Tag Archives: Silent Film

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

FANTOMAS: THE COMPLETE SAGA (1913)

Fantômas (1913) is ‘s first crime serial, and probably the best (a fourth serial, 1918’s Tin Minh, has survived and is purportedly on par with the three better known series, but has oddly never been restored or released on home video).

Based on the novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantômas, which was released as five separate films (Shadow of the Guillotine, Juve vs. Fantômas, The Murderous Corpse, Fantômas vs. Fantômas, and The False Magistrate), sets the pattern for the Feuillade serials that followed. Despite its age (105 years old!) it is insanely entertaining and the most surreal of the director’s massive body of work. It was among the first films to utilize a sustained narrative plot, to be shot in actual locations (as opposed to being studios), and was one of the first mystery films. As played by Rene Navarre, Fantômas himself was arguably cinema’s first completely unsympathetic, purely evil protagonist with no redeeming qualities. It would take a strong lead to inspire us to root for such a character; with his menacing charisma, Navarre pulls it off in spades. He is probably the best of Feuillade’s genre leads, and collaborates superbly with the director; together they stylishly craft a milieu of intrigue and heightened suspense that revels in amorality. Fantômas was an epic influence on ‘s Dr. Mabuse (whose films we should cover someday). As this Houdini of thieves and assassins goes through his considerable resume of opponents and victims, plotting grand conspiracies, he does so with such suave aplomb that we find ourselves unapologetically rooting for the “Emperor of Crime.” Although marginally science fiction, Fantômas ventures into fantastic surrealism, presenting the arch-villain as a shape-shifting master of disguises (he has a secret identity too, making him a proto-super villain) who will present his victims with a blank card, only to have their name “appear” when…

Still from Fantomas (1913)Naturally, with a do-gooder on his trail—inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon)—we are guaranteed a cataclysmic battle of wits. We are not disappointed. Fantômas plots grand conspiracies, absurdly fantastic escapes, elaborate train robberies, jewel heists, grave robbing, wanton violence, indiscriminate murders (from one-time accomplices to a judge of the high courts, gruesomely dispatched), disappearances and reappearances (largely unexplained), and a bizarre, utterly weird “switcheroo” with a fellow villain who takes his place at the guillotine. Fantômas vs. Fantômas, the aptly titled fourth film, is set in a grand masked ball with no less than three versions of Fantômas —which means triple the mayhem—made all the more kinetically surreal through its outlandishly stylized tableaux.  In an effort to evade an assassin of the night, Juve even gets a queer scene like a 1913 version of Rambo, complete with spiked traps and poisonous snakes. None of it is “believable” for even a second, and you won’t care one damned bit. It’s easy to see why 1913 audiences made this the first genuine worldwide blockbuster smash hit.

Fantômas, always escalating his criminal oeuvre, is never given a motive. He has no Freudian backstory to explain his lack of conscience. He is simply an ambitious sociopath whose life’s goal is to taunt, seduce, craft chaos, sow discord, betrayal, maim, and murder, leaving a trial of broken victims and corpses.

Despite its innovations, being the first of his serials, it is indeed the most aesthetically archaic (the editing is extremely choppy). Yet it’s also strangely contemporary.  All of this adds to its otherworldliness. If you must limit yourself to a single Feuillade serial (although I don’t know why anyone would wish to), make it Fantomas.

It goes without saying that Kino outdid itself in this essential release that includes a documentary on Feuillade and two shorts: one with a disappointingly traditional religious theme, and the other venturing into mild territory (before Browning).

JUDEX (1916)

Not only is Judex (1916) one of cinema’s earliest serials, but it’s also one of the earliest superhero films, if not the first. (1913’s Fantomas, to be reviewed next week, also featured the first celluloid supervillain.) It’s also considerably better than anything that came out of the superhero serial craze of the 1940s. The difference is , who directs with enthusiasm and creativity. He may have had something to prove; the director had come under intense criticism for glorifying crime in both Fantomas and 1915’s Les Vampires. With its cloaked avenger (René Cresté), Judex (translated as “justice”) is an enjoyable penance. Viewers unfamiliar with the character and film will immediately notice Judex is a precursor to the Shadow, and especially to Batman, as created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1939. Judex is a caped vigilante with a secret identity and something like a Batcave for a lair. He is also unfathomably wealthy, which gifts him access to unlimited crime-fighting gadgetry. As enjoyable as it is, there is also an interesting Freudian undercurrent in the making of Judex, one of which Feuillade was most likely unconscious. In his act of contrition for making the sinful life glamorous, Feuillade’s instinct is to take , the exotic female lead of Les Vampires, and transform her into a secondary villainess. The 1915 mindset inherently equated the feminine with sin. More even than in the previous serials, Judex finds Feuillade in full myth-making mode and mythological deities are, to the bourgeoisie, masculine. We’ve sure a come long way in 103 years.

As entertaining as Judex is, it is the least of Feulliade’s serials. Like Les Vampires, at 5 hours, it is not intended to be watched in a single sitting. (In 1963, made a superior 100-minute remake, which is available on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray). While the lightening of the violence and eroticism from Les Vampires is a loss, Judex has plenty going for it. It confirms that cinema’s first major serialist was its sole master.

One improvement is more natural, less silent-film-stylized acting. It is divided into 12 chapters, and, like its predecessors, it does not end on cliffhangers per se, but nonetheless will inevitably lure the viewer back. Another plus is cinematography that, while still stationary, is a notch above previous efforts.

Still from Judex (1916)The plot is simple, but concrete: a reworking of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Advanced character development, rare for the period, transcends the plot. The influential and corrupt banker Favraux (Louis Leubas) robs the Judex family of much dyed green paper. In retaliation, Judex dons a disguise and threatens Favraux with destruction (just as in “Don Giovanni” or “Carmen”) at the stroke of midnight, unless he repents and give the money to charity. Being the superhero he is, Judex is weighed down by his conscience, but that doesn’t stop him from cruising the Paris suburbs with his pack of canines, who actually do most of the fighting for him.

Naturally, there are complications: a succubus villain Diana Monti (Musidora, who still gets a scene in black undies), a delightfully bumbling detective (Marcel Levesque, who seems a model for Inspector Clouseau), a sidekick named the Licorice Kid (Bout-de-Zan), and Favraux’s widowed daughter Jacqueline Aubry (Yvette Andreyor) who wants to right daddy’s wrongs, and manages to win our hero’s heart.

For all his villainy, Favraux has redeeming qualities. Jacqueline has complex feelings regarding Judex as vigilante, and she is no easy conquest. While Cresté is a squared jaw superhero prototype, he is less assured than Bruce Wayne in the ladies’ department and, unlike the mysterious protagonist of the Franjou remake, has a tragic backstory that grounds him in a moral dilemma (complicated even more by his falling in love with his enemy’s daughter, which inspires a belief in the redemption of villains). The doomed Musidora is pure evil (so adept at it that we hope against hope that she’ll slaughter her nemesis), but we do not see enough of her. As primitive as it is (with mawkish, melodramatic scenes and awkward pacing), Judex is also paradoxically contemporary in its pulp innovation. Although lacking the deadpan proto-Surrealism of Fantomas and Les Vampires, Judex is still an agile and charismatic serial, wrapped in an impressively glamorous WWI era package that is equal parts action, mystery, hypnosis, and comedy, with enough double-crosses, twists, and daring escapes for genre junkies.

Released on home video by Flicker Alley, Judex has been restored with a superb musical score by Robert Israel, and a valuable making-of documentary and  informative booklet by  historian Jan-Christopher Horak.

LES VAMPIRES (1915)

Andre Breton was among the Surrealists who considered Louis Feuillade as one of their own. The silent serial filmmaker probably never heard of the term (he died in 1925, as the movement was in its infancy), and likely would have disavowed it and continued cranking out his serials, oblivious to just how weird they are. Feuillade directed 700 films. Of course, most of these are shorts, and are lost. Although his work ranged from comedies to Bible dramas, Feuillade’s reputation today rests on three pulpy silent serials: Fantomas (1913), Les Vampires (1915), and Judex (1916).

A few years ago, Les Vampires, the most famous of the three, was found (after being considered lost for years), restored and rediscovered. Kino’s Blu-ray edition is exemplary, as usual, and the way to go.

A bit about Feuillade: his parents sent him to seminary in hopes he that he would become a priest. That didn’t happen, but that Catholic experience is credited with his late Gothic style. He showed an early interest in literature and drama, worked in vaudeville, married, struggled before success making films for the Gaumont studios, lived in the suburbs, and was a workaholic. In other words, he was unremarkable—except for his trilogy of serials, which influenced both and . The phenomenal success of Fantomas took both Feuillade and the studio by surprise. It is amusing that while that film is considered his first masterpiece, Feuillade himself wasn’t aware of it, and quickly set to work on the followup Les Vampires for one reason—money.

Still from Les Vampires (1915)When Les Vampires was released on home video, many horror fans were disappointed, thinking it was going to be about bloodsuckers. Rather, it’s a crime melodrama about a crepuscular criminal gang, dubbed “the Vampires,” led by femme fatale Irma Vep (Musidore, the stage name of actress Jeanne Roques, who also starred in Judex). With large black eyes, skin-tight black leotards, and a sinister bewitching charisma, Musidore easily steals the film as a batwoman/catwoman/ succubus. The fact that the protagonists are all dullards makes it  easier for Musidore to stand out. Les Vampires upset the censors at the time, who briefly banned it for glamorizing crime (thankfully, it’s guilty as hell of the charges).

Naturally, Vampires is also paced like the serials that followed it. Although they do not end in cliffhangers per se, each episode is designed to bring the viewer back to the plot. Feuillade’s serials weren’t shown weekly, but were released irregularly (Les Vampires appeared over a six-month period). For all of their primitive flaws, Feuillade’s trilogy of serials are probably the best of that genre cinema has produced. Most people cite The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), with its amiable lead (Tom Tyler) and tongue-in-cheek approach, as the best serial of the genre’s 1940s heyday. It undoubtedly is, but it’s not saying much, and can’t compare to the Feuillade;s work in the 1910s. It’s the archaic, Gothic, otherworldly quality that sets Les Vampires apart from the watered down serial genre as we came to know it. Feuillade is an essential antidote for the weird movie fan who think he/she has seen everything.

Les Vampires is divided into ten episodes, beginning with “The Severed Hand.” Reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe) vows to track down the Vampire ring. We never once root for him, or even his comic sidekick reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe). Feuillade deftly balances pulpy luridness, surreal slapstick, and gritty realism (the serial was shot in the back alleys of Paris). Although the early episodes are too much Mathe and not enough Musidora, she still has a marvelously compelling balletic sequence in episode two. Les Vampires is undeniably bogged down, with nearly all the co-stars living up to the hyper-styilzed silent film acting cliches, but Musidora is the engaging exception, and her cult status is easily cemented.

It is with Episode 5, “Dead Man’s Escape,” that Les Vampires kicks in and lives up to its reputation as a carnal cinematic comic book. One of the key appeals in the film’s aesthetic is the fact that a considerable amount of it was improvised, which gives it an “anything goes” atmosphere and brings a consistent element of genuine surprise, which no later serial managed.

Like most serials, Les Vampires is primarily a chase spectacle, but the streets of WWI-ravaged France imbue every frame, every action, with a sense of dread. Torture, secret passages, secret identities, hidden tunnels, portable cannons, poison gas, shootouts, theft, invisible ink, on-stage murders, hideouts, rooftop escapes, slyly named antagonists (e.g. “Satanas”), decapitations, hypnosis, rival gangs, bombings, alchemy, and anarchy set the stage for an entire genre; but Les Vampires is far more violent and—with Musidora—more erotic than the male-oriented superhero-styled serials of the talkies. It took a female lead, and a naive surrealist silent filmmaker, to show everyone else how to to do it right. Les Vampires is a tad too long, and shouldn’t be watched in a single setting. Nor, as one of the silent era’s certified masterpieces, should it be missed. You may never want reality from a film again.

315. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (2006)

AKA Brand Upon  the Brain! A Remembrance in 12 Chapters

“[Children are] constantly constructing, and then reconstructing and amending and annexing a model of their cosmos, their universe. The real joyous intoxications and wonderment come from building faulty models, and then tearing them down and rebuilding. But you never completely tear down your model, I think you just keep adding on to your faulty model of the way the world works. All if us, by the time we’re grown-ups, have built this really elaborate model, which we feel is right now finally. But at its very foundation, at the very bottom, its very earliest days, there are these errors that run like a motherlode through the ensuing years.”–Guy Maddin, “97 Percent True”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sullivan Brown, Gretchen Krich, Katherine E. Scharhon, Maya Lawson, Erik Steffen Maahs, (narration)

PLOT: “Guy Maddin,” who has not been home in thirty years, returns to Black Notch, the island on which he spent his childhood, to fulfill his mother’s dying wish: to give the family lighthouse/orphanage two good coats of paint. The trip sparks Guy’s memory; he recalls when celebrity teen detective Wendy Hale arrived on the island to investigate the strange holes found on the back of orphan’s heads. Guy develops a crush on the detective, but Hale goes undercover as her own brother, Chance, and seduces Guy’s sister, all while investigating his dictatorial mother and mad scientist father on her way to uncovering secrets that will tear the family apart.

BACKGROUND:

  • Brand Upon the Brain! was funded (for a reported $40,000) by a Seattle-based nonprofit organization on the condition that Maddin use a local Seattle cast and crew. The film was shot in nine days.
  • This is the middle entry in Maddin’s unofficial autobiographical trilogy, in which each film has a (different) protagonist named Guy Maddin. (The first was 2003’s Cowards Bend the Knee and the last was 2007’s My Winnipeg).
  • The script was written with Maddin’s frequent collaborator Geroge Toles, but Maddin regular (who usually appears as an actor) wrote the narration.
  • The idea of narration for a silent film was inspired by “explicators,” people who would be hired by theaters to explain visual and narrative concepts the audience might not get on their own during live screenings of silent films.
  • Originally staged as a live event with a small orchestra (including a “castrato”) and foley artists, different performances featured different guest narrators, including Isabella Rossellini (who does the definitive reading), Laurie Anderson, John Ashberry, , , Louis Negin, , Eli Wallach, and Maddin himself.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The lighthouse lamp, an all-seeing orb, sort of a rotating papier-mâché rendition of the Eye of Sauron. Several of Guy’s family members come to bad ends before it.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rumanian womb birthmark; holes in orphan’s heads; the undressing gloves

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s another mad Maddin false autobiography! This time, the director imagines himself as the offspring of a mad scientist and yet another iteration of his domineering mother archetype, raised in a lighthouse among a band of orphans. Absurd but emotionally true memories are jumbled up, with a melange of archaic obsessions each taking their turn in the subconscious spotlight: teenage detectives, confused genders leading to confusing crushes, family members transfigured into zombies and vampires, with all of this lurid melodrama shot on blurry Super 8 and edited by a drunken, psychotic subconscious. Pure madness.


Original trailer for Brand Upon the Brain!

COMMENTS: “The past… into the past!” Memory is the theme of Continue reading 315. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (2006)

296. DOG STAR MAN (1964)

“One thing I knew for sure (from my own dreaming) was that what one dreams just before waking structures the following day. That dream material is gathered from the previous day, and therefore is a gathering of all previous days, ergo contains the structure of all history, of all Man… I wanted PRELUDE to be a created dream for the work that follows rather than Surrealism which takes its inspiration from dream; I stayed close to practical usage of dream material, in terms of learning and studying, for a while before editing. At this time I left strict myth considerations out of my study process as much as possible..”–Stan Brakhage speaking on Dog Star Man in “Metaphors on Vision

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Stan Brakhage, Jane Brakhage

PLOT: This silent non-narrative film is presented in four parts: a 20-minute “Prelude” introduces many of the visual motifs that will show up in later installments, followed by “Part One,” which focuses on a man  climbing a mountain with his dog. The man continues his climb in the seven-minute “Part Two,” but the picture now focuses on a baby boy, with abstract figures superimposed directly on the film. “Part Three” is a “sexual daydream” of a nude woman, with even more layered images, and “Part Four” is an even more abstract culmination of all that has come before.

Still from Dog Star Man (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • Experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage completed almost 400 films during his life (some of which run for less than a minute).
  • Dog Star Man is the final compilation of five short films Brakhage produced between 1961 and 1964. They are almost never screened separately, although the Prelude could stand alone.
  • While making Dog Star Man, Brakhage was unemployed and living with his wife and her parents in their Colorado cabin; to earn his keep, he chopped wood for the family.
  • Brakhage named his movie after a pulp novel he picked up as a boy, because he thought it a shame that such a great title would be forever wasted on a tawdry paperback.
  • The film is structured with increasing visual complexity. Brakhage shot one layer of film for part one, two for part 2 (and also for the prelude), three for part 3, and four for part 4. The layers of film were then superimposed on top of each other.
  • Brakhage later produced a four-and-a-half hour cut of this material called The Art of Vision, which rearranged every layer of film Brakhage shot for the project into every possible combination of superimpositions (within each part).
  • Chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1992.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most of the amazing visual effects Brakhage achieves with his complex superimpositions fly by too quickly for us to consciously register—some can be seen for only a single frame or two. The most important repeated symbol in the film, however, may be the most mundane: the woodcutter struggling up the snowy mountain with his axe, stumbling and falling, while his dog happily bounds at his side.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Phosphenes on film; baby with snowflakes; sex and beating hearts

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Meticulous and intentionally unentertaining, Dog Star Man is a masterwork of consciously constructed dream cinema.


Excerpt from Dog Star Man (Prelude)

COMMENTS: When ordinary people think about experimental Continue reading 296. DOG STAR MAN (1964)

287. L’INHUMAINE [THE INHUMAN WOMAN] (1924)

“At each screening, spectators insulted each other, and there were as many frenzied partisans of the film as there were furious opponents. It was amid genuine uproar that, at every performance, there passed across the screen the multicoloured and syncopated images with which the film ends. Women, with hats askew, demanded their money back; men, with their faces screwed up, tumbled out on to the pavement where sometimes fist-fights continued.”–Jaque Catelain, in his biography of Maurice L’Herbier

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Georgette Leblanc, Jaque Catelain, Philippe Hériat

PLOT: Claire Lescot, a celebrity opera singer, hosts a soirée at her modernist mansion for her many male admirers and suitors. Among these is the young engineer Einar, whom she toys with and eventually scorns. When Einar commits suicide, it causes a scandal and Claire is castigated for her callousness; but is there more to his mysterious death than meets the eye?

Still from L'inhumaine (1924)

BACKGROUND:

  • Maurice L’Herbier started his career as a writer; his fascination for cinema partly developed when he was assigned to the French Army’s Cinematographic Service, where it was his job to document the horrors of WWI.
  • Star Georgette Leblanc, an opera singer, put up 50% of the production cost. L’Herbier offered her a script which she deemed too noncommercial, and he had it rewritten according to her suggestions.
  • The production design was divided among several leading international avant-garde artists, each of whom was responsible for creating a different set. These artists were all featured in the influential 1925 Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Modern Art, for which L’Herbier was also a member of the jury.
  • Extras in the 2,000-strong audience that boos Claire included Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. To set the mood, dissonant composer George Antheil played piano as the opening act.
  • The original score by Darius Milhaud is lost, although he may have recycled some of the themes for use in later compositions.
  • As was typical for avant-garde performances of the period, fights erupted at the screening.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are so many crazed sets to choose from—Claire’s dining room isthmus, her spiky green “winter garden,”  Einar’s disorienting Cubist laboratory—that we were totally confounded at picking just one. Fortunately, we can go with a bizarre costuming choice instead: the masked butlers in short pants with smiles (literally) plastered on their faces.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Perma-grin waiters; backwards television; riotous resurrection montage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Too weird for 1924, when screenings prompted fistfights between its few admirers and its many detractors, this interbellum mashup of silent melodrama, heedlessly optimistic science fiction, and bizarre set design is even more singular when viewed through contemporary eyes. This is a case where a film’s advanced age enhances its weirdness—but when watching it you’ll think that it came from not just another time, but another planet.


Blu-ray trailer forL’Inhumaine

COMMENTS: It’s fitting that L’Inhumaine stars an opera star (playing Continue reading 287. L’INHUMAINE [THE INHUMAN WOMAN] (1924)