The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

This is a good article. Follow the link for more information. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) movie poster

director Robert Wiene
viewed: 09/15/2018 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

As a kid, I’d read of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as being “the first ever horror film” and long desired to see it. It wasn’t until my first film class in junior college that I heard the term German Expressionism and came to realize that term more accurately described the numerous German silent films I had longed to see.

Robert Wiene’s 1920 film utilizes wild, literally Expressionistic set designs to stage the foremost and “quintessential” Expressionist film out there. And initially, I was pretty disappointed that other classics of Expressionism didn’t use as much crazy set-design and make-up as Wiene and company employ here. Much like the poster, it’s as if Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” came to life, in the film the lurid color translated to black and white, chiaroscuro, shapes and forms.

This viewing of Caligari was a special show at the Castro Theatre, accompanied by the Club Foot Orchestra, part of a day-long performance of their “greatest hits” alongside other classics of silent cinema. This was the only showing my son and I hit.

Destiny (1921)

Destiny (1921) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 01/21/2018

Recently reading that Luis Buñuel found Fritz Lang’s 1921 film Destiny the inspiration that drove him to cinema, I made the mental note that I had to see it.

I got introduced to German Expressionism in my very first film class at 17, by way of Lang’s own M (1931). It was then that I realized that all my childhood fascination with horror films and the birth of horror films pretty much dovetailed with the German aesthetic in its silent heyday. I’d longed to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (often cited in those childhood texts as the first horror film of all time rather inaccurately), Nosferatu (1922), The Golem (1920), and Lang’s Metropolis (1927). I had to good luck that my mother took me to see the Lon Chaney silent films The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Though those latter ones aren’t German or Expressionist, I had a yen for these films from a young age.

Destiny is an exemplar of Expressionism while not at all really being a horror film. The film’s main story is the heart of the film: a young bride (Lil Dagover) loses her husband to death, and she goes into the realm of death to try to bring him back. Death is a human figure (the imposing Bernhard Goetze), but he is a monster in deeds only, giving Dagover three chances to save a lover from dying. Her failures in each of the stories leads her to plead with other people to give their lives for her husband. Her final realization, when she saves a baby from a fire, is what allows her to accept her “destiny”.

While it’s not my favorite of Lang’s films or the Expressionist genre, it is a very fine film. I try to take myself back to imagining a 21 year old Buñuel in 1921, encountering real cinema for the first time. It’s little wonder the Surrealists loved cinema so much.

Warning Shadows (1923)

Warning Shadows (1923) screen capture

director Arthur Robison
viewed: 06/01/2016

Warning Shadows or as it is in the original German, Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (“Shadows – a Nocturnal Hallucination”), is an obscure but impressive sample of German Expressionism, nowhere as well known as its contemporaries.  It may not achieve the sublime qualities of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) or Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), but it has many interesting elements and is well worth discovering.

An entertainer (Alexander Granach) who employs shadow puppets visits a mansion at a dinner party and uses his craft and crafts to play a twisted morality show on the dinner guests.  All of the guests are lusting after the wife (Ruth Weyher) which is driving her husband (Fritz Kortner) into fits of rage.  The play goes from paper cut-outs performing on a screen by candlelight to an inverted shadow world, where the players act out their inner desires.

The entertainer, the shadowplayer, invokes the cinema in his pre-cinematic entertainments.  The best scene (or effect) is when he inverts the shadows of the guests, pulling the shadows into the people and then flipping them from the viewing side to the side of the stage/screen.  His role may be that of trickster, but what he wreaks is a morality play, unleashing the inner shadows and showing what will come of it.  Whether Freudian or not, it is definitely highly figurative psychology on display.

Director Arthur Robison opts to tell the story sans intertitles, so the story ads no explanatory words to break to scenes.  This is a very effective technique, one not often used in silent cinema, already so visual a narrative medium.

Apparently, the film was made by many of those who had worked on Murnau’s Nosferatu, including art director/designer Albin Grau, following the fall-out over the rights to the “Dracula” story that ended the studio at which is was made.  I recommend reading the write-up about Schatten at The Devil’s Manor, quite informative.

The opening sequence, which introduces the players and their roles is the one part of the film with titles at all.  It’s also a very inventive and theatrical sequence, featuring shadow hands grabbing or erasing each figure.

The whole film doesn’t retain the same level of visual inventiveness throughout and can drag through sequences of more narrative build up, but it is tremendously interesting at its best moments, at times quite funny, and extremely unusual.

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922) movie poster

director F.W. Murnau
viewed: 10/03/2014

Every October I not only dedicate more and more of my film viewing to horror films, but I select horror films for my film viewing with my kids.  And for the first horror film of this October, I went for the first feature length adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula  to be put on film.

However, F.W. Murnau and the Prana Film Studio didn’t secure the rights to Stoker’s work, and the resulting lawsuit nearly obliterated what is now considered a masterpiece of German Expressionist cinema.  The suit, which the studio lost, not only doomed it to bankruptcy but required all copies of the film destroyed.  Lucky for all, as thorough as they were, versions persisted.

For me, this was one of the Holy Grail films of my childhood.  I read about the German Expressionist films, though they were only written in the books that I read at the time as the original horror films.  I didn’t manage to see it until I was a teenager.  My kids don’t have my same obsessions, but I still thought they would appreciate seeing such a landmark movie.

Of course, it was far more interesting for me than them, so call it a wash if you will.  I had only just seen Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), which pays homage to Nosferatu, a week or so before, so the story and its variants were fresh in my mind.  I found myself explaining why it was called “Nosferatu” rather than “Dracula” among other aspects of the story.  Of course, Max Schreck’s weirdo vampire is plenty freaky, even all these years later, so he certainly had some power when onscreen.

The “day for night” shooting in the film perplexed me when I first saw it as a teen.  It threw Clara too.  I explained it to her.

It is interesting how Murnau uses the natural landscapes for the story, a contrast to the wacky abstract designs that color other Expressionist films.  Of course, Felix has seen Metropolis (1927) but Clara had not.  I had been thinking of watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) with them.  Now, I think I’ll give them a bit of a break on the film schoolin’.

I personally think it would be informative to watch Murnau’s films in closer succession to one another.  A few years back I watched his The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926) and Sunrise (1927), but certainly not within close reach of one another.  In fact, it had probably been some years since I’d watched Nosferatu all the way through.

As for watching silent Expressionist movies with my kids…we’ll see.  We’ll certainly watch some other horror films this month, but I’ll throw in some variety.  Maybe by the end, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari will seem appealing…maybe next year.


The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 09/20/2014

I’ve had this film in my queue for God know how long.  So much of Fritz Lang’s body of work has lingered in my consciousness since childhood, even, though largely around his most famed Expressionist works Metropolis (1928) and M (1931).  The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was often cited around these films, which makes sense, it was certainly of this period and has real ties to the film M it seems.  Even more directly still, the film is a sequel to Lang’s silent film of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) and is even followed by The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse by Lang in 1960.

The Mabuse character was apparently taken from some popular literature at the time.  Stories of master criminals who reigned supreme in the underground of the city.  In this case, Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is locked up in a madhouse but incessently writes out his plans for anarchy and mass crime, which someone, it seems, is taking to the streets and playing out as if at his command.

It’s easy to see how well-situated Lang was for the American crime films.  Mabuse is full of action and drama, including a couple trapped in a room rapidly filling up with water.  And even though you have Otto Wernicke playing the same Inspector Lohmann character from M, the steadfast lawman is up against an evil genius from beyond the grave, a super villain almost more in need of a superhero to fight against.  Really, he’s quite the Lex Luthor prototype.

And that is one of the interesting things about the film.  The madness and genius of evil, whose goal is not greed by chaos, whose pervasive tentacles reach all around, controlling everything.  It’s an interesting contrast to M in which the criminals are citizens as much as the people who do not inhabit the underworld.  And even though the plot is overthrown in the end, the lingering thought is the strength and wiliness of the uber-criminal.  Of course he will rise again!

So, now I’ll be going both backward and forward with Lang and Mabuse.  I’ve had many others of Lang’s silent films queued up, waiting to see them.  So much to see.  So very very much.

Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis (1927) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 08/11/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The second film of the Castro’s Fritz Lang double feature was his masterpiece, Metropolis.  It was only a couple of years ago that I had seen it as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, that time with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.  Certainly, you can’t beat a wonderful live performance with a silent film, but it was great to see it again.

I was enthused to see M (1931) and Metropolis, but I was keen to share it with the kids.  I figured that it would be the more accessible of the two films.  Hard to beat seeing it on the big screen.

Oddly Felix said that he preferred M of the two.

I was again impressed, as I was the last time I saw it, by the dance sequence in which the false Maria lures the rapt, ogling stares of the men, eventually a panoply of eyes.  To me, still the most vivid sequence in a wholly brilliant film.

I spent much of my childhood very curious about silent horror and science fiction films, wondering if I would ever get to see them, poring over the still images snipped from the films.  I don’t think that is something I could or should even want to replicate in my kids.  It was just the way it was in my childhood with my proclivities.  It is, of course, one of the great films of world cinema.

M (1931)

M (1931) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 08/11/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The Castro Theatre features any number of films, double features, festivals or special events that I so want to go to but mostly miss out on.  What makes certain showings more accessible or compelling is a combination of my own capriciousness and the capriciousness of my schedule.  But when I saw that a double feature of Fritz Lang films, M (1931) and Metropolis (1927) were on the bill for the day, I very much felt compelled to take them in.  On top of that compunction, I was keen to take Felix and Clara, too.

In reality, I figured that Metropolis was the more accessible of the two films, visual as it is, fantastical, far out, and with a robot.  Also, it is not a film about a child murderer.  But again, scheduling being what it is, Clara took the opportunity for a playdate and Felix and I took the opportunity for a double feature.

Not exactly a kid-friendly film, M doesn’t really even have a central star outside of Peter Lorre, the serial killer of children.  And the film is not from his perspective.  In fact, we only see his face as he reflects upon it in a mirror, tormented by his compulsions.  He’s initially a shadow, then a mysterious figure.  The rest of the film is an array of non-central characters: the police and the upright citizenry and the criminal underworld.  Certain characters get more screen-time and focus, especially the chief detective and the head of the safecrackers, but the story is not about other individuals, rather it’s about humanity in its structural groups.

The detectives, as part of the establishment, work hard to find the killer.  The criminals, due to pressure from the establishment, organize themselves to hunt the killer as well. Both converge at the same time, but the criminals hunt Lorre down first and set him to a trial in the basement of an abandoned factory.  Though they all want his head on a stick, he is given a begrudging defense attorney and who argues that the child killer is a sick man and needs to be treated as such.  What is fascinating about the way that this whole trial plays out is that the killer receives a fair trial but looks to still get lynched by the mob, only when the authorities finally step in and pull him away.  We never hear what happens in the main court.  Judgment is suspended. Punishment is ambiguous.  The edict is one about protection and vigilance about one’s children.

Felix liked the film, though I’m not sure how well he kept up with the subtitles.


(1927) director Fritz Lang
viewed: 07/16/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

A huge event in the world of silent film, by far the most complete version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metroplolis that has been seen since its initial release was on display.  Only two years prior, in a Buenos Aires film library, a beaten 16mm copy of the film was discovered, allowing for over a 1/2 an hour of long-lost footage to be reassembled with existing prints, nearly completely reconstructing one of the periods most important and impressive films.  And since its initial showing in Berlin earlier this year and again in New York, this showing at the Castro Theater was about as big an event as you get in the silent film world.

And it was fantastic.

Accompanied by a brilliant performance by the Alloy Orchestra, it was amazing to see this film in its near entirety.  I had only chanced to see it before on video, a version that was released in the 1980’s with a then current pop soundtrack produced by Georgio Moroder, colorized/tinted and with the intertitles changed to subtitles.  As I recall, I turned off the sound and adjusted the picture to try to make it black-and-white again.  And while much of the visual imagery had been intact, with its striking designs and verve, the film wasn’t the easiest to follow as I recall.  I don’t think I then knew that it was as compromised as it was (with a running time of 80 minutes as opposed to the original 153).

Oddly enough, though, I (and perhaps some others my age) owe it to Moroder that the film’s images are as familiar as they are, in that the music video for Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” was comprised of sequences from the film.  It’s funny, but as I was watching the film this time, for the first time in probably 20 years, those images echoed with a familiarity much stronger than I had anticipated.

Metropolis, at the time of its production, is considered to be the most ambitious and radical feature film that had been made up to the time.  Emanating from the Weimar Republic era in Germany, influenced by Expressionism, Art Deco, and Futurism, the designs are still compelling nearly 80 years later.  The film has influenced designs from Star Wars (1977) and Blade Runner (1982) through so many, many more.  And yet nothing is quite like it.

Set in a future world in which the working class lives underground and people work and march like cogs in the giant machine, the story tells of the son of the overseer of the aboveground Metropolis, an idealized modern city in which the children of the elite frolic and play without a concern or knowledge of the world below.  When Maria, a young woman from the underground city appears to the young man, he is intrigued and goes below to find this world of which he’d had no knowledge and the beautiful Maria, the religious leader and center of a peaceful movement to change the world for the better for the workers.

Meanwhile, a mad scientist has created a robot, the film’s most iconic image, a female form, which he has constructed to turn into a replica of his long-lost love, the former wife of the city’s overseer.  However, the overseer comes to hear of the revolutionary movement and convinces the scientist to abduct Maria and make the robot over in her form to control the workers and drive the revolution on so that he can crush it down.  This leads to a manic riot, the destruction of the underground city, and the near destruction of everything.

There are so many amazing images, it’s impossible to simply recount them all.  But married to the rhythmic soundtrack of the Alloy Orchestra, the film has features patterns of movement, a construct of sight and sound, which build and climax in a completely amazing way.  It’s virtuoso stuff.  Mesmerizing.  Dazzling.  Fantastic.

This is really what it’s all about, when you boil it down, the greatest of cinema from any period, any era.  And the true testament to that is how powerful and visionary the film still is, how fresh, how unlike anything else there is in the world.  And this treasure rediscovered, this most-complete version ever found, is a testament as well to film preservation (it’s really the dream come true of film preservationists).  Because even though the newfound footage is much damaged in comparison to the rest of the film, it is a stark reminder of how amazingly unappreciated this material was in its day.  That films were considered throw-away, mincable.  We are lucky, lucky, lucky to be able to see this film, to still have it, to see it on the big screen, and to see the best of the best of world cinema.


Waxworks (1924) movie poster

(1924) dir. Paul Leni, Leo Birinsky
viewed: 11/22/09

My third Paul Leni silent film (The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Man Who Laughs (1928)) further proves that while not necessarily a master, certainly on one of the higher rungs of Expressionist Silent film.  Waxworks earns its Expressionism via odd sets and strange angles, curious and occasionally Surreal moments.

Waxworks is an anthology film, an oddly structured thing, with three stories told from the quill of a writer (believe it or not, a publicity writer), hired to promote the scary figures from a traveling Wax Museum.  First, he tells the tale of Harun al Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad, posing the young writer and the waxworks’ owner’s daughter in lead roles.  Emil Jannings is the rotund caliph.  It’s kind of hard to see where it’s going, but it ends up to be a more heroic narrative (supposedly also the inspiration for Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924)).

The second story is that of Ivan the Terrible, played by the also notable Conrad Veidt.  It’s more a tale of insanity and evil, with some very arch moments and designs.

And then you think there’s going to be a third segment, and then the “Jack the Ripper”/”Spring-healed Jack” segment turns out to be a hallucinary nightmare of the tired-out writer, just asleep on the job.  Ultimately, the film seems sort of ill-balanced, from both a narrative and also a thematic perspective.

It’s probably a silent film for more of a hardcore fan of the period, not having the more powerful peaks and images that some could concoct.  And yet, at the same time, as a further example of German Expressionism, it’s an interesting additional entry, certainly to an extent due to its use of the potential fear factor inspired by wax figures, a theme that would enter the horror genre as a significant subgenre.  The set designs and camerawork are the films’ highlights, but with the cast and participants, this is far from B-movie fare.


M (1931) movie poster

(1931) dir. Fritz Lang
viewed: 02/27/09

I hadn’t seen Fritz Lang’s M since my first film class back in 1987.  Oddly enough, it had remained in my mind all this time, but I don’t even know that I have even seen another Fritz Lang film again in all that time, even his seminal silent science fiction film Metropolis (1927).  I guess it’s hard for me to even conceive of why this is, but there you go.  I think, after all this time, I felt compelled to see M again.

M was Lang’s first sound film.  Lang himself, with Metropolis and M as the prizes of his German film career, came to the United States as the Nazi’s came to power, like many of the German film greats of the period.  It’s fairly safe to say that Lang, while immensely influential, never actually achieved again the brilliance that he achieved with this film, one of the truly great films of cinema.  A safe statement, which I am willing to stand by.

The film is the story of a serial child murderer, played by Peter Lorre, in an utterly seminal role, in fact, a role that ended up helping to stereotyping him throughout his career.  Set in Berlin in the period of its time, the film follows not only the tracking of the serial murderer by the police but also by the criminal underworld, a complex web of safecrackers, thieves, and homeless who watch the streets in a stark contrast the world of the “overworld”.

The film culminates in a trial by the criminal underworld, who have caught Lorre, and who attempt to prosecute him by an lynchmob’s ideals.  The irony is that he gets a fairer trial than many might have on the overworld, which leaves him to the main world of 1931 Germany to determine both his sanity and the nature of his crime.

A pre-curser of Noir and an extension of German Expressionism, the film is an utter archetype, a brilliant, beautifully realized vision of cinema.  Much like my recent viewing of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), it’s hard to fully express the power and significance of this film outside of its historical and artistic context.  And yet it’s also hard to deny its inherent cinematic beauty and importance.  It’s one of those films that is so notable, so significant, that it’s hard to fathom the experience outside of that.