AUTHOR’S NOTE, December 2018: I’m going to be re-reviewing Nosferatu at some point in the future. I have been unfairly harsh to the film based on my previous exposure to it being the many lesser public domain copies running around. It has risen significantly in my esteem and I expect there is much of this review I no longer agree with.
Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.
For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of horror films selected at random, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…
This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. Tonight, we’re going to really take our examinations of sources back in time to the very beginnings of film. In fact, we would have to daresay claim that this is not going to examine the very origins of horror cinema, but in an origin of cinema in general. And it’s all thanks to those crazy Germans…
Cinema is a medium of expression, just like any other. There is very little that separates it from another medium, but one of the major distinctions is how it is a visual medium, making it kin alongside the likes of Fine Art and Theatre, but certainly separating it from, say, music or literature. In fact, as everybody knows – even children who were raised by wolves, even fucking wolves know – cinema was a strictly visual medium until The Jazz Singer shouted out “mammy!” and changed that all around.
But there is that era still of the “strictly visual” and through adversity and limitations, we ended up with some of the most stunning visuals made yet in the history of film. We got the visual aspect pulled to the edge so that a story could be told in the one thousand words of pictures, rather than the one word of… a word…
Ok, let’s get my midnight lack of eloquence back in the bushes for a moment while I finally state my thesis: One of the reasons movies are half as effective as they get to be is because of the German Expressionism movement. Prior to the introduction to sound and color, Germany knew damn well how create an engulfing experience and that was by upping the shadows and heightening the drama, through very artistic stylizations of sets in fine art manner that implies artificiality without becoming fake and having the actors overact with their faces and gestures and movements so much that modern audiences would probably go “Ok, ok, we fucking get it, I’m starting to miss Kristen Stewart’s stone face.” Sure it is melodramatic, but you can’t look at a scene in The Last Laugh and tell me you missed what you were meant to be feeling. Make it as highly symbolic and stylized as to be hardened upon the mind’s of the viewer and burned in their eyes well after the movie finishes. Try to design absurdity in a communicative manner, that was the goal of German Expressionism. Don’t make it real, just make it feel.
And it works. Not only does it work, but it is the basis of emotive filmmaking and began to seep into the manner of expression for most films well after we were accommodated to sound and color – most notably with film noir (but that is a story for another day… or more specifically the next Motorbreath video) – and every filmmaker who tries to communicate an idea or theme or just a really emotional story, from Carl Dreyer to Charles Chaplin to Michel Gondry to David Fincher have some thanks to give to the German film industry in the early 20s for providing the answer to how we can make audiences become moved by pictures deliberately.
This in particular worked out best with the two genres of film that were most defined by the reactions of an audience – Comedy on how the audience could be cajoled to laugh and Horror on how the audience could be frightened to their wits. But this series is not the 31 Nights of April Fools (because that wouldn’t work out, since April Fool’s is like… on the first?), so let’s jump into two of the most definitive silent horror films of the era, the movies people most associate into the idea of how to scare people without making a sound. And we’ll get two because I don’t think I have too much to say in the end for either film that has not already been said by film historians and critics best-spoken and more intelligent than I.
Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (translated from German to “A Symphony of Terror”, but I really just love how it sounds in German that I rarely refer to the translated title) is a movie forever immortalized by Spongebob that kind of deserves to get a chance to stand on its own for this generation. I mean, it did inspire more than the hash-slinging slasher. How about Tobe Hooper’s look for Kurt Barlow in ‘Salem’s Lot? Or the Master – my favorite villain that Buffy the Vampire Slayer got? What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said simply by looking as the ghastly ugly makeup work transforming Max Shreck into a heinous creature of the night? That fucking rat face that would provoke disgust if it weren’t on the same body as those wide fixated eyes suggesting a one-track mind straight for the throat. That tall rigid stance with fingers that extend like the branches of the trees that terrorize Snow White, the tip of the nails so pointed as to suggest your heart is pierced just from looking at them? Don’t you just want to duck your head under the covers like poor Thomas having to sleep right next to that thing? The atmosphere around this figure, this inhuman monstrosity that stuns me to see on the screen, is rich with dread and darkness. For how absolute is the screen evil that is Count Orlock (Shreck) that it seems to parallel the stature of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s masterful make-up work? How powerful is Orlock’s essence on the film?
Quite frankly, so powerful that every time I watch the movie I get bored for the 72 minutes he’s not on-screen. Don’t get me wrong. I said earlier it is an essential I’d recommend to anyone, anywhere. And I’d certainly call it a great movie. I mean, for one, it has some pretty solid compositions for even simple moments as Thomas (Gustav von Wagenheim) leaving Ellen (Greta Schroder) and it’s not a more that really lulls one to sleep, but I’d more waiting for the good stuff with Shreck creeping inch by inch in front of my eyes than anything else the movie has to offer.
For one, F.W. Murnau… let’s get down to brass tacks, Murnau is a fucking genius. He was a master storyteller who brought tears in your eyes within one minute of a masterpiece like Sunrise or Tabu. But, I feel like this is the most amateur and uninspired work I have seen yet in his career. And again, it looks great. Not a single shot seems unnecessary nor does he absolutely lack flair or personality with moments, though it’s very obvious in the end that the night scenes were shot in the day and given a blue tint. But it’s his least expressionist film. The shots are straightforward and more feel like a D.W. Griffith work than a Murnau (and not knocking Griffith’s pictures, again, that man could shot competently). The movie is a brisk 81 minutes, it is not long nor boring by definition. But the movie’s lack of heightened shadow and atmosphere, except in moments where Shreck is either on-screen or providing several dark and threatening scenes like the famous crawl up the stairs or the tragic ending, both makes me kind of watching my clock waiting for Orlock to come back than get into the story too much. It’s just that Shreck outshines everything.
Well, that and the plot is not… very inspired or original. I barely mentioned it, so I’ll sum it up. Thomas Hutter gets a chance to go to Transylvania to sell land to the mysterious Count Orlock. When he gets there, Orlock takes a fancy to Hutter’s wife, Ellen, and leaves Hutter trapped within his walls. It is obvious at this point that Orlock is a vampyre and it is a race against time for Hutter to make it back to save his wife!
Sounds familiar? Yeah, I thought so. It’s because it’s Dracula. It is the first screen adaptation of Dracula and it pretty much is a beat-by-beat account of Bram Stoker’s novel. And, given that it is one of my favorite books and an annual read, I am a stickler for how it is presented, so this uninspired fashion of adapting the movie, causes me to consider Nosferatu the second most sterilized adaptation of the book I have ever seen. And if that shocks you, wait till later this month when you find out what I think IS the most sterilized.
It apparently didn’t amuse Stoker’s estate either, who took immediately to a lawsuit on Murnau and left his studio, Prana, bankrupt. As a result, all copies of Nosferatu were to be destroyed shortly after release and for a long while, it seemed they all were. It is by some miracle that we still have a chance to look at the glory of Nosferatu. Even if I am spoiled by Shreck, there are some wonderful moments coming out of von Wagenheim and Schroder that herald expressionist acting, bringing out the most terror on your face when Orlock approaches you or the joy when you receive a letter from your love, calculating your movements on screen so as to entrap the audience in what you are doing.
It’s certainly again amateur green-behind-the-ears Murnau before he actually got to be Murnau and shelled out his true brilliantly expressionist works like Faust, The Last Laugh and Sunrise, but it’s truly a moment of involved storytelling, if not inspired, and worthy of its place among the firsts in cinema… the first to make a character so scary as to make us pray he doesn’t pop out of the screen.
Now, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari… That’s inspired. It’s a mind-bender of a film. It is to the silent era what The Usual Suspects must have felt to the audience of 1995 (my feelings about The Usual Suspects being overrated and a distractedly entertaining film with one of the stupidest endings of all time notwithstanding). But it’s certainly coming from a place that means something to the filmmakers…
At least meaning something to the writers of the film. Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz knew that they wanted to make a horror film, so they decided that they would touch upon the things about their lives that make them shiver the most. For Mayer, it was all the psychological problems he felt he still suffered as a result of his excruciating service in World War I and the military psychiatrist that terrorized them. For Janowitz, it was his suspicion about a recent incident where he associates a man he saw exiting bushes near a fair and a bit of news the next morning that a woman was found dead in that same spot. For both, it was definitely the affrontive atmosphere of fairs, somewhat imposing in their happiness to extremes. Certainly something that would call for an expressionistic approach.
And an expressionistic approach of course meant something to the producer Erich Pommel, who didn’t have much light to use and was all for a movie made out of shadows. And to designers Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann & Walter Rohrig, who finally got a chance to use their artistic intuitions to create an angular world that would have fit better in a nightmare than any haunted house or “school in your underwear” moment ever dreamt up. And to director Robert Wiene to prove anybody can do “Fritz Lang” and work well with designers who have an eye for lines. In fact, this is a movie that it is very hard to establish authorship for. Everybody on the visual side of things seemed to have a hefty hand in making The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari what it is.
And what it is happens to be the story of a couple Francis and Jane (Friedrich Feher and Lil Dagover, respectively) who visit the local fair to witness a somnambulist named Cesare (The uncanny Conrad Veidt) controlled by the hypnotist Dr. Caligari (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). Cesare insists that a friend of the couple’s will be dead by dawn and sure enough, Cesare proves to be right. But said death causes Francis’ suspicions and he begins to investigate what truly is the story behind Cesare and Caligari, finding himself sucked into a world of kidnapping, murder and madness.
And madness is just what the doctor prescribed. All this world is is haunting and artistic, the shadows mattering just as much as the strokes of paint of the crooked buildings, and there is nothing like this movie, not at all. It may not at all be an accurate representation of the social or medical results of psychopathy, but man oh man, does it feel like it and in the end, that is what most matters with Expressionism. Making your audience feel like they’re in the madhouse itself, with walls and rooms that just aren’t really there, even in the world of the film.
And the performances all sell themselves. At the forefront is a restrained and measured Veidt showcasing an outstanding expertise in pantomime and facial lock so as to make his very pale made-up face a beacon of terrors to come. Nevermind right behind him being von Twardowski becoming the stereotype of a mad doctor and making right due by it for how the movie calls for that deranged mad look all over, a pretentious bastard who wants to world to recognize and hearken just how brilliant this catastrophe he built is. Feher is an able leading man and Dagover is kind of loopy in her presence, but hell, that’s just exactly what the story needs out of their characters and the two of them are not nearly as uninvolved as von Wagenheim and Schroeder kind of were in Nosferatu.
Don’t ask me about the ending, though. I won’t say a damn word about it except that I love it and it really hammers the theme and main mood of the film right home while establishing it in a more grounded form for the audience to leave thinking about the social effects this movie might have had. That’s it. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’. Johnny Tightlips is what I am.
These movies aren’t the only horror films in the German Expressionism (I like to think of Paul Wegener’s Der Golem and Murnau’s later Faust – the latter of which I prefer to both of these films by far), but they are the cornerstones of the movement and how it affected cinema in the many decades afterward. Becoming the emotion, more than just telling you what the emotion is. Less realism, more feeling. The world can be just as much painted with shadow as it is with light and sometimes it’s just as black and white as you think. You just need to see for yourself…
Gaze into the abyss. And find the darkness gazing back at you.