Tag Archives: Black and White

366. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

“Isn’t it true—it’s the Director who’s insane!”–The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Friedrich Feher, , Lil Dagover

PLOT: A young man, Francis, sits on a bench in the garden of an insane asylum; when a woman walks by in a trance, he explains to a bystander that she is his fiancée, and launches into the strange story of how she ended up here. He tells the tale of how a mesmerist, Dr. Caligari, came to his town with a sideshow, exhibiting a “somnambulist” who predicted the deaths of citizens who were later found murdered. After his best friend and romantic rival turns up among the victims, Francis launches his own investigation into Caligari, tracking him to the insane asylum where he discovers that the doctor, under a different name, is actually the director of the facility…

Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

BACKGROUND:

  •  The script was co-written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, two pacifists. Mayer had feigned madness to escape military service during World War I. Despite signing a contract allowing the producer to make whatever changes he deemed necessary, they strenuously objected to the addition (or the alteration; accounts differ) of the framing story.
  • discovered the script and was originally supposed to direct, until scheduling conflicts prevented his participation.
  • The early days of cinema were highly nationalistic. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was initially banned in France; not because of its content, but because it was German, and French distributors did not think they should have to face competition from a country they had just defeated in a war. But Caligari made such a sensation when film critic Louis Delluc arranged for it to be screened for charity that the French removed their ban on German pictures. The French even took to calling Expressionism “Caligarisme.” Caligari‘s release was also protested in the U.S. solely on the basis that it was a German production.
  • In screenings in the United States, Caligari was sometimes presented with a live theatrical epilogue explaining that the characters had fully recovered from their madness.
  • Among its many honors: ranked 235 in Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll of the greatest movies of all time; listed in Steven Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s no really a single frame of Caligari that stands out; it’s the cumulative effect of its Cubist settings, the spiky windows and dark alleys winding at weird angles, that gets under your skin.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Slanted city; greasepaint somnambulist; you must become Caligari

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s arguably: the first classic horror movie. The first classic Expressionist movie. Cinema’s first twist ending. The first movie shot from a perspective of radical subjectivity. The godfather of Surrealist film. And it still creeps you out today. It’s the first weird movie. Caligari‘s blood still flows through everything we love.


Blu-ray trailer for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

COMMENTS: The entire plot of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari could be thoroughly summarized in one medium-sized paragraph. There is little Continue reading 366. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE WILD BOYS (2017)

Les garçons sauvages

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Mandico

FEATURING: Anaël Snoek, , , Elina Löwensohn,

PLOT: After raping and accidentally murdering their literature teacher, a pentad of miscreant boys is sent to sea for discipline, under the supervision of a flinty captain.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Wilds Boys is, in many ways, easy to dismiss as pretentious French arthouse fare. That said, it’s an occasionally unnerving bit of cinema that hovers strangely between too little coherency and too much exposition while maintaining a fearlessness that would be hard to find State-side. Of course, there are only three official slots currently left on the List

COMMENTS: To get a feel for the nature of this beast, it may be worth noting that this movie disappeared from Amazon Prime’s video library after I had added it to my watch list. iTunes proved itself the braver host, however, and I watched Mandico’s feature debut on my desktop instead of my widescreen television. That might have been for the best, as it created an intimacy that would have been lacking otherwise. And if nothing else, The Wild Boys is a very intimate movie—teeming with claustrophobia, dreamy violence, grit, and trans-female/trans-feminist sermonizing.

Five upper class boys get drunk, rape, and inadvertently murder their literature teacher, perhaps at the behest of “Trevor”, a sequin-bejeweled god-demon they all fear. During a dreamy trial, replete with a space-Expressionist prosecutor, cosmic background, and two near-nude man pillars, each lad provides unconvincing, doctored testimony. They are convicted, but kept at their respective estates until a suitable punishment can be determined. Enter the captain: gruff, bearded, and severe. With a young woman and a younger man on a rope in his entourage, he explains to the boys’ assembled parents that he has a fail-safe method for fixing their sons’ defiant, cruel, and rape-y behavior. He cannot, however, guarantee that all the boys will survive. Despite this, the parents approve of the plan, and the boys are sent off to sea. As warned, the boys do not survive their ordeal—as boys.

The film’s disorienting nature is on display right at the beginning: a wild boy, a self-inflicted head wound, Aleksey German-style camera, and lustful sailors. The dark fairy tale feel is augmented by the largely black and white photography and the choice of rounding the edges of our field of vision throughout. There is visual chaos, most troublingly during the rape scene. This violation looks like it could have come from straight from a nightmare—and immediately explains why The Wild Boys is unrated. Hereabouts, it would have gotten at least an “X” rating. (I was prompted to wonder, “Can showing teenage boys with erections be child pornography even if the boys are played by of-age[?] women with realistic prosthetics?”)

The director’s choice to veer into the direction he does—that, were the world populated exclusively by women, there’d be much less violence—is a little hackneyed. But at the same time he seems to undermine this thesis through the inclusion of murder of innocent sailors at the hands of “converts.” Mandico’s film is still worth a view for those curious about any of the “tags” below, as it is unlike any other dissection of those issues I’ve seen. As for its straight-up weird cred, here are some things to which I bore witness: captain’s map-tattooed member; open-faced uterus gun holster; cactus ambrosia-jizz plant. Yep.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“French director Bertrand Mandico turns the arthouse weirdness dial up to 11 with his erotically uninhibited and deeply bizarre feature debut set at the turn of the last century.”–Cath Clarke, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

REPRINT: HARRY LANGDON’S “THREE’S A CROWD” (1927): SILENT CINEMA’S MALIGNED DARK HORSE

Alfred Eaker has the week off. This column originally ran May 14, 2009.

Approaching ‘s Three’s a Crowd is a loaded task. This film, possibly more than other from silent cinema, comes with an almost legendary amount of vehemently negative appendage. One time collaborator played the self-serving spin doctor in film history’s assessment of Langdon and this film. He characterized Langdon’s directorial debut as unchecked egotism run amok, resulting in a career destroying, poorly managed misfire and disaster.

That assessment is a grotesque and clueless mockery of film criticism.

The startlingly inept critical consensus, in it’s failure to recognize this dark horse, existentialist, Tao masterpiece, reveals far more about reviewers than it does this film. The complete failure of that consensus to rise to Langdon’s artistic challenges, to appreciate his risk taking towards a highly individualistic texture of this most compelling purist art of silent cinema, only serves to validate the inherent and prevailing laziness in the art of film criticism.

Capra’s statements are frequently suspect. As superb a craftsman as Frank Capra was, he also made amazingly asinine, disparaging remarks regarding European film’s penchant for treating the medium as an art form as opposed to populist entertainment. So, likewise, Capra’s inability to fully grasp Langdon’s desired aesthetic goals and intentions is both understandable and predictable. and James Agee are considerably far more trustworthy and reliable in regards to the artistry of Harry Langdon.

Capra credited himself for developing Langdon’s character through several shorts, along with the features The Strong Man and Long Pants. Actually, Langdon had thrived as a vaudeville act for twenty years and had appeared in over a dozen shorts before he and Capra began their brief, ill-fated collaboration.

Aesthetically, Langdon was Capra’s antithesis, and the surprise is not that the two artists would have a falling out, or that Langdon’s stardom would be over almost as soon as it began, but that he ever achieved stardom in the first place. Langdon began edging his character into darker territory in the Capra-directed Long Pants, and it was this that lead to their inevitable break.

Three’s a Crowd is quintessential Langdon unplugged, and it’s existence is almost a miracle.

Cubist, minimalist, enigmatic, avant-garde,personal, painterly, static, dream-like, lethargically paced, performance art: all these terms apply to Three’s a Crowd.

Still from Three's a Crowd (1927)The set pieces immediately convey the film’s genteel, surreal aura.  A milkman, making his early delivery at dawn, is the only sign of life in an otherwise empty city street. Inside Harry’s apartment, an alarm clock vibrates. The camera seems eerily frozen on the clock, almost Continue reading REPRINT: HARRY LANGDON’S “THREE’S A CROWD” (1927): SILENT CINEMA’S MALIGNED DARK HORSE

DRACULA IN PAKISTAN (1967)

Dracula in Pakistan (AKA The Living Corpse, 1967, directed by Khwaja Sarfraz ) is about… Dracula, in Pakistan. Well, primarily. It’s a slightly weird retelling; not quite weird enough, and not quite good enough, but it’s a worthwhile curio.

It begins with Doc Tabini (Rehan; the actors are all credited under one name only) as a kind of Dr. Jekyll, deep in experimentation, trying to unlock the secret of death. Unfortunately, the poor fellow dies during his own experiment, wakes up as a vampire, and bites his buxom babe assistant. She becomes the bride of… Dracula (although he’s only called Dracula in the title).

Then, Dracula in Pakistan veers into a practical remake of ‘s Dracula mixed with Horror of Dracula (Sarfraz virtually lifts ‘s red-blooded entrances). It occasional veers from the source materials: Dracula gets into a fist fight; and, rather than turning into a bat, he takes off in a sport car. Oh, and there’s several (too many) bizarrely placed extended dance sequences and a crappy Pakistani jazz score, along with a beach scene of Pakistani teens (?), before it ventures back into the narrative and the finale—an effectively filmed ripoff of Fisher’s Horror.

Still from Dracula in Pakistan (1967)The Van Helsing character is bland, but Rehan is a spirited bloodsucker—which is odd, because according to the cast interviews on the DVD extras, he had never seen a horror film before shooting. Indeed, it’s the extras from the Mondo Macabro  release that really elevate the film. They almost convinced me Pakistan was better than the film I just saw. According to Pete Tombs and Omar Khan, the film was originally rated X in Pakistan, due to the cleavage and neck-biting, which was tame even then. There’s also a documentary on South Asia horror films, and the restoration, although hardly perfect, is impressive. Mondo treats it like it’s a long lost treasure; and who are we to argue with such a hip distributor?

356. NOVEMBER (2017)

“They’re the sort of old legends that are made up just to find a simple reason for every complicated thing. No one wants to admit that they’re foolish. The Frog of the North appeared in the sky from who knows where, and he disappeared again who knows where. But people couldn’t be content with that! Humans can’t stand things that are outside their reach.”–Andrus Kiviräh, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Estonian peasant Liina, who may be able to transform into a wolf, is in love with fellow villager Hans, who returns her affection until he catches a glimpse of the daughter of the German baron who now rules their territory and is immediately smitten. Liina appeals to a witch to cast a spell to turn Hans’ heart to her. Hans, in turn, makes a deal with the Devil to build a kratt he believes will help him reach his beloved.

BACKGROUND:

  • November is based on the Estonian novel “Rehepapp: ehk November” by Andrus Kiviräh, which was a massive success in its homeland. “Rehepapp” has not been translated into English, although Kiviräh’s second novel, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish,” which treats fading pagan beliefs in a similar fashion, has been.
  • The producers raised money through crowdfunding to produce a model of a kratt, then used the test footage to secure money for the film from Polish and Dutch sources.
  • Most of the minor villager roles are played by nonprofessional actors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first look at a kratt: it’s a cow skull tied to three sticks, with sharp farm implements tied to them, which cartwheels across the lawn of an 19th century villa on its way to break down a stable door.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kratt airlifting cow; the chicken dead; two-ass plague gambit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.


U.S. trailer for November

COMMENTS: November is, at least superficially, like the Estonian Continue reading 356. NOVEMBER (2017)

THE GOLEM (1920) AND FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1920) is not as broadly known today as its German Expressionist peers, Nosferatu (1922) and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), despite having been a considerable influence on ‘s Frankenstein (1931). The reasons are apparent. Wegener’s later propaganda films for the Nazis certainly hurt the reputation of both director and film. And the Golem itself, with his oversized fright wig, looks more comically surreal than horrific; it was undeniably surpassed by Frankenstein.

Still, The Golem deserves to be better known. It was Wegener’s third “Golem” film1)The previous two films, The Golem (1915) and The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917),  are lost, although fragments of the 1915 version survive. based on the story by Gustav Meyrink, itself based on Jewish folklore. Wegener stars, co-wrote (with Henrik Galeen), and co-directed (here with Carl Boese) each of them. The cinematography by and set design by Hans Poelzig2)Yes, that’s where Ulmer later got the name for his Satanist antagonist in 1934’s The Black Cat and his assistant  considerably enhance its stunning visuals.

Still from The Golem (1920)The Golem opens in a 16th century Jewish ghetto in Prague with Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck) foretelling disaster for the Jewish community. Shortly after that bit of soothsaying, the Kaiser (Otto Gebuhr) orders the Jews banned. Loew creates a stone figure, the Golem, to protect his people, investing life into it through the demon Astaroth. The scene is impressively shot, with the rabbi encircling the Golem with fire (influenced by the “Magic Fire” of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walkure”), climaxing with a smoky demonic face issuing forth a scroll. Taking the now-animated Golem to the court of the Kaiser, Loew impresses when his creation saves the assembly from a falling roof in a epically staged scene that must have made quite an impression to 1920 audiences. It certainly impresses (or, rather frightens) the Kaiser enough to get the deportation order reversed. Astaroth possesses the Golem shortly afterwards, however, and like  the monster in Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” the Golem runs amok, destroying all in its path. It even turns on his creator, setting fire to Loew’s home and carting off his daughter, Miriam (played by Wegener’s wife, Lyda Salmanova). The scenes of the monster rampaging through the city, with its angular sets and idiosyncratic cinematography, is a testament to the work of both Poelzig and Freund. Anyone who has seen Frankenstein will immediately recognize much of its source. As accomplished as Wegener is as a writer and director, he is even better as an actor, giving an expressive, animated performance and eliciting empathy with his eyes.

The film ends with a group of blonde Aryan girls saving the day, which may be one of the reasons the film wasn’t destroyed by the Continue reading THE GOLEM (1920) AND FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

References   [ + ]

1. The previous two films, The Golem (1915) and The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917),  are lost, although fragments of the 1915 version survive.
2. Yes, that’s where Ulmer later got the name for his Satanist antagonist in 1934’s The Black Cat