Jan/Feb 2004 Film and Cinema

The Mystery Rhymes: The German Golden Age

by Mostafa Hefny

"You cannot escape your destiny by running away." —F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu Ein Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

"Who knows what it's like to be me?" —Fritz Lang's M (1931)

There is no finer mirror of man's worldview than its opposite. This seems counterintuitive, a paradox, though it is clearer outside of the arts. In politics it is common for persons of profoundly irreconcilable positions to merge into one. Consider the anti-globalization movement: on its fringes lie rejectionists who have gone from opposition to the uneven distribution of wealth between rich and poor to rejection of the mere interaction between peoples, cultures, modes of thought. The constituents of this isolationist front purport to be opposites—religious fundamentalists and communists, followers of an irrational higher power and their atheist enemies. Yet they speak with one voice of totalitarianism and disdain for the individual. It is only the language by which these ideologies are framed that differs. They are one. Their complete merger will occur once they've discovered that ideology is circular. And that the world is round. Now consider the astonishing output of German cinema in the brief period—less than 15 years—between the end of the first world war and the beginning of the Nazi dominated 1930s. That output was so rich and influential that it is rightly referred to as "The German Golden Age." It's constituents purport to be opposites. They are the Expressionists, who sought subjective vision colored by psychological imbalance; the Kammerspiele (chamber theatre) films and their intimate psychology; and the "New Objectivity," with its focus on granular realities of the destitute. These approaches were applied to both fantastical and realistic narratives (also opposites). But no matter how the films of this era were, or are, classified, they revolved around the same axis, that of post war Germany. Though they were often technically disparate, it makes little sense to talk of any one of the aforementioned categories of this golden era in German cinema without discussing other films of the era that have not been classified as such. They are one. It's just the framework the differs. In the landmarks of the period there exists one unifying theme: the defeat of the individual by the manifest force of destiny. And the somber realization that this has occurred.

A dose of skepticism is healthy in considering cinematic movements in general. One cannot lump together hundreds of works, demoting the artist to a pixel in a grand, prescient picture. The films of an era are defined by their aesthetics, themes, or both. Influences of films on one another can and have been traced. But in writing a historiography, one cannot succumb to the temptation of viewing the work of an era as that of grand animator. Individual films are the works of individual authors and should be considered accordingly. Critics who enjoy the concept of "movements" are liable to amalgamate films that do not easily fit together. This is perhaps most profound in most of the critical work on Italian Neorealism, where Rossellini's Open City (1945) and De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1949) are often the subject of the same sentence. Yet in this case, it is only the framework (the neorealist aesthetic) that is similar; Rossellini's melodrama and De Sica's sad fable have nothing else in common. Hence one must strike a delicate balance between recognition of commonalities of pictures of particular era and the distinctiveness of particular filmmakers' work. With regards to the Germans, it is the themes that are common, whilst the aesthetics evolved. From a strictly aesthetic point of view then, let us now consider what is perhaps the most influential film of the period, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).

About Caligari, Pauline Kael writes that it is "the most complete essay in the decor of delirium" (Cinemania CD-ROM). The film, with it's uneasy position as the first expressionist feature, has been subject to endless reductive examination that culminated, somewhat zealously and uncomfortably, in Siegfried Kracauer's film history From Caligari to Hitler. Here the phenomenology (it's outward appearance) can be appreciated without the trappings of the objective realities of the world as we all see it, which is deemed superficial and therefore less truthful than the subjective excursion of expressionism. Caligari is the very definition of the expressionist film. It is the film in which the idea of the cinema as a vehicle for a first person narrative was not only realized, but realized completely. What is most fascinating about the idea of an expressionist cinema is the absence of the an advisory prelude. No pretext justifies the distorted world. It simply is. With that lack of anchoring, the safe distance one has over fiction—the realization that this irrational world is being filtered through a rational narrator who has the omniscience to explain why the world on display is the way it is—ceases to exist. When one thinks of expressionism in cinema, it seems akin to walking into a dark underworld where the principles that govern our lives above are irrelevant. The limitlessness of the possibilities is arresting. The makers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari recognized this limitlessness and put it to good use. Much too good.

One of the chief criticisms of the film is the framing device that anchors the subjective experience. If the story of an evil magician, his slaughtering somnambulist, and their grotesquely distorted existence is not only narrated by (and seen through the eyes of) a madman, the argument goes, doesn't the mildly objective reality of the framing sequence necessarily detract from the film's impact? If one experiences a nightmare, but then is told that it was only a nightmare, doesn't that lessen the vividness of the experience? This is criticism with which I wholeheartedly agree. Nevertheless, this lapse in expressionism is not fatal. Here's why: the framing sequences are, as I have described above, only mildly objective. In the garden of what is eventually revealed to be an asylum, a sense of inexplicable otherness is palpable; a fog hangs over the two men, and only characters from the explicitly defined nightmare, including Jane (Lil Daover) who glides ethereally in a manner of an apparition, exist in this, the ostensibly real world. As is the case with Murnau's stunning The Last Laugh (1924), one can choose to relegate a late lapse in the film to irony. That is decision borne out of our admiration for the work that we may choose to view a flaw as deliberate, as one designed to draw attention to itself. But Murnau earned the right to call his denouement ironic because he identified it (with a title card) as such, and because the power of the preceding film justified our maneuvers on its behalf. Caligari does not inspire such an endeavor. In fact what is fatal for Calagari, and the reason it no longer casts a spell over an audience, are not its lapses of expressionism, quite the contrary. It is the completeness of its expressionism that anesthetizes it. The very rhythm of the picture suggests that filmmakers are aware that they are breaking new ground. The director, Robert Wiene, seems to pause, admiring the frame, not out of a search for meaning (the fabled wordless meaning of expressionism), but simply to demonstrate the distortions. This self awareness reduces Caligari to a collage of expressionist images rather an expressionist film. It is true that several of those images are stunning (some, as that of Cesar carrying Jane to her doom on the foot of a geometrically impossible bridge, are iconic), but they are independently dazzlingly, powerful only as images, not as segments of a nightmarish narrative. It is correct to name The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as the most expressionistic of films. This is because the entire enterprise is merely a demonstration of cinematic expressionism. Here expressionism is not a motif—a tool at the service of the filmmaker—but the subject itself.

It is telling that Robert Wiene never made another significant contribution to the Golden Era (though his body of work is valiantly defended by Uli Jung and Walter Schatzberg in Beyond Caligari). Notwithstanding that defense, Caligari is hampered by occasionally shoddy camera work and awkward transition between scenes. It would take more distinct directorial talents to take German cinema to its next levels. Of those, two stand out: FW Murnau and Fritz Lang.

"His work," writes Brad Parger (4) about Murnau, "is generally viewed as a synthesis of a number of traditions." Indeed, Murnau's famous Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horrors (1922) is landmark of cinematic expressionism. But unlike Wiene, Murnau is freer in his interpretation of the expressionist aesthetic. His decision to film the picture outdoors is in and of itself a great departure from his studio-bound expressionist predecessors. The result is what Rona Unrau calls "naturalist expressionism" (5). As is the case with Caligari, this is story of creatures at the dreadful service of their shadows, their malevolent selves. Murnau chooses to film the reflection of the hero rather than the man himself—the shadow of the vampire, rather than the creature (him) itself. The erotica of vampirism, the allure of castles of Eastern Europe present in Bram Stoker's novel, are transformed by Murnau into a rat-infested purgatory. It's beauty is dreadful, demonic, but it is there. Nosferatu is much longer than Caligari, yet the scenes (shot by Fritz Arno Wagner, who would later work with Fritz Lang) are more purposeful. Among the most memorable are the negative images of Count Orlok's coach scurrying through the night and the corpse-filled ship sailing seemingly of its own free will in the Atlantic. Both images are affected by a sense of sadness that comes with the inevitability of the characters' destinies. They live, they move, but they always end up where the shadows lead them.

Nosferatu remains effective not as a work of horror, but one of dread. I have found most of the literature interpreting the picture uncompelling. Perhaps that's a compliment to Murnau, whose work on the film remains effective, yet largely difficult to translate—wordless meaning. Yet as significant as it is, Nosferatu's inclusion in the now ridiculous vampire genre has reduced its impact. Fortunately, Murnau's position as a pillar of the German Golden Age does not depend on Nosferatu, but on his 1924 production The Last Laugh, AKA The Last Man. What this agile, somber, operatic, intimate masterpiece accomplished is the marriage of techniques developed in expressionist and realist movements to produce a wholly original social picture. If the rot of the Weimar Republic emanated the arresting despair of German art in the 1920s, then The Last Laugh was the first picture to explicitly link the art to its source, without sacrificing the aesthetics that made German cinema so persuasive. Given the interconnectedness of the filmmaking community in 1920s Germany, Murnau (who would only live to 1931) and his Kammerspiele film are a crucial point of evolution that would eventually bring about the greatest film of the era (and indeed any era), Fritz Lang's M (1931).

Expressionist cinema concerns itself with animating the inanimate. One looks for the blood of a statuette on the screen. In expressionism there is also the related—and far more disturbing—corollary of reducing animate beings to cogs in a machine. We may be the slaves of a preordained doom, but in Caligari and Nosferatu, there is regret in that defeat. In Fritz Lang's seminal Metropolis (1926), the overriding sense is that of submission. Lang's celebrated film is the most clearly influential of the era, or as Roger Ebert puts it, "one of those seminal films without which the others cannot be fully appreciated" (6). Absent Metropolis, and it's difficult to imagine that films ranging from the splendid Blade Runner (1982) and Dark City (1998) to the dreadful The Fifth Element (1997) would have looked the way they do, or would have been envisaged at all. Lang's inert, magnificently sterile cityscapes are—incredibly—still awe-inspiring today, even when disadvantaged by 80 years worth of technological advance. This magnificent spectacle is not without wordless meaning; it defines Lang's prescient worldview: Metropolis paints a dualistic society at war with itself. The capitalist elite run the city from their towers whilst their offspring frivol joyfully in gardens amid the clouds. In the world below, Lang's images are even more daring. Innumerable dehumanized men walk, in perfect synchronicity, into a large black hole, an elavator shaft. They emerge to the bosom of an open mouthed monster, a giant machine, where they toil magnificently, moving heavy dial hands back and forth, clockwise then counterclockwise. This, as Ebert explains, "makes no logical sense," but it is a perfect pictorial representation of the individual completely defeated, reduced to a repetitive, meaningless cipher.

Metropolis's influences, however, are limited to its style. Its theme of a dehumanized society is ill-served by a weak script, its cheap extol of religious salvation, and appallingly naïve political commentary. The picture's final message, that "the heart must mediate between the mind and the body" is so condescendingly hollow that we have to recall our awe of the spectacle only moments before to stomach it. As good as Metropolis remains, I have no trouble believing the critics who roundly trashed Thea von Harbou's novelization of the film. But for it's director, Metropolis serves as a connecting link to his subsequent work. Lang's dualistic society, with its mechanized dehumanizing apparatuses is harbinger to the film that distilled the essence of the time and place.

The children sing of killer.

"Wait, wait just a little while
The Man in Black will soon also come to you."

As M opens, an overhead shot, analytical not sympathetic, surveys a circle of children. Their song is real. It is the song of Fritz Harmann, the killer of Hanover, executed by the Weimar Republic in 1924 for the murder of 27 men. But M is even more immediately topical than that, as Anton Kaes explains in his superb reading of M: "Berlin in the fall of 1930, with several newspapers showing clearly readable titles and dates, was the film's story about an elusive serial killer" (7)(Kaes, 22). These stories, at the time M was made, were compulsively filled with the exploits of Peter Kurten, "the Vampire of Dusseldorf." His crimes first horrified, then captivated a nation that was first horrified by war, then captivated by political zealotry. Kurten's execution was only three weeks away by the time M was released, and it was condemned by some critics for the sensationalistic exploitation of murder. In defending Lang's masterwork from this charge, we need only remember the children.

Their nursery rhyme is sung in a game of "You're out." A child is excluded from the circle when the last word of the rhyme falls on her—a randomness that echoes that of a pathological child killer. Now consider the labyrinthine measures taken by Lang to present what follows: as the camera leaves the children it enters an empty staircase. An elderly woman enters from the lower part of the frame. She shouts to the children to stop singing that murderer song, they acquiesce and stop, only to begin again a few moments later. They continue with their random elimination of each other. Their circle resembles a clock, ticking with the randomness of killer. Upstairs, the elderly women knocks on the door. A younger woman, one of children's mothers, opens the doors and chats with the elderly woman. She closes the door and then checks her clock. Later, the mother opens the same door to an exhausted looking man. "Thrilling, stimulating, sensational," he says with a voice that is humorously neither thrilling, stimulating or sensational. The mother picks up crime serials from the man and asks if he's seen Elsie, her little girl. He hasn't. His mechanical demeanor suggests that he would not register the little girl if he indeed had seen her. The camera cuts to the vulnerable little Elsie on the street, where she is almost run over. A mechanical policeman escorts her to other side—to her murderer. Elsie walks, bouncing her ball on the street and then on an advertising board. The camera cuts again to the mother preparing lunch for her daughter. The mother, now agitated, walks to the staircase, revealed by an extreme high angle shot to be empty in a stark, cold symmetry. She walks back to the house, frustrated. We notice that she has in her hand the crime fiction she had picked earlier. She checks her clock. Cut back to Elsie. Her ball bounces off the word murder. A shadow appears—this we deduce is the murderer, as he is not seen. He emerges as a shadow from an advertisement depicting his crimes. His shadow bends down towards Elsie. Cut to the mother. She has put down her serials. She is now bending, peeling a potato, a knife in her hand. Her posture is exactly the same as that of the murderer.

After Elsie's off-screen murder, the camera observes a newspaper man in the middle of a crowded street. He is yelling : "Extra, extra. The child murderer strikes again."

This is not a film about the psychopathology of child killer. This is a film about the psychopathology of a society that is revealed when it is attacked by a child killer.

As is the case with the inferior Metropolis, this is a portrayal of a dualistic society. On one hand resides a vast mechanistic bureaucracy, on the other, the masses. But M is the bleaker of the two: here the masses are not the defeated proletariat but a mob, hungry for blood. We can see the back of their heads as they amass in front of a bulletin of the latest murder. We hear voices shouting bloody murder as the mob corners an old man they have collectively decided is the killer (he was seen talking to a child). Lang's depiction of the mob is cold and impersonal. Faces are never seen, only their voices and the back of their heads. Whilst there existed the implication that the masses of Metropolis were victims of the powerful elite, in M the relationship is symbiotic. As the angry crowds gather around the bulletin, Lang pulls back to reveal that there are many of them. A voice, again unidentifiable, asks those in front to read the details of the latest killing aloud. Another voice becomes dominant, but is also unidentifiable. Lang's camera cuts to a claustrophobic barroom where several hefty gentlemen sit. A spidery ceiling lamp covers the top of the frame as the men are seen from above. They are the powerful, and it was one of their voices that bridged this scene with the preceding mob. The masses are no longer victims of the rulers. They are its fuel.

The word bureaucracy conjures images of pale, inert orthodoxy, of working functionaries on the correct side of the law. In Lang's Berlin of 1931, those images are laughably naïve. The bureaucracy is vast, formed of concentric circles of government, law enforcement and the underworld. The depiction, according to Kaes is accurate:

Organized crime in the Weimar was a central part of Berlin's scene, open and widespread, feared but tolerated. At the core were the so-called Ringvereine (ring clubs), gang-like organization and shadow police force that 'protected' businesses in the underworld—prostitution, gambling and drugs—and they also lorded over Wiemar Berlin's world famous decedent nightlife, a huge industry. They ran the beggars union and controlled all sales of guns and managed 'professional' break-ins. (50)

Of Lang's great achievements in M, it is his structure that is the most impressive. The contrast of the criminal underworld's and the police's efforts are what most critics remember. Indeed, that contrast, accomplished through direct cross cutting, is funny in a very disturbing way. The criminals are just as organized as the police and far more efficient. The geniality between the police and the underworld at a mass raid, where the criminals shout the chief inspector's name in unison "Lohmann, Lohmann, Lohmann" (some even call him "Papa Lohmann") suggests their complimentarity. But other scenes, where the beggars are lined up to join the hunt for the killer, suggest military-like recruitment. It is no accident that one of the beggars is a one-legged cripple, an allusion to the army of which the man was a part. And to the one to which he now belongs. But these direct cross-cuts pale in comparison to Lang's larger vision. In this film, one scene germinates several others. Consider the scene in which a government minister asks the police chief for results in the child murderer's case. As the chief recounts the efforts made by the police, the camera cuts to visual depictions of his account, whilst his voice remains on the soundtrack. This is what Kaes describes as "an emphasis on compositional tension rather than physical action" (79). Lang's omniscient camera builds tension not through the ticking of a mechanical plot, but the holistic picture of city. One of the things Lang's camera catches in its omniscience, during the abovementioned telephone conversation, is the glimpse of the murderer—looking at his reflection in the mirror.

Acting is the most difficult aspect of film to critique. It is the most expressionistic, internalized of elements, its impact is the most difficult to articulate. We are reduced to rudimentary adjectives in describing the efficacy of a performance. Yet one cannot experience M without an appreciation of Peter Lorre's (as Bekert) centrality to its effect. Perhaps it is his physical shape, bloated, panic-stricken, child-like and goggle-eyed. When we first see him in a photomontage of germinating scene, he is contorting his face as he watches his reflection in the mirror. It is significant that we see his reflection as we see him for the first time. Lang reserves most of his expressionistic techniques for Lorre, perhaps because his omniscient camera cannot articulate why he kills in a language that would make objective sense. His reflection in the mirror is an allusion to the Doppelganger, the psychological double so prominent in expressionist art. The emphasis here is on the involuntariness of crimes. He contorts his face as a voice of an "expert" describes the profile of the killer. He is trying to fit that profile of deranged madman. Yet neither he nor the experts understand his compulsion to kill. In the glorious penultimate scene, we notice that he has read of his crimes: "I do these things, then I read about them in the paper. I read... read... read."

The involuntary compulsion is asserted in other ways, most prominently in his whistling of Grieg's "In the Hall of A Mountain King," a tune he can't stop himself from whistling. Other scenes also imply a physical incapacity to control his impulses. In a strangely moving scene, we see him purchasing fruit. As yet another narrator describes the murderer, he starts munching on a piece of fruit before the vendor can wrap his order in a bag. The final, conclusive evidence of his blamelessness comes as Lang observes him observing a child. Lorre's body goes into a trance, and the whistling starts. When the little girl unexpectedly runs into her mother, and the murder becomes infeasible, he heads to a café where, unable to stop the whistling, he covers his ears and leaves in anger. The whistling comes from a place within him over which he has no control. Bekert is then a character of the expressionist cinema, of inexplicable compulsions whose reasons cannot be rationally articulated. In understanding him, one must do away with the objective worldview of crime and punishment. In his celebrated speech in front of the kangaroo court of the underworld—the film's most haunting scene in which Lang's camera ceases it acrobatics and simply watches Lorre—Bekert screams of the "voices, the voices, the torment." His definitive utterance, the one that defines the film and the era it describes, comes in a state of violent trance: "Who knows what its like to be me?" he cries, more then asks. In Germany circa 1931, no wanted to know. Expressionism was dead as an art form long before Lang made M because this was a society no longer interested in the exploration of the mind, or of the other. M essays a society working in repetitive compulsion, ready to explode. They think only of murders and murderers, waiting for things to come. In the 1930s, Adolph Hitler would head the nation. He was democratically elected.

Our knowledge of the horrors of the Second World War colors the German films of the 20s and early 30s. There is, I think, a sadness that exists beneath these films. We look for signs and answers. The films of this Golden Era nobly sought a higher truth, an explanation beyond the purely material. Because of their very nature, this body of art cannot solve the mystery of the great violence that society would unleash on the world. Not in any conclusive sense. Instead, it provides a picture of its psyche, in which the mystery is not solved, but it is explained nonetheless—we understand the rhyme, if not the reason. It's a shame that great art is often concurrent to great tragedy; perhaps art is not causative of tragedy but a way of understanding it. Many later films would be hugely influenced by this era. And in one in particular, an evil character articulates the relationship between tragedy, despondency and great art. He may as well be talking about German Golden Era:

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. —The Third Man (1949)


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