Saturday, October 22, 2011

Caligari’s Cabinet

Let’s take a dark journey, one that brings us to pre-war Germany, before the first World War.   The German’s have not taken to creating their own cinema – they would rather import it.

That is with the exception of Oskar Messter who produced a number actualités and other films from 1866 onwards. 

Oskar Messter and Carl Froelich

In 1909 he collaborated (which he often did) with Carl Froelich on Germany’s first feature, Andreas Hofer.  

Unfortunately I can’t find any of these films online.   I did find what is may be an earlier collaboration between the two but be warned there’s full-frontal nudity, male and female, in this “film”.

1903 - Akt-Skulpturen. by cityangelo

What was most important about this duo is that they were one of the first to use artificial lighting for their movies and they preferred it.   Also an number of film stars that would surface in later years, like Conrad Veidt, got their start at Messter’s studio. 

Also on the list of films I can’t find online is what happened in 1912.  Germany was inspired by France’s film d’art to make their own Autorenfilm (famous author’s film).   

These films were mostly direct adaptations of stageplays, like Der Andere(The Other One) by Max Mack, The Isle of the Dead by Max Reinhardt and Das Fremde Mädchen(The Strange Girl) by Hofmannsthal – the first German film to seriously express a supernatural theme.   Their importance is in establishing the German film industry.

The first film to hint at Expressionism was Der Student of Prague(The Student of Prague – 1913).   I couldn’t find an online copy of this version of the movie but I did find this trailer.

Expressionism is the film movement concerned with “deep and fearful concerns about oneself” that dominated the German cinema until the early thirties.  It’s a cinema of dark stories, lighting and moods.  We owe much of our modern horror to this film movement, just like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari owes much of itself to The Student of Prague.  

Other pre-Expressionism films were Der Golem(The Golem) co-directed by Galeen, the screenwriter, and Wegener, the star actor of The Student of Prague.  No surviving print here so this video is all that exists.

In 1920, after the war, the same team (Galeen and Wegener) remade this film – here is that version.

The other film was Homunculus(1916) by Otto Ripper.  This film was the most popular film in war time Germany.  It was episodic - released in six parts.  It also features a Golem-like creature, an intelligent artificial being that has no soul.  Unfortunately I can’t find an online version of this video so this picture will have to do you.  


The Student of Prague, The Golem and Homunculus laid all the necessary groundwork for Expressionism to flourish in German cinema. However…

In 1917 the German’s put the entire film industry under state control.  The organization was called the UFA (Universem Film Aktiengesellschaft) and yes that was an attempt to stem the tide of anti-German propaganda.  Not much to talk about here, really.

But after the war, in 1918, the German government resold their shares in the UFA to private organizations.  Expressionism was ready to blossom (what, you expect something cheery when their country just lost a war).

The first Expressionist film was Das Kabinett Des Dr. Caligari(The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari –1919) by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. It took a year for the film to get made because no producers wanted to make it.  Here is that film in its entirety.

Caligari has everything one needs for Expressionism - shadows, moods and madness (for a detailed explanation of the film techniques used see this blog).   

There’s a bit of a debate as to which of these films is the first true horror film.  Most people tend to say Caligari, however there’s a growing trend naming The Student of Prague as the first.  Plus no one can argue that The Golem is the first monster movie.  

But the first Golem hasn’t survived and neither has Student (based on my research). So that would make Caligari the first surviving example of both.  There, that answer should make both sides happy.

More Expressionism to come but first there’s going to be a Revolution in Russia.

Next article The Russian Revolution

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