Miss Mend, Part One: silent film is a real blast from the Soviet past

Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep, “Miss Mend, Part One”, (1926)
 
I saw this film together with “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” at the Australia’s Silent Film Festival recently. I couldn’t have come across two films more unalike at a film festival: “The Cabinet …” drew on developments in the German artistic and cultural scene whereas “Miss Mend, Part One” is a Soviet film that self-consciously draws on American films popular with Soviet audiences in the mid-1920’s. The movie is the first of three roughly 90-minute films centred around a feisty young woman called Vivian Mend (Natalya Glan) and three newspaper reporters, one of whom is played by Boris Barnet who also co-wrote the script and co-directed the movie. The reporters discover a conspiracy surrounding the death of a prominent businessman Gordon Stern and spend much of their time trying to uncover the details and join them together. Vivian Mend becomes romantically linked to Stern’s son Arthur who conceals his identity from her as she’s also very much involved in defending the workers at his father’s cork factory where she works as a secretary; in her spare time, she cares for a young nephew whose paternity is unknown.
 
It’s all go-go-go action from the outset with lots of twists in the plot, various chase scenes, poor old Stern senior being revived twice and put back to sleep, and at least two major fight scenes taking place on factory premises and in a pub. In one breath-taking scene a car is deliberately driven onto and stopped on train tracks and the train slams right into it. The good guys and the bad guys, led by the sinister agent Chiche (Sergei Komarov), are clearly delineated early on as stock characters with the villains oozing devilry from every pore and the reporters (who actually take up more screen time than Vivian) generally good-hearted and fun guys to be around though they’re not always very cluey and one of them is a stock klutz character, always getting into hilarious scrapes where the opportunity presents itself. Vivian is portrayed as a strong go-getter survivor, looking out for her cheeky nephew and willing to challenge her old boss’s will (which has been secretly changed by the villains), which action sets her up for Part One’s cliff-hanger end. Interesting that Glan appears in all her scenes looking completely natural with little or no make-up and not looking at all glammed up as might be expected in a movie imitating American-style movie-making.
 
At the time I saw this movie, the second and third parts of the trilogy had not yet been fully restored so it’s gonna be a lo-o-ong time before I discover how brave Vivian gets out of her cliff-hanger mess and if she gets justice for herself, her nephew and the sacked factory workers. From what I’ve been able to find out, Vivian’s nephew turns out to be Arthur’s little half-brother and the villains kidnap the little guy so Vivian and the reporters have their work cut out to rescue the boy and stop Chiche and the secret organisation he works for from using the Stern fortune to unleash a deadly bacteriological weapon on Russia to wipe out the population and destroy Communism. (A DVD of the full trilogy which lasts nearly four hours is available from Flicker Alley and can be bought online.)
 
Comedy, drama and serious political commentary are mixed in equal amounts and the movie makes some brief pointed comments about the treatment of minorities like blacks and Asians in early 20th century US society. I had expected to see considerable anti-capitalist propaganda in the movie but it’s much more subtle than I thought it would be and Arthur Stern seems a good-hearted guy, at least in the first part of the trilogy. The scenes in the movie are almost completely urban or semi-urban with cars a-plenty buzzing around in the streets and even in the countryside, and the film looks as if it could have been made in any country that had a film industry in the 1920s. The film concentrates on the supposed underbelly of US capitalism at the time and the villains and the wealthy people they represent are portrayed in a way that seems quaint, naive and very stereotyped to us.
 
Athleticism takes priority over acting skill as the actors spend a lot of time racing from one place to another, climbing fences and walls, and battling it out where necessary in tightly choreographed fight and chase scenes. I’m sure a lot of people think of old silent films as having quite simple story-lines and employing unsophisticated filming and acting techniques and methods but scenes like one where the train rams into the car would have called for careful planning and synchronisation of the action, not to mention a lot of editing (and maybe a number of spare junked cars!) and a team of medics and insurance people on the site to make sure no-one got hurt.
 
The whole movie’s fun to watch though I find myself rooting more for the reporters than for Vivian. In this part at least, Vivian doesn’t come over as anyone remarkable – all the characters tend to be one-dimensional but they are stock figures anyway – but maybe in subsequent parts where her nephew is kidnapped, we may get to see what she’s really made of.

Inside the Cabinet of famous German Expressionist film

Robert Wiene, “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” (1920)
 
Seeing this German Expressionist silent film classic at the Australia’s Silent Film Festival showing in Sydney recently was an opportunity too good to pass up. I did expect that this film would be an “arty” film in the sense of having stylised acting by actors in distinctive make-up that emphasises their roles and moods and the general tenor of the movie’s theme, whatever that would be. I already knew the movie was famous for its sets and use of lighting which were unusual for its time. What I wasn’t prepared for was the clever plot which addresses mental illness and explores fear and horror through hallucinations, and how the technical aspects of the movie were not just ends in themselves as they sometimes can be in self-consciously experimental art films but were an integral part of the movie’s subject and intended to communicate something to the audience about the nature of the plot as it unfolded.
 
Two men – one of them a young man called Francis – are sitting in a garden: Francis begins to tell his story of the horrific murder of his friend Alan and of the attempted kidnapping of his fiancee Jane. Francis traces the murder and the foiled kidnap to a sinister elderly man, Dr Caligari, who has come into town to exhibit his remarkable psychic somnambulist called Cesare at the town fair. Francis does some further investigating and discovers that Dr Caligari poses as director of a mental hospital with a research sideline on how to mentally control sleepwalkers like Cesare and force them to commit abhorrent acts. Dr Caligari finds his cover blown so he attempts to escape justice … We later return to the garden scene where the action carries on from there into the twist ending which throws all the foregoing action into a completely different light.
 
The sets, props and backgrounds with their sharp angles, geometric and irregular shapes, and a bold painting style that might bring to mind Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and “The Vampire” paintings, effectively externalise the fears, emotions and pain of a mentally ill person who has completely retreated from the real world for reasons unknown. The main actors, in particular Werner Krauss who plays Dr Caligari, wear make-up that emphasise their natures (well-meaning and earnest for Francis, pure-hearted and innocent for Jane, evil for Dr Caligari) and they act in a style that might be described as exaggerated pantomime to convey thoughts, feelings and intentions. I had never thought that silent films could be demanding to watch: the action is constant and the pace brisk, and the whole time my gaze must flit from the actors’ faces to their movements, to the backdrop and props, and back again. Minor actors usually move in a natural style and the contrast between the way they move and the main actors’ movements must be a deliberate ploy emphasising the whole suffocating world in which Francis, Jane and the villains move. There is such a lot of visual activity and richness going on all at once!
 
I can’t help but think that once films acquired sound, the world of cinema lost a lot of its early creativity and the opportunities for actors to showcase their dramatic skill and range of expression shrank very … well, dramatically. On occasions though, we still have movies being made where the action is demonstrated completely by action complemented by atmosphere, appropriate visual backgrounds and sets, and perhaps music, and dialogue is completely absent or at an absolute minimum, and such moments may be the most remarkable part of the film.
 
“The Cabinet …” is early proof that a genre film can be both commercial entertainment and experimental high art. I understand it is considered an important film in the development of German Expressionist films in the 1920s and it has had some influence on film noir and horror. Operas and radio plays based on the movie have been performed. The film has also been an influence on Dennis Lehane’s novel “Shutter Island” on which Martin Scorsese’s 2009 film of the same name is based. In particular the characters of Dr Caligari and Cesare respectively establish the stock figures of the mad scientist villain intent on controlling human nature and the dehumanised “robot” who must obey the master’s commands and carry out the most vile acts, in a context that provided (in 1920) a psychological buffer between the movie’s implications and its original audiences. It’s not a little ironic therefore that 20 years after the movie’s release, people in Germany found themselves in a similar somnambulist role to their government; and of the actors involved in the movie, Krauss supported Adolf Hitler’s government and was made an Actor of the State by Joseph Goebbels while Conrad Veidt who played the somnambulist left Germany in 1933 in protest at the Nazi government and went to live in the UK and later the US, in which countries he re-established his acting career.