Archive for Karl Grune

The Sunday Intertitle: The Pits

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on May 19, 2013 by dcairns


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 —


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!


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.


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.


King Fu Fighting

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2012 by dcairns

Ah, Karl Grune! I’ve only seen his DIE STRASSE and already I know this is a man I would like to clap on the back and present with a packet of Trebor Extra Strong Mints. And I feel sure that he would accept this gift in the spirit in which it was offered. I have wondered if the famous image of the optician’s sign in that quasi-expressionistic meisterwerk could have inspired the similarly sinister sign that looks down on the characters of The Great Gatsby, published just afterwards (Ah, the twenties were very different things in German and America! — so this connection seems nice, somehow.)

But now — HOT WOW! — I’ve seen THE YELLOW HOUSE IN RIO, the French (Pathe-Natan) version of a UFA caper which shows Herr Grune in more antic mode. And it seems very much as if you CAN make a movie about a mad Chinese strangler with Pirandellian confusions of life and theatre, in two languages and with two casts, and have it be a minor-league classic.

This is the French version (full disclosure: I watched without subtitles, in a state of sort-of getting-the-gist, alternately frowny and delighted) — I haven’t heard of any of the cast of the German version, though one of them is called Charles Puffy, which does make me smile. In the French one, Charles Vanel, apparently bound by law to appear in every Pathe-Natan feature, appears twice, once as Scalpa the great actor, and once as King Fu  the mad strangler. (Is there a porno version where he’s Fu King?) If you have trouble believing Charles Vanel as the Yellow Peril, this film may not be for you. I found him every bit as convincing as Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Peter Sellers in similar roles…

So, the film is defiantly German in style, but with maybe a French lightness — but that makes it all the more bizarre. It hinges around two set-piece scenes, sandwiching a lot of talkier bits I frankly couldn’t follow. In the first highlight, our leading man Jacques Maury finds himself and the leading lady (Renée Héribel — another Pathe-Natan fave — she starred in LES TROIS MASQUES, the first French talkie, and co-starred in Gabin’s first movie too) abducted by the oriental fiend and threatened with noxious villainy if Renée will not dance. But it’s all an act — an audition to see if Jacques is right for the show, and he passes with flying colours.

The show opens, but there’s a REAL King Fu too — at the crazy climax, he takes the place of the actor and threatens our leading man for real. The curtain rises, surprising Fu, but he realizes he can do anything in front of the audience, who don’t believe it’s real. And he really does want to see Renée dance… Poor Jacques nearly has his arms yanked out by Fu’s devilish associates (yes, he’s a gang leader, also), all in front of a mildly appreciative crowd. Pirandello was never so grand guignol.

About the grand guignol… according to Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror, the French theatre of atrocities was very popular with the occupying Nazi forces in WWII. It makes sense, really, when you think about it. But several of the stars entertaining the SS, night after night, were secretly members of the resistance, who would have liked nothing better than to get their smartly-uniformed audience onstage for a bit of bloody participation.

This image, of the fake horror onstage and the real horror in the audience, always struck me as a great subject, and I haven’t pursued this story only because I’m not French. But now, as it happens, I’m making a French film (more later), so I figure, why not? If anybody wants to pay for my Grand Guignol script, maybe it’ll be my next project… I’ll be sure to steal a few ideas from Herr Grune.

On the street where I live…

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , on November 25, 2010 by dcairns

What beautiful thing is this? Only Karl Grune’s dizzying DIE STRASSE, the subject of this week’s edition of The Forgotten, available now at The Daily Notebook.

Maybe after I’ve watched every film illustrated in Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, it’ll be time to start on Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler? A daunting task, despite the smaller number of illos…