January 29th, 2010. Germany.
Erlangen is a large town in the north of Bavaria. Nobody would mistake it for a center of film appreciation. It lies just north of Nuremberg, has a population of over 100,000 people and is home to the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg; perhaps its greatest attraction. But when I visited in January, I was attending one of the only silent film festivals in Germany, called StummFilmMusikTage (literally: SilentFilmMusic Days). I now found myself in the middle of a ceaseless winter of the sort most people only know from snow-capped German Mountain Films or Christmas stories. It had been snowing for all three days I had been in Nuremberg, the nearest city, and it seemed to be snowing harder in Erlangen. It was 7:00 and dark. For the purposes of viewing silent cinema, all was white, gray and shady.
It wasn't until I stepped off the train that I realized what I was planning on doing was, by most standards, outlandish. I had come to the town for the purpose of seeing a silent film festival, which I had first read about online the previous summer, and had been following closely, also by internet, ever since. I had called ahead of time-at home in the U.S-- to reserve a ticket for Joseph Von Sternberg's Underworld.
This was not Pordenone. It was not a well-known or heavily promoted film festival; it seemed barely a whisper even in Germany. Even getting to the Theater Markgrafen was immensely difficult; the street appeared on a map, but a local I asked had no clue where it was. Once I found the street, I had to stop in my tracks and turn around several times, puzzled, before peering through the snow covering a gate to a simple city park and spotting the back entrance to the Theater Markgrafen, positioned just within those gates. Once I stepped inside the Theater, I finally saw a banner advertising the StummFilmMusikTage festival . I had located the entrance to the secret society.
Yet here was a secret society that could afford film prints exported from oversees, real 35mm projection, guest speakers and a café, which was located on the second floor of the building. True to the principles of authentic silent cinema-- not the silent cinema of Chaplin's City Lights, or of the occasional homage that simply contains no dialogue-the films were projected without sync-sound, as a live orchestra accompanied the images. It was a proper film theater, with a large screen of the sort audiences were once accustomed to viewing films on (in comparison, today's screens look as if they are trying to turn every film into an Imax spectacle). StummFilmMusikTage receives funding from the Bavarian City Council, several local Erlangen organizations and two groups called Areva and Ensemble Konstraste. All this funding has allowed the festival to afford a space in the Markengraf Theater that is several cuts above the Brattle Theater in Cambridge-a venue I'm well acquainted with. It also allowed them to run a prize competition in conjunction with the festival and produce festival T-Shirts and shiny pamphlets.
This made me feel like silent film fans in this country--or at least, in Bavaria-- were more recognized than in America, even though silent film is probably no more popular in Germany. The audience I observed were mostly older, curious folks, mixed with some film-saavy college students; a niche, but a respected niche. I felt like a part of this niche myself, as I walked down the rather un-crowded hall and nearly missed the right turn in to the theater lobby. In my ridiculous German, I told the woman at the reception that I had reserved a ticket for Underworld and fumbled my expired student ID out of my wallet. I took a program and paid for my ticket. I walked in to the lobby, my nerves blazing with the awkwardness of feeling out of place, but just barely; had I spoke the language fluently, and lived or gone to school around the area, I would be able to make instant connections. I may have been crazy, but not on a different planet. It was no matter; I hung up my coat and tried to orient myself. I went back downstairs, found my seat in the screening room, and made my way up to the Oberes Foyer; the café section, where I would hear the British film historian Kevin Brownlow introduce Underworld. I ordered a beer, found a seat and waited.
As it happened, Kevin Brownlow was a no-show. From what I gleaned from the moderator who spoke at the cafe podium, he had to stay home because of a problem relating to his daughter. He had instead sent over a typed script of what he would have said in introduction to the film. It was read-- in English-- by the moderator, while some audience members put on headsets and listened to a spoken translation of his words.
What Brownlow recounted-- or would have recounted-- was a long mixture of personal recollection and historical summary similar to what I find myself constantly deferring to in my own work.
He wrote of meeting Von Sternberg, some time ago. The Von Sternberg he met was a curmudgeonly director with a dark sense of humor who told Brownlow that he found it best to despise his actors in order to make a film. Naturally, Brownlow did not quite know what to make of this, but at the time he was reffering to, Sternberg was already a seasoned director who had been through decades of filmmaking, so perhaps he knew what he was talking about. He had come to America from Austria in the mid 20’s. Underworld was his third film; he would later direct The Blue Angel (1930) with Marlene Dietrich, who would become his muse; Shanghai Express (1932) and Blonde Venus (1932) were among their subsequent collaborations. He would eventually stop working with Dietrich and fall out of favor in the forties. But Underworld came before all of that. It was scripted by Ben Hecht, a screenwriter who worked on numerous Hollywood success stories (his later credits included Scarface (1932) and John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) ). It featured silent stars George Bancroft and Evelyn Brent (who resembles Dietricht more than a tad). It was, as Brownlow took painstaking note of, a film that culminated a long line of gangsterism both in films and reality. In the first years of the 20th century, Irish and Italian immigrants formed urban gangs in most major U.S cities. Gangs became a widespread problem by the 1920’s and their activity would only be fueled by the Great Depression and Prohibition. The first real gangster film of quality in the U.S was D.W Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). Underworld, while indebted to this film, was nonetheless one of the early gangster features; the genre would only really take off in the 1930’s with the violent burst of Little Ceasar (1930), Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface. Underworld was poised on two cusps; one was the end of the silent era, another was the beginning of the gangster era.
(from Underworld, 1927)
The film was also, due to its subject matter about the seedy urban underbelly,-- the “Underworld” the title implies-- not appreciated by the censors at the time of its release. Paramount shelved the film at first, then gave it only a limited release. And although the film would become popular, even leading to Hecht winning an Academy Award for best screenplay, it would disappear. Underworld was lost the public until 1987.
Looking at the film now--or, as I saw it then, on a big screen with musical accompaniment by a jazz group called the Helmut Nieberle Trio, clearly enjoying themselves-- it does not look like the kind of film anybody would want to repress for a sixty years. It makes the Paramount of old look like a bunch of party-pooping prudes. The violence is timid by today’s standards and the mild sexual innuendoes, perhaps surprising in a mainstream picture at the time, are nonetheless just mild. But the film is so lavish, so giddily over-the-top, one can feel the whole time the frustration of a director who can’t wait for sound to come along and kick his films in to a higher degree of lunacy. Sternberg has his fun anyway; there are scenes with a bookcase that wheels around to reveal a secret hideout (later, a genre cliché). There is a montage at a party that gives us close-ups of drunken, laughing faces intercut, quasi-symbolically, with a title card ascribing the words“drunkenness-hate-lust” to those faces. The memorable climax features images of tommyguns firing at the windows of Bull Weed’s apartment building, riddling the bricks along the windowsill to pieces. These scenes are decadent, elaborate and trashy; both in the sense that the film tries to create as much on-screen trash as possible, and in the most obvious sense.
Holding all this insanity together throughout is a performance by George Bancroft that is all twisted facial expressions and heavy-handed suggestion. A more demonic Jim Carrey could take the character to great heights. Bancroft plays Bull Weed, a smooth gangster with a lovely girl (Evelyn Brent). One night he decides to help out a drunkard (Clive Brook) by handing him a decent sum of cash. This drunkard becomes, in just a few years, a prosperous gangster in his own right, calling himself “Rolls Royce.” Rolls Royce falls for “Feathers” McCoy-- the nickname of Bull Weed’s girlfriend-- who herself seems to be a two or three-timer amongst the world of Chicago gangsters. Evelyn Brent is unfortunately not as good an actress as Dietrich; her seductiveness is communicated mainly by the ruffling of her fur coat. She becomes torn, simultaneously, between Rolls Royce, Bull Weed and a rival of both, Buck Mulligan. The testing of Rolls Royce and Bull Weed’s friendship escalates through the film in tandem with the escalation of outrageous scenes. What Sternberg may have meant by “despising” his actors was that he treated them not as people but as archetypes to put through any situation for the sake of entertainment.
Sternberg manages to keep a firm rhythm going all the while-- he loved close--ups of faces and objects, But it is a more consistent rhythm than many later gangster or action films were able to establish. It ends with Bull Weed, as he is trying to decide whether to turn himself in to the police who have surrounded his townhouse, or go ahead and kill Rolls Royce, huddled in a corner with Feathers. It almost ends on a close-up of Bull Weed’s face, as he swaggers towards the camera. Then he changes his mind and decides they were meant for each other. He walks down the stairs, remarking that he has learned the most important lesson he can hope to learn. Does this ending suggest that, after all the bullets and trash and alcohol and close-ups, gangster films are really films about friendship?
With its strangely moralistic ending, Underworld set up a paradox which is perhaps what really bothered the executives at Paramount. Even as it visually celebrates gangsterism, it condemns gangster acts, and implies that there are certain moral codes that even the toughest criminals do not break. This combination of moralism and sensationalism sounds uniquely American. But sensationalism is prevalent in films from Germany’s expressionist era and moral codes can be unearthed in the hearts of each of its great films, too. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) suggests that madmen are burdens on society, and if they are in powerful positions, will not hesitate to manipulate and kill. German authorities forced director Robert Wiene to change the ending of the film to show that it is in fact the narrator who is insane and not Dr. Caligari, but the existing ending feels obviously forced; the original morality is expressed in the bulk of the film. The Last Laugh (1924) shows that the downtrodden, laid-off worker is deserving of our empathy. Metropolis (1927) shows, in it’s own words, that “The mediator between the hands and the mind must be the heart.” Nosferatu (1922) stresses the abstract sentiment that good will prevail over evil. But the true contribution that German Expressionism made to cinema was, simply, its expressions; those intense visual stylizations of madness (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), social disorder (The Last Laugh) and coming apocalypse (Metropolis) that Lotte Eisner wrote represented “an extreme form of subjectivism.”1 This is what Von Sternberg morphed in to sensationalism for his American films. Murnau stylized evil in Nosferatu with a low-angle shot of Count Orlok creeping around the parameter of a ship’s hull in a black coat, his nails outstretched. He stylized good by showing rays of sun bursting through the window of Jonathan and Lucy’s house towards the end of his shadowy, pale film. Wiene stylized madness in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with the wild, zigzagging sets that also showed a society in total disorder. Fritz Lang embodied the apocalypse in the form of salvation with the robot in Metropolis. Von Sternberg un-melded the expressive and the moral; he added a heavy hand to both. He had more in common, at least in this early period, with his countrymen back home than is immediately obvious.
(from The Last Laugh, 1924)
Leaving the crowded screening room, I felt like Von Sternberg in reverse. He had come to America to find cinema; I had come to Germany to find cinema. The major difference was that he had brought German stylization with him and turned it in to Hollywood excess. What exactly would be the reverse of that? I did not expect to make films in Germany anyway; I had left my videocamera at home deliberately, due to an incident of bad luck I had overseas with a camera once. But I wondered if I did attempt to make a film there, if that would make me feel like even more of an outsider. I wondered if Von Sternberg felt like an outsider in America at all. What would he think of my travels? Would he be surprised? I waited in the long line to get my coat and decided not to think about it.
Anyway, it seemed that matters of nation and origin were not of major concern to the festival organizers at StummFilm MusikTage. About half of the films that screened in fact came from America, and only Underworld was from a director born in a German-speaking country. Buster Keaton’s shorts were screened on the Saturday following Underworld, and the film Sadie Thompson, also from the U.S, followed on the same day. On Sunday there were screenings of various silent shorts from Britain, France and the U.S. The entire festival was topped off with Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler(1922), late on Sunday. The most practical point of the StummFilm MusikTage festival was to celebrate silent cinema. Any event with this broad objective is commendable, especially if it gives a sampling of silent cinema that is hard to see or has been forgotten. The StummFilmMusikTage lived up to this goal with Underworld, as well as the rare shorts program. I must confess, though, to hoping that the program would be limited exclusively to silent German films. But of course, this would be pandering to a niche within a niche, even within the country of Germany. I recall the woman who read Kevin Brownlow’s speech mentioning that she hoped he could make an appearance in 2013. Does this mean there will be no StummFilmMusikTage in 2011 or 12? Are they at a lack of funds, like anybody else who c ares about cinema’s ancient images? I still do not know what the story is. My greatest personal regret was only being able to stay for one night; the day after the screening of Underworld, I was whisked away to Hungary. Although I’ve seen most of Keaton’s famous shorts, I wish I could have caught a glimpse of them on a big screen, and have yet to see classic German films like Asphalt or Dr. Mabuse. I don’t have unlimited time.
Germany today obviously does not resemble the Germany of the Weimar Republic and the Expressionist eras. It is one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the world. It is in a continuous process of atoning for the sins of its past; I could easily observe this in Nuremberg, where the Nazi’s held their rallies and established headquarters. There is now a popular museum detailing Nazi atrocities and the city is known as Der Stadt der Meschenrechte; the City of Human Rights. Germany’s history puts its current cinema in the inevitable place of reflecting on it’s past-- in films like The Lives of Others (2006), The Baader Meinhoff Complex (2008) and The White Ribbon (2009)-- and dealing with hot-button issues of politics and multiculturalism-- in Fatih Akin’s films Head-On (2004) and The Edge of Heaven (2007), for instance. These films vary in quality, but all are a far cry from the silent period. But is there a nation with a current cinema that isn’t a far cry?
My second most cinematic experience that night was my walk back to the train. I stepped out of the Theater Markgrafen from the same secluded doorway I had entered. The snow still fell wildly. All around me was silence. I shivered with each step I took. I removed the damp, crumpled city map from my coat pocket and examined it; I took a left and kept going. The street was shadowy, with occasional bursts of light from a pharmacy or restaurant. The shadows looked like they belonged to Erlangen and only Erlangen; the silence felt the same way. The few people I passed by seemed cheerful, as if they had accepted the general expression of their town long ago. The buildings looked rural and picturesque, as if they were still-functioning relics. Yet at the same time, the imagery on all sides never gave the impression of being a thing of the past. I made it to the station, and thought I heard a snippet of American English as I walked inside. With shaking hands, I bought a ticket to Nuremberg. I got on the train fifteen minutes later. I rode home in the silence.
Some information from:
Let’s Go: Germany on a budget; Estes, Adam (editor); St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY, 2009
1. From The Haunted Screen; Eisner, Lotte; University of California Press, 1974 (originally 1952).
provided invaluable assistance for this piece.