Early & Silent Film

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Geheimnisse einer seele. / Secrets of a soul, Germany 1926

Posted by keith1942 on November 26, 2016


This film was screened at the 2016 Il Giornate del Cinema Muto in ‘The Canon Revisited’ programme. We viewed a reasonable print from the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin. It had a notable flaw in one reel and it was only 1430 metres in length though the original is recorded as 2214 metres. This meant some of the plot and characterisation was missing. I think this probably included quite a few title cards which explained some of the points in the film. The title were in German with the now standard English and Italian translation in digital projection. The print was projected at 20 fps which seemed just right.

The question of plot is fairly important because the film presents an exercise in psychoanalysis, clearly presenting some of the then new ideas by Sigmund Freud. The focus of the film is married couple. The husband  Professor Martin Fellman (Werner Krause) is a chemist. His wife (Ruth Weyher) leads a domesticated and social life. At the start of the film a murder by razor occurs opposite where they live. Meanwhile a cousin (Jack Trevor) and childhood friend is to visit them: sending on in advance a statue of a goddess and a ceremonial sword from India [?]. A fierce night-time thunderstorm leads to a vivid nightmare for the Professor and following this he develops a morbid fear of knives. A chance encounter with a psychotherapist leads to a course of psycho-analytical treatment and the Professor’s eventual cure.

The film was directed by G. W. Pabst working with some of his regular craft colleagues, including Guido Seeber as lead cinematographer and Ernö Metzner providing the art design. The film demonstrates the skills that Pabst and his colleagues bought to their other work in the decade. The cinematography is very well done, and the imagery in the dream sequences, including superimpositions, is dramatic and suggestive. The designs, especially again in the dream sequence, are impressive. There is also excellent editing [not specifically credited], another skill of Pabst and his team,. Whilst the normal daytime life and work of the Professor and his wife follows the conventions of continuity, the alternative sequences are disruptive and create imaginative imagery. This commences with the introduction of the murder across the street, is notable in the Freudian style dream sequences, and also appears in some of the flashbacks when the professor is receiving treatment.

Several noted practitioners of psychoanalysis are credited on the film. And it is full of motifs that regularly occur in psychological films. There are knives and razors, a key and a memory lapse, a barber sequence, a son returning to his mothers’ home; and images of figures in trees, bells, stairwells, locked doors and entrances that become barriers, plus railings and window frames that bar characters. This makes for a dramatic contrast between ‘normality’ and the world that is called the ‘subconscious’ The distinction seemed more notable in this version as the missing sequences and titles added to the elliptical movement of the film.

The film certainly fits the category of canonical. The opening sequence with a razor, and also some of the imagery in the dream sequence, suggest that either Luis Bunuel and/or Salvador Dali had watched the film. And the much later Hitchcock Spellbound (1945) certainly seems indebted to this earlier work.

The film was accompanied at the piano by Günter Buchwald who also added some playing on the violin and drums. This really suited the changing drama of the film and the tendency to hysteria as the protagonist’s ailment deepened.

Yuri Tsivian, in the Festival Catalogue, adds an interesting comment:

“But each time Ufa’s Kulturfilm Abteiling people asked Freud’s disciple Karl Abraham to ask Dr. Freud about his thought on the whole idea of making this film, Freud acted like a veritable diva. …Freud’s fear was of cinema as such: whether the “plastic” medium of film would be able to faithfully espouse his teaching’s precious “abstractions.”

The film’s success in treating the Professor does seem rather neat.


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