Thursday, September 10, 2009

House of Silent Scream: The extension of horror.

Today's House of Silent Scream is a real treat.

Here's an odd little factoid about Zoe, mistress of the beautiful and brilliant Zoe in Wonderland bog. Today's installment of the House of Silent Scream will be the second time Zoe's been a guest blogger here. That's not the factoid. Here's the factoid: Zoe's first post, a collection of gas-mask themed art work is one of the most popular posts ever featured on this blog. Not only was a big hit when it posted, but it remains a popular entry point for the blog and regularly ranks as the third or fourth most visited post in the entire history of the blog. Seriously. She could do this blog without me!

So, without further ado, here's Zoe and her partner in crime Gabriel - CRwM

"We crossed long, high-vaulted corridors; the wavering light borne by Franz threw a strange brilliance in the thickness of the gloom. The vague forms of the colored capitals, pillars and arches seemed suspended here and there in the air. Our shadows moved forward at our side like grim giants and on the walls the fantastic images over which they slipped trembled and flickered..." --ETA Hoffmann, Das Majorat

The 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari found in the Expressionism of post-war Germany a perfect stylistic match for its tale of madness and murder. The art movement preceding Expressionism was Art Nouveau: flowers and natural ornament, wild curls of hair, free-flowing imagery. As people went into and then came out of the "Great War," the art world morphed into one of Expressionism, which focused more on vicious angles and dark, cavernous, claustrophobic, unbalanced settings. There had been a general loss of faith in man's ability to be "alive" in any real sense of the word; people felt that their souls had been sapped out, they felt there was a real evil to humanity that had before seemed impossible. Even nature became suspect, no longer the bountiful and embracing world of Art Nouveau, but abstract, sharp, aggressive, made up of sinister trees and dark caves...

"Prager Street"
Otto Dix
(note the focus on destroyed bodies, begging and militarism, with sharp angles expressing severe physical pain. Also the "stacking" effect: instead of showing the audience the distance covered by the street in perspective, the artist has piled everything on top of itself.)

"In the months between Armistice Day and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, an estimated 700,000 Germans died of hunger. "The German people," Count Harry Kessler, the eloquent chronicler of post-WWI Berlin, wrote in his journals, "starving and dying by the hundred thousand, were reeling deliriously between blank despair, frenzied revelry and revolution. Berlin had become a nightmare, a carnival of jazz bands and machine guns." " (GreenCine)

Though several considerations (such as limited resources) went into the decision to make the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in an Expressionist style, it cannot be denied that this style served the film exceptionally well. It strikes me that Expressionism, especially German Expressionism, is a natural fit for the horror genre. This is all the more true in a silent film, where the audience cannot hear blood-curdling screams, or the menacing sounds of approaching danger. Horror films found in Expressionism a kindred spirit, a visual manifestation of the alienation, menace and danger which is their subject (theme). In the Expressionist set, there are no open spaces free of the shadows which conceal threats. Even interior spaces provide no relief, composed as they are of "absurd geometries."
The twisty, threatening trees and the narrow, suffocating hallways, heightened in their strangeness by the sharp contrast of light and dark are then matched by the pallor of the somnambulist's face and the dark rings under his black eyes, or the bizarre streaks in Caligari's hair and gloves. Caligari's total control over the somnambulist, his patients and his audience is shown by his almost constant placement over them, on stage or at the top of a long flight of stairs. The madness of that total control can be seen clearly in the over-wide shiftiness of his eyes.

(From the MoMA collection)

Cesare climbing up with Jane's body

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is, as we see it, the tale of a madman, giving life to his illogical and paranoiac fears about the very man who aims to cure him. He imagines his doctor, in reality a kind and determined healer and a thoughtful scientist, really has the intention of wreaking his own personal vengeance using the the poor souls trapped in his realm as his tools. He tells a story of the Doctor traveling with a carnival along with a somnambulist, a man whose mind has been taken from him, who has no control over his own actions. The somnambulist, Cesare, is presented as having the ability to tell the members of the audience their futures, including the hour of their deaths. At night, the Doctor sends Cesare out to enact that final hour--for anyone who has annoyed him during the day.

In the original story by Janowitz and Mayer, the Doctor, representing not only Mayer's own former psychiatrist and nemesis, but also "the madness inherent in authority," (From Caligari to Hitler) was discovered at the end of the movie to be the evil controller of the somnambulist, as he was in the madman's rendition. Overwhelmed by his desire to document and analyze, to study certain habits and certain effects (read: to contribute to the advancement of science), he directed an evil and senseless violence, destroying both the soul of the somnambulist and the lives of his victims. Janowitz and Mayer were voicing a highly stylized and creative complaint against the authority that had led their country into WWI and society's unquestioning acceptance of the cold, violent march that industrialization and scientific advancement were leading them on.

All around them, the artistic world was heaving with this complaint:

George Grosz
(Note the main contrast of black and red, the lack of shading, the angles and twisted trees, the sensation of things piled on top of each other)

"Bourgeois values, cold logic and unattainable beauty were tossed out the window; their art would be as raw, violent and dark as the world they lived in, driven by furious emotion toward a set of aesthetic characteristics that would later roughly define what we talk about when we talk about "Expressionism." " (GreenCine)

Janowitz and Mayer were furious with the decision of the director and the film company to add a frame to the story which exposed the narrator as a madman in an asylum and the story itself as no more than his odd, paranoiac ramblings. "A revolutionary film was thus turned into a conformist one--following the much-used pattern of declaring some normal but troublesome individual insane and sending him to a lunatic asylum" (From Caligari to Hitler).
But here's what's key about the artwork in this film. Even though Wiene ended the film with the scene which allowed us all to breathe a sigh of relief, realizing it was all just a paranoiac fantasy whose dreamer/creator was safely locked away, the visual aspect of that final scene is the same as it had been during the entire subjective telling of the story. That pressurized, constricted, violently shadowed and angular experience of madness and treachery was not simply in the madman's mind, because when we are brought out of his mind, in the end, to "reality," the world still looks the same: evil, terrifying, off-balance. As Caligari makes his diagnosis of the "mania" of the narrator, in the final seconds of the movie, he flips his hair arrogantly, and as the blackness comes into a circle around his face to mark the end of the film, the expression on his face is absolutely frightening. "I think I know how to cure him," he says. Behind him, the first steps in the cure are clear: the narrator is strapped tightly in a straight-jacket, lying on a bed (where Caligari had begun his diagnosis looking down on him from above), isolated not only from society by his commitment to the asylum, but even from the other members of the asylum.
The only "real" setting, in fact, is the gently curved wall on a garden path with actual, normal trees, where the narrator tells the story--that act of storytelling, then, is the one honest and sane thing that happens in the entire film. So in the end, it seems Wiene subverted his own subversion of the original film. He put the narrator in the nuthouse, yes, but isn't that what happens to those who protest too much against the evils of total authority? So that they don't disturb the general populous...

"You fools! This man is plotting our doom! We die at dawn!"

A small gift to CrWM, in thanks: "Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas," an expressionist etching and aquatint of faceless, soulless authority by the German Otto Dix, 1924.

--zoe and gabriel


Pauline said...

What a wonderful review! Art, of course, is never created in a vacuum but it is unusual to read such thoughtful dialogue about the source of a classic film that is equal parts amazing and horrific.

CRwM said...

I told you she was good.

Wicked Darling said...

A fantastic review! One of my all time favorite silent horror films! A true feast for the eyes!

Tove Hermanson said...

So right on! I would included Kirchner's art-- I wrote a piece on his Berlin Street series. Awesomely dark and sickly, his paintings were indicative of the war, societal and personal paranoia, and also Kirchner's increasing drinking problem.

zoe said...

kirchner is another good one...his "potsdamer platz," especially-- it not only has that angular feel, but it's also very unstable, like it has no center of gravity. and it lacks the abrasive color scheme, which makes it nicer to look at :)

zoe said...

thank you, wicked darling and pauline!