Vingarne (Mauritz Stiller, 1916)

Vingarne (1916) Filmografinr: 1916/25

2016 sees the 100th anniversary of what has been called the first feature-length gay-themed film: Mauritz Stiller’s Vingarne (1916).  Whether or not it is indeed valid to refer to the film as “gay-themed” is, perhaps, in the eye of the beholder, but first a little bit of context.

By the time of the birth of cinema in the mid-1890s, Germany had become home to what was effectively the world’s first gay-rights movement.  In the 1860s, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs had coined the term Urnings to describe what would today be called gay men.  Ulrichs, like the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld who would follow two decades later, was a believer in what became known as the ‘third sex’ theory, which Richard Dyer sums up as the belief that ‘a man was a heterosexual man, a woman a heterosexual woman, and it followed that people who were not heterosexual were therefore neither one thing nor the other, neither a real man nor a real woman but something in-between’.[i]  In other words, the belief was that homosexuality was the result of nature, not nurture, although still viewed as a departure from the norm.  Ulrichs used this belief as the basis for his appeal to the Reichstag in 1870 in which he hoped to liberate Urnings from penal law.  In this appeal, he stated: ‘in all creation, no other living creature endowed with sexual feeling is required to engage in life-long suppression of this powerful drive, causing it to consume itself in cruel self-matyrdom’.[ii] However, despite Ulrich’s eloquent and heartfelt appeal, in 1871 homosexual acts between men were further criminalised both within Germany and throughout the German Empire via what became known as Paragraph 175.

hirschfeld

Building on Ulrich’s efforts, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld (above)began his campaign for the repeal of Paragraph 175 in the 1880s, and the prevalence of blackmail was one of the major arguments Hirschfeld used  in his 1897 appeal to the Reichstag.  This, and all later appeals by Hirschfeld, were unsuccessful with the exception of a vote for reform in 1929.  Blasius and Phelan write that ‘in 1929, socialist and communist Reichstag delegates voted to reform Paragraph 175, but this proposal was scathingly denounced by the burgeoning Nazi Party, which repudiated Weimar culture as decadent and promised to wipe out homosexuality’.[iii] Hirschfeld left Germany for a world tour in 1930, never to return.  He died in Paris in 1935, just over a year after watching newsreel images showing the destruction of his Sexual Institute and the burning of its library by the Nazis.

Though Hirschfeld’s name is recognisable today due to his work for gay rights, there was also a second, distinct gay movement in Germany during the same period.  This was known as the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen/Community of the Self-Owned, and was headed by Adolf Brand.  Brand and his followers believed in what Glenn Ramsey calls an ‘older, nationalistic aesthetic of classical male eros or Freundesliebe (‘friend-love’ between males)’.[iv] Brand was also the founder and editor of the world’s first gay journal, Der Eigene, which was devoted to fiction, articles, photographs and drawings which celebrated Brand’s concept of homosexuality.  The journal ran intermittently from 1896 until 1932.   Brand’s opinion of what a homosexual man should be and how he should act led  to a number of attacks on Hirschfeld’s theories and the more effeminate (and often eccentric) gay men with whom he associated.  In contrast to Hirschfeld, Brand and his followers were advocates of a teacher-pupil model of male/male relationships.  The love of an older man for a younger one – the sort of relationship advocated by Brand – had also been spoken about by Oscar Wilde during his infamous trials.

der eigene

The silent era saw two films based on the novel Mikael  by gay Danish author Hermann Bang:  Vingarne/The Wings (Mauritz Stiller, 1916) and Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924).  The narrative centres on the relationship between an older artist and his younger protégé.  Both films follow the same basic plot:  Zoret, an aging artist, helps and supports Michael, a young aspiring artist who also models for him.[v]    The two begin a relationship (whether sexual or totally platonic is only hinted at through the subtexts of both films) but, through Zoret, Michael meets a Princess and the two begin an affair. Michael sells the gifts Zoret has given him, as well as borrowing and then stealing from him in order to sustain his now luxurious lifestyle.   As Zoret becomes aware of the affair and the fact that he has been used by Michael, his health deteriorates rapidly and he dies before Michael can reach him in order to make peace with his mentor.

Vingarne survives today only in fragmented form, but Michael has been issued on DVD both in the USA and in Europe, with the American release part of Kino’s series called ‘Gay-Themed Films of the Silent Era.’  The problem with discussing “gay-themed films” of the silent era is that, all too often, modern ideas of queerness, masculinity and sexuality have been transplanted onto these texts created over 90 or 100 years ago.  In the case of Vingarne, we are now privy to information regarding many of the participants in the film that encourages a queer reading even though this information would not have been widely-known at the time of release.

In Vingarne, the narrative is supplemented by a framing device in which the director, Mauritz Stiller, and the actors all play themselves during the casting and making of the film.  This involves a sequence where Nils Asther is cast in the role of Michael and filming begins, only for Asther to be told by Stiller early on in the production that he thinks he is too young and inexperienced an actor to play the role.  He is replaced by Lars Hanson in the role of Michael, although Asther remains on set during the production.  Once the film has been made, the cast and crew attend the opening of Vingarne which we, the audience, then watch as a film within a film.  Once the premiere screening is over, attention once again turns to the cast and crew as Egil Eide, who plays Zoret in the film, attempts to console Asther after his advances towards Lili Bech, the actress playing the Princess, are rejected.

vingarne 3

Richard Dyer, in the second edition of Now You See It, goes to great pains to suggest that this framing device is significant when exploring the homosexual element of the film, not least because of the sexuality of both Stiller and Asther who were gay and bisexual respectively and who themselves had a relationship.[vi]

However, there are problems here, not the least of which is that this whole framing section of the film is lost, leaving us with just the film within a film section, ie. the dramatisation of Bang’s novel.  While the current restoration reconstructs the beginning and end section of the film in detail with stills and explanatory intertitles, it is difficult to explore these sections of the film and come to conclusions without resorting to supposition.  What the framing device clearly does give us, however, are examples of the mentor/pupil relationship advocated by Adolf Brand, with the role of mentor split between Stiller (in the opening segment) and Egil Eide (in the closing segment).  While the parallels between real-life relationships, those in the framing device and those in the film within a film are fascinating, for Dyer this is partly because of the sexuality of the real-life participants:

The key personnel were all gay.  Herman Bang’s novel, published in 1904, was well known and he himself was a notoriously gay figure, a kind of melancholy Oscar Wilde…The scriptwriter and designer, Alex Esbensen was gay.  Mauritz Stiller, the director, was not only gay but a flamboyant man about town…One of Stiller’s most important relationships was with Bnils Asther, the Danish actor who plays himself in Vingarne, his first film.[vii]

While this information is of interest to modern viewers, and no doubt encourages queer readings within the characterisations and narrative, it is safe to assume that, with the possible exception of Herman Bang, the sexuality of the participants would not be common knowledge to those viewing the film back in 1916 when the film premiered.  For example, Stiller himself, although having directed a number of films since 1912, had not yet reached his zenith as a filmmaker by the time of Vingarne, meaning his best work and most significant period of fame was still to come.  Bearing in mind that he was not a household name, and that Nils Asther was a newcomer to film (Vingarne was his first film), just how much of the homosexual element of the film would contemporary audiences have picked up on, and how much are modern audiences giving queer readings of the film simply because of personal information that we are privy to?  Richard Dyer writes:

Vingarne’s framing story … seems to emphasise that the actors in “Vingarne” are not implicated in the characters’ predilections.  Lars Hanson, at the premiere, says he’s terrible at Mikael and can’t understand why Mikael leaves the Princess, while Egil Eide (Zoret) says that he is glad the film is over.  In other words, the men who play the lovers in “Vingarne” seem to want to have nothing to do with it.[viii]

Here Dyer bases his observations on textual features of the film, specifically the dialogue (via intertitles).  However, it is just as likely that these comments were inserted into the film as instances of self-referential and self-deprecating humour on the part of Stiller as much as to distance the actors from the parts they have been playing.  Similar self-referencing moments can be found in Stiller’s comedy Thomas Graal’s Basta Film/Thomas Graal’s Best Film (Mauritz Stiller, 1917) from the following year.  While playing gay characters – whether implicit or more overt in character – could be viewed until recently as damaging to an actor’s career, the homosexual element in Vingarne (or, at least, what exists of it today) is buried so far beneath the surface that it is possible for many viewers not to notice it at all.  In other words, the comments to which Dyer refers are likely to be interpreted in different ways depending on what the viewer themselves bring to the film.  It is almost impossible to come to definite conclusions about a segment of film that survives only via a handful of stills, original intertitles, and explanatory intertitles added later.  How can one comprehend whether the comments to which Dyer refers were intended to be taken at face value or as a joke without access to the footage?

vingarne 1

Near the opening of the film, ‘when Stiller is discussing the project with Asther, he takes the novel Michael off the shelf … and says that his script is “faithful to the ideas” in it’.[ix]  This could certainly refer to the gay element to be found in Herman Bang’s novel, although even in that source novel the nature of the relationship between Zoret and Michael is hardly overly explicit.

Bearing this in mind, and the seemingly impossible task of finding an element of the film that spells out for certain that homosexual content is present, what is it about Vingarne that has given it its position as being regarded as the first ‘gay’ feature length film?  After all, there is nothing here to inform the viewer of the nature of the relationship between Zoret and Michael. While the connections with Bang and the gay and bisexual members of the cast and crew are fascinating, it does not make the characters involved any more or less homosexual – not least because the actors playing Zoret and Michael were both, as far as we know, heterosexual.   Matthew Kennedy, in his review of the DVD release of Dreyer’s film Michael, may provide the answer, suggesting that ‘if the Master’s obsession with Michael isn’t carnal, the plot veers into meaninglessness’.[x]

Kennedy is writing specifically about the later adaptation, Michael, here, but the same thing can certainly be said about Vingarne.  If Zoret and Michael are not in love, then why is Zoret so upset when Michael begins a relationship with the Princess?  It could, of course, be that Zoret simply objects to losing the platonic attention of his young protégé, and especially that Michael begins fleecing money from Zoret in one way or another.  What is more, Zoret could be said to be looking for a successor.  We know his quality of work is falling from when he is painting the portrait of the Princess.  He is having trouble getting the eyes right in the picture, and becomes frustrated.  It is at this point that Michael enters (meeting the Princess for the first time).  While Zoret’s back is turned, Michael picks up the brush and makes the necessary adjustment to the eyes which his mentor has been struggling with.  With Zoret getting older and his touch failing him, he seems to spend more time in mentoring his pupil than actually painting.  Therefore, it could be said that he fears all of his work with Michael is going to waste as he now spends all of his time socialising with the Princess.

This is a valid reading, but fails to work dramatically.  After all, this is not a revenge narrative, in which Zoret plans to get some form of pay back on Michael for his abuse of their friendship and through sheer envy on Zoret’s part.  Instead, the artist’s health starts to fail and, at times, he appears to be on the border of losing his sanity as well as his physical well-being.  It could be argued that he is, simply, love-sick.

vingarne 4

Viewing the film in relation to the thinking of both Hirschfeld and Brand, identifies elements of both men’s ideas at work in the scenario despite their seeming contradiction.  But it is Brand’s philosophies that are most in evidence here.  In Vingarne, as in the later Michael, a love is portrayed that has grown out of a mentor-pupil relationship of the kind which Brand advocates and describes in an article from 1925:

[We promote] a close joining of man to youth and of youth to man, so that through respect and mutual trust, and not least through the offering of one to the other, through the case of the older for the younger, through assistance in his education and progress, as well as through the promotion of his whole personality – to educate each individual to loyalty, to voluntary subordination, to civil virtue, to a noble ambition, free from all social climbing, to a noble courage constantly ready to act, and to a sacrificing willingness and joy in working for the national cause![xi]

Bearing in mind Brand’s comments, and those of another contributor to the same journal some two decades earlier in 1902 who wrote that ‘the ideal love union of a mature man with a growing adolescent can be of the greatest social value’,[xii] it is difficult to view the film in any way other than advocating Brand’s thoughts and ideals.

Despite this, in Vingarne, Michael himself is full of contradictions and ambiguities.  When we first see him, he is an excitable and bubbly youth in the company of some girls with whom he appears to be flirting, a scene which is clearly not intended to spark questions about his sexuality in the minds of the audience.  Zoret, on the other hand, can be characterised as almost predatory in this scene.  He observes Michael from afar and promptly walks down to him and asks him to model for him.  The modelling, we later discover, involves Michael being nearly naked and posing for a sculpture that Zoret is working on.   Michael simply stands while modelling with his arms above his head, his chest pushed forward and a sheet draped over his waist in order to retain his modesty.  While hardly the most masculine of poses, if Stiller wanted to make more of the relationship between Zoret and Michael it would have been more effective to simply film Michael from the waist up and therefore give the viewer the impression that he is, indeed, posing naked.  Instead, we are afforded no close-ups of Lars Hanson as he poses for Zoret in this scene.  We the audience have to content ourselves with viewing him from afar, although the long shot of Zoret working on his sculpture with Michael in the background does allow us to view Zoret studying his near-naked model’s torso as he perfects his work of art.

Here, as throughout the whole of Vingarne, it is impossible to ascertain whether Zoret is in love with Michael as a person or Michael’s youth, a question which brings us back to the influence of Oscar Wilde.    During his testimony in his first criminal trial, which took place between April 26 and May 1, 1895, Wilde said ‘I am a lover of youth…I like to study the young in everything.  There is something fascinating in youthfulness’.[xiii]

The influence of the Wilde case on European culture should not be underestimated, with the prosecution of Wilde sending shockwaves through homosexual communities both in the UK and in mainland Europe in the mid-1890s.  With Wilde becoming something of a martyr for the gay cause following his conviction for gross indecency, it is hardly surprising that his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas can be seen as the model upon which that of the two main characters  in Anders als die Andern/Different from the Others (Richard Oswald, 1919), a 1919 German film calling for tolerance towards homosexuality, was based.  After all, Wilde’s work was remarkably in vogue on the silver screen during the 1910s and early 1920s.   At least seven film adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray were produced between 1912 and 1919 (four of these were European productions, three were American; most are lost).  There were also versions of Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1916 and 1925, two of Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime in 1920 and 1922, and three of Salome in 1908, 1920 and 1923.  The sheer number of these adaptations point to the fact that Wilde and his works were very much in fashion during this period, and his influence is very much to the fore in Vingarne.

The queer element within both Vingarne and the later adaptation of the same book, Michael, is difficult to pin down.  Neither film explicitly refers to or depicts the Michael/Zoret relationship as homosexual, and even if it was homosexual in nature, there is nothing to suggest that the relationship was consummated.  It is only through subtexts, and references to scientific thinking and the attitudes of society at the time in which they were made, that the queer nature of these films can reveal itself.  In the case of Vingarne especially, our knowledge of the sexuality of the participants within the film only complicates our readings of it, and makes it difficult for audiences today to relate to the text in the same way as audiences did one hundred years ago when it was first released.  In fact, if we strip away all of the knowledge about the writers, actors and director, this first film version of the story becomes by far the lesser of the two screen adaptations if we are looking at indicators of homosexuality or queerness.

What we are left with is actually a rather confusing film which never quite manages to spell out to the audience the nature of the relationships within it.  While those familiar with Bang’s source novel would be aware of the nature of the relationship between Michael and Zoret, those without knowledge of the novel may well even find the plot somewhat nonsensical and preposterous.  Despite this, the complex structure of the film (for the time), the lives of the partipants, and the mystery surrounding the film’s actual intentions make it a fascinating relic that is well worth viewing should the opportunity arise.

(Queer Sexualities in Early Film: Cinema and Male-Male Intimacy is available to pre-order.)

[i] Richard Dyer, Now You See It.  Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 17-18.

[ii] Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, ‘Araxes.  Appeal for the Liberation of the Urning’s Nature from Penal Law.  To the Imperial Assemblies of North Germany and Austria’, trans James Steakley, in Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan (eds), We Are Everywhere.  A Historical Sourcebook of gay and Lesbian Politics (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 64.

[iii] Blasius and Phelan, We Are Everywhere, p. 134.

[iv] Glenn Ramsey, ‘The Rites of Atgenossen: Contesting Homosexual Political Culture in Weimar Germany’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol 17, no. 1, pp. 89.

[v] Michael is referred to in differing prints of the films as ‘Michael’ and ‘Mikael’.  For clarity, I shall refer to this character throughout  as ‘Michael’.

[vi] See Dyer, Now You See It, 2nd edition, pp. 8-22.

[vii] ibid, pp. 11-12.

[viii] ibid, p. 15.

[ix] ibid, p. 12.

[x] Michael Kennedy, ‘Tears for Queers.  Different from the Others, Michael and Sex in Chains on DVD’, Bright Lights Film Journal, issue 48 (May 2005), retrieved Aug 11, 2012 http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/48/queersilents.htm

[xi] Adolf Brand, ‘What We Want’, trans Hubert Kennedy, in Harry Oosterhuis and Hubert Kennedy (eds), Homosexuality and Male Bonding in Pre-Nazi Germany.  The youth movement, the gay movement and male bonding before Hitler’s Rise: Original transcripts from Der Eigene, the first gay journal in the world  (Binghamton: Harrington Park Press, 1991), p. 161.

[xii] Reiffegg, ‘The Significance of Youth-Love for Our Time’, trans Hubert Kennedy, in Harry Oosterhuis and Hubert Kennedy (eds), Homosexuality and Male Bonding in Pre-Nazi Germany.  The youth movement, the gay movement and male bonding before Hitler’s Rise: Original transcripts from Der Eigene, the first gay journal in the world  (Binghamton: Harrington Park Press, 1991), p. 167.

[xiii] See http://www.mr-oscar-wilde.de/ retrieved November 28, 2010.

[xiv] Blasius and Phelan, We Are Everywhere, p. 191.

F. W. Murnau Comes to America (vintage article)

F. W. Murnau Comes to America

The German Genius of the Films Talks of Movies and Men

Author: Matthew Josephson

(Motion Picture Classic: October, 1926)

murnau

 

“Simplicity!  Greater and greater simplicity – that will be the key-note of the new films.”

Murnau was speaking with ardour, gesticulating with his long limbs, whenever his English, altho (sic) correct and without foreign accent, failed him.

“Our whole effort,” he went on, “ must be bent toward ridding motion pictures of all that does not belong to them, of all that is unnecessary and trivial and drawn from other sources – all the tricks, gags, ‘business’ not of the cinema, but of the stage, and the written book.  That is what has been accomplished when certain films reached the level of great art.  That is what I tried to do in The Last Laugh.[1]  We must try for more and more simplicity and devotion to pure motion picture technique and material.”

Exactly what I had longed to hear someone say here.  Exactly what I hoped this giant of the moving pictures would say.  But then Murnau went on to say something which gives his own spirit and personal style completely.  Listen:

“In the film you give a picture, for instance, of an object, a thing, and it has drama for the eye; because of the way it has been places, or photographed, because of its relation to the other people or things in this film, it carries on the melody of the film.”

This is Murnau, the man who created the most vivid drama we have ever seen out of the simplest and lowliest things in The Last Laugh; who made brass instruments ring with music on the screen, or lit up faces so that they were loud with speech; probably the finest director who has come to us from Germany.

 His Influence is Felt

What will his influence be here, I wondered?  It has been very great already.  It is not as if we have been backward, for in the last year or two a number of film masterpieces made by American or American-trained directors follow the same tendencies of those of Murnau.  They are simple to the utmost and build solidly on the resources of the cinema – pictures like Vidor’s The Big Parade, Cruze’s Covered Wagon, Henry King’s Stella Dallas, And yet there are people who grumble at the inroads of foreign film stars and directors.  How silly!  If they could only see the mountains of inferior American celluloid that are shipped to foreign countries and blissfully consumed by the populace.

W. Murnau arrives at exactly the psychological moment, as we are on the verge of an era of truly great pictures. In his valise he brought with him a new epoch-making film, Faust, which is to have its first showing in America. At the very moment, Variety, a seriously inspired German picture, was playing to filled houses with the temperature at ninety.[2]  He is deeply interested in America; he has few false ideas about it, least of all that it is impossible to do anything fine over here.  And he is here at the behest of the Fox Film Company, seldom noted hitherto for artistic films, but now going in for bigger things.

He is not merely a giant of the films as I have described him, but in stature towers some six feet and several inches.  He is red haired; he has keen, steady eyes and quiet hands.  He is a calm man, not easily ruffled or thrown into despair.  His manner is unconventional, not at all formal or formidable as that of many Europeans.  He is young, not much over thirty-five; his understanding and his knowledge are broad.  I think that his abilities will make him respected, and his quiet, personal charm (so happily lacking in useless “temperament”) will make him liked.

Murnau was born of good family in a small town of Westphalia.  He was well educated.  He became interested in the theatre a few years before the war, at a time when great things were being done in the theatre by men like Gordon Craig, Max Reinhardt and Granville Barker.  He worked under the wing of Max Reinhardt as an actor and stage director in the world famous Grosses Schauspielhaus of Berlin.  He was doing small things, but learning much under the brilliant Reinhardt, whose production, The Miracle, has thrilled so many thousands of Americans.  Another young German was working quietly with Murnau under Reinhardt.  They became friends, and were destined to become masters of a new art.  The other young fellow’s name was Ernst Lubitsch.

When the Great War came, young Murnau found himself in the first line of infantry, in the Royal Guards.  Then for a year he was an officer in the aviation corps.  Like many of us, he was glad when it was all over, and turned from the art of the theatre to the budding motion picture industry.

Some of the most famous German actors, Emil Jannings, Werner Krauss, Paul Wegener, went into motion pictures.

Few Good Ones in Germany

We talked about the German situation.  What Murnau said will surprise many people.

“Contrary to the impression prevailing here, very few good pictures are being made in Germany.  There are few good directors or actors; there are few people who know anything about the cinema.  The big companies are loaded with deadwood, sheep.  They follow the tide, just as it is followed here.  When an interesting experiment turns out to be a hit, as Caligari did over there, they all imitate it.[3]  Or Variety.  They are all doing circus pictures now.  Those who have really been doing things, the talented, far-sighted men, have simply been feeling their way along.  The artists who made Caligari had no idea when they started out what their results would be.  And yet they discovered some wonderful things, they were pioneers.”

“Too much influence of the modern stage,” I suggested.

“Exactly.  I have had to forget everything I learned about the stage.  We have had to throw overboard everything that suggests the theatre.”

Here, Murnau spoke with utmost feeling and reverence for Max Reinhardt.

“I feel unbounded admiration for him.  He knows more about the theatre than anybody living.  I can never tell in words how much association with him meant to me.  He seems to know everything, follow everything.  He was the most inspiring of men to work under.  He is an old man now and very tired; but he is deeply interested in what we are doing on the screen.[4]  What we need is a Max Reinhardt of the cinema.”

“Most of the film stars of Europe, like Jannings, come from the stage?” I asked.

“Yes, but that isn’t necessary,” said Murnau.  “We don’t need trained stage actors for the movies.  There is splendid material everywhere which directors must take over and mold for the purposes of film.”

Like most of the fine German directors, Murnau has a passion for perfecting each detail of his picture.  That is one of the distinguishing features of the better importations.  In a pinch, Murnau told me, he would rather have a raw, untrained person, who had never played before, than a seasoned star.

Working over his last picture, Faust, he searched for many months before he found a young female apparition who suited the part of Gretchen; she is the beautiful Camilla Horn, a discovery he is particularly proud of.  Her face had just the degree of innocence and child-like beauty he wanted.  What a search it must have been in those times?

“In that way,” said Murnau, “I get exactly the effect, the feeling I want into the picture.  For the character of Faust I found a truly old man, a Swede, Gösta Ekman, who had seldom played before on the screen.”[5]

High Praise for Jannings

“But Jannings is an amazing screen actor,” I said.

“Yes, one of the finest in the world, and a dear friend of mine.  Do not misunderstand me.  Few people really know how to play before the camera.  Jannings is superb before it.  The secret of his power is that he uses his whole body for suggestion.  He is like this – (Murnau was puffing out his chest and throwing up his shoulders) big as a mountain when playing a king.  And when he is a clown or a beggar, he is able to shrink and quiver like the lowest toad.  He is absolutely unique.  But generally we can train players ourselves.”

Murnau is convinced that there is great material for the screen here to work with in his own way.  To find new “types” fills him with pleasure.  What a chance for some of our film-struck children!  Perhaps new life for some of our fading stars, even under the whip of a brilliant directorial genius, as Irene Rich, for instance, was glorified again under Lubitsch in Lady Windermere.[6]

The first picture he will work on will be based on A Trip to Tilsit,[7] a novel by the daring of Herman Sudermann,[8] with many interesting situations.  This will be done for Fox.  Murnau should distinguish himself; everything he does will have his own stamp, his own touch.

Screen authorities, who seldom come near being in agreement, were almost unanimous in pronouncing The Last Laugh the “greatest film ever made.”  Credit for this and for Jannings’ superb acting belong almost wholly with Murnau.  He spoke of it with unconscious pride.

Talks of The Last Laugh

“I wanted to try a story that you could really tell in five words, an exceedingly simple idea or situation; but the range, the feeling of the film which gave this story was to be limitless in its power of understanding and dramatizing ideas.  You can tell the story of The Last Laugh in a sentence, but I wanted the emotions of its central character to become something beyond the power of words to express. I wanted the camera to picture shades of feeling that were totally new and unexpected; in all of us there is a self-conscious self which in a crisis may break out in the strangest ways, and this picture at times reached the subconscious man under his hotel livery.

“The whole action of the thing pointed, for instance to the moment where Jannings takes off his hotel uniform, so that as he removed the coat with its brass buttons the highest point of the drama was reached, a drama that was purely visual.  The type of lighting and architecture we used helped a great deal toward this effect; everything superfluous that did not help to carry on the main idea was suppressed and thrown out of the picture.”

For his work here Murnau has brought over his own architect, a young man named Rochus Gliese, who has collaborated with him in several pictures towards getting the tripled intensity and directness that he goes for.

Faust, the large feature film over which Murnau has been working for several years, is to be distributed by Metro-Goldwyn soon.  It differs widely from The Last Laugh.  It may be another milestone in the progress of cinema.  For one thing, it is drenched with atmosphere and color.  It has been justly heralded as having the most beautiful photography.  Murnau has handled his camera as if it were a great Renaissance painter, a Leonardo or an El Greco.  For another thing, it is a great story, a universal theme, handled with great originality.

Every red-blooded German has had a yearning to do Faust.  It is part of the native atmosphere; it is somewhere in the flavor of the good beer every German drinks.  It is the rollicking legend of a bright, bold, bad man carrying out all his wicked dreams, that has gripped the imagination for centuries.  Those who know their Goethe, or the opera of Faust, will find that Murnau has gone back to the original sources of the legend to create something particularly for the cinema.

“In this film,” he said, “what interested me most was the relation between each scene or sequence.  Every single shot has an inevitable part in the movement of the whole picture.”

We were driving down-town now, toward lunches, banquets, greetings of the Mayor.

Issuing from the quiet, middle-class halls of the great hostelry on Fifth Avenue where Murnau seemed such an odd if good-humored-looking giant, he had shown only a single flash of temperament.  This was his demand for a certain luxurious make of American car such as he owned in Berlin.  We suggested that it must only be made in Germany.

We still talked movies.  His views were of unfailing interest.

Of Pictures and People

What did he think of Variety – the hit of the moment, to the happy surprise of all?

“Beautifully done.  Photography, playing, direction.  The vaudeville stuff is delightful.  It was really planned with the hope of an American success, and I am very happy that it is going so well.  Not because it is a German film.  I don’t really think that it marked a step forward for the cinema.  But it will improve the taste of the public, arouse them and interest them in this type of work.”

Caligari?  “It was frankly an experiment.  It was aufregend (stimulating), aroused wider interest in motion pictures, showed what might be done.”

Lubitsch?  “A brilliant man.  A most interesting director.  But I don’t think he has entirely cast off the influence of the stage that we both got under Max Reinhardt.  Many of his films give you the feeling of watching action on stage.”

Chaplin?  “The genius of the screen.  His comedies have the most profound appeal.  He is always doing something absolutely fresh and unconscious.  There were thing in The Gold Rush that were revelations, he a fountain of cinematic ideas.[9]  A Woman of Paris was extremely interesting; but, of course, it was in the European tradition.[10]

That reminded me of something I had almost passed up.

“And what do you think of – of – America?  I really had to squeeze that in, you know?”

“Thoroly exciting (sic),” he laughed.  “My second visit, you know, but I am like a child about it.  There are wonderful types here, wonderful faces.  Tremendous energy.  The whole tradition here suggests speed, lightness, wild rhythms.  Everything is novel.  Sensational.  I was in Childs’ Restaurant last night.  It was an amazing place to me.  Tonight I am going to Coney Island.  It must be barbarous there.  I would like to do a wild picture about Alaska.  What was the book they were considering?  Something like Frozen Nights or Frozen Lights.  It has wonderful possibilities.  Wonderful.  Wonderful…” he murmured as he drove on along the winding road that led thru banquets, receptions, Coney Island, to Hollywood, ultimately.

[1] Der Letzte Mann/The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau, 1924), a film best remembered for not using intertitles for dialogue.

[2] Varieté/Variety (E. A Dupont, 1925).

[3] Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari/The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

[4] Reinhardt was actually only fifty-three at the time this interview was first published.

[5] Not exactly true.  Ekman had already appeared in eleven films during the 1920s alone prior to Faust, and had the lead role in a number of them.

[6] Lady Windermere’s Fan (Ernst Lubitsch, 1925)

[7] This would be filmed under the title Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927)

[8] A short story, not a novel.

[9] The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

[10] A Woman of Paris (Charles Chaplin, 1923).  Chaplin appears only in a cameo role in this film.

The Haunted Palace (1963)

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It’s common knowledge that Roger Corman’s 1963 film of “Edgar Allan Poe’s” The Haunted Palace is not really based on Poe’s poem at all but an H. P Lovecraft story entitled The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  Corman tells us in an interview on the DVD release that, after directing several Poe films, he simply wanted to change things up a little.  However, there is relatively little that is different about this film from the previous Poe adaptations, but this is a case of “more of the same.”  With the emphasis on “more.”

There is more of almost everything here than in the other films of the cycle.  Firstly we have Vincent Price in not one but two roles, and giving perhaps his best performance in the whole series.  There are times, sure, where he eats up and spits out the scenery with gusto, but also moments (thanks to his dual character) where we see subtleties in his performance that are not present elsewhere.  There are moments of genuine tenderness between him and Debra Paget, as well as times when he appears to be the personification of pure evil.  We’re used to seeing the latter, the but former comes as something of a surprise.

The visual aspects of horror are increased here.  While the film isn’t gory as such, we see a number of people burned to death, as well as getting more than a glimpse of the “mutants” of the village, and whatever that “thing” is lurking underneath the palace – and here Corman breaks that golden rule of never showing your monster if you have a low budget.  A blurred image doesn’t make it look any more real.  There are, of course, some visually horrific elements to other films in the series, but they are normally resigned to thrilling set-pieces such as the climax of The Pit and the Pendulum and not to effects through make-up or photography.

There is also more music here, and the soundtrack by Ronald Stein is both stunning and beautiful and, hearing it away from the visuals, one might be forgiven for thinking it was written more for a 1940s melodrama than for a 1960s horror movie.  What this lush score does is complement, and yet draw attention to, the grandeur of the palace itself.  Looking at the cinematography, and the way the set is presented, it is difficult to remember that this is still film-making on a budget.  It seems as if with each film in the series, Corman was getting more and more confident, and managing to achieve a more luxurious look to his film, and this seems to reach a peak here, although many view Masque of the Red Death, which followed, as a better film.

For me, both The Masque of the Red Death and The Haunted Palace fall down slightly because of their longer running times – yet another example of “more.”  While The Haunted Palace is beautifully done, and well-acted, it does seem to outstay its welcome by around a quarter of an hour or so.  Part of the reason for this is due to the repetition within the film.  There are only so many times that Ward/Curwen can decide to leave the palace and the village and then decide to stay again, and this recurring issue seems only to prolong the film rather than make it better.

Perhaps this is why, despite everything I have written above, I just can’t warm to it like I can some of the earlier films in the series.  The other films may not have been so sumptuous as The Haunted Palace, or as well acted, but there were also never sections where they were seemingly being artificially extended.  There is a sense here that the notion of making something of quality from a low budget has gone just that little bit too far towards a real quality picture – a bigger budget literary adaptation – and I’m not sure that’s what audiences want(ed) from a Corman/Poe/Price horror movie.

Otra Vuelta de Tuerca (Turn of the Screw) (1985)

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Eloy de la Iglesia’s 1985 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, Otra Vuelta de Tuerca, is almost forgotten today, and about as difficult to find as two critics who agree on the meaning of Henry James’s novella.   The print of the film that is surreptitiously passed from collector to collector over the internet comes from a rare TV screening with home-made subtitles added.  Despite the occasional drop out in picture and/or sound, it is seemingly the only version out there in circulation, and so rather precious.

Not only is the film largely unknown, but so is de la Iglesia himself.  Perhaps his best known works outside Spain are Forbidden Love Games (1975) and Murder in a Blue World (1976).  Both are rather over-the-top dramas with more than a dash of exploitation movie thrown in for good measure.   A handful of de la Iglesia’s late 1970s and early 1980s queer dramas were released in America on DVD at one point, but from poor quality prints, with even poorer subtitling, and have long been out of print.  His adaptation of The Turn of the Screw seems to be a mix of his two earlier styles – thoughtful drama mixed with elements of sex and sexuality.

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This 1985 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw borrows a great deal from The Innocents, as perhaps would be expected.  However, some significant changes are made.  Firstly, the governess at the centre of the story is now a male school master and, secondly, the children are portrayed as older than in the previous, acclaimed adaptation.  Asier Hernández was fourteen when he played Mikel (Miles in the original) in the film (and looks older), whereas Martin Stephens was twelve in the 1961 version.

The change in gender within the central role is key to de la Iglesia’s vision – the repressed sexuality in the first film is now repressed homosexuality, and the back story involving the teacher having recently failed to become a priest only encourages that reading.  The older age of Mikel provides added threat to the naïve and out-of-his-depth teacher, with him seemingly attempting to seduce the teacher at every opportunity, but in a way that appears to be more plausible than in the earlier film.  However, as with the ghosts themselves, is this “seduction” all in the mind of the teacher or actually happening?  By the end of the film, the viewer is not any clearer, but that’s hardly surprising in an adaptation of James’s tale.

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What is perhaps most surprising here, especially to those who have seen the director’s other work, is how low key the film is.  While not as subtle as The Innocents, de la Iglesia takes his film at a stately pace and avoids the pitfalls of trying to scare the viewer – or shock them.  We find out even less about Quint and Miss Jessel here than in other adaptations, and certainly know very little about their supposed corruption of the children.  Despite his early work involving elements of exploitation cinema, de la Iglesia avoids that kind of material here almost completely.

What perhaps is most surprising about the film is that I like it nearly as much as The Innocents.  That, to some, may be sacrilegious.  However, the gender change of the protagonist is an interesting twist, but not used as a cheap gimmick.  Instead, it allows the director to explore his own themes and motifs.  Forbidden Love Games, from 1975, sees a teacher effectively kidnapping two teenaged students and corrupting them with the games of the title until they actually like what they are being made to do.  The film has shades of Salo, but also of Michael Winner’s ludicrous prequel to The Turn of the Screw, The NightcomersOtra Vuelta de Tuerca is not as explicit as Forbidden Love Games, but the same motifs seem to lurk within the back story, even if they are rarely seen with the exception of the bathroom scene involving the two children.

In short, de la Iglesia’s adaptation of the James novella finds the director reaching maturity within his filmmaking.  No, it’s not as subtle – or as scary – as The Innocents, and the cinematography isn’t as beautiful, but the movie is a fine effort within its own right and not when viewed as just a remake.  If you can find a copy, it is well worth a watch…with the lights out, preferably.

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Just Pals (1920)

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It’s quite a while since I’ve written about film here, particularly silent film, and so time to put that right.

Many people are familiar with the 1921 Charlie Chaplin film, The Kid, but not so many will have heard of Just Pals, a 1920 film directed by John Ford that has much in common with the more well known film.  Just Pals stars Buck Jones as Bim, the “village bum” according to the intertitles.  Here, he makes friends with a young boy, Will, who enters town on a train that he has stolen a ride on.  Together they find themselves caught up in multiple adventures.  As with The Kid, moves are made to take the boy away from Bim, although this takes up less time than one might expect.  Elsewhere Bim and Will find themselves accused of stealing money, not once but twice.  Buck Jones has never been more likeable in a rather atypical role for him, and he has a natural relationship with George (aka: Georgie Stone), a prolific child actor of the time, who plays Will. Stone left films in 1923 at the age of 14, and died in 2010, aged 100.  John Ford, meanwhile, still at the beginning of his directing career, keeps the film moving along at such a quick pace that it makes this fifty minute movie ideal for those only now discovering silent films.  What is perhaps most surprising is how the mood of a film from the period can change with almost shocking rapidity.  Here we have a light-hearted film in the main, but then a sequence involving an attempted lynching before moving back to lighter fare.

Motion Picture News wrote that “it is the human touches, both of comedy and pathos; the well created atmosphere of the Montana town; the very natural dialogue; and the picturesque character of Bim that will win favor for this picture” – and that still stands today.  In a sign of how things have changed in the last 95 years, Film Daily said the film didn’t make enough jokes at the expense of the country “hicks,” but elsewhere they find it “a pleasing bit of entertainment along the type of Huckleberry Finn.”

Just Pals is available on DVD as part of the John Ford Silent Epics boxed set.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

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I will admit it from the very beginning:  this is a rant.    Rants are good for you, and we should all have them from time to time, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I had to watch Don’t Look Now this week for teaching purposes.  I last saw the film when I was about fifteen, and I remember not being exactly over-enamored with it back then.  But that was twenty-five years ago (I say this with a sudden realisation that I can recall things from a quarter of a century ago – I’m getting old).   So, I went into this latest viewing without any real expectations, other than the fact that it’s viewed as a “modern classic” (modern despite the fact it’s now 42 years old).

It will come as little surprise that I really and truly do not agree with those that have hailed it as a masterpiece.  On the contrary, I found it to be overlong, tedious, self-indulgent and pretentious twaddle.  It is a “clever film.”  I will grant it that much – but cleverness for the sake of showing off and being clever is pointless.  The editing of the film is brilliantly done – if you’re giving a lecture on what can be achieved by jump cuts and match cuts etc.  But most people watching the film are doing so because they want a diverting way to spend two hours, not because they want to sit at the screen and say “oh, that’s clever.”  In the end, it’s this clever editing that is the film’s downfall for me (or, at least, it’s biggest downfall).  Instead of producing a film that is seamless and engrossing, it produces a film that constantly reminds you that you are a watching a film.

This is, of course, relatively normal for an “arthouse” film, but Don’t Look Now doesn’t present itself as an arthouse film.  In fact it doesn’t seem to know what the hell it is.  Is it a horror film?  Kind of, but not really.  Is it to be viewed as entertainment?  Well, no, not really.  In fact what it seemingly tries to do is straddle the notions of horror, arthouse and entertainment – and ultimately fails at all three.  It’s like watching Kubrick – I would really like the hours back that I have spent watching Kubrick films.  In other words, it’s an entertainment that is just too damned clever for its own good.  It’s pretentious in the fact that it is trying to somehow elevate itself over the cinema of (for?) the masses and yet still be entertaining, and it tries to do that by stealing leaves out of  the arthouse book:  playing with time and space, showing how clever editing can be, a plot moving along at a pace slower than me with a dodgy knee and walking stick, and completely and utterly pointless shots of Donald Sutherland’s and Julie Christie’s hairy bits.

In short, Don’t Look Now encapsulates the very type of filmmaking that I abhor: cleverness for the sake of cleverness.  It might be clever but it sure as hell isn’t entertaining as it meanders along not really going anywhere and only providing a mystery by playing tricks on the audience.  It’s the equivalent of writing a whodunnit and only introducing the murderer to the audience on page 198 of 200.  Yes, the film is very “worthy,” but worthy of what?  I have no problem with arthouse cinema – you know what you’re getting when you walk into the cinema or when you put the DVD in the player.  But this type of no-man’s-land (and Roeg is one of the “best” exponents of it, at least in his earlier directorial efforts) doesn’t excite me at all.  It leaves me totally cold…and reaching for the DVD eject button or, at the very least, the fast forward option just to see what happens at the end.  And in the case of Don’t Look Now, don’t even get me started on that.

Cecil B Demille and the Youth Film: The Godless Girl and This Day and Age

It will become clear as this blog progress that I don’t have much time for Cecil B Demille.  To me, he is as a director what Mary Pickford is as an actress – an instant turn-off.  I am sure that at some point I will write at length about the reasons for my dislike of most Mary Pickford films, but in the case of DeMille I object to his moralising, often ridiculous length and sense of self-importance.  However, I have recently watched two DeMille films that I have liked very much: The Godless Girl (1929) and This Day and Age (1933).

These two films are quite a departure, and both can be classed as early examples of “youth” films.  The Godless Girl is a late silent about a group of teenagers (played by rather older actors and actresses) who find themselves in a juvenile prison or detention centre following a mini-riot that takes place following a meeting of an atheist society.  Whilst there, a romance blossoms between the leader of the atheists, Judith, and leader of the Christian Youth Organisation, Bob.  Conditions are harsh and unfair in the detention centre, with physical cruelty being a common occurance.  In many respects, the tone of the piece is very similar to The Mayor of Hell made a few years later starring James Cagney and other films of that cycle.  Unusually for a DeMille film the action moves along at a fast pace and, despite clocking in at around two hours is remarkably entertaining throughout.  The two leads (Lina Basquette and Tom Keene) are effective, even if they are noticeably older than the parts they are playing, but it is Eddie Quillan who really steals the acting credits here, making the token clown within the bunch of kids into a human being that the viewer really does care about.

Surprisingly, DeMille revisited the youth film a few years later with one of his hardest to find sound films, This Day and Age, which stars the ever-likeable Richard Cromwell as the leader of a gang of kids who decides to bring about the downfall of a group of gangsters who killed their (adult) friend. With the exception of a couple of well-executed crowd scenes, one would be hard-pressed to name DeMille as the director of this work if they did not know in advance.  The film is a hoot, not least because of a cracking performance from Richard Cromwell and a fine script which includes some welcome pre-code snappy dialogue and other pre-code faithfuls such as sex, violence and references and accusations of homosexuality.  At 82 minutes it, too, moves along at a fast pace and is remarkably entertaining.

But you haven’t heard of This Day and Age?  Well, that’s hardly surprising, for it has never seen the light of day as a home video release since the era began in the early 1980s.  It is seemingly never shown on TV either, and as far as I am aware not shown at festivals or conferences in recent years.  This is a shame, for it is an entertaining work and deserves to be better known and would fit  nicely into a boxed set of pre-code features.  Meanwhile, The Godless Girl has seen a DVD release, but only as part of one of the volumes of the Treasures from American Archives boxed sets.  This is a shame, for it really deserves to also  be released separately from one of these pricey sets (wonderful though they are).

Update:  This Day and Age has now been released via Universal’s burn on demand series, and is available from amazon.com.