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German Expressionist Cinema

¤  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari     ⇓   [1920]

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A 1920 silent horror film directed by Robert Wiene from a screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. It is one of the most influential of German Expressionist films and is often considered one of the greatest horror movies of the silent era. The film used stylized sets, with abstract, jagged buildings painted on canvas backdrops and flats. These unique sets gave off somewhat of a theatrical sense. To add to this strange style, the actors used an unrealistic technique that exhibited jerky and dancelike movements. This movie is cited as having introduced the twist ending in cinema.

•  Plot

The main narrative is introduced using a frame story in which most of the plot is presented as a flashback, as told by the protagonist, Francis (one of the earliest examples of a frame story in film).

Francis (Friedrich Fehér) and an elderly companion are sharing stories when a distracted-looking woman, Jane, passes by. Francis calls her his betrothed and narrates an interesting tale that he and Jane share. Francis begins his story with himself and his friend Alan, who are both good-naturedly competing to be married to the lovely Jane. The two friends visit a carnival in their German mountain village of Holstenwall, where they encounter the captivating Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and a near-silent somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), whom the doctor keeps asleep in a coffin-like cabinet, controls hypnotically, and is displaying as an attraction. Caligari hawks that Cesare’s continuous sleeping state allows him to know the answer to any question about the future. When Alan asks Cesare how long he will live, Cesare bluntly replies that Alan will die before dawn tomorrow—a prophecy which is fulfilled. Alan’s violent death at the hands of some shadowy figure becomes the most recent in a series of mysterious murders in Holstenwall.

Francis, along with Jane, to whom he is now officially engaged, investigates Caligari and Cesare, which eventually results in Caligari’s order for Cesare to murder Jane. Cesare nearly does so, revealing to Francis the almost certain connection of Cesare and his master Caligari to the recent homicides; however, Cesare refuses to go through with the killing because of Jane’s beauty and he instead carries her out of her house, pursued by the townsfolk. Finally, after a long chase, Cesare releases Jane, falls over from exhaustion, and dies.

In the meantime, Francis goes to the local insane asylum to ask if there has ever been a patient there by the name of Caligari, only to be shocked to discover that Caligari is the asylum’s director. With the help of some of Caligari’s oblivious colleagues at the asylum, Francis discovers through old records that the man known as “Dr. Caligari” is obsessed with the story of a mythical monk called Caligari, who, in 1093, visited towns in northern Italy and similarly used a somnambulist under his control to kill people. Dr. Caligari, insanely driven to see if such a situation could actually occur, deemed himself “Caligari” and has since successfully carried out his string of proxy murders. Francis and the asylum’s other doctors send the authorities to Caligari’s office, where Caligari reveals his lunacy only when told that his beloved slave Cesare has died; Caligari is then imprisoned in his own asylum.

The narrative returns to the present moment, with Francis concluding his tale. A twist ending reveals that Francis’ flashback, however, is actually his fantasy: he, Jane and Cesare are all in fact inmates of the insane asylum, and the man he says is Caligari is his asylum doctor, who, after this revelation of the source of his patient’s delusion, says that now he will be able to cure Francis.

metropolis

¤  Metropolis   ⇓  [Fritz Lang, 1927]

2010 saw the release of a restored version of Metropolis, the classic German expressionist, sci-fi film directed by Fritz Lang.

The restoration started two years earlier, in 2008, when a long sought-after copy of the 1927 film was found in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, and it contained 30 minutes of previously unseen footage. German experts got to work and fully restored the extended but degraded copy.

Then came the big unveiling. In February 2010, the new Metropolis was screened at The Berlin International Film Festival, and ARTE presented a live broadcast.

 

¤  Tabu  [FW Murnau, 1931]

Tabu is generally regarded as the first great film to capture the European fantasy of the Polynesian wonderland. While it is generally accepted that the decision to shoot Tabu as a silent film two years after the invention of sound was one of aesthetic preference, after all the lack of sound seemed to enhance Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s ability to effectively meld together the sensuous bodies of his young lovers with the romantic setting, evidence exists that the decision may have been strongly influence by a financial shortfall.

•  Synopsis:

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At the heart of Tabu’s story are Matahi and Reri, two young islanders innocently torn between their own romantic involvement and a tribal dictate rendering Reri sacred and therefore “tabu”.  Unable to accept the mandate of the Gods, the two lovers tempt fate and flee their island paradise (the film’s opening proclaims the island to be yet “untouched by the hand of civilization”), and escape to another island inhabited by westerners where they must adjust to a radically different lifestyle.

Their innocence becomes a liability as the two are duped into financial obligations that they are unable to meet, despite Matahi finding work as a pearl diver.  Eventually Hitu, an ancient warrior in charge of delivering Reri to the Lord of all Islands, catches up with the two lovers, threatening Reri with Matahi’s death if she doesn’t give in and return with him.  While Matahi secretly plans their financial escape by braving a dangerous pearl dive in tabooed waters that are protected by a giant shark, Reri arranges for her silent departure with Hitu.  As Matahi succeeds in his quest for the ultimate pearl, Reri is led into a sailboat by Hitu.  Matahi returns to their hut to find Reri missing and a goodbye note.  A chase ensues.  Matahi swims frantically, closing in on the sailboat, only to have Hitu cut away the trailing rope Matahi finally manages to gain hold of, and the lovers are forever parted.  The film closes with a shot of Matahi slowly being enveloped by a dark ocean.

[Shaun McGuire]

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