The Sunday Intertitle: The Pits

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I enjoyed Karl Grune’s semi-expressionist DIE STRASSE, with it’s staring eye optician’s sign, so it was only a matter of time before I saw more of his work. DAS GELBE HAUD DES KING-FU is sadly lost, but the French version made parallel with it, LA MAISON JAUNE DE RIO, is quite a thing, combining as it does UFA with Pathe-Natan house styles.

SCHLAGENDE WETTER (TRAPPED IN A MINE) dates from 1923, the same year as DIE STRASSE, but it’s more melodramatic and stiff at the knees. However, there are numerous points of interest.

The movie was considered lost, and only restored from a partial Italian copies. The intertitles were reconstructed from those handy censor’s records, with the result that they lack all 1920s style. So I’m not bothering to reproduce any of them here. Big chunks of the film itself are missing too, so that it becomes hard to judge what emotional pull it might have once had. As it is, the best character is a wee dog —

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Like most domestic pets, he seems oblivious of the emotional subtext of whatever scene he’s in, so he serves as a kind of alternative movie of his own — if you get tired of the drama unfolding in the main scenario, you can look at whatever corner of the screen he’s occupying, and get a more upbeat storyline, one revolving around the cuddles or biscuits the unnamed pooch lives in momentary expectation of receiving. His life is a whirlwind of excitement, as who knows when some distracted German actor might pat him or feed him? It is sure to happen at any instant!

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Grune adds a further divertissement by hand-tinting the lights on the mineshaft elevator, so little dancing green and magenta bubbles decorate the frame. Rather than glowing brightly and remaining still, as they should do, these frame-by-frame enhanced bulbs wibble-wobble like figures in a Bill Plympton cartoon, making them almost as perky as the happy wee dog. And like the dog, the effect is one of continual distraction — you can’t take your eyes off the thing. It’s like when Channel 4 decided to show some racy films (IDENTIFICATION OF A WOMAN! THEMROC!) with a red warning triangle in the top right corner. It was the first station ident “bug” ever deployed in the UK, and it drove us crazy. Our virgin retinae, never before exposed to such a beady intruder, darted to that corner at every edit, convinced it was looking at us. When it disappeared in the commercial breaks we stared at the empty space, awaiting its return, like some primitive tribe watching for the sky-god. We even forgot to look at the naked ladies.

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Grune’s artificial townscape with its miniature chimney stacks in forced perspective, and the giant mine set with its weird cutaway tunnels, permitting Grune’s camera to observe the cave-in victims like the insectoid bumpkins in an ant farm, add macro scale to the micro detail. It’s only the human-sized elements that let the film down. Poses are struck, arms are flung about, in what looks almost like a parody of silent movie acting. Perhaps it’s a response to the melodrama of the story — DIE STRASSE is neatly restrained in comparison, and channeling all the sturm & drang into a narrower focus creates far greater emotional intensity.

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4 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The Pits”

  1. That still at the top looks very James Whale.

  2. Well, Whale was certainly someone who had absorbed the influence of expressionism, and not just in his horror films — Showboat and Man in the Iron Mask display it also.

  3. jiminholland Says:

    For Karl Grune fans (and I may be wrong, but I suspect that is the first appearance in the English language of that usage) the link below will be welcome.

    Take note:

    This is a version of the film that was designed for the English-language market (intertitle spelling accords with Brit norms, for what that’s worth), and it’s not at all clear how this version corresponds to that released in Germany;

    Whatever Metropolis-like truncations were made in this export version, further elements are now missing, so that the narrative is sometimes… less than comprehensible;

    The version linked below was apparently recorded from a cable-TV broadcast, with the result that its narrative problems are surpassed by its visual ones — this as low-def as it gets.

    But despite all of the above, well worth attention — if only to see Brigitte Helm and her (weird, weird) eyes.

  4. Oooh, exciting! I have absolutely no time to look at it just now, but I assuredly will…

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