BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: German Expressionism.

THE GERMAN Expressionism movement in film is still today one of the most fascinating movie periods in film history. Academics still write about it, whether it’s the sociological implications (the film movement occurred just after World War One, and was said to express the trauma of the German psyche) or the stylistic traits, the influence of which could be seen in film noir and horror films. The first major success was the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from 1919 which is the archetypal Expressionist film in its tale within a tale of madness and striking visuals. Yet despite that film supposedly being the standard for Expressionism, it’s also interesting to see how few films actually take Caligari’s innovative visuals as a template, and when watching a film like Waxworks you can tell how much the movement had changed within five years.

Yet there are certainly some similarities. Silents like Nosferatu and this one have that same dark, nightmarish feel – whether or not you believe these films are an allegory for German war trauma, there certainly is something underneath it all. Caligari was inspired by a real-life murder of a young girl in a fairground, which was also the inspiration for a number of that film’s fairground scenes. Waxworks goes even further and sets the whole framing story within a fairground, as a young writer’s imagination at a waxwork exhibition becomes the impetus for the three short stories of the film’s narrative.

The first story is that of a baker and his wife in Baghdad. Harun al Raschid (the despotic ruler of Baghdad, and played by silent star Emil Jannings) falls in love with the baker’s wife, while the baker to prove himself to his wife plots to steal the Raschid’s magical ring. This is actually quite funny, with Emil Jannings hamming it up gloriously as Raschid and certainly not the dark subject matter typically associated with Expressionism. It also feels a little incongruous in tone to the rest of the film. The visual style eschews the stylised lines of Caligari; rather, it’s an emphasis on circularity, from the rotund Raschid to the Gaudi-like Palace. The palace chase itself was particularly good, and the set’s curves made for a fascinating visual experience (I sat there wondering if this helped with the visuals of the Wicked Witch of the West’s palace in The Wizard of Oz).

However, Leni changes the visual style entirely for the second vignette, based around Ivan the Terrible (played by Conrad Veidt, again another link back to Caligari). It has a more minimalist feel – high contrast, sparse and fiercely interiorised (when the story does head out in the open spaces it has a totally liberating feel, possibly to go with the potential assassination attempt). Personally I found it the least engaging story of the three, though the ending was nice and nasty. It could have been shortened especially as the third story itself was too short. However visually, this second story was fascinating. It is therefore of no surprise that it was reputedly influential on Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.

The third vignette was much briefer, but was also the best part of the film. A giddy mix of the Caligari style expressionism and the Impressionist techniques that the French filmmakers were using at the time (superimpositions etc.), the third story was a visual feast for its brief running time. It was also the darkest visually and narrative-wise (though the Ivan the Terrible story was hardly slapstick). It was an evocative depiction of a nightmare – truly revolutionary filmmaking if a little too brief. But then again, words like “nightmare”, “revolutionary” and “too brief” seems to sum German Expressionism.

I must also pay credit to David Beattie and Adrianne Roberts who played accompaniment to this silent film. Apparently, Roberts is interested in doing silent film accompaniment more, which is great, as she was very assured in her first public performance – though the only thing I’d suggest is not to be too melodic (which is an odd thing to suggest I know) but it can distract from the visuals rather than simply being background. However both were very good and added considerably to the film.