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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

caligari-poster

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.

cabinet-of-dr-caligari

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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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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