Thursday, 28 January 2016
Universal Studios released their first historic DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN films in the same year of 1931, and while both the vampire and Frankenstein’s monster are linked in our minds as part of that same horror creature universe, if we look at the background behind both stories we find the two linked again intriguingly in real-life and connecting via that year in another fashion. To do this, let’s briefly examine the history of the novels, aspects of vampire lore and the point where the two novels’ influences actually intertwined…
Decades before Bram Stoker gave us the novel Dracula in 1897, Victorian audiences were already accustomed to vampires in fiction and on stage. Between 1845 -1847 there was the luridly cheap and serialised (‘penny-dreadful’) published novel of Varney the Vampire which introduced readers to many of the established rules of vampire lore before its protagonist Sir Francis Varney spectacularly commits suicide by throwing himself into the bubbling Mount Vesuvius. In 1871-72, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu brought out Carmilla, the tale of a young woman preyed upon by the titular female vampire descended from Mircalla, Countess of Karnstein. The story was produced as a stage play and influenced the young Stoker greatly, who at that time was a theatre critic back home in Dublin. The erotic sensuality of the play captured his imagination (and modern horror fans will recognise the Countess in Hammer Films’ explicitly sexual THE VAMPIRE LOVERS). Similarly the expert vampire hunter Baron Vordenburg would inspire his famous Dr Abraham Van Helsing in Dracula - and take his first name from Stoker’s own father.
Bram Stoker wrote almost all of his novels during his twenty seven years as business manager of the celebrated actor Sir Henry Irving whom he idolised. While he based some of the physical impressiveness of Count Dracula on his illustrious employer, there was a far more controversial historical figure whose notorious blood-lust became partly the basis for the most famous vampire of all…
PRINCE VLAD, THE INSPIRATION FOR COUNT DRACULA
Transylvania is a province of Rumania on a high plateau encircled by the Carpathian mountains. Within this secluded area lies the heartland of Prince Vlad III (1431–1476/77), also known under a myriad of names: Vlad, Prince of Wallachia as well as Voivode or ‘war-lord’ of Wallachia. Horror buffs know him by the nickname of ‘Vlad the Impaler’ (‘Vlad Tepes’ in Rumanian) after his sadistic penchant for impaling his victims upon stakes. His family name of Vlad Dracul seals the real-life connection between him and Bram Stoker’s fictional King of Vampires, ‘Dracul’ being the Rumanian for ‘devil’. It was while researching Dracula at Whitby that Stoker came across the legendry surrounding Prince Vlad, and though he already had his plot for the novel, what he discovered gave colour and depth to the noble Count’s grisly past.
Though Prince Vlad was obviously not a vampire himself, his reputation for rampant blood-lust and unrestrained cruelty when alive was such that Stoker felt him an ideal human candidate to continue a reign of terror into undead afterlife.
Vlad is not simply regarded as a homicidal maniac ruler. Historically, Rumanians see him as a heroic defender of their Christian values against Turkish invaders of the past and that one day he will return to save them again. A Rumanian poem says: “Dracula, where are you now that we need you?” To them, his methods, utterly barbaric to western civilised perspectives, were borne of necessity, evidence of a strong hero of his people who operated an uncompromising system of justice that kept order highly effectively based on fear. (A recent parallel might be the ‘Was it respect or fear?’ opposing view of the Kray twins’ reign in the east end of London). It’s hard to find a defence though for a tyrant whose solution to widespread poverty was reputedly to invite all the region’s poor to a giant banquet, lock them in the hall, and then burn it down with all the impoverished citizens trapped inside. If anything, it’s an uncomfortable echo of the later Nazi genocide of those considered socially draining and the terror of ‘ethnic cleansing’.
Another example that illustrates the cunning of this Solomon of sadism was the story of a Hungarian merchant who complained to Prince Vlad that whilst staying in the province 160 gold ducats were stolen from his room. The Prince confidently assured him that he should go to bed and that the next day the money would be returned. Sure enough, the following morning his ducats were restored to him – with an extra one in the bag. The merchant returned to Vlad and told him of the anomaly. The Prince coolly informed him that this had been a deliberate part of his order for restitution of the theft, and that if the merchant had not owned up to the bonus coin he too would have been impaled.
The effortless reach of Vlad’s intimidation was shown at a favoured woodland spot by a stream, popular with thirsty travellers. The Prince had a beautiful golden chalice placed on a nearby rock from which all could drink. For the whole of his reign, no-one dared think twice about replacing that cup after use.
Prince Vlad wasn’t the only real-life inspiration for the ghoulish vampiric figures of horror. Anyone who’s seen Ingrid Pitt in COUNTESS DRACULA (1970) will recall her character based on the real Countess Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614), an abominable monster who had almost 600 children murdered in whose blood she bathed believing it would keep her eternally youthful. Eventually she was dealt the rough justice of being bricked up in her castle for twelve years till she died.
THE LORE OF THE LAND
Composed of many nationalities’ cultures - Rumanian, Hungarian, Slav, German and Székely, Transylvania is steeped in a rich superstitious lore making up the vampire myths and methods passed on to us via horror films. In his excellent documentary IN SEARCH OF DRACULA (1975) narrated by Sir Christopher Lee, Calvin Floyd’s research from the region adds some extra mythology to the ones every fan knows. Whilst we are familiar with the vampire casting no reflection, being hugely strong, able to assume the shapes of dogs, wolves, black cats and bats, and able to render themselves invisible or into a fine mist, allegedly they also congregate on St. Andrew’s Eve in graveyards to plot their goals and human targets for the year like an undead corporate convention. In addition, in defence against them we have the understood properties of garlic, running water, the cross and the communion wafer – but did you also know about the cunning use of wild rose thorns? It is said by Rumanians that if these thorns are scattered on the road leading into a village, the approaching vampire will be forced to pick up every single one, thus hopefully detaining them long enough to be fried by the rays of the morning sun. Painting an extra set of eyes in white upon the head of a black dog also has the power to ward off the undead.
Although so far we’ve examined two influential characters from the nobility, traditionally vampires fed and recruited from the peasantry. It is believed that upon becoming one of the undead, the first thing a peasant will do is to wipe out their immediate family and then everyone in the village. One method was for him to climb the church bell-tower and then call out the names of every survivor. Upon hearing their name, that person would instantly die. Alternatively, the blood-sucker might ring out a death-knell, killing all who hear its peals.
As for seeking out a vampire’s grave to destroy them, Transylvanians believe that a virgin boy or girl must be seated naked upon a virgin horse of one solid colour ‘who has never stumbled’ and then ride them slowly around every plot in a cemetery until it will stop at the undead’s nightly bolt-hole. Once found, the creature may be staked through the heart or the navel with a stake made from the wood of a wild rose bush, ash or asp tree – even a red-hot iron bar - in the daytime before sunset, making sure the stake penetrates not just the body but also the ground underneath to prevent the monster rising again. It is said that upon being killed in this way, the vampire’s face will assume an expression of peace as the original human host is finally freed from their undead torment. The head must then be decapitated and either placed between the body’s legs, burnt or buried at a cross-roads (the same place incidentally where the Devil could allegedly be summoned if invoked by name three times as in FAUST).
In researching Eastern European superstitions and locations for Dracula, Bram Stoker never travelled to Transylvania yet his detailed descriptions, obtained from guide-books and maps at the British Museum, were quite accurate. He wasn’t aware, for example, that there actually was a Castle Dracula in real life (Castelul Bran) perched a thousand feet above the Argeș River near Wallachia - though his fictional version was eerily close to the mark.
So how does this link us to the other seminal nineteenth-century horror novel turned cinematic hot property - Frankenstein? Well, we must travel back to 1816 and the beautiful Lake Geneva in Switzerland where the celebrated poet Lord Byron holidayed at the Villa Diodati with his physicist friend Dr John Polidori. That summer, they invited the equally illustrious Percy Bysshe Shelley and his 18 year-old fiancé Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin to stay.
After an evening of tantalising each other with ghost stories, Byron suggested they have a contest to see who could invent the best one. Over the next days, Mary was riddled with anxiety as she could not conjure up a suitable story (the standard of her ‘competitors’ couldn’t have helped) – until one night the foursome had a thought-provoking discussion about the reanimation of life. Mary argued that such a supernatural phenomenon was possible, citing Luigi Galvani’s recent work animating dissected limbs via electrical current stimulation (‘Galvanism’). Her passion for the subject carried over into extremely vivid nightmares that night, frightening yet ultimately hugely profitable as they formed the basis for a future novel:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion”.
In her dream state she had experienced the first images of the hyper-driven scientist Victor Frankenstein and his electrically-reanimated composite corpse that would eventually become
Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. With Percy’s help, she took what was intended as a short story and expanded it into the first of her numerous novels. The extent of his involvement in Frankenstein has been argued over since the original manuscript was published anonymously in 1818 (with a preface she acknowledged he wrote). Subsequent versions were released in 1823 and then finally in 1831, a hundred years before the connected date with which we began.
It’s amusing that considering the two obvious masters of literature in the group, the only ones to actually finish their stories (and achieve their own literary renown from them) were the remaining two, Mary and John Polidori. In fact his work, The Vampire, published in 1816 predated all other vampire novels; the character of Lord Ruthven was based on Byron and is the first literary vampire Count in a genealogy leading to Stoker’s Count Dracula, thus already giving a minor connection between Shelley and Stoker’s creations.
In fleshing out her novel, unlike Stoker, Mary Shelley drew on the history and locations of places she and her husband had actually visited in 1814, such as Geneva and Mont Blanc, memorably described by the creature in the book’s climax. The most crucial influence of all though was in the creation of Victor Frankenstein himself. The family name and elements of his motivation was possibly influenced by that of a known Baron Georg von Frankenstein, whose Burg (Castle) Frankenstein was a short distance from Gernsheim, not far down the River Rhine upon which the Shelleys travelled. (The name Frankenstein literally means ‘Stone of the Franks’, the Franks being a Germanic tribe). Baron Georg was allegedly a devotee of alchemy two centuries earlier than Shelley’s time but there’s no statute of limitations on when a good idea can inspire a writer. Secretive attempts to transform base metal into gold are almost a warm-up for the ultimate experimentation of reanimating human life.
Though the Frankensteins were seen as a cursed family ever since one of their ancient ancestors died defeating a dragon in battle, they were to become, in a sense, blessed by their lucrative, tentative association with Mary Shelley’s work. Where their name connects just as tangentially with Dracula however is by a bizarre coincidence - located in a church in Transylvania’s city of Sibiu. It was here that the only known legitimate son of Prince Vlad Dracula was murdered and possibly buried – the same church grounds in which can be found the grave of…Baron Frank von Frankenstein.
The date of discovery of this eerie link? 1931.
Wednesday, 20 January 2016
THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928). Having had such great success with horror films inspired by literary classics, Universal wanted Carl Laemmle to produce another, and after securing Leni to come over and direct THE CAT AND THE CANARY, they teamed up again to turn to Victor Hugo, the author of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME for more sensational source material. Because of Laemmle’s German heritage, he was able to secure famed Expressionist actor Conrad Veidt to play Gwynplaine, the disfigured, mocked hero reminiscent of Hugo’s Quasimodo in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS. The original intention was to star Lon Chaney but his contract by now was with M-G-M. The resulting film is a melodrama yet features enough dark elements to be seen also as a part of horror cinema history.
Set in seventeenth-century England, the story begins with Gwynplaine’s father, a nobleman Lord Clancharlie, who falls foul of King James II, thus resulting in being tortured in an iron maiden while his son’s face is grotesquely deformed by royal surgeon Dr Hardquannone into a permanent ghoulish smile. The boy wanders, now father-less through a snowstorm, but upon discovering a blind baby girl Dea, left abandoned, the two are taken in by a mountebank sideshow entertainer, Ursus, played by Cesare Gravina. (He also owns a talented German shepherd, who unfortunately due to being named after the Latin for ‘man’ earns the reproval “Be quiet Homo” upon alerting him to the children).
As he grows to adulthood, Gwynplaine becomes a travelling actor of sorts for Ursus in shows that capitalise on audiences’ curiosity about ‘the Laughing Man’: “Hear how they laugh at me – nothing but a clown”. He and Dea (Mary Philbin, Esmeralda in THE HUNCHBACK) have grown to love each other, and without being able to see his face she does not know about his disfigurement. Later, she tells him that she was denied sight so that she would not be distracted from the goodness within him. Veidt is allowed to give a startling yet sympathetic portrayal, those expressive, pained eyes at odds with the etched macabre grin he is forced to wear – like Pagliacci, condemned to spread joy while he is dying of heartache inside. For the part, as Chaney suffered so admirably in his roles, Veidt had to wear a special bracket that stretched his mouth while also displaying ugly teeth into a ‘Love that Joker’ expression that has inspired many film portrayals of a more genuinely twisted evil than his facially-imprisoned innocent.
When Queen Anne hears of him, her evil jester Barkilphedro uncovers the performer’s true lineage as being the rightful heir of her throne. She decrees that since his father’s estate is now owned by her daughter Duchess Josiana, they must marry to restore his rightful place. Once made a Peer in the House of Lords, Gwynplaine is stung by the cruelly mocking laughter as he stands, ermine-clad, smiling helplessly at the other Peers. He turns his tears into triumph, ferociously rejecting the royal decree to marry and upon fleeing the House in a swashbuckling sword fight climax, he escapes England on a boat with Dea, Ursus and their valiant dog...
Veidt would later go on to achieve acclaim in America himself after fleeing Nazi Germany, most famously as Major Strasser in CASABLANCA before his untimely death at age 50. The same tragically early fate awaited Paul Leni at just 44 and their other Expressionist alumni, director F.W. Murnau who died aged 43.
Tuesday, 19 January 2016
THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927). . Following the success of his Expressionist film WAXWORKS in 1924, director Paul Leni was invited to Hollywood to direct at Universal Studios by Carl Laemmle. His first film there was THE CAT AND THE CANARY, based on John Willard’s play, which was released in the same year of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece METROPOLIS that would bring Expressionism to a close. Leni’s Hollywood calling-card is an entertaining chiller reminiscent of Agatha Christie and played more for light-hearted spooky fun instead of serious horror.
A group of greedy relatives gather at the mansion of the deceased millionaire Cyrus West for the reading of his will. There is no love lost between him and them – “My relatives have watched my wealth as if they were cats – and I a canary.” Consequently he bequeathes his entire estate to the most distant and least vulture-like Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) – including the priceless West diamonds. There is however a vital codicil imposed which is that a doctor must verify the benefactor to be proven of sound mental health of the estate is passed to the named person in the solicitor Mr Crosby’s envelope. West supposedly added this as revenge upon his relatives for cruelly doubting his sanity while he was alive.
We suspect skulduggery from the prologue due to strikingly modern use of point-of-view camerawork that shows a corrupt unknown person adding an amended will to the safe. This is coupled with an effective double-exposure technique depicting West cowering before the giant predatory moggies representing his presuming heirs. Another nice touch is the same layering of images when we see the grandfather clock’s inner chimes working for the first time since West’s death overlaid upon the tense family gathering at the table to hear the will reading. Stylistically, THE CAT AND THE CANARY benefits greatly from Leni’s background in painting and set design, mixing the multi-turreted castle and atmospheric sets of Expressionism with a mainstream Hollywood sensibility.
Amongst the acquisitive family are Paul Jones , (a lily-livered but decent comic relief in Harold Lloyd glasses played by Creighton Hale, a veteran of D.W Griffiths films) , West’s nephews Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe), Charles Wilder, his sister Susan Sillsby, (Flora Finch) and her niece Cecily Young (Gertrude Astor). There is also Manny Pleasant, the family housekeeper who blames the new will on the ghostly hand of Cyrus from beyond the grave. The family opt to stay the night, a good night’s sleep scuppered when a guard appears, warning them that an escaped lunatic is on the prowl, last seen around the premises: "He's a maniac who thinks he's a cat, and tears his victims like they were canaries!" The scene is set for the unknown identity of the envelope name (who is aware of his position Annabelle is told by Crosby before he is bumped off) to try to scare Annabelle into an unhinged state that will pass the inheritance to them.
Annabelle is told in a secret note of the diamonds’ hiding place, but on wearing them in necklace form in bed they are stolen by a grotesque, claw-like hand casting a Nosferatu-like shadow over her before stealing them. None of the other relatives believe her. Nor can they accept it when Paul is grabbed by the same evil hand and pulled back through a secret bookcase passage as Annabelle looks on in horror.
As the cast gradually flee in terror or to seek help, Paul re-emerges to fight off the hideously ugly attacker of Annabelle whose claw hand we’ve already witnessed. He is a terrible sight, sabre-teeth projecting up from his bottom jaw and with an oversized left eye into the bargain. The climactic grapple reveals him to be Charlie Wilder in disguise, the hidden benefactor of Crosby’s envelope that had disappeared before anyone could label him as chief suspect. He was in league all along with the guard to frighten Annabelle into constructive insanity. Annabelle is the safe rightful heir after all and with Paul as her new love will take up the inheritance of the mansion.
Leni’s film became a highly-influential upon future horror plots, being remade a number of times as the classic haunted-house staple plot including with Bob Hope in 1939. Leni would go on to direct one more classic THE MAN WHO LAUGHS with Expressionist star Conrad Veidt before his tragically young death from sepsis in 1929 at the youthful age of 44.
Sunday, 17 January 2016
THE LODGER (1927). After a series of misfires, 1927 was the year that a young English director by the name of Alfred Hitchcock made his name with this suspenseful thriller with horror undertones for the British studio Gainsborough Pictures. It was based on a story by Marie Belloc Lowndes and a play she co-wrote (‘Who Is He?’) inspired by the London hunt for Jack the Ripper.
THE LODGER would be an early showcase for Hitchcock themes such as the blonde woman in peril (a favourite female type for him), an innocent man looking to clear his name and novel stylistic touches. The plot centres around a London in the grip of a serial killer who preys on blonde women and has just claimed his seventh victim. All that is known about him from a female witness is that the bottom half of his face is obscured by a scarf and that he leaves a calling-card note at the scene of each crime with the name ‘The Avenger’ within a triangle.
Daisy Bunting (June Tripp) is a young blonde model whose parents have a room to let and has a policeman boyfriend, Joe (Malcolm Keen). One night a handsome, enigmatic young man, Jonathan Drew answers the family’s advert. He is scarfed like the killer in the newspaper and bears a haunted, faraway look in his eyes. Played by the hugely popular 1920s songwriter/actor Ivor Novello, the casting is crucial in not allowing us to make an obvious guess as to his secret identity. Hitchcock builds the tension well, sowing the seeds of suspicion visually with tricks like a glass ceiling so the parents can look up to see him pace up and down in his room. Drew appears continually mournful and distracted, and he attracts Daisy much to Joe’s annoyance, especially when he is put on the murder case. When Drew goes out late one night, Mrs Bunting hears him leave, goes into his room and finds one of the cupboards. The next morning, another nearby murder victim has been found.
As Daisy and Jonathan grow closer, she breaks off her relationship with Joe. The police gradually close their net nearer to the lodging house, the suspense building to fever pitch on Joe demanding Drew’s cupboard be unlocked to reveal a surgeon-style bag containing a gun, a map detailing the homicide sites and a beautiful blonde woman’s photo. Drew gives away nothing except anger and regret. It appears an open and shut case, not helped by Drew escaping out of the front door. Daisy catches up with him, where he breaks down and confesses that the woman in the photo was his sister, the Avenger’s first victim at a dance Drew had attended with her. On his mother’s deathbed, she made him swear to never stop till the killer is caught.
Daisy and Drew cover his handcuffs in a local pub, but when the locals become suspicious they pursue the couple, believing him to be the Avenger. Joe discovers whilst in official pursuit himself that they have just apprehended the real killer, so Drew is innocent after all. Horrified, he sets out to stop the growing vigilante mob from killing Drew by mistake, and manages to get to him just in time as he hangs bloodied but alive from a railing. All is well and the couple are reunited safely, her parents happy to be proved wrong about him.
Aside from the unsatisfyingly quick resolution in the murder hunt (the true culprit of which is unshown at the director's suggestion) THE LODGER is an entertaining thriller where Hitchcock plays with our preconceptions and circumstantial evidence for the first time. Once Novello was cast, his huge popularity meant the script had to be changed from its original intention to be more ambiguous as to his innocence. I must admit that since this is established with five minutes still to go, I was waiting for an open ending – sadly denied.
Hitchcock would go on to mix suspense and horror ingredients even more clearly in PSYCHO in 1960 and FRENZY (1972).
The later-famous producer of the film Michael Balcon was reportedly unhappy with the final cut and made Hitchcock make minor changes to some titles and minor surgery on a few scenes. The influence of contemporary German Expressionist directors like Murnau and Fritz Lang can be seen in THE LODGER’s moody lighting and Novello’s performance.
Balcon also developed a positive connection with that country’s talent as, amongst others, he helped celebrated genre actor Conrad Veidt escape from Nazi Germany, casting him subsequently in JEW SUSS…
Thursday, 14 January 2016
(Kino International 106-minute reconstruction)
Until METROPOLIS a year later, this epic silent Expressionist retelling of FAUST from director F.W. ‘NOSFERATU’ Murnau was the most expensive film made by Germany’s Ufa Studio. In its production design and stunning special effects, the money was well-spent and is all there on screen supporting a superb and moving production.
The prologue is a bargain made across an elaborate and expensive vista between the demonic Mephisto (a wonderfully exuberant Emil Jannings) and a glowing, virtuous Archangel (Werner Fuetterer) over how easy it would be to corrupt a righteous man. The prize is control of Earth below them.
On our level, Gösta Ekman, a highly-acclaimed Swedish stage actor, plays the aged (and later youthful) alchemist Faust, disguising his famous matinee-idol looks at the beginning under the Moses-like abundant white hair and flowing beard. He is in dire needs of a way to save his people from a terrible plague and comes across an occult solution which advises going to a cross-roads and summoning the devil three times by name. Desperate times calls for desperate measures and he does so in a strikingly-mounted invocation scene calling up ascending rings of infernal fire around him that clearly echo the creation of both THE GOLEM and Maria in METROPOLIS. Mephisto at first appears in seemingly unassuming guise as a peasant tipping his hat nonchalantly in greeting, but with eyes that glow to brilliant eerie effect in the dark, recalling John Carpenter’s pirates in THE FOG (1980).
Faust is tempted by Mephisto with a bargain to sell his soul in return for untold powers. Faust has the decency and caution not to be reeled in immediately. It is then that Mephisto succeeds with the pusher’s free taster offer of a twenty-four hour trial if he signs. After the hour-glass runs out, his ‘money back’ is the cancellation of the pact. This seals the deal as a great no-risk persuader to Faust who signs.
To test his supernatural abilities, the elderly sorcerer goes out to find that he can heal the sick instantly. However, the villagers fear the devil in his sudden power and shout for him to be stoned - there’s gratitude for you. He flees back to his study, where Mephisto, now a traditional black silk-garbed leering demon, tempts him even further to ask for a return to youth. No sooner said than done and after a scorching burst of flames Faust the old becomes the handsome young version, like a Renaissance prince. He and Mephisto embark on a tempestuous flight across skies of silhouetted vultures to Italy, where they gate-crash the wedding of the Duchess of Parma, the most beautiful woman in Italy. While the demon flatters the Duchess with a huge display of elephants and dancers, Faust feels his oats and hers by absconding with her, much to the chagrin of her new husband who earns a fatal stabbing from Mephisto for defending their mutual honours. With dreadfully influential timing, the hour-glass runs out and with it Faust’s bargain…unless he would like to carry on the bargain? Fatally, with such intoxicating attractions to play for, the rejuvenated youth agrees.
We then see Faust some time later, perched in heavy Hamlet-style contemplation upon a rock. Mephisto does not understand why he is unhappy: “…from indulgence to indulgence, sensation without end, and yet nothing satisfies you!” Faust is homesick and orders the demon to return him to his village. There he falls in love with the lovely, innocent Gretchen (Camilla Horn), helped into sharing Faust’s love by an evil charm necklace of Mephisto. The little devil also reveals a marvellous comedic streak in Jannings amid the heavyweight drama. In buttering up her avaricious dragon of a mother, he is visibly repelled by her breath as well as the saintly hymn-singing of the church choir. Solemnity crashes in when Faust decides to aim for a happy ending with Gretchen. In trying to wickedly keep him on the opposite of the straight and narrow (crooked and wide?), Mephisto rouses the mother who dies from the shock of seeing this demon again. Faust is ratted out to Gretchen’s soldier brother Valentin by Mephisto, who kills Valentin, framing Gretchen as a harlot as well as Faust for the murder.
Gretchen then begins a cruel, tortuous time as she is shunned by society everywhere she goes while she tries to care for her resulting new-born baby. A delirious vision of a warm cradle causes her to tragically put her baby down in the snow. The child’s death causes the locals to apprehend her and she is jailed pending death by burning at the stake. On witnessing this, Faust pleads with Mephisto that he wishes he had never had youth. The devil takes this as another order and while Faust struggles through the crowd to her, he reverts Faust to the elder version of before. She does not recognise this old man, yet as the executing flames consume her, Faust nobly joins her, whereupon his face is transformed into the young man she knew. They are reunited in very poignant joy, the heightened tension somehow eased by the fire purifying and blending the young lovers once more.
Up in Heaven, the Archangel, clearly appalled by Mephisto’s ugly gloating at his victory, rewards him with the news that he lost the bet as he could not overcome “the Word” that triumphed no matter how the humans were tested – and that wors is ‘love’.
To read the plot of FAUST only, one could be forgiven for imagining it as overblown in performance, but it is deeply touching in its passion and commitment to an epic scale of production and high peaks of emotion without ever losing authenticity and the humanity at stake. The actors give their all, the direction is sensitive, the artistry fully engaged. The devil and the rest of the cast may well take you…
THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE (1913 original). This spooky 1913 story was billed intriguingly as a four-act ‘romantic drama’, heavy in atmosphere and a typically committed, high-voltage (dual) performance by Paul Wegener some years before THE GOLEM made his name internationally in the Expressionist era.
There is a rather nice, ornate device at the beginning introducing us to each of the principals whereby a theatrical curtain is opened revealing each actor in isolation striking a characteristic pose (almost a reverse curtain-call), including Wegener wielding a rapier and Grete Berger as the Countess reclining decorously on a chaise-longue.
Wegener is Balduin, an impoverished student who is offered a peculiar deal by an enigmatic old gentleman, Scapinelli (John Gottowt), whereby he agrees to sign a contract giving him one hundred thousand gold coins in return for whatever the old man chooses from his room. Balduin readily agrees to this insanely easy bargain. What he could not know is that it is a trick. To his amazement, Scapinelli hijacks Balduin’s reflection from the mirror, stealing his soul in a sense. The doppelgänger walks out with the gloating old man. Balduin’s confusion though is soon overtaken by his own pleasure at the money.
Balduin courts a beautiful Countess whilst his double haunts him. His twin makes him life a misery, going so far as to use his legendary swordsmanship to kill a another man in a dual, a close relative of the Countess, who the real Balduin had sworn to leave alive. A card game with friends is taken over by the double goading Balduin to play against himself. Driven half-mad, the student secretly climbs the gate into the Countess’s grounds, taking a ladder up to her room, begging her forgiveness for what was done in his name and professing undying love for her. They kiss just as the reflection appears again, mocking him imperiously and frightening the Countess with this terrifying dual image. Balduin flees, yet no matter where he runs to, his double follows – “Wherever you go, I’ll be…” Finally, the strain is all too much and the student dies, leaving the sorcerer Scapinelli to tear up the contract in macabre glee. The last shot is the doppelgänger sitting on Balduin’s grave, staying at his last resting place.
THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE is entertaining and spirited, whilst making picturesque use of its location work.
THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE (1926). The same week that THE MAGICIAN was released came this remake of the 1913 Paul Wegener film starring Conrad Veidt as perhaps a more convincingly youthful student (Balduin) in what is widely regarded as the superior version – despite the poor quality of the print I could find.
By casting Veidt and Werner Krauss together as hoodwinked victim and respectively the mesmerising sorcerer Scapinelli, writer/director Henrik ‘THE GOLEM’ Galeen was able to recapture something of the servant and master relationship dynamic they had in THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI, though here we have the more personable side of Veidt to offset his disturbing ‘mirror image’.
The 1926 remake features stronger character details enabling you to care more about them, a vital ingredient if we are to be absorbed in the story. The introduction establishes up-front that this will be a tragedy by actually beginning on the student’s tombstone which reads: “Here lies Balduin – He fought with the devil and lost”. We see more of Balduin’s prowess as the greatest of swordsmen in the opening when he takes on all-comers in the tavern in swashbuckling style. This bravado also contrasts well with the crushing weight of his impending doom upon him once his contract with Scapinelli materialises his murderous double (See 1919 review).
We are led to care more about the flower-seller and her unrequited love for Balduin that causes her to betray him. There is the powerful sequence during the fox-hunt showing Scapinelli’s long-range influence ‘conducting’ the flow of horses and dogs like an occult puppeteer, leading Balduin to save Countess Margit when she falls from her horse. Also, when his ‘second self’ commits the murder of his duelling partner that the real Balduin swore not to do, instead of the 1913 Wegener double’s matter-of-fact reaction, here Veidt’s doppelgänger takes a moment to gravely register the committed murder.
Ultimately, Balduin faces off against his mirror image in the very mirror from which he was extracted. He shoots the glass in his frenzied state, and as he studies his reflection in the shard, his spirit seems to splinter too and he dies, leaving us a closing shot that returns to his tombstone where we began.
Fans of silent horror films may prefer this version to the 1913 original and see how its performance style fits neatly as well into the Expressionist era.
Wednesday, 13 January 2016
THE MAGICIAN (1926). Paul ‘THE GOLEM’ Wegener accepted an invitation from Hollywood in 1926 to play the title character in director Rex Ingram’s Parisian occult thriller based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel. His broad Asiatic features, imposing physique and forbidding stare were now put to work for American audiences. “He looks as if he had stepped out of a melodrama!” scoffs the male love interest Arthur Burdon (Iván Petrovich) to his fiancé Margaret played by Alice Terry. Fate brought them together when Margaret, a sculptor, has her spine damaged by her eighteen-foot faun sculpture toppling onto her, and Burdon, a surgeon, operates on her with great success. They are not aware that Margaret is being studied covetously during her operation by Oliver Haddo (Wegener) a sinister magician and student of the Black Arts of witchcraft. He visits Margaret and shows off his terrifying hypnotic ability by bringing her sculpture to life as part of a hellish ‘orgy of the damned’ series of imagery before her.
Margaret fits the shopping list for Haddo’s main ingredient for his creation of life experiment – “(the heart-blood of) a maiden of fair skin, golden hair, eyes that are blue or grey is essential”. Her suitability is such that he steals her away from Burdon on their wedding morning and marries her himself, but not before demonstrating to Burdon, Margaret and her uncle/guardian Dr Porhoet that his magical power extends to even vaporising a deadly snake bite.
Burdon and Porhoet track down his fiancé and her evil Svengali ‘husband’ to Monte Carlo where Margaret tearfully begs for Burdon’s forgiveness. He assures her he knows it is not her fault that such a wicked hypnotist had her under his spell but that Haddo intends “to kill me in an experiment of magic”. They leave the Riviera, and after a sanitarium stay Margaret’s memory of the magician is but a bad dream – until he kidnaps her and takes her to his intimidating tower in the village of Latourette.
Burdon and Porhoet race to the rescue once more, as Haddo concocts formulas in his lab while our heroine is strapped to his table. Lightning flashes, Frankenstein-style, in the urgent climax as Burdon and Haddo grapple, with Porhoet fending off his henchmen until Haddo falls into his own furnace and the spell over Margaret is finally broken. As the virtuous flee the lair, the tower’s mounting occult energy causes it to explode.
Although THE MAGICIAN was made outside Germany, in the casting of Wegener as the glowering figure of supernatural influence, it is inspired by Expressionist themes as is the devilish frolicking in the nightmare faun sequence, reminiscent of HAXAN. The international exchange program of connections would go further as one of Ingram’s assistants was a young British film-maker Michael Powell, who would famously go on to create A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and THE RED SHOES amongst other classics back home in England.
Tuesday, 12 January 2016
THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1924).
“Vasseur has been dead for years – but his hands are alive!”
This deliciously grisly premise sums up director Robert Wiene’s 1924 Austrian horror film starring Conrad Veidt (Wiene’s Cesare in THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI). It’s an atmospheric, enjoyable tale based on the novel ‘Les Mains d'Orlac’ by Maurice Renard that mixes Expressionist acting and set design with naturalistic attitudes and locations.
Veidt plays Paul Orlac, a celebrated French concert pianist who almost dies in a terrible railway crash. His wife Yvonne (an emotive, suffering Alexandra Sorina) is desperate to save his “beautiful, tender hands” and begs a surgeon to save them. He does so, but by transplanting those of an executed murderer, Vasseur. The knowledge of this sends Orlac into a constant waking nightmare of believing his new hands are possessed with homicidal tendencies. Veidt is well cast as Orlac, channelling his physicalisation skills convincingly to portray the terrifying separation he feels from his murderous hands, and those searing eyes that this time engender sympathy rather than fear, his inner pain radiating poignantly through them. He pleads to have the surgeon undue his work, but is told that only the head and heart rule a person’s hands. Mysteriously, he comes across Vasseur’s x-engraved murder knife and tries to hide it in his piano, knowing that the incriminating finger-prints upon it are now his.
Bold expressionism dramatically conveys Orlac’s mounting madness such as when an enormous fist descends on him across the bedroom to awaken him in terror. The set design for the film is mostly naturalistic but in his home there’s an effectively creepy sparseness – only the bed and a foreground pool of light are picked out in that barren room. The hallway too is notable only for a large highlighted vase. These elements, coupled with the eldritch energy taking over Orlac, isolate his state and unease, compounding his innermost fear that Vasseur will take him over again.
While Orlac struggles with his secret, Yvonne tries to keep creditors at bay. She appeals to Paul’s father, a cruel remote man whose challenged refusal to help causes him to spit “Yes, I want to! I hate him”. When Orlac goes himself, to his horror he finds his father stabbed to death and somehow by the found weapon. To make matters worse, Orlac is now approached by a villainous figure with a permanent sneer who claims to be Vasseur and blackmails him for a million francs – or he will tell the police it was Orlac who murdered his father. Such is the increasingly fractured mind of Orlac that Vasseur has him believing that the surgeon gave this baddie a transplant as well – of a new head onto Vasseur’s body.
The police at the elder Orlac’s murder scene voice the stunned line that begins this review. Orlac, with his doting wife at his side, confesses what he knows of the crime and manages to suspend the cops’ incredulity in turn enough to convince them to stake out the money drop. When they apprehend the blackmailer, it turns out, Scooby Doo-style, that he is Nera, a known con artist who had pretended to be Vasseur, making wax impressions of the executed man’s finger-prints to ‘finger’ Orlac. The pianist’s manipulative maid, who was also in on the plot won’t escape justice either. On finding that Nera had also framed Vasseur, meaning he was executed in innocence, Orlac studies his hands in wonder. Now he can safely touch his wife, knowing that the evil self-induced spell over him is broken…
THE HANDS OF ORLAC can be counted as the first of the ‘hands with a will of their own’ horror plot device that was subsequently remade as MAD LOVE (with Peter Lorre), THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS and least successfully inspired the poorly-conceived THE HAND by Oliver Stone starring Michael Caine.
Intriguingly the film almost became banned on its release when German authorities considered a request for suppression over concerns that it might reveal too much about finger-print techniques and other police forensic methods. Fortunately, the submission didn’t get far, presumably because it was realised that no-one can create wax prints, as well as the unlikeliness that criminals would take influence from a hugely enjoyable, far-fetched horror movie for their future escapades.
Friday, 8 January 2016
THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921). Regarded as one of the formative films of Swedish cinema, this is a powerful and memorable morality ghost story in the vein of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. Directed by Victor Sjöström, who also adapted Selma Lagerlöf’s novel and poignantly plays the central role, it revolves around the quest for redemption against all the odds for a thoroughly nasty man who appears to be beyond saving (Sjöström’s David Holm).
On New Year’s Eve, Sister Edit, a saintly Salvation Army worker, is on her deathbed, urging her loved ones to find David, with whom we don’t yet understand a connection. He is a drunkard, sitting in a graveyard, regaling his bum friends with recollections of his friend Georges who died that same day last year. Georges had told him of the legend that anyone who dies on that day must inherit the role of Death’s phantom carriage driver – a spooky Grim Reaper complete with scythe – and ghoulishly gather the bodies of all the dead of the following year. It turns out Georges had himself died on that day. Someone comes to fetch David to Sister Edit, but he refuses. The other vagrants protest at his rudeness, and in the ensuing scrap he dies by accident. With the aid of very effective double-exposure (used throughout for all ghostly effects), his spirit is raised as Georges appears, terrifying him with the truth of that story and his duty now to take over from him for the next year. David resists but Georges is adamant that he cannot escape atoning for the evil of his earthly life which it emerges Georges played a part in. With the supernatural command of “Captive, take leave of thy prison” Georges orders David’s soul to follow him to relive his hideous past…
David is shown, Scrooge-style, flashbacks to his happy old life with his wife Anna (Hilda Borgström) and children, before being tempted astray by Georges into drunkenness. Before leaving prison, the warden tries to shock David onto the straight and narrow by taking him to a cell holding his brother whose own drunken behaviour had led to him murdering a man. David vows to mend his ways, but in returning home finds his wife had left him with the children, unable to tolerate his abusiveness any longer. Something snaps in David, and from then on he becomes a doubly bitter figure, cutting his own Reaper-style swathe of vengeful, toxic hatred through Sweden in search of his family.
The next New Year’s Eve, David arrives at a newly opened mission where the kindly Edit gives him a bed for the night and selflessly repairs his coat in spite of the infection she will contract from it. On waking, he shows his needless cruelty by savagely ruining her stitching: “I like it like this”. We discover that in the town is David’s wife, still in hiding (they had met again at a Salvation Army meeting before David hadn’t recognised her). She reveals her identity to David. Sister Edit urges them to reconcile; however soon his self-loathing bitterness surfaces again. Anna locks him in the kitchen to protect her and the children while she hurriedly dresses them to flee, but he hacks down the door in his caged fury (reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING). She faints - yet he only revives her to gloat “It wasn’t so easy to escape from me this time”
Back in the present, Edit, now dying from contracting David’s consumption, pleads with Georges to allow her a few minutes more life to see the redemption of which she still believes he is capable. Tragically, she dies before this can happen. David is now about to be shown the most terrible repercussion of his appalling treatment, witnessing his hopeless wife about to poison herself and her children. David now sees how much he must atone for and begs desperately to God for help, prepared at last to sacrifice himself for the family his selfish life is about to ultimately destroy: “Sentence me to eternal night!” In that moment, Georges is content that his friend is genuinely repentant. David is returned prostrate to the graveyard ground from which he awakens startled but immediately races to save his wife from suicide. It is a moving ending as they hug and cry together in reconciliation, capping heartfelt performances by all the lead actors.
THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE’s influence, aside from its creepy and highly-effective double-exposure technique, was to inspire Ingmar Bergman who recalled its macabre portrayal of Death when featuring him as a character in his own THE SEVENTH SEAL in 1957.
WAXWORKS (1924). Another noteworthy German director of Expressionist films was Paul Leni. He made a three-story film (known in the genre as ‘portmanteau’) that was one of the first horror films with this structure (preceded by Lang’s DESTINY in 1921). Strictly speaking, WAXWORKS only features one tale firmly in the horror genre, but an air of oppressive sinister possibilities pervades the whole film.
The catalyst is a poet (future Hollywood star William Dieterle) who answers an advert placed by a circus waxwork museum owner and his daughter for someone to write flavoursome background stories about their figures. On display, we see the vivid statues of Spring-Heeled Jack (Jack the Ripper, played by genre star Werner Krauss), Czar Ivan the Terrible (equally famed Conrad Veidt) and as the splendidly greedy Caliph Harun al-Rashid is Emil Jannings who would also make his name in Hollywood.
When told that al-Rashid’s arm has come off, the poet immediately sets his creative juices flowing. He weaves the first story to compensate for this, essentially an Arabian Knights fairy tale of the corpulent, tyrannical al-Rashid trying to have his way with the local baker’s wife, a mean and flirtatious shrew, after his game of chess is spoilt by the smoke coming from the bakery. The poet places himself in the story as the baker, Assad, who cuts a dashing figure but is pussy-whipped by his wife into daring to steal the Caliph’s supposedly magical Wishing ring, not knowing of her secret planned assignation. While the Caliph locks himself and Assad’s wife in for some Turkish delight, Assad braves the palace security to murder who he thinks is the Caliph, steals the ring by slicing his arm off and flees from the guards.
He returns home to find the door locked. The Caliph and the wife were not expecting this - rather than face the music with regal dignity, the Caliph squeaks to the wife: My pond-lily, have you a hiding-place for a fat man?” She inserts him in the baker’s oven just as Assad splinters the door to get in. (Amusingly, he makes no mention of this odd homecoming treatment in his eager triumph to recount his success!). In come the guards to arrest Assad, who is unaware that the Caliph is here and had substituted a wax dummy likeness at home and kept his ring with him, when the wife opportunistically uses the ring to wish for the Caliph to magically return to life. This he does, soiled but alive. All is resolved happily like a pantomime ending by the Caliph appointing Assad to be his official baker.
It’s worth praising the wonderful, wild, stormy curves of the lavish scenery backdrops in both this and the next adventure. The theatrically painterly sets are pure Expressionism in their refusal to include straight lines, breaking all accepted rules of architecture. They suggest far-off fantasy escapism, off-setting any intrusive attempt at reality
A darker mood seeps in for the second story, that of Czar Ivan the Terrible, about whom the poet virtually runs out of unpleasant adjectives to describe this “blood-crazed monster on a throne”. Czar Ivan is a thoroughly despicable sadist who likes nothing better of an evening than taking his astrologer down to the Kremlin cellars to watch the death throes of his poisoned victims. Conrad Veidt, the eerie somnambulist Cesare with the electrifying stare in THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI is perfectly cast as the evil Ivan. To add spice to his voyeurism, he enjoys timing his prey’s final agonies with a sand hour-glass, with the victim’s name inscribed on the glass. His astrologer whispers a suspicion that maybe his poison-mixer is plotting to add the Czar’s own name to a future diminishing ‘glass half-empty’ (the mixer has taken pity on an innocent target). This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when the mixer hears the suggestion and pre-emptively does that very thing out of fear for his own life.
Ivan outdoes even this wickedness by swapping places with a nobleman whose daughter’s wedding he is due to attend. The hapless man is killed by an arrow. Unable to contain his vain-gloriousness, Czar Ivan cannot resist revealing his identity to the crowd: “The Czar is mightier than death!!!” he crows – dangerous hubris indeed. He takes the bride for himself amidst the groom’s protests but on the wedding night, any further hideous plans are scuppered by hearing that he has been poisoned. His fate is sealed when he discovers he can hold death at bay as long as he keeps turning over the hour-glass. We don’t know if the poison is real. It doesn’t matter. Possibly an even better punishment than that is the mind-unravelling obsession he now gives into for the rest of his days…
The closing, much slighter dénouement concerns Jack the Ripper. (Originally there were to be four parts but the finances ran out). Here, Leni cleverly has Krauss look non-descript rather than the fanciful top-hatted, surgical bag-equipped, caped fictitious monster so often portrayed lurching through improbable London pea-soup fog. The poet begins that Jack is wont to pounce “suddenly and silently upon his victims”. As if by macabre magic, Jack’s spirit spectrally stabs the poet. He clutches his chest…and then we return to normal to find all is well for him and his new lady.
WAXWORKS is ghoulish fun with welcome variety and pace as well as a spine-tingling atmosphere. Following the film, Paul Leni was invited to become a director at the illustrious Universal Studios Hollywood by Carl Laemmle, where in 1927 he would release THE CAT AND THE CANARY (in the same year that Fritz Lang would open his masterpiece METROPOLIS that would close the genre back in Germany). This was followed by THE MAN WHO LAUGHS before Leni sadly died of sepsis in 1929 at the youthful age of 44.
Thursday, 7 January 2016
THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE (1933). In only his second film to use sound after M, Fritz Lang made his own testament before leaving Nazi Germany for ever. This sequel to his famous DR MABUSE two-part epic centres around the discovery that in an insane asylum, the supposedly catatonic former master criminal Dr Mabuse, an under-used though welcome Rudolf Klein-Rogge again, has been furiously scribbling more ingenious heist plans that mysteriously are being carried out in the outside world. His supervising professor Baum develops an unhealthy obsession about his patient - “Mabuse the genius!” he declaims with an unsettling lack of objectivity.
On the trail of a vast new crime network that has sent an ex-detective colleague of his, Hofmeister mad with fear, Inspector Lohmann pursues the case. This allows a nice continuity as Otto Wernicke reprises the same role he had in M, a pleasingly hard-boiled characterisation that alternates between breezily rolling with the punches and occasionally exploding with rage when stonewalled by suspects. (Sadly, Wernicke would later struggle to stay working as an actor under the Nazi regime, allegedly only by making a sizeable donation to the ruling party was he allowed to continue his career).
Within the crime conspiracy, there is a love story as one of the gang, Kent (Gustav Diesel), is begged by his girlfriend Lilli (Wera Liessem) to open up about his inner conflict. There is some unintentional humour here when he comes clean. Admirably she is unfazed about his prison record, but when he presses on with the worst of it, that he killed two people - “One was my girlfriend” - Liessem still shows zero reaction. Love is not just blind, it also appears to be deaf - she makes Joe E. Brown at the end of SOME LIKE IT HOT look judgemental. Anyhow, their resolve to go to the police gets them abducted and locked in the odd meeting room cloaked by a curtain that their mystery boss uses to communicate with his underlings. In a Republic serial-style cliff-hanger, they escape from the room by flooding it with water.
Ultimately, it’s revealed that it is the cracked Professor Baum who has taken up the mantle of continuing the super-villain Mabuse’s work, masquerading as him with the aid of gramophone voice recordings and hiding behind that curtained-off area. (Intriguingly, this device is not only reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz, but is it coincidental that the Professor shares the same surname as the writer of the children’s books, all of which were published long before the film?). Baum is haunted by the excellently grotesque spectre of Mabuse himself, silent and reptile-eyed who compels him to bomb a chemical plant before being cornered back at the asylum. A neat resolution sees Hofmeister here introduced to the spirit of Mabuse, thus ending his temporary insanity, while Baum is not so fortunate; his mental state now as shredded as the scribblings littered around him. He tears at them, spaced-out, just like his mentor when Mabuse too was captured ten years before…
Behind the scenes at the Ufa studio, there were sinister alliances being made. In 1927, Alfred Hugenberg, the media magnate had bought the studio and after becoming an influential Minister in Hitler’s government he placed it under allegiance to the Nazi Party in 1933. Hugenberg banned M and THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE but offered Lang continued work at the studio.
The director declined yet found an altogether more unwelcome fan instead. Lang’s film earned him a summons from Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s war-time Minister for Propaganda in 1933. Goebbels had spotted that the main character was a mouthpiece for a criminal version of an identical manifesto to that of the Nazi party. Nazism espoused that by erasing the structures of the present, only then could the thousand years of the Reich begin. Mabuse said exactly the same thing, that only when the old order had been destroyed, a thousand years of his crime empire would begin. Whilst on the one hand banning THE TESTAMENT for inciting disrespect in the Nazi leadership, Goebbels told Lang that the Fuhrer had seen his film and that: “..he has said that this is the man who will give us THE National Socialistic film”. At that moment, Lang broke out into a cold sweat, wondering how on earth he could get out, take his savings and flee the country. Goebbels then offered Lang the job of official filmmaker for German (Nazi) film. The director politely informed Goebbels that his mothers’ parents were Jewish. The Minister replied with a blood-curdling attempt at charm: “Mr Lang, we decide who is an Aryan”.
As soon as he could, Lang took his savings, arranged for a train ticket, met his girlfriend who agreed to let him take some of her jewellery safely with him out of Germany, and he left the country to begin again in Hollywood - never to return. There, he had a happy career making 21 films for a list of major studios, never making more than two for any single company. He closed his professional life in a somewhat circular fashion by concluding with his most famous anti-hero in THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR MABUSE in 1960.
In the superb film interview he gave to William Friedkin in 1974 (available on social media), Fritz Lang summed up his legacy in a simple belief about the duty of the film-maker. Usually a reluctant subject, he said: “(if) the film doesn’t express what he wants to say and he needs to give an interview to explain why, he is a lousy director….His films should speak for him.”
Wednesday, 6 January 2016
M (1931). After Fritz Lang’s bitter experience of tussling with Ufa over their attempt to force sound upon METROPOLIS, he made two more films SPIES and WOMAN IN THE MOON before temporarily retiring from the business, sickened by studio demands. (The latter film was intended to be an ending for METROPOLIS, allowing Freder and Maria to take a rocket to the moon together). He even considered becoming a chemist before an independent producer came trying to tempt him back into directing. Lang resisted for nine months till finally he agreed on condition that he would have total control over the budget, the casting, the final cut, every aspect – and these were the only terms that persuaded him out of retirement to make M.
For a story, Lang discussed with his wife Thea the limits of criminal depravity that they could get away with portraying on screen and settled for possibly the strongest taboo, a child-murderer. This was before the notorious real-life ‘Monster of Dusseldorf’ was caught in Germany around that time. By now Lang had spent a lot of research time with the police of Alexanderplatz district. In casting the killer, Lang unconsciously disproved the accepted theory of Lombroso’s that criminals all were the product of inherited bestial, primitive natures that manifested in physical defects such as sloping foreheads, heavy brows, abnormally long arms. The original title for M of ‘Murderer Among Us’ strengthened the terrifying normality of appearance that may hide these monsters from the easy detection Lombroso suggested. Lang searched for the most unlikely-looking actor and found Peter Lorre working in ‘Stegreif-Theater’, built around improvisation. Lang felt no-one would believe such a gentle unassuming person could commit the most awful of crimes so Lorre, who had never made a film before, was given the role.
Born in Hungary In 1904, Peter Lorre began life as László Löwenstein, eldest of five children to a textiles manager and a mother from whom he inherited his dark expressive eyes. She died from blood poisoning. He found his talent for acting at school. To satisfy his father’s concern for his future, the young László agreed to a day-job as a bank teller whilst pursuing becoming an actor at night, till his resulting exhaustion got him fired. His father eventually acceded to his son’s drive to follow his dream full-time. In 1925, László moved to Berlin and changed his name to Peter Lorre.
Berlin had a thriving arts scene at this time, drenched in Expressionism as we have seen and the teachings of Sigmund Freud. Lorre had already worked with a psycho-therapeutic theatre group inspired by Freud and once said that he thought a good actor should be in part a psychologist. He impressed esteemed playwright Bertold Brecht enough to be given a leading stage roles, prompting one critic to single him out as: ‘A new face…a terrifying face’.
Lorre’s growing fame as a theatre actor was almost cut short before he could establish himself when an operation (possibly an appendectomy) led to him being prescribed morphine, the use of which would sadly become a dependency for him.
M is a powerfully naturalistic crime procedural telling the story of a city in fear as its children are being murdered one by one by a mysterious killer. We see kids in the opening scene playing a game involving the chanting of a sinister nursery rhyme about the ‘man in black’. A mother, Mrs Beckmann shouts at them not to keep singing that ghoulish song. They ignore her. Our introduction to Hans Beckert the killer is a tease device of showing him in shadow talking to the mother’s little girl Elise. “What a pretty ball”, Lorre coos with disarming friendliness.
Lang shows great tact in focusing on the poor mother’s increasing panic as her daughter’s non-return grows later instead of any prurient hint at whatever hideous behaviour the killer indulges in with his victim. When we see her balloon rise up and bounce off the telegraph wires, our worst fears are realised by what we are not shown. The director also wisely chooses to concern the narrative almost exclusively with the effect on the community. M does not attempt to understand and sympathise with the sickness of a homicidal paedophile till the climax. Till then, we see how the strain of trying to keep a city’s children safe tears its citizens apart. Accusations damage friendships as paranoia takes hold and the community turns on itself.
While Inspector Lohmann and his police officers struggle to hold the public’s confidence, his men reduced to only twelve hours sleep a week, it is left to the underworld crime kingpins to take matters into their own hands at their weekly meeting. The most perceptive clue yet about the killer’s identity comes from one of its members (It takes one to know one?) who observes that for a murderer to still be at large after six years, he must be the kind of person “who wouldn’t hurt a fly”, someone who could easily seem nice enough to earn a child’s trust unnoticed. Beckert writes goading letters to the police, showing that he either has a compulsion to be caught or that he is in such control that he can afford to drop hints.
Eventually, Beckert is revealed by his distinctive whistling of ‘In the Hall of The Mountain King’ recognised by the blind man who sold his victim a balloon. He is chased into an office building whereupon a criminal gang seizes him before the cops come. They take Beckert to an abandoned distillery where in a highly-effective climax, a kangaroo court presides as judge and jury over him. They see themselves in a sense as a trying court of his peers though obviously none would confess to his type of terrible crime – “We are all law experts here” declaims the ‘judge’. (Real criminals were used in the filming of this scene to add veracity). It is tense and dramatic, pitting the demands of the prosecution against the thrust of not only the luckless appointed ‘Defence Counsel’ but also the impassioned pleading of Lorre.
Here, Lorre grabs our attention with what would become his trademark eye-popping, snivelling cowardice and a real actor’s skilful sensitivity in earning a measure of sympathy despite his awful character. The vigilante court want to execute him for fear that under Paragraph 51, he would be sectioned under a verdict of diminished responsibility and thus they would risk having him released into the city again. He attempts to counter their condemnation, appealing for mercy: “I can’t help myself. The fire, the voices, the torment!” This is Lang and co-writer Von Harbou’s only time of allowing his killer a chance to make the case for redemption, and to his credit it’s ambiguous rather than an opportunity for a liberal soapbox. Whilst Lorre fully commits his performance to the belief that he is out of control, I’m reminded of those killers who seem to miraculously find God or some other fast salvation conveniently when probation might be around the corner. Lang and Von Harbou equally give both sides time to state their case – a possible trump card being laid down after the Defence Counsel’s plea of sickness is when the mothers must have their say. “He does not have children,” one points out damningly. The quality of mercy perhaps droppeth less certainly when it is we who have been rained upon so tragically.
Whatever the verdict would have been from this criminal court, we will never know as just then, the police turn up and everyone surrenders with hands up...
Despite Lang’s demand for final cut, his ending for M was cut from the finished version for its original release. We are fortunately able to see it reinstated. As the real court passes sentence on Beckert, the mother of the first child victim pleads that in future we must all watch our children better.
M is an excellent crime thriller that handles the ultimate taboo with restraint and taste, giving due weight to the corrosive effect of understandable terror on a city whilst enabling the murderer to be more of a three-dimensional human being than perhaps the former Expressionist cinema vogue would permit, yet never taking understanding for him into unjustified apology.