Archive for Robert Weine

The Sunday Intertitle: Tomorrow Belongs to Me

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 28, 2014 by dcairns

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Got some complimentary copies of CALIGARI in the post from the good people at Masters of Cinema. I’ve contributed a video essay to this one, and David Kalat has recorded a commentary track. His MABUSE tracks are among the finest commentaries out there, and this is well up to standard. I was intrigued to discover that we were both offering alternative readings of the film which intersect at various points. While mine is along the lines of a crackpot theory, inspired a little  by MULHOLLAND DRIVE, Mr. Kalat simply dispels the clouds of intrigue and confusion whipped up by the Krakauer-Janowitz account of the film’s making and meaning. Interestingly, while that yarn has been largely discredited for some time, it has still had an influence on how people see the film.

As mentioned before, the restoration makes the movie look like new, and suddenly, being able to see the facial expressions clearly, you get a whole new kind of emotional involvement too.

I have one spare copy — maybe I’ll offer it as a prize in the next Shadowplay Impossible Film Quiz?

If you can’t wait: Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (Masters of Cinema) (DUAL FORMAT Edition) [Blu-ray]

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The Sunday Intertitle: You Raskol, you

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on August 21, 2011 by dcairns

Thanks to Neil McGlone for RASKOLNIKOV, admittedly jumped-around by random splices that teleport its cast short distances, and intertitled in a schizoid mix of Russian and Italian, just two of the many languages I don’t speak. But this film is so consistently hard to see, I’m grateful for an opportunity.

Robert Weine’s expressionist take on Crime and Punishment suffers an almost unique disparity between its prominence in all the literature on German cinema, and its frustrating unavailability on DVD and on the repertory circuit. Is this the result of some unspoken value judgement, silently declaring the film to be less interesting than its design, less significant than its place in history? A possible basis for such a dismissal lies in the undoubted fact that German expressionism and Dostoevsky are unlikely bedfellows. True, one must accept that the movie adopts the bare bones of the novel’s plot and doesn’t really attempt its nuance or depth: that being the case, we have to overlook its failings as an adaptation and consider what it achieves in its own right.

KOWMAP — Russian for “nightmare”? If so, how apt that would be! A map drawn by a cow would be a geographical nightmare indeed!

And what is that? Given my inability to read the intertitles, my findings are only preliminary, but I’d hold the film’s sheer visual beauty up as its prime virtue. More solid and less painterly than Weine’s earlier CALIGARI, it serves up a constant stream of striking images, setting its tale in an expressionist-constructionist St Petersburg of jumbled, off-kilter shapes. The actors hue to a roughly naturalistic style, somehow moving through the jutting diagonals without producing too violent a clash, although all interaction with the zany UPA-meets-UFA doors is fraught with peril. The Big Idea is obviously to portray Raskolnikov’s world as a nightmare, a slightly inflexible approach which struggles to accommodate subtleties —

For instance, here’s the stairway to the pawnbroker’s flat (above).

And here’s the same stairway in Raskolnikov’s nightmare, after he’s murdered the pawnbroker. Both sets and shots are wondrously striking, of course, but there’s something oddly unsatisfactory about the very idea of an expressionist nightmare version of something that’s already an expressionist nightmare.

By contrast, the scenes involving Detective Porfiry are relatively restrained — the angles are still skewed, but the structures within the police station mainly look as if they might actually belong to a real, non-avant garde building, reflecting the character’s status as an avatar of rationality. While outside, all is chaos ~

I guess the problem with all of this is that it’s vague and amorphous where the novel is clear and specific. In the book, Raskolnokov’s troubles stem from poverty (or that’s certainly how he sees it), which Weine can’t convincingly evoke on his shattered-mirror stages. The novel’s character has nightmares that reflect upon and deepen the central narrative in the allusive way typical of real dreams, while the movie’s character has nightmares which replay scenes we’ve already witnessed, only with even wonkier walls.

None of which stops the film being a jagged visual feast, and more than worthy of a full Institute Murnau-Stiftung type restoration and re-release. Are you listening, Herr Stiftung?

Veidt Shadows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2009 by dcairns

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The 1924 original version of HANDS OF ORLAC, from Robert “CALIGARI” Weine, is too classy a film really to fit in with my demented quest to see all the films illustrated  in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, but it is in the book, and I did see it, thanks to regular Shadowplayer Guy Budziak. There are horror movies you should see as a kid, and when you see them as a grown-up, you wish you’d seen them earlier (for me, THE BLACK ROOM, CURSE OF THE GOLEM and the silent THE LOST WORLD might be examples), but I don’t think I would have appreciated the lugubrious tone and pace of this one as a kiddie.

It’s also good that I’m seeing it now, since I can connect the stylistic flourishes of German expressionism to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, a student of the German school. This week’s Hitch, NUMBER 17, is a particularly Teutonic crime tale.

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Do you all know the story? Pianist Conrad Veidt plays Orlac, whose hands are smashed up in a train wreck, and is given the substitute extremities of a guillotined murderer. Strange stuff starts to happen, convincing Veidt that his paws retain the murderous proclivities of their previous owner. It’s all part of a fiendish plot by Fritz Kortner, the details of which are obscure enough to keep you guessing. For a while there, I thought that Kortner actually intended to make Veidt murder his own father, by convincing him that his hands were animated by malevolent will.  That plot, worthy of VERTIGO’s Gavin Elster in its twisted complexity, proves to not quite be the case.

Weine here achieves delirious effects without overtly contorted or theatrical sets, although the designs by Hans Rouc and Stefan Wessely are glossy, disconcerting and non-ergonomic. Fiona particularly relished Veidt’s weirdly low hospital bed, which actively compels everybody to loom over him. The best effects are a mixture of lighting (those deep dark jagged shadows, how we adore them!) and performance. Veidt is extraordinary, a floppy-haired stick insect, his brow furrowed into a taut brainscape of clenched convolutions. He does things in this film no actor has ever even thought of doing. I mean, he tries to throw his hands off! He tries to run away from them. Sometimes he literally holds them at arms’ length, as if they’re ablaze, or they smell really bad. At other times they try to crawl inside his face. At one point he looks set to moonwalk. “Michael Jackson!” Fiona cried. “It don’t matter if you’re black or Veidt,” I offered, lamely.

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Alexandra Sorina is Mrs. Orlac, her eyes rolling about like electrified pearls, barely contained by the rings of kohl surrounding them. Actively demented before anything’seven  happened, she does the impossible and keeps pace with Veidt’s physical insanity.

And then there’s Kortner, who has a hard job, appearing as a diabolical villain in such eccentric company, but he has a brilliant strategy — rather than wholeheartedly adopting the contortions and gesticulations of the expressionist style, or merging into the more naturalistic, low-key approach of the supporting players, he alternates between the two, so that you never know what you’re going to get next. Kortner also deploys his astonishing face and body extremely well: he looks like a malignant, pugilistic baby.

Of course, the pachyderm in the parlour is Karl Freund’s Hollywood remake, MAD LOVE, an excellent horror movie (the version to see when you’re twelve) that substitutes a fast-moving parade of grotesquerie and nonsense for the glacial creep of the Weine. The silent movie has nothing that can compare withPeter Lorre’s appearance as the decapitated, reanimated murderer, with black rubber prosthetic forelimbs, fetishistic neck brace, and clockwork cackle, fore-runner to the wind-up Nazi in Del Toro’s HELLBOY.

Lorre, playing a dude, pretending to be another dude — the most balls-out horrific thing in any 30s horror movie.

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But Kortner, deprived of Lorre’s snazzy costume, still does well, moving his plastic-bound arms as if they were stilts, somehow, convincing us that these are foreign appendages buckled to his lardy body. His clunkinessmakes a superb contrast with Veidt’s writhing and slinking.

It’s cinema as spastic ballet!*

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*The phrase “spastic ballet” is copyright Arthur Penn, who used it to describe what he wanted from Beatty and Dunaway when they’re machine-gunned to death at the end of BONNIE AND CLYDE. But on take one, somehow Beatty didn’t get the signal, and while Faye Dunaway spectacularly died in slow motion behind him, Beatty just stood there with a faint, puzzled grin as bits of his head blew off. “I wish I’d kept that bit of film,” says Penn.