Tag Archives: German Expressionism

Weimar Noir: ‘lounge time’ in the cinema of GW Pabst

In an influential 1998 essay, the theorist and critic Vivian Sobchack invited us to understand film noir through the spaces that the characters in these movies inhabit. Not the psychological or metaphorical spaces, but the real bricks-and-mortar locations in which the tough guys and femmes fatales pass their time – a kind of time that Sobchack called “lounge time”. The places “to which we should pay heed,” she wrote, “are the cocktail lounge, the nightclub, the bar, the hotel room, the boardinghouse, the diner, the dance hall, the roadside café, the bus and train station, and the wayside motel. These are the recurrent and determinate premises of film noir and they emerge from common places in wartime and postwar American culture that, transported to the screen, gain hyperbolized presence and overdetermined meaning.”

Sobchack identifies the fact that film noirs are hardly ever set inside traditional family homes, but in transient places instead – hotels, stations and bars, even prison cells. When we spend any length of time in a character’s home, as in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, it looks more like an upmarket cocktail lounge than a dwelling. Sobchack talks about “cold glitter of the houses of the rich, where money buys interior decoration and fine art but no warmth, no nurturance”. Or, in the same film, we see a traditional family home, with a nuclear family living within it, only to see that ideal destroyed in an instant.

clashbynightkitchen
Clash by Night

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Spione (1928): DVD/Blu-ray review

Spione (1928)
Spione (1928)

Spies are cool.  Spy films are really cool. Spione, Fritz Lang’s epic high-octane espionage thriller from 1928, is exceedingly cool. This a sexy, dreamlike movie, heavy on the action and light on logic, which both anticipates and outpaces such noir favourites as The Big Sleep (1946). In fact, if you watch all two-and-a-half hours of this film without getting regular memory jolts of Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock and the whole pantheon of Lang’s future colleagues, I’d be hugely surprised.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is German Lang, not Hollywood Lang – and Spione is all the richer, and stranger, for it. Spione mashes up pulp fiction and lurid newspaper headlines with early film serials and adds in a twist of the fantastic and a dash of technolust. It’s a powerful brew.

Spione (1928)
Spione (1928)

“Throughout the world, strange events transpire …” runs the opening intertitle and that’s all the backstory you’ll get, folks. In a nameless country, a mysterious kingpin dispatches mercenaries and thugs to steal documents and sabotage treaty negotiations. The disruptive villain, Haghi,  is played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, fresh from a similar role in Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922), as a dangerously fascinating, if chilly, creature. It’s typical of this grand, sprawling movie that he’s not just a criminal mastermind but a banker too (boo-hiss) and a clown (say what?). Just go with it. And there’s no doubt whose side we want to be on, though, despite the best counter-espionage efforts of our upright-but-anonymous leading man Willy Fritsch, who goes by the digits No 326. The link between the two men is Sonja, a lethally blonde femme fatale, an employee of Haghi’s who falls for Mr 326: a seductive, dishevelled performance by Gerda Maurus.

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Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari: Blu-ray and DVD review

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Just because a film has proved to be massively influential, it doesn’t follow that it will look modern. For evidence, I present Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920) – without which, the movies that followed could look very different, but which barely cares to look like a movie at all. I’m exaggerating, which itself is very Caligari, of course, but watching the gamechanging new restoration of this cinematic titan, I am struck by how much of its power comes from the arts of set-painting and stage-blocking rather the magic of the moving pictures.

Although there are some eyeline cuts, irises, close ups and unsettlingly low-angled shots, Caligari heart belongs to its theatrical forebears. When I heard that this film had been restored, even when I saw the first YouTube clips of the work that had been done to bring crispness, brightness and vibrant, slick colour back to Caligari, I didn’t appreciate what all that labwork would reveal. This is Caligari the spectacle, a testament to design and showmanship – a world away from the current trend in horror cinema to ramp up the realism and immerse the audience in a grey and gruesome world.

Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920)
Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920)

Watching this Blu-ray, you can make out each brushstroke on the canvas backdrops, the clumps of white powder in the Doctor’s hair, Lil Dagover’s spidery painted-on eyelashes. Lean in, you might just be able to lick the greasepaint off the screen. The power of Caligari, of course, is that it’s no less terrifying for being artificial. In the same way that the framing story in the asylum, which was tacked on to make the film less scary, actually contains some of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Caligari‘s high-concept design strategy is so daunting as to be horrifying. There’s a lengthy, and very useful excerpt from Lotte H Eisner The Haunted Screen in the accompanying booklet and her summary of the power of Expressionism bears repeating:

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Silent films at Scalarama 2014: Sidewalk Stories, Caligari and more screen nationwide

Sidewalk Stories (1989)
Sidewalk Stories (1989)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Duncan Carson, a film event producer who organises the Nobody Ordered Wolves screenings. You can follow Duncan on Twitter at @nowolvesplease

It would be easy enough to despair at our current cinema choices. Although film houses are more comfortable and technologically sophisticated than ever, what is actually on the screen is terrifyingly narrow. Even though almost every cinema in the land is now equipped for digital prints, opening up programmers to a cheap and vast library of films, this hasn’t broken the stranglehold of loud, ephemeral and repetitive Hollywood fare. 
 
Standing as an antidote to this conservatism, Scalarama brings the weird, the underseen, the expanded and emboldened to the cinema and beyond. In its fourth year and now bolstered by BFI funding, Scalarama takes place across September and operates in a similar fashion to the Edinburgh festival fringe: the organisers take no cut of the profits, they only encourage a broadening of what is on offer. Originally created as a tribute to the freewheeling programming of the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross, it attempts to bolster film clubs, give cinemas the confidence to take on riskier programming and move cinema outside of its traditional homes.
Two films that are at the heart of Scalarama’s offering this year are of special interest to silent film lovers. The first will be familiar to all: Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. The second is almost a ghost to all but a few dedicated film fans: Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories.
 
Shot in 1989, Sidewalk Stories is a modern silent feature film. And it has an impressive progeny: Michael Hazanavicius, the director of the Oscar-winning behemoth The Artist, credits this neglected classic as the direct inspiration for his indie smash. Yet if this might lead you to expect a nostalgic recreation of cinema pre-1928, guess again. Lane’s setting and attitude is more Spike Lee than FW Murnau. Made the same year as Do the Right Thing, Sidewalk Stories is cut from the same cloth as other grimy pre-Giuliani New York city films like Taxi DriverSerpico and The French Connection.
Sidewalk Stories (1989)
Sidewalk Stories (1989)
That said, the plot itself is pure Chaplin: the star (played by Lane himself) finds himself in loco parentis of a young girl when her father is killed. As with Chaplin’s The Kid, our hero’s hapless parenting is the centre of the story here. The dynamic between the two is heartwarming, no doubt because of their connection as real-life father and daughter. Having confessed to loathing silent cinema as an art student, Lane embraces the medium to tell a universal story about homelessness and desperation. It is a story of deep compassion and this is why it is being released in the UK in partnership with Open Cinema, a charity that provides opportunities to access culture and film skills for marginalised people. Londoners have two opportunities to catch the film: Nobody Ordered Wolves (AKA yours truly) will be showing the film at popup cinema Hollywood Spring with a live score by pianist Stephen Horne. Tickets here. Later in the month, Hotel Elephant will also be showing the film. To see where else in the UK this neglected gem is getting an outing, click here.

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