Director: Fritz Lang
Writer: Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou
Cinematographer: Fritz Arno Wagner
by Jon Cvack
I’ll be honest, seeing that I was about to receive a two and a half hour German silent film didn’t exactly make me thrilled, but wow was this a treat. As usual, I put the thing on mute in order to play my own soundtrack: a mixture of post-rock and jazz, and was whisked away into another world.
Spies is a complex and engaging story that would go on to inspire every modern rendition of the spy story - there are reversals, double crosses, car chases, bank robberies, numerical codes representing many of spies, such as central character Number 326 (Willy Fritsch), which would obviously evolve with the James Bond series along with the strange and malign looking villain sitting behind the desk, orchestrating his plan, smoking endless amounts of cigarettes I couldn’t sit down and watch this movie in one sitting, but divided into three parts this is an incredibly enjoyable film, which just goes to show how prescient Fritz Lang was. Whether it’s the allegorical M, the sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis, or his numerous forays into film noir with Clash by Night, Scarlet Street, The Big Heat, or Fury I am in awe every time I check out a new movie from the man and see how much it influenced generations of storytellers from there on out.
Many of Lang’s film contain an incredibly modern feel, as though they were light years ahead of their time in demonstrating how to work the camera and tell an engaging story. I think of so many spy films that have failed. Recently, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, which while containing some incredible action sequences, just didn’t feel as coherent or large as I expected it to (given its budget). I’m confident that in a few years it’s going to blend together with parts II - IV, as currently I can’t think of what separates one from the other, except that Philip Seymour Hoffman played the villain once (though I can’t remember in which part).
Perhaps it’s the infusion of special effects, and the current problem of CGI overload that’s made many of its sequences fall flat, for even though a lot of MI:V was captured practically, there were too many moments that felt fake. Watching Spies shortly after, I realized that this was a film that was geared toward making things more cinematic and immersing you within another world. I’m not sure what it is, but common to many of the great silent pictures, there’s something otherworldly about this story, where although we feel like we’re watching a palpable narrative, it is exists in the escapist fantasy realms that the great films have provided us - where life seems bigger and more exciting.
BELOW: Just watch this two minute intro and you'll see what I'm talking about
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Writer: Benjamin Christensen
Cinematographer: Johan Ankerstjerne
by Jon Cvack
This is one of the coolest and more eerie horror silent horror films I’ve watched, and possibly one of the first docudramas of all time. Of course it helped that I placed it on mute and rolled my own score with Bohren and Der Club of Gore, which I later regretted when I saw that William S. Burroughs narrated the jazz-scored ‘68 version (Criterion didn’t mention this fact without digging into the supplements). Split into four parts, director Benjamin Christensen (who played the Devil in all scenes) follows witchcraft through the early ages in Sweden and other parts of Europe. What begins as a bunch of old photographs documenting the earliest references to witches then transforms into horrific recreations of everything from potion making, torture devices, religious inquisitions, and the coolest part, countless demon and monster costumes.
It’s no wonder that this movie experienced such harsh criticism - the trampling of a cross; a nude woman embracing the devil; a pinioned infant held over a cooking pot; the various scenes that make the church look like it’s run by a bunch of certifiable lunatics; all while producing some of the more terrifying imagery of 20th century cinema. To the point that the Swedish government forced them to remove these images at the time. 19 years later, they were restored.
This is the type of film you could possibly trick some kids into thinking it actually captured witches from the period (yes I’m aware that there were no cameras in the 15th century; I’m talking about young, impressionable kids who are looking for a good fright during Halloween). Next time I have a party that’s in need of some solid background horror films this will be at the top of my list. There’s a plot, but it’s the images of demons and monsters that pop in and out of scenes are what's mos
Christensen was part of the cinema’s transformation from silence to sound, and in a great intro, where he’s dressed like a scientist in a laboratory, recorded for the film’s re-release in 1941, he talks about the ability for cinema to allow you to fill in the blanks and extend your own voice to the demons and devils. After all, what would these beasts actually sound like and who is Christensen to try and explain that sound. Silent film, like literature, allows the viewer to fill in the blank with their imaginations. Although only eight minutes, it’s one of the most insightful essays on the power of silent cinema.
I’d put Haxan on any must see horror film list.
And for those of you wondering how they achieved the brilliantly executed witches flying through the air, here’s a bit of cinematic ingenuity, up there with Fritz Lang’s Shufftan process (from IMDb):
To achieve the scene in which the witches are flying over the roofs of the town, Benjamin Christensen and his cameraman Johan Ankerstjerne photographed a miniature town (with each house about 2 meters in height) on an enormous turntable, which operated manually and took the strength of 20 men to operate. Then, several costumed actors were photographed on broomsticks against a black background. To make the heavy costumes ripple in the "wind" Christiansen brought in an airplane motor. A total of 75 witches were photographed, each individually, and a special optical printer was built by Ankerstjerne to put them together (only about three of four appear on the screen at one time). The construction of a model town was decided upon after test footage proved the original idea of shooting from a movie train was a bad one, as too many modern structures, not to mention telephone poles and wires, were unavoidable.
BELOW: William S. Burroughs' incredible narration of the film (I'd advise watching the silent version first, as this one is cut down significantly)
Director: Paul Leni
Writer: J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, Charles E. Whittaker, Mary McLean
Cinematographer: Gilbert Warrenton
by Jon Cvack
I was expecting a bit more horror from this Universal Pictures “Classic Horror” film. I've seen it listed on countless Best Of lists - Silent Films, Horror Films, etc. I suppose most of the hype's based on its impact on one of the most iconic villains of all time - The Joker, who much like his modern addition, also deals with a smile cut into his face. And yet this story doesn’t really offer any of the thrills or chills you'd expect. You wait and wait and it never occurs, which then makes me wonder if even calling this a horror film is a suggestive and innate form of bigotry, as the movie is really just about one man’s handicap, where if it wasn’t in the film would take out the only horrific element the entire story contains, thus shifting it to the dramatic category. I admire the German Expressionistic set pieces, and the way the film was butting up right against the edge of sound, including some interesting design work, involving the roar of the crowds and other subtle effects. The film is actually very very good, and probably one of the top silent films I’ve ever seen. It’s just not a horror film.
So going off the idea that this is more about an individual’s handicap, I have to say it’s an incredibly moving picture. The Laughing Man is Gwynplain (Conrad Veidt), who has joined a traveling circus, working alongside the very pretty and blind Dea (Mary Philbin) who therefore has no idea about Gwynplain’s deformity. She loves him for the man he is, which Gymplain has a difficult time understanding, as he’s chronically embarrassed by others.
Gwynplain’s smile was carved in after his father was sentenced to an Iron Maiden by King James II, who then had a doctor carve the child’s face as well. Nevertheless, the King’s successor Queen Anne and her Jester discover the lineage and hunt for his return into the Lord’s Court. The Estate is currently owned by the gorgeous (and spot on Madonna look alike) Duchess Josiana (Olga Baklanova) who exudes sensuality, and is probably one of the sexiest silent film stars I’ve ever come across. It’s no wonder that Gwynplain falls so hard for her. In one of the most moving scenes, after meeting the Duchess, Dea asks Gwynplain if the Duchess is really as beautiful as people are saying. In close-up we see Conrad’s ability to use his eyes to displaying an overwhelming conflict - between the loyal love that Dea feels and the burning licentious desire he has for the Duchess, who knows if they don’t marry she’ll lose everything. Gwynplain struggles toward honesty, with lust and love ripping him in completely different directions. In terms of the nascent period’s development of film language, this is one of the finest moments.
The film is hardly similar to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis or Faust. It’s a love triangle involving an image that would evolve to influence some of the most important pieces of popular media of all time. I just wish it was scarier.
BELOW: Pretty much the only 'scary' scene from the film, which by the end, will make you feel bad for feeling scared
Thoughts on films, old and new
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