Aside from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu or Metropolis, how many German Expressionist films can you name? (Or maybe I should say, how many semi-German-Expressionist-ish films can you name? That’s an easier question.) After all, Caligari didn’t spring forth from thin air, and you’ve always heard that German Expressionism was kind of a big deal.
To help with that question, I’ve compiled a handy list of Weimar-era rarities that you may or may not have heard of before. Keep in mind that “true” German Expressionism is, technically, a very specific genre that used deliberately artificial-looking sets and props, and relied on emotion and psychology instead of realism. Thus, most of these entries are examples of that type of film. (By the way, if you’ve been following my blog for awhile, you’ll probably remember #1 and #2 since I covered them in the past. If you’re a newbie, though–enjoy!)
7. Eerie Tales (Unheimliche Geschichten, 1919)
This is a kind of anthology film, telling a series of five spooky stories. At the stroke of midnight, three paintings hanging in a used book shop–portraying Death, the Devil, and a prostitute–come to life. The strange characters decide to amuse each other by reading five scary tales out loud (one’s a Poe story, of course). While it doesn’t have the strong stylization of the more iconic German Expressionist films, Eerie Tales has that familiar fascination with horror–and the familiar presence of Conrad Veidt, who dons some mighty Cesare-esque makeup.
6. Algol (1920)
This unique fantasy feature was rediscovered fairly recently, a restored print being shown at the MoMA in 2010. Emil Jannings plays coal miner Robert Herne, who is visited by an alien from the star Algol (you weren’t expecting that, were you?). The alien gives him an incredible machine that can supply enough electricity to power the entire world. This makes Robert immensely wealthy and powerful, but he allows himself to become selfish and corrupt. It’s a little more sci-fi than horror movie, and of course has a thoroughly unsubtle moral.
5. Raskolnikov (1923)
Another über-Expressionist work by Caligari director Robert Wiene, Raskolnikov is a Weimar version of Dostoevsky’s famed novel. If you liked the art direction of Caligari, you’ll enjoy the impressive sets in this film–it’s probably one of the finest examples of true German Expressionism (although the film as a whole is rather lackluster).
4. Torgus (1921)
A film so obscure it has no IMDb reviews and Lotte Eisner simply described it in The Haunted Screen as “a rather poor film by Hans Kobe,” Torgus uses a politely mild form of German Expressionism that doesn’t try to overshadow its story. It’s about a young man whose sweetheart, a servant girl, becomes pregnant. Although he wants to marry her, he’s sent away to a university while the girl is sent to live with the coffinmaker Torgus and his mother. There’s a version on YouTube, but good luck making out that blurry, blurry print.
3. Warning Shadows (Schatten: Eine nächtliche Halluzination, 1923)
If you haven’t heard of Schatten yet, it’s well worth a watch. Set in 19th century Germany, its story revolves around a dinner given by a wealthy baron and his attractive wife. Four of the wife’s former admirers attend, and when they begin flirting with her the baron grows jealous. A shadow player uses his skills to warn the admirers what might happen if they don’t stop flirting. No intertitles are used, and the clever use of shadows not only provides atmosphere but plot points, too. It’s a unique, clever piece–and you get to see Nosferatu‘s Gustav von Wangenheim in a less dorky role.
2. Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (1920)
After making his masterpiece Caligari, Robert Wiene followed up with this equally artistic-looking feature, which reenlisted both Caligari writer Carl Meyer and what appears to be the same art director. With that kind of pedigree, you’d think Genuine would be pretty cool, but alas, it stinks. It’s about the fierce, savage priestess Genuine, who’s kidnapped by a tribe and ends up at a slave market, where she’s bought by a doddering old man who takes her home and keeps her in his basement, and–well, a masterpiece it is not.
1..From Morn to Midnight (Von morgens bis mitternachts, 1921)
And thus we come to my favorite (so to speak) obscure German Expressionist work of all–Von morgens bis mitternachts! Not sure what the heck you’re looking at? That’s pretty much the effect of the entire movie. It took true German Expressionism to its limit, making every inch of the set look as artificial as possible–it even smeared that white paint on the actors’ clothes. Von morgens bis mitternachts is about a bank cashier who steals a bunch of money, abandons his family and runs off to the Big City in hopes of a more exciting life, but you’ll be forgiven if you’re too distracted by the bizarre imagery to pay attention. Which isn’t so bad, because as a delightful bonus, it’s hard to follow too! Everyone wins.
If there’s one thing you might take away from this post, it’s that the brilliance of Caligari was…kind of an anomaly. When it comes to “true” German Expressionism, that is. At any rate, it was the finest product of an extremely unique genre. And with the exception of a few Tim Burton films, we may never quite see the likes of that genre again.