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

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

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Director: Robert Wiene
Screenwriters: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer

By Roderick Heath

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

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be viewed here.

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1950s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, German cinema, Romance

The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) / The Indian Tomb (1959)

Der Tiger von Eschnapur / Das Indische Grabmal

Director: Fritz Lang

By Roderick Heath

Fritz Lang returned to make films in Germany after a quarter-century’s absence, after the box office failure of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) finally brought down the curtain on his Hollywood career. Lang had arrived in America as a feted figure wielding great prestige, but he subsisted in marginally produced, often low-budget films after his stern, uncompromising efforts at social commentary purveyed in films like Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937) dismayed audiences. Lang’s late oeuvre has long since been disinterred and celebrated for it lucid filmmaking and devious deployment of social commentary and personal artistry, but Lang himself felt awkward pride for most of them as a hired studio hand trying to wring personal interest from his assignments, understandable considering the comedown the director had experienced from his days as the titan of UFA.

As if in obedience to some common law entwining the nature of gravity, economics, and artistic inspiration, the careers of many film directors seem to fold back upon themselves eventually, bringing them back to their roots and early territory in their later films. Lang’s return to Germany saw him make three final films that all had obvious ties to his early efforts. The two-part exotic melodrama The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb was adapted from a popular novel by Lang’s one-time wife Thea von Harbou, whilst his very last released work continued his series of thrillers based around supervillain Dr Mabuse with The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). To say a lot of water had flowed under the bridge since Lang had last worked on Von Harbou’s material would be an understatement. Lang and Von Harbou had been a glamorous, scandalous, fractious, uniquely productive couple for over a decade, collaborating on some of the greatest films of the silent era. On top of their personal split, Lang represented staunch refusal to countenance Hitler’s rise, whereas Von Harbou had joined the Nazi Party, albeit, she had argued, for the sake of helping her work for the rights of Indians like her third husband under the regime.

This real-life resonance lends even greater piquancy to the story’s wistful daydream about another, almost idyllic world that becomes fatally infected by authoritarian brutality. Two earlier versions of Von Harbou’s novel had already been made. Lang had felt cheated out of directing the first version, which was handled by one of Lang’s great rivals Joe May, because of his lack of directing experience at the time. Getting Lang to make another smacked of the same phenomenon that would produce the following year’s Ben-Hur, the push to make a blockbuster version of a well-proven property to recapture past glories and reinvigorate a waning film industry. In spite of his great influence on the idea of the epic film, Lang had been bypassed for making any entries in Hollywood’s glut of historical sagas which were produced to exploit the spectacle of widescreen processes as an answer to television. Lang famously derided widescreen formats as only good for snakes and funerals. And then he took on a project that revolves around, well, at least one snake.

The lush, Orientalist fantasia that is Lang’s Indian duology suggests, at first glance, a director happily taking refuge in glossy decoration as he faces the sunset of his career. A few years later, Lang would feature as the representative of artistic ambition in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), trying to make an airily abstracted take on The Odyssey and clashing with his sleazy producer. It feels more than a little ironic then that the Eschnapur duology is in many ways exactly the sort of film Godard’s emblematic philistine bankroller would have loved, a vigorous and sexy piece of kitschy showmanship. And yet The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb are deceptively complex meditations on Lang’s favourite themes and career-long motifs. Lang’s career was still utterly compelled by his contemplations of ingrained human impulses towards violence, repression, despotism, and paranoia underlying surface social codes, and his incisive perspective was scarcely diluted by age. But he was still also an accomplished fabulist, a talent who constantly battled the dark side of his imagination and occasionally embraced the lighter.

The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb take place in the nominal present-day, but exist more properly in a dream-state, all the better to focus the compulsions of Lang’s lifelong fascination with the distorting, competing gravities of power and desire. Tellingly, the series also stages a partial repeat of motifs found in both Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1926). As in the former, a strong and upright hero defeats a monster only to find himself beset for the sake of sexual jealousy and statecraft machinations. Like the latter, it presents the idea of a city as an embodiment of both the psyche and the body politic. The Tiger of Eschnapur, the first part of the duology, commences with German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid, who had also gone by the name Paul Christian during his own Hollywood foray) staying overnight in a village as he makes his way to the capital of the small Indian state of Eschnapur. Harald, a tall, strong man with a fierce sense of justice, is annoyed when two soldiers harass a serving girl, Bharani (Luciana Paluzzi), so he picks them up and bangs their heads together like Moe Howard. Bharani’s mistress, the sacred temple dancer Seetha (Debra Paget), thanks Harald for his chivalry. A tiger is terrorising the countryside, and it breaks into the village after nightfall, killing a boy.

As Harald and Seetha travel in the same caravan across country to the capital, the tiger attacks and drives away Seetha’s litter bearers, leaving her trapped at the monster’s mercy. Harald has the inspiration of driving the tiger off with a fiery torch, saving Seetha. Architect and dancer are both welcomed at the palace of the state’s autocratic Maharajah, Chandra (Walther Reyer), Harald to help with his programme of modernisation and improvement, and Seetha to perform at an upcoming festival. Harald begins mapping Chandra’s ancient palace with the help of western-trained Eschnapuri engineering expert Asagara (Jochen Blume). The bond between Harald and Seetha deepens after they’re met with perfect hospitality by the Maharajah. Harald helps Seetha plumb the ambiguities of her past, recognising a song she sings learned in childhood as an Irish folk song, awakening memories in the lady that confirm she’s the daughter of a British soldier and an Indian woman. The monster tiger is captured and imprisoned in the palace.

The Eschnapur duology unfolds over the course of about 200 minutes (the two films were edited together into a single 95 minute unit entitled Journey to the Lost City for initial English-language release), keeping one foot squarely planted in Lang’s earliest movies – the venturesome cliffhanging and secret zones of The Spiders (1919), the Arabesque and Chinoiserie stylisation of the stories in Der Müede Tod (1921), the tyrannical figure who tries to orchestrate people’s lives and goes on a destructive warpath when they resist, a la Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922). Although the diptych enters wholeheartedly into a realm of melodrama and pulp fiction thrills, Lang maintains emotional depth, shaded by his unique talent for creating worlds within worlds. This talent is signalled in the peculiarly dreamy prologue as Harald first glimpses Seetha as a veiled face hovering amongst ancient brickwork, a ghost of elusive femininity, incarnation of the enigmatically attractive spirit of place. Seetha is a deeply dedicated and pure-hearted avatar of the local culture, faithful to Shiva and seemingly favoured by the gods.

The tiger that erupts out of the foliage to assault Seetha, like the dragon felled by Siegfried in Die Nibelungen, represents chaos and savagery kept at strength by a man blessed both in mental muscle but also physical might, making Harald a contemporary version of a legendary Germanic hero. Fairy-tale romance is however about to run headlong into its appointed enemy: Chandra, who becomes utterly fixated on Seetha after watching her dance, and insists she marry him. As ever in Lang, there ought to be a sign pointing at everyone’s head that reads, here there be tigers. Chandra however seems like an entirely upright and rational figure when they first meet him. He’s the very model of an enlightened despot, in the mode of Frederick the Great, that much-admired figure of German history who nonetheless made servility and autocracy seem comfortable for too many both within and without his fledgling nation. Lang sets out to pull apart this cultural ideal with ruthless concision as he portrays Chandra prone to exactly the same forces of human weakness as anyone else, but who through his place at the centre of a state gets to enact that will apparently unchecked. The Human Beast, the Zola novel first filmed by Jean Renoir and then remade by Lang as Human Desire (1954), offers the perfect thumbnail description of Lang’s later career preoccupations, as he returned with increasingly sly method to the theme in his studio work.

“You’ll notice there are no carpets here,’ Chandra points out to Harald when first showing about the upper apartments of his palace: “Because of cobras.” The inferred if not glimpsed notion of malign, slithering strokes of black sneaking their way into the shining, scrupulously ordered environs of civilisation’s expression conveys not just the essence of the lurking threat in the immediate narrative but also connects again to Lang’s career-long obsession with irrational forces prying at the limits of civilised order. The floors must be kept bare, the clutter at a minimum, the essence of the architecture must show what’s what. Chandra’s plans for a rapid and convulsive reconstruction of his backwater, to be leveraged through the efforts of his imported architects, creates unease amongst the local oligarchs who don’t want any such change or destabilisation, not the high priest of the local sects, Yama (Valéry Inkijinoff), nor Chandra’s younger brother Ramigani (René Deltgen), or his former brother-in-law, Prince Padhu (Jochen Brockmann).

Chandra is still in mourning for Padhu’s sister, the former Maharani, whilst Ramigani has designs for usurping his brother’s throne, for which he needs both the backing of other potentates and a swell of popular support. Ramigani sees in Chandra’s ardour for Seetha a unique chance to gain both: Padhu and the priests are all deeply offended by the notion of the Maharajah marrying again, and the populace might also be swayed. Ramigani decides to help Chandra destroy himself, including arranging the death of Bharani in a magic act as she was acting as go-between for Harald and Seetha, but he’s unable to prevent Chandra discovering the burgeoning romance. Chandra retaliates by having Harald herded into a pen where he keeps captured tigers, including the monster tiger: he gives Harald a pike to battle the tiger with as a chance to survive the ordeal. Harald succeeds in killing the beast, so Chandra lets him leave with the threat to have him killed if he isn’t out of the kingdom within twenty-four hours. But Seetha elects to join him, and the pair flee into the desert fringing the state.

Von Harbou’s book probably conveyed a strong dose of distanced ethnographic interest in India, and some have noted that it also clearly bore out a deep German interest in the era in Indian culture as a fount of western culture in general – an interest that would take on a graver cast given the Nazi’s beloved fantasies of the Aryan inheritance. For Lang, Eschnapur is more like the sort of half-real foreign land where dramatists of Shakespeare’s day would set their parables for easy consumption and sneaky inference. In this regard, the casting of European actors as Indians, whilst grating, helps clarify Lang’s subtexts: all of this is a dress-up game, a pantomime masking the violent fray of feelings enacted by the victimised lovers and the glowering, increasingly implacable Chandra. The narrative highlights the structure and stability of a state, with its pillars of religion, military, and nominally allied grandees, dependent on personal ties and revolving theoretically around the outlook of its leader. Once that outlook is thrown from its proper orbit, the state becomes diseased; when the stuff of government is deeply personal – Padhu allies with Ramigani because a remarriage will offend his sister’s memory – it becomes entirely in thrall to individual neurosis and perversity. The Eschnapur duology essays a theme that’s not really that far from a seemingly very different meditation on recent European history, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), as the inevitability of personal passion which refuses the rule of the state and will of the leadership caste becomes a form of dissidence, however incidental.

“I can think of nothing that might destroy our friendship,” the Maharajah comments to Harald after gifting him a ring for saving his life: Lang cuts with brute candour to Seetha, whose pulchritude is all but literally worshipped as the linchpin of state and religion, which is idolises the sacred feminine. The statue in the temple where Seetha dances is a colossal vision of such, complete with massive, bulbous breasts. Chandra’s decline from modernising and liberalising influence to the worst kind of despot is speedy and requires only sexual jealousy to gain impetus. Powerful and civilised men destroying themselves and, sometimes, those who love them over a woman was one of the most fundamental Lang themes, of course, enacted in variations in films as disparate as Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, Spies (1928), Scarlet Street (1946), The House by the River (1950), and The Big Heat (1953). Here, the theme is not contained by Lang’s acerbic, realist side, but the fairytale setting allows it to become a veritable universal condition, harking back to Lang’s early expressionist works (including The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1919, which he wrote) where the landscape becomes a projection of the interior drama, a device he managed to deploy in Hollywood works like The House by the River where the eponymous waterway literalises the processes of the psyche, slowly but surely turning in a gyre where every sunken sickness emerges again.

Like many great directors whose career started in the silent era but stretched into the burgeoning age of widescreen colour, including the likes John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and King Vidor, Lang’s later work betrayed a waning interest in the increasingly realistic strictures of post-war film, and an increasing tendency to utilise the devices they were being handed – the bigger screens and the richer colour and the film with greater sensitivity to space and light gradation – to tellingly counterintuitive ends. Lang had pushed the western in the direction of expressionism on Rancho Notorious (1952), and with the Eschanpur duology enters entirely into a zone where the value of colour is at once decorative and spiritual, otherworldly and artistically precise: Lang’s fantasy India is a place where the clothes, flowers, buildings, and animals glow with colour-drenched inner life that threatens to overwhelm the Technicolor textures. The early scenes of Seetha rehearsing her dance and speaking of her hazy past to Harald take place in a dreamy locale of lotus flowers drifting in cool, crystalline water all placed and described with the care of an impressionist master. The animals, from a phallic cobra that Seetha has to dance before, to crocodiles lunging towards some fallen bodies, are more the stuff of pantomime than documentary authenticity. The location photography in India beholds white palisades and bastions, the pageantry of Chandra’s festivals and functions, and subsumes all into a delirium.

The most beautiful thing of all, and the most stringently fetishised, is Paget’s Seetha. Echoing the android succubus of Metropolis whose Salome-ish dance drives rational men into paroxysms of lunacy, Seetha’s well-shaken booty has the power to set the entire state of Eschnapur into chaos along with its leadership caste. Unlike the robot Maria in Metropolis, Seetha is not evil, but is rather like the other Maria in that film, representative of all things good and beneficent, one who obeys her perfectly natural ardour for Harald after initial misgivings over potential cultural tensions. Seetha embodies the sacred feminine but also its very earthly and desirable incarnation. Each episode of the diptych revolves around a lengthy dance sequence in which Seetha performs in the temple adjoining Chandra’s palace, in the shadow of the great statue of the Goddess. These scenes, rather than any action sequences or sprawls of pageantry, are the centrepieces of spectacle in the diptych; Lang’s last true act of cinematic showmanship is simply to confirm that there’s nothing better to transfix the eye than the human form. Seetha’s dances break down the gap between Indian folk dance and Minsky’s act in Paget’s dazzling, sensually provocative gyrations, swathed in gold mail and ornaments for her first dance and teasingly frail-looking silver leaf for her second. Mainstream cinema night not have seen dance sequences as unabashedly erotic since DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), and they were initially greatly curtailed for American release.

Not that this is mere elaborate sexploitation, although it’s certainly that too; Lang offers them as a commentary on the business of movie stardom. Lang depicts Seetha at the outset as an exacting artist, rehearsing her performances with her musicians in preparation for the great festival, only to find in both dances she’s actually performing to prove and then retain her worth as a sexual object. She auditions in the first as a potential wife for the smitten Chandra and in the second to appease the priapic insanity she’s incidentally stoked, symbolised by the snake she has to calmly dance around without irritating. Seetha is a devoutly religious protagonist whose definition of her beliefs transcends the resolutely bigoted use of it by the high priests: when her face dance is halted when she glimpses Harald high above in the temple galleries, and a strange darkening comes over the temple statue, everyone assumes it’s a sign of anger, but Seetha instead sees it as a warning and a promise of care. Paget’s name became synonymous to a certain degree with historical epics in her relatively short career, thanks to her performances in movies including Princess of the Nile (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), where she had also played a living pawn caught between powerful fiends and a true lover, and Omar Khayyam (1957). Her presence, even when dubbed, is vital to the duology, particularly as her genuine dancing skill and strong-looking body, which through its very prowess refuses to be objectified, but instead wields palpable independence as the instrument of her own will, one very large part of what drives Chandra insane in his desire to possess it.

The spectacle of performance rendered as nexus of the sacred and profane evidently amused Lang. It might even be seen as the very basis of his career, his long and patient march against the tide of fortune and industry to keep on purveying his vision regardless of setting. Lang’s career is replete with sophisticated games with the act of storytelling and making art, from the finale of Spione (1928) as a clown’s onstage death represents the ultimate takedown for a would-be world-conqueror, to The House by the River, where the antihero’s incidental homicide becomes fuel for gleeful exertions in creativity. Bharani’s death is a more self-conscious example of spectacle and conjuring as arts worked for deception and political subversion. Here, Ramigani contrives to have the inconvenient servant murdered before Chandra’s court by a fakir who has already managed the classic conjuror’s stunt of the Indian Rope Trick. The ability to vanish in front of a watching crowd gives way to the sight of very real, red blood pouring out of a wicker basket through which the fakir has plunged his swords: Lang telegraphs the moment from so far out and then compels the audience (and Seetha) to watch it all unfold with merciless patience, both women assured by powerful, patronising men all the while that everything is fine.

When Chandra has Seetha scooped up from her private lodgings and installed in his palace, she notes the potentially illustrative irony of having a bird in a literal gilded cage as company. Chandra releases the bird only to have it fly back, but finds humans don’t act as simply as animals. Padhu kidnaps Seetha, intending to ruin Seetha as a potential bride by having her raped and disfigured, only for Chandra to chase them down and whip his recalcitrant former brother-in-law in the face, an act of gallantry that fails to gain what Chandra assumes is its proper reward as Harald and Seetha flee him. Chandra soon greets Harald’s colleague Walter Rhode (Claus Holm), who is married to Harald’s sister Irene (Sabine Bethmann), and instructs him to abandon all plans for modernisation and improvement, and instead build a spectacular tomb, one Chandra implies Seetha will be immured alive in once she’s recaptured. The Tiger of Eschnapur ends with a classic cliffhanger scenario as Harald and Seetha collapse in the desert in fleeing Chandra’s soldiers, sprawled upon the sands clutching each-others’ hands, a pair of crucified lovers. In The Indian Tomb, the couple are found and aided by people from a nearby village, who hide them from the soldiers in obedience to the laws of hospitality, although one man eventually sells them out.

Forewarned, Harald and Seetha leave the village and retreat into jagged nearby mountains, where they take refuge in a cave that’s an ancient shrine to Shiva. Seetha’s urgent prayers seem to be answered when a spider spins a web over the cave entrance, making it seem as if no-one’s entered it in ages. A deeply corny touch, but also charged with a sense of the delicately miraculous as well as a visual flavour straight out of Lang’s silents. Part of the diptych’s weird power lies in just this sense of airy, numinous mystique, and a longing for a spiritual possibility as the only escape from the cruel impulses of the flesh and crueller twists of the mind. Lang conjures a world where faiths new and old, foreign and familiar coexist and blend in unpredictable ways. His patient approach to his storytelling and creating this little world unto itself knits a unique mood, one that retains, from that eerie early first vision of Seetha, of having glimpsed something at once palpable and mystically elusive. An old swami (Victor Francen), a former prince himself, lurks in a ruin on the road to Eschnapur, remarked upon in the first part but not visited until the second, when Chandra goes to see him, at first asking for spiritual advice but soon instead demanding some sort of reassuring platitude. “You don’t want the truth,” the swami retorts: “You want someone to deny it with you.”

There’s an echo here of a similar Indian-culture-through-Western eyes vision, Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1946), which also revolved around interlopers falling afoul of overpowering passions, where the capacity for total removal from the world of the senses represented by such a figure of religious commitment proved terribly out of reach. Another fascinating aspect of the duology is its approach to Chandra as a character. As monstrous as he often acts, he never loses Lang’s sympathy as his emblem of masculine folly. You can all but feel his teeth grinding in seething sexual frustration and emotional offence in being rejected by two people close to his heart, whilst his better self struggles in vain for supremacy, a struggle foiled by Chandra’s near-unchecked freedom to indulge his ego. Chandra is cursed with an intimate awareness of the incredibly fine line between adoration and detestation, as he articulates to Irene when he encounters that level-headed lady, as he obfuscates the purpose of his intended tomb and describes it as his monument to the idea of a great love, or at least one that will transmute hate into its opposite over the centuries. The centrality of architecture in the narrative serves both to facilitate the plot in this manner, but also allows Lang to nest concepts within concepts. Architecture is at once a metaphor for his own conception of cinema and a way of mapping the torturous locus of history, identity, and personality Chandra’s world represents. No surprise at all to remember young Lang had initially studied civil engineering before switching to art.

Lang had long experimented in blending his own art form with others, most famously with his annexation of expressionism and then cubism to inform his films’ visuals, pursuing the high modernist ideal of trying to create art where the mode of expression is matched to the subject. Like a final statement of faith in the version of the medium he had helped bring to maturity, the Eschnapur duology is a testimony to the illustrative richness and depth of visual field he could gain from the traditional Academy film ratio. That seemingly boxy and intractable space accords perfectly with Lang’s careful explorations of the confines of Chandra’s palace and adjacent catacomb, mimicking the compartmentalisation of the mind; here are places where precious things and high ideals are stashed; here’s where old foes and unpleasant facts are locked away. One film made under Lang’s potent influence, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), which also referenced his overtly Freudian essay in psychic architectonics, Secret Beyond the Door (1948), borrowed the device of navigating by footfall Irene uses here in trying to locate Seetha and Harald’s prisons. The diptych was also almost certainly an influence on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ Indiana Jones films, particularly Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), which lifts imagery wholesale.

Eschanpur as a fantasy landscape echoes Metropolis with its grandiose upper reaches of stability, order, and beauty, and its septic depths. Harald and Asagara’s exploration of the labyrinthine Moghul tunnels under the palace see them wandering into ancient precincts where the carved figure of a skull-bedecked Kali represents the lurking spectre of evils unexamined, and the dark, muddy waters filled with crocodiles can sometimes break in unbidden. Harald accidentally penetrates a chamber that proves to be where Chandra stashes Eschanpur’s populace of lepers, who advance in lunatic ranks upon any intruder. “Haven’t you noticed there aren’t any sick people in Eschnapur?” Asagara asks Harald after rescuing him from the horde. The downright creep scenes with the lepers feel like some rough draft for George Romero’s zombie hordes, actualisations of all that is diseased in the body politic bound at some point to burst out upon the world. Similarly Chandra’s desire to graft new shoals of clean modernity onto his state, represented by the nice neat models poured over by Harald, Asagara, and Rhode, without effecting any sort of political, social, or personal transformation is indicted as a common disease, one that renders it liable to being consumed by all those crocodiles and cobras. Dramatic architecture and the more literal kind fuse together in the diptych’s last act as Irene braves the labyrinth.

The spider’s miracle proves to only temporarily save them from capture as Ramigani and his men manage to grab Seetha and Harald seems to die falling off a cliff along as he battles a soldier. But Ramigani soon reveals to Seetha that Harald survived and is now held captive in a dungeon under the palace, threatening to have him killed if she fails to marry Chandra and facilitate Ramigani’s coup. Catching wind of the conspiracy that seems to surround them, Rhode and Irene try to extract the truth from Asagara, who has a fair idea of what’s transpired but, compelled to remain silent for fear of reprisal from the Maharajah, has to settle for dropping faint hints as to Harald’s fate. Soon Irene pieces together her brother’s map of the palace and uses it to find Seetha, and finally hears the whole tale. Harald himself manages to escape by overpowering his guard, thanks to an admirably simple ruse that builds to a classic, vivid episode of Langian violence as Harald strangles his jailer with his own chains – the terrible face of death filmed in fearsome, looming close-up that speaks of Lang’s impact on Hitchcock – and then locates his sister and her husband in the labyrinth. Asagara dies heroically trying to defend Irene from the lepers after she inadvertently releases them. The film’s last act finally sees the many, patiently worked plot threads begin to collide, as Ramigani’s coup succeeds and Padhu’s forces invade the palace, unchecked by the Maharajah’s own forces because Ramigani has stabbed his general Dagh (Guido Celano) after he refused to join the insurrection. Chandra finally gets his brutal chastening as he’s stripped to the waist, tied up, and viciously whipped for the enjoyment of a gloating Padhu.

But the usurpers’ gloating proves short-lived, as Dagh, injured but still able, appears with his soldiers to shoot down Padhu and crush the coup. Ramigani flees into the labyrinth only to be trapped in a low chamber into which pours river water and crocodiles eager to feast on his flesh, in a fiendishly great comeuppance. But the film’s real resolution is the confrontation between the freed, glowering, vengeful Chandra and Harald and Seetha, as the lord finds man and mate fighting assorted thugs and reacting to his own entrance as just another fight in the offing, Harald with barely enough strength to stay on his feet. For all of the characters, their civilised pretences have been stripped bare, leaving them only primal realities, the essence of their beings honed to raw nerves, will, and loyalty. Such an endpoint was common for Lang’s characters, although it was often a point of complete internal collapse, like Mabuse. Here, however, Lang opens the gate to new spiritual possibilities, as the spectacle of his own cruelty is enough to cause Chandra to drop his sword and give up his royal life, becoming instead the swami’s new acolyte, another form of self-extinction, but one that feels like a relieve exhalation from its creator, a last attempt to define a zone of life that might deliver freedom from the merciless hunger of life itself. It’s hard to deny that many criticisms levelled at the Eschnapur duology were accurate – it was silly, passé, and naïve. But it’s also still an utterly glorious late testimonial and summative work from one of cinema’s titans.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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). 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.

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.”

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.

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. 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). 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.

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. His 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. 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.

Standard
1930s, 1940s, German cinema, Historical, Horror/Eerie

Fährmann Maria (1936) / Strangler of the Swamp (1946)

Director: Frank Wisbar

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By Roderick Heath

Frank Wisbar is today a fairly obscure name in the roll of classic film directors, and yet lovers of horror cinema still remember him for making two of the genre’s finer deep cuts, each film a variation of the same story, made ten years and continents apart. Born in Tilsit, Wisbar (or Wysbar as his name was originally spelt) was conscripted in World War I and stayed in the army until the mid-1920s, before he went into the film industry. He served as production manager on Leontine Sagan’s legendary lesbian-themed drama Mädchen in Uniform (1931), a success that gave him a shot at directing, debuting with the adventure-comedy Im Bann des Eulenspiegels (1932). Wisbar quickly earned the ire of the oncoming Nazi authority by making Anna und Elisabeth (1933), a follow-up to Mädchen in Uniform with the same stars and gay subtext. To play nice with Goebbels’ new Ministry of Propaganda, Wisbar’s next film, Flag of the Righteous Seven (1934), was an adaptation of German-language Swiss writer Gottfried Keller about romance, bourgeois mores, and regional life in the 1800s. The film won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and Wisbar’s career struggled on for a few more years. Wisbar was however to remain deeply at odds with the Nazis, in part because his wife Eva was Jewish: the state stripped him of his passport and forced the couple to divorce, and after he was finally blacklisted in 1938, Wisbar fled the country. He became an American citizen and found a niche making low-budget features and then TV shows in Hollywood. Eventually returning to West Germany in the 1950s, Wisbar found new but strictly domestic success there again with works about dark chapters in the war like the Battle of Stalingrad and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, an adaptation of Wolfgang Ott’s grim precursor to Das Boot, Sharks and Little Fish (1957), as well as post-war issue movies, before his death in 1967.

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Fährmann Maria, or Ferryman Maria, could well stand as the last authentic product of the classic German cinema age, that time when the national industry that stood so tall between the Great War and doomed by the rise of Hitler. The great, endlessly influential German Expressionist movement in film kicked off by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) represented the kind of dark, sombre, highly psychologised drama the Nazis instinctively hated, and Fährmann Maria kept something of that style’s essence alive in a time when it had become verboten, although carefully mediated through a nominally more realistic, folksy approach, exploring a supernatural tale in a manner that also evokes a bygone sense of the Germanic landscape and communal identity: the word heimat, homeland, which was for the Nazis a talismanic phrase becomes a mystically tinged destination in the film. One supporting character, a boozy but good-natured fiddle-player (Carl de Vogt), evokes a cheery, open ideal of the parochial character as he’s constantly held up in his desire to return to his home by his love of the jug and a good time playing for people. And yet an undercurrent of intense unease and dislocation defines Fährmann Maria as it takes on a classic motif in German storytelling, the encounter of a young woman with Death personified in a battle between love and nihilism. That motif of Death and the Maiden was born in Renaissance art and transmitted through music like Schubert’s pieces of that title and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Fritz Lang had used it as the basis of his omnibus film The Weary Death (1921), and F.W. Murnau had transformed Dracula into a variant on it in his Nosferatu (1922). Fährmann Maria’s exceptionally simple dramatic landscape, which isn’t actually based on any specific folk tale but evokes many, nonetheless aims to synthesise an ideal variant on this basic conflict that could well have dropped from the lips of some grandmother around the campfire some starlit walpurgisnacht.

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The setting is a small village and the nearby ferry crossing that traverses a wide river, the few landmarks in the midst of a landscape of wavering, wind-ruffled pines and twitching reeds, and patches of sucking marshland. The rope-guided ferryboat is tended by an old man (Karl Platen), who maintains the service day in and day out, shuttling people from one bank to the other. The river is borderland between two unidentified regions. A mournful song about a ferry crossing resounds under the opening credits: in the transposition into the first proper scene this song is revealed this song is being performed by the fiddler as he’s shuttled across the river by the old ferryman. The ferryman mocks the fiddler for the ease with which he gets waylaid by his appetites and his rootless habits, and explains that the fiddler’s very coin represents the last payment he has to make to own the ferry outright. That night, the old ferryman is awakened by the dull ring of the ploughshare that serves as the gong for service on the far side of the bank, and he hauls himself out of bed to answer it. When he reaches the far shore, he is intimidated by the grim-faced, black-clad man (Peter Voß) he picks up, and as he labours to get the ferry back to the other side, his tugs on the guide rope become increasingly laborious and strained, until he keels over dead from heart failure, and the mysterious man in black begins to pull the ferry back the other way. The old man has been claimed by Death.

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This early sequence is a superb display of technique from Wisbar. Having established the eerie, somnolent, exposed mood of the ferry’s surrounds, he intensifies for physical effect as he cuts between the old man’s face, his hands on the rope, and the implacable visage of Death, the lateral movement of the camera obeying a rigorous left-to-right viewpoint on the ferry’s motion, capturing the sense of strain and the failing pulse of the old man, matched to a shimmering, atonal score, until his hands cease to work properly. Death catches him and lays him down gently, a peaceful fate met at the very apotheosis of the old labourer’s life, his death at the moment of his triumph both a stinging irony but also a deliverance from any form of disappointment. Enter Maria (Sybille Schmitz), every bit the old man’s opposite, a young woman without a home or community, but destined to step into his shoes and face a rather different confrontation with Death. She wakes up after spending a night sleeping in the barn, pausing to listen to children singing in their school house, the pleasure and impossible distance of such inclusivity written on Maria’s face. Wisbar constantly evokes the folk tradition he’s burrowing into here through song and music, arts that bind together communities but also transcend such boundaries – the indolent fiddler is always half-heartedly trying to get home but is just as happy and seemingly more successful out of his native land – as a form of cultural currency people exchange. Maria enters the village and ducks the local policeman, long used as she is to trouble from such earthly powers. The mayor sees her doing this and makes light fun of her, before challenging her to take over the ferry, a job no-one else wants because “the Evil One haunts the far bank,” to prove she can make her stand.

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Maria takes on the job, and quickly becomes an object of fascination for some, including a local landowner (Gerhard Bienert) who regards her and questions her brusquely, but soon proves to be establishing romantic rights over her. One night Maria, like her predecessor, hears the ploughshare ring on the far bank, and goes over to fetch her fare. At first she sees no-one, but then spots a man (Aribert Mog) crumpled on the ground: he mutters something fearful about being pursued, and she speeds him to the other bank as a squad of black-clad men on horseback dash through the neighbouring woods and line up on the shore, watching their quarry glide to safety. Maria stashes the young man in her hut and looks after him as he’s badly injured. The man recovers and they fall in love, but then he lapses into a fever and she’s forced to tend to him during his raving dissociation. She must also keep him hidden from locals like the fiddler, who, drunk and boisterous, wants to cross the river, and then the landowner when he comes around to invite her to a village dance. But during the night, Maria answers the gong and picks up the man in black, whose unnerving visage Maria instantly recognises as bringing evil intent for her lover, and the man quickly announces the fugitive is the object of his search. Trying to lead him astray, Maria escorts him into town and becomes his partner in the dance. This infuriates the farmer, who had deduced Maria had a man in her house, and, believing the man in black is him, publically brands her a slut whilst also inadvertently informing Death his prey is back in her abode.

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Wisbar seems to have been chiefly under the influence of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) with this film, adapting aspects of its aesthetic, like Dreyer’s use of carefully stylised location shooting to create a different brand of crepuscular atmosphere to the heavy stylisation more typical of the Expressionist mode, and utilising Schmitz, who had played a woman suffering a vampire’s attention in Dreyer’s film. The troubled Schmitz had difficulty landing lead roles in the Nazi-run film industry in spite of her talent because she hardly looked the Aryan heroine, but Wisbar’s casting of her here turned this into a strong subtext lurking behind her character’s yearning for a place and role in the world, whilst also exploiting her specific, wounded beauty in a manner that perfectly suits her character. Maria is caught in the void straddling zones cultural, political, sexual, even life and death. Her tentative smile and large, melancholy eyes describe the strain of her life even as she goes about her work with stoic resolve and tries to keep a flame alight in her spirit. It’s clear she’s fended off a hundred men of the landowner’s ilk, but lets a real smile appear like a spring dawn on her face as she falls for the handsome stranger who embodies all the things she has never had but is forced to join her in this psychic no-man’s-land. Maria, usually dressed in gypsy-like garb that suggest the reason why she’s such an outsider, appears before her lover clad in a new dress, albeit a piece of garb that, with its ruffled collar, seems almost anachronistic even for the film’s vaguely nineteenth century setting, as if casting herself in a role outside of time. And that’s exactly where she is: Maria, whose name instantly evokes religious dimensions, takes over from Charon, shuttling souls between worlds across the Styx, giving her some unspoken form of power that lets her challenge Death himself.

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Wisbar’s off-screen troubles lend credence to the hints constantly given throughout Fährmann Maria that he’s not just describing some historical fantasia, however. Although possessed of some lightly used supernatural powers, Death is personified as a resolutely tangible force kept at bay by the rules of the physical world he manifests in, an implacable agent for a dark and oppressive realm. Maria’s lover is specifically characterised as fleeing a repressive government, hazily defined as an imposition of invaders he and his patriotic friends want to drive out, whilst the citizens of the village regard the far shore as a place where the Devil has made dominion. The film’s most powerful images, of the horsemen pursuing the young man ride out of the forest and perch on the shoreline staring at the couple in the ferry, and the first appearance of Death in his trim, black, semi-military uniform, regarding Maria with blood-freezing severity, evoke a definite sensation of totalitarian menace lurking just beyond the limits of the frame and definition. In one scene the young man, in his fever state, begins to enthusiastically sing one of the patriotic songs he and his fellows use as an anthem, suggesting the Nazi love of such anthems twisted into a grotesque dirge that drives Maria into weeping despair. Maria is left cut off from all communal aid as Death realises her deception, even muffling the sound of the church bell she tries to ring to rouse the villagers to the deadly being in their midst with his power, literalising the feeling of being stranded in the midst of a country suddenly wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind to the new predations of power quickly becoming everyday fact. Maria is compelled by Death to lead him through the swamp between the village and the ferry. Maria makes the self-sacrificing gesture that is always the key to the Death-and-the-Maiden tale, and as she prays that her gesture protect her lover, she leads Death along the treacherous path through the swamp, tricking him into falling into the black mud, where he sinks silently into the murk, whilst she manages to keep her footing and escape.

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The final shots of Fährmann Maria see Maria and her lover crossing the river along with the fiddler and gazing out upon Maria’s new country, a grace note that seems a fulfilment of the patriotic dream of reclaiming the homeland, but with the vital, sneaky corollary that it’s a victory of the exiles and outcasts over the forces that oppress it. Wisbar’s visual sensibility is attuned to the horizontal in landscape and movement, a particularly tricky art to master for filmmakers working with the boxy classic Academy ratio, and fitted specifically to the environs Wisbar deals with here, the flat, semi-desolate spaces around the village and the glassy waters of the river, the to-and-fro motions of the boat and of Maria’s queasy dance with Death at the village dance filmed alike, the camera’s very range of movement communicating the stark, transfixing linearity of life in this space that finally, towards the end, gives way to the promise of gold sunlight on rolling mountains. Wisbar’s journey, at least for the time being, went in the opposite direction to his two heroic lovers, going into exile and soon finding his real reunion with his wife impossible. A decade later, Wisbar found a niche in the so-called “Poverty Row” studio PRC after a long period on the beach trying to get residency and a work permit. His first American film had been a teen crime potboiler, Secrets of a Sorority Girl (1945). For his second, he leveraged the notion of remaking his best-known work, and the result was entitled Strangler of the Swamp.

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The basic plot remained the same: after the death of a ferryman serving a remote town, a young woman named Maria takes over his job and finds herself battling a malign spirit for the life of the man she loves. Working with one of PRC’s famously stringent budgets – none of their films, supposedly, cost more than $100,000 – Wisbar transposed the story into a much more overtly theatrical and classically spooky setting, a bayou swamp choked with reeds and vines traversed by the ferry. Strangler of the Swamp strongly contrasts Fährmann Maria in its approach even as its mood of dislocation and morbid romanticism is retained, whilst the alterations to the story point to a different set of animating concerns for this take. Here, the spectral figure isn’t Death itself but the shade of a man killed by his community, and the death he brings serves a programme of retribution. At the outset, the dead body of a villager who has died in the swamp is brought back to town, where the townsfolk begin to argue frantically about their circumstances: several similar deaths have taken place, all seemingly strangled by vines or reeds wrapped around their necks in grotesque approximation of a hangman’s noose. Many think they’ve been living under a curse ever since the former ferryman, Douglas (Charles Middleton), was lynched as a murderer.

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Most of the men involved, including the mayor, Sanders (Robert Barratt), anxiously repudiate the notion even as they clearly live in fear of whatever lurks out in the bayou awaiting them, whilst the women of the village form a determined front, heading out into the swamp to strip down the noose that was used to kill Douglas. Joseph the ferryman (Frank Conlan), whose testimony was vital to identifying Douglas as a killer and who stepped into his post eagerly, sheepishly objects to the women’s proposals that he offers himself as sacrifice to the spectre to mollify its rage: “I’m only seventy! That’s not old for a man! I have plans for the future.” But soon enough, responding to the clang of the gong on the far side of the swamp, he encounters Douglas, a hollow-eyed wraith emanating from the shadows to deliver up stern pronouncements of waiting punishment: Joseph tries to toss the noose the women left on the ferry overboard, only for it to snare on a log, wrap around his neck, and strangle him, thus fulfilling Douglas’ design without any actual violent act. Amongst Joseph’s papers is discovered his written confession to the murder Douglas committed, as well as his admission that he framed Douglas to get his job. But the wraith is hardly satisfied with his death, and continues to await chances to kill off the rest of his lynch mob and their descendants. Joseph’s granddaughter Maria (Rosemary La Planche) arrives in town, hoping to find a place to settle after leaving a life of toil and alienation in the big city. Shocked to learn of her grandfather’s death, she nonetheless determines to take over his job as ferryman. She soon meets Sanders’ son Chris (Blake Edwards – yes, that Blake Edwards) and falls for him, but the curse is hardly averse to tormenting a pair of young lovers.

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Wisbar had joined Edgar G. Ulmer in productive exile at PRC. Like another émigré Fritz Lang’s Hollywood debut, Fury (1936), Strangler reads in part as a condemnation of lynch culture in the US, whilst the decision to locate the story in one of his new country’s more primal backwaters echoes Jean Renoir’s venture into similar climes for his American debut, Swamp Water (1942). Strangler of the Swamp might also have represented an attempt by Wisbar and PRC to tap the same well Val Lewton’s horror films had so lucratively drilled for RKO, with a similarly literate, carefully stylised script to the kind Lewton liked, although Wisbar’s concrete approach to the supernatural stands somewhat at odds with the airier, more suggestive Lewton touch. The style here is also quite different to the restrained, deceptively naturalistic approach of Fährmann Maria, here turning the limitations of PRC’s productions into an asset by employing one spectacularly dreamlike, claustrophobic locale, where the totemic hangman’s noose dangles in the wind from an old gnarled tree, the rickety docks for the ferry jut into misty waters, an old, ruined church looms skeletally in the distance, and the town huddles on the fringes. Wisbar’s fluidic camerawork is still in evidence, tracking the course of the ferry across the swamp with cool regard, if not as carefully tailored to fit the geography physical and mental of the story. The guilt and paranoia experienced by the townsfolk has infected the land about them, and Wisbar goes more a sense of gothic entanglement befitting a dense and miasmic sense of corruption, the overgrown weeds of the psychic landscape. He often uses superimpositions to obscure the images, the appearances of Middleton’s withered, eyeless ghost masked by haze, the reeds and foliage of the bayou crowding the frame, as if animated and determined to invade the human world that clings to this landscape.

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The result makes Strangler of the Swamp something like the platonic ideal of a dankly atmospheric, low-budget horror film. Severed from the culture and place that informed Fährmann Maria’s folkloric lustre, Strangler refits the story for a place that seems to hover right at the edge of liminal reality, a psychological neverland. That said, the story fits with surprising ease into the dramatic landscape of America’s backwood regions and the stark, moralistic, often supernatural flavour of songwriting in those areas – Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, or Robert Johnson could readily have sung of a similarly elemental tale. Perhaps a seed was planted here for the later burgeoning of backwoods horror as a permanent sub-branch of Hollywood horror cinema. Thematically, Strangler of the Swamp diverges tellingly from its predecessor. Wisbar’s PRC stablemate Ulmer had made his statement of utter moral exhaustion with his famous noir Detour a few months earlier, and Strangler, although ultimately not as nihilistic, seems similarly like a meditation on the psychic landscape left by the war: by the time Strangler was made, the Nazis had fallen and their crimes had stained the soul of humanity. Whereas the community in Fährmann Maria is essentially ignorant and innocent of the uncanny drama unfolding in its midst, Strangler in the Swamp is about vengeance reaching out from beyond the grave to attack a communal guilt – the evil is no longer an invasive one but internal, and the theme of the sins of the father is introduced as Maria and Chris must fight to escape the debt of their parents.

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In the climax, Wisbar revisits the moment from the original when Maria finds she can’t make a sound ringing the church bell and stages it more expressly as sequence depicting social exclusion, as Maria dashes through the village trying to find aid, only to have doors and windows slam shut and curtains drawn by the vengeful spirit’s power, shutting off all recourse for his outsider heroine. Both films obviously share a female protagonist who proves that love is stronger than death and offers her own life in place of her man’s, and in Strangler Wisbar takes this theme of feminine strength further. Maria here meets initial doubts she can do her job but readily adapts to it, but the menfolk of the town are variously foolish, self-deluding, and corrupt, where the women are generally wiser and try to act against the curse where their men obfuscate and deny the problem. Chris’s father objects to his relationship with Maria because he knows she’s the granddaughter of a killer, where his mother (Effie Parnell) recognises her character and encourages the match. When Sanders tells his son he can’t marry Maria, Chris retorts that his own father took just as big a part in murdering Douglas, setting in motion the first rumblings of the generational conflict that would define so much of the post-war age. The town lost its church to fire, the ruins standing in moody isolation out in the swamp embodying the wreckage of the local culture’s ethical standing, and Sanders proposes, instead of rebuilding it with the money the town has collected for the purpose, that they use the funds to drain the swamp instead, his onwards-and-upwards rhetoric exposed as an attempt to avoid reckoning with the past.

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One significant disparity between Wisbar’s two films is that La Planche, although fairly good in the lead, isn’t nearly as enticingly enigmatic or camera-fixating a presence as Schmitz (sadly, both women also died young), and the standard of acting in Strangler, although competent, is merely customary for a low-budget film of the time and place – even the very young Edwards is too callow to make much of an impression. On the other hand, Strangler isn’t weighed down by the smarmy folksiness of the earlier film’s fiddler character. The finale suffers from the hampered staging dictated by the limited setting, involving a lot of stumbling around in dry ice-clogged corners of the set trying to make it look like action is happening. Nonetheless Strangler of the Swamp stands as an example of what a real director could manage with even the most cynically straitened production of the day, a delicious visual experience that offers a real jolt of Wisbar’s poetic streak, and one of the few major horror films of the ‘40s not to have Lewton’s name attached. As in Fährmann Maria, Strangler’s Maria, exhausted by her frantic and desperate efforts to help Sanders in protecting his injured son from the wraith, offers herself in her lover’s place fends off dark fate amidst the sanctified ruins of the church. But Strangler pushes the import of the sacrificial gesture more strongly than Fährmann Maria, in a narrative shaped by a more personal and urgent sense of responsibility: where in the earlier film Death is outwitted by a touch of native guile as well as the ardent honesty of Maria’s prayers, Douglas is mollified by the gesture and dissolves in the night as Maria gives a benediction for his aggrieved soul. In Strangler, the victory feels quite different, as Maria must redeem the whole community through a selfless act, receiving a forgiveness that cannot be asked for, only granted by the aggrieved dead. Maria triumphs over entropy in her personification, however straggly and assailed she seems, of the finer elements of human nature and of woman herself, a detail that points up the irony in her job title. She is the being who encompasses life, death, and rebirth, who spans both shores.

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

Metropolis (1926)

Director: Fritz Lang

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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.

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1920s, Crime/Detective, German cinema, Silent

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Fritz Lang

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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 quiet note of assailed 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.

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1920s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, German cinema, Silent

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried / Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey Through Adventure Film

Director: Fritz Lang

By Roderick Heath

The ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tales of Siegfried or Sigurd were vital building blocks for much middle and northern European folk culture. This was true long before Richard Wagner conflated them for his delirious, impossibly long, musically ostentatious opera cycle, and certainly long before J.R.R. Tolkien absorbed them into his The Lord of the Rings tales. Tolkien’s variation, in repositioning the material as a battle against tyrannical evil, tried to present a completely opposite contemporary tilt on the stories to that assumed by Hitler and the Nazis, who annexed aspects of them through Wagner as lynchpins for their own mythology. Siegfried, the pure, anointed hero who defeated the dragon and yet fell to a spear in the back, presented to post-WW1 German nationalists a powerful metaphor for what they saw as the betrayal of their great struggle by politicians. The possibly apocryphal story of director Fritz Lang’s encounter with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who as Lang later recounted asked him to become their master filmmaker, is today known by just about anyone with pretences to film scholarship. It’s one of those singular moments, as with Eisenstein’s contretemps with Stalin or Ronald Reagan’s co-opting a popular sci-fi adventure for a planned weapons system, where cinema history and political history suddenly unite with genuine import. In Lang’s account, he was approached on the back of their adoration of his two-part 1924 film of the epic poem Die Nibelungenlied, and its science-fiction follow-up Metropolis (1926), works riven with Lang’s malleable sense of human masses and colossal design bound together as expressive instruments that seem to dwarf individualism in the face of historic forces. The fact that Lang’s wife and collaborating screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, became a Nazi (albeit, so she said, to protect Indians, like her later lover, living in Germany), and that many of his cast and crew would be doomed, like or not, to keep working in a Goebbels-run film industry, deepened the seeming surety of Lang’s links to the new regime.

However, there were dimensions of Lang, half-Jewish and Austrian-born, and his aesthetics that the Nazis had not understood or had wilfully ignored, and this was one dragon he decided not to cuddle up to. Lang left Germany, arrived in Hollywood as an artistic hero, and finished up as a near-forgotten B-movie helmsman, albeit one who would be rediscovered just as his career was ending. Such is the lay of Lang’s fall from his pinnacle as the world-shaking cinema titan who bankrupted UFA and inspired the likes of Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock to become filmmakers. It’s neither fair nor entirely apt that the original mythology or Lang’s film of it should have to withstand such evil cultural and historical associations, but they still remain. Made nine years before Hitler’s rise to power, Die Nibelungen’s dedication “To the German People” in the earlier context reads as encomium to a beaten and deeply depressed nation trying to struggle its way out of a dreadful collapse in political structures, economic terrors, and appalling loss, whilst the film depicts the pre-war neo-classical movement’s love for mythology and fantasy now scratching beneath the fanciful veneer of the iconography, and finding the real emotion and hard lessons such surviving tales still contained. The tale’s depiction of a maddened clash not only of individuals and peoples, but also values and world-views, fighting each-other to a bloodily apocalyptic nullity, reflects the still sharp memory of the Great War as noble yet incoherent tragedy.

Lang himself hated Wagner’s chauvinistic mash-up, and based his films squarely on the saga written by an anonymous poet who was probably part of the court of the Bishop of Passau at the turn of the thirteenth century. The poem was a product of a phase in European history when rulers were attempting synthesise new loyalties and codes of behaviour, as well as put the burgeoning numbers of poets and troubadours to some use, through formalising national mythologies in the pattern of Homer’s epics: most of the Arthurian tales came out of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court a little earlier. Like such works, Die Nibelungenlied, which obviously combined transmissions of Greek myth, passed on from hazy sources, with folk memories and legends, was a study in medieval ethics and social constructs, which stressed ambiguity on a human level by presenting cast-iron order and morality imbued on a cosmic level: heroes fall because of their blind spots, and the righteous often appear to be uglier than the villainous in attempting to assert an absolute ethic, and finally history, or fate, or society, wins over the individuals even as each venerate the fallen. The poem also neglected most of the oversized mythological details associated with other versions of the story, like Siegfried’s descent from the Norse gods, and instead presented a story squarely set in an historical context. In spite of fantastical touches like the dragon Siegfried kills and the magical helmet he wears, the tone is largely that of this earth.

The first part of Lang’s work thus kicks off, rather than climaxes with, Siegfried’s greatest mythical hits and, in the total scheme of the films, moves through them at lightning speed. Lang’s film preserves the feudal flavour and fearsome, atavistic sensations of the poem, and yet is also a prototypical version of the same modern moral universe, inflated in scale and resonance but still recognisable, as that Lang explored through less distant prisms in subsequent films as diverse as M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953). Such was a universe where a daemonic quality in human nature wreaks havoc, and mankind on a social level is often disturbingly mindless and reactive. The nobility and ethical strength of the individual barely keeps afloat when such forces are unleashed, the heroes’ loving impulses often transmuting into a hard and unforgiving vengefulness, one that risks becoming monstrous and inhuman in the name of maintaining a human, moral shape to the universe. Lang’s sensibility thus intuitively grasps some of the subtler inferences of the original myth and many like it. In the immediate context of Lang’s run of ‘20s work, where the Dr Mabuse films explored the paranoid mindset of the contemporary and Metropolis posited fables in the future, Die Nibelungen looked to the distant past. In each, a similar, sinister sense of plots laid and hatching evil is facilitated by borrowed guises as the means to insidious ends: Siegfried’s use of his magic helmet equates with Mabuse’s use of disguise and the robotic Maria in Metropolis. Lang’s personal art was perhaps most strongly defined in and contained by Die Nibelungen, because, as has been noted, the essential figurations of the tale recur again and again in Lang’s films. Clearly, for Lang, Die Nibelungen was more than a national myth: it was his own.

The early stages recount how Siegfried (Paul Richter), son of the king of Xanten, has been residing for years with bedraggled old blacksmith, Mime (Georg John), of a race of barely-human mountain men, learning hardiness and craft in a lofty cave. Siegfried is introduced forging a sword sharp enough to cut a feather that falls upon its edge, impressing Mime, who tells his charge that his apprenticeship is over, and that he can return to his father. But another mountain man speaks of the castle at Worms, seat of the king of Burgundy, and of the beauty of the princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Siegfried decides instead to do deeds mighty enough to win Kriemhild. Fate gives him his chance right away, as he encounters a colossal dragon that rules a mountain grove just off the road Siegfried takes. Siegfried ventures into battle with the monster in order to present to the world his own vision for mankind’s conquest of death and terror. He kills the dragon and showers under the blood that runs from its carcass, making him impervious to physical wounding, except at one spot on his back where a leaf from a lime tree falls and sticks. This is the first and most overt moment in the film which seems like a progenitor with endless resonance through subsequent fantasy cinema, perhaps the first great leap forward from Georges Méliès’ rough sketches, with the proto-animatronic dragon moved by steam-powered puppetry, glimpsed drinking from a pool and lashing out at the miniscule but dogged attacker with tail and fire: just about every special-effects driven movie made subsequently owes something conceptually or technically to this scene, from King Kong (1933) through to Jurassic Park (1992) and on to the present.

Siegfried’s legend begins to precede his approach, as his deeds are recounted in Worms to Kriemhild, her mother Queen Ute (Gertrud Arnold), and her brothers, the King Gunther (Theodor Loos), and the younger Gernot (Hans Carl Mueller) and Giselher (Erwin Biswanger), by court troubadour Volker of Alzey (Bernhard Goetzke). Meanwhile Siegfried, continuing his journey, encounters Alberich (John again), a Nibelung or goblin metal-smith, who possesses a fabulous treasure as well as the magic helmet called the Tarnhelm, which confers invisibility and shape-shifting abilities. Alberich assaults Siegfried whilst wearing the helmet, but Siegfried overpowers and kills him, leaving Siegfried with his treasure and the great sword Balmung. Now, invincible and able to command the loyalty and needs of men, Siegfried conquers and then commands twelve petty kings, and brings them as his followers to Worms. Siegfried, a king in his own right, hopes to forge stronger bonds between the various European kingdoms. Whilst Siegfried and Gunther become friends, and the court’s band of fraternal warriors are dubbed ‘Nibelungen’ to celebrate the new compact, at the insistence of Gunther’s grim and quarrelsome advisor Hagen of Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), Siegfried won’t be allowed to marry Kriemhild until he helps Gunther marry too. For Hagen has convinced Gunther to expand his realm by wedding the Queen of Iceland, Brünhild (Hanna Ralph), who lives in a fire-ringed castle with an army of shield-maidens. The prodigious Queen has set no easy requirements for suitors: they have to beat her in three tests of strength, on pain of death. Gunther, although a competent warrior, is anything but a champion, and he prevails upon Siegfried to first don the Tarnhelm to invisibly boost his actions in the joust, and then, as Brünhild continues to reject him, to take on Gunther’s appearance and subdue her on the wedding night. In gratitude, Gunther not only lets Siegfried marry Kriemhild, but also goes through a ceremony of blood brotherhood with him.

Lang’s eye, with the tools of the amazing set design and decoration by Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht, and Erich Kettelhut, and the costuming by Paul Gerd Guderian and Aenne Willkomm, allows the essential conflicts and thematic tensions of the early stages of this drama to accumulate through distilled signifiers. The initial sight of Worms as described by the mountain men appears like a dream vision, rising above the primal landscape of craggy mountains and colossal forest trees, tangles of wilderness and stygian depths of the unknown, a primeval zone through which Siegfried makes his heroic advance. It’s impossible to miss the similarity of imagery in the moment in which Siegfried follows Albrecht into his cavern to the scene in Metropolis where Fredersen follows Rotwang into the catacombs, although Siegfried’s journey is closer in spirit to that of Freder in the latter film: a trek into the underworld where the hero risks his life but emerges with glory. Siegfried moves from the very fringes of the world, through the midst of the forest via the dragon and various semi-human races he encounters, to Worms, which with its soaring battlements and radiating aura of centrifugal power and gravitas, stands as a bastion of all humans can achieve.

The formalistic world of the Burgundian court sees the characters and architecture arrayed in geometric precision, revealing the increasing influence of modern art styles like Cubism infiltrating Lang’s visuals, whilst also channelling the simple precepts of medieval heraldic decoration: such motifs do not however merely look impressive, but communicate ancient assumptions of hierarchy and power, encoded in the very scenery of the drama. Individuals are dwarfed by the might of the church and the palace, and they move into place with precision in obedience to feudal mores at court. When Siegfried, pretending to be Gunther, overwhelms Brünhild, he does not actually deflower her, but instead pilfers her armlet, a symbol of chastity, and keeps it as a trophy. When Kriemhild finds it and innocently sports it, Siegfried confesses his loyal act of deception. Meanwhile, Brünhild, still harbouring misgivings and gnawed at by her actual, secret obsession with Siegfried, starts throwing her weight around, preferring to destroy what she can’t have. She describes Siegfried as a vassal and claims pre-eminence over Kriemhild upon entering the church, an act of contempt that angers Kriemhild so much she retaliates by telling Brünhild the truth about her wedding. Brünhild, maddened to mania, lies to Gunther that Siegfried actually slept with her when pretending to be him. Hagen, who has wants an excuse to pilfer the Nibelungen treasure, sides with Brünhild when she demands Siegfried’s assassination.

The dialectic of values that permeates Die Nibelungen is reflected not only in the visuals, but in the opposition of characters. Siegfried, whilst embodying classical ideals of Germanic tribal youth, is also imbued with the nascent patina of Christian idealism in borrowing St George’s mantle (although some have also suggested, interestingly, that this aspect of the myth could have roots in the infamous defeat of the Romans by the Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, when the Romans wore scaled armour). An exemplar of essential, “pure” heroic traits, venturing into the oneiric depths of the forest and extending the bulwarks of civilisation, Siegfried utterly at a loss when drawn into the orbit of the political, human world. Defined against his virtue is Gunther, whose essential lack of personal direction and strength contrasts Siegfried’s meritocratic gifts carefully imbued by experience and upbringing, a warning against the dangers of mere inherited power. Even more polarised is Hagen, the unrefined old Teutonic, virile, amoral, fearless, shameless, and loyal to the interests of his nation and the improvement of his king, whether the king likes it or not. The demure Kriemhild seems, at first, the polar opposite of the awesome Brünhild. Kriemhild, quiet, eyes constantly downcast, making peace with simple gestures and quiet appeals, appears the perfectly deferential, decorous medieval maid, whereas Brünhild is a more ancient kind of women, physically dynamic and wildly tribal, carrying associations with Greek mythical heroines and huntresses like Diana and the champion Atalanta, given superpowers by her intractable chasteness, and Lang and von Harbou stack her portrayal heavily with hints of misanthropic lesbianism. Initial appearances are partly deceiving, as Brünhild proves increasingly volatile and vindictive once her virginity and sovereignty are surrendered, whilst Kriemhild, who early in the film interrupts a violent quarrel between Siegfried and Hagen with a pacific gesture, grows after marrying Siegfried exponentially in character and stature, until she becomes an all-powerful engine of wrath.

Siegfried and Kriemhild embody the persistence of idealism in civilisation, being reconstituted as the Roman world, distant and increasingly irrelevant, is assailed by Attila and his Huns. But idealism is not necessarily positivist in such a realm: it invokes justice and order as well as liberty and socialisation, and the occasional harshness of those concepts. Hagen and Brünhild, who are both, tellingly, constantly sport helmets with winged crests that evoke more distant tribal roots and totemic meanings, are holdouts from older times, potent and powerful, but also destructive and self-defeating in their extreme sensibilities. Upon her arrival in Worms, Brünhild, who has before clearly been pagan as she’s been seen consulting an old völva who casts the runes, must now kiss the cross in the first act of domestication. This historical world depends utterly on codes of behaviour and ritual that enforce and allow assumptions of trust. The gullibility of Siegfried and Kriemhild and the weakness of Gunther are heightened to amusing extremes, and yet of course it’s actually about demonstrating the level of trust invested in those one fights with and lives with. Hagen violates those presumptions in the most profound manner possible, as he tricks Kriemhild into sewing a cross on the back of Siegfried’s robe that marks out exactly where the leaf that despoiled his invincibility stuck, under the pretext of wanting to protect Siegfried in battle. Out on a hunt, whilst Siegfried drinks from a pool, Hagen spears him in the back.

Die Nibelungen is very long – the two chapters in their full-length cuts take nearly five hours to unspool – in part because Lang plays every scene with a smouldering, slow-mounting intensity that registers with electric fixation and precise weightiness the characters’ actions and reactions. In the sequence of Kriemhild’s discovery of her husband’s death, the slow burn pays off for one of Lang’s brilliant little pirouettes of style. Kriemhild awakens in the night and wanders from her bedroom, the castle now suddenly a trap of voluminous, haunted space, the hunting party returning from the turbulent night with Siegfried’s body on his shield. When Kriemhild comes upon his corpse laid out, she bends over his body in utter devastation. Whilst there’s less of the overtly experimental and symbolic technique Lang would use in Metropolis here, Lang employs such elements sparingly and exactingly, and interpolates a vivid piece of imagery as Kriemhild envisions Siegfried standing before the blossoming tree where he was kissing her earlier, the tree of spring then waning in wintry fashion to take on the aspect of a glowing skull. Violent tragedy has been prefigured by an earlier dream Kriemhild had as Siegfried first entered her life, of a white bird being torn apart by black ones, rendered in abstracted animation. Kriemhild’s squall of shock soon segues into realisation that Hagen is the murderer, and she rises from Siegfried’s corpse pointing her finger at the warlord with abysses behind white-hot eyes, demanding he be punished. But Gunther, who acquiesced to the crime, his brothers, and Volker all, for the sake of the loyalty that is their own, absolute value, step in front of Hagen, announcing their intention to stand by him. Kriemhild vows revenge, and later finds, when Siegfried’s body has been laid out in the cathedral, that Brünhild, having already revealed to her husband that she had lied about Siegfried’s actions, has killed herself there with a dagger in her heart, and rests bent over his corpse, bringing the curtain down on the first chapter.

The bipolar swing from the transcendental adventure of dragon-slaying to this ugly scene seems to chart a grimmer side to the evolution of human civilisation, out of the forest’s shadows and into the different shadows of human emotional and societal conflict. Kriemhild must evolve further and find a way to slay this entirely different kind of dragon. Like her dead husband, she embarks on a single-minded pilgrimage through the forests to fulfil a vow that will change the shape of the world. Strong female characters in Lang’s work were remarkably common even after his marriage to the imperious Von Harbou broke up, and although at first the drama is driven ironically by a clash of intemperate ladies, Kriemhild and Brünhild, later Kriemhild, like the diptych of Marias in Metropolis but contained within one body, is both goddess and succubus, saviour and annihilator, lording over men as she commits unremittingly to her programme no matter the horror that ensues. Whilst Brünhild comes to resemble a femme fatale of the order of Joan Bennett’s Kitty March in Scarlet Street, Kriemhild, like Spencer Tracy’s Joe Wilson in Fury, Henry Fonda’s title character in The Return of Frank James (1940), and Glenn Ford’s Dan Bannion and Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat, is slowly transformed by her dedication to vengeance into a merciless, inhumane force.

If that dedication is held far higher than the mob mentality invoked throughout Lang’s films, here embodied by the Huns, it’s because such an ethic retains a fearful kind of beauty, a singular force that stands rigidly opposed to nihilism and defeatism. As such, it constitutes as sure a bulwark against utter moral chaos as Worms’ battlements, but which in any other setting but this demands better answers. The formerly demure, ultra-feminine Kriemhild now becomes the baleful icon, resembling Klimt’s vision of Pallas Athena, cowering grown men with her gaze, her brothers downcast and ashamedly tentative before her, as she accepts an offer from Attila (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to become his new wife, as he promises to avenge any offence done to her: Kriemhild forces first Attila’s envoy, Rüdiger von Bechlarn (Rudolf Rittner), a Germanic vassal of the Asian conqueror, to swear this oath. She demands it again when she reaches Attila’s keep, in a spellbindingly intense sequence that sees the magnificently ugly Hun warlord and the beautifully icy German widow find a deep understanding in unflinching gazes and oaths of binding import. Attila is later so nervous about the well-being of his wife and his child she’s giving birth to, he can’t prosecute the siege of Rome he’s started. When news comes of the baby’s safe delivery, he charges with his men back to his stronghold to cradle his babe with childish glee, and grants Kriemhild’s request to invite her brothers for a stay. Along the way he passes by the film’s oddest piece of symbolism, a gaggle of naked children dancing around the one tree in an otherwise blasted plain, emblems of the endangered but growing state of civilisation in this age.

Whilst Metropolis, with its genetic heritage passed on through so much of science fiction that followed and its giddy, frenetic sense of technique, is the most famous of Lang’s films, Die Nibelungen has all of its virtues and none of its faults, not simply in telling a more lucid story – it is admittedly easier to transcribe a work of great classical literature than compose one’s own parables – but also in conceptual depth, narrative integrity, and consistency of acting. The performing is practically cabalistic in its concentration, particularly from Schön, who does some of the most operatic eye-acting in the history of silent cinema, and that’s saying something. As Metropolis is to science fiction, watching Die Nibelungen feels very much like encountering the ür-text of just about the entire canon of historical fantasy-adventure cinema. Whilst many entries in these genres had been made before, Lang’s boldly composed visions seem to have sunk the deepest roots in the imagination of filmmakers, even those who have never seen them, but rather seen the films they inflected. Beyond the impact of his use of special effects, Lang’s visual alchemy presented an indelible model for anyone working with such material. The temptation to completely reinvent the world presented in a movie according to aesthetic choice and artistic desire is always theoretically open to filmmakers, but as it’s so often a realistic medium, few feel free to do so with material set in the modern world, a choice that is however less fraught in fantastic and historical settings. Thus Lang’s holistic sensibility, turning everything within the scope of his camera into an expressive instrument, could find free reign here, and gave to followers an expressive palate that could be used in endless and intricate variations. The influence spreads over a vast spectrum of cinematic icons: the compositions and stylisation of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1946-58), the historical swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz and epics of Cecil B. DeMille, the visual motifs of Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, and Orson Welles, through to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (over and above the poem’s influence on Tolkien), John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur (1981), and historical dramas like Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Fellini Satyricon (1969). Even sci-fi like Star Wars (1977) bears its imprint; Hagen – or is it Kriemhild? – can be called the absolute original Darth Vader. Lang’s way of settling his camera down to absorb a set composed in precise, static geometry prefigures the self-conscious reproduction of such effects by Sergei Paradjanov. The finale seems to have particularly inspired the core battle sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985).

Die Nibelungen moves with the relentless stateliness of classical tragedy, which is indeed a genre into which the story finally moves, even as the narrative finally erupts with action in an hour-long final sequence of transfixing force. Structurally, it is broken, like an epic poem, into “Cantos” that commence with brief explanatory, pre-empting notes. Kriemhild’s determination to uphold the values she considers sacred – justice and oaths of loyalty and marriage – runs headlong into Attila’s personal absolutes, in this case the nomadic leader’s insistence that an offer of hospitality cannot be violated, so that even whilst he puts the Burgundians in his wife’s lap, he cannot give her the vengeance she wants so long as the Nibelungs remain under his roof. Kriemhild instead manipulates the Hun warriors, who, wanting to aid the woman whose beauty and statuesque strength seems to them practically god-like, will do anything she asks. As the rank-and-file Burgundian soldiers eat and party with their Hun opposites, a carefully incited fight erupts. When a Burgundian runs into Attila’s banquet hall in the keep, shouting, “Treason!”, Hagen promptly and punitively slaughters Attila and Kriemhild’s baby. At the pleading of another of Attila’s German vassals, Dietrich of Bern (Fritz Alberti), he’s allowed to lead Attila, Kriemhild, Rüdiger and others out of the keep, before the Nibelungen close the doors and defend themselves against the waves of Huns who try to hack through the doors and invade via ladders to the roof. The Nibelungen, with their shields and mail as well as fighting prowess, prove near-invincible for the unarmoured, swarming Huns. Kriemhild invokes Rüdiger’s oath and demands he lead his own men in, an act which entails the worst possible crisis of conscience: Rüdiger has promised his daughter in marriage to Giselher. But the power of the oath wins out, and Rüdiger moves ominously in to attack. When he tries to strike down Hagen, Giselher leaps in front of the villain in trying to plead with his would-be father-in-law, and dies instead. In the battle that follows, Volker kills Rüdiger, whilst the Huns swarm over Gernot as he pleads with his sister to call them off. Hagen mocks Kriemhild from the keep’s steps after another wave of attackers is beaten off, and finally Kriemhild gives the order to burn the keep to the ground with the remnant Nibelungen inside.

The power of these scenes is virtually indescribable in the infernal concision of the images, especially as the end comes for the Nibelungen, Volker defiantly playing his instrument – in pointed contrast to an earlier scene where he smashed another after Kriemhild left Worms without making peace with any of them – and leading the warriors in song. Attila, outside, in a maniacal trance, rocks his hands to the time of the song, and Kriemhild, at the suggestion from another German vassal that’s she’s been consumed by hate, gestures to the keep and states, “I’ve never been more filled with love,” in admiration for her brothers’ fidelity to their principles. They won’t even let Hagen go out to hand himself over when he proposes to do this. Finally, Dietrich (who like Attila is another real historical personage brought into the drama, his real-life analogue being Theodoric the Great, the Visigoth king who conquered Italy), ventures into the keep and overpowers Hagen, dragging him and the king, the last left alive, out to meet the final act of the tragedy. The bleak and dizzying beauty and emotional force of this ending come not simply from the feelings evoked within it and by it, but from the moral ambiguity of it all, as characters one despises suddenly prove themselves heroic beyond measure and true to their private code. Even Gunther gets himself wounded in trying desperately to pluck the fiery arrows from the roof, and Hagen tries to protect the prone king by standing over him with his shield as blocks of masonry crash upon it, the hiss-worthy villain now stirring admiration in his valiant commitment to duty. The various postures of the characters, their world-ordering sensibilities, finally meet in a mutually annihilating showdown where each major character is forced, one way or another, to destroy what they love most. It’s the darkest possible ending in many ways, and yet bizarrely elating, and it makes, by comparison, most modern descendants of this truly great film experience look childish.

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