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Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

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Archive for the 'Silent film' Category

Sir Alfred simply must have his set pieces: THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).

DB here:

Hitchcock made six remarkable thrillers from 1934 through 1938, and I have long believed that the first one was the best. I think very well of Sabotage, and both The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps are strong contenders. But for me, The Man Who Knew Too Much has got damn near everything going for it.

I came to it a little late. It wasn’t the first Hitchcock I wrote about; that was Notorious, in a 1969 piece that nakedly reveals the limitations of a college senior’s knowledge. Nor was it the first Hitchcock I saw; that was Vertigo, when I was about ten. Inauspiciously for me, when Vertigo was revived for national television broadcast in 1972, I was flying to a job interview in Madison, Wisconsin.

I got that job, though, and soon The Man Who Knew Too Much became very important for me. Seeing it at a film society screening, I was bowled over. Then I discovered that it was available for purchase in a cheap 16mm print. I bought a print and began teaching the film as a model of narrative construction. It worked its way into the first edition of Film Art, in 1979 and hung around there for several editions.

That sample analysis has been available as a pdf on our site, but check it out at the Criterion site, where it’s enhanced with nice frame enlargements and a major extract. The essay makes my case for the movie as an extremely well-constructed piece in the classical storytelling tradition.

So I was the ideal consumer for a spruced-up DVD/ Blu-ray release, and as usual Criterion doesn’t disappoint.  It’s a handsome version, with some fine supplements. We get two rare interviews with Sir Alfred from CBS’s arts program Camera Three (featuring Pia Lindstrom and William K. Everson) and a perceptive discussion with Guillermo del Toro, who makes a vigorous case for the film. So does Philip Kemp in his commentary, which is strong on production background. Kemp offers valuable information on script versions and on Hitchcock’s niche in the English industry. The accompanying booklet includes a lively appreciation by The Self-Styled Siren, aka Farran Smith Nehme.

Interest in Hitchcock seems to be the one constant in the whirligig of tastes in film culture. He is a mainstay of home video and cable television; apparently the films can be re-released in perpetuity. Professors love to teach his films. The techniques are obvious and vivid, and the films offer a manageable complexity that encourages interpretation. Class, gender, power, the law—whatever your favorite themes, they’re all on the surface, yet enticingly ambivalent. Not to mention how much fun these movies are to watch. I’ve always enjoyed introducing “lesser Hitchcock” like Stage Fright and Dial M for Murder and then watching the audience fall under their spell.

Critics navigate by Hitchcock as a fixed pole star. Reviewers compare every new thriller to the classics of The Master of Suspense. Just look at what people write about Soderbergh’s Side Effects. And for those who promoted the auteur approach to Hollywood cinema, Hitchcock was a beachhead. Who could doubt that this man turned out personal projects within the impersonal machine known as Hollywood? And if he could do it, why not Ford, Hawks, Sternberg, Ray, and all the rest? Hitchcock nudged skeptics down the slippery slope toward auteurism.

Even if Hitchcock isn’t to your taste, you can’t avoid his influence. That became obvious around the 1970s, when directors began borrowing from him more or less overtly: Spielberg’s Vertigo track-and-zoom in Jaws (now itself a convention), De Palma’s homages/pastiches, Polanski’s use of point-of-view in Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, the endless Psycho sequels and the van Sant remake, and the rest. But Hitch was no less influential in his own day; I’d argue that filmmakers of the 1940s had to raise their game if they wanted to meet the challenge of Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, and Notorious. Billy Wilder told a reporter that Double Indemnity was his effort to “out-Hitch Hitch.”

What was so special? Obviously, the throwaway humor—sometimes airy, sometimes slapstick, sometimes sardonic. And obviously a gift for switching situations around, playing them against cliché, setting us up for a jolt. But I think there’s something else afoot. Part of the Master’s repute rests on virtuosity of film technique. Hitchcock makes movie movies, even when, like Rope or Dial M, they seem “theatrical.” And this movieness is best seen, I think, by considering a term that always comes up with Lord Alfred: the set piece.

 

Maintaining a tradition

Hitchcock held onto the flamboyant expressive devices of silent and early sound cinema far longer than any other director. For decades he kept alive techniques that many directors thought were old hat: abrupt cuts to details of gestures and objects; blurry point-of-view images to suggest distraught or befuddled states of mind (as above); very brief insert shots to accentuate violence. Compare Battleship Potemkin with Foreign Correspondent’s assassination scene.

     

     

Hitchcock built entire films around classic silent techniques. The Kuleshov effect governs Rear Window; the German “entfesselte” or “unchained” camera dominates Rope and Under Capricorn. Rope and Dial M revive the aesthetics of the German kammerspielfilm, or “chamber play.” The Germanic look was alive and well in the spiderweb shadow-work of Suspicion, while both French Impressionism and German Expressionism inform the dream sequences of Spellbound and Vertigo. He also preserved the “creative use of sound” that was the hallmark of directors like Clair and Milestone. While others had pretty much given up the expressionistic use of music and effects, Hitchcock was always ready to draw on them. The hallucinatory Merry Widow Waltz haunts Shadow of a Doubt, while Hitchcock’s penchant for giving us two pieces of information simultaneously, one in the image and another on the soundtrack, let him design scenes visually and push a lot of dialogue offscreen.

This flexibility of technique modulates from scene to scene. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, note-reading is presented in three ways, in rapid succession. First, Bob finds Louis’ note in the hairbrush.

     

Soon Bob gets a message from the front desk. What does it say? Hitchcock hides that by, for once, not supplying subjective point of view.

     

Only when the note is passed to Jill do we get to see it, but with a twist. Nobody but Hitchcock would add an extra shot that cuts to the note in her hand without revealing what it says.

     

     

That extra shot is what Eisenstein called a primer; as with dynamite, you need a little charge to trigger the blast.

We often forget that classic silent directors used their pictorial techniques for suspense. Lang’s Mabuse films and Spione furnish plenty of instances, but so do the Soviet montage films. The scene in which the police wait for the worker to return to his wife in The End of St. Petersburg now looks like pure Hitchcock, and of course the Odessa Steps sequence was the Psycho shower of its day. So it isn’t surprising that Hitchcock would turn his silent-film virtuosity toward creating scenes of high tension and threatened violence. Nor is it surprising that his skills would crystallize in “set pieces.”

Everybody talks about Hitchcock’s fondness for set pieces. It’s part of his brand. We have the Statue of Liberty climax in Saboteur, the milk carried up the staircase in Suspicion, the milk-and-razor scene and the final suicide in Spellbound, the spectacular rescue of Alicia at the end of Notorious, and the efforts of Bruno to retrieve the lighter in Strangers on a Train.

But, come to think of it, what makes something a set piece?

 

Game, set piece, match

Foreign Correspondent (1940).

As commonly understood in the arts, a set piece is a fairly self-contained portion of a larger work. It has a distinct beginning and end, and it’s understandable and impressive if extracted from its original. It’s designed to be a bravura display of concentrated virtuosity. In music, an example would be an operatic aria like the Queen of the Night’s in The Magic Flute: it is so flashy and complete in itself that it can enjoyed on its own, in a concert setting.

Two early uses of the term shed light on its implications. In stage parlance, a “set piece” is an item of the set that can stand alone, like a gate or fake tree. In pyrotechnics, a “set piece” is a carefully patterned arrangement of fireworks; here again, it implies a display that dazzles the audience.

In the silent era, I’d suggest, the clearest exponent of set pieces is Eisenstein, who became known as “the master of the episode.” Many of his big scenes, like the Odessa Steps massacre, are developed at such length that they function as mini-films. But you can consider passages in Chaplin and Keaton as set pieces—the dance of the breadrolls in The Gold Rush perhaps, or the windstorm in Steambout Bill, Jr. The musical would seem to be a natural home of the set piece, with numbers standing out against more mundane scenes. In modern cinema, again under the aegis of Hitchcock: De Palma offers plenty, and perhaps the prize fights in Raging Bull constitute a string of them. Today the home of the set piece is the action picture; the chases and fights are the main attraction, and the genre challenges directors and crew to find new ways to intoxicate us.

The aesthetic of the set piece implies that some scenes function as filler while others get the whipped-up treatment. If that’s right, many great directors don’t favor mounting set pieces. Ozu, Mizoguchi, Dreyer, Hawks, and others present what we might call “through-composed” films. Just as Wagnerian opera and its successors minimized set pieces, these filmmakers create a surface texture that doesn’t create self-contained high points. (I grant you that the immolation of Herlofs Marthe in Dreyer’s Day of Wrath might count.)

Given the detachable quality of set pieces, it’s true that some of Hitchcock’s can seem implausible or gratuitous. How essential is Guy’s lighter to any plausible scheme of Bruno’s?  If you want to kill Roger Thornhill, why send him to a crossroads in Midwest corn country? (A knife in the back on the Greyhound is more reliable.) It was this tendency to sacrifice story logic for stunning anthology bits that Raymond Chandler deplored:

The thing that amuses me about Hitchcock is the way he directs a film in his head before he knows what the story is. You find yourself trying to rationalize the shots he wants to make rather than the story. Every time you get set he jabs you off balance by wanting to do a love scene on top of the Jefferson Memorial or something like that.

Chandler has a point. How do you integrate a set piece into a whole movie? (I’ll make some suggestions shortly.) But first, give Hitch his due. For him, I think a set piece was a compact repository of inherently cinematic ideas carried to a limit within a sequence. A set piece is a challenge: How much can you squeeze out of a situation?

Go back to Foreign Correspondent. Setting an assassination in Amsterdam allowed Hitchcock to integrate the idea of a clue based on a waywardly turning windmill. So far, Chandler’s objection seems tenable: The windmill is just a gimmick. But once Hitchcock sets his hero exploring the lair, he can create a set piece that answers a question that no one ever thought to ask before: How do you eavesdrop in a windmill?

Johnny Jones has to evade the killers by crawling up alongside the giant gears, then down, then up again. At each step he barely escapes being spotted. When he seems safe, his topcoat gets snagged in the grinding gears, so he has to slip his arm out of it—just in time to avoid being crushed.

Yet once Jones is freed from the coat, it’s carried around the gearwork and might be spotted by the gang. And the old diplomat upstairs, mind hazed by drugs, is likely to reveal Jones’ presence. Hitchcock squeezes seven minutes of suspense out of all this, with a casual air that suggests: Of course, dear chap, any director worth his salary can see that a windmill harbors all kinds of excruciating menace. All in a day’s work, you know.

 

A whispered terror on the breeze

If anything is a set piece, the Albert Hall sequence in The Man Who Knew Too Much is. Philip Kemp’s commentary for the Criterion DVD considers it Hitch’s first, although aficionados would probably consider the “knife” sound montage of Blackmail at the very least a rough sketch for what would come. Lucky you: The entire Albert Hall sequence is excerpted on the Criterion site.

A set piece benefits from a simple premise. Here, Jill’s child is being held hostage, which keeps her from informing the police of what little she knows about the plot. We know that during the concert an assassin will try to shoot a diplomat.

You can imagine Chandler asking: Why plug Ropa during a concert, with all those witnesses? Why not when the target is on the sidewalk, shot from a rooftop for easy escape? You can hear that bland replying murmur: Raaaymond, it’s only a moovie…

So we have some conditions for a set piece: a compact piece of action limited in time and space. But there’s also a strong time marker. Ramon the assassin is to wait for a dramatic pause in the score; it’s followed by a shattering choral outburst that will muffle the pistol shot. We’ve been given a rehearsal of the passage in a gramophone record, but since we don’t hear the whole piece then, we can’t predict exactly when the chorus will hit its peak.

Hitchcock magnifies this uncertainty by letting the piece, Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata, play out in its entirety. Its combination of lyrical and dramatic passages blend into a stream of music that coincides with the emotional action onscreen. I suspect that the piece, composed specifically for the film, glances at the most celebrated new choral piece of the era, William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1931). It too has a charged dramatic pause followed by a tremendous choral blast: “Slain!” You can listen to it here, and you can hear some of the musical affinities at 27:11 and after.

So the self-contained quality of the sequence is enhanced by the unfolding soundtrack, as well as its “bookend” structure: Jill arrives at the Albert Hall/ Jill leaves. (Hitchcock was very fond of this coming-and-going bracketing; many scenes of The Birds are built out of this.) But to be a set piece we need virtuosity too, right?

As our Film Art essay indicates, Hitchcock structures the scene using nearly every technique in the silent-cinema playbook. We get dynamically accentuated compositions, crisp point-of-view editing, subjective vision (even blurring as Jill drifts into a panicky reverie), and suspenseful crosscutting back to the gang holding Bob and Betty prisoner. The techniques build to their own crescendo, with more and shorter shots of Jill, the orchestra players, and the curtain concealing Ramon. As the climax approaches, details of the players’ performance pass in a flash. As another layer, though, all these visual techniques are synchronized with the musical structure of the piece. Most obvious is the slow tracking shot back from Jill as the female soloist launches in:

There came a whispered terror on the breeze./ And the dark forest shook.

The text has always teased me, because in my early years of studying the film I couldn’t hear everything there. Now that the Storm Clouds Cantata has become a minor concert piece, we have a full version of the text. It’s the description of an especially ominous storm, one that drives birds away and makes trees tremble in fear. The only creature left, vulnerable to the gale, is a child:

Around whose head screaming/ The night-birds wheeled and shot away.

The orchestral and choral forces mount on the line that has always come through the sound mix:

All save the child—all save the child.

The line is ambiguous. Its literal sense is that all the creatures have fled the oncoming storm except the child (“all save the child”). But Hitchcock’s cutting and the film’s overall context leave it as an imperative: the child must be rescued. Thus the musical dynamics and the text stress, for us and presumably for Jill, that Betty’s safety depends on what she does.

Soon the cantata’s text finds another analog in the concert hall. The choir sings of the storm clouds finally breaking and “finding release.” That phrase, repeated with rising intensity, yields the dramatic pause and then the final outburst that is to cover Ramon’s pistol shot. But now we have to see this phrase as prophecy and comment: Jill’s scream during the pause is the release of her tightened anxiety. And of course the line slyly signals the release of the suspense built up through the whole sequence.

With Hitchcock, you always get more.

In all, the sequence becomes exactly what a set piece ought to be: compact, with sharp boundaries and a strongly profiled arc of interest, elaborated with a great variety of technical resources and a thrusting emotional impact. But is it too much of an independent sequence? One can imagine Chandler worrying that Hitch doesn’t care much about how to hook it up with everything else. Let’s see.

 

This scepter’d isle

There’s no doubt that a plot driven by set pieces can seem episodic, just a matter of pretty clothes clipped to a slender line. In action movies it’s a classic problem, which, say, Speed doesn’t fully solve but Die Hard does.

You can mask an episodic plot, though, through some stratagems. First, make your filler material charming. The Man Who Knew Too Much gives us comedy in the dentist office and in the Tabernacle, with Bob and Clive mumbling messages through hymnody. You can also whisk the audience from scene to scene so quickly that the viewer has to concentrate on local connections. This is one purpose of what I’ve called the hook, the transition that smoothly links the end of one scene with the beginning of the next. If you’ve got some plot holes, strengthen your hooks–especially those that hide your gaps.

The Man Who Knew Too Much has some nifty hooks. I especially like the way the fingers pointing to the bullet hole are followed by a shot of Ramon’s head: effect and cause neatly given by a straight cut. Then there’s the contrast of the fire in the fireplace dissolving to the skier pin, a sort of thermal hook. But probably the most memorable one is Betty’s line about Ramon’s brilliantined hair.

This hook is a motif as well, and recurring images or sounds like this can help knit together your movie. In Foreign Correspondent, we get hats and birds in various scenes. Here, as our Film Art essay indicates, teeth, the skier pin, sharpshooting, the cantata’s main theme, and other motifs weave through the overall structure of the film.

You can as well knit your big scenes together through certain narrative patterns, such as a trip or a search, both strategies that Hitchcock employs in many movies. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Bob’s investigation of the gang follows the menu set out in Louis’ note: the sun emblem, Wapping, G. Barbour, and A. Hall. This serves as a sort of map for the middle act of the film. Once Bob has cracked the message, though, the film shifts into a new register. Jill, who has been waiting passively at home, takes over the role of protagonist. And her actions will fulfill another motif: that of interruption and distraction.

The film begins with Betty’s dog disrupting Louis’ ski jump. That’s an innocent accident, as is the moment when Jill nearly spoils Roman’s skeet shooting. But soon afterward Abbott’s chiming watch deliberately breaks Jill’s concentration, making her lose the shooting match. In effect the Albert Hall sequence offers payback: With her scream Jill not only disrupts the performance but spoils Ramon’s aim as Abbott had spoiled hers.

The Albert Hall sequence fits into the film in a less obvious way, one that plays along the thematic dualities that marble the movie. Throughout the film contrasts “Englishness” with “foreignness,” the latter split between allies (Louis, Ropa) and enemies. The Storm Cloud Cantata and what follows represent a sort of triumph of England over her adversaries.

At the St. Moritz resort, the Lawrence family is set off from Louis, their French friend, and two men: Abbott the German and Ramon the Latin. (He’s handily fudged; he has a Spanish name but calls the English “extraordinaire.” And his hair is greasy.) “Sworn enemies, eh?” Jill says half-humorously to Ramon before losing the skeet shoot. After Louis’ death Bob is at a loss in the hotel, unable to speak German or Italian, and distracted while Betty is kidnapped. The English aren’t at home in this world.

Once Bob and Jill have returned to London, they join the family friend Clive, a Wodehousian upper-class twit but gifted with loyalty and tenacity. Bob and Clive have learned from Gibson of the Foreign Office that the gang intends to assassinate the diplomat Ropa. They must tell what they know; the killing could prove as catastrophic as the assassination that triggered the war of 1914-1918. Yet Bob keeps mum. He might be enacting E. M. Forster’s dictum: “If I had to choose between betraying my friend and betraying my country, I hope I would have the guts to betray my country.”

The conflict between family love and civic duty is played out in the rest of the second act, when the men’s investigation takes them to a working-class neighborhood of Wapping. There, we learn that behind respectable English institutions—a dentist, eccentric religion—foreign elements lurk. Bob has solved Louis’ riddle, but at the cost of becoming another hostage. Bob and Betty re-meet, in a characteristically subdued stiff-upper-lip encounter that denies Abbott the tearful scene he expected. The dignity with which Bob conducts himself, asking about Betty’s dressing gown and her school grades while staring defiantly at the gang, leaves the others abashed.

     

Clive has escaped, though, and has managed to send Jill to the Albert Hall. That musical set piece initiates the film’s climax dramatically but also thematically. For one thing, Benjamin’s cantata reaffirms another bit of Englishness. A national choral tradition runs back to Purcell and Handel, was sharpened in Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and was revived in the early twentieth century by Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony. Hitchcock and screenwriter Charles Bennett could have used Bach or Beethoven, but the choice of this brooding, mildly modernistic piece reminiscent of Walton is a nice bit of propaganda for British musical culture of the interwar years.

More importantly, the concert sequence solves the film’s ideological problem: How to save the world without destroying your family? Jill’s impulsive scream doesn’t divulge what she and Bob know about the gang, but it does serve to derail the gang’s plan and save Ropa. And by leading the police to follow Ramon to the hideout, she in effect chooses to risk Betty and Bob for the capture of the gang. Here, perhaps, the sheer drive of the action muffles the significance of her choice; Chandler complains that Hitchcock tended to take refuge from plot problems in “wild chases.”

What follows, in the middle of some violence that remains shocking today, is a vigorous reassertion of Englishness. The vignettes during the siege display stalwart national virtues. A postman insists on making his rounds during the gunplay. An inspector swipes sweets and pauses for a cup of tea. The police reluctantly take up arms, only after several of their unarmed number are mowed down. Slipping into adjacent buildings, snipers move a piano while its fussy owner rescues his potted plant. And a cop who was slated to go off duty finds a warm mattress to die on. This unassuming valor, so different from Ramon’s petulant swagger and Abbott’s self-congratulatory sadism, will win out. The victory is announced by the pent-up crowd rushing jubilantly forward as the siege ends.

In any other movie the mother would have been huddling with the child and the man would grab a rifle to pick off his enemy on the roof. But making Jill the crack shot reasserts another quintessentially English image: the hunting, shooting, riding mistress of the estate. She gets her second chance to fire, bringing down Ramon when even the police sniper hesitates. It’s also a bit of guilty revenge for the death of Louis, whom Jill danced into the line of fire. Hitchcock, as usual, renders it elliptically: we see Jill grab the gun but not fire it. As she and Bob and Betty are reunited, the movie that began with the line, “Are you all right, sir?” ends with a mother reassuring her weeping daughter, “It’s all right.”

This, we might say, is how you integrate set pieces into your movie—narratively, stylistically, and thematically. Others would disagree with me, but nearly forty years of living with this film hasn’t made me change my mind. The Man Who Knew Too Much is Hitchcock’s first thoroughgoing masterpiece.


Thanks to Abbey Lustgarten, UW-Madison alum, for her excellent production job on the Criterion disc. Thanks also to Peter Becker and Casey Moore for coordinating the posting of our Film Art piece with this blog entry.

For more on Chandler and Hitchcock, see William Luhr, Raymond Chandler and Film (New York: Unger, 1982), 81-93. My quotation comes from Raymond Chandler Speaking, ed. by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker (Books for Libraries Press, 1971), 132.

Hitchcock probably doesn’t deserve 100% of the credit for the Foreign Correspondent windmill scene; it was designed by the great William Cameron Menzies.

When I wrote the Film Art analysis back in the 1970s, Kristin hadn’t elaborated her ideas about how large-scale parts, or acts, can shape a film. Yet I think that the three parts that the analysis mentions constitute pretty well-articulated acts. The first part has as its turning point Bob’s realization that when Gibson traces Betty’s call, police will converge on Wapping and endanger her. So Bob and Clive set out to save her. That decision comes about twenty-six minutes into the movie. I’d mark the end of the second act with Abbott’s sending Ramon on his mission after playing the cantata recording; that comes at about fifty-three minutes into the film. At this point we know everything we need to know, so the premises can play out. The last act is shorter, as climaxes tend to be. The Albert Hall sequence and the final shootout and rescue take up the final twenty-three minutes, capped by a very brief epilogue of the reunited family. For more on act structure, see Kristin’s entry here, mine here, and my essay on action movies, as well as Kristin’s Storytelling in the New Hollywood and my The Way Hollywood Tells It.

A final note: Frank Vosper, who plays Ramon, was a well-known stage actor and playwright. His most famous play is Love from a Stranger (1936); the film version was released in 1937. Another successful Vosper play was the fantasy comedy Murder on the Second Floor (1929), in which a writer devises a play consisting of all the clichés of sensational mystery fiction. But the Vosper play that piques my curiosity most is his 1927 drama called—I’m not kidding—Spellbound.

See? With Hitchcock you always get more.

The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Sometimes two shots . . .

 The Mormon’s Victim (1911).

DB here:

. . . just knock you out.

Last summer during a trip to the Royal Film Archive of Belgium I came across a single camera setup that bloomed like a flower in an almost casual way. This entry is in the same spirit, but there’s nothing casual about this cut. I spotted it during my current visit to the Danish Film Archive in Copenhagen.

Nina Gram is engaged to Sven Berg, best friend of Nina’s brother Olaf. But Andrew Larsson, a Mormon, fascinates Nina with his courtliness and his gripping sermons. One night, during a visit to her family’s home, Larsson gets Nina alone while Sven, Olaf, and others are playing cards in another room. She’s starting to succumb to Larsson’s charm offensive (though we think he has offensive charm).

As The Mormon’s Victim (Mormonens Offer, 1911; Nordisk Films, directed by August Blom) develops, Larsson will induce Nina to flee to Utah with him, where he’ll keep her prisoner. Sven and Olaf will track them down by train, ship, and auto, the entire flight and pursuit joined through crosscutting reminiscent of Griffith. The Mormon’s Victim has several memorable shots, including some striking ones taken from a car. But in particular there’s this cut. The two shots surmount today’s entry.

A full shot shows Larsson and Nina in the parlor. Earlier in the scene Sven has left the card game in the distant room to check on what his fiancée is up to. He comes forward hesitantly; this is partly to express his vague worries about Larsson, but it’s also Blom’s way of making sure we know it’s Sven in the rear of the tableau. When Sven returns to the game, he settles in directly behind Nina and Larsson, so that he becomes the most visible figure at the card game.

When Larsson entices Nina away from the piano, they place themselves on the settee in the foreground. And in my first image up top, we can see solid, oblivious Sven right behind them. A blow-up of that area of the shot is on the right.

Then Blom cuts directly in. The axial cut was the most frequent sort of editing found within scenes at this period, and Blom’s cut is more or less along the camera axis, though displaced a bit to the right. The result is a medium two-shot of Larsson staring almost hypnotically at Nina and her responding with rising passion.

You see where I’m going with this. There’s actually a third person in the shot. Sven is  still sitting behind them, but now even more tightly sandwiched between the faces–a tiny figure but fully discernible in the 35mm print. On the right I enlarge that portion of the image for you. Dead center, Sven’s tiny head floats between their profiles like a bubble from Nina’s lips or a rose between her teeth.

This is a remarkable shot. Since Nina eventually turns away and refuses Larsson’s kiss, we’re tempted to say that the shot creates a visual metaphor, suggesting that Sven “comes between” them. Fair enough, especially since the Danes have the same figure of speech (at komme i mellem). But I’d also want to signal how this possibility of thinly-sliced depth fits smoothly into the tableau style I’ve discussed many times on this blog and in my recently posted video lecture. It relies on hyper-precise staging in depth, accentuated by the axial cut (always a cut that accentuates depth).

It’s all the more remarkable because in those days, the camera viewfinder was mounted alongside the lens. We’re so used to reflex viewing–that is, seeing exactly what the lens of our camera or phone is framing–that we tend to forget that until the 1960s, in most cases a cinematographer had to compose the shot allowing for the parallax difference between the viewfinder and the lens. True, in most tableau shots the camera is far enough back to give some leeway for background planes, and some cameras could swivel (“toe in”) the viewfinder inward as the framing got closer. But this scene remains an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. The cinematographer Axel Graatkjaer, only twenty-six when he shot this film, deserves credit for pulling off a rare stunt.

The Mormon’s Victim is yet another example of the great variety and boldness of the cinema of the 1910s. Had I known it, I would probably have squeezed it into my video lecture, “How Motion Pictures Became the Movies.” Maybe I can work it into the followups I plan to post later this year. In the meantime, take this as another instance of why we should thank film archives for preserving fairly obscure films that have a lot to teach us about what talented creators have done with our favorite medium.


Ron Mottram surveys the local films of this period in his indispensable The Danish Cinema before Dreyer. For more on the tableau style, see the lecture I just mentioned, along with the blog entries in the category. I have more on Danish films and the tableau tradition here, and I discuss that tradition as a background to Dreyer in an essay on the Danish Film Institute’s Dreyer site.

Thanks to Thomas Christensen and Mikael Braae of the archive for all their help. I have devoted other entries to their archive and Danish film culture, but this might be the most relevant today.

Mikael Braae surveys a recently received collection of over 400 35mm film prints. He’s in the process of sorting and examining them. There are still big 35mm collections out there!

The ten best films of … 1922

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, Part 1.

Kristin here:

As the end of the year approaches and critics are posting their ten-best lists for the year, David and I once again fail to follow that tradition. Instead, we follow our own custom, now six years old, and turn our historians’ eyes back ninety years to offer ten great films from 1922. Of course, there are many films from the silent era that are lurking in archives, waiting to be discovered. Still, pointing to some noteworthy films we do have may help viewers to explore that rich period of cinema’s past.

Our previous lists can be found here, for 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920, and 1921.

For the past two years, I’ve noted that it was difficult to fill out the list of ten masterpieces. I keep thinking that I’ll get to a year where I won’t have to say that, but 1922 turns out not to be that year. Some titles were obvious, but the last one or two took some hunting.

As usual, one problem is that so many films are lost. Not one of John Ford’s three films of 1922 survives. In other cases great directors made lesser films. Important though Das Weib des Pharao was in Ernst Lubitsch’s career, partly because it shows him quickly picking up influences from Hollywood films, I can’t rank it among his first-rate titles. The same is true of Victor Sjöström, whose Vem dömer isn’t up to the level of other films like The Outlaw and His Wife.

Some of the films here, then, we consider classics but not masterpieces. Still, they have been influential and are well-regarded by other critics and historians. We’ll just call attention to them and let people form their own opinions.

 

Germany rules

But here are two full-fledged masterpieces, both from the German Expressionist movement. They demonstrate the potential for popular genres—here the horror and master-criminal genres—to achieve the highest level of filmmaking.

Few of F. W. Murnau’s early films survive, but there’s no doubt that he hit his stride in or before 1922. He made two outstanding films that year, Der brennende Acker (“The Burning Earth”) and Phantom, along with one of his very finest, Nosferatu. It is the earliest surviving film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (“Nosferatu” is Rumanian for “vampire.”)

Nosferatu is generally considered an Expressionist film, though there are only a few of the stylized sets that we tend to think of as vital to that artistic movement. Murnau instead mostly uses a combination of staging and framing in real locales to create echoes of shapes between characters and their surroundings, something usually accomplished through more painterly means in films like Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari and Die Nibelungen. The nested arches in the left image frame Hutter’s arms, while Ellen’s forlorn slump on the bench as she awaits her husband’s return is juxtaposed with the leaning crosses that hint at fruitless vigils in the past.

    

One of my favorite moments in Nosferatu comes during the scene where Count Orlock is about to attack Hutter in one of the bedrooms in his castle. Ellen, at home in Wisburg, somehow senses this and in a panic throws out her arms in a desperate appeal for mercy.  Orlock turns and looks away from Hutter, and the next shot again shows Ellen’s appeal.

   

It is a classic shot/reverse-shot situation, and yet the two are in different countries, many miles apart. The situation is ambiguous. Does Orlock sense Ellen’s appeal? Does he somehow magically see her from afar? Whichever is the case, he does leave Hutter’s room, and the clear implication is that her gesture has caused that withdrawal. Such a treatment of space is unusual, to say the least.

“False” eyeline matches or shot/reverse-shot passages linking distant characters were already fairly conventional. Hoping to put another of Maurice Tourneur’s films on our ten-best list, I watched his 1922 Lorna Doone. Though it has some marvelous passages, especially in the final battle, I couldn’t justify including it. Still, it provided a more conventional version of the false shot/reverse shot. In a scene where the hero thinks of Lorna, looking off front right, the following shot shows her thinking of him and looking off left.

    

They are in houses on neighboring estates, but they certainly cannot see each other. Moreover, there’s no indication that either suspects the other one is thinking of him/her. There is no ambiguity. Clearly the lovers are simply daydreaming about each other. The Nosferatu scene is more puzzling and evocative.

There is much more that once could say about Nosferatu—especially the experimentation with fast motion, negative footage, and pixillation to render the supernatural nature of the vampire—but I leave that for the reader to discover. There are a number of DVD versions available, but the Kino one contains the restored print and a documentary about the film’s production; the restoration is also available in the UK from Eureka!.

If this blog is still functioning in ten years, our list will definitely include a second great vampire film, Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr.

While Nosferatu plays on exotic, historic fantasy, Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (“Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler”) places its bizarre crime story squarely in contemporary Berlin. Mabuse (the incomparable Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is a master criminal with hypnotic powers, a man of innumerable disguises who lures his victims into gambling, whether in casinos or on the stock exchange. He also steals crucial documents to manipulate stock prices and controls the lives of many of the main characters. Throughout the lengthy plot, Detective von Wenk follows Mabuse’s trail, himself eventually falling under the criminal’s spell before exposing Mabuse’s identity.

Unlike with Murnau, we now have all of Lang’s early films and can judge his entire career. Arguably his first great film was Der müde Tod, which was on last year’s list. The first of his three Dr. Mabuse films (the others being Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, 1933, and his last film, Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse, 1960) was a step upward. It was made as a two-part serial: Der grosse Spieler—Ein Bild der Zeit (“The Great Gambler—A Picture of the Time”) and Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit (“Inferno: A Play about People of Our Time”); together the parts run about four and a half hours.

The plot of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler is very complicated and demonstrates Lang’s extraordinary ability to present a narrative visually. His sets, lighting, and staging are impeccable and already recognizably Langian. Consider the frame at the top of this entry.

In a gambling den, von Wenk, at the center top, and two important female characters, Countess Told, beside von Wenk, and Cara Carozza, left foreground, are staring at a rich old lady who has just gambled away a huge amount of money, caught by Mabuse’s spell. Her loss is the central action, yet she is placed so low in the frame as to be recognizable primarily by her silly beaded hat. Her gigolo, partly offscreen at the right, considers his position in the light of this disaster. Cara reacts with horror, the Countess and von Wenk with distress and sympathy. The other woman is an onlooker.

The tableau style of staging, keeping all the significant characters onscreen and moving them by slight increments to stress each character in turn, is still in play here, but the camera is closer to the actors, and they don’t move much. This isn’t just a tiny moment caught in the midst of a shifting composition. This is the composition. It looks remarkably modern. Each character, in his or her own way, is wondering, as we are, what has brought this minor character to such a pass. And she is tucked into a corner of the frame, as Lang will do in later films.

Dr. Mabuse‘s stress on “Our Time,” contemporary Weimar Germany, brings in the film’s Expressionistic elements. Expressionism here isn’t an all-encompassing filmic treatment that reflects a fantasy world or the psychological extremes of the characters. Instead, it is a tangible decorative impulse pervading the modern city. Below, von Wenk responds with distaste upon first viewing Count Told’s collection of modern art; yet in another scene, he calmly dines with an associate in a thoroughly Expressionist restaurant:

    

The bits of set visible in the background of this entry’s top frame indicate that the casino is another Expressionist locale.

The restored two-part film is available from Kino in the USA and in “The Complete Fritz Lang Dr. Mabuse Box Set” and from Eureka!’s “Masters of Cinema” series in the UK.

 

The grandiose and the modest as French Impressionism defines itself

The French Impressionist film movement can be said to have begun in 1918 with Abel Gance’s La Dixième Symphonie, though it has relatively few moments of the sort that came to define the style. It primarily uses superimpositions and split screen to convey a sense of the composer’s musical performances. Films by critic and theorist Louis Delluc followed, and Marcel L’Herbier explored pictorial and poetic effects in his early films. Highly subjective uses of film technique, which we think of as crucial to Impressionism, appeared in a really consistent way in El Dorado (1921), which was the first film of the movement to appear on our ten-best lists.

In 1922, the movement gained momentum with Gance’s monumental La roue. Many critics and historians consider this and Gance’s Napoléon masterpieces. I consider them more uneven, with brilliant stretches mixed in with melodramatic, sentimental, even occasionally maudlin scenes mixed in. Few people have seen all the surviving footage from La roue. The shorter versions available tend to eliminate the sentimental bits, which often run on and on. I’ve already voiced my opinions, favorable and less so, in the entry “An old-fashioned, sentimental avant-garde film,” posted when the longest version available on DVD was released by Flicker Alley.

I mentioned there that the footage cut from the shorter versions of the film seemed to be some of the sentimental moments. One such scene seems to me unintentionally risible. The hero, Sisif, is a veteran train engineer; he has suffered an injury that is slowly causing him to go blind. Unable to face turning his beloved engine  over to a rival engineer, he ponders destroying it. Sitting on the engine, he asks whether it would not prefer being wrecked to being turned over to another driver. The replies to his questions are given as titles superimposed over the train:

    

This is, I think, representing Sisif’s delusion that the engine speaks to him, but I’m afraid it comes across as if the train is suddenly talking out loud. In a sound film it’s easy to understand that a sound can originate subjectively in the mind of a character. People don’t, however, tend to imagine sounds as written words!

There’s no question that La roue has some extraordinary scenes. The opening train wreck and its aftermath are justly famous, as is the accelerating editing in the scene in which Sisif drives his stepdaughter Norma, with whom he is secretly in love, into the city to marry another man; his agitation and thoughts of crashing the train are reflected by the increasingly shorter shots. And although it’s dangerous to make claims about any film having the first use of a given technique (usually someone will find an earlier one), Gance seems to have been the first to use stretches of single-frame editing. These occur at a moment when one character in a crisis situation (trying to avoid spoilers here) recalls a cluster of scenes from his past. Maybe the Soviet Montage directors would have come up with that idea on their own—but maybe not. Along with El Dorado, La roue helped define what were to be the main traits of Impressionism.

One thing I didn’t mention in my entry on La roue is the striking contrast between the romance plot and the many scenes shot around the train-yard, which were shot on location. They add a gritty realism that does much to make up for the melodrama—a realism that largely disappears in the final portion, when Sisif is transferred to a mountain location to run a funicular train.

Most of the French Impressionist directors, and particularly Gance, L’Herbier, and Delluc, were concerned to prove that cinema was an art form. Their films tended to be serious, poetic, and based more on in-depth psychological portraits than on the more action-oriented films of Hollywood. They were also clearly made by Artists with a capital A. Gance and L’Herbier liked to start their films with close-ups of themselves staring into the lens with artistic fervor. L’Herbier’s photos included autographs. The films were designed to appeal to an intellectual crowd, though Gance’s were also highly successful at the box-office. Other directors’ films weren’t hits, however, and as the decade progressed more of them played only in the ciné-clubs and art theaters that sprang up.

Another Impressionist film of 1922, Jacques Feyder’s Crainquebille, took a very different tack. I remember seeing Crainquebille decades ago and not thinking much of it, though it has long been considered a classic. Now, however, watching the 2005 restoration by Lenny Borger and Lobster Films, I think it’s much more interesting. That’s not surprising, given that the print I originally saw was probably the 50-minute American release version, and the restoration adds half again as much footage, bringing it to 76 minutes. (The Internet Movie Data Base lists the original Belgian release print as 90 minutes, so presumably what we have is still not complete.)

Crainquebille has been admired for its realism and for the performance of a well-known stage actor of the day, Maurice de Féraudy in the title role. Jérôme Crainquebille is an elderly vegetable peddler, and much of the film was shot in the streets and markets of Paris, sometimes using long lenses to capture scenes of crowds and passers-by, unaware of the camera’s presence. But what struck me upon seeing it again is that Feyder was trying to make an Impressionist film for ordinary cinema-goers, perhaps the working-class people who could relate best to Crainquebille’s situation and milieu.

True, the film has a prestigious pedigree, being an adaptation of an Anatole France novel and starring a famous theater actor. Yet the story is simple and told in a relatively straightforward manner. Most of the action arises from a misunderstanding: A gendarme, thinking Crainquebille has insulted him, arrests him. A leisurely scene shows the protagonist enjoying the unusual luxury of his prison cell: a comfy bed, free meals, a toasty radiator, hot and cold water in a pristine sink, and a floor clean enough to eat off. A working-class audience would probably find this wryly amusing.

More telling, though, is the fact that when the typical camera techniques of Impressionism are used, Feyder inserts explanatory intertitles just before the subjective shots occur. This particularly happens in the long central trial scene. When the gendarme steps up to testify, a title informs us, “In Crainquebille’s eyes the Constable looked as important as his testimony.” We see Crainquebille gazing forlornly off right front and then his point-of-view of the witness, looming like a giant over the courtroom:

    

Subsequently a passerby from the scene of the “crime,” Dr. Mathieu, testifies on Crainquebille’s behalf. A title informs us, “To Crainquebille this testimony seemed to carry little weight.” We see a similar pair of shots, with the witness a tiny figure in the midst of the court. Naturally Crainquebille is found guilty and goes off to two further weeks of free room and board.

The next scene begins with an intertitle, “Dr. Mathieu’s Nightmare.” We see Mathieu in bed and then are taken into his nightmare, which depicts the court as a stylized, hellish place with the judges fearsome figures who leap onto their desk in extreme slow motion. (I have no way of knowing what the source of these intertitles is, so I must simply assume here that they reflect what was in the original film.)

Such heavily signaled experiments wouldn’t in themselves make Crainquebille a real masterpiece, but at a time when Impressionism was just gelling as a recognizable style, it seems a laudable attempt to find a non-elitist way to use it. In addition, the  shots of the market where Crainquebille goes each morning are quite lovely, taken from neighboring rooftops with telephoto lenses.

As to what was restored in this version, there is remarkably little information on the internet. My notes from an archive viewing of the shorter version in 1984 suggests that the entire opening sequence in the restored version is “new.” It consists of Crainquebille and other vegetable peddlers pushing their carts across Paris to the main market. They pass through a wealthy district, which is characterized with vignettes of rich people’s decadence. The peddlers then pass through a high-crime district, with police rounding up criminals and prostitutes. (The inclusion of prostitutes suggests why this scene was cut for the American version.) The shorter version begins with the market scene and leads quickly to a scene in which Crainquebille rescues a poor newsboy from bullies, and the the scene where he is arrested follows. The entire character of Dr. Mathieu, the sympathetic witness, was cut, so the short version has a briefer trial scene and no nightmare. The action that follows Crainquebille’s release from prison is the same as in the restored version.

Crainquebille is available as part of a set, “Rediscover Jacques Feyder French Film Master,” along with restored versions of two of his other major films of the period, L’Atlantide (as “Queen of Atlantis,” 1921) and Visages d’enfants (as “Faces of Children,” 1925).

 

Hollywood dramas: The somewhat old and the somewhat new

The two Hollywood films on this year’s list are very familiar Hollywood classics, so I won’t spend much time introducing them.

D. W. Griffith probably appears for the last time in our 90-year-ago lists with his historical epic, Orphans of the Storm. This tale of the French Revolution featured the last appearances for Griffith of Lillian and Dorothy Gish, whose first film roles had been in his American Biograph short, An Unseen Enemy, in 1912. They play apparent sisters, Henriette and Louise (though Louise is in fact adopted) living in a Normandy village. Louise becomes blind, but Henriette takes her to Paris in the hope of finding someone who can restore her sight. Upon arriving, they are separated and victimized, Henriette by the decadent nobility, Louise by the dishonest poor. Eventually they are caught up in the Revolution, and Henriette is nearly executed at the guillotine.

As in his best features, Griffith combines an ability to represent melodramatic stories of idealized, virginal heroines alongside naturalistic, convincing images of the poor:

    

Orphans of the Storm represents the lingering influence of the Victorian theater on Griffith. The slightly later Naturalistic strains of nineteenth-century literature are evident in the cynical narratives of Erich von Stroheim. His first film, and the most completely preserved, was Blind Husbands, featured in our 1919 ten-best list. As I said there, Blind Husbands is my favorite von Stroheim film, with its relative light take on attempted seduction, near marital infidelity, and retribution. Foolish Wives took the theme much further, with the director again playing the heartless rake, Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin. Rather than pursuing one vulnerable wife, he seduces every woman in sight, including a hotel maid and an invalid, bedridden girl (above whose bed a crucifix hangs, to make sure we grasp the sinfulness of Karamzin’s lust).

Von Stroheim famously reconstructed the casino and surrounding buildings of Monte Carlo, resulting in a budget overrun. Universal made the best of his profligacy by advertising Foolish Wives as the first million-dollar movie ever. (Whether it really was or not we shall probably never know.)

Although much of the film is fairly conventional, with shot/reverse-shot conversations, von Stroheim experimented occasionally. At the left below,  he shoots into a small mirror as Karamzin secretly ogles the heroine, who is behind him, as she undresses. In a number of shots von Stroheim films through a scrim to give a canvas-like effect to a composition. Here the invalid girl whom the villain eventually tries to rape is seen with her doting father.

    

As with all of von Stroheim’s films after Blind Husbands, Foolish Wives was taken out of his hands by the studio and shortened considerably. Much of this was done by trimming the lengths of individual shots. The original film apparently does not survive, so it is impossible to assess the director’s style thoroughly, especially when it comes to editing. The revisions were not nearly as great, however, as with his 1924 film Greed, which was cut by well over half. Thus of all von Stroheim’s 1920s films, Foolish Wives is probably closer to what he intended than most. The standard version of the film (restored by the American Film Institute but not of sterling visual quality) is available from Kino in an edition that includes a 78-minute documentary, The Man You Loved to Hate, written by von Stroheim expert Richard Koszarski.

 

Hollywood silent comedy

Every year our list visits the great three slapstick comedians: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd. Sometimes it’s all three, sometimes two. They have all been working their way through shorts to the great features of the 1920s. Chaplin made it there last year with The Kid. In 1922 he had a light year, reverting to two-reelers with The Idle Class and Pay Day, so we’ll skip him here and pick him up again later.

In 1922 it was Harold Lloyd who moved up to features with Grandma’s Boy. Not on a level with some of his later films, like Girl Shy (sure to be high on our 2014/1924 list), but a real charmer with some classic Lloyd routines.

Lloyd is undoubtedly best known for his “thrill” comedies like Safety Last (1923 and heavily favored to feature on this list next year), where he climbs a skyscraper. Still, his more typical roles in the features show him beginning as a timid or socially inept young man who gains courage or skill in the course of the narrative. In Grandma’s Boy, an amusing and touching scene introduces the hero as a perpetually frightened child, unable to stand up even to littler boys who steal his lunch. Once he has grown up, his diminutive grandmother manages to chase off an intruding hobo with her broom after the Boy (none of the characters is named) has failed do so:

   

Despite his timidity, the Boy has managed to attract a Girl, and a Lloydian string of gags occurs when she invites him and his thuggish Rival to visit her at home. Grandma polishes the Boy’s shoes with goose grease and dresses him in an antiquated suit with mothballs in the pockets. Once at the Girl’s house, the Boy attracts the unwanted attentions of a litter of kittens determined to lick his shoes. When the Girl reacts badly to the mothball-scented suit, the Boy hides the balls in a box of candy. This leads to a hilarious scene in which he and the Rival both accept some “candy” from the Girl and end up grimacing in sync and trying to smile every time the Girl glances at them.

    

As with many good classical films, almost exactly halfway comes a turning point: the sinister hobo has robbed a jewelry store and shot a man. The film’s second half becomes an extended chase in which the reluctant Boy is enlisted as a deputy. Thanks to a little psychological trick played by the Grandmother, he wins out.

Grandma’s Boy is available in the indispensable “The Harold Lloyd Collection,” one of New Line Home Entertainment’s finest achievements, or separately with some other features as Volume 2 of the same set, or even more separately with seven shorts from Kino.

Buster Keaton was still making shorts in 1922, but this doesn’t put him at a disadvantage in our list. Experts agree that of Keaton’s twenty starring shorts (after his work as sidekick to Fatty Arbuckle), the best are The Boat (1921) and Cops (1922). Both are strongly touched by the streak of surrealism that frequently shows up in Keaton’s work—as in the dream-within-a-film scene that forms the bulk of Sherlock Junior (1924).

In Cops, Keaton plays a young man trying to impress his beloved by making good in some fashion. He is duped by a crook pretending to be evicted, who sells him  the furniture of a family moving house, along with the horse and wagon that has come to transport it. Taking off through the city with the furniture he intends to resell at a profit, Keaton finds himself in the midst of a police parade and innocently accused of throwing a bomb actually lobbed by an anarchist. Chaos breaks loose. No matter where our hero runs, everyone he encounters turns out to be a cop—including his sweetheart’s father and the owner of the furniture.

The film is full of wonderful sight gags. Keaton hangs his hat on the protruding hip bone of a scrawny horse, and he tries to make a mustache disguise out of a clip-on tie.

    

Cops is available in Kino’s collection of Keaton shorts and in its collection of most of the features and shorts. Also available in the UK in the Eureka! “Masters of Cinema” box set of all Keaton’s shorts.

Next year, Our Hospitality!

 

Documentary  and storytelling

Although we’re not overwhelmed with admiration for our final two films, they demanded inclusion because they are recognized as canonical classics.

Nanook of the North has frequently been described as the first feature-length documentary. Here’s an example where it was dangerous to call something first. There is in fact at least one earlier, filmed at the opposite end of the Earth: Frank Hurley’s South (1919), a record of Ernest Shackleton’s famous shipwrecked expedition to the Antarctic. But Nanook found a much wider public and became a classic, while South disappeared until 1998, when it was restored by the British Film Institute.

Nanook also had the advantage of a charismatic central figure and his attractive family, a picturesque depiction of Inuit life, and a carefully scripted story that included moments of danger during a walrus hunt and humor during a visit to a trading post.

Still, the film has drawn criticism for its extensive manipulation of reality. “Nanook” was in fact an Inuk named Allakariallak, and the woman represented as his wife was not married to him. Scenes were staged, as when an already-dead seal was used in a hunt. Nanook expresses amazement at a phonograph, though he was already familiar with such devices. The Inuit had already adopted firearms for hunting by the time Flaherty filmed them, but he requested that they use spears instead.

As has been pointed out, however, Flaherty was trying to present a slightly earlier phase of the Inuit culture, preserving a lifestyle that was rapidly changing. Moreover, the documentary mode had previously consisted largely of actualities and travelogues, and there was little precedent for what Flaherty was doing. For decades after Nanook (originally subtitled A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic), documentaries tended to be structured fairly explicitly as tales with entertainment value. In the wake of cinéma vérité, the issue of filmmakers interfering with their subjects and staging scenes has become controversial, but it was not a great concern in the 1920s.

If we accept the notion that this is a documentary with considerable manipulation, we can credit the film with conveying a good deal of information about the Inuit of a slightly earlier period. The igloo-building scene is interesting and informative, even if we know that the interior shots had to be made in an igloo actually open on one side to provide light for the camera.

Nanook of the North was restored and released by the Criterion Collection in 1999.

Although it also appeared in 1922, Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan tends not to get equal credit as the supposed first feature-length documentary. Perhaps that is because it barely qualifies as a documentary. It’s not clear what other genre or mode it belongs to, though it tends to be admired mostly by fans of horror films.

Häxan purports to be a lecture on the history of witchcraft. Its English title is Witchcraft through the Ages, though the original title means simply “Witches.” The first reel consists of a series of images from books both scholarly and sensational, showing ancient images of supposed witches or witch-like creatures. The claim is that witchcraft has been a universal concept in cultures throughout history. Whether this is true I can’t say, but the images shown of ancient Egyptian deities are not witches but protective figures.

In the second reel, Christensen begins to illustrate the points being made with staged scenes of witches, surrounded by animal skeletons and other macabre items, many of them used in potions. Gradually the staged scenes develop into a narrative set in the Medieval or early Renaissance era, with one old woman being accused of witchcraft and tortured. She finally admits to being a witch and names her accusers as witches, and the imprisonment and torture spread. Like Dreyer in Leaves from Satan’s Book and Day of Wrath, Christensen condemns the very notion of witch-hunting and the hypocrisy and cruelty of the Church. Yet he shows a considerable fascination with torture methods—although in place of graphic scenes he presents static shots of contorted limbs and exhausted victims.

The true strangeness of the film, however, comes from its visualization of demons and devils as real beings. They conducting orgies, fly on broomsticks, and attempt to seduce people into evil and madness. Perhaps we are to take these images as what the Church assumes is happening, but there is no indication of that. One has to suspect that ultimately the educational “lecture” premise of the film, which is handled in a perfunctory way, is an excuse for staging scenes that range from quite powerful (see below) to merely cartoon-like, with people dressed up in crudely made costumes.

At the end the lecture mode returns, with an unconvincing series of comparisons of witchcraft with modern-day activities.

Whatever one thinks of the subject matter and its treatment, the film’s cinematography is extraordinarily beautiful.

Häxan  has been restored by the Svenska Filminstitutet and was released on DVD with optional English subtitles. The restoration is available in the USA from the Criterion Collection, but I haven’t seen it or its extras. The Criterion package includes a version of the film narrated by William S. Burroughs. I haven’t seen it, but according to David’s memory of the croaky, world-weary voice-over, it adds another layer of weirdness to the proceedings.

For many years Häxan, as the only film by Christensen that was available for viewing outside archives, gave a rather distorted view of this director. Then his two earlier films, Det hemmelighedsfulde X  (“The Mysterious X,” 1914) and Hævnens Nat (“Night of Revenge,” 1916) became more widely available. They were revelations—beautifully shot, tightly scripted, exciting movies. Those who don’t like Häxan should definitely watch these; they are quite different. Both are available on a single DVD from the Danske Filminstitut. The DVD has English intertitles, and the online shop is bilingual, Danish and English.

Häxan

Germany in autumn, in style

Shooting Frau im Mond (1929) at Neubabelsberg studio, Potsdam.

DB here:

Friends say that Berlin is now the most exciting city in Europe–a little too exciting, others say. I can’t prove either claim, but I can declare that I had a fine time last month during my second visit to Germany this year. Part of the fun was, as usual on many of our trips, finding tangible traces of film history.

 

Stylin’

Lobby space, Konrad Wolf Film School.

With Michael Wedel, I re-saw Hong Sang-soo film’s Turning Gate in the wonderful Arsenal theatre, part of the Deutsche Kinemathek. The Arsenal is run by Milena Gregor, another old friend (who happens to be Michael’s wife). On another night I also had a delicious dinner with filmmaker Christine Noll Brinckman and other friends. Then there was a pleasant lunch with another filmmaker, Carlos Bustamante (below), in his picturesque neighborhood.

But Berlin literally wasn’t the half of it. I visited Philipps Universität in Marburg, a charming university town. Part of the campus fronts onto the Lahn River, and it makes a charming place to relax.

After my lecture on 1940s Hollywood, my hosts Malte Hagener and Dietmar Kammerer took me out to dinner with their lively colleagues.

Most of my visit was spent in Potsdam, where I’d been invited by the Netzwerk Filmstil. This is a research team composed of several young professors teaching in German-language universities around Europe. Their focus is the exploration of style in audiovisual media–centrally film, but not ignoring television, video games, Internet pieces, and even surveillance and security videos. The two and a half days of the seminar were very stimulating. Michael Wedel, Chris Wahl, Malte, Dietmar, and Kristina Kohler gave illuminating papers on (respectively) digital sound, superimpositions, split screen, freeze-frames, and dance in silent film. The participants offered me good criticisms of my presentation, which explored how E. H. Gombrich’s explanations for stylistic change in visual art might apply (or not) to cinema.

Our seminar sessions were held in the remarkable Konrad Wolf Film School, a towering building crisscrossed by staircases and walkways. I visited it once before some years ago, and once more I admired its airy yet rectilinear architecture.

The stripped-metal look is offset by lots of glass–the light pours in from all directions–and a corner with plenty of plant life. As in our house back home, winged silhouettes on the windows keep bird-brains from flying into the glass.

I also gave a talk on film style during the 1910s at the monumental Filmmuseum Potsdam.

The museum holds a fine screening space and a fascinating collection of historic materials, including a Soviet-era 70mm camera.

The current exhibition was devoted to the rise of the film studio Babelsberg, not far away. The displays included scripts, set photos, production sketches, photos, and maquettes.

Have you seen this still of the great Cathedral set from the Nibelungen?

The tradition of fastidious planning created during the silent era persisted into the period of the German Democratic Republic. Each set design was marked up to show camera positions (numbered), lens lengths, and special-effects elements.

The Filmmuseum’s collection was only one reminder of the towering importance of Babelsberg, now celebrating its hundredth anniversary year. Luckily the studio was an easy walk from the Konrad Wolf school. One sunny day our host Michael Wedel took the Style Network on an insider’s tour.

 

Babelsberg’s birthday

The 1910s and 1920s saw many production facilities spring up in Germany. Films were made in Munich, Frankfurt, and other major cities, and the area around Berlin boasted a number of studios. But the Potsdam facility, initially called Neubabelsberg, became the most well-known, something like Europe’s answer to Hollywood.

Founded by the Deutsche Bioscop company, the studio began production in 1911 and released its first film, Totentanz (The Dance to Death), in 1912. That starred Asta Nielsen, whose popularity had already enriched Bioscop. In this story she’s attracted to a rather louche composer, as we see below. (Yes, that mass of black is mostly her hat.) Later, she slices the guitar strings in a fit of passion and glares out defiantly at us. As if our attention might wander.

     

Neubabelsberg was home to such classics as The Student of Prague (1913), the Homunculus series (1916-1917), Madame Dubarry (1919), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), and Genuine (1920). Fairly soon Bioscop merged with Erich Pommer’s Decla, and in 1921 the big company Ufa took over the facility and the resident firms. Ufa also had a studio in Tempelhof, a Berlin suburb, but the attention-grabber was Neubabelsberg, which became a sprawling complex of 350,000 square meters–the biggest studio in Europe.

Here Murnau shot Phantom (1922), as well as portions of The Last Laugh (1924).  E. A. Dupont filmed some of Variety (1925) here, and Pabst shot all of The Loves of Jeanne Ney (1927) on its stages. Above all, Neubabelsberg helped sustain one of cinema’s great hot hands, the string of films Fritz Lang made in the 1920s: Destiny (1921), the Mabuse duo (19221-22), the Nibelungen saga (1924), Metropolis (1927), Spies (1928), and Woman in the Moon (1929).

The studio remained a powerful force across the next two decades, from The Blue Angel (1930) to the epic color production The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1943).

The partitioning of Germany after World War II put it the studio the eastern sector, and the new state-sponsored film company, DEFA (Deutsche-Film-A. G.), took over the facility in 1953. That made it what Ralf Schenk calls “the exlusive site of feature cinema production in the GDR until 1990.”

After the Wall came down, the Babelsberg studio revived itself as a facility for international productions. It has hosted films by Polanski (The Pianist, The Ghost Writer) and Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds; below, a set on the Babelsberg backlot). The Wachowskis have been loyal supporters, with Speed Racer, V for Vendetta, and most recently Cloud Atlas using the facility.

You can get a sense of the studio today by visiting the website, which presents it as a modern resource for world filmmaking. But its early years matter more to me. To walk these quiet pavements and to imagine following in the steps of Lang, Jannings, Dietrich, and other legends ought to thrill any cinephile. Seeing some streets named for the greats, Tarantino requested a street in his name. It’s apparently a dead end.

 

A new Babylon

In the cold winter of 1911-1912, Deutsche Bioscop built its first studio, a 45 x 60 foot “glass house”at Babelsberg.

Michael Wedel explains:

Not only was a special cement-less glazing developed for the glass, but even the supporting beams of the infrastructure had to be installed outside of the studio, so as not to spoil the sunlight. . . . In contrast to already existing glasshouse studios that had been “set up” in Berlin and Munich in multi-level apartment blocks and office buildings, the ground-level location of the new Bioscop building at Babelsberg had the advantage of trucks with props and sets being able to be driven through a sliding door directly into the glass studio. . . .

The glass house was attached to an administration building. This was converted from a factory that had made artificial flowers and other tchotchkes. The glass house is gone, but its mate is still standing, showing off its magnificent facade.

Michael again:

The ground floor of the immediately adjacent factory building accommodated wardrobe and prop rooms, a woodshop, art studio, and a canteen. On the first floor, the production company’s office, as well as the laboratory for developing negatives and positives, were set up. On the floor above was where one found the dry drums for developed film material, the room in which the films were edited, and the rooms where intertitles were prepared. Except for the costume department, which would be built systematically a few years later, Bioscop oversaw a completely integrated film studio, which made it possible to perform most stages of film production on-site.

Later in the 1910s Guido Seeber, the cinematographer and all-around creative genius who had planned the Babelsberg plant, began to use supplemental artificial light. But this glass house and its bigger brother, built later, were relied upon throughout the silent era. A closed unit lit entirely by artificial light wasn’t built until 1926. Appropriately huge, it was called the Great Hall and eventually renamed the Marlene Dietrich Stage.

The Frau im Mond production shot atop today’s entry was taken in the Great Hall. Here’s another picture of the interior in the late 1920s. In both shots, those little figures on the far right are men.

On our stroll we caught glimpses of some filming taking place in a parking lot.

Not quite as glamorous as the behind-the-scenes action on–oh, let’s say Metropolis.

We ended our unofficial tour with a quick look at the backlot, which can be redressed to be almost any European city you like.

Movie magic, the Dream Factory: the rationalist side of me rejects these catchphrases as mere mystification. Filmmaking is hard thinking and hard work. But it’s tough to be purely rationalist when you’re facing an illusion machine that has thrilled audiences worldwide for a hundred years. If you see Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, spare a thought for the tradition of Germanic lore that made it possible–and the hard work of the thousands of men and women who built a cinematic metropolis here.


Thanks to all my hosts and colleagues for making my trip to Germany, however short, intense and enjoyable.

Noll Brinckmann’s films and writings are available, at least in part, in this edition. A sample of Carlos Bustamante’s recent work is available online here.

For a fairly detailed timeline of Babelsberg’s history, see this page of the Filmmuseum site. When spring comes, you can take a studio tour (German language only) or visit the nearby theme park.

My quotations come from Michael Wedel, ChrisWahl, and Ralf Schenk, 100 Years Studio Babelsberg: The Art of Filmmaking (teNeues, 2012). This is that rare coffee-table book whose historical texts (footnotes included) are as valuable as the luxurious photos. The book, in an English/German edition, is available from the Filmmuseum and from Amazon.de.

This post gathers information from Hans-Michael Bock and Michael Töteberg’s encyclopedic Das Ufa-Buch (Zweitausendeins, 1992). Also helpful was Klaus Kreimeier’s The Ufa Story: A History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945 (Hill and Wang, 1996).

We hadn’t planned it this way, but Kristin’s previous entry discusses several recent DVD releases of German classics. I wrote a little bit about Totentanz (1912) here.

My lecture at Potsdam, “How Motion Pictures Became the Movies,” was a new version of a talk I’ve been giving for the last couple years to whatever audiences of innocents that fate has flung my way. Alert filmmaker Erik Gunneson, who prepared our video essay on constructive editing, is currently turning this talk into a video lecture. We hope to put it up on this site early in 2013.

The stylish Film Style Mafia, Neubabelsberg, November 2012.

10 Dec 2012: Thanks to Antti Alanen for two spelling corrections!

David Bordwell
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