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Algol, Germany 1920 (USA aka Power)

Posted by keith1942 on April 17, 2017

This film was screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016 in the programme ‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’. I had seen the film once before, long ago, at the 1994 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Then it was shown in a 35mm print from the Münchner Filmmuseum. That was a black and white print of 2050 metre. The screening at Le Giornate was on a DCP transferred at ’18 fps’. The latter print had used several Archive copies in a restoration that provided the original length of 2144 metres with the original tinting. The gap between screenings was too long to make much of a comparison, though the added tinting – notably some scenes in green and red – added to the film’s impact. However, Il Ritrovato screening ran 110 minutes whilst the longer Giornate digital version only ran 99 minutes. So I do wonder if the transfer actually did achieve `18 fps’, though the 35mm projection was probably closer to 16 fps.

Either way both presentations impressed me. Il Ritrovato Catalogue introduced the film thus:

“…Algol is one of the films of which almost every traces were lost in film histories (though not in the film libraries). It was one of the protagonists of the German screen of the early twenties and of the expressionist “season” …” (Leonardo Quaresima in ‘Cinegrafie’ n. 7).

The expressionist sets and style in a number of sequences certainly impressed me then. But I was also fascinated by the larger than life fantasy, which at the same time appeared to address issues of power, technology and the economic and social order of the time. Whilst the film was partly fantasy it also was clearly science fiction, looking forward in a number of ways to the 1926 Metropolis.

Le Giornate Catalogue also presented the film as ‘largely forgotten’. But Stefan Drössler in the Festival Catalogue also wrote about the myth that provided the film’s title:

“The Bright star Algol in the constellation Perseus is actually a three-star system. The mysterious variability of the brightness (due to mutual eclipses) led to its colloquial name, the Demon Star, and gave rise to legends and mystical stories, including the fantasy that informs the film Algol.

This story concerns a magical source of power that leads to the film’s protagonist Robert Herne becoming the most powerful man in the world through the control of energy supplies. Drössler comments on how the storey reflected conditions in Germany in 1920.

“The film was obviously conceived under the shadow of the shortages of energy and resources in World war I, when harsh winters claimed many lives among the civilian population. Further contemporary references abound. The place of the magnate [Herne] is clearly meant to be Sanssouci near Potsdam, residence of the King of Prussia and the German Kaiser until his abdication at the end of the Great war. The crippling tribute payable by the film’s “free state” are reminiscent of the reparations levied on Germany by the Triple Entente after the end of the War. The underground sequences evidently refer to the coalmines of the Ruhr, and the scenes of workers in revolt to the post-war uprising.”

The film opened with an explanation of the myth around ‘Algol’. We then met Robert Herne (Emil Jannings) who worked as a coal miner. The mine has been inherited by young heiress Leonore Nissen (Gertrud Welcker). Robert was visited by the character Algol; a cross between a demon and Mephistopheles. He offered Robert a secret, embodied in a science fiction style contraption, that would capture the rays from the star Algol and transform them into an endless supply of energy. As the story developed Robert built a factory where the rays were harnessed and proceeded to displace all other energy sources. He became the most powerful businessman in the world with governments captive to his monopoly.

In his personal life Robert forsook his existing relationship with Maria (Hanna Ralph) and wedded the heiress Leonore. This desertion was accentuated when Robert’s old friend Peter (Hans Adalbert von Schlettow) partnered Maria. These relationships set up a conflict between rural settings – virtuous; and urban industrial settings – exploitative. Their son, also Peter (also von Schlettow), continued the opposition to Robert’s dominance, becoming involved in resistance by ordinary workers to Herne’s monopoly and exploitation.

In Act II there was a 20 year ellipsis. Robert now had a son and daughter. The former, Reginald (Ernst Hofmann) was father’s heir. He went on a world trip and became embroiled with a ‘vamp, Yella Ward. She manipulated Reginald in an attempt to take control of Herne’s empire. Meanwhile Herne’s monopoly caused poverty and destitution among the ex-miners and in rural areas.

In Act III resistance increased. Peter Junior was a leading figure and he also influenced Herne’s daughter Magda (Käte Haack). She pleaded with Herne to

“free your machines.”

Leonore also joined the chorus, However, she was killed in an accident in the factory,

In Act 1V these different strands came to a climax. Herne was now old and sickening. however, his empire was still active, now with a massive drainage project at a river which would disrupt rural life further. Reginald, prompted by Yella, attempted unavailingly to prise away his father’s secret. Angry workers rioted and stormed the offices of the government. At the climax Herne, accompanied now by Maria, went to the factory where sabotage was planned. There was a vast explosion and the factory fell: the empire was ended.

There are clearly aspects of that plot that would seem to comment on the contemporary problems in Germany. Siegfried Kracauer in ‘From Caligari to Hitler’ does not to comment on the film at all. This is surprising because the writer does comment on the protagonist of another contemporary film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari also 1920).

“he [Caligari] stands for unlimited authority that idolizes power as such, and, to satisfy the lust for domination, ruthlessly violates all human rights and values.”

This applies equally to Herne in Algol. He does not display the psychotic characteristics seen in Caligari, but once in command of the magical secret he become increasingly obsessed with power and pursues this with a ruthlessness akin to that of the mad Doctor.

Both these characters a paralleled the  Master of the future city, Joh Fredersen, in Metropolis (1926). And Algol shares many features with this later science fiction masterwork.  Fredersen has a son Freder who is led astray by a vamp [though not  a human one]. He is saved by a heroine Maria. And just as Herne has his diabolical aid so Fredersen has his diabolical scientist Rotwang. And both narratives end in apocalyptic disaster as the empires of these tyrants collapse.

Metropolis offers an upbeat ending: perhaps because five years on society and economy looked rosier; certainly the German film industry was in far better shape. But the two films also differ in their treatment of the worlds they portray. Algol seems less strict science fiction than fantasy. In words reminiscent of Tolkien Herne gloats at one point:

‘the last ring in the chain I have forged.’

Metropolis is much more carefully designed in terms of technology and cityscape. And it deals centrally with major themes of the genre – technology, social order, the future.

Most notable is the sense of political economy in the films. Algol treats of economic matters in terms of the issues set out Stefan Drössler; so there is the economic impact on workers and on rural areas; and at one point a Government Cabinet Meeting, despite workers demonstrating outside, believes that

“we have to honour the contracts’.

Metropolis addresses not just the contradictions of the German economy but that of the global capitalist crisis; seen briefly at the end of the war and returning with full force three years later. So the destruction of the ‘heart machine’ mirrors the destruction of capital in a crisis. This setting the stage for the new round of investment signalled by the upbeat ending.

I would comment that Algol does not have the masterful script and stylish techniques of Metropolis; and it is not as expensive a production. I found the film uneven among other weaknesses. But there are frequent and impressive sequences. The cinematography by Axel Graatkjær [with Hermann Kircheldorff ] is well done when the opportunity arises. There are some fine superimpositions paralleling characters and plot events, especially recurring images of the character Algol and much chiaroscuro. And the production design by Walter Reimann is outstanding: he was also responsible for much of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. He was only credited with set design on this film but as Drössler writes|:

“whose responsibilities extended from “the entire artistic and decorative aspects of the film” through “the supervision and finalising of the décor”, all the way to “the setting up of the studio sets” and “the creation of the titles”.”

There were some heavily expressionist sequences and the large scale buildings, machines, and later destruction, were impressive.

The film is constructed round the character of Robert Herne, played by Emil Jannings. This is a part that plays to Jannings particular skills in characterisation. As the film progresses the display of obsession increases. And the dark side of the protagonist is forcibly dramatised as he manipulates people and then seeks to dominate them thoroughly.

The tinting of the digital version worked well and the definition of the image was good. The film was accompanied by Stephen  Horne at the piano, adding in an accordion at one point: and Frank Bockius added percussion. All in all it was memorable screening.


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Das Cabinet/Kabinett des Dr, Caligari, Germany 1920

Posted by keith1942 on December 14, 2016


In the 1920s German cinema was the most accomplished in Europe and possibly the most influential until Soviet montage arrived. The giant UFA studio at Neubabelsberg was the largest and best equipped in Europe though it lacked behind Hollywood in its capital and resources. As the decade progressed the industry led the way in its production design, in the use of models and special effects, in its command of chiaroscuro [light and shadow] and then in the development of the moving camera.

Along with these skills and utilising them were a series of genres that offered unconventional stories and a distinctive style. The first of these was ‘expressionist cinema’. It embraced the style and content of a German art movement of the late C19th which itself had an unconventional look and a concern with dark, brooding topics. The approach seemed to fit well with a post World War I Germany. Not only had the state lost the war but it had only narrowly escaped a Soviet-style revolution: a political conflict which returned as the decade advanced.

This film was the first clear example of this new cinematic approach. However, some of the techniques and the look can be seen in other films of the time. And the use of light and shadow and a strong Gothic feel had been seen before the war in a film like The Golem (1915), remade as Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam in 1920)..

Caligari‘s was produced by Erich Pommer. Pommer was to be a key figure as a film producer throughout the decade. The story and screenplay were written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz. Whilst the initial story was a dark, the design of the film was what made it so unconventional. This was produced by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig: Reimann also designed the costumes. They imported a style that was both expressionist and theatrical. And the director Robert Wiene managed to preserve their vision and imbibed the cast with this as well.

The action takes place in a small German town when a fair opens. Among the shows is one run by Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) in which he displays a somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt). The presentation is seen by two friends Franzis (Friedrich Feyer) and Alan (Hans Heinz von Twardowski). Both friends are enamoured with a local young woman Jane (Lil Dagover). The fair provides a warning of death and then a series of murders are committed though the murderer is unknown. The plot develops into a hunt and an unexpected exposure in an Asylum.

This was the original plot but it was added to; apparently by Fritz Lang who was considered as a director. The addition is an opening scene where an older man recounts the story in flashback. At the end of the film the opening pair, and the other key characters, are seen again suggesting that what we have seen may be a dream or fantasy.

The film is certainly dream-like and miles away from the naturalism that was the norm in contemporary cinema. The film made extensive use of chiaroscuro which gives an extreme contrast: this is produced both by low key lighting and by shadows painted on the sets. The sets are flat and theatrical and are full of angles which give a powerfully unsettling effect. A sense of perspective is also distorted. The acting, which is very skilled, mirrors this, with exaggerated gesture and a stiff non-naturalistic poise. This is a world of artificiality.

The settings in the film suggest a world outside the norm. The town is host to a fair, frequently a site of rule breaking and unconventional behaviour. Dark deeds occur at night, when the social order is less adequately policed. And the Asylum is the opposite of a world of order and convention.


The film has given rise to much discussion and to disagreements. One of the keenest is over the added opening and closing scenes. To a degree do they alter the substance and [crucially] the values embedded in the story. Added to this are questions of how far the film reflects or even anticipates events in Germany of the late 1920s and 1930s. Siegfried Karacauer argued that

“Janowitz and Mayer knew why they raged agaisnt the framing story: it perverted, if not reversed, their intrinsic intentions. While the original story exposed the madness inherent in authority, Wiene’s CALIGARI glorified authority and convicted its antagonist of madness.” (From Caligari to Hitler (1947).

However, M. B. White, in a review in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers (1987), suggests that the film remains ambiguous for audiences. He makes a key point that the expressionist style is continuous throughout the film.

“In other words, the film is structured in such a way that it represents contradictory ways of understanding the central sequence of events. This is supported by the consistency of the films mise en scène.”

But on a reviewing of the film it seemed clear that in the final sequence offers fairly conventional staging and performance, without the exaggerated style of the flashback. This is most notable in the character of Dr. Caligari where Krauss’s performance is radically altered. However White’s comments on the film’s structure seem valid. In particular, if the film acts as a metaphor for Germany in the period, then the site of an Asylum raises pertinent questions about the culture. Certainly by the time that the audience is apprised of the source of the disruption to ‘normal life’ several readings are possible.

An interesting comment on this aspect is provided by Ian Roberts in German Expressionist Cinema (2008).

“…his directorial input (Wiene), ensuring that the revised story-frame should be echoed in repeated circular imagery … point towards a very deliberate attempt to reflect the pattern of events unfolding in Germany’s streets…”

and he points to the cycle of defeat in WWI, the failed Soviet-style revolution and the re-imposition of bourgeois rule. This is an intelligent and illuminating reading of the film. And the debate itself adds to the interest of the film.

My own recent viewing made me realise the importance of the music that accompanies a screening. This had a fine piano score by Darius Battiwalla. For the flashback he provided music full of dissonance and sombre chords. But for the final sequence we heard lighter waltz-like music, which emphasised a return to normalcy from the world of chaos: with possibly a touch of irony.

Caligari set in train a series of expressionist films though critics do not agree exactly which films fit into the form. Of equal interest is that the film is both partly horror and also an early example of a serial killer film. The former is picked up in the slightly later Nosferatu (1922) [definitely expressionist]. The latter recurs in a number of examples in Germany in this period. The later notable example being Fritz Lang’s M (1931). And these films are a key influence on the later Hollywood noir cycle.

As with film noir we have a world of chaos into which the hero descends. Given the fate of Franzis at the end he seems to be a victim hero. There is not a femme fatale but there is Caligari’s ‘obsession’ and political noirs often rely on this rather than the sexual threat. And we have the triangular relationships: in this case three younger men obsessed with the woman and the addition of the older man. Serial killer films pick up a number of aspects of film noir. In addition we have the insane killer who is at the same time apparently rational, Caligari himself. The other recurring motif is the labyrinth. Strictly speaking this film does not have  a labyrinth but the sets on many occasions form corridors and passageways hemmed in by walls and buildings. At one point Franzis and two policemen descend a steep narrow staircase to a lower floor and a tightly constricted cell housing a suspect. And the ‘open air’ sequences at times resemble a maze, that parallel structure to the labyrinth. And serial killer films cross over with horror, as does Caligari. One powerful horror motif is the cabinet/coffin that house Cesare. Opening this lets  loose the horror that engulfs the town and the trio of friends.

 Decla Filmgellschaft. 4682 feet, black and white with green, brown and steely-blue tinting. 77 minutes at 16 fps.

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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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Westfront 1918: Vier Von Der Infanterie, Germany 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on July 13, 2016

Westfront 1918

Like the famous Hollywood feature, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), this is a powerful and critical representation of the trench warfare in World War I. It is grimmer and more realistic than the US film, but both make use of the new sound technology. Westfront 1918 [as it is generally known] has been available in a 35mm print for years but now the Deutsche Kinemathek have revisited their negative copy and a positive copy held by the BFI. The result is a fuller film version with improved sound which was screened at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in a DCP format. The dialogue is in German and French and has English subtitles. It runs 96 minutes and is in the soon to be standard 1.33:1 ratio.

The film was directed by G. W Pabst and includes fine cinematography by Charles Métain and Fritz Arno Wagner. As with Pabst’s silent films the editing is fluid and follows a basic continuity and there are impressive tracking shots at the front. The sound is impressive for this early foray in the new technology and adds to the fierce brutality of the images. The noise of battle or of scenes away from the front is unrelieved by any accompanying music.

The film is adapted from a novel by Ernst Johannsen, and scripted by the author with  Ladislaus Vajda. The film has four protagonists serving on the Western Front in 1918. Their intertwined experiences are presented in an episodic fashion. Their experiences here are awful. At various stages they have to confront enemy attacks, bombardments [including at one stage by their own artillery], gas attacks and being buried alive when trenches collapse. There are several harrowing sequences in no-man’s land and memorable images of the wounded and the dead. Pabst and his team pull no punches in depiction the grim reality of modern warfare.

We also see the soldiers away from the front. One has an affair with a young French woman, which one imagines did not go down well in territories which had been part of the western alliance. Another returns home to find his wife is surviving through effective prostitution. These latter scenes hark back to the ‘street films’ of the 1920s.


In some ways the grimmest moments are at the film’s ends. Here a wounded officer is taken past the grotesque corpses of battle and then to a field hospital where medical attention is basic and inadequate. What saves the sequence is a moment of compassion across the lines of conflict.

The film was successful on release though the Festival Catalogue includes a report by Siegfried Kracauer that

“Many people fled the cinema complaining that they could not endure the film.”

The Nazi response in 1933 was even more drastic, they banned the film as it

“endangered crucial interests of state.”

That and cutting the prints down [as with the UK release] meant that the surviving film for years was an incomplete picture. This restoration reveals what is one of the important films about the first World War. The fact that it is in DCP presumably means that it will circulate more widely. Perhaps someone will give us a double bill of the Pabst masterwork and All Quiet on the Western Front?

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The Jew of Mestri / Der Kaufmann von Venedig Germany 1923

Posted by keith1942 on April 20, 2016

Henny Porten as The Lady of Belmont

Henny Porten as The Lady of Belmont

This film, part of the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of England’s premier playwright, was screened at the Barbican on April 10th. I have just read J. G. Ballard’s ‘High-Rise’ so I was struck by the brutalist architecture of this complex. Inside, for Screen 1 in the main building, one enters a vast cavernous hall: it feels like the sort of entertainment space one would find in Lang’s Metropolis (1926). The cinema itself is down in the lower basement. It is spacious with a notable rake and, happily, has good quality 35mm projection. The print we viewed was from the UK National Film Archive and is a copy of the version prepared for release in the USA, shorter than the original German version.

The film was directed by Peter Paul Felner who also wrote the screenplay with Pietro Aretino. The source is not Shakespeare’s play but an earlier version which was also a source for Shakespeare’s tragedy. This is a story by Giovanni Fiorentino, in his collection of tales, Il Pecorone, which appeared in 1558. Felner seems to have worked some of the Shakespearean version in to the film but judging by the characters and plot it is closer to that of Fiorentino. The opening credits is for Fiorentino’s work but there is also a reference to Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’. There are parts of the film that are close to the Shakespeare play and others that differ.  The characters appear to have the names used in the Fiorentino version: but the original German language titles may have been different. The collected plays include ‘The Merchant of Venice’ under the comedies, and parts of this film are played in that tenor.

The casting is variable. Henny Portman is The Lady of Belmont [Portia] and she is not exactly the type for this women who has so many suitors. She is better when disguised as the young lawyer {Balthazar] for the trial scene. Harry Liedtke is Giannetto (Bassanio) and Carl Ebert is Ansaldo (Antonio), they are passable rather than engaging. The stand-out performance is Werner Krauss as the Jew of Mestri, Mordecai. He combines the angry responses to prejudice with the growing malevolence directed especially against Ansaldo.   Lia Eibenschütz  as Rachele [Jessica, the Jew’s daughter] is also very good.

Fiorentino’s version and this film appear to provide greater emphasis on the manner in which the Jew is the subject of prejudice and mistreatment. In Shakespeare’s play Shylock is already prejudiced against Antonio. But in this version there is an important sequence when Mordecai sends his wife to collect debts owed to him by Giannetto. She finds Giannetto passing with friends, including Ansaldo. They roundly abuse her. As a consequence she suffers what appears to be a fatal heart attack. In the following sequences Mordecai mourns his wife and vows vengeance. Thus we get the Bond with Ansaldo and the ‘pound of flesh’.

There is more space devoted to his daughter Racele than in the play. She is wooed by Lorenzo (I missed his name in this version) who is something of a fancy man. Mordecai meanwhile has arranged a union with the son of a friend. So there is drama round Racele’s unwillingness to join this union.

The trial sequence is very close to that in Shakespearean’s play and it is followed by the re-union of Giannetto with The Lady of Belmont, of Ansaldo with the Lady’s assistant and confidante and of Lorenzo with Racele. We again see Mordecai in the streets, bitter and frustrated by the loss of his suit, his monies and his daughter. The final moment of the film also differs from the Shakespeare play. In a powerful final shot we get a close-up of Mordecai [an iris shot], which can be read different ways depending how you interpret Krauss’s characterisation. I tended to see this as sympathetic. The longer German version may generate a different feel

One of the cachet’s of the film is that it was filmed on location in Venice. It is well served by the excellent cinematography by Axel Graatkjær and Rudolph Maté. One thing I noted that was that the crowd scenes in the streets of Venice were running slightly faster than the rest of the print. This could have been a different cranking rate in exteriors, but it seemed quite consistent across sequences. So I think it was shot to run slightly faster in order to generate drama.

I found the trial sequence impressive. There is a volatile crowd of onlookers, who become excited and vocal. In front of this the young lawyer, Mordecai and Ansaldo play out the famous dramatic scene.

The print we enjoyed was of pretty good quality. It was projected at 19 fps, running for 78 minutes. This would be about 1700 metres. However, Wikipedia suggests that the original version was at least two reels longer, about 220 metres: IMDB has even longer at 2800 metres. It is possible as there were parts of the film that seemed undeveloped. This is true regarding the death of Mordecai’s wife, some of the street sequences, scenes on the ‘Il Ridotto’ involving the Jewish financial community, the plotting of the affair between Racele and Lorenzo and also some of the plotting around the wooing of the Lady of Belmont. It may be that what is missing includes scenes that are closer to Shakespeare.

We also enjoyed an excellent accompaniment by Stephen Horne. He likes to accompany with multi-instruments: so we had the piano keyboard and strings; a flute, an accordion, a xylophone and a hand-held harmonium.


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Diary of a Lost Girl / Tagebuch einer Verlorenen Germany 1929

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2016


This is the second film that Louise Brooks made with G. W. Pabst. Both are iconic figures in late silent cinema. Brooks is a luminous and distinctive star presence on screen. Pabst is a skilled and innovating filmmaker. Moreover, they worked together towards the end of one of the really creative periods in silent cinema: filmmakers in the Weimar Republic enjoyed the most advanced technical facilities in Europe and innovated in a series of distinctive film movements. This film also benefited from the skills of the industry’s craftspeople, especially the cinematographers Sepp Allgeier and Fritz Arno Wagner.

The film is adapted from a novel of the same name by Margarete Böhme. She was a popular writer in the early C20th. Diary of a Lost Girl was her most popular novel, published in 1905 and eventually selling over a million copies. So the original story was set in Wilhemine Germany. It was at first marketed as an actual story edited by Böhme. It had already been filmed in 1918, though this version seems lost.

The partnership of Pabst and Brooks is famous for their previous collaboration, Pandora’s Box (Nero-Film AG 1929). This was adapted from an even more notorious work by Franz Wedekind, two plays Erdgeist (Earth Spirit 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box 1904). These are classics of German literature, though they were also considred shocking and suffered censorship problems when first performed. Their quality can be seen from an earlier film version starring the major diva of the time, Asta Nielsen. There is also as an operatic masterpiece by Alban Berg, Lulu. Pandora / Lulu achieves tragic status whilst offering a scathing critique of bourgeois society. Diary of a Lost Girl does critique the mores of contemporary German society but is much more of a melodrama.

The plot of the film is full of conventional sequences, which are also found in other films dealing with the exploitation of young women. In keeping with the pre-occupations of the society of the time, these are predominately sexual with the economic taking a subordinate place.

Brooks plays Thymian, the central character. At the start of the film her household is disrupted when the housekeeper, Elisabeth (Sybille Schmitz) becomes pregnant by Thymian’s father, Robert Henning (Josef Rovensky). Henning runs a pharmacy: he is also a weak character, of import later in the film. So Elisabeth is forced to leave and soon commits suicide. Her father later marries the new housekeeper Meta (Franziska Kinz). During this Thymian displays her innocence and naivety by failing to really understand what has happened: she also then displays her sensitivity when she sees Elisabeth’s corpse carried away.

This sexual disruption to the household sets in motion a series of exploitative actions, which also fall outside the mores of bourgeois society. Thymian is seduced / raped by the Pharmacy assistant Meinert (Fritz Rasp). This leads to a series of ‘falls’ for Thymian – through reformatory and then to a brothel. Through all this Thymian records her life in her dairy: a present for her confirmation day, the day on which the scandal regarding Elisabeth occurs.


Brooks’ character is rather different from the ‘free spirit’ of Pandora’s Box. In that film her sexually aware innocence leads men to their doom, but finally also leads Lulu to her own. In Diary of a Lost Girl Thymian is the proverbial innocent. Even after a spell in a reformatory and when she has progressed to a brothel she seems unaware of the actuality of sex, especially sex in which men expropriate from a woman. Thus in the film it is unclear whether Thymian is merely seduced or she is actually raped. In two scenes involving men Thymina apparently swoons and is then carried by the man to a bed and to sex. Given the exploitative tone that Pabst’s film provides I think these actions really count as rape.

Brooks is very good at conveying this combination of innocent naivety, which is somehow combined with certain knowingness. Her definite charisma on screen partly follows from the way that she characterises the women she plays. In both of Pabst’s films there is a recurring characterisation by her: first she stares uncomprehendingly at another character, then she breaks into an engaging smile. These smiles mark steps in her progressions; parallel but different in the two films,

The film relies extensively on close-ups and these predominate over long shots. So the film emphasises the characters rather than the settings. Pabst and his team are masters of the developing art of film editing. His films tend to continuity rather discontinuities. And the cutting is regular so that we see characters and exchanges in a variety of shots.

The mise en scène adds to the representation of characters. In the body of the film there are three important settings: the family home and pharmacy: the reformatory and the brothel. The home is characterised by unease and dislocation. So we often see characters appearing or disappearing: caught in doorways and corridors. The reformatory is a sparse brutal environment. The most frequently seen room is a dining room cum workshop. There are only tables, chairs and the machines that the inmates work at.



There is an exception, which is the girl’s dormitory, which offers a space where the girls [after lights out] enjoy some autonomy. So one memorable scene in the dining room has the head’s wife [Valaska Gert) striking a gong as the girls perform physical movements. Later, in the dormitory after the head of the reformatory (Andrews Engelmann) and his wife have gone to bed the girls play, smoke, play cards and generally indulge. [There is a feel of a parallel with the later famous sequence in Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite 1933].

This alternative space for women is paralleled in some ways by the brothel. The film generally presents this as a free and easy environment where the women are untrammelled and content. The setting is there for men and their pleasure, but the key figure is the ‘madam’ of the house. And the women are happy to pleasure the men. The exception, Thymian, follows the example of the others following her seduction/rape. A shadow appears in an intense scene where Thymian encounters her father, who is visiting a nightclub where Thymian is the prize in a raffle. The father is shaken, but Thymian continues her life of prostitution.

However, the strength of patriarchy returns in the film. Thymian’s two continuing friends over the course of the story are Graf Osdoff (André Roanne), heir to a count but an ineffectual character: and Erika (Edith Meinhard) a friend in both the reformatory and the brothel. Graf is disposed of but his death leads to Thymian being taken under the wing of his uncle, who ‘rescues’ her from her situation and places her in a properly salubrious situation Here Thymian is able to settle accounts with the people who have misstated and exploited her.

The ending in the film is different from that of the book. In the book

“she dies from never having experienced a love of her own volition.”

It seems that the book presents the story in the first-person of Thymian, hence the ‘Diary’ in the title. The film eschews this and treats the diary as a recurring plot device rather than a source of the narrative. Heide Schlüpmann also adds that:

“She [Margarethe Böhme] defends the rights and dignity of unwed mothers, as well as the “morality” of prostitutes, against the dominant bigotry, including the hypocrisy of the middle-class charity groups run by women.”

Much of this is lost in the film though Pabst and his colleagues do frame unsympathetically both the moral relatives of Henning who insist Thymian goes into a reformatory and a, later in the film, the middle-class charitable group who support the reformatory. This is where the film crosses over with Pandora’s Box, as in that film Lulu’s life and death are at the behest of men. However, Lulu is still a much more active character than Thymian. This is partly down to the melodramatic morals of Diary of a Lost Girl. But also that Wendekind’s play is, despite its critical stance, still predominantly from the male point of view, which is also the case with Pabst’s film. Schlupmann has a quotation from Brooks,

“He [Pabst} was conducting an investigation into his relations with women …”.

The skill of the filming and the presence of Louise Brooks have ensured that this film regularly resurfaces at Festivals. The original film was 3.132 metres in length. However, after censorship cuts one version was reduced to 2008 metres: and there was a recut version in 1930. Overall the film avoided the censorious response that met Pandora’s Box. But presumably the scenes in a brothel caused concern for some. The restored version by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiffung is 3,30 metres.

Heide Schlüpmann’s article The Brothel as an Arcadian Space? Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) appears in The Films of G. W. Pabst An Extraordinary Cinema edited by Eric Rentschler, Rutgers University Press, 1990.

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Destiny / Der müde tod, Germany 1921.

Posted by keith1942 on June 15, 2015

Destiny duo

I saw this film some years ago at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield. On that occasion we had a 35mm print with added sound: at that point the only print available in the UK. It seems that this version is about 150 metres shorter than the original, And I did think that some shots, especially some overlapping dissolves, ran past a little too fast. However, the image quality was pretty good and the film had English title cards.

Filmed in 1921, this is an early example from the partnership of Lang and Thea von Harbou. Critical judgements on the works have often been distorted  by the knowledge that Lang left  Germany when the Nazis gained power but that von Harbou stayed and joined the party. This retrospective view overlooks that real skill with which von Harbou constructed her screenplays and the shared interests in expressionism, German gothic and a strong touch of German nationalism.

Destiny is certainly a fine example of von Harbou’s writing skills and of Lang’s skills in mise en scène, camera and editing. This is film is a beautiful exercise in chiaroscuro, with many a striking tableaux and the editing offers deft parallels and oppositions . The thematic aspects are familiar in Lang’s other works and bound together by suggestive motifs.

The basic plot finds a grim-looking figure (Bernhard Goetzke)  arriving in a small town and purchasing a plot of land alongside a cemetery. Among the deaths that follow is the fiancé of a young woman (Lil Dagover). Desperate in her love she attempts to win a reprieve from mortality. She becomes involved in three stories, each featuring an attempt to ward of death. Moreover in each she and the grim stranger appear in the guise of other characters They are set successively in a Sultan’s place, The Story of First Light; medieval Venice, The Story of the Second Light; and a rather imaginative palace of a Chinese Emperor, The Story of the Third Light. A final episode features fire, death and rescue, bringing the narrative to its end.

Lang uses chiaroscuro and the style already familiar in expressionist films. The gothic aspect of these is strongly emphasised. The film offers recurring symbols including both a clock and three candles burning down to their stumps.

Destiny trio

At one level the film offers the pleasures of the gothic, and an exploration between life and death. At another level the film struggles with the conflict between mortality and immortality, light and shadow, and authority and submission. The emphasis on time is a familiar one in Lang’s work as is the overarching hand of fate. Both get a very full exploration in this film.

I revisited my notes of  viewing this film in the company of a chapter on the film from Tom Gunning’s excellent The Films of Fritz Lang (bfi, 2000). This is a long, complex but extremely stimulating analysis. He writes at length on time, the machine and fate in this and other Lang films. He also brings out other aspects.

The sub-title for the chapter is Dearth and the Maiden, which would make an extremely good alternative title for the film. The women characters in Lang’s Weimar films are very interesting. Despite some critics preference for his Hollywood product, I do not think that the latter have the same intriguing treatment of women. Even M, where we encounter a male serial killer, offers both impressive and moving female characters.

The young woman in Destiny impresses one by the power of her love, her single-mindedness, her commitment and, most of all, her strength of character in the struggle with death. This receives emphasis from the weakness, indolence and apathy of most of the other characters in the film, including the men. A recurring response during the dramatic sequences of the film to a request for help / sacrifice is:

not a day, not an hour, not a breath.

Indeed, this young woman is the only character in the film to offer these.

Tom Gunning also made a number of comments about technique in the film. One that especially interested me was concerning ‘the look at the camera’. In my early studies in film this was usually identified as a sort of distancing device and one that mainstream films [as in Hollywood] avoided because it seemed to breach the invisible wall. I have always had a problem with this stance. it treats a particular shot in a uniform way: an expression of the idea that film  is a language. I am not convinced of this, or even that it is a set of languages as occurs across differing cultures. For a start we learn cinematic conventions in a vastly different way than language. And shots [like many techniques in film] have both denotative and connotative meanings, but frequently it is the connotative meaning that trumps the denotative. Film in the colloquial sense is not about communication but drama and values.

I usually sense whether a look to camera can be described as ‘diegetic’ on ‘non-diegetic’ but I would find it difficult to identify exactly the aspects that help me read in this way. Gunning argues that those in Destiny remain diegetic.

You will get the sense that Gunning’s chapter is an extremely detailed analysis and produces a reading of the film far more complex that just that of an entertaining gothic fantasy. In fact this could be applied to much of Lang’s output, both with von Harbou and later in Hollywood. His films work at the entertainment level but rarely stop there. And in my experience it is the more complex films that are also the more entertaining. This explains in one way why Lang occupies a place in the pantheon of filmmakers. His films offer pleasure but also lend themselves to analysis and discussion. Destiny is a good example of this.


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Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922).

Posted by keith1942 on November 13, 2013

Nosferatu title

This film appears to be the earliest adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel. It was made out of copyright, with Dracula becoming Graf Orlok (Max Schreck), Jonathan remains but is named Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), Mina is changed to Ellen (Greta Schröder) and Van Helsing to the Professor (John Guttowt). The film does follow the book quite closely in parts, but changes not only the names but also the character of major figures. Orlok is the most distinctive characterisation of Dracula on film. And the resolution of the film is strikingly different. The role of the Mina/Ellen is transformed and “it is the woman who is the centre of the conflict” but in the film “the uses made of this insight are, however, quite different [from the book]”. (Robin Wood).

The Production Company, Prana-Film (Berlin) lost a copyright court case bought by the Bram Stoker’s widow. All copies of the film were supposedly destroyed, but fortunately one did survive.

The director F. W. Murnau is reckoned one of the outstanding filmmakers in German cinema and across international silent cinema. His later masterpiece The Last Laugh (Der letze Mann, 1925) is the film that embodied the German skills in the ‘unchained camera’ (entfesselte Kamera). And all his films, including Nosferatu, demonstrate the German prowess in the use of lighting, i.e. chiaroscuro effect. Murnau was recruited to the Hollywood’s Fox Studio later in the 1920s where he made one of the outstanding silent dramas, Sunrise (1928). Murnau clearly had a taste for what we call the gothic. Prior to Nosferatu he had directed The Blue Boy (Der blaue junge, 1919) about a nobleman inflicted by a curse: The Head of Janus (Der Januskopf, 1920) a variation on the Jekyll and Hyde story: and The Haunted Castle (Schloss Vogelöd, 1921).

Murnau relied upon a very skilled production team. The German film industry, dominated by the giant UFA studio, was the most technically advanced in Europe. Their films generally offered high production values, often approaching those of the emerging Hollywood Majorsollywood majors. . . And their technical expertise was at the cutting edge of film in this period. The producer of the film Albin Grau worked on the script and production design. The scenario was mainly credited to Henrik Galeen. He had scripted and co-directed the 1913 Der Golem. And the cinematography was by Fritz Arno Wagner. Wagner had worked with Murnau on The Haunted Castle, and he later worked on another expressionist classic, Schatten (Warning Shadows, 1925).

The film is notable not only for its cinematography but also for the editing. The crosscutting draws parallels across the story. And it uses special effects of the time: speeded-up action at one point achieved by under cranking the camera: stop-motion techniques at another: and using the negative film to reverse white and black in a sequence. The film was shot both in the German studio and in several locations including the Baltic cities of Wismar, Rostock and Lűbeck and in the Upper Tatras Mountains in Czechoslovakia. Murnau uses recurring motifs across the film, framing characters in archways, windows and behind bars. And he suggests doubling through the use of mirrors.

The film references both Expressionism and German Romanticism. The characterisation of Orlok recalls Cesare [Conrad Veidt] in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, 1919). Whilst it does not use the artificial sets of the earlier film, there is the similar use of chiaroscuro and the dark and abnormal settings. Murnau consciously used the approach of a romantic painter like David Friedrick. The arch was a particular symbol in such romantic work. And the scenes of Ellen waiting by the seashore recall romantic paintings.


This restored version from 2007 includes the original tinting added to the black and white film stock. Blue is used for night, and degrees of yellow are used for daytime or internally lit scenes. The title cards have been reproduced in the original gothic script. This version is taken from several surviving prints and it is apparent. Moreover, a number of the original title cards which feature are off-centre and the subtitling overlaps these. And, particularly in the later stages, the film seems overly dark. On its release the film enjoyed a specially prepared accompanying score by Hans Erdmann. When it was screened at the National Media Museum we had an excellent live accompaniment on the piano by Darius Battiwalla, bringing out the unheimlich [uncanny and creepy] quality

The film has been re-issued by the British Film Institute as part of their Gothic retrospective and it was screened at the National Media Museum as part of their Euro-Gothic series [[not really a recognisable genre]. The BFI Gothic project revisits what is one of the most potent areas of cinema. However, this is also an area that is tricky to define exactly. The Museum’s series of Euro-Gothic includes films that deals with a witches coven: zombies: a mad doctor: and [this film] a vampire movie.

The roots of these genres lie in the English Gothic tradition. David Punter, un The Literature of Terror (1980) defines the classic gothic literature in this way: “an emphasis on portraying the terrifying, a common insistence on archaic-settings, a prominent use of the supernatural, the presence of highly stereotyped characters and the attempt to deploy and perfect techniques of literary suspense ….’Gothic’ fiction is the fiction of the haunted castle, of heroines preyed on by unspeakable terrors, of the blackly lowering villain, of ghosts, vampires, monsters and werewolves.” This literary genre, which he places between the 1760s and the 1820s, is most famously associated with Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto 1764) and Mrs Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho 1794). In 1817 by Lake Geneva a famous house party produced two of the most famous variants on the Gothic. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley came up with the story of Frankenstein – or the Modern Prometheus (1818). Lord Byron and his physician Polidori told tale about a Vampyre. The latter was developed by writers like Sheridan LeFanu and then Bram Stoker produced what seems to be the definitive version with Dracula (1897). Another strand is in a novel like Robert Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

Early cinema made frequent use of both C19th literature and drama. And there were innumerable theatrical versions of the classic literary gothic tales. Edison in the USA made a version of Frankenstein in 1910: and there is a 1915 version titled Life Without Soul. There are versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1908 (USA), 1910 (Denmark), 1912 (USA) and 1913 (UK). Häxan (Witchcraft through the Ages) was produced in Sweden in 1921.

German culture and film had a particular penchant for a type of gothic. The C18th Romantic Movement marvelled at nature but also had a religious or pantheistic aspect. The latter lent itself to the use of magical or supernatural elements. The most influential writer in terms of gothic was E.T.A. Hoffman. His first collection of stories was Fantastic Pieces in Callot’s Style (Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier, 1814-15, the title after a C17th French engraver of grotesque pictures) was full of gothic tropes and tricks.

The romanticism fed into the C20th movement of Expressionism. Reacting against forms of realism, the members used large almost abstract shapes, with bright unrealistic colours. There were also element of the grotesque. One member, Franz Marc declared, “art is nothing but the expression of our dreams.” Theatrical expressionism used forceful characterisation along with highly stylised sets. The expressionists were radical and modernist, but there was also a fear of what change might unleash.

Expressionism became a force in German cinema after the ‘changes unleashed’ in World War I. One factor was theatre personnel familiar with expressionism who moved to working in the film industry. The key film is The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. It exemplified expressionism on film. Visually it utilised abstract and stylised settings. The acting was both stylised and heightened. Settings and characters employed the exaggerated and the grotesque. The most notable aspect of the style was the use of chiaroscuro, or light and shadow. This combination also gave the films a strong gothic sense. Caligari and its successors gave German film reputation for distinctive and skilful imagery.

The expressionist films of the 1920s were not totally new. There had been earlier films with these tendencies. In particular there should be noted The Student of Prague (Der Student von Prag, `1913) a film about a doppelgänger or shadowy double. The film uses elements from the tales of Hoffman. And there is The Golem (Der Golem, 1913) where a man-made figure is bought to life and used to wreak havoc. Unlike Expressionist art many of the films hark back to the past and take on the gothic milieu. Thus Nosferatu combines gothic elements with Romantic imagery and with Expressionist techniques.

David Punter attempts to formulate a more general view of gothic literature, which is seen to include North American writers like Edgar Allan Poe and modern writers like Angela Carter. He emphasises that it is [in opposition to realism] a non-realist genre. He posits three general characteristics – paranoia, the barbaric or fear of the past, and breaking taboos. The film is clearly non-realist and all three chracteristics are central to Murnau’s Nosferatu. There is increasing paranoia for nearly all the characters as the film develops, and frequently for the cinema audience as well. The film is soaked in period detail, which becomes more menacing as the tale runs its course. And breaking a taboo is central to the film and to the striking climatic scene as Orlok visits Ellen.


Even allowing for the developments in style and technique since the silent era the film remains the most potent expression of the dark, threatening and sexual disturbance in the Stoker novel. At the time there was an air of mystery around the central character of Orlock and the actor who played him. This has been pick up in the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire. Writer Stephen Katz and director Elias Merhige play with the notion that Max Schreck was a real vampire. That an effective drama can be made of this myth speaks to the continuing fascination and influence of one of the most famous of silent films.

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Menschen am Sonntag / People on Sunday

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2012

This film is a late entry into the silent period of German cinema. However, it is not one of the impressive dramas filmed at the giant UFA studios, for example Joe May’s Asphalt (1929). This is a small, independent film made by a group of young filmmakers making their way in the industry. Using four ordinary working Berliners they offer a portrait of life and leisure in Germany and its capital at the end of the 1920s. The film was shot almost entirely on location and on a shoestring budget. It offers a foretaste of the film realism that graced French cinema in the 1930s and Italian Neo-realism in the 1940s.

The production consists of a team of talented filmmakers, the majority of whom moved to Hollywood when the Third Reich replaced the Weimar Republic. The director was Robert Siodmak, assisted by Edgar G. Ulmer and one of the two very experienced filmmakers in the team, Rochus Gliese. Gliese had worked at UFA right through the 1920s under Erich Pommer as a writer, designer and director: he had collaborated with famous director F. W. Murnau. The other very experienced hand was the lighting cameraman Eugen Schüfftan. Schüfftan was an extremely talented cinematographer and an expert in special effects; he had worked on the famous 1926 Metropolis. His camera assistant was Fred Zinnemann, also bound for Hollywood: as were the storywriter Curt Siodmak [brother of Robert] and the scriptwriter, Billy Wilder.

Wilder described some of the production work in a newspaper article in 1930 [reprinted in film notes 1997]:

“Finally we hit on the right idea: it has to be a film as simple as a report: a film about Berlin, about its people, about everyday things that we all know. First we consider using young actors. No: the people have to be authentic. So we start searching: In front of a bar, on Kurfürstendamm, Seeler discovers a chauffeur, Taxe lA 10 088, Erwin Splettstößer. In a flash, he agrees to take part. Ms. Borchert thinks that we have something else in mind. She sells records. It’s hard work talking her into it. Her family thinks that we’re white slave traders. Just the same, she turns up at the rehearsal on Thielplatz. Christl Ehlers turns up too. Ehlers has had some experience: she worked as a film extra for Dupont, and she swears that she’s on a first-name basis with the production manager of Lupu Pick. Someone for the role of the Walterhausen falls right into our laps and turns out to be exactly what we need.

Meanwhile the screenplay is sketched out. Seven typewriter-pages. We come up with the perfect trick: condense all of Berlin to a single Sunday.”

There are in fact five main characters, Erwin, Brigitte from the record shop], Christl, Wolfgang [a salesman] and Annie, who spends Sunday at home. The film introduces the main characters to us at their work on the Saturday, follows their day of leisure and then ends as they start a new working week. The major part of the film is their joint excursion to Lake Wansee, on the outskirts of Berlin. This was a popular day resort in the 1920s: it acquired darker significance in the 1940s from the infamous Wansee Conference. During this Sunday the four your people swim, picnic, flirt, fall out and make up: though finally there is an ambiguity about their relationships.

This simple treatment of everyday life was not an isolated example in this period.  The famous critic Siegfried Kracauer discusses the film together with Markt am Witenbergplatz (Street Markets in Berlin, 1929) as ‘cross-section’ films  “through an assemblage of documentary shots” And in 1931 Bertolt Brecht collaborated on a sound film with Slatan Dudow about a camp for the unemployed Kuhle Wampe [the title of the camp]. Kracauer is critical of the 1929 film for its lack of political content. Certainly the 1931 film is more consciously political. However, Menschen am Sonntag does contain fairly subtle political comments. The central relationships are presented with a strong taste of irony [presumably down to Billy Wilder]. The two male characters in particular present the fecklessness of their sex. These workers are not proletarians, they are caught between the manual working class and the petty bourgeoisie; their lives clearly contain a strong element of alienation. And when the film broadens out to encompass the larger Berlin population of four million there are sequences that express the significant disparities of urban life. There is also the rising militarism of the late 1920s suggested with the placing of parades among the desultory activities of a Sunday afternoon and traditional municipal statutory admired by groups including uniformed men.

Menschen am Sonntag does not just deal with a small group of ordinary working Berliners. As Kracauer noted, the film is also full of shots of Berlin and of working Berliners. Here the film overlaps with a cycle of mainly documentary films of the late 1920s, ‘city symphonies’. The most famous German example if Berlin – Die Symfonie der Grosstadt (Berlin- Symphony of a City 1927) directed by Walter RuttmannHowever, this is a fairly abstract film, presenting the city as a complex of buildings, spaces, transport, movement: all reduced to shapes and patterns, even the people. Menschen is closer to the city films of directors like Alberto Cavalcanti whose Rien Que Le Heures, (Only the Hours, 1927) presents dawn-to-dusk in Paris. Both share an interest in the change from work to leisure and back again, which is found in the Soviet masterwork of Dziga Vertov Chelovek s Kinoapparatom (The Man With a Movie Camera, 1929).

 Stylistically the film shares qualities with all these contemporary works. The activities of the central quartet are shot with frequent mid-shots and close-ups and even large close-ups. But much of the larger Berlin is filmed with travelling shots interspersed with superimposition’s and even the occasion fast montage. The connections and parallels across these populations are bought out visually in a number of sequences that frame recurring actions and responses: people looking out of windows: people laughing and smiling; people being photographed at the resort;

There is also one intriguing sequence, cutting between a fierce looking zealot, traditional statues of national heroes and leaders, and a stone lion – this is clearly a pastiche of Eisenstein’s famous lions, screened in the capital a couple of years earlier.

The film premiered in Berlin in February 1930. It was well received by the critics and had a successful run of six months. Over the years the films suffered intentional and unintentional cuts: For example the Dutch censors cut over 24 metres from the film, including parts of a scene of a couple together in the woods: and a nude mannequin dummy in a show window! But the censor apparently left alone the very suggestive domestic circumstances of Erwin and Annie. By the time that the revival of interest in the Silent period in the 1980s occurred the original film running 2,014 metres had been reduced to about 1600 metres. In 1997 the Nederlands Filmmuseum, collaborating with other film archives, produced a restoration 1839 metres. Whilst not full-length, the restored version has excellent visual quality and preservers both the adventures of the young quartet and the images of Berlin and Berliners. It also displays at times the distinctive style of Eugene Schüfftan, with the occasional shot recalling his work at UFA.

The film was screened at the National Media Museum in Bradford witha good quality 35 mm print from the British Film Institute with the original German titles and English subtitles. The film ran at 22 frames per second and lasted just on 73 minutes. And there was an excellent piano accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla.


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Posted by keith1942 on August 16, 2012

 “Asphalt begins with a montage sequence, shot at night, in which workers stomp down flaming-hot semi-liquid asphalt to pave a street. …The smooth and shiny asphalt serves in this film as a metaphor for a metropolitan “surface culture” that stressed exteriorly and sparkling facades, but also implied pretence and deception. ‘Asphalt’ in late Weimar was shorthand for an all-encompassing cosmopolitan modernity: unsurprisingly, Joseph Goebbels used the term ‘asphalt’ as an anti-Semitic slur.” [Anton Kaes, Catalogue of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto].

One of the conflicts in the film is between this smart, contemporary urban world of consumerism and nightlife and the more traditional home values of the German petty-bourgeoisie. The latter are represented by the hero Albert Holk and his parents. He has followed his father into a career with the police. Whilst his mother is an almost stereotypical and doting hausfrau. His mundane duties directing city traffic are disrupted when he chances to come into contact with the glamorous but morally dubious Else. Even more complications arise when her criminal ‘friend’ returns to the city. This is a fairly typical silent era melodrama involving romance, crime and possible redemption. The combination of worlds enable the film to offer a ‘moral ending’, whilst “in a knowing, ironic way, it revels in images of consumption, luxury and fashion, finding ever-new ways to highlight moments of voyeurism and exhibitionism. It is this visual self-awareness that makes Asphalt a real jewel of silent cinema.” [Anton Kaes].

As with the opening montage the film uses visual metaphors to comment on both characters and actions. In the opening scene in the Holk family home we se a cranny in a cage. This is a comment not just on the fate of the criminal characters in the film but to some degree on all the characters. Else’s apartment offers a storing contrast, proffering an aid of decadence. The uniforms of the police father and son are also important. At the point that Holk senior recognises his duty he dons the uniform coat followed by his metalled hat. Albert has cap, as befits a junior rank, but this falls from his head at a charged moment in Else’s apartment. And the shots that follow draw a striking contrast between her elegantly clad legs and his shiny leather boots. There also seems to be some phallic play with two objects: the cigars smoked by Holk senior and offered to Albert by him and by Else: and an umbrella that Albert plays with, especially when he visits Else’s apartment.

A similar sense of irony can be found in the printed dialogue. Early in the film we se the impressive shopping streets of Berlin and the activities of a small team of pickpockets. As a fellow criminal is arrested by Albert one remarks to the other about the difference between ‘an old pro and amateur’. As the film progresses that this distinction also applies between Holk senior and Holk junior. However, Mutter Holk is a more serious and emotional presentation. At one point we se her holding her prayer book before leaving for Sunday Service. Whilst the father is impelled by a sense eof duty, the mother is taken with her love for her son. These feminine virtues [as they are portrayed] become key when the films moves to resolve the criminal acts and the romance between Albert and Else.

The performances and the mise en scene provide a fairly visual presentation. The title cards are relatively sparse and the audience is expected to follow much of the action by the character interaction and their use of objects and props. There is an especially fine sequence when Albert makes a confession to his parents. There are only two Intertitles in a fairly lengthy sequence, one as the scene begins and one as the scene closes.

The mise en scene contributed to the story in other ways. There is a visual trope of tunnels and corridors. These are accentuated by light and shadow, and filmed in fairly deep focus. There are two particularly powerful sequences where first a distraught Albert, and later a sacrificial Else, make their way down and away from the viewers. The different facets of life in the great metropolis are illustrated with beautifully detailed scenes: at the Holk family home, along the crowded and fashionable streets of shops and stores, and in the luxury of the demimonde’s apartment.

The film is a lavish studio production. There are a few exterior locations and travelling shots, but most of the impressive sequences of city life were filmed at the giant Neubabelsberg studio. This was the largest and most advanced film production facility in Europe: Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis was filmed in the same studio.

The film was produced as the world of silent cinema was being replaced by the new technology of sound: Hollywood’s The Jazz Singer [1927) had its Berlin premiere only three months later.

The director, Joe May, started in film in 1912, and for a period ran his own production company, May Films. The producer was Erich Pommer, one of the key players in the success of Ufa in the 1920s. Both men ended moving to Hollywood with the advent of the Nazis. They directed and supervised some of the finest craft people in German film: then in the vanguard of European cinema. These included the Cinematographer Günter Rittau and the Production Designer Erich Kettelhut. They, along with some of the cast, had worked on earlier German masterpieces like Dr Mabuse der Spieler (Dr Mabuse the Gambler, 1922), Der Letze Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924), and Metropolis 1926).

There were particular genres favoured in the German cinema and two of these contributed to the overall feel of Asphalt. These were the ‘Street film’ Straßenfilm [‘street film’] and Kammerspielfilm [‘chamber film’]. The characters are mainly ‘little people’ and their experiences emphasise the clash of the public and the private. The film also fits into a cycle of late 1920s films that play with the tawdry world of sexual attraction and exploitation, which includes Varieté (1925) and Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930)

These films also displayed the technical prowess and development that were an important aspect of the industry. The opening sequence of the film presents a series of superimposition’s and relatively fast editing. And throughout the film there are the stylistic qualities that characterised the best German films. The Neubabelsberg studio enabled the construction of large and impressive sets, and the exteriors in Asphalt are both sizeable and realistic. And the interiors are beautifully designed and emphasise the contrasts between the different lives across the city. There is a constant play with light and shadow, chiaroscuro, a technical expertise that first caught attention in the earlier Expressionist films. And there are there are spectacular shot using the entfesselte camera [‘unchained’ camera’]; displaying the prowess in tracks, dolly movement and crane shots.

A contemporary review by Siegfried Kracauer praised ‘the finesse of his craft … the wide shots are used and sustained with enormous strength of style, and the roaming camera is extremely skilled in the way it reveals human co-existence and spaces.” [Quoted in film notes by R. Dixon Smith].


Ufa, 1929, black and white, silent with Intertitles. 2574 metres, running time 93 minutes at 24 fps.  Director: Joe May. Producer: Erich Pommer. Scenario: Fred Majo [Joe May], Hans Székely, Rolf E. Vanloo [also story]. Cinematography: Günter Rittau. Production Design: Erich Kettelhut, [Robert Herith, Walter Röhrig]. Costumes: Renè Hubert.

Cast: Gustav Frölich – Hold / policeman. Betty Amann – Else Kramer. Albert Steinrück – Police Sergeant Holk. Else Heller – Mother Holk. Hans Adalbert Schlettow – Else’s friend.

Filmed at Ufa Neubabelsberg Studio, late 1928. Premiere: Ufa-Palast am Zoo, Berlin March 1929.

The film has been screened at both Il Cinema Ritrovato and Il Giornate del Cinema Muto. More recently it was screened as part of the series of Silent Film with Live Accompaniment at the National Media Museum, Bradford. The accompanist was Darius Battiwalla.

This was a print with English language titles, including extra title cards like the one that explained the connotation of the German title. The print was also shorted that the German version: this seems to have been due, at least in part, to some form of censorship. A scene where Else ‘vamps’ Albert was shorter in the UK version.

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