"Bedlam" - Val Lewton (directed by Mark Robson, 1946)

Val Lewton produced Bedlam (1946) shortly after The Body Snatcher (1945), and like that previous work, it is more of a grisly historical melodrama than a horror film. Also, like The Body Snatcher, there is no suggestion of the supernatural, as there often is in other Lewton-produced films. The screenplay, to which Lewton again contributed under the pseudonym of “Carlos Keith” and on which he collaborated with director Mark Robson, was inspired by Hogarth’s series of paintings, “A Rake’s Progress”, and there are several inset stills from that work inserted into the film for inter-scene punctuation.

The film is set in 1761 at St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, which is an allusion to Bethlem Royal Hospital in London and known as “Bedlam”. In those days citizens could amuse themselves by paying tuppence and entering the asylum to laugh at the lunatics that were held there. On one such occasion near the beginning of the film, wealthy Lord Mortimer and his protege, Nell Bowen, stop at the asylum for some entertainment and learn that one of the inmates has just died trying to escape. Ms. Bowen assumes upper-class airs and feigns indifference, but we soon learn that she suspects that the asylum inmates are ill-treated. Invited by the asylum master, George Sims, to inspect more thoroughly, Nell finds the conditions appalling and vows to campaign for asylum reform. This sets the narrative conflict of the film, as the spirited Nell Bowen, played by Anna Lee, confronts the cynical and cruel asylum master, played by Boris Karloff. But the film is more than a simple melodrama, because it engages in a lengthy and nontrivial moral debate over the course of the drama.

On the occasion of visiting the asylum, Nell runs into a morally upright Quaker, Hannay, who had just applied for a stonemason’s job at the asylum. They start a discussion about the proper attitude towards one’s fellow creatures that will run through the entire film. As a member of the Society of Friends, Hannay, of course, is steadfastly opposed to violence and believes that compassion and love (agape) are the only proper responses to whatever one encounters. Nell gradually becomes sympathetic but is sceptical that such naivete will lead anywhere. She does urge her patron, the rotund and foppish Lord Mortimer, to devote funds to the betterment of inmate conditions at the asylum, but Mortimer balks when he learns how expensive this will be.

Nell becomes fed up with the self-indulgent Mortimer and scornfully abandons his patronage, returning to her former occupation as a street performer. But she continues her campaign against Mortimer and the asylum, and soon the devious Sims has her forcibly committed as an inmate/prisoner in the asylum. Now inside, Nell, is terrified by the possibility of being manhandled by the population of deranged inmates. Hannay manages to pay her a visit, but he tells her that he is powerless to do anything, and in fact now that she is “inside”, she has the opportunity to use Christian love to change the behaviour of the inmates for the better.

This she does, and the inmates become docile and affectionate before her. When Sims comes around to impose his final “treatment” on Nell, the inmates turn on him and Nell escapes. Now in charge, the inmates put Sims before a mock trial. Sims pleads for his life, telling them of his own doubts and fears, and they surprisingly sympathise, but before Sims can make his escape, he is stabbed by a not-quite catatonic inmate. The inmates then use bricks and mortar to wall up the still-conscious Sims in “Cask of Amontillado” fashion, ensuring his death.

Now, at the end of the film, news of the disappearance of Sims draws Hannay and Nell back to visit the asylum. When stonemason Hannay sees the recently cemented wall, he figures out what happened, but he clams up, signaling to us that Nell's pragmatic approach has apparently won out in their own personal contest concerning ethical behaviour. Nell whispers to him that, after all, the inmates have already suffered enough, and Hannay assenting, sighs in resignation that God will give final judgement, anyway.

Despite generally good cinematography and acting, Bedlam has some weaknesses. The early upper-class frolics and witty verbal exchanges are supposed to be humorous, but they have a forced quality to them and don’t seem to lead anywhere dramatically. Anna Lee, as Nell Bowen, is excellent and magnetic, and Boris Karloff, in a strong performance as the evil George Sims, is unusually unctuous and serpentine, even for him. The strength of these two leads serves to carry the action and helps maintain the focus on the primary contest between them. The acting of the others is reasonably good, but as in Isle of the Dead, the performance of Jason Robards, Sr., is completely unconvincing.

Overall, Bedlam is an odd mixture and perhaps tries to do too much. It is sometimes humourous, sometimes spooky, and sometimes alarming. It is expressionistic only at times, and it never quite hits its stride as a thriller, although it does have its moments. A praiseworthy feature is the fact that it reminds us of what dramatists and filmmakers have long sought to expose: the obscenity of psychiatric practice in Western societies and the unjust way that medical staff can incarcerate people indefinitely. Bedlam stands in a line with other excellent films, such as Shock Corridor (1963), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), that have attempted, so far with very little success, to bring about an end to these practices [1].

Outside of the main conflict between Nell Bowen and George Sims, the subtextual moral debate between Hannay and Nell has its own interest, particularly because of the conclusion it reaches. The film has not finally come down in favour of literal honesty or the strict observance of a code of social morality. Instead, it follows the course of the gradual opening-up of Nell Bowen’s heart and concludes on a promising note of love. Nell has followed her own unique path and has not submitted to anything or anyone -- not to the self-indulgence of Mortimer, not to the cynicism and force of Sims, and not even to the docility and helplessness of Hannay. It is the rigid Hannay, after all, who has changed at the end of the story, not Nell. She has succeeded on her own self-styled and passionate terms.

  1. For further reflections of mental health care, see my reviews of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Shutter Island (2010).

"M" - Fritz Lang (1931)

M, filmed in only six weeks, is far and away Fritz Lang’s most popular film and his own personal favourite. It tells the story of a pathological child-killer, superbly played by Peter Lorre. The story has three main phases.
  1. In the first phase the situation of conflict is established. There has been a series of gruesome child murders that have gripped the city (said to be a city of four million people, suggesting Berlin, but the real events that inspired this story took place in Düsseldorf). The police are combing the city for everything they can to find on the killer, but there are no clues. As the frustrated police increase the intensity of their search, they continually raid all the houses of prostitution and known gambling parlours, interfering with “business as usual” for the criminal underworld.
  2. In phase 2, the criminal underworld decides that they, themselves, must capture the killer in order to get the police off their backs. This stage of the film tracks the parallel activities of the two groups, the police and the criminal underworld, as they work separately to hunt down the killer. Most people find this clever back-and-forth switching between parallel scenes showing the two contrasting groups working towards the same goal to be the most intriguing and satisfying aspect of the film.
  3. In the third phase, the killer is cornered and eventually captured by the criminal underworld. They proceed to hold a mock trial, which seems to have about the same degree of "fair hearing" court procedures as those conducted by the government authorities. It is here that the killer, played well by Lorre, finally breaks down in a dramatic confession of his guilt.
The killer, Hans Beckert, is presented in the film with a certain amount of sympathy for the way in which he is the helpless victim of his own pathology. Because of Lang’s sensitive treatment of the killer, his characteristic fatalistic development of events gains a rare tragic intensity. This brings out a difference between Alfred Hitchcock and Lang. Hitchcock’s dramatic tension emphasises the suspense, while Lang’s emphasises the fatality of character. Lorre, as the culprit, squirms in a relentlessly encircling web. The killer, tracked down and caught like a dangerous animal, is presented as unable to check his sick urges. After each of his crimes he remembers nothing of the details and his urges. His attitude is one of utter disbelief and sorrow. With M, Lang gives a new dimension to the “dual personality” theme which has so often fascinated the German mind.

Stylistically, M is especially significant in several respects. It marks a transition for Lang as a director. Although he still uses people and objects expressionistically, he has opted, on the whole, for a more realistic depiction of character and events. Cardboard characters, monumental sets, and the grouping and movement of crowds no longer have such a complete monopoly on Lang’s attention as they did in Metropolis.

Also M was Lang’s first sound film. He immediately incorporated sound not only as an additive feature but as a separate, independent element. Long before the audience gets a first view of the main character, they hear him talking to a young girl or whistling a melody from Grieg’ (Peer Gynt Suite, Hall of the Mountain King”,) which remains his “leitmotiv” throughout the movie. Sound is also often used to tie up different elements; while the sound of one scene lingers, the camera moves through a sequence of different, but related takes. Possessed of a quickness in learning technique, Lang became a master of the use of sound in his first attempt.

Throughout the film, there is an interesting subtext conveyed by presenting the parallel activities of the police and the underworld. Both forces are led by charismatic leaders: Inspector Karl Lohmann for the police and the ruthless Schränker (himself wanted for three murders) for the underworld. Because both forces are highly organised and are undertaking the hunt in parallel, many viewers think that Lang is representing the two forces as essentially and morally equivalent. But I don’t hold to that opinion. The two forces actually represent two competing and contrasting world views, and this may have represented a commentary about contemporary German society. Throughout the film the police attempt to use science and technology in order to hunt down the killer, Beckert. They represent the Western rationalist view, including the notion that a psychotic criminal is, himself, the victim of some forces outside of his control and needs medical care, rather than punishment. On the other side, Schränker and the underworld use more traditional social operations to track down the killer. For example, they organise all the beggars in the city to follow every single school child as they walk home from school. They can be seen to represent more traditional forces of social control that are closer to mob rule than the rule-driven mechanisms of the police. This mode of operation can sometimes be more efficient in the eradication of evil-doers, but is it desirable? Their leader, Schränker, is simply the most ruthless and cunning among them, even resorting to torture; whereas Police Inspector Lohmann is more cerebral and reliant on rational procedures of evidence gathering. In the end Lohmann succeeds in locating the whereabouts of the mock trial and just barely halting what would have been a gangland-style execution. Justice has prevailed. Even today, though, viewers are likely to be divided on what really should be the ultimate fate of Beckert.

Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: "Open City" and "Paisan"

“Neorealism is more an ontological position than an aesthetic one”
– André Bazin

Critical consideration of certain Italian post-war films referred to as Neorealist must perforce deal with rather fundamental questions concerning the nature of the cinematic experience. Unfortunately there is a lack of general agreement as to what actually constitutes Neorealism, since the films have been interpreted on several different levels. However, art movement categories frequently suffer from problems of definition, and, usually it is a case of the old logician’s problem of whether to characterize the class by its defining statement or by its individual members. In the case of Neorealist films, it seems that the weight of opinion has expressed itself in terms of the latter choice, and Neorealism is generally taken to apply only to the specific post-war films of Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, Lattuada, and a few others. Such a classification would not be interesting in terms of film theory unless there were certain common cinematic characteristics among these films, and such is the case for the Neorealist films for which there is a persistent critical opinion which asserts that conditions in Italy after the war were such as to engender a common cinematic expression.

However, critics and historians express the essence of Neorealism in terms only of the social environment that spawned it. Arthur Knight [1] remarks that “drawn irresistibly to social themes, they [the Neorealists] were united by a common [social] philosophy.” Hollis Alpert [2] says Neorealism meant “the birth of a new conscience, which was translated into social awareness and a concern for the ordinary man.” And Andrew Sarris [3] observed that Neorealism “was never anything more than the Stalinallee of social realism.” While this line of analysis may be appropriate to the Communist theoreticians who dominated Italian criticism, it doesn’t go far enough to provide the aesthetic distinctions which distinguish the Italian films from other efforts at realism, such as, say, cinema verité. Indeed the importance of the aesthetic basis of the Neorealist films is likened by André Bazin to that of the Russian films of the Twenties [4]:
Potemkin turned the cinema world upside down not just because of its political message, not even because it replaced the studio plaster sets with real settings and the star with an anonymous crowd, but because Eisenstein was the greatest montage theoretician of his day, because he worked with Tissé, the finest cameraman of his day, and because Russia was the focal point of cinematographic thought. . .
It is my purpose here to look at some aesthetic ideas appropriate to the Neorealist films and then consider two important films of this genre, Open City (Roma, Città Aperta,1945) and Paisan (Paisà, 1946), in light of those ideas. I restrict myself to the two films by Roberto Rossellini, because, though uneven, each contains sequences which are, in my opinion, expressive of the essence of the neorealistic aesthetic – this despite Rosselini’s own statement [5] that Neorealism was
“above all a moral standpoint from which to view the world. Afterwards it becomes an aesthetic viewpoint."
This merely reflects the fact that the expression of an amoral standpoint can have profound aesthetic consequences, consciously intended or not.

The most memorable scenes of the two Rossellini films, the activity in the Roman streets in Open City and the fourth (“Forentine”) and Sixth (“Po River”) segments of Paisan, are those that give, in the words of James Agee, the “illusions of the present tense.” [6] In these scenes we are presented images of unanalyzed reality – or rather, images that are one level of abstraction closer to concrete reality than those usually present on film [7]. Getstalt psychologists have determined that a certain amount of analysis takes place at the level of perception, that is, prior to cognition [8]. When one is shown four dots arranges as follows:

One perceives, in addition, the form of a square in the manner of (a), rather than (b) or (c):
In general, reality is reduced to the most simple patterns at the moment of perception. A certain “reduction” of reality takes place. Much of the history of modern painting is concerned with artists’ attempts to deal with the formal perception of the world as opposed to reality as it appears unanalyzed (as it might appear in a photograph). Similarly most of the advances in film technique have been concerned with ways of presenting a reduced or analyzed version of reality on screen – analyzed so that certain formal and thematic connections can be made by the viewer and so that the film itself can become a statement by the author.

As stated above, the important scenes in Open City and Paisan present the world in a relatively unanalyzed state and run counter to the, up to then, historic course of cinematic expression. Though at first thought this might merely seem to be a retrogression in film technique, there is another consideration. With virtually every mode of artistic expression (except music), there is a delicate balance that must be maintained between the referential reality and the language or grammar of expression. To elaborate on this, let us consider an idea from gestalt psychology – that reality is perceived structurally and this structure is the simplest possible for the circumstantial stimuli [9]. From such an idea it is quite reasonable to speculate that what we might call the most admirable “statements” about the world are those that can be applied to the greatest amount of reality and yet have the simplest attendant structure. Certainly such a principle dominates the ascendency of theories in the scientific world, and something similar is involved when we admire a Shakespearean play for its universality and profundity – here the structure of the play applies to a wealth of human situations that have existed in the world over centuries. The delicate balance between the referential reality and the language of expression means that the language should be profound (possess a significant abstract structure) and yet be directly applicable to concrete reality. The more general the abstraction present, the more widely applicable is the structure to reality, but at the same time the further removed is that structure from concrete reality. The danger exists in allowing the language of expression to become disengaged from concrete reality.

An example of this disengagement coming to pass is the American Western film, a genre which once may have had close connections with reality, but which has become progressively more mythic and self-contained. The Western is now a self-consistent but disembodied iconography; such films are merely exercises in grammatical expression, analogous to writing love poetry in Latin, and meaningful only to buffs. André Bazin was referring to this kind of imbalance when he wrote the following [10]:
[the representation of reality on the screen] is a necessary illusion, but it quickly becomes identified in the mind of the spectator with is cinematographic presentation. As for the filmmaker, the moment he has secured the unwitting complicity of the public, he is increasingly tempted to ignore reality. From habit and laziness he reaches the point when he himself is no longer able to tell where lies begin or end. There could never be any question of calling him a liar, because his art consists in lying.
The connection of art expression to reality is not a static condition. As an audience’s perceptual organization of the world evolves, the artist must continually adjust his language of expression so as to continue to relate to his audience’s perceptual reality. Thus a medieval painting seems unreal to modern observers, because it relates to a perceptual reality that no longer exists in the minds of its spectators. Bazin expressed an awareness of this entire aesthetic situation when he observed that “the objective nature of the modern novel, by reducing the strictly grammatical aspects of its stylistics to a minimum, has laid bare the secret essence of style.” [11]

The aesthetic ideas presented so far have been quite general, and they naturally manifest themselves differently in different art forms. When Bazin [12] says that “the cinema stand in contrast to poetry, painting, and theater, and comes ever close to the novel” , he means that the power of the film to represent reality can most closely be compared to that of the novel. There is a danger, however, in drawing this analogy too closely, because the novel’s communication through words is always a highly abstract process. Even if the novel is more concrete than poetry or theater, it still involves the author’s translation of his perceptual reality into linguistic symbols and the ensuing reverse translation by the reader into his own perceptions. Such an abstract process always involves a considerable degree of analysis by the mere use and choice of words independent of grammatical style and is thus less immediate than film. Film, however, is a medium wherein reality can be presented almost without analysis – the balance can be lost in the other direction in this case.

Some of the earliest enthusiasts of Neorealism made the mistake of assuming that the art lay in merely photographing reality outside of the studio. But this is clearly only one component of the process. Surely a film that involved no creator’s selectivity, no analysis of perceptual reality, would not be an artistic statement. It would be no different than looking randomly out the window. The vapidity of such cinema was remarked upon by Stanley Kauffman in his review of the Zavattini - De Sica film, The Roof (Il Tetto, 1956), when he complained that {13]
"they strove to make the film as much like life as possible. Therefore its hour and half contains moment of pathos and humor and excitement together with long stretches that are not particularly interesting. Just like your life and mine."
Such was the result when Zavattini tried to put his own doctrinaire theories about Neorealism into practice.

The Rossellini sequences, on the other hand, are outstanding, because they do represent a distinct point of view (the filmmaker’s statement about reality) and yet effectively root the viewer in concrete perceptions (contrary to previous films which had become increasingly abstract and grammatical). The thematic current that runs through the films is the idea that heroism consists not of accomplishment but of resignation to one’s fate, coincident with the maintenance of one’s moral commitments. When the priest and the Communist both die for their cause in Open City, they do so with a peculiar sense of peace, giving us the feeling that they have achieved, through their resignation, some degree of perhaps Christian transcendence. Critics have tended to isolate Rossellini’s form from his content. Thus Robert Warshow [14] states that “Rossellini has no intellectual defences, and when he attempts to go beyond the passive representation of experience, he falls at once into the grossest sentimentality and falsehood.” Whether false or not, Rossellini’s moral theme is inextricably intertwined with the manner of its presentation.

Moreover critics take exception to Rossellini’s essentially melodramatic narrative form [15]. Yet this melodramatic style is an essential quality for Rossellini. Rossellini organizes the plot around key events, highly dramatic events involving life and death. In the best sequences (the “Florentine” and “Po River” episodes of Paisan), the audience is given no background, no reason for the event. The unanalyzed event takes up the entire action. There are certain relationships among the characters which the audience would find useful to know, but the narrative does not point these out or slow down for audience comprehension. The action itself seems to exist independent of the filming of it, and the camera has no time to examine details. Robert Warshow points out that American films devote considerable screen time to the establishment of characterization in order that the characters, who are really abstractions, can be given the necessary background detail so that they can be individualized and so that the action can be explained in terms of the individual motivations of the characters. Rossellini, keying only on the action of a highly charged event, achieves the unanalyzed and unexplained immediacy he wants, but he does so only by being melodramatic. That is, by having such unrelenting dramatic action, Rossellini appears melodramatic. The failures, (a) in Open City of scenes involving Bergman and his coterie and (b) in Paisan of the episode involving the three American chaplains, arise from Rossellini’s use of symbolic characters, i.e. his deviation from the successful melodramatic-event narrative style.

The remarkable “Florentine” and “Po River” episodes of Paisan work because they are melodramatic. The viewer is constantly perceiving violent and fragmented images (not fragmented artificially, but as they would come to a bystander) which he must assemble coherently in his mind. The analysis, performed by the viewer, would not even be undertaken if the event itself were not of sufficient dramatic intensity.

In the “Florentine” episode a woman is looking for her lover in a contested part of the city. The camera maintains a consistent third-person perspective. There are no cuts to closeups. Indeed the camera seems to be somewhat wary of the danger present in the situation. The viewer thus feels himself part of the action. When two fascists are captured, they are rushed up almost too close to the camera for comfort. One feels like taking a step backwards when watching. This sense of immediacy is maintained until the woman learns of the death of her lover and the episode ends. The viewer’s knowledge of the woman and whatever her lover meant to her is constructed consistently of what can be drawn from her actions during the event. This is a limitation, but at the same time the event is so real that it seems as rich as life itself – so full of possibly meaningful, briefly glimpsed detail that still awaits our minds’ attentive reflection. This overall effect is enhanced by the elliptical succession of images. Important actions are not even shown, and the viewer must fill it in for himself, because the action is racing ahead. The entire “Po River” sequence is put together in this fashion. Also, because the viewer is putting together some of the action in his mind, the unseen events make their presence felt in succeeding scenes, just as they do in real life. An example of this shadow casting of an event is the effect of Pina’s death on the subsequent scene in Open City.

The passive, eye-level camera techniques, the newsreel editing, and the naturalistic acting ultimately bring about the active perceptual participation of the viewer. The necessity of the viewer to continually analyze the event and keep up with the action harmonizes with Rossellini’s moral purpose. The various deaths reported in the “Forentine” and “Po River” episodes of Paisan seem so random and brutal, so subordinate to the larger context of the war and the rest of the real world, that we, the viewers, can only reflect upon them in our own time. Yet at the same time the characters who participate in these events are struggling on behalf of their ideals. This combination is what gives the strength to what is best in Rossellini’s films. The moral attitudes of the characters and the concrete context in which they are depicted each give substance to the other. And this is the crucial point that is missed by Bazin and Warshow and which the foregoing argument has been an attempt to justify: that the potency of Rossellini’s realistic cinematography depends aesthetically on the melodramatic narrative style and the moralistic message – whether one is in sympathy with that moral message or not.

  1. Knight, Arthur, The Liveliest Art, The New American Library (1957), p. 225.
  2. Alpert, Hollis, The Dreams and the Dreamers, Macmillan (1962), p. 183
  3. Sarris, Andrew, Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955-1969, Simon and Schuster (1971), p. 30.
  4. Bazin, André, What is Cinema?, Volume II, University of California (1971), p. 25.
  5. Rossellini, Roberto, Interviews with Film Directors, ed. by Andrew Sarris, Avon Books (1967), p. 475.
  6. Agee. James, Agee on Film, Volume I, Grosset and Dunlap (1969), p. 301.
  7. I am, of course, presuming that there actually is a concrete reality and that all of us are referring to the same thing when we use the phrase. Moreover, I am overlooking such linguistic issues, as what exactly Gertrude Stein meant when she said, “there’s no there there.”
  8. See, for example, Rudolph Arnheirm’s book, Art and Visual Perception. (1974).
  9. “The basic law of visual perception. . . asserts that any stimulus pattern tends to be seen in such a way that the resulting structure is as simple as the given conditions permit.” – Rudolph Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception, University of California (1954), p. 45.
  10. Bazin, André, op. cit., p. 27.
  11. Ibid., p. 31. In connection with realism and the recent course of modern literature, there is an interesting article by Tom Wolfe in the December 1972 issue of Esquire, entitled, “Why they aren’t writing the Great American Novel Anymore”, which generally supports the aesthetic outline in this article.
  12. Ibid., p. 26.
  13. Kauffmann, Stanley, A World on Film, Delta (1966), p. 292.
  14. Warshow, Robert, The Immediate Experience, Atheneium (1962), p. 257.
  15. “Unfortunately the demon of melodrama that Italian film makers seem incapable of exorcising takes over every so often, thus imposing a dramatic necessity of strictly foreseeable events.” – André Bazin, op. cit., p. 31.

Film Aesthetics

Film Aesthetics

"Sisters of the Gion" - Kenji Mizoguchi (1936)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion (Gion No Shimai, 1936) was made directly after his Osaka Elegy (Naniwa Erejî, 1936) and shares a number of similarities with it. Once again an original Mizoguchi story about women being used by men was scripted by Yoshikata Yoda, and many of the cast members in the preceding film reappeared in Sisters of the Gion. In particular, Isuzu Yamada, who played the defiant Ayako in Osaka Elegy, reprises her role of an independent woman, this time in the role of Omocha. If we compare the two films, however, we see that Sisters of the Gion exhibits a number of advances over its predecessor.

The film is set in the famous Gion neighborhood of Kyoto, which was well-known for its upscale geisha district. The story concerns the affairs and struggles of two sisters who are both geisha girls, and it drew public attention to the legitimacy and social acceptability of the entire profession and institution of geisha (in the Gion district, the full-fledged geisha are called, “geiko”). The older of the two girls, the no longer youthful Umekichi, is gentle, considerate, and accepts the limitations that society has placed on her position. Her younger sister, the pretty Omocha, is a feisty charmer who is out for all that she can get. As far as Omocha is concerned, all men are selfish and only look after their own interests; they deserve to be “used” and exploited, since they, themselves, are always using geisha girls. The plot of the film has four basic segments:
  1. Introduction to the Two Sisters (11 minutes). The opening scene features a 66-second long tracking shot the overlooks the auctioning off all the assets to Shimbei Furusawa’s dry goods business. The once wealthy businessman is now penniless, and after a bitter quarrel with his shrewish wife, goes to visit his faithful geisha woman, the demure and gentle Umekichi. Furusawa has been her long time special patron. Umekichi's younger sister, Omocha, soon appears, wearing modern dress and displaying rude and impudent manners. Umekichi, who genuinely loves Furusawa, agrees to have him move in to their household, even though the two sisters have very little means. Immediately after he leaves to get his things, Omocha expresses her disgust with the idea of taking in such a loser, and this leads to a lengthy argument between the modern, school-educated Omocha and her older sister, who has had a more traditional upbringing, concerning how one should treat old acquaintances. The argument extends to the next day and includes a glorious 160-second tracking shot as the two sisters walk in the park and discuss their differences. Umekichi insists that she should be loyal to her long-time patron, whereas Omocha says he isn’t owed anything: he always got what he paid for. You should simply use men, just like they use us, she says:
    “A geisha’s only purpose is to give men pleasure. They pay us to be their playthings. We’re bought and sold like common goods.”
  2. Omocha’s Scheming Manoeuvers (24 minutes). Now Omocha takes action to exploit the men around her. First she flirts with a clothing shop clerk, Kimura, in order to get him to steal an expensive kimono for her sister, a needed accoutrement in order to attract a new, wealthy patron. Then she meets Furusawa’s colleague, Mr. Jurakudo, and charms him out of some cash that she can use to send Furuawa packing. Finally, she meets Furusawa in private and tells him that his sister wants to get rid of him and gives him some of the cash from Jurakudo to find other digs. Umekichi is then told that Furusawa has left town.
  3. Omocha’s Success (14 minutes). Kimura, the dry goods shop clerk who stole the kimono for Omocha, is found out by his proud and dictatorial boss, Mr Kudo. Kudo goes to visit Omocha to get the kimono back, but after Omocha turns on the charm, he is also soon seduced. At the end of this act, Omocha is seen admiring her ill-gotten gains (a new dress) in the mirror and boasting to Umekichi, who is now being pressured by her sister to accept the wealthy Mr. Jurakudo as her new patron.
  4. The Sisters’ Downfall (20 minutes). But Omocha’s triumph is short-lived, and the pace quickens. Kimura stops by while Omocha is out and innocently informs Umekichi that Furusawa is still in town. Omocha and Kudo show up and Kimura, shocked to learn that Kudo is now Omocha’s patron, calls Omocha a tramp. Omocha haughtily dismisses him. Umekichi rushes out, finds Furusawa, and arranges to leave her lying sister's quarters and move in with him at his new place. In short order all of Omocha’s lies have been exposed. The consequences will now have to be paid. A car, allegedly from Kudo, comes to pick up Omocha, but once inside the car, she learns that she is being kidnapped by the revenge-minded Kimura and his thug friend. She winds up in the hospital with severe injuries, and Umekichi rushes to her side. She gently scolds Omocha, telling her that this is what happens when you mistreat people, but soon she, too, faces mistreatment from a man. She has been abandoned by her soul-mate, Furusawa, who has been offered a factory manager job in his wife’s home village and has suddenly left in a rush. His departing message to Umekichi, conveyed to her by the serving girl, is “go find a better patron”. The final scene in Omacha’s hospital room shows both sisters lamenting the abusive and selfish way they have been treated by men.
In the end both the two sisters’ approaches towards men have received rebuke. Omocha has tried to wend her way in the dog-eat-dog world of acquisitiveness, but she has been simply overwhelmed by brute force. Women are always at a disadvantage when the terms are dictated by savagery and physical violence. Umekichi’s contrasting approach of compassion and kindness has hardly brought her any better fate. She tries to console herself that she at least tried to bring some happiness to her man, even though her kindness was only taken for granted. In fact his only concern was material gain; when an opportunity appeared, he abandoned her without a second thought.

It is interesting to compare Mizoguchi’s film aesthetic with that of von Sternberg, who Mizoguchi has acknowledged to be one his major influences. Both directors have focussed their attention on women and how they relate to men. But von Sternberg’s vision of women is seen through an extremely romantic and Expressionistic filter. His women are beautiful as well as unfathomable and unearthly beings who either offer or demand absolute submission to love. In Mizoguchi's films, on the other hand, there is also something deep and unknowable about women, too – but his women are seen more intimately and with greater sympathy. In his universe, women are always forced to play a game with the deck stacked against them. And there is more variety to his women. Omocha is not simply a passive victim, but a person who has tried to figure out how to make her own way in a soulless and hypocritical world, where high values are espoused but conveniently ignored. Her character is more richly drawn and complex: even though her behaviour is problematic, we see how she is trapped, and we can sympathise with her plight.

In contrast to the women, Mizoguchi’s men, although they sometimes put up a manly front, seem to be spineless or helpless in connection with their behaviour towards women. Compared to Mizoguchi’s selfish male players, though, Von Sternberg’s men (at least some of them) are more romantic and self-sacrificing. Nevertheless, it is interesting that despite the almost uniform worthlessness of the male characters in Sisters of the Gion, they are generally a bit more than simple, one-dimensional stereotypes – we recognise (and perhaps even slightly sympathise with) them from our own experiences. In fact the overall view of men as "slackers" and women as "strivers" has now become a prominent thread in American movies, too, as remarked by David Denby in his article, "A Fine Romance". So what we see in Sisters of the Gion is by no means exclusive to Japanese society. But Mizoguchi's films are probably not exclusively attacking one sex in favour of the other, but instead are critiquing an overarching social order that channels the behaviour of both men and women in an unsatisfactory manner.

Both Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion show women struggling to survive in unfair circumstances. They both offer more sophisticated characterisations than the typical Hollywood screen stereotypes depicting innocent women victimized by cruel masters. In the two Mizoguchi films, the narratives present situations which, even though contrived, are not so artificially one-sided and can be seen more circumspectively. This suggests a response to a possible objection to Mizoguchi's approach. One might criticise Mizoguchi and Yoda for exaggerating the manipulative nature of Ayako in Osaka Elegy and Omocha in Sisters of the Gion, and thereby diminishing their innocence -- they got what they deserved, one might argue. But by casting these characters as they have done, the filmmakers have distanced the viewer from constant identification with any single character, and this places the larger social context into a sharper focus. This kind of distancing effect is stronger and the social message more forceful in Sisters of the Gion than in its predecessor.

The cinematography in Sister of the Gion is also more fluid and sophisticated than that of Osaka Elegy. Most of the camera shots are artfully composed and have durations of more than one minute, with careful framing maintained by means of subtle panning and dollying. There is a memorable shot of of this type lasting 3:06, when Omocha meets privately with Mr. Furusawa and tells him he has become a burden and that he should move out. Omocha’s flirtation with Mr. Kudo is a such shot, lasting 3:20, and it has perfectly motivated and unobtrusive camera movement. The fluid cinematography is actually the outstanding feature of this film, and it will become even more of a Mizoguchi trademark in his subsequent work.

Kenji Mizoguchi

About Kenji Mizoguchi:
Films of Kenji Mizoguchi:

"Osaka Elegy" - Kenji Mizoguchi (1936)

Kenji Mizoguchi, who was born in 1898, was already directing silent films in Japan at the age of 25 and by the time he was 38 had some sixty credits to his directorial resume. But none of those earlier films, which must perforce have been shot on very limited budgets, have survived, and today there are only post-1936 films of his available. Since Mizoguchi came to be known as Japan’s greatest director, this figures to be a considerable loss, but at least we can be reassured by Mizoguchi’s later observation that his career as a serious director didn’t really begin until the making of Osaka Elegy (Naniwa Erejî) in 1936. This film already featured a number of Mizoguchi’s characteristic narrative themes and also marked the beginning of his long-time, fruitful collaboration with scriptwriter Yoshikata Yoda.

The plot of the film, based on an original story by Mizoguchi, himself, concerns the misfortunes of a young woman who sacrifices her position in society and her chances for future happiness in order to provide financial assistance to her male family members. It seems to parallel some of Mizoguchi’s personal history, since his own father’s failed financial investments ultimately led to his elder sister being sold into prostitution as a geisha. This sister then helped provide financial support for her teenage brother who was about to enter the film industry and achieve everlasting fame.

The narrative line of Osaka Elegy can be viewed as comprising four basic sections:
  1. Establishing Ayako’s Dilemma. In the opening sequence, which is very static, Sonosuke Asai, owner of the Asai Pharmaceutical Company, is shown in his wealthy home demonstrating his general irritability and dissatisfaction with his domestic life. He and his wife make no bones about being unhappy with each other. The action cuts to the Asai Pharmaceutical office, where Ayako, a pretty telephone operator works and is admired by handsome young coworker Susumu. In addition, she is not only admired but also discretely propositioned for sexual favors by two senior managers, Mr. Fujino and Mr. Asai, himself. Although the early domestic scene shows that traditional Japanese dress is worn in the homes, everyone wears Western clothing at the workplace. This signifies the split personality that upscale Japanese life was experiencing. But Ayako has a pressing problem. Her father embezzled money from work and made some disastrous financial investments, and now must pay it back or face jail. She asks Susumu, the man she loves, for help, but he doesn’t have the money. Back home, the sharp-tongued Ayako criticises her father for irresponsibly jeopardizing the family, and after a bitter quarrel, she leaves home.
  2. Ayako Takes a Desperate Action. Act 2 opens on a modern apartment room, where Ayako is sitting bored and smoking cigarettes. She has left the pharmaceutical company and become Asai’s secret concubine in return for money to help her father out of his jam. Soon she is attending the theatre in the company of Asai, with her hair coiffed like a married woman. One day she runs into Susumu at a department store, and while sharing a tea, he proposes marriage. This is what she has always wanted, but she can’t accept his proposal in her present situation, and she runs away without giving her answer. As was inevitable, Asai’s wife eventually learns of her husband’s amorous liaison, and she imperiously orders her timid husband to return home and end his affair.
  3. Ayako’s Appeal to Susumu. Ayako, now free to go to Susumu, asks her maid whether she should tell him about her affair. The maid responds by saying if Susumu really loves her, he will understand. But just then Ayako learns that her brother, Hiroshi, who has been studying at the university, is desperately in need of money to pay his final tuition. So, addressing the new financial problem, she flirts with her other senior admirer, Mr. Fujino, and gets him to pay her money that will be used to cover Hiroshi’s tuition. Ayako then rushes to meet Susumu, innocently telling him everything and begging him to marry her. Susumu’s response is hesitant, but Ayako seems confidant everything will work out.
  4. The Final Breakup. Mr. Fujino next shows up at the apartment, demanding her affection in payment for his financial contributions. Ayako, now confidant that she has Susumu behind her, rudely and triumphantly dismisses him. But the couple is soon arrested by the police: Fujino has formally accused them of soliciting. During a brutal cross examination at the police station, the fearful Susumu betrays Ayako, saying that she is a fallen woman who deceived him. Ultimately the police let her go, but when she returns to her family, she finds that they all now reject her as a disgraceful “delinquent” and turn her out. She is now completely abandoned, and the final shot shows her walking alone at night on the street facing her uncertain future.
Osaka Elegy, which was apparently shot in only twenty days, features a number of hallmark Mizoguchi features. The very carefully composed camera frame always covers a relatively large scope, with almost no closeups. Many of the shots are filmed through a scene with considerable depth, with environmental artifacts in the foreground and well-crafted, dramatic lighting of the subjects that heighten the ambience and sense of environmental context. There is also some excellently contrived camera movements, but nothing like those of his later works.

The men in the film are uniformly timid and dominated by their circumstances. They unquestioningly identify with their social institutions and seem reluctant to think for themselves and take initiative. Ayako, by contrast, is naive, but also spirited and relatively enterprising. She is not simply an idealised victim of society, but is instead a more richly developed and believable character that presents an unusually sympathetic examination of the life of a woman in contemporary Japan. In the story told, she has tried to live up to society’s traditional demands for helping her family in difficult circumstances; but while her menfolk seem useless in this regard, she has taken her own initiative and managed to find the needed money. In the end, though, all her efforts are rejected by the hypocrites around her. This will be a recurring theme for the rest of Mizoguchi’s career: Japanese society has only idealized and highly restricted roles for women; there is no place, no support, and no refuge for women who would like to, or need to, live outside of those boundaries. Nevertheless, it seems that despite the prejudicial and unjust society in which she lives, Ayako’s spirit is still unbroken at the end of the film. True, she has become hardened and more cynical by her experience. But she is still a fervent, unbowed human being walking forward to face life’s further vicissitudes.

There are cultural and situational aspects to the setting in Osaka Elegy about which one can only speculate. This was 1936, when the world economic situation was not promising, and economic tensions may have been particularly intense. Ayako, who smokes cigarettes and wears Western dress, is a modern woman in a Japan that was undoubtedly experiencing tensions between modernity and the traditional cultural values of feminine modesty. There is in all this a suggestion in the film that even the liberating contributions of modernism appear to provide no secure and respected place for women in Japan. This discouraging social assessment was recognised by the wartime Japanese government, which banned Osaka Elegy as decadent and unsuitable for the national spirit. And yet in my view, the film shows a striking sympathy for the passionate and unvanquishable character of woman.

"The Threepenny Opera" - G. W. Pabst (1931)

During the filming of the The Threepenny Opera (Die Dresigroschenoper or Die 3 Groschen-Oper, 1931), a celebrated lawsuit was initiated by the author, Bertolt Brecht, and the music composer, Kurt Weill, against the production. Brecht had very successfully produced his own play previously in Berlin and was not about to allow G. W. Pabst to make his substantially altered screen version. Brecht lost the case, but unlike most such instances, the film’s alterations did not destroy the power of the artists’ original work. Pabst and his excellent cameraman used sophisticated shooting angles and swirls of dust and smoke to create a very moody, well-felt atmosphere for the players, most of whom were the original stage actors. For once Pabst, the “realist” of The Joyless Street and The Love of Jeanne Ney fame, chose Expressionistic filming devices to elicit the contrasts between the Edwardian bourgeois and the Soho slums.

The plot, set in an imaginary, fantastic London at the turn of the century, features three rogues – Mackie Messer, a leader of a gang of criminals, Peachum, the beggar king, and Tiger Brown, the police commissioner. Peachum, furious over Mackie’s impetuous engagement with his daughter, threatens to disrupt the imminent coronation of the Queen with a beggar’s demonstration, unless the police commissioner sends Mackie to the gallows. This sets the stage for Brecht’s vigorous plot machinations as well as his pungent comments on the inherent corruption of a capitalistic society.

Kurt Weill’s songs, which were reputedly based on a few notes whistled by Brecht, were the very pivots of the play and gave it much of its impact. The film is more cinematically motivated, i.e. its movement through time id dependent more on purely cinematic values. Thus the music appears less fundamental in the film than in the play. It might be added that Kurt Weill, after the court case was over, cooperated with Pabst and adapted his songs to the exigencies of the screen.

This film, Pabst’s first completely successful integration of image and sound, is also noted for the create use of the illusionary possibilities of photographing through glass to enhance the bizarre character of interiors. The numerous screens of glass in the café scene (Mackie’s courtship) are designed to transform the crowded and smoking room into a confusing maze. Another time, Mackie is shot entering a brothel behind a glass partition, which gives him a rather provocative halo.
The film version . . . differed much from the play, but on the whole preserved its social satire, genuine lyricism and revolutionary colouring.
– Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler

"The Love of Jeanne Ney" - G. W. Pabst (1927)

G. W. Pabst’s The Love of Jeanne Ney (Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney, 1927) is not an Expressionist film, but like the Expressionists, Pabst never managed to reject a shot which was both forceful and picturesque. The theme was similar to The Joyless Street (Die Freudlose Gasse, 1925), except instead of depicting Vienna in turmoil, Pabst took on the whole of European postwar society.

Pabst was forced to work under some distressing pressures. First, the American films were already having a deleterious box-office effect on the German film industry, and Pabst was instructed to stage his picture “in the American style.” Second, he was also under pressure to match the recent successes of the Russians Eisenstein and Pudovkin. And finally, Ufa studios insisted on an outrageously bowdlerized version of Ilya Ehrenberg’s original story, altering the social, sexual, and political implications. The result was a masterpiece. Rotha, regarding the film even better than The Joyless Street, observed that
Jeanne Ney developed from sequence to sequence with breathtaking power. Mood succeeded mood, each perfect in its tension and its understanding.
Fritz Arno Wagner, now at the height of his cinematographic powers, achieved in his smooth travelling and panning shots and in his natural lighting a technical tour de force.

The cutting of the film has become a textbook example of unobtrusive effectiveness. Every cut was made on actual movement, so that at the end of a shot somebody was moving and at the beginning of the next shot the action was continued. The eye, following the movement, scarcely notices the actual transposition. This style was in sharp contrast to Eisenstein’s montage, which was deliberately used to shock the spectator. There is one scene in The Love of Jeanne Ney that, though lasting only three minutes, has over forty cuts – though the eye scarcely notices them. This short sequence has been used for pedagogical purposed in filmmaking courses.

Iris Varry, writing for the Museum of Modern Art Film Library, says,
Pabst’s work here is in no sense picturesque, it is photographic. His settings and his individual scenes are quite as carefully composed as those of the more obviously artistic German films, but the craftsmanship is less apparent, the spectator is led to feel “how true”, rather than “how beautiful”.

"The Last Laugh" - F. W. Murnau (1924)

Carl Mayer, the outstanding German script writer whose first triumph was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), had planned The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann, 1924) to be the third part of a trilogy he had been working on with the director Lupu Pick. A disagreement between the two brought in F. W. Murnau as the director, a circumstance which proved to be historic.

With the illustrious Karl Freund at the camera, Murnau fashioned one of the great cinematographic achievements of the silent era. The film, shot entirely without titles, was an extremely Germanic Existentialist tragedy, though not clearly an Expressionistic one. It recounts the social destruction of a doorman, who, upon losing his uniform, loses his being-in-the-world. Having grown too old to carry luggage, the doorman must exchange his braided coat for a simple white jacket and be the attendant in a men’s lavatory. The resulting dishonor ruins the old man, played by Emil Jannings, (he also starred in The Blue Angel, 1930) as well as his entire family. The full tragic implications of a film like this can only be understood in a country where uniform is king. The film abounds in skilful use of symbols, which are so well integrated to the action that they need not be noticed to appreciate the film. In particular, the revolving door, whose movements the doorman is so proud of controlling, becomes a symbol for the swirl of life itself.

The Last Laugh is a showcase of camera technique. Lupu Pick claimed to be the first to use the moving camera in 1922 and Wegener’s cinematographer, Boese, insisted he used it for The Golem (1920). But for Murnau, the camera moving on a dolly was no longer enough: he tied it to his cameraman’s chest and had him follow Jannings step by step with each camera angle chosen for perfect expressive and pictoral composition. Freund’s camera plays with beams of the nightwatchman’s torch, moving to and fro in a fashion characteristic of the German filmmaker’s fondness for light play on surfaces. Yet each shot is well motivated.

The inclusion of Expressionist style in a film depicting psychological developments in a middle-class atmosphere seems impossible, but Murnau does it with the exquisite drunken dream sequence, wherein the daily torture of the doorman comes out in all its horror. The panels of the revolving door, now gigantic and Expressionistically distorted, collide with the sleeping man’s brain and split it in two: a precise image of the schizoid nature of all dreams.

The concern for details slows the pace down and occasionally disconcerts modern audiences who are unaccustomed to viewing films in which the psychological development is conditioned by each meaningful but minute detail. The freedom of the mobile camera and the title-free narrative enables Murnau to explore the characters in great depth. In fact Eisner (The Haunted Screen) asserts that the ponderous pace of the film is essential to this investigation into the Germanic world and gives it the ultimate meaning [1].

Mayer and Murnau were forced by their producers to have a happy ending. They did so ingeniously, without sacrificing the film’s artistic merit, by taking on a facetious ending, an epilogue, essentially, which is even more biting in its commentary than the original ending and is, indeed, the last laugh.

  1. Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt (1974), University of California Press.

"Siegfried" - Fritz Lang (1924)

Fritz Lang’s cinema is the cinema of the nightmare, the fable, and the philosophical dissertation. His films take place in a closed world, but their formal brilliance and intellectual conception are incontestable.”
– Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

Siegfried (Die Nibelungen: Siegfried, 1922-24) is the first part of Lang’s titanic Niebelungen (part two was The Vengeance of Kriemhild, 1924). Thea von Harbou’s script was not taken from Wagner’s Lay of the Nibelung, but from the original ancient myths and so differs vastly from the opera. Often compared to Destiny (1921), Siegfried’s stylized ritual was designed to stress, in the words of Thea von Harbou, “the inexorability with which the first guilt entails the last atonement.” The film was said to be the ultimate expression of the German national character, and, for this reason, its stunning effects were blatantly copied in Nazi propaganda films, vide Triumph of the Will (1935). Paul Rotha, citing Destiny and Siegfried as the supreme examples of the German art film, noted in particular that the “sheer pictorial beauty of structural architectured [of] Siegfried has seldom been equaled.”

The following comments on the film are those of Siegfried Kracauer (From Caligari to Hitler):
This Fate-conditioned story materializes through scenes which seem to be staged after decorative paintings of a bygone period. Lang new why, instead of resorting to Wagner’s picturesque opera style or to some kind of psychological pantomime, he relied upon the spell of such decorative compositions’ they symbolize Fate. The compulsion Fate exerts is aesthetically mirrored by the rigorous incorporation of all structural elements into a framework of lucid forms. To heighten the impression of pictorial unity, extensive use is made of simple, large and solemn architectural structures dominating the scene. As if the inherent ornamental characters of these compositions were not sufficient, primitive ornaments cover the walls, curtains, ceiling, and costumes. Frequently the players themselves form ornamental figures.

[Siegfried] unfolds in lingering scenes that have all the qualities of stills. Their slow procession, which characterizes the mythic realm as a static one, is calculated to draw attention to the action proper. This intrinsic action does not coincide with the succession of treacheries and murders, but is to be found in the development of smoldering instincts and imperceptibly growing passions. It is an all but vegetative process through which Fate realizes itself.

"Metropolis" - Fritz Lang (1927)

After the success of his “Niebelungen” films (1922-24), director Fritz Lang was given virtual freedom to make Metropolis (1927). The film was completed after eighteen months and the participation of 36,000 people – at unprecedented expense. Advertised as the “costliest and most ambitious picture ever screened” in Europe, it opened in Berlin on January 10, 1927 as a major social event, attracting cabinet members, diplomats, and literary and social figures alike. Despite the intense interest it stirred, it failed to recoup its investment. From the beginning reviews were mixed, but reactions were invariably strong, whether favourable or not. It has been criticized for its insufficient development of characters, naive attempt at social comment, and simplistic melodramatic movement of plot. True, there are moments when one is reminded of Flash Gordon, but as a testament to one of the most fertile imaginations nurtured during a time of rarely paralleled creative outpouring, it is an important, if flawed, example. Its unmistakable virtue lies in its visual presentation, especially its grandiosely conceived sets – certainly a landmark in German studio production.

Fritz Lang originally studied civil engineering at the Technical University of Vienna before switching to art and architecture. Shortly thereafter he studied painting in Paris. Given free rein, Lang unleashed the full force of his visual predilections in Metropolis. Paul M. Jensen, in The Cinema of Fritz Lang had these further observations on this score:
The settings, particularly the workers’ homes, are stylised into mere forms with black rectangles for windows. A number of these were models, which were combined with live actors through the Schufftan process. Invented by photographer Eugene Schufftan, it used a camera with two lenses which focused two separate images onto a single strip of film; this allowed actors and models to be recorded together without resorting to double exposure or laboratory work. The designs are Expressionistic, but the architect in Lang rebelled against the surface distortion and linear anarchy of Caligari’s use of the style. Instead, his settings are solid and substantial, extending in more than two dimensions. Their design is regular, controlled and organised, dwelling on simplicity rather than clutter.

A painter’s eye for composition and staging is again revealed in Lang’s direction. Any selection of the best examples tends to be determined by memory and subjective inclination, but particularly effective are the bearing of injured workers in silhouette past Frederson, the shots of children running along the street with the water’s edge flowing a few seconds behind them, and the tent of electricity surrounding the robot during the creation scene. Only in Die Niebelungen, and to a lesser extend in Der Müde Tod, did Lang allow his painter’s eye and architect’s pen to create as much excitement.

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" - Robert Wiene (1920)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920) was produced during the cultural flowering of the German Weimar Republic after World War I and was one of the great early German Expressionist films. The producers had originally chosen Fritz Lang to be the director, but he had other obligations, and so Dr. Robert Wiene was tapped to direct the film. The story concerns a psychotic killer, Dr. Caligari, who hypnotises a somnambulist (a person who is perpetually asleep but who can be awakened briefly) to perform grisly murders at his choosing. Two friends, Alan and Francis, see Caligari at a village fair exhibiting for a concession his somnambulist patient. After Alan is later murdered (by the somnambulist), Francis suspects that the real culprit is Caligari, and both he and the father of his girlfriend, Jane, set out to expose Caligari as the evil mastermind. They eventually succeed at this, but not before the somnambulst abducts Jane and nearly kills her. When Caligari is finally confronted by the authorities with the evidence, he becomes violent and has to be secured in a straitjacket. This entire story is told by means of a narrative framing device such that Francis is initially shown at the start of the film to be relating the tale to a companion on a park bench. At the end of the film, we go back to Francis, and now it is revealed that it he who is an insane inmate of the asylum and that the whole story was a deranged fantasy on his part.

What makes the film unique and enduring is that the entire world depicted is skewed and distorted in a nightmarish fashion. This is Expressionism in its pure form: the external world is twisted to reflect the emotional state of the storyteller. There are almost no right angles anywhere. All the buildings, windows, and doors are slanted and deformed. Inexplicable lines and dark shadows mark the walls of buildings. The chairs of city officials are absurdly elevated to reflect the dominating and unapproachable status of their officious occupants.

The original script of the screenwriters, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, only had the enframed narrative, the tale of Francis. Their intention was to cast the horror tale as a critical commentary on German society that had sent millions of young men to their deaths in the World War. Caligari was to be symbolic of a deranged ruler who had sent so many soldiers off like sleepwalkers to commit uncountable murders on the battlefield. But the producers of the film decided, apparently for commercial considerations, to include the framing device. By doing this, Francis’s own tale of Caligari is reduced in credibility to be the deluded ravings of a madman and so the impact of any political implications is diminished. Nevertheless, the film as it stands today is perhaps even more cosmically disturbing than if the framing device had not been employed, because it now calls into question our own basic reference system. In the backs of our minds, we may even harbor an unconscious suspicion that perhaps Francis is somehow right after all and that he is being held prisoner by a diabolically insane asylum director.

One of the interesting expressive visual techniques in the film is the heavy use of iris shots, which localize the view to a small circular vignette in one part of the screen, with the rest of the shot darkened. These are often use to "fade" into or out of a scene by localizing attention to one area of interest, and this was a popular technique during the silent film era. In this film, where we are constantly striving to find our way in a distorted reality, the technique fits in very and is particularly effective.

Despite its undeniable popularity, even with today’s audiences, the film has been criticised, unjustly in my opinion, by a number of influential critics, including Siegfried Kracauer (From Caligari to Hitler) and Lotte Eisner (The Haunted Screen). These arguments fall along four lines:
  1. Some criticise the film on the basis of their own allegiances to formal theories of art. Some “realists”, for example, dismiss Expressionism as merely decorative and meaningless. Others, Expressionist adherents, criticise the film for occasionally straying slightly from the demands of aesthetic consistency. I think it is best to take the film as it is and to forget the dogmas of artistic movements.
  2. Other critics complained that the sets were too “flat” and lack depth. It is true that there is a foreshortened look to the various settings, which gives the film something of a theatrical appearance. However, I feel that the frame still has “depth” to it, even if foreshortened, and the foreshortening actually has an “interiorising”, claustrophobic effect that has its own alarming power of suggestion.
  3. Leftist critics, such as Kracauer, complain that the original politically-oriented script of Mayer and Janowitz was defanged by the framing narrative. But to me, the framing mechanism has its own positive features, and one should examine the film as it stands, as opposed to what it might have been.
  4. And, finally, some critics dismiss the film, because Robert Wiene does not stand among the major film “auteurs”. That is so, but filmmaking is ultimately a collaborative art, and on many occasions a fine film can be made as the happy result of a collection of contributors.
Forget those critics; this is a classic and should not be missed by any serious filmgoer.