Silent Gothic

When did you get your first bitter taste of the melancholy exaltation of the Gothic? Chances are, that the momentous occasion occurred when you were bathed in the cathode ray glow of the family boob tube watching a scary movie. And if you're like me, it changed everything. This alone isn't surprising. The Gothic has always been, by its very nature, a subversive genre. At the heart of each Gothic tale, be it on the page or on the screen, is an eruption of supernatural chaos and disorder into the lives of ordinary people in the every day world. The art of cinema has been, from its inception, a dream-like medium, and it wasn't long before the more morbidly inclined pioneers of this new art form turned their talents to the manufacture of elegant nightmares.

Frankenstein (1910) - What can be truly be called the world's first horror/monster movie was a fifteen minute adaptation of Frankenstein shot in the year 1910 and produced by none other than the inventor of the motion picture camera himself, Thomas Alva Edison. With a running time under fifteen minutes, the film is (along with London After Midnight) one of the most famous of lost films, with only a few measly stills remaining to speak of its existence for several decades. However, a precious little sliver recently surfaced in a film vault: the Monster's creation sequence, consisting of an endearingly crude but effective special effects display in which Frankenstein's hideous creation integrates amidst smoke and flames in an oven-like contraption.

Der Golem (1920) - Gothic cinema found its first true hero in Paul Weggener, a German who directed and played the title role in Der Golem twice, once before the war in 1914 and again after the war in 1920. The story is based on the old Jewish myth about a soulless automaton fashioned out of clay and brought to life by a Rabbi desperate to defend his ghetto against a pogrom in Medieval Prague. The Rabbi eventually loses control of the creature and it goes on a Frankenstein Monster-like rampage. The 1920 version ends with the Golem breaking out of the ghetto, ultimately "de-activated" by a clever little Aryan madchen who offers him an apple and deftly plucks the Star of David from his chest, turning him back into a lifeless hunk of clay for herself and her girlfriends to dance around and play on like some macabre playground fixture.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) - Robert Weine's tale of a fairground hypnotist who tours the countryside with a coffin-like cabinet containing his main attraction: a 23 year old somnambulist Cesare (played by Conrad Veidt) who has spent his entire life in slumber. Pale as pasteurized milk and cadaverous in appearance, Cesare is completely enslaved to the will of the furry troll-like Caligari, entertaining crowds with a fortune telling act by day and carrying out a series of grisly murders for his master by night. A somnambulist, it seems, "can be compelled to perform acts which, in a waking state, would be abhorrent to him..." Willowy and clad in sleek black tights, Cesare creeps and slithers across the bizarre expressionist sets, a surreal jumble of painted shadows and sharp angles, with the eerie movements of some humanoid arachnid in search of its next meal. Cesare is one of those monstrous characters, like the Frankenstein Monster and the Golem, who simultaneously inspire sympathy and revulsion. Things build to a fever pitch when Cesare finds himself astounded by the beauty of the gorgeous Fraulein (Lil Dagover) he has been sent to stab to death and capriciously opts to kidnap her instead. Pursued by what would eventually become a Gothic film staple, an angry mob of "normal" people, Cesare drops his feminine burden and dies a few torturous paces later from exhaustion.

Close to a century later, Caligari still has the power to grip, astonish and just plain knock you flat on your ass. The cast, with their deliberately over-the-top-acting, seem trapped in some kind of grotesque live action cartoon. It was a dark fantasy that, unlike its predecessors, didn't pretend for a single moment to be taking place in the "real world." The producers and director of the film, fearing the worst response from audiences, added a prologue and epilogue to explain away its phantasmagoric world as the product of the deranged imagination of an insane asylum inmate, with the evil Caligari as the seemingly benevolent director.

From the point of view of screenwriters Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz (along with an uncredited Fritz Lang), who consciously wrote Caligari as a Leftist political parable with Caligari representing the manipulative authoritarian state and Cesare standing in for the sleepwalking masses, the political component of the film had been deftly hamstrung. And yet, the look on Caligari's face in the final frame resonates with the fearful intimation that the characters are somehow trapped inside of the not-so-good doctor's private nightmare.

Caligari premiered in New York in April of 1921 to spectacular critical acclaim. To the intelligentsia Caligari was seen as more than simply a quantum leap in the evolution of German Expressionism and the horror film, it was perceived as a benchmark achievement in the growth of Cinema itself. Caligari's reception on the West Coast was somewhat less enthusiastic and cordial: it opened in Los Angeles a month later to be greeted a protesting mob of 2,000 angry men, the core of which was formed of the Hollywood chapter of the American Legion. Veterans, many of whom were crippled and disfigured, carried placards emblazoned with inflammatory slogans like "WHY PAY WAR TAX TO SEE GERMAN-MADE PICTURES?". (Military engagement between the nations had ceased, but a formal peace was yet to be established.) By nightfall the demonstration degenerated into a full out riot replete with a bombardment of rotten eggs. Newspapers owned by the infamous William Randolph Hearst (who would later attempt to ban another groundbreaking masterpiece, Citizen Kane, in 1941) called for an all out boycott on German films. But unlike Kaiser Wilhelm's war machine, there would be no stopping the blitzkrieg of morbid German Expressionism and the fearsome wraiths that served as its devastating shock troops.

Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) - Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors, an unauthorized adaptation of the novel Dracula that brought down the fire and thunder of the author's notoriously greedy and belligerent widow Florence Stoker, who was so pissed off that she spent close to a decade in her efforts to suppress the film and have it consigned to flames. Luckily for every lover of the graveyard dance of the macabre, she didn't succeed. Murnau changed the character's name to Count Graf Orlock and modified the plot and settings a little to adroitly sidestep problems with copyright infringement. Played with spooky panache by the inimitable Max Schreck, Orlock wasn't the beguilingly handsome and suave nobleman of Stoker's novel, but a rat-faced, bat-eared, bushy- browed, hump-backed, piss-in-your-pants scary demonic spectre from the blackest regions of The Pit itself, armed with a fearsome arsenal of pointy rodent teeth and razor keen claws like scythes. This was a vampire who couldn't possibly pass as human, not even on a good night. Perhaps most significantly, Nosferatu was the first movie to have true fear in it (both literally and figuratively, as the name "Schreck" is Deutsch for "fear").

It was the first movie whose primary objective was to rattle and fray the nerves of its audience, and the first that truly succeeded in doing so. Even today the rather comical special effects, such as the crude stop motion and sped up footage of Orlock scurrying about with his coffin tucked under his arm, only serve to increase the nightmarish intensity of the film. With its vivid images of pestilence, despair and violence it didn't take long for critics and audiences alike to interpret Nosferatu, much as they had done with Caligari, as a commentary on the catastrophe of World War I and its painful aftermath.

It may have been a bad time for the human race, but it turned out to be a most propitious one for the Gothic. Lotte Eisner nicely summed up the golden era of Gothic cinema and German Expressionism in her book The Haunted Screen: "Mysticism and magic, the dark forces to which Germans have always been more than willing to commit themselves, had flourished in the face of death on the battlefields. The hecatombs of young men fallen in the flower of their youth seemed to nourish the grim nostalgia of the survivors. And the ghosts which had haunted the German Romantics revived, like the shades of Hades after draughts of blood."

Vampyr (1932) - Inspired by Carmilla, this creepy classic is actually more E.T.A. Hoffman than J.S. LeFanu in that its preoccupation is less with vampires and more with blurring the tenuous line between reality and fantasy, the waking world and the shadowy realm of dreams. Taking a strong cue from the Surrealist and Dada movements, Carl Theodore Dryer here fashioned an unforgettable film that may be (along with Lynch's Eraserhead) the closest anyone has ever come to putting a nightmare on celluloid.

Commentary by Brian Christgau, Saturday, June 20, 1998.