aka Schatten — Eine nächtliche Halluzination
Directed by Arthur Robison
Written by Arthur Robison and Rudolph Schneider
Starring Alexander Granach, Fritz Kortner, Ruth Weyher, and Gustav von Wangenheim
A lot of amazing stuff was going on in cinema during the 1920s. Feature films became predominant, telling longer and more complex stories to audiences willing to invest time in them. Movie palaces, seating a thousand and more patrons, became a part of the American cityscape. The advent of synchronized sound in 1927 remained the biggest game-changer until movies could be shot in color. In this climate of popularity and growth, some filmmakers were inclined to be more adventurous in their efforts. Such a director was Arthur Robinson, who decided to make his film Warning Shadows even more silent than the medium required.
Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen
Starring Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen, and Maren Pedersen
In 1922 Sweden got the first glimpse of Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan, a film that only pretends to be educational as an excuse to show reenactments of witchcraft and torture. It’s an approach that would later allow movies to show scenes of debauchery and depravity despite censors. Movies tackled issues such as drug use, sexual diseases, and artificial insemination in order to educate audiences just enough to get away with titillating them as well. My favorite example (1934’s Maniac) includes grave robbing, necrophilia, murder, resurrection of the dead, and countless other unsavory acts while occasionally dropping in a sanctimonious text crawl about mental illness.
While Häxan isn’t quite on that level of deception, it does delight in showing recreations of jug-band unholy sabbaths, naked women in silhouette, and the moment before torture commences. Being a nominally enlightening movie, there is no real story. There are some longer vignettes, some of which are build into longer stories. The most frequently visited narrative starts with an elderly woman being blamed for a man’s illness. She is seized by the German Inquisition and tortured until she confesses to things that never occurred (but which are lovingly recreated for film). As a result more women are captured, including the wife of the man whose disease started the hunt. The inquisitors focus on her when one of their number feels attracted to her. She is then deceived into condemning herself in an effort to save her child. This is all told in fragments, as each visitation to the scenario serves to illustrate a particular aspect of supposed witches or their pursuers.The film is also broken up, structured into seven parts that are meant to build from the first section’s overview of paganism (a few distortions of Persian and Egyptian mythology) and Early Christian cosmology into a close-to-the-mark-without-getting-it equating of witch “symptoms” with hysteria in the conclusion. Christensen seems to sense that the psychological diagnosis was yet another misogynist construct; but he backs away from outright denunciation, noting that at least a nice hot shower in a sanitarium is preferable to being burned at the stake.
The overall tone is sympathetic to the accused witches, but this empathy is readily undermined whenever the opportunity arises to show what Christensen tells us never happened. This effort to have the eaten cake leaves me questioning his scholarly motivations. It is a frustrating film, because so much could have been done with it either as an actual story, as social commentary, or as documentary (a form deceitfully exampled by Nanook of the North, also released in 1922). Yet it is fascinating for being an early template for today’s parade of UFO and Bigfoot shows on supposedly educational channels. Did I enjoy the film, or did I loathe it? You decide!
Directed by Robert Wiene
Written by Carl Mayer
Starring Fern Andra, Hans Heinrich von Trawdoski, and Ernst Gronau
In 1920, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari stunned audiences with its dark fairy tale about a sleepwalking killer. That year also brought the release another Wiene film of eerie murder, which has fared less well. Genuine, as it is currently available, is only 43 minutes long. The fullest version resides in a museum, but has not been made generally accessible. This presents difficulty for reviewing purposes, as it’s not representative of actual finished product. Still, I can comment on what we can see of the film.
The title is the name of the film’s antagonist. Genuine hails from Deep Tribal Landia, where a title card tells us she was a “priestess of a religion full of strange rites”. Her tribe loses a war, and she is put on the slave market. Creepy old Lord Melo buys her, despite warnings about her wildness. Melo places Genuine in an elaborate underground cage where he can adore her in private. What follows is a tragedy made of the broken bad plans of several people. Of principal importance to events are Melo’s grandson Percy and Florian, the nephew of Melo’s barber.
There are some rather ugly and unfortunate elements to the story of Genuine. To start with, we have the all-too-common motif of white specialness in a black society. Genuine is a priestess, an elevated position within the otherwise dark-skinned tribe. This is typical of Western literature seeking to exploit a “savage” setting. The important person had to be white, because colonialism and racism and audience empathy. I must admit that this puts a twist on the standard approach, as the primal nature of Genuine is to be feared rather than celebrated. Tarzan, Liane, and uncounted others are superior to civilized people because of their guilelessness and honesty. Genuine’s wildness, however, makes her the antagonist.
While the danger that Genuine presents sets the stage for good dramatic tension, it creates another problem for the modern viewer. As the only woman seen outside of the slave market, Genuine is not merely an individual. She is the only example of female behavior in the world of the movie, and her example is one of destructive cunning. Not exactly progressive, but what else do you expect from 1920? She’s even tamed by Percy, through no particular effort on his part. Then, of course, the mob of angry villagers comes.
Genuine isn’t a bad movie, for its time. It’s nice to see more of Wiene’s output, especially from so close to his most enduring work. The sets are wonderful, and if you like silent film pantomime (which I do!) the acting is delightful. Sadly, it’s just not a compelling story. Also, she is not a vampire, no matter what the subtitle says.
Written and directed by J. Searle Dawley
Liberally adapted from the novel by Mary Shelley
Starring Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, and Mary Fuller
The earliest known film version of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus was a short produced by Edison’s movie studio in 1910. Relating the complex tale of creation, abandonment, and revenge in less than a dozen minutes cannot be done without some vigorous editing of the story. Even Universal’s iconic adaptation practically rewrote the entire thing, and it had an entire additional hour to work with! Where the 1931 film used a simplified narrative to decisively shift any and all sympathy to the Monster, this version has no such gambit. So much is stripped away that there’s no genuine conflict at all.
The plot of the film, barely summarized: Frankenstein goes away to college. Two years later, we’re told via card, he has discovered the secret of life! He writes a letter to Elizabeth to inform he that he’ll be returning to marry her just as soon as he makes a perfect man. He makes a rather imperfect creature, flees to his bedroom, and faints. The Monster lams it. Frankenstein returns home and furthers his plans to wed Elizabeth. After talking to her in a parlor, he is startled by the appearance of his Monster. The Monster is startled by its appearance as well, finally getting a look at itself in a large mirror. It hides when Elizabeth returns to the room and waits while Frankenstein ushers her out. Once they are alone, man and Monster wrestle — but only until the Monster sees itself again and flees. Frankenstein and Elizabeth finally wed, and while Elizabeth prepares for her opening night as a Frankenstein, her husband wanders off. Cue the inevitable reappearance of the Monster, who we are told is jealous of Elizabeth. Elizabeth runs to Frankenstein and faints at his feet. The Monster comes after her and gets into an argument with its creator. For no clear reason it runs away just as Elizabeth awakens. We’re told that the “creation of an evil mind is overcome by love and disappears”. The Monster returns to the parlor where it sees its reflection once more. It vanishes, leaving its image in the mirror. Frankenstein comes in, and the Monster’s reflection is subsumed by his own. All is happiness and hugs in the house of Frankenstein.
Narratively, it’s unsatisfying; the ending is practically gibberish, and Frankenstein goes from evil to the purity of love in about a minute of screen time with no impetus or explanation. We’re simply told his evil created the Monster, and then that his love destroyed it. The Monster costume itself is… let’s just say it’s unimpressive. Fright mask, goofily long fingers and toes, and ragged clothing. The whole endeavor is shockingly bad in comparison to many other films of the time, and I have to wonder if there were bigger plans that got scrapped at the last minute.
As the film stands there are only two reasons to watch it; three really, but two are pretty much the same. The first is historical interest. It was thought to be lost until a collector in the 1970s revealed that he’d purchased a copy from his mother-in-law 20 years earlier. So much has been lost of early film that a miracle like this shouldn’t be ignored. Closely aligned with this reason for viewing is simple curiosity. The Frankenstein Monster is a looming figure in Western culture and media. This is the earliest image of Shelley’s work being recorded for presentation to the masses. There was a play in the early 1800s, but this is where the tale lurches into a new age. No matter the film’s faults, that’s pretty damned cool!
Fortunately, there’s one more reason to spend the 10 minutes to watch this on YouTube. The creation sequence is ingenious if not also a touch unsettling. For whatever reason, Dawley decided that Frankenstein spent his two years in college learning alchemy. Chemicals are stirred in a cauldron, which is placed in a large kiln to cook. In a creepy bit of reversed footage, we see the Monster rise and form in fire. It’s a nifty effect, no less stunning for its simplicity.
It’s a shame that the next Frankenstein movie didn’t survive as well. It would be interesting to compare it with this one and see a little bit more of the path that led the definitive film version in 1931. Though Hammer later made Peter Cushing the superlative Frankenstein, it’s the Boris Karloff version that remains the definitive performance of the Monster.