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“We have forgotten the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions.”
– Carl Jung
October is coming up, but spooky season is starting early at The Frida! In celebration of its 100th anniversary, we’re screening F.W. Murnau’s immortal masterpiece Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror! Starring Max Schreck as Count Orlok (the “Nosferatu” of the title), the movie sees German estate agent Thomas Hutter travel to remote Transylvania, where he negotiates the sale of property in his hometown to Orlok. During his stay at the count’s castle, Hutter discovers that his host is in fact a vampire. Before he can do anything to stop him though, Orlok departs and sets sail for Hutter’s town, bringing a plague of rats and his thirst for blood with him. One of the most influential films ever made, our screening will be accompanied by a live performance of The Invincible Czars original score for the film, praised by some for making the movie “scary” for modern audiences.
Nosferatu, of course, belongs to a particular subset of cinema called German Expressionism. Arising in the years after Germany’s defeat in World War I and transition from monarchy to republican democracy, the subgenre itself was part of a wider trend in art and culture that addressed, both directly and indirectly, the German people’s perceived acquiescence to authoritarianism and questioned the ability of one to truly know and understand reality or even oneself. Themes like these manifested in extreme, decidedly unreal aesthetics as well as a preoccupation with people abusing authority or power. These strange, often troubling visions forever changed the cinematic landscape and captured the imagination of countless creatives, including Alfred Hitchcock, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and Tim Burton, whose movies from Batman to The Corpse Bride liberally borrow from the German Expressionist playbook and help keep its legacy alive.
On the eve of one such movie’s centennial, it’s worth looking back at the artistic milieu that it was a part of. So close your eyes, embrace your shadow, and dream a dark little dream as we examine five classics of German Expressionist cinema.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)
The film that launched the career of director Murnau, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is – to put it politely – an unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directly lifting its plot from the novel even as it changes the names of characters and locations. While Stoker was long dead by the time production started on the movie, his widow Florence didn’t appreciate Murnau and company plagiarizing her husband’s work, prompting her to take legal action against them. The courts, unsurprisingly, ruled in her favor and ordered all copies of the film be destroyed, with it being widely believed that it was lost forever. Fortunately however, a number of prints in various conditions survived, occasionally screening over the years and keeping the memory of this early take on vampire lore alive. These prints also made restoration of the film possible, with modern audiences now able to witness Murnau’s original vision a hundred years after its initial release.
While some may find the acting in silent films underwhelming compared to the more fleshed-out experience of sound films, there remains much to admire about Max Schreck’s performance as Count Orlok even today. Far from being handicapped by the lack of sound, the tall, gaunt Schreck is able to command the audience’s attention with little more than his body language and facial expressions, a method that foreshadows Bela Lugosi’s performance in Universal’s Dracula. Indeed, the glare Lugosi’s Dracula gives victims as he hypnotizes them appears to have been inspired by the similar stare Schreck uses as Orlok, the key difference being the wild, ravenous look in Orlok’s eyes versus the willful, almost-seductive one in Lugosi’s. The power of this stare, combined with Schreck’s carefully controlled movements, is most visible when Orlok stares at Ellen from his window: holding the window bars, he slowly unclenches them before raising his hands and stalking away. All the while he maintains his single-minded gaze, making no effort to hide his unnatural appetite nor his illicit intentions.
As with many silent movies, there are a number of possible scores to accompany Nosferatu but the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Hans Erdmann’s original score heard on Kino Lorber’s Deluxe Edition Blu-ray is probably the one that best lives up to its subtitle, A Symphony of Horror. Leaning on string sections throughout, Erdmann’s score also incorporates brass flourishes, piano passages, and percussion like gongs and bass drums that give it a multi-textured, emotionally-rounded quality instead of the one-note, stereotypically “scary” sound that a lesser composer might have come up with. Both this emotional roundness and textural variety can be heard in the piece that accompanies Hutter’s daytime exploration of Orlok’s castle. Though the soothing strings that drive the piece are light and gentle, the low-toned cello that underpins the tune provides a dark, ominous counterpoint to the superficial serenity of the melody, hinting at the dormant menace that lurks in the castle and the danger it poses to Hunter.
“…there remains much to admire about Max Schreck’s performance as Count Orlok even today. Far from being handicapped by the lack of sound, the tall, gaunt Schreck is able to command the audience’s attention with little more than his body language and facial expressions, a method that foreshadows Bela Lugosi’s performance in Universal’s Dracula.”
While interior scenes were shot on studio sets in Berlin, Murnau uses footage shot in towns like Wismar and Lubeck as well as neighboring Czechoslovakia for exterior shots of Hutter’s hometown and Transylvania respectively. This footage includes slope-roofed houses, imposing forests, and a stone castle, giving the film’s exterior shots an surprising veneer of authenticity that shooting on set would probably not provide (Werner Herzog appears to have tried to recreate this sense of realism by similarly shooting his 1979 remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre, on location.) Murnau’s keen visual sensibility also manifests in some of the more memorable compositions of Orlok and his unnatural movements, such as his slow but steady entrance into Hutter’s room or him shooting straight up from his coffin on the ship. The most enduring, however, has to be the shot of him – only seen in silhouette – climbing up the stairs towards Ellen’s room. Hunched over and claw raised like some predatory animal on the prowl, we don’t need to see the count’s face to know he’s out for blood.
With its arresting imagery and eerie atmosphere retaining their power a century later, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror remains an important benchmark for both horror and cinema as a whole.
The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)
Released two years before Nosferatu, The Golem: How He Came Into The World is actually the third in a trilogy of films revolving around the mythical creature by Paul Wegener. While the first two have sadly been lost to the ravages of time, the third has survived intact and, as such, remains the best remembered of the series. Based on the legend of the Golem of Prague, the movie relays the creation by one Rabbi Loew of a humanoid being, molded out of clay, to protect the city’s Jews from the anti-Semitic Emperor only for the creature to go out of control and on the rampage. Released in the early years of the democratic Weimar Republic, the film gained even greater salience with the subsequent rise of Nazism, with its frank tackling of anti-Semitism ringing perhaps even truer in the wake of the Holocaust than it did when it first came out.
As the titular monster, Wegener turns in an impressively nuanced performance for a role that doesn’t speak even within the context of a silent film. There’s no indication that the Golem is intelligent by human standards but it has no trouble showing emotion, with Wegener’s expressive, wide-eyed mugging suggesting some inner discontent or displeasure with the world around it (even as it calls to mind some of the funnier faces made by The Three Stooges). Keeping in mind the artificial constitution of his character, Wegener employs slow, heavy movements that having a body made of clay would necessitate, walking by moving his comparatively-lean legs first and letting his somewhat sturdier torso follow as well as waiting for one leg to make a complete step before lifting the other. Among the supporting actors, the stand-out performance is Albert Steinruck as the Golem’s creator, Rabbi Loew. With his long, unkempt hair, harsh countenance, and familiarity with forbidden knowledge, he comes across as an (almost certainly unintended) precursor to mad scientist characters in future German Expressionist films without being mad, a scientist, or even evil.
Though German Jewish composer Hans Landsberger penned an original score for the film, the Kino Lorber Classics Blu-ray includes three different scores. The one this piece discusses was composed and performed by Stephen Horne in 2019, and is notable for the prominent role that the piano plays throughout. Carrying the rest of the music, Horne’s piano vacillates from high notes to low chords and smooth transitions to sudden shifts, giving it an unpredictability that parallels the precarious position of the Jews of Prague and the quickness with which their situation changes from safe to unsafe. The supporting instruments add flavor to the story as well, with martial-sounding drums underscoring scenes involving the Emperor or his decrees and an unusually amorous flute heard during the knight Florian’s romantic overtures towards the rabbi’s daughter. Taken together, it’s not so much a symphony of horror as emotive accompaniment for a fable about persecution and man’s hubris.
“As the titular monster, Wegener turns in an impressively nuanced performance for a role that doesn’t speak even within the context of a silent film. There’s no indication that the Golem is intelligent by human standards but it has no trouble showing emotion, with Wegener’s expressive, wide-eyed mugging suggesting some inner discontent or displeasure with the world around it…”
In contrast to Nosferatu, the movie embraces the unreality of its premise through its set design, portraying the medieval ghetto not as an accurate recreation of the historical neighborhood but as an imaginative interpretation befitting the fantasy of the film. Characterized by buildings with asymmetrical dimensions and doors and windows that arch inward, the ghetto also appears to be made almost entirely out of stone or some other similarly-sturdy material. This implicitly ties the neighborhood as a whole to the Golem, as both are constructed by men from the heavy elements of the earth. Also of significance is the apparent influence that some of the film’s visuals had on later movies. The platform shoes that the Golem wears, for instance, likely inspired the similar ones worn by Boris Karloff in Universal’s Frankenstein, while the pale, bug-eyed face that Loew and his apprentice see when summoning the demon Astaroth bears more than a passing resemblance to Nosferatu’s Orlok.
Drawing from Jewish folklore to condemn the age-old scourge of anti-Semitism, The Golem: How He Came Into The World is an affecting parable with pathos and evocative aesthetics.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The same year that The Golem came out however, another film that had an even bigger impact on German Expressionist cinema was released: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Framed as the flashback memories of the narrator Francis, the plot revolves around a series of murders ordered by the eponymous villain and carried out by a somnambulist (that is, a sleepwalker) under his control. Focusing as it does on themes like madness and hypnosis, the film is an early example of a psychological thriller. Its unique aesthetics and atmosphere, with their shadowy visuals and morally gray tone, also served as an inspiration for the similarly dark worlds of both film noir and the horror genre. Roger Ebert even went as far to declare it “the first true horror film”, which – given the influence it exercised on everything from Nosferatu to Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein – is probably not just hyperbole on Ebert’s part.
Although Werner Krauss embodies the archetypal mad scientist in many ways as Dr. Caligari, he comes across as strangely sane most of the time he’s onscreen. He is prone to crafty and conniving facial expressions, but rarely exhibits any of the manic behavior associated with silent film villains. When police investigate his home for evidence of his involvement with the murders, for instance, he waits until they have departed to flash a guilty, triumphant smile: he’s a bad man, not a madman, for the latter wouldn’t have the presence of mind to wait until no one is around to make such a blatantly evil expression. Conrad Veidt, on the other hand, is singularly entrancing as the doctor’s mesmerized minion Cesare. Roused from his endless slumber to carry out Caligari’s dirty work, Cesare’s lean frame, uncanny body language, and hypnotic gaze (to say nothing of his resting in and rising from a box) all anticipate Max Schreck’s performance in Nosferatu two years later.
As with the previous two films, the music score may vary depending on where you watch the film but the one discussed here was recorded by the University of Music, Freiburg for Kino Lorber. While this soundtrack does make full use of the classic orchestral repertoire like strings and woodwinds, there is a surprising sense of sparseness to the music, with one instrument or section often fading out or simply cutting off as another starts up rather than combining into a unified whole as in more traditional compositions. The resulting tone can only be described as sharply discordant, as heard in the lone, dissonant piano chords that ring out during the opening titles or the inclusion of an electric organ – an instrument not commonly played in orchestras – in the score. Given the jarring nature of the film, however, this musical discordance turns out to be the perfect companion for it.
“Although Werner Krauss embodies the archetypal mad scientist in many ways as Dr. Caligari, he comes across as strangely sane most of the time he’s onscreen. He is prone to crafty and conniving facial expressions, but rarely exhibits any of the manic behavior associated with silent film villains. When police investigate his home for evidence of his involvement with the murders, for instance, he waits until they have departed to flash a guilty, triumphant smile: he’s a bad man, not a madman, for the latter wouldn’t have the presence of mind to wait until no one is around to make such a blatantly evil expression.”
In complete contrast to Nosferatu, the movie is shot entirely on set, allowing Weine to heighten the unreality of the film and its story. This unreality is most visibly exemplified in the avant-garde set design that pervades much of the film. Buildings, bridges, and even trees appear angular and weirdly-proportioned, with some buildings looking not much taller than the people who are supposed to dwell in them, while shadows and light streaks are painted right onto sets. The impression one gets is that of an unnerving nightmare, which, of course, makes sense in hindsight after the twist reveal that Francis, our narrator, was insane all along. Cesare’s appearance is another key visual element, with his black bodysuit, pale face paint, and thick eye make-up influencing the look of many a Tim Burton character, the most obvious being Johnny Depp as the considerably more benign Edward Scissorhands.
Employing its surreal style in the service of its psychological story, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a cutting-edge entry in the German Expressionist canon whose skewed sets and unforgettable villains paved the way for future films of various genres.
There are a lot of words that come to mind when thinks of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but the one that’s probably most salient in this context is “ambitious”. Compared to the other films on this list, Metropolis is a science fiction epic heavy on spectacle and drama, engaging audiences with its eye-grabbing visuals and tackling social issues in equal measure. Set in some indeterminate future, the rich live in the luxurious, sky-high buildings of Metropolis while the poor toil underground to keep the technologically-advanced city and its amenities running: as such, potential for revolution threatens to flare up at any moment. Though it’s hard to think of the movie as anything less than a cinematic milestone, critical reception to it was actually mixed at the time of its release. None other than H.G. Wells, the author of The Time Machine and a progressive-minded individual himself, accused it of “foolishness, cliche, platitude, and muddlement”. Harsh words from a pioneer of science fiction, but ones that ring hollow considering the film’s continued resonance and impact.
Doing double duty as Maria and her robotic doppelgänger, The Machine Man, Brigette Helm shines in both roles. As the socially-conscious Maria, she is angelic and attentive to those around her, but as the malevolent Machine Man, she is seductive and skilled at rousing the rabble. In both performances however, she manages to convey her characters’ essences through her eyes. While she uses a kindly, doe-eyed stare as Maria that suggests innocence, she betrays the inhumanity of The Machine Man by winking in a slow, methodical manner, indicating not just the robot’s evil nature but its struggle to master an action that comes effortlessly to humans as well. The second-most interesting actor has to be Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang, the scientist who creates The Machine Man. Portrayed as mad with grief over the death of his lover, Rotwang’s flamboyant gesticulations and crazed expressions make him an entertaining villain to watch even as we pity him.
Befitting the grand scope of the production, composer Gottfried Huppertz penned a score for a full orchestra. The version performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin on Kino’s The Complete Metropolis Blu-ray captures the majesty of Huppertz’s score, with the brassy fanfare that opens the film adding a certain bombast not heard in any of the previously-discussed films and the unity of the various instruments as they play together giving it that lush symphonic sound. The presence of a proper orchestra also allows the music to more closely underscore the mood and action. Running the emotional range from epic to sentimental, the score goes in clever directions like adopting a frenzied pace to evoke the whirr of machinery and using a pipe organ to mimic the blowing of factory whistles. Huppertz also quotes other pieces of music such as “Dies Irae”, the traditional Christian hymn that might be familiar to viewers as the tune (recreated on synthesizer by Wendy Carlos) that opens Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
“As the socially-conscious Maria, [Brigette Helm] is angelic and attentive to those around her, but as the malevolent Machine Man, she is seductive and skilled at rousing the rabble. In both performances however, she manages to convey her characters’ essences through her eyes. While she uses a kindly, doe-eyed stare as Maria that suggests innocence, she betrays the inhumanity of The Machine Man by winking in a slow, methodical manner, indicating not just the robot’s evil nature but its struggle to master an action that comes effortlessly to humans as well.'”
Yet what most people seem to remember about the film is the iconic sets and miniatures used to depict Metropolis. Inspired by the tall skyscrapers Lang saw when visiting New York City, the towering, geometrically-appealing buildings that populate the city play a key role in bringing Lang’s vision of the future to life while, simultaneously, tying the movie to the then-contemporary Art Deco movement. The influence that aesthetics like these had on other movies can hardly be overstated, with the busy cityscape and passing aircraft that populate it directly inspiring the look of Ridley Scott’s own sci-fi classic, Blade Runner. Another, less-noted visual element with wide-reaching influence is the glove worn by Rotwang. Covering his prosthetic hand, the simple image of a single black glove on one hand would pop up in another Kubrick movie, Dr. Strangelove, where it would be worn by yet another mad German scientist.
Bringing a sense of scope and sci-fi intrigue to the German Expressionist subgenre, Metropolis is a lofty achievement across artistic, narrative, and technical levels alike.
Though it is often included as part of the German Expressionist tradition, Fritz Lang’s M differs from the aforementioned movies in significant ways. For one thing, it’s a talkie, so it has not just sound but dialogue as well, with no need for title cards to relay what characters are saying. It also eschews the more speculative and fantastical trappings of the previous productions for a story and structure that we know today as the police procedural. Inspired by the real-life rash of serial murders in Germany at the time, the film follows the manhunt for Hans Beckert, a compulsive killer of children. With the public outraged over the murders and the police cracking down on criminal activity, the local criminal element – wanting a return to business as usual – decides to launch their own hunt for the killer. Dealing with a flesh-and-blood murderer instead of a supernatural monster, the movie is no less disturbing (or likely even more so) than any of the horrors on this list.
The breakout film of classic Hollywood fixture Peter Lorre, the Hungarian actor built a steady career of creepy villain roles on the strength of his performance here as Beckert. With his small frame and bulging eyes, Lorre isn’t exactly what one would call “intimidating” (indeed, he cuts a measly figure compared to some of the gangsters participating in the search for him) but he still manages to radiate a nervous, erratic energy as Beckert that drives home the disturbed nature of the character. He moves with a suddenness that suggests volatility and frequently peeks over his shoulder like he expects someone to be watching him, both of which speak to the paranoia and guilt he feels over his crimes. This volatility finally bubbles to the surface in the kangaroo court set up by the crooks, with Lorre’s raspy voice conveying hysteria as he demands legal representation and begs for his life (only to be met with incredulous laughter by the assembled mob).
Curiously, there is little music heard in the film, a stark break from the engrossing score for Metropolis. The little that is heard is source music, such as the tune briefly played by an organ grinder for a group of kids. The rest of the movie unfolds unaccompanied by musical score, with extended scenes of police launching raids or crooks pursuing Beckert occurring in total silence. This serves to heighten the tension, as we have no audio cues to give us hints as to the mood of a particular scene or cushion any sudden sounds or movements that occur. There is, however, one piece of music that does play an important role: “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg. Composed as incidental music for Grieg’s play Peer Gynt, the song is whistled throughout the film by Beckert. While the effect may be dampened by decades of often parodic use in other movies and cartoons, there’s still an offness to Beckert’s whistling that makes his rendition at least a little unsettling.
“With his small frame and bulging eyes, Lorre isn’t exactly what one would call ‘intimidating’ (indeed, he cuts a measly figure compared to some of the gangsters participating in the search for him) but he still manages to radiate a nervous, erratic energy as Beckert that drives home the disturbed nature of the character. He moves with a suddenness that suggests volatility and frequently peeks over his shoulder like he expects someone to be watching him, both of which speak to the paranoia and guilt he feels over his crimes.”
Another stylistic difference from the extravagance of Metropolis is the more understated approach that he uses here. Shot entirely on set in an old zeppelin hangar outside Berlin, the sets here are less stylized and more grounded than those in Metropolis, looking more like a drab 1930s city than the opulent dystopia of that film. Additionally, though the film frankly discusses and deals with Beckert’s murder of children, it never actually shows any of them, with Lang himself suggesting that leaving them to viewers’ “personal imagination” was far more effective than depicting them onscreen. We see this early on with the first murder: as a little girl bounces a ball against a street column, the camera glides up to a poster warning that a child murderer is on the loose. Before long, a shadow appears over the poster, the silhouette of Beckert. “What a pretty ball,” he says offscreen: not long after, we cut to the ball rolling on the ground by itself, telling us all we need to know of the poor little girl’s fate.
Anchored by Lorre’s layered performance and the suspense of the search for him, M is a discomforting, low-key thriller that’s nevertheless nearly impossible to take your eyes away from.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror screens at The Frida Cinema this Saturday, September 24th.