The Hands of Orlac (1924)

The classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which I wrote about last week, was to my knowledge the first cooperation between director Robert Wiene and actor Conrad Veidt. Four years later, they were to repeat the success in The Hands of Orlac (originally titled Orlacs Hände).

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

Even though both films are firmly rooted in the German Expressionism, The Hands of Orlac, when compared with the earlier film, is in many ways very different. Take Veidt’s role for starters. He is the protagonist, and he is a good person at heart. But he is also somewhat weak, perhaps even cowardly. When he loses both his hands in an accident, and his career as a concert pianist is threatened, his doctor decides to graft a new pair of hands, a pair that previously belonged to a convicted murderer. When confronted with this, Orlac fears that the evil in these hands will take over his mind. This fear, that body parts from another entity will infect the new host with the mind of the old one, is a theme that can be seen in many later films, such as Wolf Blood (1925) and Frankenstein (1931).

The scenography is also very different when compared with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the earlier film, the surroundings were nightmarish, bent and twisted, filled with dramatic shadows. Here, the nightmare and the shadows remain, but the rooms are gigantic, with straight, looming walls and pillars, and with very few decorations. This creates an image of small and powerless characters, desperately trying to grasp control from a relentless world. So again, Wiene has created a dramatic masterpiece, but the drama is achieved with different means.

This film is best enjoyed when you want to explore the themes that lead up to the great Hollywood horror films of the early 1930s. It is definitely an important part of that legacy.

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

The Hands of Orlac
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Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 53 min
Language: English
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Conrad Veidt
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (608×464)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.1 G) or Matroska (1.1 G)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

If you investigate the history of the horror movie, you will find that sooner or later the tracks lead back to Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, or as it is known in English, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Werner Krauß and Conrad Veidt in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari / The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is one of the defining works of the German Expressionism, and it is also one of the most thoroughly expressionistic films ever. The sets are twisted, looming, threatening, and induces a dream-like, or perhaps rather nightmarish, feeling into the film. The acting, by several great actors of the time, is on par, as is the plot.

I will not spoil your experience by telling you much about that plot. Suffice it to say that it deals with a somnambulist who is on display as a fair showcase, a mad doctor, and several gruesome murders. Also, things are rarely what they seem.

While not generally considered the first film in the German Expressionism, the film nevertheless had a tremendous impact on the genre, an impact that directly and indirectly carries on to other genres, not least the modern horror genre.

The copy I otherwise link to in this post is the best I have found at the Internet Archive. However, it is a German version with no subtitles. Another good version with English title cards is available, in case your German is out of practice.

This film is best enjoyed with a good musical score. With poor or random music, or no music at all, much of the nerve and intensity of the film will be lost. Fortunately, both the versions I link to are good in this respect. It is much easier to oversee with some defects in the visual quality.

Elsa Wagner and Friedrich Feher in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari / The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
Download link
Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Language: German (no subtitles)
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Werner Krauß, Conrad Veidt
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (576×432)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Matroska (673 M)

Der letzte Mann (1924)

You know that book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die? Here, let me tell you a secret: There are not that many movies you must see. If, however, there is a handful that you should see, then one of that handful is definitely Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh in English), directed by F. W. Murnau.

Emil Jannings in Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924)

In Der letzte Mann, Emil Jannings plays the aged but proud hotel doorman who is demoted to a lavatory attendant, because the young hotel manager thinks him unfit to continue the hard work as a doorman. Along with the previous job and the fancy uniform, the old man’s self esteem completely washes away, as does his social status in the neighbourhood where he lives. Jannings does a splendid performance, using his facial expressions and body language where the silent movie can support no dialogue.

Several sources claim that Murnau, similar to Chaplin years later in The Dictator, used the constructed language Esperanto in all signs in the film, in order to emphasize that the visual language of cinema is international. The ultimate source of this seems to be none other than Alfred Hitchcock (who was in 1938 to be perhaps the first to use a fictional movie language in The Lady Vanishes). Now, I would be the first to acknowledge that I am not an expert Esperanto speaker, but try as I may I cannot seem to find a single word in Esperanto in the entire film. In fact, I distinctly seem to spot a neon sign advertising “cigarettes”, which would be either English or French. So I think I can, until further information surfaces, state that this is a factoid. Shame, really, since as far as I know, no other silent feature-length movie ever used Esperanto either. Or any other constructed language, for that matter.

Speaking of visual language, much tends to be made of the fact that the entire story is told with only a single title card (similar to the somewhat later Chelovek s kino-apparatom). Now, this is a truth with some modification since there are some other written sequences, most prominently a letter in the first half of the film. Even so, the version at the Internet Archive should be perfectly watchable to anyone, even though it contains no subtitles. The written material is not essential for following the plot.

The English title The Last Laugh, incidentally, is unfortunate, since it puts focus on the film’s epilogue (after that abovementioned title card), which is truly absurd and more of a joke than part of the actual story.

The film is generally bundled together with the German Expressionism, and though there are certainly scenes with strong expressionist content, it should also be noted that it is not at all as thoroughly expressionistic as many contemporary films, including several of Murnau’s own.

This film is best enjoyed either if you care to analyze and marvel over each of the many technically advanced and tremendously effective shots (some, such as the sequence of shots combining to visualise a drunken stupor, are so brilliant that they have arguably not been equalled in the history of cinema), or if you just sit back and allow yourself to be immersed by one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces.

Emil Jannings in Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924)

Der letzte Mann
Download link
Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Language: German (no subtitles)
Director: F. W. Murnau
Stars: Emil Jannings
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (608×464)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack, 2 files (683 + 686 M)

Der heilige Berg (1926)

With the Winter Olympics in full swing, I wanted to try and find a film with a winter sports connection for this week’s post. That was harder than I had thought, but luck was on my side and the only feature-length film I found on that theme turned out to be really interesting.

Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain) is a German silent which is often mentioned as Leni Riefenstahl’s first film (as an actress). But Riefenstahl, quite frankly, was far better a director than an actress, and the film is interesting today mainly for other reasons.

Leni Riefenstahl in Der heilige Berg (1926)

The film is built around a very simple (and quite frankly somewhat far-fetched) plot about a love triangle where two friends, initially without realizing so, compete for the same woman (played by Riefenstahl). About the only strong part of the plot is the ending, which is moving (though a bit pathetic). But Der heilige Berg is not much about love and friendship anyway, nor about any specific characters.

This film resounds with two dominant chords, both vibrating with messages about nature. First of all about the wild, fierce and uncontrollable nature around us; especially the snow and the mountains, as contrasted by the sea. And second about human nature, more specifically it strongly romaticizes a physical ideal that lies close to the ideal of our own time. A sound mind in a sound body. That kind of thing. (The Nazis made this ideal their own, but director Arnold Fanck, though later forced to join the Nazi party, does not seem to have been a Nazi at heart.)

One section in the film shows a competition in Nordic combined, an interesting sport where ski jumping is combined with a cross-country ski race. The scenes from the competition are lengthy, but the interest is kept up all the way due to the excellent filming and the great variety of the scenes. It is also amazing to see what could be achieved even with the relatively primitive equipment they had available.

Der heilige Berg was made during the height of German Expressionism, and though it is sometimes cited as part of that movement, it is really much more strongly rooted in romanticism. There are touches of expressionism, such as in the exploration of the darkness of the human pshyche, but not at all as much in focus as in for example Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927).

This film is best enjoyed for its beautiful images and for its documentation of winter sports in the 1920s. Russian officials will be glad to know that it is free from any dangerous suggestions of homosexuality and thus perfectly safe to watch.

Nordic combination in Der heilige Berg (1926)

Der heilige Berg
Download link
Year: 1926
Running time: 1 h 45 min
Language: German (English subtitles)
Director: Arnold Fanck
Stars: Leni Riefenstahl, Luis Trenker, Ernst Petersen
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: h.264 (624 M)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

 

1927 was a pivotal year in the history of film. A pivotal year, and also a great year.

The roaring twenties were still roaring and money was aplenty. For the past 15 years or so, the making of feature films had seen a rapid development from an unwieldy curiosity into a full-fledged art form. Not only had the use of angles and cutting improved vastly, but the cameras themselves were much more advanced and also more light-weight, allowing for shots that seem modern even today.

Artistically, Hollywood and Europe had gone in separate directions. Hollywood was producing masterworks in the adventure genre with stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino. In Germany, a very different style had developed, called German Expressionism. While Hollywood strived for realistic sets and fantastic action, the Germans used sets and techniques which placed the characters in dreamlike, deliberately unrealistic environments. The themes were often the supernatural and macabre.

One of the leading expressionists was F. W. Murnau, mostly remembered today for making Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), the first movie adaptation of Dracula. In the mid 20s he came to Hollywood to make an American expressionist film. The result was Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.

Sunrise is a true masterpiece, a groundbreaking film and one of the best silents ever made. It is not a horror film (although there are definitely elements of psychological terror in it), but rather a romantic drama. None of the characters are named. They remain throughout the film “The Man”, “The Wife”, and so on, creating perhaps a deliberate distance to the viewer.

George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Combining his own expressionistic visions with the money and craftsmanship of Hollywood, Murnau was able to create some amazing sets and a story which balances delicately between dream and reality. The acting is exquisite and if some of the character development may seem a bit extreme, that only serves to harmonize with the film’s dramatic imagery.

Sunrise stands as a symbol of the height of the silent film’s artistic achievements, but at the same time, that art form was already doomed. For that very same year another pivotal film was released: The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with synchronized sound. Within three years, this would mean the definite end of silent films, and with them the elegant but noisy cameras that made possible much of the visual technique. And that same period would also see the beginnings of the Great Depression. The 1930s would be a totally different society with totally different film-making, for better or worse.

This film is best enjoyed in a calm and relaxed mood.


Addendum, 2014-08-08: Since first writing this review, the version I linked to has been taken down, possibly because of copyright considerations regarding the score. I have now changed the link (and the relevant information below) to point to the only remaining version on the Internet Archive known to me. It has good music, free to distribute, but has low resolution. So low, in fact, that had that version been the only available at the time, this review would not have been written.


 

F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Download link
Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: F. W. Murnau
Stars: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Low (400×304)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Ogg (424 M)