Saturday, November 26, 2011

Caligari’s Children

Between 1919 and 1924 the offspring of Caligari, the Schuerfilme (films of fantasy and terror), flourished in Germany.  You can see one of them, Der Golem(1920), in the previous post I did about Expressionism.   However, in actuality most horror films today as well as numerous science-fiction films derive from German Expressionism.

There were two notable artists to mention in regards to Expressionism.  The first is Fritz Lang,  one of the masters, he gave us films such as Der müde Tod(Destiny, 1921).  For some reason many of the hard to find silent films are only available online in Spanish, not sure why this is but dust off your español for this one.

der müde Tod 1/2 by desfilms
der müde Tod 2/2 by desfilms

Notice that the theme of this film is pure Expressionism, doom, gloom and Teutonic mythology.  What Lang added to cinema was the use of lighting to emphasize lighting and space. This was because Lang was a trained architect and it’s that skill that becomes so readily apparent in his other, more famous, Schuerfilme, Metropolis(1926)

An inspiration for many science fiction and other films to come, Metropolis is a story about a totalitarian future society, a dystopia,  brilliantly rendered through architecture and film process.  There’s a lot of different versions of this movie floating around.  Here’s one, it’s not a great print but I think is fairly authentic.

Lang managed the conversion to sound and directed several sound films, the most brilliant of which is M(1930)M seems to be more of an indictment of German culture at that time than the story of a man on the brink of collapse due to the guilt from his past deeds.  Either way, M is not Expressionism, it’s what followed Expressionism, Kammerspiel.  More on Kammerspiel later, first M.

The second notable artist to come out of German Expressionism is F.W. Murnau.  His film, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors, 1922) is considered the prime example of the Expressionism movement.   The most incredible thing about this film is that it was made with very limited resources.  The Expressionism comes from camera angles and lighting, rather than expensive studio sets.

So many directors were inspired by this film and the techniques used in it are continually copied.  For example, Orson Wells shot Kane from a low angle – which comes directly from this film, it’s how Nosferatu is shot to make him seem menacing.

And that brings us back to Kammerspiel (intimate, or instinct film).   A film that forgoes the dramatic and tries to bring forth a more realistic portrait of the oppressiveness of contemporary middle-class life.  Kammerspiel retains aspects of Expressionism, they have similar themes and they look similar, but Kammerspiel avoid theatrics.  Instinct films are constructed for their specific media.

Murnau’s next important film is the first truly in this genre.  It’s called Der letze Mann(The Last Man aka The Last Laugh, 1924) and it was written by the same writer as Caligari.    The Last Laugh was one of the first films to make use of camera tracking, the camera is a character in this film.  It was the first film to move its camera backward and forward, as well as up and down and from side to side, in scenes of substantial duration. 

Beyond that Murnau also liked to use subjective camera techniques whereby the camera shot represents the view of the scene from a character’s perspective.

Around 1924,  Hollywood, sensing a rival, started flooding the German market with films.  They also started stealing the German talent,  Murnau was one of the artists who moved to Hollywood.  But there were many and some went on to make important films.

Meanwhile, Germany was recovering from the war and returning to social normalcy. As a result, taste changed, away from the morbid psychological themes of Expressionism and Kammerspiel and  onto die neue Sacklichkeit (the new objectivity).   The new genre was realism, intended to show life as it is, “street” films. 

G.W. Pabst was unquestioningly the master of this new genre.  His film Die freudlose Gasse(The Joyless Street, 1925) was the German screen debut of Greta Garbo.  The film rejects the subjective camera of Murnau and strives to present the grim story of two girls forced into prostitution, all without sentimentality or symbolism.  I’m not certain of the authenticity of this print – it could be the censored version – the only other online choice was a Russian version that had an irritating narration.

G.W. Pabst was also one of the first western directors to be influenced by Sergei Eisenstein's theory of montage.  Which also happens to be the topic of the next blog entry.  


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