite of the lackadaisical plot. Although she never rivalled his stature Bánky’s name is sometimes used like Valentino’s to invoke raciness from a long-ago time, and she was most definitely a luminous and dazzlingly sexy presence. It’s also fun to see Ayres playing the older Diana, now mistress of her desert palace. It’s rather painful to think about what bad luck all these beautiful and talented people suffered: Ayres would die aged 42, her fortune wiped out by the Black Friday crash and career ruined by weight gain, and Bánky foiled, as Valentino might well have been if he had lived, by her heavy accent once sound came. At least on screen they’re all eternally young, gallivanting across a moonlit survey with nothing to do but enact our fantasies.

The Sheik can be viewed here on YouTube…

…and The Son of the Sheik here.

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1920s, Fantasy, German cinema, Historical, Horror/Eerie

Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, 1924) / The Man Who Laughs (1928)

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Director: Paul Leni

By Roderick Heath

Paul Leni’s name might not be as instantly recognisable to movie lovers as his fellows in the legendary days of German “Expressionist” cinema, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Nonetheless, Leni stands with them as one of the major creative figures of that style, of the budding horror film genre, and of the great mature phase of silent cinema in general. Leni beat both directors to the punch in emigrating to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, where he did vital work fusing the concerted visual effects of the UFA approach with the steady, rhythmically intense storytelling motifs of Hollywood, and so perhaps had the most immediate impact on a generation of directors emerging at the time, including Josef von Sternberg, John Ford, and Sergei Eisenstein. Like Murnau, he would die tragically young and at the peak of his talents, in his case from blood poisoning resulting from an abscessed tooth, a sad and ridiculous fate somehow in keeping with the tenor of Leni’s ripely morbid works. Leni’s initial work in cinema came as a set designer and decorator, a vocation he had learnt in the theatres of Berlin, and soon plied for directors including Joe May and E. A. Dupont. He continued to provide art direction for other filmmakers even after he made his debut as director, Dr Hart’s Diary (1917). Leni’s true calling card was however to be Waxworks, one of the near-mythical works springing from the king tide of Expressionism in German film.

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Following Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Waxworks similarly offers an early take on the anthology film, composed of short, distinct but stylistically and thematically related stories. His screenwriter on the project was Henrik Galeen, who penned several Expressionist classics including Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) and Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Waxworks commences with a young poet, played by William Dieterle, later to become a significant director himself, invited to visit a waxworks show that travels with a carnival that’s rolled into town: the carnival is popular but the waxworks is ignored. The poet speaks to the manager of the show (John Gottowt) and his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), and learns they want someone to write entertaining stories to lend mythos to the major figures in the show, which are Harun-Al-Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad who featured in Arabian Nights, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper, who is conflated here with Spring-Heeled Jack, the supernatural wayfarer who supposedly terrorised London in the late eighteenth century. The poet readily takes up the exhibitors’ offer, and even quickly and amusedly amends a proposed tale when the owner accidentally breaks a limb off the Harun figure; thus the poet begins to tell the story of how the Caliph lost his arm. Leni then begins to illustrate the poet’s historical fantasia, with Harun personified as a corpulent autocrat, played by Emil Jannings. Harun plays chess with his Grand Vizier on a terrace of his castle, only to be disturbed when a cloud of black smoke begins to spoil the day’s splendour. Angry because he was losing the match, Harun sends his Vizier out to track down whoever is making the smoke and execute them. The source of the pollution proves to be the chimney of a baker (Dieterle again), who is married to the most beautiful woman in Baghdad, Maimune (Belajeff again). Delighted with the glimpse he catches of her as she flirts with her husband and then him from her vantage, the Vizier forgets his vicious duty and instead returns to tell the Caliph of this desirable jewel.

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The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), immortal as the founding work of the film Expressionist style, had a cunning metafictional device to frame it, as the protagonists in the central drama of mesmerism and murder were revealed to be lunatics in an asylum, reconfigured into actors in a psychotic’s fantasy. By comparison, Waxwork’s frame has a lighter, humorous quality, as the poet’s fancies are devices for flirting with Eva. Except that Waxworks’ chapters essentially tell the same story over in variances, becoming increasingly direct and intensified in figuring the lovers and the deadly threat. Woven in with this is an equal and increasingly nervous contemplation of the individual vulnerable in the face of ravening power, couched first social and political terms, in Harun and Ivan, and then in the lurking, miasmic pure dread of Jack the Ripper. This first episode offers the theme in a mildly comedic manner, as Harun and the baker make expeditions to claim what the other one has: Harun wants the baker’s wife and the baker, trying to appease her stoked desire for worldly rewards, decides to break into the palace and steal Harun’s wish-granting magic ring. The Vizier’s visit has stoked awareness in both baker and bride of their lowly, straitened circumstances, and their festering resentments break out afterwards, with the baker stomping out on his vainglorious mission with the declaration, “I am a man!” This talismanic phrase recurs with more specific force in Leni’s later film, The Man Who Laughs, but its implicit declaration of the innate rights and stature of the individual echoes throughout Waxworks. It’s not hard to look for its relevance to real-world circumstances at the time – Germany was deep in the grip of the post-war reparations-induced economic crisis. Murnau’s The Last Laugh the same year tackled, again with Jannings, the same theme of desperation and dehumanisation through fiscal crisis.

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In the first chapter, this battle resolves comically after Leni intercuts Harun’s surprisingly clumsy, self-satisfied efforts to seduce Eva, with her husband’s adventures. He steals into the palace and penetrates the shadowy, cavernous reaches of his bedchamber, locating what he thinks is the Caliph but is actually a dummy he leaves in his bed when he goes out on such nocturnal adventures. Believing the dummy is the real Caliph, the baker slices off the figure’s arm and flees, dodging guards and finally escaping the palace with a daring leap onto a palm tree that swings him over the battlement. He returns to his home, as his wife hurriedly hides the Caliph in the only secret place available – the oven. The baker’s venture to steal a fake version of the seemingly mystical jewel proves just as vainglorious as the Caliph’s seduction, and it’s left to Maimune to conjure a fittingly advantageous end for all concerned as she pretends to use the stolen jewel to wish the Caliph to appear alive, whereupon he crawls out of the oven, covered in soot but saved from profound embarrassment, and to repay the favour he appoints the baker the official baker to the palace, leaving off with a final image of the Caliph embracing both partners, cheekily redolent of a ménage-a-trois in the offing.

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This chapter of Waxworks somewhat belies the film’s reputation as a classic specifically of horror cinema, instead signalling a link between the performative professionalism and flimflammer art of the carnival and the stage pantomime, as well as reaching back to the portmanteau storytelling tradition as represented by the Arabian Nights itself, as well as the labours of Germanic anthologists like Hoffmann and the Grimm brothers. This sense of Waxworks as a cultural bridging point is important in itself. The major “characters” of the waxworks are introduced with the actors who embody them noted at the same time, reducing the great historical figures and the big stars to rigid figures, powerless without poets to animate them. Meanwhile the narrative performs a similar function, turning these real beings into functions of a private mythological and psychological universe. The stylisation of the settings, the quintessential flourish of the Expressionist style, aims not for realism but for a brand of minimalist, almost symbolic representation. Whereas with Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924), Lang laboured to fuse together the dreamlike aspect of Expressionism’s already-familiar twisting reaches and heavy shadows with a three-dimensional sense of scale and stature, here Leni pushes in the opposite direction, reducing his setting and backdrop as close towards the insubstantial as he can without quite going entirely abstract.

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The curving minarets and bowing walls of the palace, up which snakes the black spout of the baker’s inconvenient chimney. The awesome yet almost melting halls of the palace interior, where minions steal between warped columns and smoke and incense dreamily fill the corridors, is definitely a place of the mind, an inner sanctum of libidinous greed, whereas the baker’s home is almost a cave, curved and womb-like. The second chapter, shorter than the first, repeats the motif of the mighty, arbitrary ruler of life and death imposing himself on a pair of young lovers. This time, however, the theme is Ivan the Terrible, presented as a glowing-eyed lunatic stricken with a compulsive, almost childlike fascination for the horrors he can reap on just about anyone he pleases. Where Jannings’ bluff, hammy performance was suited for the take on Harun as corpulent, casually murderous but actually easily tamed potentate, this chapter offers Conrad Veidt as an unnervingly fixated, spindly-limbed emanation of the sickliest part of the id, glimpsed moving in a stiff crouch along a dank passage that connects his apartments with the Kremlin’s torture chambers.

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This tale, shorter and sharper than its predecessor, strips the bark off the fantasy figuration of lust and power. Leni presents Ivan as a monster governed and, to a degree, held in check by an elaborate network of irrational devices. In particular, a giant hourglass is used to measure how long his victims will be tortured, their names written on the glass. When the sand runs out, so does their tenure on Earth. Ivan’s astrologer, his closest confidant, inspires suspicions in the tyrant’s mind over the loyalty of his head poison-mixer, and so Ivan decides to have him arrested. The poisoner, in turn, vengefully writes Ivan’s name on the hourglass before he’s arrested. Ivan’s dubious pleasures are interrupted with a boyar arrives, asking him to attend his daughter’s wedding. The paranoid Tsar at first takes the old man’s entreaty as a set-up to lure him into an assassination, but then agrees to be a guest, with one codicil: he insists that the boyar dress in his clothes, and vice versa. The Tsar’s instincts prove right, as a hidden gang of assassins tries to skewer him with an arrow as he rides through Moscow, but their bolt, aimed at the regally-dressed figure, kills the boyar instead. Ivan arrives at the boyar’s house and triumphantly announces his arrival, forgetting the detail that the bride’s father is dead. The bride (Belajeff) weeps over his body and her husband (Dieterle) releases a tirade of fury at the Tsar, for which he is instantly imprisoned and tortured. The Tsar also has the bride spirited to his chambers to seduce her. She strikes him with a crop instead, so he drags her down to witness her husband’s sufferings. His pleasure is however cut short as his astrologer brings him the hourglass marked with his name, believing it means the poisoner successfully dosed the Tsar fatally. Ivan spirals into complete insanity as he thinks he’s dying, and he keeps turning the hourglass over, believing this will stay the moment of his death. A title card explains he kept doing this until the day he died.

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Here the insistent correlation of the eroticised id with a will to worldly power becomes more distinctly maniacal and driving, whilst the watch-like parts of the story tick on with swift, precise effect. This chapter of Waxworks seems to have had an almost endless influence on many who have followed, most especially Eisenstein, who clearly drew upon it for his similarly arch take on the Tsar in Ivan the Terrible Parts I (1944) and II (1958), reproducing the angular sets and equally angular performances. Leni himself would build upon it with The Man Who Laughs, and Sternberg would draw on both, surely, for his own visit to the realm of the historical fantasia, The Scarlet Empress (1934).

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The last chapter of Waxworks is very short, almost an appendix, but it’s also the most bizarre and remarkable sequence. Here the poet imagines he and Eva are being stalked around the carnival and town by Jack the Ripper, who seems to disappear like a phantom and reappear, and even manifests in many places at once, as the world becomes increasingly strange and distorted. Finally the poet is shaken awake by Eva: he’s been having a nightmare, and he gratefully embraces his new lover. Here Leni slips all bonds of narrative precept and essentially offers a visualised nightmare, a plunge into a formless state of irrationality, where the poet’s invented enemies and rivals for Eva’s affections void all forms to become a blank, implacable engine of erotic threat. Here is both the seed for the image of the slasher killer who would later maraud his way across many a movie screen in the next century, a psychological conception of threat stripped out of all zone of actual human interest – Leatherface, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are distant descendants. But Leni’s flourishes of style here also veer into virtually experimental film style in his madly proliferating double exposures and increasingly formless sense of space, used to evoke the complete inward spiral of the psyche towards an ultimate confrontation with that dark character within. Here too is kinship with the lawless effects of filmmakers as diverse as Kenneth Anger, David Lynch, and Maya Deren.

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Waxworks made Leni’s name, and within a couple of years he went to Hollywood on Carl Laemmle’s invitation. His sense of humour as well as style and menace might well have put in him good stead with Tinseltown, and his first American project was to film Crane Wilbur’s comedy-horror play The Cat and the Canary (1927). That film proved a big hit, laying down a template that would soon resolve into Universal’s house style of horror and offering fillips of style that still recur in horror films today, like its restless, entity-suggesting camerawork. Leni’s third Hollywood film, The Man Who Laughs, has a legendary lustre today, in part because of its pop cultural influence, particularly on that perennial enemy of Batman, The Joker. There’s an irony in there, as the eponymous hero of Leni’s film, adapted from the novel L’homme qui rit by Victor Hugo, couldn’t be more different to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s enigmatic psychopath. Like Hugo’s other, more famous protagonists Quasimodo and Jean Valjean, The Man Who Laugh’s central figure Gwynplaine represents a politically abused but potentially powerful underclass, and like Quasimodo his exterior ugliness belies his fine, tortuously sensitive humanity. The film also reunited Leni with Veidt on new shores. The Man Who Laughs kicks off with a long prologue where, although the settings are more tangible and vivid, returns to the Ivan the Terrible episode of Waxworks as it depicts the English King James II (Samuel de Grasse) and his jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) descend from palace to dungeon at the news his soldiers have captured the rebellious Lord Clancharlie (Veidt). James gloats over Clancharlie for sadistic jollies as he informs him that, as a punishment in his father’s stead, his young son Gwynplaine has been handed over to a sect of gypsies known as comprachico, who specialise in creating deformed and disabled freaks for carnivals, with the instructions to carve his son’s face into a permanent grin, “to laugh forever at his fool father.”

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The opening scenes of The Man Who Laughs are a remarkable string of images and settings. The statue-lined environs of James’ bedchamber. The jester’s malignant face looking out of a secret passage framed by carved monstrosities. The iron maiden closing around Lord Clancharlie as he prays for his son. The wind and snow-whipped shore where the comprachicos, sent into exile by James after they’ve done his gruesome bidding, flock onto a boat but abandon young Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr) to the elements. The mutilated child gropes his way through a blizzard studded with hanged bodies dangling from gibbets, the harvest of James’ repressions. Gwynplaine comes across a woman, frozen to death but with her infant child still clutched to her breast. He saves the baby and brings her to the parked caravan of travelling actor Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who recognises that the baby is blind and demands of the boy, “Stop that laughing!” before he realises he cannot. Ursus takes both youngsters in and they make a living travelling between country fairs. By the time Gwynplaine (Veidt again) and the girl, named Dea (Mary Philbin), have grown into adults, Gwynplaine has gained fame, bordering on folk heroism, as a clown and entertainer. Along with a band of fellow players, he, Ursus, and Dea enact a play written by Ursus called “The Man Who Laughs.” But fate has a mean gag in store when they roll into Southwark Fair in London’s suburbs, a setting modelled after one of William Hogarth’s famously ebullient but also viciously satiric engravings. Here the comprachico surgeon who gave him his remarkable countenance, Dr Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), now living under a pseudonym, recognises his handiwork on Gwynplaine’s face, and writes a letter to the current holder of the Clancharlie estate, the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), a debauched aristocrat and illegitimate sister of the current ruler Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell). The message however is intercepted by Barkilphedro, now working for the court and visiting Josiana, and he alerts Anne to this strange and potentially propitious discovery: Josiana has been irritating Anne with her wilfully arrogant behaviour and wanton escapades, and a neat device of punishment is now open to her.

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Le homme qui rit was written by Hugo when he was in exile from France for his harshly critical writings on the national authorities, and he wrote it to serve as much as an oddball political parable as a standard historical romance. Leni keeps intact both its nominal setting in English history but also its weird, Ruritanian aspect, using this just as Hugo did – as an excuse to indulge his weird fancies. Although the sorts of things they’re depicted as doing had been real practices in times much further past, the comprachicos were just the first of Hugo’s inventions. After the gruesome, outsized fairytale flourishes of the opening, The Man Who Laughs slowly resolves into something more like a melodrama, if one still laced with dimensions of perversity. Those dimensions resolve as Gwynplaine is tortured by Dea’s love for him, believing he has no right to impose someone of his grotesque stature on her, although she can’t see the affliction. He sees some hope, however, when Josiana visits the fair where he’s performing and, compelled by his strange appearance, invites him to her manor.

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Gwynplaine, convincing himself that if someone can actually love him in spite of his deformity than he has the right to love Dea, accepts the invitation. He finds himself the object of a fetishist’s electric, potently erotic blend of repulsion and fascination, as Josiana rejoices in his hideousness, clearly turned on by it in a sick way that Gwynplaine correctly senses is merely the flipside of the more familiar horror and mockery he receives rather than a negation of it. But then Josiana receives a letter from the Queen, informing her that now Gwynplaine has been found, he will be restored to his rightful inheritance, and she will be obligated to marry him. Josiana’s rueful laughter, signalling awareness she’s about to nailed to this particular point of her character as her cross just as surely as Gwynplaine’s face is his, sends Gwynplaine running. This proves the catalyst for Gwynplaine finally allowing Dea to feel the nature of his disfigurement, a moment that resolves with Dea’s gorgeously corny line, “God took away my sight to see the real Gwynplaine!” Both Philbin and Baclanova featured in two other, quite different yet pertinent takes on the fundamental dichotomy presented here, as Philbin had previously played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera (1926), opposite Lon Chaney, and Baclanova would go on to again be the figure of taunting sensuality before the misshapen in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).

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Even on the cusp of happiness, Gwynplaine can’t escape the peculiar trap that is identity: he’s arrested by royal soldiers and taken to prison, to be press-ganged into Anne’s plan for him. When Ursus follows him there, he mistakes a funeral procession for Hardquanonne, who had been captured and held there too, for Gwynplaine’s. Leni continues to stage remarkable sequences, as when the players pretend to be putting on a normal show to keep Dea from learning of his apparent death, and the lengthy finale in which Gwynplaine is presented to the House of Lords whilst Dea, realising he’s alive, gropes blindly to find her way to him. For all its facets of brilliance, however, The Man Who Laughs is peculiarly lumpy experience dramatically speaking, splitting the difference between gothic grandeur, sickly satire, and sentimental melodrama, before resolving in a manner fit for a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. The hoary plot never quite builds to any sequences as memorable as those in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which, interestingly, Waxworks star Dieterle would film in 1939), whilst the attempt to go for a crowd-pleasing tone in the final lap is underlined when Barkilphedro gets his comeuppance, his throat ripped out by Ursus’ loyal dog.

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That such a mixture doesn’t entirely blend isn’t surprising, as Laemmle’s determination to repeat the success of The Phantom of the Opera saw a few too many cooks adding to the broth on the script level. But The Man Who Laughs packs a wallop regardless because of the fervour Leni and Veidt invest in it. Here was the perfect role for Veidt and the perfect mythology for Leni. Veidt’s appearance, a dental plate used to make his permanent smile-snarl seem all the more unnatural, offers a face turned into a kabuki mask, rigid and lunatic. And yet watching how Veidt sketches emotions around the edges of this offers a master class in expressive performing. Perhaps the high point of the film, at once hallucinatory and unsparing in its gaze, comes when Gwynplaine first appears on stage at one of his shows. The smile he turns on his audiences gains delirious power, sending the crowd into convulsions and bringing Josiana under the spell of a peculiar charisma, her fixation communicated in a series of superimpositions and dissolves, beautiful (but ugly) man and ugly (but beautiful) man bound together, a visual etude of awareness that one must exist to give meaning the other.

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Gwynplaine’s hideousness sparks merriment, becomes a leer of mutual mockery, a telegraph to the common folk suggesting the dark side of the society they live in, and finally locating an accord with them, on the level of frail humanity, the embodiment of all absurdity. To see Gwynplaine is to have an existential crisis that can only be resolved in laughter, whilst the man himself experiences the sexual thrill of intense masochism being satisfied, and exultation in his rare fame. The vividness of Leni and Veidt’s realisation of this theme surely was to echo on through Universal’s subsequent horror films with their tragic antiheroes. As Gwynplaine eventually rises from the status of clown to lord, he manages the more important evolution, finally voiced when bellows with righteous fury at the stunned toffs and fatuous queen: “A king made me a clown! A queen made me a lord! But God made me a man!” It’s the climactic moment of the film and of the revealing thread of interest that runs through from Waxworks to this film, the depiction of brutal power: Gwynplaine’s declaration of the rights of man is every bit as totemic, and instantly punishable, as the baker and bridegroom’s invective against their tyrants and the evils forced by life in the earlier film.

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Fortunately, Gwynplaine’s new status cuts a swathe through the stunned lords, giving him a brief window of escape before the Queen’s heavies move in, and he stages a successful flight across the rooftops of London. This sequence , as with the baker’s escape from the palace in Waxworks, reveals Leni’s gifts at the free rush of action as well in creating the tangled moods of psychic anxiety. In spite of the never-never setting of both films, or perhaps because of it, a genuine charge of palpable meaning emerges from such flourishes. Leni’s world is a place of wandering, rootless but free artists and yearning poets, twisted beings full of humanity, and monstrous forces of political and social power. But, most fundamentally, for both the poet and Gwynplaine, the man himself is his own enemy. Leni’s small but still vital oeuvre is charged with this sense of duality. The monster is stalking us; the monster is us.

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1920s, Action-Adventure, Epic, Fantasy, German cinema, Scifi

Metropolis (1926)

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Director: Fritz Lang
Screenwriter: Thea Von Harbou

By Roderick Heath

The title resolves amidst intersecting geometries that coalesce and create a cityscape, ranged with neo-Babylonian techno-ziggurats: Metropolis, instantly a statement worthy of Ozymandias. A super-city where trains and cars shuttle along spanning bridges and aircraft buzz between sky-nudging structures. A great machine that explodes and morphs into a dark god of ages past, accepting human sacrifice into a greedy, fiery maw. A great dial of switches becomes a massive clock crushing its operator. A dark and twisted fairytale abode left like a seed of corruption in the midst of this empire of the will. The outpost of an ancient brand of faith discovered underground, to where the beaten and exhausted tread in search of hope. A beam of light in the midst of a dank, labyrinthine catacomb, terrorising and pinioning a saintly young woman. A robot fashioned in the likeness of a human, all art-deco brass curves and blank features, wreathed by electric arcs, slowly taking on the likeness of the same young woman. The robotic simulacrum dancing like Salome reborn, stirring the lusts of men until their eyes join together in a great mass of rapacious gazing. Statues of the seven deadly sins lurching out of their stalls in a Gothic cathedral, announcing the coming of calamity and death. A mass of desperate children all reaching out for their saviours in the midst of surging flood waters. A rooftop struggle between hero and villain for the life of the heroine, the battle of good and evil staged as vertiginous graph written on the face of a civilisation.
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These are some of the lodestone images of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and it’s still easy to feel their power even after intervening decades where their genetic material is woven into pop culture at large. If A Trip to the Moon was the seed of science fiction on screen, Metropolis is its green stem, and much more too. The floodtide of Fritz Lang’s visual techniques and the expanse of the film’s evocation of the future might have met resistance of mind and eye in its day, but even in an abused and truncated form enough of his vision remained to stun the eye and light the creative spark.
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Director Lang and his creative and personal partner Thea Von Harbou had climbed swiftly to the peak of the German film industry thanks to highly ambitious, stylistically radical films that provided basic engineering for cinema as it found maturity and began to branch into different streams of genre and style. Lang, working under the influence of Louis Feuillade, had taken his template and pushed it into stranger places with his rollicking action-adventure diptych The Spiders (1919), and had written the script for the film that kicked off the Expressionist cinema style, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). Lang’s first great opus, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), embodied the shock of the new in cinema, telling in the mode of epic melodrama a tale of crisis in modernity by depicting someone capable of manipulating its many aspects, and then his follow-up Die Nibelungen (1924) had delved into the foundational myth of Germany to explore the ructions that cause tragedy and the ideals and fidelities that make civilisations. Metropolis was destined to be the third chapter in this survey, a myth of the future if still based in the pressing quandaries of the present and articulated through a vast array of concepts from the cultural inheritance. Von Harbou wrote a novel specifically to use as the basis of the script, and the production took over Germany’s flagship film studio UFA in the midst of the national inflation travails that helped shake what little confidence there was in the Weimar republic. Lang’s lordly vision took a toll on cast and crew, fortunes were spent, and the reaction to the film’s initial was like cold water hitting hot metal, warping all perception of Lang’s achievement. Metropolis’s sniffy reception sounds familiar today, as many called it a giant would-be blockbuster that is all visual bluster and no substance. A film hated by no lesser personage in the budding science fiction genre than H.G. Wells. A film Lang himself later disowned, perhaps feeling that well had been too badly poisoned.
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After barely recouping Metropolis’s massive expense upon release, UFA was compelled to let Paramount Pictures buy it out. Metropolis spent much of the next thirty years being cut down and reshaped, until what was left was so confused many thought it had always been that way. It was adopted as fetish object and style guide by the Nazis, who wanted to emulate its monumental aesthetic and absorb its message system into their own, and Von Harbou herself became an active party member. The film eventually became a pop art moveable feast, including being appropriated as a music video by Giorgio Moroder. Only in the past couple of decades has Metropolis been mostly restored to the point where it can be properly judged and studied according to Lang’s original intention. And yet, in spite of such manhandling, Metropolis still stands as one of the most influential films ever made. Metropolis provided a blueprint for envisioning a wing of the imagination encompassing dreamlike horizons, conjoining both the imminently possible and the ages of humankind so far into a grandiose survey of conceptual iconography. Much like the space opera that formed much of science fiction’s first popular phase on the page and which still survives chiefly thanks to Star Wars, Metropolis tries to comprehend the future and the present in terms of the past, envisioning an age of technical marvel and scientific miracle as a new version of the old alchemistic fantasia and the greatest dreams of imperial domain, whilst asking on what foundations such superstructures grow.
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Metropolis is, of course, like most variations on the utopia-dystopia scale, actually an account of the moment of its making, thrown into sharp relief on a mimetic map. The tensions that termite Metropolis are the tensions lurking under the brittle façade of Weimar Germany, where, in the wake of World War I’s calamity, far left and far right agitators had clashed on the streets and nearly seized the machinery of government. The entire apparatus of state had been shaken, and reconstruction, the surge of newness pushing the nation forward, presented a political and social landscape few understood and felt at ease with. Even money wasn’t worth anything. The essential theme of labour versus management was more universal, and the new reality of much work in the early twentieth century, which turned humans into parts in huge assemblies, was taken into Metropolis to its logical conclusion, envisioning a carefully stratified human populace where some live in regimented, downcast, utterly slavish existences, doomed to run the infrastructure that allows more comfortable lives for the rest. Metropolis is the future itself, situated in no identified nation or age. Captain of this great project is Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), architect of the city and its Tyrant in the original sense, oligarchic master and civic administrator. Fredersen lives in the “New Tower of Babel,” a skyscraper at the city’s lofty hub.
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Metropolis isn’t just a city he has been elected to run or master but his own brainchild, his ego-empire, the expression of human will essayed on the greatest scale. Metropolis is also in part a variation on a familiar conflict between fathers and sons, the stern and acquiescing pragmatism of age versus the idealism of youth, another universal topic also bound to gain impetus in the coming years. Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is the child of privilege, anointed amongst the rich and blessed, free to train body and mind to maximum potential in his days before taking his ease with the procured lovelies invited to the pleasure gardens of the city’s rooftop expanses. But his life is set to be changed by the intrusion of a woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), who ushers in a collective of urchins gathered from the lower reaches, to give them a look at the closest thing to heaven, the world Freder inhabits thoughtlessly. This gives the princeling his first sight of inequity and of the woman who becomes the instant lynchpin of his existence. Maria and her charges are quickly ushered out of this exalted sphere but Freder becomes determined both to find Maria and acquaint himself with the lives of Metropolis’s workers. The realm he ventures into proves to be a scene out of a fantasia where Dante co-authors with Dickens and Picasso. Here cowed and regimented workers trudge through blank, institutional corridors and take up work stations at hulking machines where they perform repetitive, arduous tasks for ten hour shifts.
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An explosion in a massive machine inspires the horrified Freder to think of Moloch, the wicked god of Biblical lore. Seeing a young worker collapse at a station where he works a dial-like switching control, Freder rushes to take his place. The worker, whose name is Georgy but is snidely affixed merely with the title 11811 by the bosses, swaps clothes with Freder, who sends him to take refuge in his apartment. Freder struggles through the rest of his shift, almost broken trying to keep up with the vital task. Another worker, mistaking him for Georgy, whispers to him about a meeting Maria has called, and Freder joins the workers who descend into the ancient catacombs under the city to listen to Maria give a sermon. Fredersen, wishing to split Freder from Maria and to break her moral influence over the workers and gain an excuse to establish martial law, visits scientist and inventor C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has constructed a perfect humanoid robot, a Machine Man: Fredersen wants Rotwang to give it Maria’s appearance, and use it to stir up trouble.
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Lang explained that the root of Metropolis lay in a visit he made to New York in 1924, confronted by the looming grandeur of the city’s skyscrapers, floating like a dream fashioned from glass and steel, erected with all the promise of the age’s new possibilities but also stirring some profound anxiety, a fear of being dwarfed and pinioned by the weight of such achievements. The novel version of Metropolis was then written by Von Harbou as a parable about winners and losers and Metropolis still feels strikingly relevant in choosing this as subject matter, as it remains the basic, ever-urgent matter at the heart of the modern dream. The first target of criticism of Metropolis is usually its storyline, which is usually judged not just simple but simplistic and naïve to boot in its treatment of social schisms. And that’s undoubtedly true on some levels. The film’s recurring motto, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart,” is on the face of it a purely humanistic, essentialist slogan. But it’s not such a great stretch of the imagination to link the magical thinking behind it in regards to social philosophy with openness to similarly trite thought that would soon seduce the screenwriter along with millions of others to the Nazi cause. The solution at the end of Metropolis indicts the troublemaker and presents rapprochement between upper and lower classes as a matter simply of mutual respect and good-heartedness. Fredersen, who has built a city on iniquity and laboured to find an excuse to permanently and violently oppress his working class, is let off the hook because he gets anxious over his own son.
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Metropolis is in part an attack on a worker’s revolt as an aim, seeing it as prone to demagoguery and manipulation and destructive in it results. On the other hand, it’s also a fervent attack on capitalist power as self-perpetuating, blinding, and dehumanising. Metropolis proceeds with a plot that is certainly close to comic book. To comment on Metropolis on this level, though, is to misunderstand it crucially. Metropolis invokes a vast sprawl of mythopoeic associations, and represents a clear and direct continuation of Die Nibelungen’s obsessive attempts to grapple with social identity and construction, using the language of mythology as starting point for a work of conjuring that unfolds on levels not just of story and action but in design, costuming, lighting, the entire texture sprawling across the screen. Metropolis betrays an ambition towards creating a total work of art, the gesamtkunstwerk which had been Wagner’s ideal and also had become the credo of the Bauhaus movement, whose cultural vitality and concepts Lang surely had in mind whilst making the film. Metropolis sometimes recalls nothing less momentous than the religious paintings of Ravenna or the sculptures of the Parthenon: we are looking into a way of conceiving the world from side-on, as an illustrative, holistic sprawl. Many of these mythical refrains are biblical, including the parable of the prodigal son and the captivity in Babylon.
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Both Maria and Fredersen conceive the world in terms of legend, each employing the tale of Babel to make their own statement: Fredersen’s New Tower, with his gleaming citadel, announces to man and heaven his lordship over all, whilst Maria recalls the calumny and division implied at the root of such mammoth human projects. The speech she gives to the gathered workers is not a literal political tract but a parable recalling the original myth of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, tweaking it into a tract where in the destruction of the great human project came about because the visionaries designing the tower could not speak the same language, literally and figuratively, as the people hired to build it, causing riot and destruction. She casts Freder in the role of mediator, the man who can link above and below both personally and symbolically. Maria herself recalls the history of early Christianity’s practice in the catacombs of Rome, with similarities to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s much-filmed novel Quo Vadis?, casting Maria as voice of Christian charity and brotherhood. Freder discovers her in her underground church amidst the dark and twisted reaches of the catacomb, the sacred an island in the nightmarish space.
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Other aspects recall the mythology Lang and Von Harbou had examined on Die Nibelungen, as faces and identities are swapped. Freder cast as a young Siegfried-like hero who ventures out to battle with dragons and finds himself swiftly engaged in a much more profound battle for the future of a society where covert designs and mysterious doppelgangers manipulate events. And of course, that other great Germanic myth, Faust, could be the overarching frame – all this represents what happens when mankind sells its soul for progress. The subplot of the twin Marias echo of one variation of classical Greek legend, one that Euripides utilised in his play Helen, in which the real Helen was duplicated by the gods, with the real Helen being whisked away to Egypt where she lived in captivity and incognito whilst her malicious double caused the Trojan War. The way the Trojan myths entwine the cultural and political with the personal and in particular the sexual points to the similar ambition propelling Metropolis, which was in part designed by Von Harbou as a lampooning of the liberated Weimar “new woman” in the figure of the provocative, sensual, carelessly destructive cyborg Maria, a chimera created by the denizens of the new age to enact their not-so-secret desires. Whereas for Lang, this element fits rather into his career-long fascination with the power of the irrational to warp the sturdiest superstructure of ethics and security, of which sexual desire is the most readily apparent and eternally vexing manifestations.
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The crux for the atavistic and futuristic is Rotwang, the archetype of the mad scientist with his wild hair and gloved cybernetic hand whose persona was set to echo on and on through pop culture to come. But he’s also a projection of the ancient figure of the dark magician into a contemporary realm, the alchemist who rewrites laws of nature and steals the power of gods and demons and who worships idols, having turned the visage of his great love into a monument and has pentagrams festooned around his laboratory. Rotwang lives in a twisted, ancient building at the centre of Metropolis. He is linked to Fredersen not just in rivalry as radically different versions of the same titan-genius, but through a very personal link: the lost love was a woman named Hel, who married Fredersen rather than him and died giving birth to Freder. Fredersen’s request of him to aid his designs in regaining total control present Rotwang with a way to destroy him instead, by attacking the city he has built and the son who is the living link to Hel. Rotwang’s name – red wing in English – invokes both satanic stature and political danger. Like Faust, he conjures the Hel(en) figure as incarnation of taunting desirability and illusory object of yearning. His house is a hangover of Gothic fantasia clinging like a weed to the flank of the supercity, but also sits atop a well that leads into the dank labyrinth below the city. Rotwang is the jilted and obsessive lover who has castrated himself in surrendering his hand in creating a facsimile of woman. He knows too well the dark drives of humankind, which allows him to occupy this place, the gateway into secret human motives and the power of the illogical white-anting Fredersen’s ego-empire.
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Lang’s obsession with underworlds, first evinced in The Spiders which conceived of a Chinese colony lurking underneath San Francisco and recurring again and again in his cinema, here has bloomed into something close to a form of psychic architecture that conceives of the whole of Metropolis as a mind, complete with id, ego, and superego, rational stretches and irrational depths, its holy and profane women, its young crusader torn between three father figures, one mad but powerful in mind and emotion, one timid and entrapped, the last seemingly dead in all nerves but will. Similar ideas are evinced in a very different setting in Von Harbou’s The Indian Tomb, a novel set in an Indian city (which Lang would film much later) where the progressive Maharajah’s stirred erotic jealousy turns his world into a repressive state and the shiny bastions of the exterior conceal basements where zombie-like lepers. Rotwang chases down Maria after the workers depart, stalking her through the labyrinth and terrorising her with a torch beam, ironically inverts the image of light in darkness as the bringing of terror and the pitiless of eye of technology (the movie camera?) to the subterranean realm where emotion is truth, to torment the holy innocent.
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Maria and Freder’s journey is linked with two men Freder helps release from their slots in the great machine, Georgy and Josaphat (Theodor Loos). The latter works as aide to Fredersen but gets fired for not being prompt enough in reports, a devastating act that will doom Josaphat to a degrading existence as unemployable pariah. But Freder, as he did with Georgy, throws him a lifeline by letting him take refuge in his apartment and taking him on as a partner in his venture to change Metropolis. Just as Georgy is a near-double for Freder, his less lucky, anointed brother in look and soul, Josaphat has been Freder’s more human surrogate father almost incidentally as the man who took care of his needs on his father’s behalf. Josaphat’s growth from toady to hero is one of the film’s most entertaining elements. But Georgy has been sidetracked by the allure of the high life, and, fuelled by the cash in the clothes Freder loaned him, he goes for a night on the town in the Yoshiwara Club, the favourite night spot for the city elite. Both Georgy and Josaphat come under the thumb of one of Fredersen’s agents, known only as the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who bullies and blackmails both men into retreating into the underworld. Freder himself is imprisoned in Rotwang’s house when he hears, by chance, Maria’s screams coming from inside. Entering the abode, he finds himself duelling with the automated doors that steadily shepherd him into the attic and lock him in. Rotwang places the unconscious Maria in a mechanism in his laboratory that steadily reconstructs the Machine Man’s exterior into a perfect double of Maria.
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The resulting creation is a demonically sensual and taunting succubus operating under Rotwang’s command, and even Fredersen, who knows well what it is, can’t resist when it visits him. Freder breaks out of Rotwang’s house and arrives back at his father’s office in time to see what looks like his father and his lover embracing. The crisis of disillusion on top of his agonised and exhausting adventures is so great Freder collapses in a delirium. The Robot-Maria, sent out by Rotwang to stir up anarchy, performs before the uptown folk at the Yoshiwara Club, Whore of Babylon going jazz age burlesque priestess. The cyborg’s starkly erotic, physically frenetic performance stokes the ritzy crowd, all milk-fed whelps produced by the idealistic, Olympian reaches of the city like Freder, into a grotesque mass of lust. The veneer of civilisation is peeled off like a chrysalis, and soon they’re duelling each-other and staging mass orgies, distracting the scions of the governing class from the chaos about to be unleashed by Robot-Maria’s more pertinent campaign. It takes the place of the still-imprisoned Maria and now preaches destruction of Metropolis’s utility systems, to bring the oppressors low. Freder, Josaphat, and Georgy try to calm the crowd but the workers try to assault Freder, and Georgy is stabbed to death when he throws himself in front of him. Led by Robot-Maria, the workers swarm to assault the Metropolis systems, finally destroying the great “Heart Machine” that coordinates the utilities, paralysing the city. But the workers’ actions unleash a flood that begins to fill their own city with water, threatening to drown their children who have remained behind.
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Metropolis would be remarkable enough for the beauty and ingenuity put into what Lang puts in front of his camera, the sets by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Volbrecht, Eugen Schüfftan’s radically innovative model photography, and Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s totemic design for the Machine Man. But the cinematic textures of Metropolis in cutting, shooting, and use of the camera are equally impressive and represent silent cinema at its most innovative, amassing into an artefact that proves, scarcely a decade after the crude yet sufficiently significant grammar of The Birth of a Nation (1915) helped officially open up the true cinematic age, just how vigorous the new medium had become, and looking forward to the ebullient freedoms of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Lang had Hollywood’s spectacles his sights, the colossi fashioned by Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille and laid out for stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney, hoping to prove European cinema could not just match such production heft but outdo it for artistry. Lang and his brilliant technical team, which also included cinematography greats Karl Freund and Günther Rittau, explored almost every facet of the medium possible in the time.
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The surveys of Metropolis demanded the creation of a landscape through huge mock-ups and complex model work. The scenes of Robot-Maria’s creation and the destruction of the Heart Machine interpolation of photographic elements in a combination familiar in many respects now but still startling in their eye-filling beauty and inventiveness in context. Midway through the film, Lang launches into an astonishing movement after Freder’s discovery of his father with Robot-Maria. Freder’s mental disintegration is depicted in flourishes of abstract animation and herky-jerky editing that resembles the labours of experimental filmmakers. Robot-Maria’s dance is then intercut with Freder’s raving fantasies, in which he sees the Thin Man as evil priest repeating Maria’s sermon as rhapsodic incantation that stirs the forces of death and destruction into motion. The allegorical pantheon of the deadly sins and Death in Metropolis’s cathedral is seen jerking to life and striding out of their stalls. The film is split not into chapters or cantos like Die Nibelungen but into musical signatures – Prelude, Intermezzo, and Furioso.
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Lang’s original concept was to have Rotwang literally conjure up magic forces to attack the modern, scientifically enabled world of Metropolis. This idea was mostly dropped but here something of this eruption of the irrational is still present, climaxing in the image out of medieval nightmare of Death slicing the air before Lang’s camera. Lang edges into the realm of outright surrealism here, and does again as he builds to a climactic shot during Robot-Maria’s dance when the screen is filled with that mass of eyes – the male gaze literalised as one great amorphous, greedy force, a shot reminiscent in execution of experimental photography. More subtly, perhaps, Lang’s filmmaking conveys a constant awareness of power relations throughout, befitting a film where the synergies of social relations, positive and negative, are translated throughout into concrete expressions. It’s quietly but surely present in conversational scenes like Freder’s first conversation with his father or the Thin Man’s confrontation of Josaphat, where attitudes of body and expressions define the characters (the latter scene building to the Thin Man’s physical as well as mental domination of Josaphat) in terms of their potency and the regard they show others – the hard line of Fredersen’s tilted jaw as he son appeals to him, only for the young man to realise his father is something like a monster. This aspect is illustrated more explicitly and spectacularly with Lang’s arrangements of human elements in the sequences where workers tread in close, robotic ranks.
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The opening scenes depict the workers changing shifts in obedience to horns that blare out around the city, moving between their underground, near-featureless, pseudo-Berber city, the intermediary stage before Wells’ Morlock evolves and start eating the Eloi above, all scored to an unheard yet definite musical rhythm (no wonder musicians like Moroder have been drawn to the film). There are even moments of hand-held camerawork during Maria’s flight from Rotwang in the underground. One of Lang’s most insistent traits during the German phase of his career was the way he turned his awareness of and fascination for contemporary art styles and his utilisation of them to create cinematic effect. This trait had first made itself known in his plan for Dr Caligari’s Expressionistic effects, and in Die Nibelungen had seen him annexing Cubism and art nouveau for decorative and conceptual import. Here, the entire universe has become, on one level, a form of installation art, the marching ranks of workers elements arrayed in harmonies of line and form. Spaces are carefully diagrammed to open up vistas even within the boxy Academy ratio frame of the day, through use of height – Metropolis is a hierarchical tale on both the thematic and visual levels. The linear clarity and rigid control inherent in such stylisation is ironic considering that Metropolis’s concerns are closer to rather different European artists of the day, including the photomontage satire of John Hartfield and the bleak panoramas of Hans Baluschek.
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Both Fröhlich and Helm were thrust into stardom specifically for this film, but whilst Fröhlich merely looks the part of ardent young hero, Helm, still a teenager during the shoot and yet attacking the role with astonishing gusto as she inhabits the Madonna-whore schism, is remarkable. Klein-Rogge, the hydra-headed star of Lang’s early films, wrote himself into film legend as Rotwang with his wild hair, gloved hand, and imperious gestures. His role is hurt by scenes still missing from the film, including a violent confrontation with Fredersen that gives Maria the chance to escape his house. The workers lay waste to the machinery that oppresses them but in a self-defeating way. Tellingly, Freder’s other self from the worker populace, Georgy, is defined by his dedication to his work, his understanding that he is in a way necessary to the survival of Metropolis even as it uses him up like an replaceable part. The shattering of order, celebrated by the workers who dance around the toppled idols of technocracy, soon gives way to panic as they realise their children are in danger, and they’re impotent to intervene. Fredersen, who has ordered the Heart Machine’s foreman and worker representative Grot (Heinrich George) to stand down and let the workers do their worst, is stricken himself with the seemingly imminent death of Freder in the flood. By this stage his machinations have even cost him the loyalty of the Thin Man, who responds to his desperate demand to know where his son is with the memorable retort, “Tomorrow thousands will ask in fury and desperation, ‘Joh Fredersen, where is my son?’” Meanwhile Robot-Maria is unbound, leading the frenetic, equally nihilistic revelry of the upper class out of the nightclubs and into the streets. Once the ambitions and pretences of Metropolis work themselves out, it becomes, in essence, a Boy’s Own adventure tale not that far from The Spiders’ cliffhanger suspense set-pieces. This is particularly plain in the finale as Freder, Maria, and Josaphat try desperately to save the workers’ children from the flooding, with Maria wrestling with the mechanism to set off the alarm gong in the town square, and the two men making arduous climbs up a shaft to reach her.
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Lang’s acerbic perspective is still in constant evidence, as the climactic scenes hinge upon ideas that would preoccupy Lang in the next decade of his career or so are in play here in the likes of M (1931), The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), Fury (1936), and You Only Live Once (1937) – the terror of lynch mob justice, the accusation of the innocent, the reactive and self-consuming rage of the oppressed, the sinister manipulator of events, the rogue villain whose actions show up uneasy relationship of various social strata. The meeting of those strata is literalised almost comically here as the revelling scions of Metropolis’s upper levels, with Robot-Maria lifted shoulder high as their champion, collide with the mass of enraged workers, chasing the real Maria in the belief she is a witch who has led them to ruin. Somewhere amidst this is an eerie anticipating echo of the grim love affair that would soon come upon Nazi Germany with the almost ritualised, orgiastic invitation of destruction. Metropolis remains tantalising and enigmatic in this regard to this day, in spite of its optimistic depiction of a balance less restored than at last properly achieved. Robot-Maria is the film’s dancing Kali, whipping up the passions of the crowd as a brilliant mouthpiece for an insidious force and then leads the people rejoicing in the moment of pointless and delicious vandalism. In spite of the official message of Metropolis, the power of Robot-Maria’s wild, sexualised, anarchic insurrection feels more heroic than anything the nominal good guys accomplish here even if the result is the old conservative nightmare of such actions, the unleashing of uncontainable forces and unintended horrors. In a different time and different social mood, many a hero in the science fiction genre, from Logan to THX-1138 to Luke Skywalker to Neo, takes up the robot’s iconoclastic mantle rather than Freder’s even whilst stepping into his messianic shoes.
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Luckily, the workers chasing the real Maria instead mistake the robot for her: the mechanoid is tied to an improvised pyre, and burnt. Her skin peeled by licking flame, the Machine-Man under the human guise is revealed, and with it not just the tricks of Rotwang and Fredersen but also the queasy face of the next stage of evolution. Rotwang’s degeneration from evil genius to lecher trying to escape Freder with Maria under arm across the rooftops is comparatively unconvincing and a nudge too far in the direction of gothic melodrama, perhaps inspired by the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1922) and surely laying ground for dozens of variations to come. But the staging of this sequence is impeccable, particularly in the moment when Maria falls over a railing and snatches onto a bell rope to dangle over a dizzying drop, the clang of the bell alerting Freder and others to this new drama. Like Rotwang’s house the cathedral is an island of the ancient amidst the city, and the sole place where the schizoid facets of Metropolis can still come together, crux of old and new, high and low, the bleak memento mori of medieval religious imagery gaining new potency in the context of Metropolis’s collapse. Rotwang falls to his death, Freder and Maria are reunited, and Freder literally becomes the mediator in showing Grot and his father how to overcome their pride and make piece. Again, certainly weak sociology, but also a perfect thumbnail for the fairy tale essence of Metropolis as a whole. Both the greatness and the difficulty of Metropolis lie in that essence, as a film that animates the dark and strident fantasies of its age without quite knowing how to critique or contain them. But even the most casual of glances around us at the world today shows that, where most films of its era have joined the ranks of playful relics, Metropolis still has something potent to say. And therein lies some of the deepest brilliance of Metropolis in tethering science fiction, the art of anticipation, with the method of myth, the primal storytelling form—both speak to that moment just over the horizon of experience and foresight. It is never; it is ever.

Standard
1920s, Silent, War

Wings (1927)

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Director: William A. Wellman

By Roderick Heath

F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) might have won the perhaps more elevated “Most Artistic Production” Oscar amongst the first year’s roll of award winners, but Wings, which took the award for “Best Production,” has been inscribed in posterity as the legendary precursor of every film to capture the Academy’s premier prize. Looked at as a monument to the craft and dynamism of Hollywood filmmaking at the cusp of that first great, wrenching change in the industry, the transition to sound, Wings is indeed a stirring, even staggering relic. Surely taking some courage from the colossal success of King Vidor’s The Big Parade two years earlier, Wings rode the wave of a new popularity for revisiting the dread and grandeur of the Great War. It also virtually invented a cinematic subgenre, the aerial war movie, with the likes of James Whale’s Journey’s End (1930), Howard Hughes’ and Whale’s Hell’s Angels and Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (both 1931), to follow in quick succession. The mythos of World War I’s flying aces remained so powerful that the 1960s and ’70s saw something of a revival, kicking off with The Blue Max (1966).
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As a dramatic entity, Wings straddles fashions in moviemaking, mimicking the seriousness of its concurrent bunkmates in the profound statement on war business, like The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but also making a play for a big, broad audience, mixing genres and styles in an all-out quest for audience-grabbing entertainment. In short, it’s a blockbuster, 1920s style. Paramount Pictures bigwigs Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, and B.P. Schulberg saw the cost of the film rise to more than $2 million, a serious chunk of change for the time, on a mammoth production leveraged with the participation of the War Department. At the eye of this storm was a young director who may well have felt fated to helm such a work: 30-year-old William A. Wellman.
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During WWI, Wellman, who had briefly played professional ice hockey, had joined up at the age of 21 and flown in the Lafayette Air Corps. This made him the only director in Hollywood with combat air experience. Wellman, bullish, brazen, and all too happy to clash with his actors in the name of art to the point where he was later to be nicknamed “Wild Bill,” had dabbled with acting, which Douglas Fairbanks had suggested to him before the war, after returning home. Deciding acting was an unmanly business, Wellman moved into film production. He worked his way up quickly through crew ranks until he was acting as an uncredited codirector; he released his first two, credited features in 1923. Wings teamed him with two more men with wartime flying experience: actor Richard Arlen and story scribe John Monk Saunders, who would pen many aviator dramas and war films over the course of his Hollywood career and become the biographical subject of John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles (1957). Wings was not exactly to be a warts-and-all vehicle for Wellman to dramatise his youthful experiences. Wellman returned often to tales of war throughout his career, including some of the greatest films of the genre, including The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Battleground (1949), as well as his very last feature film, the sadly low-budgeted and miscast Lafayette Escadrille (1959), where he at least pulled off the stroke of casting his son William Wellman Jr. as himself, a young flyer confronted by the grim truths of aerial combat. Wings, by contrast to the spacious, spare, often melancholy tone of his later war films, is a product of youth–the youth of both the director and the excitable industry in which he worked.
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Wings aims directly at the youth audience of the late ’20s by suggesting their own way of life (and not bothering to be too exact about clothes and hairstyles)—that what would eventually become teen culture was already warming up just as the war beckoned. He introduces protagonist Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and his neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow) as two all-American kids, proto-flapper and hot-rod-building adventurer. “Jack had once pulled Mary out of a bonfire – and sometimes he regretted it,” a title card informs, hilariously setting the scene for the duo’s oblique relationship, with Mary jumping in energetically to aid Jack in rebuilding his battered car, which, as another card explains, had already provided Jack with the experience of flight several times. Jack and Mary transform the car into a speed mobile, and Mary sets the seal on the creation by christening it the “Shooting Star,” complete with a hastily painted logo on the side. Jack, however, oblivious to Mary’s ardour, thanks her and zips away to take the object of his own desire for a drive: Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who has the advantage of being a girl from the big city.
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Wellman’s introduction of Sylvia and her beau, David Armstrong (Arlen), is one of his cleverest and wittiest visual flourishes, with camera attached to the porch swing the pair are resting in, Sylvia plucking a lilting guitar in a picture of fulsome romanticism, only for Jack to appear in Shooting Star behind them. The motion of the swing lends a stroboscopic quality to Jack’s approach, until he arrests the swinging and drags Sylvia away for a jaunt in his jallopy. The old world of quiet days and gentle courting is giving way to the crash-bang pace of the 20th century even before war starts. Sylvia’s affection remains with David, who is the son of the town’s richest man. When war is declared and David and Jack join up, Sylvia humours Jack by giving him a locket photo of herself, but tells David he’s the one she loves.
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The days of youth give way to war, and Jack and David’s march off to serve is repeated by thousands of others, including Mary, who is inspired to join the ambulance driving service, and Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel, patenting his squarehead act), a German-American who confronts folks who deride his patriotism by stripping down to shirtsleeves to show off the tattoo of Old Glory on his bicep. He stops this practice after a drill sergeant assumes he’s getting uppity and clobbers him. During training, Jack and David antagonise each other constantly in their ongoing competition for Sylvia’s affections, but after the sergeant makes them square off in boxing competition, they beat each other to a standstill and bond instead, becoming inseparable partners during subsequent flight training.
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Gary Cooper pops up as a cadet named White who wakes from a snooze as the duo enter his tent upon their arrival at flight school, dismisses the usefulness of good luck charms, offers the arrivals a bit of his half-eaten candy bar, and then leaves behind what’s left to do more practice flying. White is immediately killed in an accident, leaving Jack and David with no illusions about the danger of the business they’re engaging in. Cooper’s brief appearance here sent him skyrocketing to stardom as thousands wrote to Paramount demanding to know all about him. It’s interesting to consider why: not as conventionally handsome as either Rogers or Arlen, nonetheless, his subtle expressivity, the contrast between the dark shrewdness of his eyes and the beaming smile he gives just before waving them farewell, has the force of someone born to be in front of a movie camera, his register immediately declaring itself both subtler and more complex than the other men. If the plot of Wings is often naïve and aspects of it remain rooted in its time, Cooper is the sudden, looming emblem of cinema growing up, as well as learning to talk.
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Schwimpf flunks out as a trainee pilot but becomes David’s mechanic. David quickly declares a tiny toy bear that was a childhood keepsake his charm, whilst Jack puts his trust in Sylvia’s picture. Sent to the Western front, they debut together in battle, sent up with the Flying Circus of Captain Kellermann, this film’s addition to the many movieland avatars of Manfred von Richthofen, aka, the Red Baron. The two rookies prove themselves, though Jack is forced down and nearly killed, and they soon evolve into hardened warriors of the sky, with Jack an ace famed amongst servicemen as he paints his trademark Shooting Star logo on his plane. Wings followed The Big Parade and preceded Hell’s Angels, which was supposed to be a competing production but which would be delayed for years by Howard Hughes’ outsized ambitions. Wings isn’t as sophisticated as either film in contemplating the social breadth of the war’s impact nor as interested in context, happy to present its two young gallants as heroes and Schwimpf as comic relief rather than straining to observe the many types fed into the doughboy ranks, as Vidor did, or the whirl of shifting worldviews and systems, which fascinated as Hughes and Whale, recalling rather Rex Ingram’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1922) as a blend of vaguely poetic wartime tragedy and big, sexy melodrama. It could be argued, really, that Wings leans mostly closer to something like Top Gun (1986) than to any of these, at least until its last act. The storyline is simple and often more than a little archaic. But Wings is made with such epic élan that it stands tall on its own, mostly due to the richness of Wellman’s filmmaking.
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Wings is alight with vigorous cinematic ideas almost to the point of being show-offy, riddled with dynamic tracking shots, geometric framings, or shots with actors lunging at the camera—anything to invigorate the visuals. Sometimes Wellman incorporates outright symbolic flourishes, like boiling the defeat of the German army down to an overhead shot of a dead young warrior lying on a Knight’s Cross painted in a parade ground, and a plane’s propeller winding down and stopping in front of a field of white crosses in the background, signifying the death of a pilot amongst the last to fall in the war. That jokey early shot of Jack racing up to Sylvia and David on the swing sets up a visual motif, as many of the battle sequences are filmed and framed the same way, except with the camera mounted on winged steeds with the looming figure behind an enemy plane lunging for the kill.
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High-flying exploits were the drawing card for Wings, of course, and the action sequences are quite something thanks to the stunt flyers, many of whom came from the ranks of the U.S. Army Air Force. Impressive is the climax of Jack’s first-ever aerial battle, which finishes with Jack crash-landing and hanging upside from his plane as the enemy continues to rake the wreck from above, and then dashes after an English soldier off No Man’s Land and through narrow, shallow trenches as cannon shells burst around him. The physical staging of the earthbound battle sequences unfolds on that mindboggling scale of many silent films, as the planes dash over recreations of battle-scarred France that stretch far and wide, where whole towns were been erected to be convincingly decimated in bombardments. The painstaking aerial photography makes the most of it all.
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The action in Wings has a thrilling, dashing force that for the most part nudges it closer to action-adventure than the grim exigencies of antiwar dramas, but Wellman’s understanding of what he was portraying constantly declares itself in the teeming physical detail and the sense of force and motion he builds into the aerial sequences. Wellman turns what could have been a very simple sequence, a German Gotha bomber being wheeled out of its hanger and sent up on a mission, into a symphony of shots from ground level to high overhead in the same way filmmakers of a later generation might linger over some colossal spaceship, and with a similar implied sense of awe for technology in beauty and menace. One particularly great sequence sees a small town through which soldiers are moving being attacked by the Gotha, with Mary caught out in the street and forced to shelter under her ambulance as the town is blown to smithereens about her. Soldiers hiding in basements have floors above collapse on their heads, and the town church’s steeple is flung like so much rubbish to land on Mary’s vehicle. Jack and David fly in to save the day, cheered on by Mary and the soldiers below.
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Both flyers emerge victorious, and they’re decorated by a French general for their achievement, but both men, David particularly, are left tired and anguished by the experience. Given leave in Paris, Jack goes on a wild bender, losing himself in drink and hanging out with prostitutes vying for his attention. Wellman tests the limits of what he could get away with as he surveys the wild nightlife of the Folies Bergere, tossing in visual jokes like a kilted Scot warrior and his black-satin-hugged floozy both bending down daintily to help with one of her shoes buttons, and another hooker stealing Jack’s flyer pin to use as a slight restraint on her plunging neckline. One startling shot sees Wellman’s camera swoop across several tables, noting the types enjoying their boozy flings, including an older lady paying off a gigolo and a lesbian couple, before zeroing in on Jack as he enjoys his cups, illustrating both the motley gallery of Parisian nightlife at the height of war-stoked frenzy and conveying Jack’s giddy, frantic joy in his forgetful drunkenness.
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Mary, cruising the streets in her ambulance, hears that all of the American soldiers are being recalled for a big push, and she sets out to track Jack down, following his trail of painted shooting stars to the Folies Bergere, and tries unsuccessfully to extricate him from the arms of his coterie of clinging demimondaines. David skips upstairs with one lady, but Mary, helped by a kind member of the staff, disguises herself as a floozy to win Jack away: Jack, hallucinating bubbles, visualised as tiny animated circles drifting up from his champagne, decides to go with whichever girl is giving off the best bubbles, and shakes them both. Mary wins, of course, but once she manages to stow him safely in a bed, she’s wounded to see Sylvia’s picture his locket, and then is caught changing back into her uniform by a pair of MPs rounding up flyers: they assume she’s been naughty and tell her this will be the end of her war.
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This sequence shows off the blend of the corny and the bravura that distinguishes Wings overall, with Wellman’s risqué, authentic sense of the reality of the young servicemen living it up between duels with death blending with silly, crowd-pleasing touches like those animated bubbles, and the goofy cavorts of the storyline as the film finally brings Mary properly back into the movie only to then write her out through some tawdry morality that becomes all the more gaudily entertaining for the blend. Bow, who had risen to the peak of her stardom after It (1927) to become just about the biggest thing in Hollywood, was essentially shoehorned into the film to increase its marketability in a manner similar to her film debut, Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), where she likewise inserted herself into a macho milieu. Her presence in Wings, plying her ebullient, energetic, blithely sexy yet tomboyish persona, is both one of the film’s great pleasures and also one of its problematic elements, as it creates a more than slight dissonance. The subplot of Mary venturing out to war just like the boys has a feminist flavour that’s very apt for Bow’s persona and the moment of the film’s making, and which Wellman accepts casually, even gleefully. But her presence in the drama is readily dispensable, and Bow herself summarised correctly that she was just the “whipped cream on top of the pie.” Her game physical performing and big, bright acting style seem to belong to a different movie in places, and Wellman pushes the film to the limits of tonal elasticity. It doesn’t help that the way the story is structured keeps Jack and Mary away from any substantial romancing. In fact, Jack’s dedication to Sylvia isn’t dispelled even as David wavers on confronting him about it, almost leading to an ugly quarrel between the two men that is interrupted by a call to battle. David, who’s already been morbidly anticipating his demise, leaves behind his keepsake, and goes down in combat.
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A German flyer risks a hot reception to drop off word that David has been killed. Jack goes on the warpath, launching back into battle with hysterical bloodlust, not knowing David managed to escape his crash and the attempts of some Germans to capture him, and is sneaking back across enemy territory. Wings’ climactic scenes go all out in display of production spectacle as it recreates the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, part of the great “100 Days” offensive that ended the war, with a rah-rah tone, as the Yankees set the Germans scurrying on the ground. But Wellman’s tart, forceful vignettes continue to flow: two German officers interrupted as they drink beer in an observation balloon and forced to leap clear; a young American serviceman killed by a shell splinter as he smokes a cigarette without anyone realising he’s dead at first; a tank rolling over the top of a machine gun nest as the age of mechanical war finally renders the trench war slaughter obsolete.
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Wellman handed out cameras to cast and crew to grab action any way they could, capturing soldiers, tanks, and aircraft in sprawling images amidst well-coordinated battle footage that is spectacular, if a bit impersonal, a triumph of technical cinema that remains detached from the story at hand. Triumphalism is contrasted by an overt swing towards ironic tragedy in the air. David manages to steal a German fighter plane from the Flying Circus, decimates several aircraft on the ground, and wings his way back to his friends. Except that Jack, who’s been flying around mercilessly gunning soldiers on the ground and shooting down enemy planes in his hunger for revenge, zeroes in on David and, assuming he’s just another enemy, shoots him down, David’s pleas as he realises his friend is trying to kill him unnoticed. David’s plane crashes into a farmhouse near a French unit and a military graveyard, and Jack lands to claim a trophy only to realise his mistake.
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Wellman stages a lush pieta complete with a French farmer’s wife and her daughter, whose prayers are interrupted by the crash of David’s plane, to bear witness as incidental Madonna and child, and David’s passing is envisioned as an airplane propeller slowing to a stop. Jack kisses David in his death throes, a brotherly gesture that nonetheless brings the overtone of homoeroticism that often percolates under the surface of their relationship to a boil (and which bobs up again in The Public Enemy, 1931), complete with acknowledgement that their “friendship” ultimately was more important than anything else. A farmer helps Jack bury his friend in the midst of fervently dreamlike images—hand-carved crucifixes, crumbling brick, blooming flowers, leafy woods—in an eruption of pre-Raphaelite romantic melancholy as Wellman stages a funeral not just for one sorry hero but for a generation, one he was lucky not to join. David is laid to rest and with him the war, leaving Jack to head home alone to be greeted festively as a hero, but facing up to the onerous task of visiting David’s parents whose stern mourning crumbles before Jack’s distress, the hair at his temples stained prematurely white. Of course, all ends happily as Jack heads home to embrace Mary, and the two are last seen sitting in Shooting Star and kissing under a real shooting star scoring the night sky.
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Wellman went on to have a major career and stands as one of the great underappreciated filmmakers, providing something of a darker, diastolic contemplation of American landscape to John Ford’s in the length of his career, with films that responded to the shifts in the zeitgeist. After Wings, he moved on to contemplate the impact of the Depression and the allure of criminality with The Public Enemy and Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and wryly analyse the cults of Hollywood and mass media with A Star Is Born (1936) and Nothing Sacred (1937). In the 1940s, The Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground, Wellman would get to make the kind of all-but-happenstance war narrative he touches on here, pruning away the box office pretensions and reducing the concerns of his cinema to the experience of men lost in the midst of tumult and agony. But Wings is an exemplar of late silent cinema in its force and visual daring, and still the entertainment machine it was made to be. It deserved, as much as any rival, to be the first Best Picture.

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1920s, Drama, Silent

Foolish Wives (1922)

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Director/Screenwriter: Erich von Stroheim

By Roderick Heath

Amongst the giants of silent film, Erich von Stroheim looms very large. Not so much for his work, vital as it is, but for his legend, his persona. Von Stroheim all but created the iconography of the larger-than-life, dictatorial, obsessively visionary filmmaker that has echoed in many dimensions through the history of cinema. In his repeated, ultimately degrading clashes with movie chiefs who literally cut several of his great labours to pieces, he helped define two mirroring clichés that still readily define how the culture at large envisions movie directors: the great genius brought down by vulgar moneymen, and the egomaniacal poseur incinerating cash to make extravagant follies. Stroheim, son of middle-class Austrian-Jewish parents, carved himself a place in the United States by affecting the style of a strident Germanic aristocrat and aesthete. He developed a persona in his acting work that played exactly to a certain brand of New World perception of an Old World nabob, a corrupting and depraved roué under a surface of martial rigour and gilded pretence. Stroheim played on the blend of fascination and distaste for such a persona in the American psyche as it entered the First World War, when it wanted to be accepted as a grown-up superpower yearning for the dauntingly elevated aura symbolised by European culture whilst quietly longing to prove native virtues. Stroheim understood this dualism perfectly well, because he was in thrall to it, too, both assimilating himself into the allure of classes to which he didn’t belong and appropriating their glamour whilst relentlessly subverting and despoiling them with an immigrant outsider’s vitriol.
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Stroheim found fame as an actor, his performances as German officers in wartime films earning him the immortal tag of “The Man You Love to Hate.” Such roles included his infamous turn in The Heart of Humanity (1918), where his embodiment of the most unrestrained propaganda poster’s idea of a villainous Hun, killing babies and ravishing nurses, enthralled viewers in a manner not dissimilar to later iconic bad guys like Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter. He simultaneously gained filmmaking experience working for D.W. Griffith, and quickly parlayed his fame and clout into a directing career. That career was relatively brief, but it swung through poles of great success and total ignominy with such force and clamour in the young industry that it still echoes with ring of myth.
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Stroheim repeatedly went all-in on a bet that later seemed like the essence of uncommercial imprudence, but wasn’t actually so unreasonable at the time: that Hollywood could support a wing of ambition similar to the burgeoning European film scene. There, in the early ’20s, it wasn’t uncommon for respected master filmmakers like Abel Gance and Fritz Lang to make multi-episode films that attracted crowds of people willing and ready to be immersed in grand acts of creation. That cultural model was completely opposed to Hollywood’s self-image as a stud farm turning out well-shod, successful sprinters, the model that would win out. Stroheim also sensed that cinema was a drug of allure as well as reflection, a place people went to be delivered from the ordinary, and like Cecil B. DeMille, knew a dialogue of idealism and indulged depravity was part of the appeal. So, Stroheim was happy to extend his established persona in his first two directorial works, Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives, and sate that desire. With Greed (1924), Stroheim would reveal his deepest, most adamant artistic convictions, and paid a heavy price for them: the scornful drollery Stroheim exhibited as a director at first was scratched to reveal a much more properly dark and rigorous interest in human degradation viewed through art’s transformative prisms. But well before that tragic escapade, Foolish Wives had already been brutally cut down from the epic Stroheim proposed and was the subject of boardroom arguments with young, newly installed executive Irving Thalberg over its grossly inflated cost, mostly stemming from Stroheim’s fanatical attention to detail. Naturally, however, the off-screen controversy was transmuted into gleeful marketing, with the poster declaring that this was the first “million dollar movie”: Stroheim sold the lifestyle of the rich as the stuff of silver screen dreams. However ruefully, Hollywood played along.
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Foolish Wives is much stranger and denser than its sexy melodrama essentials suggest, as Stroheim’s pitch-black humour and fascination with transgressive urges constantly despoils the neat edges of familiar narrative. The filmmaker toys with artistic ideas that still had no name at the time, signalled most unmistakably when, within a film called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim, a character reads a book called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim uses this device to suggest levels of reality in his work, even perhaps to indict it as something the eponymous imprudent hausfraus might hallucinate in the sun after a full day sipping cocktails and thumbing romance novels, their own gleeful vision of depravity on the sunny shores of the Cote d’Azur. Or is it Stroheim molesting those daydreams? He uses this device to insert commentaries that have overt, proto-Brechtian quotation marks around them, highlighting them as distinct from the texture of the work and yet part of them.
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From the opening iris shot, the film has the quality of the dark fairytale it is, depicting as it does two relatively innocent characters taking a path into a shady stretch of the forest in search of experience and encountering imps who live off fat American babes in the woods—except that Stroheim prefers the perspective of his imps, casting himself as Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, supposedly a White Russian aristocrat exiled in Monaco. Stroheim never quite elucidates whether or not Karamzin is a phony, that is, a man born to be a user of other people or a convert to the creed. But his so-called cousins “Princess” Vera (Mae Busch) and “Her Highness” Olga Petchnikoff (Maud George) are his mistresses and confederates in maintaining their lavish lifestyle through con artistry, backed up by bogus cash supplied by counterfeiter Cesare Ventucci (Cesare Gravina).
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Stroheim introduces this coterie of reprobates in his opening scene, a sudden plunge into a little world at the Villa Amorosa, where the perverse is instantly rendered cozy, as Stroheim notes the two women taking their place at the breakfast table with their light, jockeying bitchiness, whilst Karamzin is out performing his morning exercise of target-shooting by the sea. He returns to his villa and indulges what the intertitles call his “cereal” and “coffee,” that is, caviar and ox blood. Ventucci arrives to dole out more of his counterfeit cash, with his feeble-minded but fully-grown daughter Marietta (Malvina Polo) in tow. Olga tells off servant Maruschka (Dale Fuller) by grasping and viciously twisting the flesh of her arm. Karamzin greedily eyes doll-clutching, goggle-eyed Marietta and gives her a bottle of his aftershave as a bauble to remember him by (or whatever it is: Karamzin dabs some of it behind his ears and then tastes it for good measure). This gaudy little crew operate through two-pronged attacks, zeroing in on wealthy, naïve couples, with Karamzin going after the wife and his “cousins” the husband as prelude to seducing and fleecing them. The newspapers announce the arrival of a seemingly perfect mark: the new U.S. Commissioner Plenipotentiary to Monaco Andrew J. Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife Helen (Miss DuPont). The lucky couple are brought into town on a U.S. cruiser and greeted on arrival by Prince Albert I (C.J. Allen). Watching from afar, Karamzin formulates his battle plan, and arranges to meet Helen in an outdoor café where she sits reading (yes, Foolish Wives), paying a busboy to page him and make him seem like a big shot. Karamzin swoops in for the chance to do a gallant turn in rescuing one of Helen’s wind-stirred gloves, to which Helen turns up her nose. A French officer and friend of the Hughes’ gives the pair a proper introduction, and soon he is fully accepted as a friend of the new arrivals, albeit with Andrew’s slightly sceptical regard.
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From the start of Foolish Wives, the clock is ticking for Karamzin and company, as their many sins gallop to catch up with them. The most pathetic character is Maruschka, but she is also the one holding unrealised power. Karamzin had made her another of his household concubines on a promise to marry her, a promise he, of course, perpetually wriggles out of. “I am, as they say, free, white, and twenty-one,” Helen declares to her husband at one point, making remarkably plain her nascent determination to get a little adventure. Andrew wryly retorts with a salute before slinking off to his separate bedroom: “Well, I’m married—sunburned—and forty-one…but—my eyes are pretty good yet.” Much of the narrative (reminiscent of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe) is built around whether Helen will be seduced by Karamzin into giving him her money, body, or both, willingly or unwillingly, but Stroheim plies no sense of endangered innocence. A glimpse of Stroheim’s “book” in the film offers a diegetic comment that Americans’ obsession with making money leaves them uninterested in the social games that obsess Europeans, which could be seen as the director finding an ingenious way to insult his audience but is also a spur to Helen’s adventuring as she reads the book over and over again; by the finale, it gives a sop that contradicts this possible slight, as Andrew stands up for his moral code and Karamzin’s adherence to his proves utterly hollow. A wry, slightly horrifying sequence sees Karamzin at the height of his bantam cock parading wowing Helen and a crowd in a sport-shooting contest using live pigeons released from boxes, leaving little doubt about Karamzin’s ability to shoot down anything not likely to shoot back. Once he’s ingratiated himself sufficiently into the Hughes’ company, he contrives to drag Helen off with him to the Hotel des Rêves, a small, out-of-the-way rendezvous.
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Stroheim’s acid wit is apparent from the outset in Foolish Wives, and the film often has the tone of an extended dirty joke, a semi-Sadean comedy of manners and immorality. The overtones of cruelty and phoniness intimated in the opening scene at the Villa Amorosa (that name a sarcasm that grows ever more vicious as the film goes on) and the vivid strangeness of the characters border on surreal; Karamzin and the Ventuccis seem to have crawled out of some Gogol-esque fantasia. Stroheim intercuts Andrew being received by Prince Albert with Helen’s introduction to Karamzin, both meeting figures who exemplify the local society and creed, the cockroach scuttling under the gilt. The core sequence when Karamzin takes Helen for a day out in the country becomes an epic burlesque of Victorian romantic fiction. The “hotel of dreams” is a waystation engineered for an adventure into pastoral territory that Karamzin knows so well he “was soon able to get himself — ‘hopelessly lost!’” Weather aids Karamzin’s schemes, as a powerful storm blows in whilst he and Helen are struggling through marshy reeds on the edge of a stream. Lightning shatters the footbridge over the waterway, and Karamzin tries to transport them over in a rowboat, only for it to spring a leak and sink. He plucks Helen up and carries her to shore, transformed into exactly the sort of gallant cavalier he strives so assiduously to look like whilst never actually giving a damn for it. They take refuge in an old woman’s cabin, one that Karamzin has used so often for this sort of thing Olga calls it “Mother Garoupe’s Hotel,” a den of picturesque crudity and pastoral filth. Karamzin hovers while Helen dries off and is installed in the owner’s bed. What should be the moment of irrepressible passion is instead a drooling conman waiting for his chance to leap in between the sheets with the blowsy Yankee lady.
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Just as he gets his chance, however (in a scene blurred almost to incoherence to avoid censor furore, but critics still rose to the bait in calling the film as a whole a “slur on American womanhood”), a monk caught in the storm looking for shelter pokes his head through the window and eyes the scene suspiciously. The monk enters and settles down for the night, forcing Karamzin to bitterly nurse a serious case of blue balls in the armchair by the fire until dawn. Throughout this sequence, Stroheim is merciless in mocking not just romantic fancy, but also the kind of idealised rustic melodrama that most other filmmakers, including even Murnau five years later with Sunrise (1927), would ply with ripe sentiment. Olga covers for the duo by phoning the ambassador from the Hotel des Rêves, and once returned to her apartment in the morning, Helen sneaks back into her bedroom. Andrew had responded to her absence the night before with a weirdly patient grin anyway, as if ruefully testing his own limits of tolerance. Stroheim’s reputation as an obsessive craftsman of authenticity has somewhat obscured his great, influential visual talent, though that effort certainly pays off in depicting the teeming street life hovering on the streets of Monaco, brass bands and horse guards turning out to greet the new ambassador amidst gawking tourists, and the central, mammoth recreation of the Monte Carlo Grand Casino. Stroheim’s realistic method represented an alternate tack from the emerging German approach of expressionism, and today might seem to anticipate such later, rigorous, maximalist filmmakers as Kubrick, Leone, or Cimino.
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Stroheim’s often vertiginously geometric graphics, seen at their strongest in the opening and in studying the humans with godlike disdain inside the casino, anticipate Orson Welles at his most baroque and invoke Stroheim’s recurring obsession with humans in relation to one another—class, broadly, but also invoking other forms of power and subordination. Stroheim alternates such shots with densely tangled mural-like framings, with faces, flowers, rococo architecture and stray dust specks all privileged to the point of animation, pointing on to the shot-by-shot deliberation, densely illustrative, of Greed. Yet, the photography of Foolish Wives is as vividly chiaroscuro and drenched in inky murk as anything the expressionists were doing, and Stroheim’s filmmaking often seems as fervently mythological as Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) complete with his mock fairytale castle consumed by flames, the rustic hovel a den of stygian lightplay, and a character’s suicide filmed as a towering shadowplay against the rising sun on the sea. A scene in which Ventucci ushers Karamzin into his daughter’s bedroom as she lies sleeping is shot as a peak moment of visual beauty. Beams of light slanting through the room’s shutters illuminate dust teeming in the air, suggesting something at once unkempt and numinous about the abode and the way Ventucci enshrines the girl he promises to defend at all costs. Ventucci unfolds a knife and jabs neurotically at the air, miming for Karamzin’s edification and perhaps warning. Stroheim was a realist in the same way Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Zola were, providing a fervent, boiling mass of magnified human strangeness emerging from vividly depicted backdrops. Stroheim is often regarded as a filmmaker who tried to force more mature artistic values in American cinema. Here this pretence manifests as literary awareness, both in the nascent modernist joke of the meta-narrative and also in the weird, fragmented intertitles that appear throughout the film, written with a quality close to stream-of-consciousness. These titles provide a witty approximation of some imagined, talented, poet-layabout expatriate steeped in the local habitués and muttering acerbically beautiful notes (perhaps the “Erich von Stroheim” who wrote the book Foolish Wives): “Mondaine — Cocotta — Kings and Crooks — Amoura! Amoura! — And Suicides!” or “Again morning — sun-draped terrace — Sapphire sea — all the world on a holiday — Rifle Fire — Brooding doves — Brutality of man — and still the sun.”
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Karamzin’s success in assaulting Helen’s reputation and good sense on their rural exploit and failure to actually get what he’s after proves a turning point, after which Karamzin’s decline begins. Karamzin’s hunger for erotic satisfaction constantly exceeds his interest in his other projects, whilst his use of other people purely to meet his own desires reaches a hyperbolic point when he manipulates Maruschka into giving him her life savings—a paltry amount by his usual standards, but enough to get him through a night at the gaming tables. Karamzin is at his most entertaining the worse he gets, as when he drips wine on a tablecloth to make Maruschka think he’s crying. Stroheim wasn’t anyone’s idea of a matinee idol, and yet he inhabits his character with such outsized swagger and charisma that he pulls off his own charade of devastating gigolo, his bulbous head, flaring nostrils, and rubbery, sensuous lips like some caricaturist’s attempt to sketch lust, the deadly sin personified—which indeed they often did on film posters. Stroheim plays his role as Stroheim with a glee that’s striking, and hard to find a likeness for in later cinema: he’s just as egotistically masochistic as the wave of Method stars like Brando that would come up much later, always hungry to be nailed up on their crosses, but so willing to play the fiend without a hint of sympathy for the devil, in a drama that takes Mephistopheles from supporting character to centre frame. Obsessed with amorality as it is, though, Foolish Wives is no monument to it—far from it. Stroheim is equally gleeful in tracking his bad characters to ignominious ends and depicting the moments when the worms turn. Actually, Stroheim’s moral compass was rigorous, and to a certain extent, his films boil down to simple lessons—greed is bad, stick with your spouse, marry for love and not gain, etc.—made rich by his realisation, his feel for the contradictory impulses that consume people and poison societies.
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Most crucial and disturbing is his feel for how people often subordinate themselves to characters like Karamzin in their desire for him to give them something they lack—here, sexual pleasure and social status—and the way people like him exploit others endlessly. Stroheim would later take up the theme of sexuality coupled with avarice most intensely in Greed, but inverted; there repression fuels the hunger for money as a malformed need. An earlier vignette of an American soldier who failed to rescue the glove Karamzin retrieved is taken up later when the same man neglects to hold the casino door for her; she rears on him irritably, only to realise the veteran has lost his arms. Stroheim’s irony about appearances and the real nature of soldierly duty is obvious, but serves the purpose of radically shifting the film’s tone. Stroheim takes it a step further as Helen wraps herself in the man’s limp jacket arms and weeps on his shoulder. This scene becomes at once a perverse approximation of a lover’s tryst and a sentimental paean that mirrors the emotional amputees seen everywhere else in the film; it is even shot through an undercurrent of morbid eroticism.
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Stroheim sarcastically restages the Russian Revolution in miniature as domestic-erotic revolt, as Karamzin’s insults to the desperate, fraying Maruschka, drive the servant to lunacy and revenge. This pivotal moment comes as Stroheim depicts her weeping on her bed in her dingy servant’s room, and then zooms in to capture the moment when infernal inspiration takes hold. This camera move was one of Stroheim’s signature touches, the closing in of the camera’s gaze mimicking entrance into the private emotional experience of his characters, and here, coupled with Fuller’s performance, the effect is electrifying. Karamzin pushes his plan closer to fruition during a night on the town, as he has his “cousins” cordon off Andrew at the casino tables whilst he gambles with Helen: she wins a huge wad of cash, and Karamzin coaxes Helen to the villa, where he lays on her basically the same sob story he told Maruschka to get her winnings. Maruschka, however, her wits snapped, sets fire to the villa, entrapping the couple on a high floor.
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The fire department rushes to the scene, along with a mass of rubberneckers, whereupon Karamzin jumps into the waiting canvas ahead of Helen. Sarcastically asked by his soldier friends about town why he did this, he replies coolly that he had to show Helen it was safe. But Andrew, discovering the note Karamzin sent Helen to get her there in the first place, confronts him in the casino. Once Karamzin removes his monocle at his request and tells him, “Go to hell!”, Andrew wallops him so hard he crashes to the floor. During the film’s production, Allen died suddenly, and rather than reshoot his scenes with another actor, Stroheim instead employed a body double. That’s not surprising, as Allen’s performance, subtly comic and intelligent, is excellent. Karmazin tries to brush off Andrew’s humiliation of him, but is left to wander the streets alone at night, disgraced and essentially penniless and homeless, whilst his mistresses quickly pack up their belongings in the villa and flee. Justice, when it comes, is deserved, but merciless: the two women are picked up by fraud police who have been tracking them, stripped of their blonde flapper wigs to reveal the coal-coloured bobs beneath.
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Karamzin, on the hunt for some sort of satisfaction, steals into Marietta’s bedroom in Ventucci’s house. Here, the punitive editing the film was subjected to most clearly affected Stroheim’s concluding ironies and epiphanies. Karamzin’s sexual assault on Mariette was cut, as was Ventucci’s vengeful killing of him: the incident is instead merely suggested as Ventucci is depicted dragging Karamzin’s corpse down to dump in a sewer. The point remains, however muted: Karamzin’s gross rapacity finally destroyed him, and his journey to the bottom is completed in the most undignified way possible, anticipating the gangster antiheroes of the early ’30s and their sticky ends. Stroheim also intended to depict Karamzin’s departure as the rhyme to the reconciliation of the Hughes and Helen giving birth, suggesting the cyclical nature of life. This denouement, like much of Stroheim’s oeuvre, is lost to time and rumour. What’s left of Foolish Wives testifies to a great cinematic talent clearing his throat just in time to have it cut.

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1920s, Crime/Detective, German cinema, Silent

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Fritz Lang

By Roderick Heath

The shadow of Fritz Lang’s early work still falls heavily not just upon many filmmakers, but also upon a swathe of modern pop culture. The remarkable run of movies he made before he was driven to leave Germany by the Nazi ascension helped define, if not originate, a handful of major film genres: the cliffhanger action film, with The Spiders (1919-20); the historical epic, with Die Nibelungen (1924); the science-fiction dystopia with Metropolis (1926); the spy thriller, with Spione (1927); the space opera, with The Woman in the Moon (1929); and even, in his first sound film, M (1931), the serial killer drama. Lang and his major collaborator and wife, the writer Thea Von Harbou, didn’t invent all of the elements loaded into these films, but their increasingly expensive and prestigious explorations of each mode codified these different genres in visual and narrative terms, becoming inescapable points of reference for genre artisans, apprentice filmmakers, and film scholars alike ever since.
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Lang’s works also reveal common roots in a stock of archetypes, basic concepts, and linking thematic concerns that Lang was able to transfer onto almost any genre. When he made The Spiders, Lang had clearly been under the immediate influence of Louis Feuillade’s serials, with their secret criminal organisations and insidious masterminds at the centre of an international web of intrigue. With The Weary Death (1921) and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Lang developed that world into something deeper and richer. Dr. Mabuse became one (or, rather, two) of the most legendary works of the silent era, properly defining Lang’s artistry not only in its moment, but for the next 40 years, as he returned to the film’s evil genius twice more, each at a crucial moment in his career, including his swan song.
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Luxembourg writer Norbert Jacques’ novel provided Lang and Von Harbou with a template for a new take on Feuillade’s semi-surreal universe, as Jacques had taken Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty and evolved him from the hero’s sketchy antagonist and mirror into a major protagonist, even antihero, overshadowing the law enforcers who chase him. His capacity for evil suddenly matches the modern world’s dark psyche, feeding off both its septic spirit and its dehumanised systems. Mabuse’s DNA is shared by the many nefarious protagonists who followed him—Superman’s Lex Luthor, Batman’s Joker, Ian Fleming’s Blofeld, George Lucas’ Palpatine, and even John le Carré’s KARLA. Whilst Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu did something similar almost concurrently to Jacques’ creation, Fu was more safely rendered as an Other, an exotic fiend, whereas Mabuse is the spidery genius who is both king and exile within his own society. The influence of Mabuse is not just restricted to comic books and pulp fiction, though. Lang helped create the artistic mode that became cinema’s first great aesthetic movement, German Expressionism, when he cowrote the script of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919) for director Robert Wiene. F. W. Murnau, Lang’s greatest rival in Germany at the time and a subtler visual stylist, took the style further with Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and codified the horror genre in the process.
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With Dr. Mabuse, Lang began to render the expressionist visual language in a subtler, less pervasively unreal manner, continuing to cloak sets in chiaroscuro shadows and offering lighting and design effects that take on a quality of abstraction that acts only an overlay on otherwise lifelike methods. The result surely helped transfer Expressionism from a fantastic niche to mainstream cinema and planted seeds for French Poetic Realism and Hollywood’s widespread embrace of a similarly restrained Expressionism that culminated in film noir. The first part of Dr. Mabuse, subtitled “The Great Gambler: An Image of the Age (Der große Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit),” kicks off with an epic sequence of analytical cinema that may well have pollinated Sergei Eisenstein and the Moscow film school’s imaginations as they were thinking about how to encode intellectual analysis into the structure of film, and left some ideas for generations of filmmakers making everything from heist movies to documentaries. With a title card kicking off the epic as “He – and his day,” as Lang depicts one of Mabuse’s plots in systematic detail, from when the villain wakes up in the morning through to the culmination of his plot. Along the way his henchmen stage an intricate robbery, knocking out a diplomatic envoy on a train and stealing a portfolio containing a secret commercial treaty between Switzerland and France from him. The theft has been arranged to send the stock market into a selling frenzy, allowing Mabuse to buy up stock cheaply. He does so whilst standing on a pillar above the churning mass of brokers who hysterically give themselves up to the panic Mabuse has inflicted on them.
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Mabuse then contrives to have the treaty discovered. The market rises, and he sells his stock for a vast fortune. All in a day’s work for the extraordinary mastermind, but his thrill is not money, but power—power he works in subtle, intimate, interpersonal ways much more than on a national level. For a 1922 German audience, the inference here would have been clear and frightening, as the country was in the depth of an economic crisis with skyrocketing inflation. Early in the film, Lang depicts Mabuse readying himself for his enterprise by thumbing a set of photos of apparently highly disparate men like a set of tarot cards: this has a sequel at the conclusion of the opening, as Lang holds on a shot of the empty, desolate stock exchange and shows another succession of faces, each of which has been involved in the deception and each revealed to be a different disguise of Mabuse. Whilst aspects of Dr. Mabuse are ripe melodrama, this sense of the tale being based in the bleak realities and the vague but vital workings of modernity’s new, interconnected financial and industrial zones gave Lang’s film a peculiar and important stature. Paranoia was the underlying state of the German psyche, the sense that somebody, somewhere was responsible for the national collapse.
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The beauty and alarming quality of Jacques’ creation was that Mabuse was able to take on more definitely political inferences than predecessors like Moriarty, Fantômas, Count Fosco, and Svengali—indeed, Jacques had intended him in that fashion. He sits upon modernism’s fault lines, easily tweaked to become a figure of left-wing paranoia as a titan of predatory capitalism, or more reactionary viewpoints, as he also offers an emblem of new-fangled psychiatry (his actual medical profession) and traditionally immoral pursuits like gambling, which the film presents as the last and greatest existential rush for a rotting society through its capacity to make or strip fortunes according to chance, but with Mabuse subverting this by getting his kicks from eliminating chance and playing the player. Lang already seems to be subverting a familiar structure even as he’s erecting it, as he introduces Mabuse and his aides up front, making them more familiar to the audience than the traditional hero figure whose perspective it is usually forced to take. In spite of his myriad sidelines, Mabuse continues to don disguises and delight in fleecing the indolent sons and daughters of the upper classes by mesmerically manipulating them into losing at cards. Mabuse’s network of agents includes his spindly, cocaine-addled manservant Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga); Pesch (Georg John), his driver and hitman; and Hawasch (Charles Puffy), who runs a counterfeiting operation for his overlord that employs a gaggle of blind men in a dingy cellar. Such a plot touch carries a hint of Edgar Wallace’s grotesquery and also a kind of grim psychological symbolism.
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Another of Mabuse’s best agents is a Folies Bergère dancer, Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen), who is able to collect information on high rollers who come to see her performances and pass it on to Mabuse. Attending one of her shows, Mabuse sets his sights on a new victim she points out, young heir Edgar Hull (Paul Richter), and hypnotises him from afar. Calling himself Hugo Balling, Mabuse directs Hull to give him admittance to his gentleman’s club, and there begins to fleece the young man by forcing him to play badly. Once Mabuse has his fill, he gives Hull a card with the address where he can come to pay his debt. Hull, when he snaps out of his stupor, naturally puzzles over what’s happened, and begins to dig, visiting the address and finding that a real Hugo Balling lives there and has no idea what Hull wants. Word of Hull’s vexing enigma soon attracts the attention of State Attorney Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), who contacts the young man and begins to theorise about a hidden criminal mastermind he dubs “The Great Unknown.” Wenk’s entrance into the story gives Dr. Mabuse a hero, and his job, distinct from that of policeman or private eye, gives him both a level of power and status, and flexibility in investigating his white whale. Wenk strikes a deal with Hull to follow him into the city’s gambling communities (which city never quite stated) in search of the mysterious mastermind in an underworld, rubbing shoulders with social elite, gathering in seedy dives and upscale palaces, in search of the same secret nerve of a corrupt society that Mabuse himself has located and presses with sadistic pleasure.
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With The Spiders, Lang had suggested a penchant for décor effects that lent his cinematic images a quality of stylisation close to cubism and other nascent forms of modern art, a quality that Caligari made far more explicit than Lang preferred. Here, Lang’s style comes into fuller fruition, before Die Nibelungen would see Lang push his stylisation to extremes. The world he creates in Mabuse is more restrained whilst grazing the edges of an equally strange and dreamy netherworld, full of framings that place characters in traps of space with mysterious design motifs and incipient shadows, and interiors replete with an art deco designer’s idea of limbo’s antechambers. Lang throws in an aesthetic in-joke that partly disguises a serious subtext, as a toff asks Mabuse in his professional guise what he thinks of Expressionism; Mabuse replies with sagacious dismissal, “Expressionism is a mere pastime — but why not? Everything today is a pastime!” Mabuse’s disdain for artistic fashion matches his contempt for the arts he himself has mastered as a healer, which he turns to the only pursuit he does not see as a pastime—the acquisition of power. But Lang’s mise-en-scène contradicts, entrapping and enfolding character, and seems to become all but animated and nearly literal by the diptych’s hallucinatory finale. Lang’s most dynamic cinematic effects are mostly employed to force the audience to share Mabuse’s viewpoint as he commits his criminal acts, with iris shots and crowding fields of black mimicking Mabuse’s intent as he zeroes in on new victims and begins to work his hypnotic will, usually intercut with the victim’s vision of Mabuse’s false faces in leering close-up. Mabuse’s hypnotic gifts coincide with Lang’s filmmaking vision, rupturing holes in reality.
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The first encounter between Mabuse and Wenk takes place at the gaming table, except with the two men both in disguise: Mabuse wearing a perversely hooked nose and tufts of wild hair and Wenk done up as a middle-aged milquetoast. Mabuse tries to hypnotise Wenk with his pair of glasses, which Wenk recognises as Chinese-made. “Yes, from Tsi-Nan-Fu,” Mabuse replies. The name of this city becomes a charged and mystic utterance that takes over Wenk’s mind, appearing as printed words on his cars and glowing through the woodwork of the gaming table. Wenk manages to throw off Mabuse’s influence, and with it his disguise, chasing his quarry out of the den and to the Hotel Excelsior. But Wenk is foiled by one of Mabuse’s agents who drives a taxi fitted out with gas to knock out hapless passengers. Wenk, unconscious, is set adrift in a rowboat, but he’s rescued by the coast guard. The close call drives Mabuse to order the deaths of both Wenk and Hull as the duo continue their excursions to night spots. Mabuse assigns Carozza to get close to Hull. She pretends to respond to his playboy charms to insinuate her way into his house and find out what the dynamic duo are up to. When the trio visits a swanky new gambling house, Carozza leads them into a trap: Hull is shot by one of Mabuse’s men, but manages to tell Wenk of Carozza’s involvement before dying. Carozza, fleeing the scene, is encircled and captured by hordes of policemen.
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In spite of its influence, Dr. Mabuse stands at a distance from the contemporary thirst for backstory and tales of formative influence on titanic heroes and villains. This is however not quite the same thing as the role-casting of rank melodrama, but something else again: Mabuse is not a type but a force, a product, a symbol. Mabuse’s background is unimportant; he comes from nowhere, and his motives are reduced to singular need, a fully formed monstrosity spat up by the diseased sectors of modernism’s psyche. He exists only insofar as he acts, dedicating himself entirely to mastery of any situation, and succeeds. He is infinitely malleable rather than specific, capable of becoming any figure of covert or overt power, from labour leader to stockbroker to mystic to physician, drawing secret analogies between such roles and conflating worlds that begin to mimic each other—the gaming table and the spiritualist’s séance, the aristocratic drawing room and the sailors’ pub. As physically real as Mabuse is, he retains emblematic power—indeed Lang’s later instalments took him to the edge of noncorporeal subsistence, surviving as a force of will. Wenk’s chief quality is his singular strength of mind which allows him to resist the villain, but even that only stretches so far.
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The clash of Mabuse and Wenk hinges around two women and two men who represent uneasy partnerings loaded with deception. Carozza’s fake romance with Hull makes a mockery of the expected niceties of romance between pretty young things living the high life, because Carozza loves Mabuse with a fixated ardour, at once obsessively morbid and yet finally transcendent in her pure worship of Mabuse as a being of Nietzschean power amongst social cattle. Even when thrown into prison, Carozza’s obeisant loyalty cannot be shaken; indeed, it becomes all the more exultant in the chance to prove her sublime devotion. The second coupling is the Count Told (Alfred Abel) and his wife, Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welker). Their home life seems pleasantly dull, the Count a childish soul who delights in games and toys. As a result, the Countess haunts the gaming rooms to watch the gamblers in the throes of agony and ecstasy as a druglike salve for her own lack of sensation, almost a caricature of privileged weltschmerz as she opines, “I fear there is nothing in this world which can interest me for long – Everything that can be seen from a car or an opera box is partly disgusting, partly uninteresting, always boring!” Wenk meets her in the course of his journey through the underworld, and the two connect as outsiders fascinated by the underworld. Wenk even helps Dusy make a getaway when her husband unexpectedly turns up at one of the gambling dens.
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Yet, Dusy is linked more precisely with Mabuse in their mutual pretensions to standing above the harrying world and studying the patterns created by the meshing human life driven by desire, greed, and the need for pleasure—except that Dusy remains aloof, whereas Mabuse manipulates. Not surprisingly, then, the Countess becomes an object of erotic obsession for Mabuse once he encounters her. One of Lang’s constant fascinations, especially in his films written by Von Harbou, comes to the fore as destabilising force of sexual obsession rattles humans with pretences to omnipotent power. When he is invited to the Tolds’ townhouse as Mabuse the reputed psychiatrist, the villain stands apart from the Count and his friends as they play cards, discovering kinship with Dusy as an observer with pretences to godlike disinterest and insight. He starts to school Dusy in the nature of his idea of godlike power as he hypnotises her husband and drives him to cheat during a game, prompting a walkout by his friends and the Count’s complete desolation. Then, he subdues Dusy and kidnaps her. The Tolds came into Mabuse’s sights when he attends a séance with the couple, and more properly because of Wenk, who asked Dusy to pose as a prisoner and be locked up with Carozza, a task that turns into an interlude of startling emotional intensity for the two women, as Carozza easily discerns Dusy’s purpose and dazzles the worldly cynic with her own transfiguring faith in Mabuse.
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Dusy is profoundly affected, not in being awed by Mabuse, but by the spectacle of Carozza’s ardour, and she writes a letter to Wenk swearing off further involvement because, instead of encountering alienated evil, she met a source of overpowering emotional force that, regardless of its purpose, convinces her that love exists. It’s not a sentimental kind of love that Lang and Von Harbou envision: it’s a deep-riven blend of erotic and emotional sustenance that shatters strong psyches, cripples geniuses, and transfigures the mundane. In that regard, it’s the only force equal to Mabuse’s evil. For his part, once Mabuse ensnares Dusy, his own competence and psyche begin to slip. The great climax of the first part ends on a cliffhanger, with Mabuse apparently triumphant, with Dusy in his clutches and Wenk stymied. The second part, entitled “Inferno: A Game for the People of Our Age (Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit),” sees his victories continue, but with intimations of growing hysteria, as he kills off anyone who could offer a lead to his whereabouts to Wenk, who is hunting him. These victims includes his agent Pesch (Georg John), who is captured after unsuccessfully bombing Wenk’s office, and is shot during a proletariat uprising stirred by Mabuse, and Carozza herself, who is ordered to commit suicide in her cell even after resisting all of Wenk’s entreaties.
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If the driving motif of the first part is images of masses of people playing with fortune, whether in gambling houses, stock exchanges, or séances, then the second is dominated by two sequences of mental disintegration. The first comes as Mabuse, playing the psychiatrist again, manipulates Count Told, perfectly under his power, promising to control the compulsion that made him cheat, his bogus “helpful” advice turning him into a sequestered prisoner cut off from the outside world and Wenk’s help. Mabuse tries to blackmail the Countess into yielding to his erotic demands by promising to destroy the Count, and finally he does, sending Told off into a spiral of depressive hallucination where he sees his ancestors, all wearing his face, holding up card hands and displaying the black ace. Told cuts his throat in his bathroom, and his body is discovered by his servant. This maniacal achievement in sadistic legerdemain from Mabuse proves the start of his undoing, however, as it allows Wenk to connect Mabuse with the Count’s death.
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Two filmmakers immediately inspired by Lang’s early work were Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock, who both laid down their involvement in film to the aesthetic impact of The Weary Death. Yet, here in Dr. Mabuse, innate and prototypical, I find Buñuel’s viscous, permeable sense of reality and amused punishment of material anomie and Hitchcock’s conspiratorial universe where ordinary people are ensnared in abstract webs. Here, too, is Carol Reed’s third man squirming his way through tightening nets of justice in the sewers, the churning, chiaroscuro moral maelstroms of Josef von Sternberg, Georg Pabst, and Orson Welles. Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) reflected the idiot-savant Mabuse, readying his urban fortress for attack. Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman explicitly drew on Lang’s model for his shadowy villains, whilst Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) repainted its kingpin in shades of Lang as a shadowy unknown and tweaked the cabal of blind counterfeiters into a similar operation of naked women employed as cocaine sifters.
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Lang’s edge of oneiric strangeness gives Dr. Mabuse immediate connection to the singular spiritual fable of The Weary Death, with its similar pivots between languid, otherworldly torpor and ecstatic, transcendental passions (Goetzke had played Death in that film). Mabuse’s fantastical present tense also connects inevitably with Lang’s upcoming parables of past and future. As in Die Nibelungen, Richter plays the traditional pretty-boy hero who finishes up as a sacrificial victim to insidious, merciless power-driven plotting. In the film’s coda, Mabuse envisions a monstrous mechanical creation as the image of his own machinations and his personal inferno, looking forward to Die Nibelungen’s dragon and Metropolis’ vision of a great engine as a monstrous visage swallowing workers: the supernatural, symbolic terrors of distant history become the consuming, mindless aspect of modernity, terrifying even Mabuse—or, perhaps, especially Mabuse, whose campaign to gain the untrammelled power of a feudal conqueror works a spell on those around him but finally is defeated not so much by the forces of modern statism, represented by Wenk, as by the impossibility of his ambition to become bigger than the systems surrounding him.
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The inevitable, climactic revelation of Mabuse’s identit(ies) to Wenk finally arrives as Mabuse lures the State Attorney into a trap, cunningly approaching Wenk as himself, supposedly to warn him that Told died because he was under the influence of a strong and destructive mind. Mabuse offers a culprit, a stage hypnotist named Weltemann, and Wenk attends the man’s show, only to realise too late that Weltemann is Mabuse: the revelation echoes the early, successive superimpositions as Mabuse’s faces pass before Wenk’s eyes, peeling back each layer until he sees Mabuse for what he is just before he gives in to his mesmeric power. Mabuse sends Wenk out under hypnotic influence from the theatre to drive off to a fiery death, a relished plan to eliminate his enemy with an overt display of power while maintaining a seemingly perfect guise.
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But the plot is forestalled by Wenk’s attentive men, who manage to prevent his death. The finales of Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Scarface, and half of the Bond films, as well as the note of assailed exile and solitude of Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se Lève (1939), are all presaged as Wenk leads an attack on Mabuse’s lair. This tumultuous sequence comes in clashing perspectives, as troops pour from trucks to assault the lair, Mabuse’s foot soldiers dying one by one or collapsing in fear like papier-mâché without his will to hold them together amidst a hail of bullets and tear gas. Mabuse’s own attempt to flee with Dusy sees him forced to abandon her and escape by the skin of his teeth to plant seeds of evil somewhere else. Mabuse’s graduated schemes finally do him in as he reaches the hideout where the blind counterfeiters work and finds himself accidentally locked in by his minions’ excess cleverness: in this trap, the lunacy that’s been percolating under Mabuse’s surface emerges in a sequence where, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, the hallucinated shades of Carozza, Told, Hull, and Pesch appear, Told’s prosecutorial vision now Mabuse’s. The mastermind begins to hurl his counterfeit funds about like confetti before the vision of a mechanical monster chews his mind to pieces. The darkly sarcastic title card that greets Wenk’s arrival on the scene describes the husk on the floor as “The Man Who Was Mabuse,” and yet, this phrase signals it’s not exactly a total triumph. Whilst Mabuse the flesh-and-blood being has collapsed, Mabuse the idea, the entity, has slipped such bonds and become legend, perhaps even a world-spirit. Lang revisited the material next in 1933, but found the new film banned because something frighteningly like Mabuse had just taken control of his country.

Standard
1920s, Horror/Eerie, Scandinavian cinema, Silent

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Körkarlen

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Victor Sjöstrom

By Roderick Heath

The Phantom Carriage has a power which almost defies description, a sense of an overwhelming darkness crowding the edges of the frame and corroding the very flesh and spirit of the characters on screen. It’s a tale of damnation, for whatever remains after death but also on earth too, the poison of psychological fear and anger blighting life as surely as the tuberculosis bacilli eat away its protagonists inside out. Light, with all its redemptive promise, radiates by contrast from the centre of frames, burning candles and lamps stranded in the midst of shadowy rooms, and from the face of the benighted Sister Edit (Astrid Holm). Edit lies expiring on New Year’s Eve, desperately begs her mother (Concordia Selander) and fellow Salvation Army worker Maria (Lisa Lundholm) to track down the one soul and body she’s been trying to save more passionately than any other.

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That is the soul of David Holm (Victor Sjöstrom), a drunken wastrel tracked down not in the hovel where his wife (Hilda Borgström) and children are trying to stave off hunger and cold, but drinking in a graveyard with two vagrants who listen as David recounts with amusement the fate of his old drinking buddy Georges (Tore Svennberg), who was tormented by an anxiety that used to gnaw at him on New Year’s Eve. As the minutes tick towards midnight, David explains Georges’ obsession with a folk myth that whoever died at the stroke of twelve on New Year’s would be a cursed and sinful person, charged with driving the carriage that collects the souls of those who die during the year. And, as ill luck would have it, Georges died one year ago on the very night he feared. After David chases off the Salvation Army worker who tracks him down for Edit, he fights with his two companions, one of whom smashes a bottle over his head. David is left for dead, and Death’s carriage soon comes rolling around.

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Victor Sjöstrom’s career in film climaxed famously with his role in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1958). In casting the aged director and actor in his film, Bergman was paying tribute to Sjöstrom’s status as a father of the Swedish film industry, and as an artist to whom Bergman and others, both in Sweden and around the world, owed a lot. In his heyday, Sjöstrom’s gift for portraying psychological drama and capturing tones ranging from fulminating unease to outright hysteria was second to none, and his cinematic experiments were as rich and innovative as anything that would soon follow in Germany, France, and the US. Along with Mauritz Stiller, Sjöstrom was at the front rank of Swedish filmmakers well before the First World War, labouring like many great early directors on dozens of short features as the quintessential forms of cinema began to evolve, and finally with his 1921 hit The Phantom Carriage, Sjöstrom gained an invite to Hollywood, where he made great films, often with Lillian Gish, including The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). But commercial success began to elude him, and his career essentially waned along with the silent film. Sjöstrom’s passionately visual, rhythmic, intimately composed ideal of cinema was at once highly stylised and fascinatingly realistic, as the director amongst other things helped to bridge early cinema with the Swedish stage and its tradition of dark, neurotic realist spectacle as exemplified by August Strindberg.

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Today the horror film, in spite of patchy acceptance by mainstream critics, is still essentially considered a fringe genre. In the first quarter-century of cinema’s existence, however, it was a favourite field for directors who wanted to interrogate the possibilities of the medium, as they contemplated the intrinsic link between the mystery of film’s power and images of mortality, nebulous existence and concrete form. This was true of much important early cinema, including several of Georges Melies’ most striking works, Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience (1914), Murnau’s Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919), Wegener’s Der Golem: Wie Er in die Welt Kam (1920), Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Christensen’s Häxan (1922), and Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924). The Phantom Carriage itself stands up amidst the most beautiful, eerie, and dazzlingly rendered movies of its time. One reason the horror genre, which was hardly a genre at the time and certainly not called that, attracted such a wealth of early talent was that it presented possibilities for experimenting with the kinds of special effects available to early cinema, in a fashion that later sci-fi, action, and fantasy films would invite, as a testing ground for evolutions in technology and the inspiration to use it. Whereas, apart from Tod Browning, it would take European directors working in Hollywood and, more crucially, the advent of the Depression to shock American horror cinema into its first golden age, in Europe a superlative glut of definitive moviemaking in this mould was closely aligned with the stylistic moment of what became known as German Expressionism. The time was in tune, too, for the great flowering of these films came in the period directly following the Great War, a time in which a great hole had been carved in European society, the pall of death was an everyday, invasive reality, and fascination with spiritualism exploded in a world that felt not at all metaphorically haunted.

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But not all of these films were clear-cut in their exploitation of this mood, as many depict the birth struggles of modernism, as artists wrestled with remnants of folk traditions and the detritus of cultures going through painful evolutions, trying to reject the dead-weight of past truisms to embrace rationalism, but often rubbing fears raw in that process. Sjöstrom’s film was adapted a novel by 1909’s Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, and the story is in many ways a familiar piece of post-Victorian abstemious moralism, playing like a darker version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which a sinner sees the error of his ways through a supernatural encounter. For Sjöstrom, who had been adapting Lagerlöf’s novels regularly thanks to a deal she had made with the studio he worked for, the task was however to retain the complexity of the novel and depict the perverse, dramatically difficult elements onto the screen, precisely at a time when it was becoming clear that film was open to all challenges. The Phantom Carriage becomes a psychological epic about cruelty, fear, and pain, as experienced and exacted by David, an antihero who takes on Dostoyevskian dimensions in his anger at humanity even as he cringes before immutable forces. David, a former carpenter and craftsman, has long since slid into the gutter under the influence of the ironically well-educated Georges, whose habitual cynicism and florid bon vivant postures attracted both David and his younger brother (Einar Axelsson). Georges only ever registered disquiet when New Year’s rolled around and revived the folk tale figuration of the phantom carriage in his thoughts like an annual memento mori.

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One of Sjöstrom’s significant flourishes in telling his tale is the complexity of the narrative, refusing to simplify Lagerlof’s storyline, shifting perspectives and offering layers of stories within stories in retracing the paths the key characters have taken to this converging night of fate. Starting with Edit’s plight and then shifting to David and his wayside buddies in the graveyard, Sjöstrom then segues into the past, as David recalls his time with Georges, and through Georges the mythology of the carriage is depicted. This cues a lengthy, sepulchral, superlatively realised sequence depicting the carriage and its hooded, scythe-clutching driver, going about their work. They watch over all varieties of human misery and misfortune, standing by as a plutocrat shoots himself in his immaculate mansion, and plucking the spirits of dead mean just drowned in the sea, the carriage trundling carelessly into the waves and the driver descending to the ocean floor for his prize. It’s easy to recognise the influence of these scenes on Bergman’s figuration of Death for The Seventh Seal (1957) and other elements of the visual design – one shot of the carriage travelling over a hilltop against a cloudy horizon recalls the famous shot of Death leading the dance of the dead that climaxed the Bergman work. Sjöstrom achieves his otherworldly emanations with that simplest and oldest of movie special effects, the double exposure, rendering with stark beauty the scenes of the carriage venturing onto the waves or trundling through the streets, and the spirits of dead wandering and conversing, the human world oblivious to their presence and the dead gazing back at the world they’re cut off from with forlorn impotence.

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Yet whilst the film’s pictorial and emotional depictions of oneiric gloom are compelling, Sjöstrom is equally adept at capturing the grubby world its characters inhabit. Lagerglof’s novel had begun life when she was asked to write a treatise on tuberculosis control, but as she worked a narrative came to her with an aspect of social realism mediated by and reconceived through the veils of mysticism and mystery. Sjöstrom answered with its cinematic equivalent: the seamy taverns, fetid flophouses, low-rent apartments, midnight card games, the chilly graveyard, all are depicted with a care worthy of Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), with which the film shares a subterranean mood of acidic reportage and neurotic intensity. One function that the narrative complexity serves is to give the tale a sense of haziness about the veracity of what is seen: it could all be David’s alcoholic horrors or dazed dream after getting walloped over the head. But it also suggests that such distinctions mean little in the face of how it summarises the struggle, and attraction, between the all-encompassing nihilism of David and the naïve yet powerful altruism of Edit. Caught between them are David’s victimised wife and brother, early casualties, emotionally and morally if not mortally, for David’s rage, and yet also participants in and causes for it. After David and his brother fell in with Georges, David did a short stretch in jail for drunken behaviour, and as he was released, the prison chaplain (Nils Aréhn) revealed to David with brutal condemnation that his brother is now also locked up, but for the far worse crime of killing a man in a drunken brawl: the chaplain stated that he was of the opinion David should be doing the time instead. David, horrified and chastened, returned home to his family, only to find they had left without any idea of where to find them, turning David’s ill feeling into an unshakeable and near-psychopathic misanthropy.

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The existential angst of The Phantom Carriage is aligned with the pain of the post-war period, even if made in a country that was neutral during WWI, as it resembles the nightmare prophecies and structure of Abel Gance’s J’Accuse! (1919) which similarly climaxes with visions of the dead rising up, possibly hallucinated but still urgently meaningful. The difference is that the horror of The Phantom Carriage is microcosmic, a study in personal degradation and damage but with a reformist social agenda. And yet the film slips out of such limits: the notion that David travels deeper into his personal nightmare out of wilful determination and anger at the cheap pieties and soft options that leave him adrift in a bleak world, gives The Phantom Carriage more complexity. Sjöstrom imbues it with a hallucinatory unease that captures that mood of midnight agony anyone who’s drunk to forget the day’s pain might recognise. When David arises from his own sprawled, shattered body to be confronted by Georges, who has spent the last year driving the carriage, except for him every night has been “a hundred years”, collecting souls like a tired garbage man clearing away the refuse of human existence. There’s a quality approaching black comedy as the grim figure of death proves to be the middle-aged, familiar Georges, but his rank melancholia and sombre missives quickly diverge into a form of horror that penetrates far deeper than the later genre’s usual stock visions of psychos in masks killing sundry teenagers, asking instead, what are we most afraid of in life and in death? Whilst Georges ushers David away from Edit’s deathbed in telling him that the job of taking her soul belongs to other, presumably more exalted spirits, there’s no sight of better worlds or paradises in this vision, only of the afterlife as a place where people walk or trundle along in stunned misgiving, staring back at the life they’ve lived with awareness that hell is a place humans create for themselves.

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Of course Georges tells David that he’s going to take his place as the driver for the next year, and when David protests, George binds him with invisible strands and forces him to accompany him to Edit’s deathbed, where Edit, not yet dead but standing at the edge of permeable reality, can see Georges, and greets him with confusion: “Death…but too early.” Edit has her own crosses to bear. Her mother had begged her fellow Salvation Army workers to ignore her frantic wish to see David before dying because having given up her life to the cause and now doesn’t want her death to be consumed by it too. As Georges stands over Edit’s bed, he explains her situation to David, thus commencing another lengthy flashback as the narrative retreats one year to the same New Year’s when Georges himself died, and David, drunk and sick, barged his way into the new shelter Edit and Maria had set up, and passed out on a bed. Edit set herself to fixing up David’s torn coat, oblivious to the fact that in doing so she was breathing in all the germs on it, including his chronic TB, which she’s expiring from at an accelerated rate. When he awakened, David ripped off the patches she had put on the coat, stating, “I’m used to it this way,” and she asked him to come see her in a year’s time to let her know how he was getting on. The pair continued to encounter each-other with a quality of combative aggression mixed with erotic fascination, as Edit confesses she fell in love with David, seemingly everything she isn’t, even as she determinedly wrested one of his friends away from him at a Salvation Army rally. David’s wife, for whom he’s been searching for months, was at the same rally, and after seeing Edit and David argue, explained her plight.

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Edit, with selfless determination, set about reconciling the couple, but once returned to his family, David’s long-awaited revenge commenced as he refused to give up his drunken ways, preferring to taunt his wife and breathing precariously over his children. David’s vicious misanthropy is at its rarest when he tells a woman at the rally that she shouldn’t cover her mouth when she coughs, as he takes pride in breathing his lethal germs right in people’s faces. When his wife tried to rebel again and locked him in the bathroom whilst she tried to get the kids away, as she fumbled with the sleeping youngsters he hacked his way out with a hatchet, in a sequence that at once suggests a nod to Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) but looks forward too with unavoidable similarity to the iconic “Here’s Johnny” scene in The Shining (1981), complete with the peculiarly intimate terror of the enraged father figure, a potent and toxic vision of masculine violence erupting in the home. And yet when his wife faints, unable to escape, and David gets free, he props her up on a pillow and feeds her water, greeting her awakening with the harshly knowing words, “It wasn’t as easy to run away this time!” To her exhausted reply, “Haven’t you had enough revenge?” As Edit expires, Georges takes David on to his next stop – the slum dwelling where David’s wife and children are living now, as Mrs Holm prepares to poison them all, a final recourse. Finally David’s self-absorption is shattered and he begs with Georges to save them even at the expense of his own total extinction.

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The surprisingly naturalistic acting, particularly from Sjöstrom himself, whose husky physicality gives David the insolent charisma the role needs, is littered with gestural marvels that equal the filmmaking. In an early scene, Mrs Holm is brought to Edit’s bedside, the woman a fidgety, dead-eyed wraith who reaches out with clawing, Nosferatu-like fingers at the slumbering Edit in her anger, only for Edit to awaken and immediately smother the woman in kisses in submissive gratitude. When Maria first finds Mrs Holm, she keeps retreating to each corner of the room, standing with back to the room. Just as affecting is the anguished stroke of his brother’s face David gives when presented with him in his jail cell, and in David’s homecoming as he cringes and smoulders in rage as he stands in the midst of the jarringly empty flat, whilst two neighbour women laugh over his misfortune. One stark shot depicts Mrs Holm and her children standing over David who lies sprawled and passed out on the pavement.

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Sjöstrom’s best moment comes in one of David’s ugliest, as he first clasps eyes on Edit after learning she’s repaired his coat and she waits with eagerness to see his reaction: David’s expression turns as cold as the winter wind as he perceives the embodiment of everything he’s at war with and feels cannot be his, and his frenzied tearing at the patches of the coat delivers his message, but whilst startled, Edit refuses to be fazed, and her fascination for the simultaneously pathetic and grotesque, yet also powerful David is made weirdly coherent. Her subsequent effort to reunite David and his wife see her perpetuate the great Victorian delusion that all you had to do to normalise any experience, any anomaly, any fracture in human dealings, was to slap a pair of decent clothes on it. The story is then complicated by its concentration on the way good intentions often crash headlong into harsh realities. The Phantom Carriage ends happily, after a fashion, but as in Bergman’s work there’s a sense that redemption and facing up to all that’s gone wrong in life can be exhausting, even counter-productive. David, restored to “life” and rushing to intervene in his wife’s seemingly imminent euthanasia, buckles and weeps when she reacts with aggression and disbelief in his sudden show of concern, and it’s clear that even if he really has seen the error of his ways, the same essential cause of both his good and bad behaviour remains a fretful terror of mortality, the disease still in his lungs and the pain that is his burden.

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The mood of The Phantom Carriage lingers long after it’s over, and its influence on filmmakers, both in the horror mode and outside it, feels deep: as well as Bergman and Kubrick, its atmosphere and original blend of precise psycho-social veracity and the otherworldly anticipates the qualities of Val Lewton’s epochal film series, whilst other aspects vibrate through the works of Murnau and G.W. Pabst, and prefigure a very different film about a misanthrope haunted by past loss, particularly the flashback to scenes of familial happiness for the Holms, in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964). Like many notable silent films, The Phantom Carriage has seen many editions and restorations over the years, but I recommend the version I saw with an aptly spare and eerie score by the electronic group KTL: where many match-ups between silent films and modern scores, like the several Metropolis (1926) has seen, feel arch in the long run, the KTL score expertly captures the sense of nocturnal foreboding, alienation, and bleak emotionalism that fuels the film. Either way, The Phantom Carriage is an early masterpiece of the medium.

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