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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1900s, French cinema, Scifi, Silent

A Trip to the Moon (Voyage dans la lune, 1902)

Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Georges Méliès

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By Roderick Heath

On the 27th of December, 1895, Georges Méliès attended a special event arranged by the inventor brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. The brothers had recently perfected the machine they called the cinematograph—a creation that combined functions of moving picture camera, processor, and projector—and had been showing off the results around Paris throughout the later weeks of the year. On this night, they invited various showmen and theatrical impresarios to see the results of their labours. The invitees were to be one of the very first movie audiences, and at least one of them would soon become a pioneer of a new art. The Lumières had conflicting aims in the exhibition. They were exposing their creation and hoping to stir interest and publicity, which would help protect it from their many rivals, including Thomas Edison. But they also had avowed high-minded, scientific purpose for their invention on the cusp of dispatching a corps of photographers around the world to shoot documentary footage and exhibit the results. Méliès was an experienced stage illusionist who owned and managed the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, built by that famous magician. Méliès had become a success thanks to his meticulous attention to his theatre’s running and ingenuity in providing its attractions. Like all of the impresarios, he was transfixed by the new mode of communication the Lumières presented, and he jostled with the owner of the Folies Bergère in trying to buy their camera. But the brothers refused all offers.

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Méliès got around this by travelling to London and purchasing another manufacturer’s projecting device, which he adapted into a noisy but working camera, at first directly copying the short films the Lumières had made and showing them in his theatre as a side attraction. Méliès discovered peculiarities in this new tool as he went along, as when his camera jammed whilst shooting a street scene. When filming was restarted, a moment of time had elapsed. When projected, Méliès saw the resulting jump and realised this basic quirk of the invention could be utilised to realise tricks similar to what he worked on stage. What was could suddenly become something else, only in the reality of film. Edison had already pulled a trick like this in one of his movies, but Méliès would make it the basis of a new expressive form. Méliès quickly found popularity with his new obsession far greater than what even his theatrical success could aspire to. He built a film studio in Montreuil, brought over his stock company of players, and began making movies with the verve and industry of someone who knew how to make and stage a show, as well as the quicksilver acumen required to adapt to a new medium. Most of his early works were only a few minutes long, but he tackled every subject he could, from ripped-from-the-headlines dramas like Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine (1898) and The Dreyfus Affair (1899), to titillating stag-circuit shorts like After the Ball (1897), and the proto-horror films Le Maison du Diable (1897) and Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899).

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Méliès’ work provides the bridge between the show business of one age, the theatre of belle époque Paris and the Victorian era stage fantasia, and the oncoming time of cinema. Illusionism was Méliès’ stock in trade, but it wasn’t just his love of theatrical stunts and sleight-of-hand that would influence his drift towards spectacle and the realm of the fantastic. His was a genuine love for and affinity with such fare, particularly what was called the “féerie” on the French stage—pageants and spectacles based in mythic and supernatural tales, imbued with a light and evanescent quality of transformative wonder, safe for young audiences in their colour, but also dusted with delicate, good-natured eroticism. Méliès captured the essence of this style as he began to specialise in stories exploiting his gift for realising fantastic imagery. In 1899 he made the six-minute Cinderella, an extremely straightforward telling of Perrault’s story. This proved so popular it gained him international clout and international legal problems, as the popularity of his works with pirates became increasingly galling. Under the banner of his production company, christened Star Films, Méliès began work on his most ambitious film to date, spending 10,000 francs and taking four months to create a film over fifteen minutes long. This odyssey was Voyage dans la lune, or A Trip to the Moon, inspired by ideas from Jules Verne’s novella of that title and H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon, via, perhaps, Jacques Offenbach’s light-hearted operatic spin on Verne.

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Méliès’ work dated quickly in its day, as the fast-moving tides of technology and taste almost resulted in its total loss, swept away just as CD-ROM and VHS have been in the very recent past. After Méliès fell into ruin and obscurity, his rediscovery came when cinema first started looking back over its shoulder at the past. A Trip to the Moon is so familiar as a totem of pop culture inception today that it can seem near to cliché. And yet it’s as tantalisingly strange, witty, and original now as it was a century ago, a broadcast from the very edges of technological memory and modern reference. Of all the things cinema has been and is now, a seed for so much lies within A Trip to the Moon. It’s an experimental work, feeling out the peculiar textures and tricks of this new expressive form recognising no limits, only a basic set of proposed rules and a governing urge. It’s a protosurrealist’s fantasia mapping out the universe as annex of the interior imagination. It’s a pure auteurist relic created by a man who tackled and manipulated every aspect of his burgeoning craft. It’s a work of spectacle driven by special effects and a desire to wow an audience with visual impact. It’s a spry and funny burlesque on the themes of genre fiction and the stuff of official mythology, as well as the new, exciting, more than slightly terrifying concepts of the age of mechanisation and expanding consciousness marking the end of the Victorian era and the onrush of the new century. Sixty-seven years later, humankind would actually pull off the adventure Méliès conjured.

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A Trip to the Moon commences with a gathering of astronomers. The presiding Professor Barbenfouillis (Méliès himself) proposes firing a manned projectile to the moon with a giant gun, much to the excitement and consternation of his fellow scientists. A rival argues with him, plainly decrying his plan as preposterous, an exchange that devolves as Barbenfouillis tosses papers and paraphernalia at his adversary. Others agree to the proposed expedition and the mad-bearded professor shakes hands with them. Like much of the film, this scene seems very simple, with the unmoving camera, the stage-pageant sprawl and mime-show action. And yet it’s stuffed full of allusions, sign-play, and waggish jokes. Méliès depicts not contemporary scientists in the strict, professionalised garb of Victorian science but as medieval alchemists sporting cloaks decorated with celestial objects. Immediately apparent in this vignette is the way sexuality becomes a refrain, and above all show business itself; A Trip to the Moon is a paean to its own evocation of showmanship as a triumphant value. Cute stenographers write down the scientists’ every word, and a line of trim-waisted chorus girls enter to give the senior scientists the gifts of telescopes, which then transform into stools for them to sit on.

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This fillip of visual humour has resonance, suggesting the way wonder is often transmuted into stolid function: these men are used to romanticising whilst sitting on their equipment, and their journey is glimpsed as something of a Quixotic tilt not merely at exploration but at regaining lost youthful pluck. Méliès surely hadn’t read any Freud and yet the phallic note in those telescopes is insistent, and recurs later when the chorus girls are needed to help fire off the gigantic cannon. The opening tableau pictures the scientific realm as a cabalistic enclave with roots in weird esoterica and antisocial elitism, but pointing the way forward with industry and inspiration. Perhaps there’s some hint here of the filmmaker’s cunning in regards to his audience’s understanding of forces rapidly changing their lives, an aspect that complicates the film’s usual characterisation as an epitome of an early twentieth century statement of bold forward-looking. Of course, Méliès is also aware that his very film itself is part of those transformative forces, and the very last shot conflates Méliès’ mastery of his new art and the act of heroic discovery. Barbenfouillis’ sketch on a chalkboard becomes great undertaking, as witnessed in the second and third tableaux, as they have their projectile built and great gun forged. The scientists immediately set about modernising themselves, changing out of antique gear into the clothes of Montgolfier-era gentlemen adventurers. Barbenfouillis and his cabal inspect their brainchild’s realisation in the second tableau, but the savants are out of place in this workaday environment, as one man trips over a tub to the great amusement of the workers.

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If A Trip to the Moon repeatedly envisions scientific endeavour and venture into branch of show business, these scenes carry a hint of Méliès’ respect for the process required to produce anything wonderful, as the painted backdrop behind the projectile recognisably reproduces Méliès’ own studio. But the arts of Victorian metallurgy and industry become mere cardboard and paintwork. A Trip to the Moon revisited ideas Méliès had first explored in his whimsical 1899 work An Astronomer’s Dream, which had similarly envisioned an arcane concept of a skygazer dreaming of star-riding nymphs and a frightening moon with a man’s face that at one point eats the dreamer hero. A Trip to the Moon reordered these touches into a more elaborate edition, with the film’s famous central image quoting but also inverting the vision Méliès had offered three years earlier, as a product of human labour careens into the eye of the man in the moon. A simple inversion of a personal joke, certainly, but also an idea that reflects a changed attitude. Suddenly, humankind is no longer so at the mercy of the universe’s caprices. An Astronomer’s Dream betrays a certain level of anxiety filtered through comedy, a sense of the world just beyond our ken as both enticing and threatening. The promise of A Trip to the Moon has been the key promise of cinematic scifi ever since, that wisdom and applied intelligence might turn threat into triumph. The dreamer has become warrior with the way of things. And yet, of course, the aura of dreamlike plunge and the image of the cosmic feminine remain powerful in A Trip to the Moon.

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Seven years had passed since the first time Méliès saw a motion picture. Cinema was coming together with Promethean fire, and still only a fraction of the distance of the path it would travel. To watch the earliest fragments of moviemaking, the work of Edison, the Lumieres, and the handful of other pioneers in the field, is to stare at the very liminal edge of any sense of the past in motion, and the fleeting illusion of human subjects caught in a moment of life, like some form of spiritualism. How much it would evolve again in the following decade and a half, in terms of the techniques of visual storytelling, shifting from Méliès’ mostly fixed camera to the aggressively mobile and expressive camera of the likes of D.W. Griffith and his generation. Méliès brought a school of illusion from the stage to the screen with the essential presumption that one could be used like the other. To him, the camera was conjuring device and an imaginary audience member in his beloved Théâtre Robert-Houdin beholding the wonders he and his creative team could parade before it. Lack of worry about where the camera was and what it was doing at least freed him to labour on his other effects, as the hand-painted settings and props sprawl across the screen, creating an alternate reality, mysterious, beautiful, protean.

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Whilst the film presents only 17 apparent shots with a resolutely rectilinear perspective, it consists in fact of many more: Méliès’ camera passivity is another, carefully controlled illusion. One irony of passing time is that today with many filmmakers competing to outdo each other in masking their technique in elaborate tracking shots and the like, Méliès’ efforts in creating an illusion of sustained reality from a rigorously direct perspective feels less antiquated on at least this level. We can also see the jumps in Méliès’ sense of the camera by looking back to Cinderella with its cluttered but also simpler mise-en-scène and basic camera tricks just three years before—here the shots tend to stand back further, but are also more cleanly composed and energetically arranged. The vibrancy of the sets also betrays a more confident sense of what the frame could contain, what the eye could handle zapping down at it from the screen. The film’s third tableau, a shot of the astronomers overlooking the enormous undertaking of forging the cannon, is relatively brief but one of the most fascinatingly realised and visually dramatic moments, with Méliès using forced perspective, plumes of steam and smoke, and streams of liquid metal. This is a direct transposition of a vivid passage in Verne’s novel, revealing Méliès as adaptor as well as free improviser. The basic visual presumption here is still theatrical, but the shot betrays an interest in conveying process, the art of construction and the spectacle of industry in itself, that has moved beyond the tableaux style into something more definably cinematic, a seed for the epic style in filmmaking. Méliès’ shifts from shot to shot come with dissolves, embryonic film grammar giving the film the mobility the camera lacks.

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The next three tableaux are the most familiar moments of A Trip to the Moon, indeed some of the most instantly recognisable in cinema history, endlessly excerpted and anthologised as they’ve been. The moon shot project reaches its moment of truth in the midst of public excitement and publicity coup. The scientists climb into their shell and a cohort of chorus girls load it into the great cannon, before a uniformed military officer (François Lallement, one of the Star Films cameramen) signals the gun to be fired. The shell flies through the ether, and the moon, envisioned like an illustration out of a children’s book with man’s face upon its dial beaming beatifically down upon the Earth, receives the interstellar slug right in the eye. These scenes again take Verne’s novel as blueprint, but subject it to a highly satiric attitude. The great business of conquering space is presented not as pure, stoic, Apollonian venture growing out of diverted military force but a carnival of enterprise that mocks martial swagger—the rifle-toting, trumpet-blowing, flag-waving marine entourage are girls who look like a rough draft for Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties (including Méliès’ lover and later wife Jeanne d’Alcy), sending a bunch of old farts to the moon with a gun blast that needs more than a little womanly priming. Méliès’ mischievous take on great nationalist adventures here betrays his background in drawing political cartoons, as well his impresario’s understanding that there is no event so great that can’t be sexed up a bit.

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And, of course, the man in the moon receiving the shell in his eye still blazes with comical and technical genius, one of the greatest sight gags ever to grace celluloid. This sequence utilised Méliès’ technique, pioneered on The Man with the Rubber Head (1902), of approximating what would become the rack or zoom shot (except that the subject was moved closer to the camera rather than the more familiar practice, because the camera was too heavy), to provide a sense of motion. That motion is to give a sense of zeroing in on the moon, which starts off as a vague, mysterious object, charged with enigmatic meaning, then revealed as an animate being who splutters with pain and offence once he gets the iron slug lodged in his brow. Méliès knew well it was a killer image, utilising it as iconography in the film’s last shot and as core advertising motif. Here we seen encapsulated in image and action not just a great piece of humour and a technical innovation, but a pivot of ways of seeing the universe, an idea that legitimises A Trip to the Moon as science fiction and not just playful fantasy. Méliès signals his conversance with a panoply of mythical figures as common motifs in theatrical fancies throughout, and knows his audience is too; the projectile is the hard smack of new scientific possibility right in the eye of a poetic worldview. The idea of landing on the moon is an act of blasphemy according to one unit of values and a simple jaunt to a strange place in another. One irony here is that the filmmaking Méliès was now espousing would soon mostly sweep away the theatrical world he was rooted in, and invent new pantheons of myth to fill in for what he counts as cultural lingua franca. Of course, the tendency of humankind to write its own image on the universe has never really left us. It’s core to understanding some of the most ambitious science fiction films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) depiction of interstellar destiny to Solaris’s (1971) sarcasm towards the notion in encountering the truly alien that can only mimic the onlooker, eternally retarding and frustrating understanding with the collaboration of our most parochial reflexes.

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Méliès offers this vignette as a kind of abstract, symbolic commentary on the idea of landing on the moon, only to follow it up with a different, more literal version of the same thing. The shell actually skids to a halt on the moon surface, depicted realistically as a craggy, brutal landscape, if also, not so realistically, as a place with a breathable atmosphere. The scientists climb out of the shell only for it to slide into an abyss, and, amazed by the sight of the Earth rising on the horizon, they settle down to try and sleep. Méliès revisits the core joke of The Astronomer’s Dream here as the snoozing savants either conjure up the spirits of the ether in their dreams or miss seeing them because they’re asleep, and again Méliès evokes the mystical way of looking at the universe with erotic overtones. The Pleiades look down in bewildered amusement, depicted as a flock of disembodied girls’ heads framed by stylised model stars, the snoozing old men still cheated of their true promised land. The moon goddess Phoebe (played by regular Méliès player and stage star Bleuette Bernon) and irate old Saturn argue over what to do about these interlopers, a fight Phoebe wins: she causes a gentle snowstorm that wakens them and drives them follow their shell into the abyss. The concept of the beneficent cosmic force overlooking sailors on the celestial ocean is, in spite of science fiction’s nominal agnosticism, a constant refrain in a lot of the genre’s screen existence, but Méliès’ sense of humour about the notion is rarer, the contrast of beatific Phoebe and ranting Saturn, who leans out of a portal in the side of the planet bearing his name, pictures the gods as comedy neighbours.

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Descending into the valleys of the moon, the explorers find an exotic and fertile world where strange transformations can occur—Barbenfouillis finds his umbrella takes root and grows into a colossal mushroom. Here Méliès turned to Wells for inspiration, borrowing his moon inhabitants called Selenites to provide plot complication lacking from Verne, whose space projectile had simply rounded the moon and glimpsed the possibility of strange things existing on the dark side. One of the Selenites, weird, crustacean-like hominids fond of leaping bout like acrobats, erupts from the underbrush and intimidates the scientists sufficiently to make Barbenfouillis strike out with another umbrella, causing the alien to explode in a puff of smoke. He does the same thing to a second Selenite, only for a small army of the aliens to give chase and capture the hapless Earthlings. The captives are bound and paraded before the king of the Selenites, who sits on a throne in an alien city, surrounded by his harem of moon maids. Infuriated, Barbenfouillis wrenches at his bonds and snaps them, grabs the king and hurls him to the ground, exploding him, before the humans run for their lives. Méliès provides a sense of propulsion and quickening rhythm here, spurning the languid, dreamy mood of the scientists’ arrival on the mood as the action becomes urgent. Here we have a resolutely linear, comic book-like sense of action as the heroes flee across the frame into different shots, chased by furious Selenites, but not yet offering simple cuts between the scenes, still delineating the change of scene with the dissolve. The result offers a kind of embryonic montage.

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Some have theorised Méliès intended A Trip to the Moon as a purposeful lampoon of imperialist practices and values, apparent in the bumbling but real aggression of the scientists crashing in upon a foreign culture and wreaking havoc. Méliès was probably aware of Cyrano de Bergerac’s own supposed adventures to the moon, part of his subversive method of mirroring absurdity on Earth. Méliès himself had spent time working as a leftist political cartoonist, taking aim official pieties and pomposities, and he had stirred fights in cinemas by explicitly taking a pro-Dreyfus stance with his film about the case. Later, with one of his last epics, Conquest of the Pole (1910), Méliès would be less abashed in poking fun at suffragettes and their opponents. A Trip to the Moon is filled with images smirking at the hoopla of nationalist intrepidity and the idea of timid humans faced with frighteningly wilful organisms. Whilst such readings might easily be taken to unlikely lengths, it is plain Méliès has a lot of fun transposing the template of imperialist-era adventure stories onto the moon, following the same basic pattern as any Tarzan story, but keeping tongue deep in cheek: the explorers tramp into the unknown, are captured by hostile natives and paraded before their overlord who embodies an archaic ideal of lordly domain, before the heroes make their escape. It’s certainly a long way from Wells’ portrait of the Selenites as a sentient race governed by resolutely different social and biological constructs. Blood-and-thunder plotting is, however, viewed through Méliès’ sensibility, the playful, naïve state of early cinema, and the traditions of the féerie, finding comic diminuendo in the fact that the Selenites explode rather than die realistically, and the easy manner in which Barbenfouillis breaks the ropes that bind him. Méliès’ moon bleeds but his Selenites disappear in puffs of theatrical smoke. The universe is alive but life is no more than a moment’s dream.

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Méliès nonetheless dashes with breathless art towards his climax as the scientists locate their craft and climb in, whilst Barbenfouilles labours to pull the shell off a cliff, finally succeeding just as a lone Selenite grabs hold of the shell and is dragged over the edge along with it, plunging back towards Earth. This moment suggests Jack and the Beanstalk as another fairy tale influence on Méliès, another story of a naïve man ascending to a strange land, whilst Méliès abandons any pretence to scientific realism in favour of straight fantasy logic. Méliès has the shell splash-land in the ocean, the only use of any real, outdoor location in the film with the shell and splash superimposed over real waves. The shell sinks into the ocean depths, actually a fish tank, and then is pulled back to shore by a ship—a sliding cardboard cut-out pulling a similar mock-up of the shell, from which a handheld puppet waves a flag of triumph. These effects are obviously incredibly primitive on one level, and yet ebullient in their zest and stirring in Méliès’ willingness to use any and every trick to tell his story in as visually inventive and dynamic a manner possible. Here is the essence of a delight in artifice as its own aesthetic value that many a much later filmmaker, from Terry Gilliam to Tim Burton and Michel Gondry, has embraced. Questions of realism or artifice were probably entirely incidental to Méliès considering the nature of early filmmaking, and yet one can’t help but feel he was the kind to choose artifice every time.

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The scientists make their triumphant return to their homeland with their Selenite captive, who is paraded before crowds and forced to dance, whilst Barbenfouilles is immortalised in statue as the conqueror of the moon, with the slogan “Labor omnia vincit” on the pedestal. Méliès retains hints of his acerbic side here, with an undertone of violence in the scientists’ success—the statue of Barbenfouillis depicts him with boot planted on the moon with the shell lodged in its eye, whilst the Selenite has been reduced to dancing bear. But the overall tone is one of pure elation, an envisioned moment of triumph that codifies all the confidence and joie de vivre not just of Méliès and his filmmaking team but of the young twentieth century itself, just starting to look up not just in fantasy but true ambition. Méliès evokes the masque dance used to end some theatrical performances in celebratory mood, and underlines his work here above all as an expression of carnivalesque joie de vivre, a work that stands above all as a tribute to the very idea of dreaming big. It was an apex of ambition and accomplishment for Star Films. Méliès had drawn on the theatre world he loved to help augment his vision, utilising friends who were singers in Paris’s music halls as his crew of scientists, beauties from the Théâtre du Châtelet as the cannon girls and star maids, and acrobats and dancers from the Folies Bergère as Selenites.

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A Trip to the Moon’s influence is incalculable—every special-effects spectacle, every alien that stalks the screen in every scifi film owes it a debt of gratitude. The influence hardly stops at genre borders either. Edwin S. Porter’s seedling western The Great Train Robbery (1903) would take licence from the film’s shunting film grammar, controlled theatrical viewpoint, and dashing action style, echoing on through a vast array of horse operas and action films. D.W. Griffith would state he owed Méliès everything. The director’s own masterpiece is perhaps a purer fantasy, made four years later, The Kingdom of the Fairies, still just as stagy in some ways but now overwhelming the cinematic frame with shifting planes of vision and effect, and conveying the essence of the féerie Méliès loved so much for cinema’s posterity. But it was A Trip to the Moon that made Méliès the most famous of early filmmakers and which will probably always define his contribution. The only problem with Méliès’ success was that it was so inescapable. He had changed the way a very young art form conversed with its audience and expanded its scope to become a zone of pure creative vision, diverting the form away from the Lumieres’ vision of a tool of veracity. He had set in motion processes that would make him the first real movie king and the first to be dethroned by shifting tastes, evolving styles, and the brusque way of business that would soon dominate what turned quickly from enthusiast’s pursuit to heavy industry. Méliès had employed all that his studio and the theatrical world of Paris could offer, but all that was doomed to be swept away or radically transformed by an age of movable entertainment feasts. The century for which he had provided a fanfare would indeed eventually see men land on the moon after times of grotesque tragedy and grand calamity. The flame of grace that still gutters within A Trip to the Moon, in its charming and naïve proposition of the future by way of the past, is that it remembers that moment when anything seemed possible for us. Labor omnia vincit.

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1910s, Epic, Silent

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Director/Coscreenwriter: D.W. Griffith

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By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard
1920s, Silent, War

Wings (1927)

Director: William A. Wellman

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By Roderick Heath

F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) might have won the perhaps more elevated “Most Artistic Production” Oscar amongst the first year’s roll of award winners, but Wings, which took the award for “Best Production,” has been inscribed in posterity as the legendary precursor of every film to capture the Academy’s premier prize. Looked at as a monument to the craft and dynamism of Hollywood filmmaking at the cusp of that first great, wrenching change in the industry, the transition to sound, Wings is indeed a stirring, even staggering relic. Surely taking some courage from the colossal success of King Vidor’s The Big Parade two years earlier, Wings rode the wave of a new popularity for revisiting the dread and grandeur of the Great War. It also virtually invented a cinematic subgenre, the aerial war movie, with the likes of James Whale’s Journey’s End (1930), Howard Hughes’ and Whale’s Hell’s Angels and Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (both 1931), to follow in quick succession. The mythos of World War I’s flying aces remained so powerful that the 1960s and ’70s saw something of a revival, kicking off with The Blue Max (1966).

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As a dramatic entity, Wings straddles fashions in moviemaking, mimicking the seriousness of its concurrent bunkmates in the profound statement on war business, like The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but also making a play for a big, broad audience, mixing genres and styles in an all-out quest for audience-grabbing entertainment. In short, it’s a blockbuster, 1920s style. Paramount Pictures bigwigs Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, and B.P. Schulberg saw the cost of the film rise to more than $2 million, a serious chunk of change for the time, on a mammoth production leveraged with the participation of the War Department. At the eye of this storm was a young director who may well have felt fated to helm such a work: 30-year-old William A. Wellman.

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During WWI, Wellman, who had briefly played professional ice hockey, had joined up at the age of 21 and flown in the Lafayette Air Corps. This made him the only director in Hollywood with combat air experience. Wellman, bullish, brazen, and all too happy to clash with his actors in the name of art to the point where he was later to be nicknamed “Wild Bill,” had dabbled with acting, which Douglas Fairbanks had suggested to him before the war, after returning home. Deciding acting was an unmanly business, Wellman moved into film production. He worked his way up quickly through crew ranks until he was acting as an uncredited codirector; he released his first two, credited features in 1923. Wings teamed him with two more men with wartime flying experience: actor Richard Arlen and story scribe John Monk Saunders, who would pen many aviator dramas and war films over the course of his Hollywood career and become the biographical subject of John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles (1957). Wings was not exactly to be a warts-and-all vehicle for Wellman to dramatise his youthful experiences. Wellman returned often to tales of war throughout his career, including some of the greatest films of the genre, including The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Battleground (1949), as well as his very last feature film, the sadly low-budgeted and miscast Lafayette Escadrille (1959), where he at least pulled off the stroke of casting his son William Wellman Jr. as himself, a young flyer confronted by the grim truths of aerial combat. Wings, by contrast to the spacious, spare, often melancholy tone of his later war films, is a product of youth–the youth of both the director and the excitable industry in which he worked.

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Wings aims directly at the youth audience of the late ’20s by suggesting their own way of life (and not bothering to be too exact about clothes and hairstyles)—that what would eventually become teen culture was already warming up just as the war beckoned. He introduces protagonist Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and his neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow) as two all-American kids, proto-flapper and hot-rod-building adventurer. “Jack had once pulled Mary out of a bonfire – and sometimes he regretted it,” a title card informs, hilariously setting the scene for the duo’s oblique relationship, with Mary jumping in energetically to aid Jack in rebuilding his battered car, which, as another card explains, had already provided Jack with the experience of flight several times. Jack and Mary transform the car into a speed mobile, and Mary sets the seal on the creation by christening it the “Shooting Star,” complete with a hastily painted logo on the side. Jack, however, oblivious to Mary’s ardour, thanks her and zips away to take the object of his own desire for a drive: Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who has the advantage of being a girl from the big city.

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Wellman’s introduction of Sylvia and her beau, David Armstrong (Arlen), is one of his cleverest and wittiest visual flourishes, with camera attached to the porch swing the pair are resting in, Sylvia plucking a lilting guitar in a picture of fulsome romanticism, only for Jack to appear in Shooting Star behind them. The motion of the swing lends a stroboscopic quality to Jack’s approach, until he arrests the swinging and drags Sylvia away for a jaunt in his jallopy. The old world of quiet days and gentle courting is giving way to the crash-bang pace of the 20th century even before war starts. Sylvia’s affection remains with David, who is the son of the town’s richest man. When war is declared and David and Jack join up, Sylvia humours Jack by giving him a locket photo of herself, but tells David he’s the one she loves.

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The days of youth give way to war, and Jack and David’s march off to serve is repeated by thousands of others, including Mary, who is inspired to join the ambulance driving service, and Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel, patenting his squarehead act), a German-American who confronts folks who deride his patriotism by stripping down to shirtsleeves to show off the tattoo of Old Glory on his bicep. He stops this practice after a drill sergeant assumes he’s getting uppity and clobbers him. During training, Jack and David antagonise each other constantly in their ongoing competition for Sylvia’s affections, but after the sergeant makes them square off in boxing competition, they beat each other to a standstill and bond instead, becoming inseparable partners during subsequent flight training.

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Gary Cooper pops up as a cadet named White who wakes from a snooze as the duo enter his tent upon their arrival at flight school, dismisses the usefulness of good luck charms, offers the arrivals a bit of his half-eaten candy bar, and then leaves behind what’s left to do more practice flying. White is immediately killed in an accident, leaving Jack and David with no illusions about the danger of the business they’re engaging in. Cooper’s brief appearance here sent him skyrocketing to stardom as thousands wrote to Paramount demanding to know all about him. It’s interesting to consider why: not as conventionally handsome as either Rogers or Arlen, nonetheless, his subtle expressivity, the contrast between the dark shrewdness of his eyes and the beaming smile he gives just before waving them farewell, has the force of someone born to be in front of a movie camera, his register immediately declaring itself both subtler and more complex than the other men. If the plot of Wings is often naïve and aspects of it remain rooted in its time, Cooper is the sudden, looming emblem of cinema growing up, as well as learning to talk.

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Schwimpf flunks out as a trainee pilot but becomes David’s mechanic. David quickly declares a tiny toy bear that was a childhood keepsake his charm, whilst Jack puts his trust in Sylvia’s picture. Sent to the Western front, they debut together in battle, sent up with the Flying Circus of Captain Kellermann, this film’s addition to the many movieland avatars of Manfred von Richthofen, aka, the Red Baron. The two rookies prove themselves, though Jack is forced down and nearly killed, and they soon evolve into hardened warriors of the sky, with Jack an ace famed amongst servicemen as he paints his trademark Shooting Star logo on his plane. Wings followed The Big Parade and preceded Hell’s Angels, which was supposed to be a competing production but which would be delayed for years by Howard Hughes’ outsized ambitions. Wings isn’t as sophisticated as either film in contemplating the social breadth of the war’s impact nor as interested in context, happy to present its two young gallants as heroes and Schwimpf as comic relief rather than straining to observe the many types fed into the doughboy ranks, as Vidor did, or the whirl of shifting worldviews and systems, which fascinated as Hughes and Whale, recalling rather Rex Ingram’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1922) as a blend of vaguely poetic wartime tragedy and big, sexy melodrama. It could be argued, really, that Wings leans mostly closer to something like Top Gun (1986) than to any of these, at least until its last act. The storyline is simple and often more than a little archaic. But Wings is made with such epic élan that it stands tall on its own, mostly due to the richness of Wellman’s filmmaking.

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Wings is alight with vigorous cinematic ideas almost to the point of being show-offy, riddled with dynamic tracking shots, geometric framings, or shots with actors lunging at the camera—anything to invigorate the visuals. Sometimes Wellman incorporates outright symbolic flourishes, like boiling the defeat of the German army down to an overhead shot of a dead young warrior lying on a Knight’s Cross painted in a parade ground, and a plane’s propeller winding down and stopping in front of a field of white crosses in the background, signifying the death of a pilot amongst the last to fall in the war. That jokey early shot of Jack racing up to Sylvia and David on the swing sets up a visual motif, as many of the battle sequences are filmed and framed the same way, except with the camera mounted on winged steeds with the looming figure behind an enemy plane lunging for the kill.

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High-flying exploits were the drawing card for Wings, of course, and the action sequences are quite something thanks to the stunt flyers, many of whom came from the ranks of the U.S. Army Air Force. Impressive is the climax of Jack’s first-ever aerial battle, which finishes with Jack crash-landing and hanging upside from his plane as the enemy continues to rake the wreck from above, and then dashes after an English soldier off No Man’s Land and through narrow, shallow trenches as cannon shells burst around him. The physical staging of the earthbound battle sequences unfolds on that mindboggling scale of many silent films, as the planes dash over recreations of battle-scarred France that stretch far and wide, where whole towns were been erected to be convincingly decimated in bombardments. The painstaking aerial photography makes the most of it all.

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The action in Wings has a thrilling, dashing force that for the most part nudges it closer to action-adventure than the grim exigencies of antiwar dramas, but Wellman’s understanding of what he was portraying constantly declares itself in the teeming physical detail and the sense of force and motion he builds into the aerial sequences. Wellman turns what could have been a very simple sequence, a German Gotha bomber being wheeled out of its hanger and sent up on a mission, into a symphony of shots from ground level to high overhead in the same way filmmakers of a later generation might linger over some colossal spaceship, and with a similar implied sense of awe for technology in beauty and menace. One particularly great sequence sees a small town through which soldiers are moving being attacked by the Gotha, with Mary caught out in the street and forced to shelter under her ambulance as the town is blown to smithereens about her. Soldiers hiding in basements have floors above collapse on their heads, and the town church’s steeple is flung like so much rubbish to land on Mary’s vehicle. Jack and David fly in to save the day, cheered on by Mary and the soldiers below.

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Both flyers emerge victorious, and they’re decorated by a French general for their achievement, but both men, David particularly, are left tired and anguished by the experience. Given leave in Paris, Jack goes on a wild bender, losing himself in drink and hanging out with prostitutes vying for his attention. Wellman tests the limits of what he could get away with as he surveys the wild nightlife of the Folies Bergere, tossing in visual jokes like a kilted Scot warrior and his black-satin-hugged floozy both bending down daintily to help with one of her shoes buttons, and another hooker stealing Jack’s flyer pin to use as a slight restraint on her plunging neckline. One startling shot sees Wellman’s camera swoop across several tables, noting the types enjoying their boozy flings, including an older lady paying off a gigolo and a lesbian couple, before zeroing in on Jack as he enjoys his cups, illustrating both the motley gallery of Parisian nightlife at the height of war-stoked frenzy and conveying Jack’s giddy, frantic joy in his forgetful drunkenness.

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Mary, cruising the streets in her ambulance, hears that all of the American soldiers are being recalled for a big push, and she sets out to track Jack down, following his trail of painted shooting stars to the Folies Bergere, and tries unsuccessfully to extricate him from the arms of his coterie of clinging demimondaines. David skips upstairs with one lady, but Mary, helped by a kind member of the staff, disguises herself as a floozy to win Jack away: Jack, hallucinating bubbles, visualised as tiny animated circles drifting up from his champagne, decides to go with whichever girl is giving off the best bubbles, and shakes them both. Mary wins, of course, but once she manages to stow him safely in a bed, she’s wounded to see Sylvia’s picture his locket, and then is caught changing back into her uniform by a pair of MPs rounding up flyers: they assume she’s been naughty and tell her this will be the end of her war.

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This sequence shows off the blend of the corny and the bravura that distinguishes Wings overall, with Wellman’s risqué, authentic sense of the reality of the young servicemen living it up between duels with death blending with silly, crowd-pleasing touches like those animated bubbles, and the goofy cavorts of the storyline as the film finally brings Mary properly back into the movie only to then write her out through some tawdry morality that becomes all the more gaudily entertaining for the blend. Bow, who had risen to the peak of her stardom after It (1927) to become just about the biggest thing in Hollywood, was essentially shoehorned into the film to increase its marketability in a manner similar to her film debut, Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), where she likewise inserted herself into a macho milieu. Her presence in Wings, plying her ebullient, energetic, blithely sexy yet tomboyish persona, is both one of the film’s great pleasures and also one of its problematic elements, as it creates a more than slight dissonance. The subplot of Mary venturing out to war just like the boys has a feminist flavour that’s very apt for Bow’s persona and the moment of the film’s making, and which Wellman accepts casually, even gleefully. But her presence in the drama is readily dispensable, and Bow herself summarised correctly that she was just the “whipped cream on top of the pie.” Her game physical performing and big, bright acting style seem to belong to a different movie in places, and Wellman pushes the film to the limits of tonal elasticity. It doesn’t help that the way the story is structured keeps Jack and Mary away from any substantial romancing. In fact, Jack’s dedication to Sylvia isn’t dispelled even as David wavers on confronting him about it, almost leading to an ugly quarrel between the two men that is interrupted by a call to battle. David, who’s already been morbidly anticipating his demise, leaves behind his keepsake, and goes down in combat.

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A German flyer risks a hot reception to drop off word that David has been killed. Jack goes on the warpath, launching back into battle with hysterical bloodlust, not knowing David managed to escape his crash and the attempts of some Germans to capture him, and is sneaking back across enemy territory. Wings’ climactic scenes go all out in display of production spectacle as it recreates the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, part of the great “100 Days” offensive that ended the war, with a rah-rah tone, as the Yankees set the Germans scurrying on the ground. But Wellman’s tart, forceful vignettes continue to flow: two German officers interrupted as they drink beer in an observation balloon and forced to leap clear; a young American serviceman killed by a shell splinter as he smokes a cigarette without anyone realising he’s dead at first; a tank rolling over the top of a machine gun nest as the age of mechanical war finally renders the trench war slaughter obsolete.

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Wellman handed out cameras to cast and crew to grab action any way they could, capturing soldiers, tanks, and aircraft in sprawling images amidst well-coordinated battle footage that is spectacular, if a bit impersonal, a triumph of technical cinema that remains detached from the story at hand. Triumphalism is contrasted by an overt swing towards ironic tragedy in the air. David manages to steal a German fighter plane from the Flying Circus, decimates several aircraft on the ground, and wings his way back to his friends. Except that Jack, who’s been flying around mercilessly gunning soldiers on the ground and shooting down enemy planes in his hunger for revenge, zeroes in on David and, assuming he’s just another enemy, shoots him down, David’s pleas as he realises his friend is trying to kill him unnoticed. David’s plane crashes into a farmhouse near a French unit and a military graveyard, and Jack lands to claim a trophy only to realise his mistake.

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Wellman stages a lush pieta complete with a French farmer’s wife and her daughter, whose prayers are interrupted by the crash of David’s plane, to bear witness as incidental Madonna and child, and David’s passing is envisioned as an airplane propeller slowing to a stop. Jack kisses David in his death throes, a brotherly gesture that nonetheless brings the overtone of homoeroticism that often percolates under the surface of their relationship to a boil (and which bobs up again in The Public Enemy, 1931), complete with acknowledgement that their “friendship” ultimately was more important than anything else. A farmer helps Jack bury his friend in the midst of fervently dreamlike images—hand-carved crucifixes, crumbling brick, blooming flowers, leafy woods—in an eruption of pre-Raphaelite romantic melancholy as Wellman stages a funeral not just for one sorry hero but for a generation, one he was lucky not to join. David is laid to rest and with him the war, leaving Jack to head home alone to be greeted festively as a hero, but facing up to the onerous task of visiting David’s parents whose stern mourning crumbles before Jack’s distress, the hair at his temples stained prematurely white. Of course, all ends happily as Jack heads home to embrace Mary, and the two are last seen sitting in Shooting Star and kissing under a real shooting star scoring the night sky.

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Wellman went on to have a major career and stands as one of the great underappreciated filmmakers, providing something of a darker, diastolic contemplation of American landscape to John Ford’s in the length of his career, with films that responded to the shifts in the zeitgeist. After Wings, he moved on to contemplate the impact of the Depression and the allure of criminality with The Public Enemy and Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and wryly analyse the cults of Hollywood and mass media with A Star Is Born (1936) and Nothing Sacred (1937). In the 1940s, The Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground, Wellman would get to make the kind of all-but-happenstance war narrative he touches on here, pruning away the box office pretensions and reducing the concerns of his cinema to the experience of men lost in the midst of tumult and agony. But Wings is an exemplar of late silent cinema in its force and visual daring, and still the entertainment machine it was made to be. It deserved, as much as any rival, to be the first Best Picture.

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1920s, Drama, Silent

Foolish Wives (1922)

Director/Screenwriter: Erich von Stroheim

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By Roderick Heath

Amongst the giants of silent cinema, Erich von Stroheim looms very large. Not so much for his work, vital as it is, but for his legend, his persona. Von Stroheim all but created the iconography of the larger-than-life, dictatorial, obsessively visionary filmmaker that has echoed in many dimensions through the history of cinema. In his repeated, ultimately degrading clashes with movie chiefs who literally cut several of his great labours to pieces, he helped define two mirroring clichés still readily detectable in pop culture: the great genius brought down by vulgar moneymen and the egomaniacal poseur incinerating cash to make extravagant follies. Stroheim, son of middle-class Austrian-Jewish parents, carved himself a place in the United States by affecting the style of an strident, Germanic aristocrat and aesthete. He developed a persona in his acting work that played exactly to a certain brand of New World perception of an Old World nabob, a corrupting and depraved roué under a surface of martial rigour and gilded pretence. Stroheim played on the blend of fascination and distaste for such a persona in the American psyche as it entered the First World War, when it wanted to be accepted as a grown-up superpower yearning for the dauntingly elevated aura symbolised by European culture whilst quietly longing to prove native virtues. Stroheim understood this dualism perfectly well, because he was in thrall to it, too, both assimilating himself into the allure of classes to which he didn’t belong and appropriating their glamour whilst relentlessly subverting and despoiling them with an immigrant outsider’s vitriol.

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Stroheim found fame as an actor, his performances as German officers in wartime films earning him the immortal tag of “The Man You Love to Hate.” Such roles included his infamous turn in The Heart of Humanity (1918), where his embodiment of the most unrestrained propaganda poster’s idea of a villainous Hun, killing babies and ravishing nurses, enthralled viewers in a manner not dissimilar to later iconic bad guys like Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter. He simultaneously gained filmmaking experience working for D.W. Griffith, and quickly parlayed his fame and clout into a directing career. That career was relatively brief, but it swung through poles of great success and total ignominy with such force and clamour in the young industry that it still echoes with ring of myth.

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Stroheim repeatedly went all-in on a bet that later seemed like the essence of uncommercial imprudence, but wasn’t actually so unreasonable at the time: that Hollywood could support a wing of ambition similar to the burgeoning European film scene. There, in the early ’20s, it wasn’t uncommon for respected master filmmakers like Abel Gance and Fritz Lang to make multi-episode films that attracted crowds of people willing and ready to be immersed in grand acts of creation. That cultural model was completely opposed to Hollywood’s self-image as a stud farm turning out well-shod, successful sprinters, the model that would win out. Stroheim also sensed that cinema was a drug of allure as well as reflection, a place people went to be delivered from the ordinary, and like Cecil B. DeMille, knew a dialogue of idealism and indulged depravity was part of the appeal. So, Stroheim was happy to extend his established persona in his first two directorial works, Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives, and sate that desire. With Greed (1924), Stroheim would reveal his deepest, most adamant artistic convictions, and paid a heavy price for them: the scornful drollery Stroheim exhibited as a director at first was scratched to reveal a much more properly dark and rigorous interest in human degradation viewed through art’s transformative prisms. But well before that tragic escapade, Foolish Wives had already been brutally cut down from the epic Stroheim proposed and was the subject of boardroom arguments with young, newly installed executive Irving Thalberg over its grossly inflated cost, mostly stemming from Stroheim’s fanatical attention to detail. Naturally, however, the off-screen controversy was transmuted into gleeful marketing, with the poster declaring that this was the first “million dollar movie”: Stroheim sold the lifestyle of the rich as the stuff of silver screen dreams. However ruefully, Hollywood played along.

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Foolish Wives is much stranger and denser than its sexy melodrama essentials suggest, as Stroheim’s pitch-black humour and fascination with transgressive urges constantly despoils the neat edges of familiar narrative. The filmmaker toys with artistic ideas that still had no name at the time, signalled most unmistakably when, within a film called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim, a character reads a book called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim uses this device to suggest levels of reality in his work, even perhaps to indict it as something the eponymous imprudent hausfraus might hallucinate in the sun after a full day sipping cocktails and thumbing romance novels, their own gleeful vision of depravity on the sunny shores of the Cote d’Azur. Or is it Stroheim molesting those daydreams? He uses this device to insert commentaries that have overt, proto-Brechtian quotation marks around them, highlighting them as distinct from the texture of the work and yet part of them.

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From the opening iris shot, the film has the quality of the dark fairytale it is, depicting as it does two relatively innocent characters taking a path into a shady stretch of the forest in search of experience and encountering imps who live off fat American babes in the woods—except that Stroheim prefers the perspective of his imps, casting himself as Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, supposedly a White Russian aristocrat exiled in Monaco. Stroheim never quite elucidates whether or not Karamzin is a phony, that is, a man born to be a user of other people or a convert to the creed. But his so-called cousins “Princess” Vera (Mae Busch) and “Her Highness” Olga Petchnikoff (Maud George) are his mistresses and confederates in maintaining their lavish lifestyle through con artistry, backed up by bogus cash supplied by counterfeiter Cesare Ventucci (Cesare Gravina).

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Stroheim introduces this coterie of reprobates in his opening scene, a sudden plunge into a little world at the Villa Amorosa, where the perverse is instantly rendered cozy, as Stroheim notes the two women taking their place at the breakfast table with their light, jockeying bitchiness, whilst Karamzin is out performing his morning exercise of target-shooting by the sea. He returns to his villa and indulges what the intertitles call his “cereal” and “coffee,” that is, caviar and ox blood. Ventucci arrives to dole out more of his counterfeit cash, with his feeble-minded but fully-grown daughter Marietta (Malvina Polo) in tow. Olga tells off servant Maruschka (Dale Fuller) by grasping and viciously twisting the flesh of her arm. Karamzin greedily eyes doll-clutching, goggle-eyed Marietta and gives her a bottle of his aftershave as a bauble to remember him by (or whatever it is: Karamzin dabs some of it behind his ears and then tastes it for good measure). This gaudy little crew operate through two-pronged attacks, zeroing in on wealthy, naïve couples, with Karamzin going after the wife and his “cousins” the husband as prelude to seducing and fleecing them. The newspapers announce the arrival of a seemingly perfect mark: the new U.S. Commissioner Plenipotentiary to Monaco Andrew J. Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife Helen (Miss DuPont). The lucky couple are brought into town on a U.S. cruiser and greeted on arrival by Prince Albert I (C.J. Allen). Watching from afar, Karamzin formulates his battle plan, and arranges to meet Helen in an outdoor café where she sits reading (yes, Foolish Wives), paying a busboy to page him and make him seem like a big shot. Karamzin swoops in for the chance to do a gallant turn in rescuing one of Helen’s wind-stirred gloves, to which Helen turns up her nose. A French officer and friend of the Hughes’ gives the pair a proper introduction, and soon he is fully accepted as a friend of the new arrivals, albeit with Andrew’s slightly sceptical regard.

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From the start of Foolish Wives, the clock is ticking for Karamzin and company, as their many sins gallop to catch up with them. The most pathetic character is Maruschka, but she is also the one holding unrealised power. Karamzin had made her another of his household concubines on a promise to marry her, a promise he, of course, perpetually wriggles out of. “I am, as they say, free, white, and twenty-one,” Helen declares to her husband at one point, making remarkably plain her nascent determination to get a little adventure. Andrew wryly retorts with a salute before slinking off to his separate bedroom: “Well, I’m married—sunburned—and forty-one…but—my eyes are pretty good yet.” Much of the narrative (reminiscent of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe) is built around whether Helen will be seduced by Karamzin into giving him her money, body, or both, willingly or unwillingly, but Stroheim plies no sense of endangered innocence. A glimpse of Stroheim’s “book” in the film offers a diegetic comment that Americans’ obsession with making money leaves them uninterested in the social games that obsess Europeans, which could be seen as the director finding an ingenious way to insult his audience but is also a spur to Helen’s adventuring as she reads the book over and over again; by the finale, it gives a sop that contradicts this possible slight, as Andrew stands up for his moral code and Karamzin’s adherence to his proves utterly hollow. A wry, slightly horrifying sequence sees Karamzin at the height of his bantam cock parading wowing Helen and a crowd in a sport-shooting contest using live pigeons released from boxes, leaving little doubt about Karamzin’s ability to shoot down anything not likely to shoot back. Once he’s ingratiated himself sufficiently into the Hughes’ company, he contrives to drag Helen off with him to the Hotel des Rêves, a small, out-of-the-way rendezvous.

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Stroheim’s acid wit is apparent from the outset in Foolish Wives, and the film often has the tone of an extended dirty joke, a semi-Sadean comedy of manners and immorality. The overtones of cruelty and phoniness intimated in the opening scene at the Villa Amorosa (that name a sarcasm that grows ever more vicious as the film goes on) and the vivid strangeness of the characters border on surreal; Karamzin and the Ventuccis seem to have crawled out of some Gogol-esque fantasia. Stroheim intercuts Andrew being received by Prince Albert with Helen’s introduction to Karamzin, both meeting figures who exemplify the local society and creed, the cockroach scuttling under the gilt. The core sequence when Karamzin takes Helen for a day out in the country becomes an epic burlesque of Victorian romantic fiction. The “hotel of dreams” is a waystation engineered for an adventure into pastoral territory that Karamzin knows so well he “was soon able to get himself — ‘hopelessly lost!’” Weather aids Karamzin’s schemes, as a powerful storm blows in whilst he and Helen are struggling through marshy reeds on the edge of a stream. Lightning shatters the footbridge over the waterway, and Karamzin tries to transport them over in a rowboat, only for it to spring a leak and sink. He plucks Helen up and carries her to shore, transformed into exactly the sort of gallant cavalier he strives so assiduously to look like whilst never actually giving a damn for it. They take refuge in an old woman’s cabin, one that Karamzin has used so often for this sort of thing Olga calls it “Mother Garoupe’s Hotel,” a den of picturesque crudity and pastoral filth. Karamzin hovers while Helen dries off and is installed in the owner’s bed. What should be the moment of irrepressible passion is instead a drooling conman waiting for his chance to leap in between the sheets with the blowsy Yankee lady.

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Just as he gets his chance, however (in a scene blurred almost to incoherence to avoid censor furore, but critics still rose to the bait in calling the film as a whole a “slur on American womanhood”), a monk caught in the storm looking for shelter pokes his head through the window and eyes the scene suspiciously. The monk enters and settles down for the night, forcing Karamzin to bitterly nurse a serious case of blue balls in the armchair by the fire until dawn. Throughout this sequence, Stroheim is merciless in mocking not just romantic fancy, but also the kind of idealised rustic melodrama that most other filmmakers, including even Murnau five years later with Sunrise (1927), would ply with ripe sentiment. Olga covers for the duo by phoning the ambassador from the Hotel des Rêves, and once returned to her apartment in the morning, Helen sneaks back into her bedroom. Andrew had responded to her absence the night before with a weirdly patient grin anyway, as if ruefully testing his own limits of tolerance. Stroheim’s reputation as an obsessive craftsman of authenticity has somewhat obscured his great, influential visual talent, though that effort certainly pays off in depicting the teeming street life hovering on the streets of Monaco, brass bands and horse guards turning out to greet the new ambassador amidst gawking tourists, and the central, mammoth recreation of the Monte Carlo Grand Casino. Stroheim’s realistic method represented an alternate tack from the emerging German approach of expressionism, and today might seem to anticipate such later, rigorous, maximalist filmmakers as Kubrick, Leone, or Cimino.

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Stroheim’s often vertiginously geometric graphics, seen at their strongest in the opening and in studying the humans with godlike disdain inside the casino, anticipate Orson Welles at his most baroque and invoke Stroheim’s recurring obsession with humans in relation to one another—class, broadly, but also invoking other forms of power and subordination. Stroheim alternates such shots with densely tangled mural-like framings, with faces, flowers, rococo architecture and stray dust specks all privileged to the point of animation, pointing on to the shot-by-shot deliberation, densely illustrative, of Greed. Yet, the photography of Foolish Wives is as vividly chiaroscuro and drenched in inky murk as anything the expressionists were doing, and Stroheim’s filmmaking often seems as fervently mythological as Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) complete with his mock fairytale castle consumed by flames, the rustic hovel a den of stygian lightplay, and a character’s suicide filmed as a towering shadowplay against the rising sun on the sea. A scene in which Ventucci ushers Karamzin into his daughter’s bedroom as she lies sleeping is shot as a peak moment of visual beauty. Beams of light slanting through the room’s shutters illuminate dust teeming in the air, suggesting something at once unkempt and numinous about the abode and the way Ventucci enshrines the girl he promises to defend at all costs. Ventucci unfolds a knife and jabs neurotically at the air, miming for Karamzin’s edification and perhaps warning. Stroheim was a realist in the same way Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Zola were, providing a fervent, boiling mass of magnified human strangeness emerging from vividly depicted backdrops. Stroheim is often regarded as a filmmaker who tried to force more mature artistic values in American cinema. Here this pretence manifests as literary awareness, both in the nascent modernist joke of the meta-narrative and also in the weird, fragmented intertitles that appear throughout the film, written with a quality close to stream-of-consciousness. These titles provide a witty approximation of some imagined, talented, poet-layabout expatriate steeped in the local habitués and muttering acerbically beautiful notes (perhaps the “Erich von Stroheim” who wrote the book Foolish Wives): “Mondaine — Cocotta — Kings and Crooks — Amoura! Amoura! — And Suicides!” or “Again morning — sun-draped terrace — Sapphire sea — all the world on a holiday — Rifle Fire — Brooding doves — Brutality of man — and still the sun.”

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Karamzin’s success in assaulting Helen’s reputation and good sense on their rural exploit and failure to actually get what he’s after proves a turning point, after which Karamzin’s decline begins. Karamzin’s hunger for erotic satisfaction constantly exceeds his interest in his other projects, whilst his use of other people purely to meet his own desires reaches a hyperbolic point when he manipulates Maruschka into giving him her life savings—a paltry amount by his usual standards, but enough to get him through a night at the gaming tables. Karamzin is at his most entertaining the worse he gets, as when he drips wine on a tablecloth to make Maruschka think he’s crying. Stroheim wasn’t anyone’s idea of a matinee idol, and yet he inhabits his character with such outsized swagger and charisma that he pulls off his own charade of devastating gigolo, his bulbous head, flaring nostrils, and rubbery, sensuous lips like some caricaturist’s attempt to sketch lust, the deadly sin personified—which indeed they often did on film posters. Stroheim plays his role as Stroheim with a glee that’s striking, and hard to find a likeness for in later cinema: he’s just as egotistically masochistic as the wave of Method stars like Brando that would come up much later, always hungry to be nailed up on their crosses, but so willing to play the fiend without a hint of sympathy for the devil, in a drama that takes Mephistopheles from supporting character to centre frame. Obsessed with amorality as it is, though, Foolish Wives is no monument to it—far from it. Stroheim is equally gleeful in tracking his bad characters to ignominious ends and depicting the moments when the worms turn. Actually, Stroheim’s moral compass was rigorous, and to a certain extent, his films boil down to simple lessons—greed is bad, stick with your spouse, marry for love and not gain, etc.—made rich by his realisation, his feel for the contradictory impulses that consume people and poison societies.

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Most crucial and disturbing is his feel for how people often subordinate themselves to characters like Karamzin in their desire for him to give them something they lack—here, sexual pleasure and social status—and the way people like him exploit others endlessly. Stroheim would later take up the theme of sexuality coupled with avarice most intensely in Greed, but inverted; there repression fuels the hunger for money as a malformed need. An earlier vignette of an American soldier who failed to rescue the glove Karamzin retrieved is taken up later when the same man neglects to hold the casino door for her; she rears on him irritably, only to realise the veteran has lost his arms. Stroheim’s irony about appearances and the real nature of soldierly duty is obvious, but serves the purpose of radically shifting the film’s tone. Stroheim takes it a step further as Helen wraps herself in the man’s limp jacket arms and weeps on his shoulder. This scene becomes at once a perverse approximation of a lover’s tryst and a sentimental paean that mirrors the emotional amputees seen everywhere else in the film; it is even shot through an undercurrent of morbid eroticism.

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Stroheim sarcastically restages the Russian Revolution in miniature as domestic-erotic revolt, as Karamzin’s insults to the desperate, fraying Maruschka, drive the servant to lunacy and revenge. This pivotal moment comes as Stroheim depicts her weeping on her bed in her dingy servant’s room, and then zooms in to capture the moment when infernal inspiration takes hold. This camera move was one of Stroheim’s signature touches, the closing in of the camera’s gaze mimicking entrance into the private emotional experience of his characters, and here, coupled with Fuller’s performance, the effect is electrifying. Karamzin pushes his plan closer to fruition during a night on the town, as he has his “cousins” cordon off Andrew at the casino tables whilst he gambles with Helen: she wins a huge wad of cash, and Karamzin coaxes Helen to the villa, where he lays on her basically the same sob story he told Maruschka to get her winnings. Maruschka, however, her wits snapped, sets fire to the villa, entrapping the couple on a high floor.

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The fire department rushes to the scene, along with a mass of rubberneckers, whereupon Karamzin jumps into the waiting canvas ahead of Helen. Sarcastically asked by his soldier friends about town why he did this, he replies coolly that he had to show Helen it was safe. But Andrew, discovering the note Karamzin sent Helen to get her there in the first place, confronts him in the casino. Once Karamzin removes his monocle at his request and tells him, “Go to hell!”, Andrew wallops him so hard he crashes to the floor. During the film’s production, Allen died suddenly, and rather than reshoot his scenes with another actor, Stroheim instead employed a body double. That’s not surprising, as Allen’s performance, subtly comic and intelligent, is excellent. Karmazin tries to brush off Andrew’s humiliation of him, but is left to wander the streets alone at night, disgraced and essentially penniless and homeless, whilst his mistresses quickly pack up their belongings in the villa and flee. Justice, when it comes, is deserved, but merciless: the two women are picked up by fraud police who have been tracking them, stripped of their blonde flapper wigs to reveal the coal-coloured bobs beneath.

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Karamzin, on the hunt for some sort of satisfaction, steals into Marietta’s bedroom in Ventucci’s house. Here, the punitive editing the film was subjected to most clearly affected Stroheim’s concluding ironies and epiphanies. Karamzin’s sexual assault on Mariette was cut, as was Ventucci’s vengeful killing of him: the incident is instead merely suggested as Ventucci is depicted dragging Karamzin’s corpse down to dump in a sewer. The point remains, however muted: Karamzin’s gross rapacity finally destroyed him, and his journey to the bottom is completed in the most undignified way possible, anticipating the gangster antiheroes of the early ’30s and their sticky ends. Stroheim also intended to depict Karamzin’s departure as the rhyme to the reconciliation of the Hughes and Helen giving birth, suggesting the cyclical nature of life. This denouement, like much of Stroheim’s oeuvre, is lost to time and rumour. What’s left of Foolish Wives testifies to a great cinematic talent clearing his throat just in time to have it cut.

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1920s, Crime/Detective, German cinema, Silent

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (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.

Standard
2010s, Fantasy, Silent, Spanish cinema

Blancanieves (2012)

Director/Screenwriter: Pablo Berger

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By Roderick Heath

Silent cinema seems to be making a comeback. Not to the extent that it’s likely to take over the multiplexes, of course, but as a niche of playful experimentation by adventurous filmmakers. Recent works scattered across the zones of international cinema like The Call of Cthulhu (2005), Dr. Plonk (2007), The Artist (2011), and the second half of Tabu (2012), have dared rewardingly to drop the crutch of dialogue. And now we have Blancanieves, a hymn to the beauty of the antiquated and to things that never were, but which retain the palpable texture of shared memory through their totemic qualities. Filmmaker Pablo Berger takes the bare bones of the Grimm Brothers’ transcription of the old European fairy tale Snow White, based in one arcane yet doggedly popular and weirdly powerful art form, and feeds it through the distorting lens of another, the silent film.

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Blancanieves is a lush, dreamy, deliriously cinematic work. Following in the footsteps of last year’s diptych of Hollywood takes on the Grimm tale, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, Blancanieves dwarfs them (pun intended), not just in artistry but in the simple joy in telling the story and delight in the texture of the poetic. Unlike The Artist, Berger’s film is more than mere jokey pastiche; it is an aesthetically engaged and solidly dramatic work that recreates the texture of early 20th century filmic art without reducing it to mimicry. Blancanieves, which swept the Goya Awards in Spain, is Berger’s second film. His previous work, the playful Torremolinos 73 (2003), also was fascinated by the vicissitudes of period cinema, except the period was the early ’70s and the cinema was pornographic; Torremolinos 73 captured the national mood on the cusp of the death of Franco and an eruption of a suppressed bawdiness. Blancanieves is far more thorough in its immersive purpose, as Berger gives the material a specifically Iberian tilt not only in recomposing the story to revolve around a world of bullfighters and mantilla-clad doñas, but in the specifically parochial qualities of its black humour and tragedian reflexes.

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Berger’s fascination for the plight of a child at the mercy of the world, and its sense of an underlying meditation on historical suffering, are aspects his work shares with Guillermo del Toro’s diptych of Spanish horror films, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2007), whilst also harkening back to Victor Erice’s starkly suggestive The Secret of the Beehive (1973), as a distinct native strand in Spanish cinema. There are also enough hints in the mischievous humour, oddball sexuality, and wry take on class and gender battles flickering through the material to suggest the latter-day influence of Pedro Almodovar. Fittingly, Berger evokes one faded world of heroic entertainers and obsessive audiences, that of film, by focusing on another, bullfighting, as opening frames of the film find a city almost deserted because the great toreador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is going to duel six bulls in one day, an apotheosis for his sanguinary art. Villalta takes out five bulls, but the sixth proves his undoing, and he’s gored before his watching, pregnant wife Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta).

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Berger cross-cuts between Villalta splayed and bloody on the operating table whilst his wife goes into labour: fatefully, Villalta lives, but emerges as a quadriplegic, but Carmen dies, leaving a small daughter who inherits her name. Before his surgery, Villalta hallucinates, projecting the face of his wife onto the nurse passing anaesthetic, Encarna (Maribel Verdú). Encarna is all too willing and eager to take advantage of this transference as she aids him in his recovery, and when he emerges from hospital, confined to a wheelchair, he and Encarna are married. The newlyweds promptly disappear behind the gates of Villalta’s country estate Monte Olvido, whilst young Carmen is raised by her grandmother, Doña Concha (Ángela Molina), and watched over by Villalta’s former manager Don (Ramón Barea).

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Carmen never sees her father, pining for a visit and drawing his imagined face in flour. On her birthday, her grandmother draws her into a flamenco dance, but suffers a heart attack and dies. Finally, Carmen is taken into the care of Encarna, but far from proving a homecoming, she finds herself the target of Encarna’s sadistic degradations: Encarna cuts off her hair and makes her labour around the house, with only the pet rooster, Pepe, she brought with her and the kitchen maid as companions. With Villalta trapped upstairs in his chair, Encarna has complete control of the estate and the family fortune, and carries on an affair with her chauffeur Genaro (Pere Ponce). Carmen, chasing after her Pepe who sneaks inside the mansion, pursues him upstairs, where she’s been told never to go, and discovers her father, sad, imprisoned, and haunted. Carmen and Villalta connect, and she manages to visit him many times, even doing a flamenco dance for him on his birthday, before Encarna catches them. Villalta is doomed to spend the rest of his days jammed in a corner, whilst Encarna punishes Carmen by cooking and eating Pepe, before returning her to her life of drudgery.

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Berger’s clever translation of the story’s motifs into a ’20s milieu, removing magic, but playing up melodrama, accords perfectly with the nature of silent cinema, which always thrived in depicting powerful emotions and rested best on a bedrock of simple, but not simplistic, plot mechanics and character reflexes, which could then drive a synergistic flow of images. One of Berger’s smartest choices was to film a tale that could very well have been an actual silent movie: Carmen is the sort of victimised waif in which Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish specialized, except that Berger then twists the story in a direction that pays a fair sop to a modern audience’s perspective, albeit one not entirely beyond the imagination of early filmmakers.

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On the surface, Blancanieves has much in common with aspects of other retro-fetishist works of fantastical cinema, including the likes of Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1991) and the oeuvres of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Guy Maddin, in trying to recreate the ebulliently oneiric qualities of high expressionist filmmaking. But Berger enters entirely into the silent film world’s lexicon and also its populist sensibility, the sense that movie-going is, above all, an inclusive experience, one of the more sadly faded assumptions of cinema. Of course, Berger isn’t trying to proffer exacting pastiche: aspects of the story wouldn’t have flown in 1926, nor the gore and overt sexuality, and Berger happily indulges editing flourishes that would have been radical at the time. Blancanieves pays obvious homage to the world of European cinema before 1930, but resists the trap of referential obsession or film school appropriation: the aesthetics of filmmakers like Murnau, Buñuel, Pabst, Von Stroheim, Tod Browning, and many others are suggested without being specifically mimicked.

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The attentiveness to lighting effects, the vivid contrast between textures of flesh and wood and metal and those vibrant rays of luminosity that invested early cinema with its visualised sense of the ethereal and the earthy in close contact, is recreated by Kiko de la Rica’s cinematography. The mystical chintz of show-business crucibles like circuses and bullfight arenas, the hazy, numinous mood of foggy forests and misted rivers, the lancing strangeness of the trappings of modernity in worlds poised on the edge of transformation, and the monolithic power of wealth in largely poverty-stricken and gritty environ—all are familiar images and contrasts in silent cinema, recreated sparingly but consequentially. In this fashion, Berger places his narrative as a whole on the edge of a kind of dream-memory of the past, filled with iconography and commencing with deliriously spiritual overtones of Villalta praying before his bullfight, hanging his locket photo of his wife on a statue of the Virgin. His wife and her mother wait in the crowd, idealised images of Spanish womanhood, just as Villalta is the male equivalent, fronting up to the bulls in spectacularly confident and lissom postures. Pride inevitably presages Villalta’s fall, as he goes from superman to trapped wreck and loses everything except his daughter’s love, which survives years of longing and forced separation. Genetic links prove strong: Carmen has inherited her parents’ talents as well as character. Blancanieves isn’t a film for children, though it’s easy to imagine it being compelling for a young audience, especially considering that like the famously gruelling Pickford vehicle Sparrows (1926) or even Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), it captures the unabashedly dark, phobic qualities one associates with folk tales that tap the genuine fears of emotional abandonment, isolation, and being left to fend for oneself children often have. Berger doesn’t shy away from the often fervent emotional violence in fairy tales, whilst also extracting overdrawn, blackly comic humour, like in the scene in which Encarna gloatingly devours a drumstick ripped from Pepe’s cooked cadaver to Carmen’s revulsion.

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Berger’s approach hints at subtext that simmers unobtrusively, but insistently. Historical dimensions suggest historical severance and deposed hierarchies, as well as hints of a quiet commentary on the dread age of the celebrity. Villalta’s calamitous injury is induced by a photographer using a flash just as he’s readying the death-stroke for the last bull. When he’s released from hospital under Encarna’s nominal care, those photographers return to illuminate his ruination. Finally when he’s died, his family and friends have their pictures taken with his dressed corpse, a folk custom transformed into a cruel image of destroyed patriarchy, laced with political and satirical overtones. Carmen later faces grave danger, engineered by a friend turned madly envious by having the spotlight stolen from him.

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The Evil Queen of the Snow White tales is defined by pathological intent to destroy a potential sexual rival, but Encarna is motivated less by immediate jealousy than by a determination to entirely assimilate the Villalta legacy, to obtain rather than retain exceptional status. Encarna is the worst kind of talentless parasite, one who attaches herself to the ruined Villalta to achieve wealth and fame. She is glimpsed leafing through fashion magazines, and desiring transformation into one of the glamorous beings she sees, poses for a magazine photo spread ensconced in haute couture—a super-bitch with a Joan Crawford-ish aspect; the film often plays like Crawford swapped parts with Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1964).

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The reconstruction of the Evil Queen as Encarna is one of the most inspired touches: entirely egotistical, deeply sadistic, Encarna is a delightfully unrestrained baddie. What works about the characterisation, and Verdú’s mischievous performance, is how adroitly it connects the emblematic evil of the story’s villain with genuinely troubling real-life phenomenon: her grasping greed, exploitation of her disabled husband, and humiliating treatment of her stepdaughter are all acts of evil all too easy to believe in, even as they’re pushed to absurd extremes. True to the fashion of fairy tales, too, Carmen resists being brutalised by her experiences, remaining a good-natured, if haunted girl who grows into a steadfast woman. The happy, but tragically brief reunion Carmen has with her father sees her entertain him by dancing and practising cape-swirling under his tutelage. Encarna inflicts gender reassignment on Carmen by cutting her hair, a consequential act that bends Carmen towards moving into the masculine arts of her father rather than her mother and grandmother, though the nifty footwork and postural awareness flamenco dancing imbue in her fuse perfectly with the flourishes her father instructs her in for bullfighting. Young Carmen finds herself destined to try to live up to the stature of her parents, a union of both emblematic cultural institutions—toreador and flamenco dancer—talents that combine fruitfully once Carmen grows up, and finds herself plunged into the arena.

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Berger moves between the first and second parts of his tale in a beguiling sequence, as young Carmen practises her toreador moves mixed with dancing with laundry, using pegs like banderillas, suddenly moving from girl to grown woman (the luminous Macarena García takes over), whereupon she’s informed of her father’s death. Encarna, tired of pretences, has pushed him down the stairs. The minion, who, in the story, is entrusted with Snow White’s murder, was a secretly good-natured figure. Here, it’s Encarna’s chauffeur-lover Genaro, glimpsed by Carmen playing the submissive boy-toy. One hilarious vignette depicts Encarna in the act of having her portrait painted as the image of imperious fashion-plate femininity, getting Genaro to take the place of the dog she’s being depicted as holding on a chain, to the painter’s nonplussed continued labour. Of course, his willingness to be Encarna’s dog belies his own viciousness, which emerges when given the task of taking Carmen to her death. He tries to rape her, and when she manages to knee him in the crotch and make a break, he catches her and drowns her in the river, leaving her for dead—except he didn’t quite finish the job, and she finds refuge with a band of six dwarfs, who work as travelling clowns and bullfighters called Los Enanitos Toreros.

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Rafita (Sergio Dorado), the best-looking and most romantic of the band, was the one who plucked her from the river on a misty bank and took her to their caravan. The others in his band, including the nominal chief, the grouchy and jealous Jesusin (Emilio Gavira) and the cross-dressing Josefa (Alberto Martínez), are introduced with their names flashing on screen. When, during their next exhibition in a small town, Jesusin is charged by a bull and knocked about, the other dwarfs won’t intervene because the audience finds it hysterically funny. So Carmen leaps into the fray and astonishes all with a superlative display of cape work. Carmen, who hides her identity more to escape the past, it seems, than concern about Encarna’s wrath, nonetheless finds herself bound to close the family circle, though the fact that she’s dubbed “Blancanieves” by her new friends in recognition her plight is right out of the hoary old story. Berger’s revisions to the original story’s patterns as well as setting have a contemporary flavour, as Carmen casually shatters rigid gender barriers to gain credibility as a toreador, whilst handsome prince and dwarf are no longer exclusive figures, but conflated in the ardent Rafita. Yet such tweaks only seem to solidify the fairytale texture of Blancanieves, for dramatic transformations and protean forms are so vital to such storytelling and part of the way they still capture a unique essence of human existence. The Mephistophelean promoter Carlos de Montoya (José María Pou), complete with forked beard, brings the spectre of Faustian bargains to Carmen, as the girl, who can’t read is talked into signing a lifetime contract. Montoya gets her booked in the same arena where her father met his fate, and the circular narrative is matched by circular imagery, as the same ritualised stations on the way to a duel with fate and death are counted off.

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Blancanieves is a gorgeous-looking film, replete with allusive visuals and well-used silent film devices, which range from the broad, like Carmen hallucinating Pepé’s head on a boiled sparrow she’s fed for dinner, to the wittily precise. Berger uses the iris shot, one of those devices associated most insistently with silent cinema, but matches it by literally projecting one on an actual iris, as Carmen is informed of her father’s death, with the flashback dialling in and out from her eye. Berger’s vertiginous framing often adopts violently low or high angles, lending his shots requisite drama and pictorial zest, whilst also invoking the violent state of fortune of his characters. But these gruelling shifts are encapsulated most precisely in an early shot, as Carmen’s communion dress is dyed black after her grandmother dies, streams of inky blighting black flowing from the pristine gown, signalling Carmen’s oncoming date with the devil Encarna. The same note and visual motif are mirrored in a lovingly executed crane shot that later retreats from Encarna’s silvery-draped form standing over a pristine white pool, in which the corpse of Genaro, whom she batters to death after learning Carmen survived, drifts in a cloud of blood.

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Carmen proves triumphant in the ring, facing down the colossal bull the infuriated Jesusin has substituted for her smaller intended opponent, proving so invigorating to the audience that they vote for the bull’s pardon. Encarna, however, has taken what was her mother’s place in the crowd, swathed in black lace in perfect Manichaean contrast, proffering the inevitable poisoned apple, a glistening orb that Jesusin recognises after he’s accidentally knocked it from Encarna’s hands. Carmen collapses in a coma after taking a bite during her victory salute, and whilst the stricken Rafita clutches her body, Jesusin leads the others in trying to chase down Encarna, who tries to elude them in the bullpens. Her beautifully dark comeuppance arrives as she finds she’s locked herself in with a monstrous bull, its huge silhouetted horns falling upon her quivering, collapsing form.

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As ebullient as his film often is, Berger takes a swerve back to tragedy in his final passage. Carmen, still in a coma and exhibited by Montoya in a circus sideshow as a freak of nature. “Miracle or curse?” Montoya asks repeatedly while sideshow patrons line up for the pleasure of trying to rouse her. Rafita works for Montoya, and wheels her out for the show to lovingly tends to her backstage. The mood here moves into a zone at once ethereal and pathetic, with hints of kink in the morbid sensuality everyone invests in Carmen’s form, with Rafita tenderly kissing her goodnight before bedding down with her, and infinitely sad frustration, as the very last shot reveals a single tear flowing from her eye. The sensibility here suggests the influence not just of silent cinema but later directors’ stylised tributes to the sawdust-and-tinsel mysticism and pathos of the peripatetic entertainer’s world, whilst reconfiguring the Sleeping Beauty image to something close to James B. Harris’ Some Call It Loving (1973), the image of imperishable mystery and beauty of life found even in the seamiest and most degraded exhibition. Even flat on her back, Carmen is beholden to the crowd. That last shot, of Carmen’s tear, encapsulates everything Berger aims for, emotionally and aesthetically.

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