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

Previous article The Birth of a Nation

First article Before Film

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation was not the first film to make an artistic statement nor was it the first epic film -- that second distinction belongs to Quo Vadis (1912), an Italian film by Enrico Guazzoni. 

It wasn’t even D.W. Griffiths first epic.  That distinction belongs to Judith of Bethulia (1914). 

The Birth of a Nation, however, was a masterpiece of cinema and it brought together much of the narrative technique that had been making its rounds among filmmakers.  This includes using some  techniques that weren’t being  used in the context of the story, they were being used as novelty (like close ups).

While The Birth of the Nation is an extremely racist and bigoted film, it was certainly popular when released.  More people saw The Birth of a Nation the year it was released than any film released before it. 

That doesn’t excuse the content of the film – but also the content doesn’t change the history it made.  D.W. Griffith was a racist pretentious filmmaker.  He was also a product of the old South and that’s why he held the views he did.   This film did caused a backlash but we’ll get back to that later.

Griffith chose literary vehicles for his films, most are adapted from books, poems or stage plays.   That was part of his innovation, Griffith believed all films should be based on a good story.   He thought of films as a visual story and he used narrative techniques to tell it.   He experimented with these techniques in over four hundred and fifty one- and two-reeler films he directed for American Biograph (Edison Studios’ competitor).

The narrative techniques Griffith experimented with were:

1. Cutting between different spatial shots.  Cutting from long to medium shots or close ups in order to make a narrative point.  It had been used before but not as frequently or as repetitiously as Griffith used it.   It is believe that the first close-up used for narrative purposes was used by Griffith.

3. Cutting between different temporal shots.  Cutting between scenes in different times and locations.  This experiment was frowned upon by the industry.  Today we can hardly find a film that doesn’t make use of it. 

2. Extreme long shots.   Griffith used them to make things epic.  He also liked to intersperse them with other spatial shots for dramatic effect.

3. Giving depth to the shot itself.  Have a different foreground and background action and using that difference to further the story.  Making the film feel like more than just a piece of film.  

4. Using lighting and camera angles to create visual metaphors.  Though this was touched on in his  earlier films, it really comes into play after The Birth of a Nation.

These narrative innovations are what make D.W. Griffith such an important figure in film history.  But what makes him an artist was his reaction to the negative criticism and censorship (perhaps justly deserved) of The Birth of a Nation.

He made a film in response to his critics.  That film is called Intolerance and it’s the first film known that is purely an artistic statement.

And that’s when the German’s began to express…

Next article Caligari’s Cabinet

Previous article The Birth of an Art Form

First article Before Film

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Birth of an Art Form

While most studios were forced into one reels by the MPPC and believing film would never be more than churned out cheap entertainment,  some studios – especially those abroad - started to make longer films, feature films.

Defined by length, the first dramatic feature film was the Australian 70-minute film The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906).

The first European feature was the 90-minute film L'Enfant prodigue (France, 1907), although that was an unmodified record of a stage play; Europe's first feature adapted directly for the screen, Les Misérables, came from France in 1909.

The first Russian feature was Defence of Sevastopol in 1911.  This was also the first film shot with two cameras. No sound on this clip so crank up the tunes.

Watch more on Film Annex

The first UK features were the documentary With Our King and Queen Through India  and Oliver Twist (1912). The first Asian feature was Japan's The Life Story of Tasuke Shiobara (1912), the first Indian feature was Raja Harishchandra (1913),  the first South American feature was Brazil's O Crime dos Banhados (1913), and the first African feature was South Africa's Die Voortrekkers (1916). 1913 also saw China's first feature film, Zhang Shichuan's Nan Fu Nan Qi.

The first US features were imports.  The first import was from France it was the story of Queen Elizabeth staring Sarah Bernhardt a  French stage and early film actress. She has been referred to as "the most famous actress the world has ever known"

The first American produced features were a production of Oliver Twist (1912), From the Manger to the Cross (1912), and Richard III (1912), the latter starring actor Frederick Warde.

Manger to the Cross was renamed Jesus of Nazareth (1916) or so I believe.  Biblical stories were very popular in the US.


Despite some moral messages and some general thematic statements most films were still only meant as entertainment.  It took D.W. Griffith, his epic civil war film and his deep south upbringing to make film an artistic statement.  And, in the spirit of artists everywhere, he was going to piss a lot of people off doing it.

Next article The Birth of a Nation

Previous article The Birth of an Industry

First article Before Film