Archive for german expressionist

The Man Who Laughs (German expressionist films: Part II)

Posted in Horror Showcase, Updates with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2011 by splatterpictures

Now it’s time to wrap up our discussion about German expressionist films. We already took a look at the Cabinet of Dr Caligari from 1919, this time we’re going to jump almost a decade later and take a look at what could be considered the last of the great silent films in the German expressionist style: The Man Who Laughs.

It was difficult for me to really include this movie in our discussion; I mean it’s not really a horror movie at all. That being said, there are significant horror-like elements to it which I’ll shed a little light on.

The film came out in 1928 and was distributed by Universal Pictures who had enormous success with Gothic horror films like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and, of course, the Phantom of the Opera. They were interested in making another film of its kind, so producer Carl Laemmle decided to film The Man Who Laughs based on a book of the same name by Victor Hugo.

Laemmle was well known in the German film scene and worked to get people from his home country involved in the film. He acquired director Paul Leni who was well known for his ominous and Gothic style. Universal was interested in acquiring Lon Channey for the starring role but he was under a long term contract with MGM, so the role went to Conrad Veidt, who you might remember as Cesar; The killer Somnambulist from the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

I’ll try to break down basically what this film is about. It starts off with the evil king James II who sentences a young boy named Gwynplaine to be surgically altered to have his face in a permanent hideous grin. This is because the boy’s nobleman father offended King James. Although he was being sentenced to death anyway, the king’s jester Barkilphedro, who is a real sadistic bastard himself, suggests the boy’s disfigurement so that he can laugh forever at his fool of a father.
The boy is banished and finds a baby named Rae who is tragically blind. He takes the baby and they meet an old man, who takes them in and raises them as his own. Although he is nice, he also makes Gwynplaine and Rae part of a fair attraction and takes him town to town to make money. I just realized that Conrad Veidt basically played the same role in both this and the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari… weird.

Although Gwynplaine is happy with Rae, he is also obsessed with his appearance and hides it as often as possible. Everyone always laughs at him and it tears at his soul, so much so that he feels he has no right to love Rae because she cannot see his face.
The film’s plot picks up when they return to Gwynplaine’s homeland and, unknown to him, a rival of the old man notices him and essentially alerts the the Queen of England (by the time King James is long Dead). It turns out that Gwynplaine is the rightful heir to a large bit of land that is currently in possession of Duchess Josiana, who is a real 1690 party girl.

That’s pretty much all I’ll divulge of the plot.

Veidts performance and makeup cannot be overlooked when discussing this movie, the simple technique of turning up his face into a horrible grin with wire is truly effective for the camera. Not only is he able to convey emotion without the use of sound, he is also able to do it without the use of the lower part of his face. With just the power of his eyes you can see the true pain and torment through the twisted grin.

Although this isn’t a horror film, there are tonnes of nods to the genre within it. The classic beauty and beast scenario is the most obvious. Gwynplaine, like many classic monsters, is tormented by his appearance both internally and externally. The film even has the classic monster chased by mobs to a burning tower scenario, something that is synonymous with anything Universal produced in the 1930’s onward.

Just in parting, one of the things I found actually pretty funny about this film is that there is a dog named “Homo” in it. It’s not like he’s there for one scene, he is basically pivotal to the plot. Some of the title cards like “shut up Homo” or “Beware the homo-wolf” really struck me as funny. It’s also interesting to note that this film was the inspiration to the Joker Villain from the Batman comics. Although Gwynplaine is by no means a villain in this film, the look plus the personality of Barkiphedro really gets you to see how someone could conceive of the Joker after watching this movie.

Well that’s it for German expressionism for now! Next up we’re going to be touching on movies that put the word “Splatter” in splatterpictures!

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (German expressionist films: Part one)

Posted in Horror Showcase, Updates with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2011 by splatterpictures

Well it’s Friday and I am feeling the urge to go back, waaaaaay back to the start of horror in the silent era, no, not the very first one, although that could one day happen. Today we’re going to go back before sound and visit The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

To a lot of horror fans, films like the Cabinet are sort of hit or miss. That being said, films of this era are extremely difficult to sit down and watch if you don’t already have a disposition towards this kind of thing.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was made in 1919, but released in 1920, it was the first time début of director Robert Wiene and arguably his most famous film. The Screenplay was done by Haris Janowitz and Carl Mayer. The two writers were heavily influenced by Paul Wegner, who at the time was pioneering the expressionist movement in film. Both Janowitz and Mayer became interested in the concept of a man being able to accomplish feats of strength and forecast the future while in a trance after watching a side-show.

There is no way to talk about a film like this without mentioning how it looks. Words can’t really describe it accurately but the visuals were handled by designer Hermann Warm and painters Walter Reinmann and Walter Wohirg. They employed the same techniques you would see in stage designs, giving the film flat hard-lined set pieces that are wild and distorted representations of that they are supposed to be. Everything from the ground, to the trees to the town itself has this eerie dreamlike feel to it, which is perfect considering the films subject matter.


The film starts off with a man named Francis played by Friedrich Feher setting up the story as a flashback to how he and his betrothed Jane, played by Lil Dagover became engaged.
It then fades to the bizarre looking town of Holstenwall and it just so happens that at this time the town is having a fair. Francis and his friend Alan head off to enjoy themselves. At the same time a mysterious man calling himself Dr. Caligari heads to the town in order to set up his side-show, after dealing with the angry and bossy town clerk he gets a permit. The story takes place over the next few days and while the fair goes on there are a bizarre series of murders that started with the town clerk. Alan and Francis go to Dr. Caligari’s sideshow that features Cesare the Somnambulist, played by Conrad Veidt, who has been asleep 25 years and will only awaken upon his master’s command. Upon his awakening, Cesare will be able to tell the future. So Alan asks how long he has to live, in which Cesare informs him he will die at dawn! Sure enough this happens and the build-up to solve his murder and a series of others takes many twists and turns. This eventually leads back to Dr. Caligari who, in a final act, attempts to have Jane killed. In what is cliché now, Cesare refuses to kill her because he is enchanted by her beauty. This all leads up to the final act of the film.

Now another thing I can’t ignore is the twist ending. Yes a twist ending and widely considered to be the first of its kind. Some directors nowadays make the twist endings into an art form, and really it’s something that is as cliché in horror as a cat jumping up to scare you from the shadows. At the time though, this was groundbreaking and it all came about after the producers wanted a different and less “Macabre” ending to the movie.

I won’t spoil it, and would rather you all check it out for yourselves. Or I guess you could just google it! Let it be known that’s cheating! I will say that because of the different way films are edited during the silent era it can be difficult to follow exactly what’s going on. It doesn’t help that the version of this film I have isn’t the best one out there. (There is actually a spelling error on one of the title cards!)

This film is a must see for anyone who has an interest in silent horror or film history. It stands as one of the earliest surviving horror films and one that has set up many modern film techniques and storytelling.

If you have an interest in watching this film, it’s available on Netflix or even youtube, it’s a public domain film so it’s not stealing!