Imported Nightmares: On Some Early and Influential German(ic) Horror

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Far be it from me to lay all the morbidity of the world at the feet of the Germans (after all, neither the English nor the Americans take a back seat to them in the category we are discussing), but I will suggest that there is a line to be drawn backward from the classic horror film…to expressionism….to Romanticism….to the artistic Sturm und Drang movement in the mid 18th century. At a time when western Europe and America was industrializing and extolling the virtues of the rational and the objective, and growing great cities and nations and civilizations and systems of government and  futures…some malcontents among them felt alienated and instead perversely worshipped nature and emotions and  the subjective and anarchy and the past. Medievalism was especially prized and resurrected. Central, South and Eastern Europe (where lay the ruins of Greece, Rome and the Dark Ages) became inspirational loci for poets, novelists and painters.  And castles became…haunted with unhappy spirits.

Ironically this interest in the subjective psychological state of the individual only intensified after Freud, Jung and others began to translate it into the language of science. In the early 20th century German expressionist theatre often incorporated the science of dream-study in dialogue, movement and scenography. And when the German cinema was born it echoed many of these preoccupations and techniques. Technically, they can’t all be called expressionistic. (Nor is all expressionistic cinema horror by any means). But Romantic, Gothic, Supernatural, Morbid, Disturbed? These related words will do. It is…of the same culture.

It’s too much to say the Germans invented cinematic horror. Americans, after all, are the spiritual heirs of Poe; there is an American version of Frankenstein, for example dating from as early as 1910 . But the Germans were hugely influential, especially on American and British horror films made before 1980. (That late? Yeah, I think so. A lot of horror in the 1970s remained Gothic in orientation…still about witches, devils, haunted mansions and the like). Anyway here are some key German (and Scandinavian) horror films.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

This famous and influential film was far from the first German horror film, nor was it even the first one Conrad Veidt (Cesare, the Somnambulist) had starred in. Previous credits included Fear (1917), Madness (1919), Uncanny Stories (1920), and The Count of Cagliostro (1920). But it was the first to become an international hit, and thus the first to perhaps be emulated beyond German shores. Recall that World War One had ended only in late 1918. The War, like so much art of the Weimar Era, was the inspiration for this allegorical tale of mind control and murder written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer and directed by Robert Wiene. Its most memorable aspect is its avant-garde scenography, consisting mostly of non-realistically painted backdrops and structures, nightmarishly distorted and jagged, suggesting the aftermath of explosion. There isn’t a right angle to be found in the entire movie.

It begins with a framing device on the grounds of an insane asylum—a guy tells his story to a visitor. It all started when the fair came to town. We see Dr. Caligari’s (Werner Krauss) arrival. The character’s costume (top hat, cape, walking stick.) would set the template for many horror characters to come. The hero attends a performance with his friend. Dr. Caligari presents to the audience his charge, Cesare, the Somnambulist (Veidt), a 23 year old who has been asleep for 23 years. It is claimed that he “knows your past and your future”. The hero’s friend asks when he will die. The answer is “before dawn”. Of course, that’s an easy one to accomplish, psychic or not —Cesare kills him later that night. (There had been another mysterious murder the night before —of the town clerk, who had previously irritated Caligari). The police arrest the wrong suspect.  It looks like the fiancé of the hero will be the third murder victim, but Cesare cannot do it, so he carries her away. A mob follows, he is forced to drop her. The hero begins to investigate at the insane asylum, and finds reference to Caligari and Cesare in the records. In flashback we see that the director of the insane asylum was Caligari. But has the entire story been the hallucination of a mad man?

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Der Golem, wie er die Welt kam (1920).

This film is the third part of a Golem trilogy, co-directed and co-written by its star Paul Wegener. Adapted from Jewish folklore (by way of a novel by Gustave Meyrink), The Golem has much in common with German Expressionist classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. One looks at it and sees a visual and thematic antecedent to everything from Frankenstein to The MummyPlus it has these amazing cultural overtones, rare for a film of its time. Set in the Jewish ghetto of Prague during medieval times, the film opens on a rabbi bringing the titular clay monster to life with kabbalistic magic…very scary, he calls up a devil, and receives a magic word. The creature, which resembles a 7 foot tall toddler, is supposed to stop the Emperor’s pogrom. He does indeed terrorize the Emperor and his minions, literally bringing down the roof at the very moment when they have the gall to laugh at a magically conjured vision of the 40 years wandering. Unfortunately, the rabbi begins to lose control of his creature. The golem runs amok and starts to tear apart the ghetto. He throws the fey messenger-knight (who has been bedding the rabbi’s daughter) off the roof. In the end, he picks up a sweet little girl (presaging a similar scene in Frankenstein). But she innocently takes the magic word off his chest making him go back to clay.

Karl Freund, the cinematographer of this film and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), would later be d.p. on the American horror films Dracula (1931) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), and directed The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935). If we are looking for a “carrier” of the German visual sensibility, he is certainly a major culprit.

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Der Januskopf (1920)

This was a pirated version of the The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by F.W. Murnau and starring Conrad Veidt. Sadly, today Der Januskopf is considered a lost film. Two years later, Murnau would use this same technique (um, piracy) to mke this film:

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Nosferatu (1922)

F.W. Murnau’s pirated version of Dracula is a work of formal perfection—not a hair out of place. Tod Browning’s 1931 Hollywood version follows it pretty closely. The setting is switched here to Bremen rather than England. The monster looks better here—more like in the book, very strange and bat-like, almost like an alien, conducive to expressionistic silhouettes and shadows (see above). The plot is very streamlined; structurally it zips right by until the conclusion when the monster is dispatched by tricking him so that he stays out past sunrise. Later memorably remade by Werner Herzog in 1979, whose star Klaus Kinski practically IS Nosferatu.

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Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

I think this is perhaps the most hauntingly effective witchcraft movie ever made. A Danish/Swedish co-production directed by Benjamin Christensen it purports to be a sort of anthropological documentary along the lines of Nanook of the North, but the bulk of it is taken up by fictional dramatization. In the tradition of the best romances, its fiction of “truth and realism” lends it added power. The movie tells of witches and devils, secret rites and ceremonies, orgies, communion with Satan, depictions of hell, late night flights on broomsticks, human sacrifice, literal ass-kissing (an unholy practice, which caused the film to be banned) etc. Plus the film shows (ironically) all the horrors and tortures of the Inquisition. The imagery in the film is gorgeous, powerful and scary. It is a compendium of visual source material to inspire artists of all sorts: film-makers, painters, theatre designers — all those who want to depict what goes on at Midnight. It puts us back in touch with the superstitious part of our brain and the fear inspired by old legends, something most modern stabs at the genre fail to do.

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The Hands of Orlac (1924)

The first and probably the best of the “evil hand” movies. This kind of story benefits from the fairy tale simplicity of silence, and in this case, the dreamlike nature of German Expressionism, directed by Robert Weine. Conrad Veidt is the concert pianist who loses his hands in a railway accident. A doctor gives him the hands of an executed robber/murderer. The knowledge hounds the patient. He refuses to touch his wife. He can’t play the piano anymore. He feels that he is haunted. He becomes fascinated with knives. A man is hovering around in the shadows who seems to be the deceased criminal. Eventually he shows himself, kills the pianist’s father and frames him. The man claims to be the executed man, now with prosthetic hands, and a head miraculously restored through an operation similar to the one which restored his hands. (The story set in France, where the method of execution was the guillotine, explaining the decapitation). But the villain is caught by the police in the end and Orlac learns that he is not the beheaded criminal but the assistant of the doctor who operated on him, who has a criminal past, and had some gloves made with the criminal’s fingerprints. Orlac is relieved and can finally embrace his wife.

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The Man Who Laughs (1928)

This is actually an American film but with Conrad Veidt as the star, and German director Paul Leni bringing what looks like an expressionistic influence to the proceedings, it’s not a huge stretch to include it in this post. This story is based on a novel by Victor Hugo. Like Hugo’s more famous The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this tale has the atmosphere of a horror film, but is more of a Gothic-tinged tragedy. We only have horror in the sense that we are dealing with a physical “monster”, a deformed person. The title character (a carnival performer whose face has been carved into a permanent, rather terrifying mockery of a smile) is alienated like the Hunchback or Frankenstein, but he is actually kind— he doesn’t go around exacting revenge. He is the butt of everyone’s laughter, and, nightmarishly, his own crying also resembles laughter. He is made to perform but he doesn’t want to. Secretly a member of the nobility, he is prevented from knowing it by a scheming villain, himself a former jester!

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Vampyr (1932)

We include this one here as a special bonus. Danish director Carl Dreyer’s entry into the horror genre (and his first sound film, his next effort after The Passion of Joan of Arc) is slow moving, atmospheric, obscure, disorienting, and bewildering. The storytelling is not too clear, even with inter-titles carrying a huge burden of explanation. A young man comes to the countryside investigating the supernatural. Luckily he finds some! The manor house near the inn where he is staying is plagued by vampires. There are lots of very cool, images and effects in the film, definitely a lot to draw from for inspiration. The odd disjointed dialogue (and the sparseness of it) combined with the weird behavior reminds one of both David Lynch and Guy Madden. 

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