Downhill: Hitchcock comedy is early showcase of technical innovation and flair

Alfred Hitchcock, “Downhill” (1927)

Before he found his niche as Master of Suspense, the young Alfred Hitchcock made a few films in several genres that include comedy: this early effort, the fifth full-feature film of his career, is a comedy lampooning the customs and attitudes of British upper class society of the late 1920’s. The plot is structured in a way that it probably won’t hold most modern audiences’ attention to the end – it comes in chunks so there’s no flow and as a result tension building towards a climax isn’t possible – but students of history might find some value in the way the story unfolds that reveals people’s attitudes toward money, appearances and reputation at the time. The real worth of “Downhill” is in the techniques and methods Hitchcock used to film the story and emphasise aspects such as mood, atmosphere and the direction of the plot. Motifs that he would use in later films such as “Vertigo” and “Psycho” make an early showing here. We see a keen and eager eye, maybe too eager, for technical innovation and a flair for experimenting with different points of view: the use of the camera to draw in audiences and make them voyeurs and participants in the action that began in the previous film “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” is now coming into full flower.

The plot is a threadbare coming-of-age / downward-spiral story. Teenager Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello), in his last year at an exclusive boys’ school, is undone by an incident involving his best friend and a waitress for which he’s entirely blameless. He’s expelled by his school and disowned by his father. Berwick’s reluctance to rat on his friend (who needs to stay at school to get a university scholarship) forces him to accept the humiliation of expulsion and rejection so he leaves home to venture into the big bad world. He’s clearly out of his depth; each adventure he has plunges him lower and lower into social and financial misery until rescue and reconciliation arrive at the eleventh hour. In each mishap including the original incident that gets him expelled from school there’s a woman who exploits Berwick for his looks, his money or his youth.

At 34 years of age, Novello was old enough to play Berwick’s old man but as he was co-writer of the play on which “Downhill” is based, I’ll leave the criticism there. Hitchcock must have enjoyed throwing Novello into situations where women manipulate him; Novello’s homosexuality was an open secret in the British arts and culture scene, he was strikingly handsome and presumably well-off in a varied career that included writing songs and plays, and all these aspects of the real-life man are hinted at in his character’s encounters with women. A couple of very early scenes suggest Berwick is uncomfortable with women and may be homosexual which would give an extra frisson to the manipulation that follows. If we allow for overly expressionistic acting which was common in silent films of the period, the acting is not bad and in parts is even natural; Hitchcock allows the actors to talk normally on screen and audiences have to guess what it is they’re saying, there being very few dialogue or title cards. One side-effect is that it’s difficult to tell who or what characters some actors are playing, and even the MacGuffin incident that gets Berwick in trouble isn’t clear: the Internet Movie Database says it is theft, Wikipedia says it is making the waitress pregnant.

The plot is fleshed out by camera shots that use odd angles, unusual points of view, overlapping images and deep focus shooting to emphasise where the plot gets serious, to capture a mood or emotion, or to warn audiences of what’s ahead, among other things. Perhaps there’s too much story-telling rather than narrative at some points in the movie: the bird’s-eye view of the escalator scene, in which viewers see Berwick going down the mechanical steps from the top, is a heavy-handed portent of what’s to befall the youth (the scene takes place just after he leaves home). From a technical viewpoint, the film’s stand-out scenes come near the end where Berwick is packed off home from Marseilles on a ship by some kindly sailors and he suffers delirium and seasickness. The camera hovers from above, like a bird, to suggest dizzyness; and superimposed images in which circles and spirals – and even pumping pistons! (ooh, that’s phallic) – appear in Berwick’s dreams to suggest a disordered mind affected by sickness and starvation. Berwick’s old enemies come together in a dream to jeer at him. Once Berwick is back in London and trying to find his way home on foot, the camera adopts his point of view and staggers with him, with jerky, unfocussed, doubled-up or overlapped images – this is as close as Hitchcock gets to filming in a style modern audiences associate with handheld cameras. Personal points of view are prominent in “Downhill”: in an early scene, an actress leans far back on her chair to see things upside-down and the next camera shot, done from her point of view, is upside-down. Hitchcock also enjoys playing with particular points of view and subverting the assumptions that come with them: in one scene, Berwick appears to be working as a waiter at a restaurant, only for the camera to draw back and show that he is actually a stage actor in a musical revue!

Significantly the only people who treat Berwick kindly and don’t see him as a money-pot are poor and of black or foreign origins: a black woman feeds him soup and kicks a couple of sailors (one black, the other white but definitely not English) into action to help him to the ship. This was one of the rare times Hitchcock made a movie that featured black people sympathetically if stereotypically. There is no indication though that Berwick is thankful for the help or that they are repaid. Though the film is a comedy – and there are plenty of comic moments including the gag of Berwick’s young wife still retaining her ugly, middle-aged lover! – there are plenty of dark moments throughout the odyssey, all highlighted by contrasts of light and shadow that reflect German Expressionist influences.

Whether Berwick learns any lessons about the superficiality of the world that made him or the really important lesson that in his level of society money and appearances talk louder than moral integrity is never clear. Does he become wiser about how the world operates and how it eats up its own innocent children? The film’s resolution and ending suggest maybe not. It’s an interesting intellectual exercise to speculate on what Hitchcock would have done if he had decided to remake the film years later with the resources of Hollywood at his disposal: he would have changed the ending to something more ambiguous and very dark but Berwick might then achieve some kind of enlightenment, self-awareness, redemption and healing. A Freudian psychological subtext would be added to plump up the story and make it more credible.

In spite of a flimsy and out-of-date plot, “Downhill” is worth seeing for the flair and confidence Hitchcock brings to  making the story work. There are many motifs and symbols that appear here which the director would later use in “Vertigo”, especially in its psychedelic dream sequence, and the early film might be seen as a test-drive to that more famous Hollywood work.

The true Hitchcock universe begins with “The Lodger: a Story of the London Fog”

Alfred Hitchcock, “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” (1927)

Only the third film made by a young Alfred Hitchcock, “The Lodger …” already has many of the themes and motifs that would bring its director fame and fortune in a career that spanned nearly half a century. The central theme  revolves around a man who is suspected by police and society at large of being a serial killer: not only is he innocent but he has also resolved for personal reasons to find the killer himself. At the same time, the central character dresses and behaves in ways that encourage people around him to believe he is the criminal: the innocent man and the actual criminal become doppelgängers, another recurring motif in Hitchcock’s world. (Makes you wonder whether H had lost a twin brother  at birth.) There is a wilful blonde woman as well – there are blonde women a-plenty here! – and a love triangle that involves her, the innocent man and another man who is a police detective. The detective is portrayed as a boorish, unlikable character and the police as shown seem ineffective; any constructive work they do takes place off-screen.  A hostile attitude is expressed towards figures and institutions of authority, especially male authority such as the police; on the other hand, female figures of authority such as mothers have a greater psychological hold on men, especially if the men are their sons. A MacGuffin is needed in the film to set off the chain of events. As with other Hitchcock suspense films to follow, the love triangle and the emotions and tensions within take centre stage against a background of rising suspense and suspicion.

London is gripped by a series of murders of fair-haired young women committed by the self-styled Avenger who leaves his calling card of a triangle outlined around his monicker on the victims’ bodies. Just what he’s avenging himself against is never known but the print media goes into a frenzy of reporting the story of his latest outrage, printing it and distributing copies to news boys. Even the back of a paper delivery van is “all eyes” if not ears. Against this context which lasts nearly 20 minutes, viewers meet Daisy Bunting (June Tripp), a showgirl-cum-model reading the news backstage and chatting to her colleagues; she then goes home which is a boarding-house run by her parents. There we see her fiance, Joe (Malcolm Keen), a self-assured police detective who is given the case of searching for and arresting the Avenger, chatting to her folks. During the evening, Mrs Bunting (Marie Ault) takes in a new boarder (Ivor Novello) who is never named but is known only as the Lodger; he is dressed in mysterious dark clothes and carries a black bag. He behaves oddly: on seeing pictures of blonde women in his room, he turns them over and asks Mrs Bunting to take them away. Hearing the newsboy outside his window shouting about the Avenger’s exploits to sell papers, the Lodger shuts the window and closes the curtains.

Over time, the Lodger warms to Daisy and a romance develops between them. His routines arouse the suspicions of her parents and Joe; Joe in particular is jealous of Daisy’s closeness to the Lodger. He obtains a search warrant to search the Lodger’s room and sure enough finds a map, newspaper clippings and a photograph that appear to incriminate the Lodger as the Avenger. The Lodger is handcuffed but before he is led away, Daisy creates a distraction and the Lodger escapes police custody. The two lovers later meet at a pub but arouse the suspicions of the staff and customers. Daisy and the Lodger try to escape and they separate but a mob catches up with the man and beat him severely.

In those days of no dialogue, film-acting was often exaggerated and very mannered so that audiences could see characters’ emotions through their body language. “The Lodger …” is no different in this respect. The Lodger and Joe, as the two rivals for Daisy, contrast strongly in their behaviour and looks. Joe is macho, brusque and assumes proprietorial “rights” over Daisy, declaring that he’ll handcuff the Avenger and then put a ring on Daisy’s finger, as if she’s been colluding with the killer. The Lodger is gentlemanly and sensitive, even effete, and his appearance is refined and beautiful. In a memorable sequence of intense, almost overbearing romantic love scenes, Daisy grabs the Lodger almost savagely while draped over a lounge and a severe minimalist close-up scene shot against a black curtain highlights the lovers’ profiles as they kiss. The passion here is very raw in spite of the two keeping their winter-woollies on! Viewers wanting a more “modern” acting style should note the performances of the actors who play Daisy’s parents; they are outstanding in their ability to show a variety of emotions and thoughts by their facial expressions and body language, and move effortlessly from comedy to seriousness and back.

Influences from the German Expressionist art movement show up in the use of lighting and shadows to create suspense and mystery in several scenes, and in the title cards that indicate the passage of time or a change of scene. Mrs Bunting’s bedroom with the shadow of a window framed on her wall has an almost abstract air. A couple of scenes in which the Buntings and Joe look up at the chandeliers in the kitchen and “see” the Lodger walking on the floor above, and Joe looking at the Lodger’s footprint on the ground, in which a parade of images pass as though on an escalator, hint at Hitchcock’s interest in using film technologies available at the time to their maximum capabilities to express people’s thoughts. The film’s opening shot of a blonde woman screaming as she is being attacked, her hair around her face lit up like a halo, is worth noting: Hitchcock had the actor lie down on a sheet of glass which was lit from behind. Objects like chandeliers and that familiar Hitchcock fixture, the staircase, are given prominence: the staircase comes into its own in a bird’s-eye view shot of the Lodger quickly descending down the stairs, only his hand visible on the bannister as it slides down, and the centre of the staircase-framed shot a huge void.  For all this information, Hitchcock was still finding his way as a film director: there are some editing discontinuities, the sequence of scenes in which the Lodger is attacked by burgeoning crowds looks amateurish and unconvincing with some cringeworthy Christian symbolism, the film’s pacing is slow and the assured confidence of Hitchcock’s later films is yet to develop.

“The Lodger …” strongly suggests that the path to romance and marriage (and the proper conduct of sexual relations) is fraught with danger and violence, especially for women, and there is no surefire safe way of treading that path: both the Lodger and Joe are shown to have a dark side in their natures. If Daisy chooses wisely, she will be rewarded with riches; if not, she may become a prisoner. The film also comments on the role of media (and by implication, film itself) in influencing opinion and generating a particular community mood or emotion that could literally spell the difference between life and death for an individual. Worth watching mainly to see the evolution of a master film-maker and how he develops ideas and themes in a particular film format that would come to full flower in his later work; in particular, fans should watch out for a voyeuristic bathtub scene!

For once it’s a good thing that the ending of “The Lodger …” was changed from Hitchcock’s preferred ambiguous ending which would have made the film a run-of-the-mill thriller. Little did the studio executives who forced the change realise that they were doing Hitchcock a massive favour.

Pandora’s Box: apart from its lead star, it’s an ordinary film with soap opera plot

G W Pabst, “Pandora’s Box” (1929)

On its cinematic release, this German movie garnered little attention for its American star Louise Brooks in her home country and languished in obscurity for 25 years until rediscovered by French film buffs in the late 1950’s, by which time Brooks’s career as an actor had mirrored the misfortunes of her “Pandora’s Box” character Lulu. The film is remarkable mainly for Brooks’ vivacious and often subtle portrayal of Lulu; this performance carries the entire film so much so that in the few scenes where Brooks doesn’t appear, the action is drained of energy and zest. Apart from Brooks and the camera work, the rest of the movie is fairly ordinary.

The plot is a mix of character study and soap opera: Lulu is the mistress of rich newspaper owner Dr Ludwig Schon and their affair is a well-known scandal in their city. Dr Schon resolves to marry a more respectable woman. An old friend Schigolch visits Lulu with his acquaintance Rodrigo Quast who offers Lulu a job in a trapeze act. She accepts but Schon steers her to his stage manager son Alwa’s dancing revue show. Lulu opts for that instead but on opening night, Schon brings his fiancee along and this creates a near-disaster when Lulu refuses to perform and forces Schon to choose between her and the fiancee. Schon chooses Lulu in a scene where they are caught in flagrante delicto and resignedly resolves to marry her.

The marriage starts and ends the same day with Schon’s shotgun death and Lulu is tried for murder, found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to jail. Schigolch and Quast stage a hoax fire alarm panic in the court-house to rescue Lulu and spirit her away. She and Alwa, who is now in love with her, flee abroad as fugitives with help from Countess Geschwirt who may once have been Lulu’s lover and from a nobleman who must be paid money to keep quiet. From then on, Lulu and Alwa’s fortunes sink lower – Alwa resorts to gambling, the nobleman sells Lulu to a brothel owner and Quast tries to blackmail her – until Lulu, Alwa and Schigolch end up living in squalid poverty in London and Lulu is forced to sell her body for money.

Broken up into a series of eight acts, which conveniently let the film explain away loose ends to the passage of time between acts, the narrative can be hard for viewers to follow, especially in its second half after Schon’s death which jumps from Germany to Egypt to Britain. In the British act, there seems also to be a jump back in time of about 40 years: “Jack the Ripper” (actually unnamed in the movie) is at large murdering prostitutes when Lulu meets him and the entire episode looks very Dickensian with its dark dank streets and Schigolch in a poorhouse tucking into Christmas pudding. A number of scenes try to squeeze as much pathos out as possible: Dr Schon’s death agony is dragged out for all it’s worth and the episode set in Britain also bogs down in tedium until Lulu meets the serial killer. The support characters come and go as mere story props to send Lulu on and on in her downward spiral; even Alwa, who should be a significant character in his own right as rival to his father in love and to Quast in Lulu’s career opportunity alternatives, is lame and disjointed for the plot’s purposes and a true love triangle never really emerges. It’s hard to see why Lulu stays with Alwa rather than trip off with Quast. Quast hangs out with Schigolch (who himself is useful mainly to get Schon angry at Lulu), not doing or saying much, until it’s time to demand money from Lulu; then Countess Geschwirt and Schigolch come into their own as characters to lure Quast into a trap and murder him. After this, the Countess disappears from the screen and Schigolch reverts to his drunken comic persona.

The only fully realised characters are Lulu and Dr Schon whose relationship is the only really interesting aspect of the plot. Why does Schon continue to live with Lulu when he knows she will be the ruin of him? His character is intriguing in its almost implausible contradictions; unless viewers actually know of real-life powerful men who have thrown their money, power, family and even lives over for callgirls, escorts and women in occupations of similar low regard (one thinks of Anna Nicole Smith and her brief marriage to an oil tycoon), they may find Schon hard to believe as a credible character. The entire gist of “Pandora’s Box” is that one young woman can exercise a destructive, even fatal attraction for men, to the extent that they’ll sacrifice themselves for her, by the sheer force of her nature and personality. Brooks’s achievement in this respect is that as the femme fatale, she makes this attraction look so effortless, even unconscious: Lulu can’t help but be the flame that attracts men like moths to burn in its heat – the flame is all that she is. Act Five, which covers the trial, illustrates Lulu’s nature well: attempting to be demure in dark clothes and a veil, looking at the barristers and jury with wide-eyed frankness, Lulu unintentionally ends up looking like a seductress. The scene with the serial killer hints that the seductiveness masks a pathological need for Lulu to be loved and to belong to someone, and shows that Lulu’s open and innocent nature, dependent on others as though she were a child who never grew up, will be as destructive of her as it has been of Schon and Alwa.

Pabst’s direction emphasises many close-up shots, particularly of Lulu: Brooks’s incandescent beauty, reminiscent of later actor Isabella Rossellini in some ways in its openness, and its mobile expressiveness are caught well on camera. The scene in which she and Schon are caught together back-stage by Alwa and Schon’s fiancee is a major highlight of Brooks’s subtle acting ability: in one short moment, probably less than a few seconds, Brooks’s face changes from surprise at being caught to triumph at having captured Schon and the camera picks this up perfectly. In the court-room, again the close-up shots show Lulu’s face registering myriad feelings and emotions about the trial’s proceedings as she looks from one lawyer to another. Elsewhere in the movie, there is excellent and often very stylised camera work that shows the influence of German Expressionism in the way scenes and lighting are often set up to emphasise mood, tension and maximum drama.

The film is of value mainly as the premier showcase of Louise Brooks’ natural talent as an actor. After making “Pandora’s Box”, Brooks’ career as an actor petered out during the 1930’s, her last major film being a so-so Western “Overland Stage Raiders” with up-coming actor John Wayne. Brooks tried her hand as a dance teacher, radio voice actor, columnist for a newspaper and even as a courtesan before settling on a more or less stable career as a writer for the rest of her life.

Metropolis (directed by Fritz Lang): trite plot and mawkish ending let down an impressive and stylish film

Fritz Lang, “Metropolis” (1927)

Picture source: www.tobatheinfilmicwaters.com

The version of “Metropolis” I saw recently is the restored and digitally remastered one done under the supervision of the Murnau Foundation in Germany with the addition of the original orchestral soundtrack composed by Gottfried Huppertz in 1927. This version was released on DVD in 2003 and is quite a long film at nearly 2 hours. Even then, there are still scenes missing from the restoration, scenes that were thought to be lost forever until a copy of the movie with nearly all the lost scenes turned up in the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2008 and in turn was complemented by uncensored scenes found on a copy of the movie in the National Film Archive of New Zealand by an Australian researcher in 2005.

The plot may be a familiar one for those raised on H G Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell’s science fiction novels by high school teachers: Metropolis is a mighty futuristic city designed and built by the scientist-ruler Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and its population is divided into an idle rich who enjoy the city’s bounty, and a majority oppressed poor who work at the machines that power the city and supply its wealth in shifts around the clock. The rich and the poor are kept strictly segregated, at least until Joh Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Frohlich) sees a beautiful young woman Maria (Brigitte Helm) barging into a pleasure garden with a bunch of dirty workers’ children. She and the littlies are hustled out by security guards but Freder is smitten and tries to follow her; he ends up stumbling into one of the colossal machine caverns and witnesses an accident that kills several people. Distressed, Freder reports the accident to his father and is horrified at Fredersen’s dismissal of a bureaucrat, Josaphat (Theodor Loos), for the accident. From this moment on, Freder determines to find Maria, help Josaphat get his job back and understand the work that the poor do and the conditions they work under, in order to relieve the workers’ oppression and poverty.

Fredersen sniffs something afoot with his son so he orders his spy, known as the Thin Man, to trail him and Josaphat. He also consults another scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who has been working on a pet vanity project, the Machine Man, based on Fredersen’s dead wife Hel whom Rotwang also loved. Fredersen and Rotwang visit the catacombs beneath Metropolis and discover Maria addressing a mass rally of workers about a mediator who will come and reconcile the workers and their rulers. Fredersen fears a workers revolt so he instructs Rotwang to use the Machine Man to disrupt Maria’s rallies. Rotwang agrees to do so: he kidnaps Maria and uses his technology to give Maria’s likeness to the robot, then sends the robot into the streets to create havoc in Metropolis while holding Maria hostage. It soon turns out Rotwang has hated Fredersen for a long time and wants to destroy him and his life’s work: Metropolis.

From now on, the film drops into an action thriller in which Freder performs amazing non-stop feats of athleticism: helping Maria, freed by Fredersen, to rescue the workers’ children from floods that engulf the city as a result of the workers’ sabotage of the machines; fighting off the workers who want to lynch Maria when they discover they have been tricked by the robot lookalike into destroying the machines; and rescuing Maria from a crazed Rotwang who kidnaps her again. The plot turns and twists a lot and goes into some by-ways which, though interesting in themselves, add little to the story and drag out Freder’s quest.

The sets created for the movie are austerely beautiful, streamlined and impressive with a style influenced by the Art Deco and Modernist architectural styles popular at the time. The cityscape backgrounds with buildings that look like cousins of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in New York City all bunched together and streams of cars and trains encased in tubes zooming from one structure to the next are still referred to by current science fiction movies like Alex Proyas’s 1998 film “Dark City” for influence. The design of the Machine Man does not look too dated – well,  a few bolts taken off here and there and the robot would be pretty up-to-date – and when the thing moves, it still sends chills up and down the spine.

Some sequences are worth mentioning: Freder’s “Moloch!” impression of the machine in meltdown, swallowing up workers, and the machine itself transforming into a demonic devourer of human sacrifices; Rotwang’s complicated transformation of the Machine Man into the false Maria with circular rays moving up and down its body while lightning flows between it and the real Maria, bolted down in a giant test-tube contraption; the tale of Babel as interpreted by Maria with shots, looking towards the style of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda documentaries for Nazi Germany, of the Babel tower and the hundreds of slaves required to build it; the robot Maria in the Yoshiwara entertainment district, dancing frenziedly and seductively before the slavering, lustful male elite who are shown as all eyes; and a frightening dream sequence in “Intermezzo” in which statues of the Grim Reaper and skeletons swathed in toga-like garments come alive and play instruments. In these scenes, the special effects can be something to behold and the montage of images leave a very strong impression of suffering and oppression in the Babel tower scenes, and of the sensual banality of the lives of the rich elite in the false Maria’s dancing scenes.

For all the film’s stylistic achievements, the plot itself is treated superficially with a trite conclusion: the workers’ conditions are so harsh and their revolt is so intense and Fredersen himself is so steeled against the workers’ interests that when he and the workers’ leader Grot (Heinrich George) meet as equals, the resolution of their meeting is a mawkish cop-out. You know any reconciliation between the rich and the poor, even though engineered by Maria and Freder, is likely to be short-lived and once Metropolis is up and running again, the old problems of rich-versus-poor will be too great for Freder, Josaphat and Maria to mitigate and resolve. For one thing, the poor are depicted in the movie as ignorant, easily led by populist leaders, propaganda and religious mumbo-jumbo, and prone to violence; and the rich are equally dumb and obsessed only with immediate sensual gratification. How two social classes concerned only with immediate security and unfamiliar with political, social and economic co-operation can be persuaded to give up some or most of their own interests in order to live and work peacefully together in a new social and economic system where all are equals is a project requiring much education, negotiation, compromise and in particular open democracy, a condition no-one seems to know about in Metropolis.

Incidentally “Metropolis” script-writer Thea von Harbou, married to Lang at the time, mustn’t have known or understood much about democracy herself – to be fair, few people in Germany in the 1920’s did, seeing the Weimar Republic and democracy as something imposed by foreign enemies after the country’s defeat in the Great War of 1914-1918 – as years later, divorced from Lang, she wrote the script for the movie “Der Herrscher” (1937) which advocates absolute and unquestioning submission to the Nazi German state and to the Fuhrer in particular.

The musical soundtrack also lets the film down: one surely would have thought that a futuristic film would require a futuristic-sounding music score using the latest advances in music technology and composition at the time. The theremin, the world’s first electronic musical instrument, had been invented in the Soviet Union in 1920 and had been toured throughout Europe for several years already so it’s a puzzle as to why Lang elected to go with a conventional orchestral music soundtrack using traditional forms of composition.

The acting can be very over-the-top – witness Maria recoiling from and trying to escape Rotwang in the catacombs, she appears to be having one spasm after another – but acting histrionics are pretty much par for the course in silent films: how else can actors get across extreme emotion if audiences can’t hear them scream or sob?

There is a running motif of religion in “Metropolis”: Maria is a forerunner of Metropolis’s supposed saviour; and she and the robot doppelganger might be seen as a Christ / Anti-Christ pair as well as the traditional Madonna / whore couple beloved of traditional forms of Christianity. Monks and images of death appear in Freder’s dream in the “Intermezzo” sequence. Apparently Lang wanted to include even more religious imagery and allusions to religion in “Metropolis” but von Harbou balked at including any more religion in the film. I’d have to agree as the film at 120 minutes is already very long and has more than its fair share of cultural references and plot sidelines.

Still with a number of powerful sequences such as those mentioned earlier, the incredible images of the city and the Machine Man, and the theme of how different social classes and their interests and concerns might be reconciled, the film deserves its iconic status as trend-setter for future science fiction dystopian visions to follow: one such film incidentally is a remake to be produced by German producer Thomas Schuehly.

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.