German Expressionism Collection

[6 March 2008]

By Michael Barrett

Kino’s German Expressionism Collection combines two films new to DVD with reissues of two previously available titles. The reissues are Kino’s 2002 edition of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and the 2006 release of Arthur Robison’s Warning Shadows (1923). The newbies are G.W. Pabst’s Secrets of a Soul (1926) and something of a cinematic Holy Grail, The Hands of Orlac (1924). All four films are also available separately at around 30 bucks a pop, but the box is a bargain at around $70.

The Hands of Orlac, a legendary production, has long been noted for a single image: the knotty, craggy, neurotic profile of Conrad Veidt staring up at his clawlike hands. It has inspired several official and unofficial remakes, from Karl Freund’s MGM production of Mad Love (1934), with Peter Lorre, to fun action bunkum like Body Parts (1991) with Jeff Fahey. It’s something of an Ur-legend for all projects about people alienated from their own bodies and who no longer recognize and trust their own behavior, from the works of David Cronenberg to all those movies about transplanted eyes that see ghosts.

Yes, it’s that oft-retold story of a musician who loses his hands and gets a new set transplanted from a murderer. Does the man control the hands, or will the hands lead him on a rampage to express his own guilty desires? And will the hands really be in control, or is it simply a trick the victim plays on himself to displace his blame? This is one of those stories with a Perfectly Logical Explanation so absurd and bizarre, it only adds to the incomprehensible, dreamlike nature of the story.
This low-budget Austrian production reunited Veidt with Robert Wiene, his famed director on The Cabinet of Caligari. Because there were so many auteurs on that film and because his other films have been hard to see, Wiene hasn’t enjoyed an especially high reputation as a director. Perhaps he won’t quite be rescued yet; comparing this version’s most grotesque revelation with the same scene in Mad Love, we see that Freund handles it with much more pizzazz. Otherwise, Wiene confines himself to dropping Veidt into the corners of vast, empty, vaguely oppressive sets and stays out of his way as he slinks about and twists himself into hieroglyphs. It’s a wise decision.

Veidt was one of the most gifted actors in cinema. He could be as “realistic” as Hollywood wished, as witness his most famous role as Major Strasser in Casablanca, but he was born to play strange, haunted, cadaverous characters, and he was adept at playing them expressionistically.

We think of Expressionism, as practiced in the theatre and film of Germany and other European countries during the 1910s and ‘20s, as a way of distorting the plastic elements (such as sets and lighting) so as to express the emotions of the characters—and these are usually “negative” emotions: fear, hatred, anger, hysteria. It’s Culture’s extension of Nature’s pathetic fallacy, where instead of trees and clouds reflecting our moods, it’s the furniture and stairways. Thus Expressionism, first a movement in painting, has essentially Romantic roots, which is why Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen (1955) could discuss the link between German Expressionist films and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, for example.

These plastic elements included the actors, who could act in a non-naturalistic way to signify their disturbances. Veidt was a master of this. To watch him is to watch someone radically committed to using his whole body expressively. He even seems to cause the veins in his forehead to throb. Of course, all this posturing, so easily parodied, and the slow pace imposed on far-fetched events could easily leave today’s jaded viewer in the cold, and I’m afraid the “modern” new score on this film and Secrets of a Soul don’t help, but surely anyone plunking down cash for a box of German Expressionism is already among the converted.

This edition combines a 1995 German restoration (a 35mm print) with a few minutes from an American 16mm copy. DVD producer Bret Wood narrates an eye-opening comparison of three crucial scenes from each version. They derive from different camera negatives, for it was common to shoot with two cameras side by side in order to create two negatives, one for domestic distribution and one for foreign. Usually we see the same take from slightly different angles, but even this can create striking differences, such as Veidt’s somnabulistic walk toward the camera’s right or left.

Secrets of a Soul

Secrets of a Soul

At other times, it’s clear that different takes were used, and sometimes they were edited with significant differences in footage. It’s enough to make one wish that perhaps Kino could have included the entire 16mm version as a bonus, now matter how ragged. In any event, the word “restoration” is a bit kind even to the 35mm footage, since it’s on the dark side and has visual distractions. In other words, this isn’t on the level of the staggering restoration done on Metropolis or, see below, on Nosferatu.

Secrets of a Soul is a curious bird. The fascinating film notes explain that producer Hans Neumann wanted to make a big movie about this new fad that was penetrating the middle-class consciousness, Freudian psychoanalysis. Freud wasn’t interested in co-operating with him on a scenario or giving his official seal of approval to the project, but Neumann recruited two members of Freud’s circle as advisors, Karl Abraham and Hanns Sachs. This led to much backing and forthing among Freud’s crew, with rather more forthing than backing, and the mini-drama plays out among their letters and news reports and in journals.

As for the movie, it’s a smooth and even glib illustration of a case study that begins with several odd, almost disconnected scenes and unexplained moments, all of which add up to a sense of the hero’s breakdown. He becomes unable to handle knives and he fantasizes killing his wife. The major setpiece is a dream sequence that, like most dream sequences, looks much more like a dream sequence than a dream. It’s a kind of unmusical number that loads in most of the film’s claims to expressionism, though it’s more properly surrealistic. When a good doctor explains the dream and his subsequent behavior in terms of this and that (the audience being way ahead of them both), the crisis is resolved and the mainstream viewer now understands the gravity and utility of Freud.

Perhaps this isn’t quite enthralling, but it’s a pleasant, imaginative slice of silent film history and there’s real pleasure in finally getting a look at this minor Pabst, not to mention the brooding Orlac. I suppose these are for specialized audiences (isn’t everything?), but I hope Kino sells enough to justify future boxes devoted to the collected works of Veidt and other gems of esoteric Weimar flotsam. As mentioned, these are packaged with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Warning Shadows, which adds up to quite a deal for the Expressionistically Deficient. The former is famous for its design and the latter for its impressive effects; both deal with dreams. Robison’s film, told without title cards, works a narrative sleight-of-hand in its tale of a mysterious puppeteer who invites himself into the house of a love triangle and puts on a show for the guests.

But let’s say you want to dip a toe into this Expressionist thing before plunging in up to the neck. Well, Kino also has two recent releases that are probably better places for the novice to start.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) has been creeping around in public-domain hell forever and many editions are available, including Kino’s 2002 version. You may pitch them (though completists probably won’t). This new double-disc, billing itself as “the ultimate two-disc edition”, makes the film look better than it has since crepuscular light first flickered through the projector. You have the option of watching with German or English title cards (whereas The Hands of Orlac and Secrets of a Soul have been prepared with English cards only). You have the original orchestral score, or something close to it, which is preferable to most of Kino’s attempts at scaled-down (cheaper) contemporary scores. You have some bonus clips that were on the previous edition and a new making-of documentary. (Fanatics, take note: this restoration is also available in the UK on the Eureka label—with a commentary track!)

Another German director who used Expressionist techniques was Paul Leni, whose Waxworks (1924) is also available from Kino, but that’s not the other movie we’re talking about. He was imported to Hollywood, where he teamed with Veidt for the remarkable, eerie, kinky The Man Who Laughs (1928), also from Kino—but that’s not it, either. The first thing Leni did in Hollywood was toss off a light-hearted little parody of the old-dark-house genre that was glutting Broadway and Hollywood at this time, The Cat and the Canary (1927), and that’s it!

This is one of the most delightful Hollywood silents currently available, and a sure way to convert anyone who feels antsy about being exposed to this lost art form. It’s got all the elements of its genre—a gloomy mansion full of expendable relatives during the reading of a will, sliding panels with clutching hands, a dark and stormy night. It’s also got Laura La Plante, one of the warmest and most engaging heroines of the era—get this woman on a stamp!

As for Leni’s dynamic style, almost every shot makes some vivid choice—moving camera, jarring close-up, dutch angle, etc. Perhaps we can’t call it a model of pure Expressionism, but Leni succeeds brilliantly in making this stage play seem cinematic. (A clever fellow using my name once made this same observation on IMDB.) This restoration comes from Britain’s Photoplay Productions; they blow real cash, bless their state-sponsored little hearts, and the print looks like it was shot yesterday. It’s also got a new orchestral score.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/german-expressionism-collection/