Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Expressionism and Escape

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday October 09, 2008 - 03:47:00 PM

German Expressionism Collection 

One of the pleasures of viewing silent film is watching a nascent art form as it is invented, developed and perfected. In the 1910s and early 1920s, filmmakers experimented with the new form, attempting to harness its unique properties, its potential for drama, for humor, for surprise.  

The Germans soon proved to possess an unparalleled knack for examining the darker side of film, using lighting, set design and camerawork to exploit the medium's capacity for psychological drama.  

Kino has packaged four great films in the German Expressionism Collection, a box set that elucidates the bold inventiveness of Germany in those early years in the creation of art that celebrated its own artifice. 

Expressionism was a strong influence on American film noir, and the pleasure of the genres are similar: overwrought emotion, heightened reality, shadows and shady characters. And the films in this collection play up those qualities, creating fever-pitched realities that are certainly strange, at times demented, but always fascinating. 


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 

Of course, the granddaddy of all expressionist films is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, one of the most legendary of all silent films. It has been readily available on home video for some time; in fact, Kino has not updated their previous release of the film, but simply repackaged it for this set.  

The film would still be considered bold and experimental if it were made today, using painted, surrealistic sets and stark imagery. Far less grounded in reality than most of the films that it would inspire, Caligari is gloriously artificial in its presentation, creating a stage-bound world that bears little resemblance to the everyday world but which lures the view into a strange, hypnotic world of its own.  

Conrad Veidt played the somnambulist, establishing himself as perhaps the definitive actor of Germany's expressionist era. Werner Krauss plays the deranged Caligari with an unforgettable blend of madness, mystery and menace. 


Hands of Orlac 

Veidt and director Robert Wiene teamed up again for the The Hands of Orlac, a story that takes place in the modern world but is no less nightmarish and unreal. Veidt plays Orlac, a concert pianist whose hands must be amputated after a train crash. A crafty surgeon is able to replace Orlac's hands with those of another man. Soon after, his father is murdered, and fingerprint evidence points toward Orlac, sending his fragile psyche into even greater decline as he begins to unravel the mystery of the origin of his new hands. Wiene and Veidt ratchet up the psychoanalytic elements in bringing the horrors of the plot to life. 


Secrets of a Soul 

G.W. Pabst's Secrets of a Soul is a more overt attempt to capture the essence of psychoanalysis on the screen. Though the film is fairly explicit in its delineation of the dark forces at play in the character's subconscious, with intertitles that fully address his violent urges, there is still much that is left unspoken. Issues of impotence, sterility and sexual dysfunction are for the most part left unspoken, but are suggested through imagery and gesture.  

The dream sequences are lurid and convincing, expressing the disjointed logic of feverish nightmares. The imagery is powerful and stark, beautiful in its own right as surrealist fantasy, but still revealed as logical in the end.  


Warning Shadows 

Warning Shadows is a purely visual film, with no intertitles to convey plot or dialogue—beyond the opening credits, that is, which feature each actor appearing on a proscenium, introduced along with his shadow, for shadows prove to be characters as much as the people who cast them.  

The story concerns a woman and her husband. They are hosting a dinner party of her suitors. A traveling entertainer crashes the party and proceeds to put on a show of shadow puppetry, a show that plumbs the depths of each character’s consciousness. The shadows take on the semblance of reality, acting out a passion play that, in the best Expressionist fashion, gives shape to the tensions and desires in the minds of the party’s hosts and their guests. The husband, overcome with jealous rage, seeks revenge on his flirtatious wife and her ardent suitors, while her beauty and careless allure lead the men to destroy first her and then each other.  

The film was photographed by Fritz Arno Wagner, the famed cinematographer who also shot F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s M.  


Houdini: Movie Star 

Harry Houdini must have seemed an obvious candidate for movie stardom. Famous as a vaudeville performer and as a daredevil stuntman, he was a born showman, charismatic, daring and bold.  

Though limited as an actor, his appeal, then as now, is readily apparent. Short and rugged with piercing eyes, he comes across as an earlier generation's version of Edward G. Robinson, handsome in an unlikely way, tough and scowling, but able to convey a certain benevolent humor and grace.  

Kino has released a three-disc set of all that remains of Houdini's brief movie career. The set includes three feature films, a surviving fragment from a fourth, and nearly four hours of installments from a 1919 serial. Bonus features include newsreel footage of many of Houdini's straitjacket escapes, usually while dangling upside down over a public street before thousands of onlookers.  

But the main attractions here are Houdini's acting performances. The set starts with the 15-part serial, The Master Mystery (1919, 238 minutes), an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink action adventure in which Houdini, as Quentin Locke, battles a corrupt patents company involved in anti-trust practices, along the way battling a robot, rescuing a beautiful dame, endureing a string of torture techniques, and escaping from an array of deadly devices. The enormous success of the serial led to a contract with Famous Players Lasky/Parmount Pictures, which resulted in two feature films.  

Terror Island (1920, 55 minutes), the most lavish of the Houdini films, sees the magician playing an inventor whose state-of-the-art submarine is called into duty to salvage both treasure and romance. The film again affords Houdini the opportunity to display his talent for the escape, as well as his ability to hold his breath underwater for extended periods as he passes in and out of the submarine to stage various rescues and assaults on nefarious foes. 

During the making of The Grim Game (1919), two planes collided in mid-air, leading the producers to re-write the script around the material. The only fragment that survives of the film shows this accident, and though the filmmakers claimed that Houdini himself was hanging from the plane and survived the accident, the editing and re-shoots that sustained the illusion are hardly any more convincing today than they were then. 

After fulfilling his Hollywood contract, Houdini returned to New York to start his own production company, the Houdini Picture Corporation, producing and starring in two more films. The Man from Beyond (1922. 84 minutes) allowed Houdini to indulge his interest in reincarnation, playing a man unfrozen after 100 years who finds his true love of 1820 is alive and well in another woman's body in 1920. In Haldane of the Secret Service (1923, 84 minutes), his final film, Houdini stars as an undercover agent infiltrating a counterfeiting operation in New York's shadowy Chinatown. 

Despite his fame, Houdini's acting career was not a success. It turned out that the art of the escape required a flesh-and-blood performance to hold an audience's attention; cinema, with all its sleight-of-hand editing and shifting camera angles, robbed Houdini's stunts of their veracity and sense of danger. If an audience wanted grace and daring and swashbuckling charm, they had Douglas Fairbanks; if they wanted dangerous stunt work, cinematically presented and with no editing gimmickry, they had Buster Keaton. Though Houdini was one of the most famous men of his time, his fans preferred to see him not larger than life on the big screen, but on the stage, life size and all the more compelling for that fact that he was real.