Friday, 19 December 2014

Stumm kraftwerk… Algol: Tragedy of Power (1920), The Barbican with Stephen Horne


Piano, flute, accordion, synthesiser, bell, book, bowl... Theremin! The question has to be asked: just how many hands does Stephen Horne actually have? He played all – save the book (a weighty biography of David Lean) – during a suitably kitchen-sink improvisation to accompany this remarkable, sprawling, science-fiction epic. What’s more, he appeared to be playing at least three at a time during certain passages…

In his introduction, Stephen revealed that he’d recorded a score for an Edition Filmmuseum DVD which is still in the works. Tonight’s music – a “gilding of the improv lily” as he put it – was based on the original but expanded to fit this stellar reconstruction. His performance was a blur of sensitive tonality as he switched between themes as easily as instruments: modern silent cinema's most elegantly-innovative one-man band!


Magical machine
Algol: Tragedy of Power (Algol. Tragödie der Macht) proved to be far grander in scope than I’d expected, featuring a huge range of locations, a cast of hundreds and stunning sets from Walter Reimann, production designer of Caligari – the expressionist spring to Algol’s autumn in 1920.

As my learned mother-in-law explained, the film touches on so many classical themes in its tale of power corrupting absolutely… indeed, whilst it is nominally science fiction it could easily be a gothic fantasy with wizards and double-dealing devils. As Arthur C Clarke once noted, any sufficiently advanced scientific culture would be indistinguishable – to us - from magic and here the “science” isn’t ever explained it is just is, working to offer fantastical change and opportunity.

Watching any German film of this time you’re also always aware of the context… a man over-reaches by, literally, becoming power to the World; his good intentions succumbing to a disingenuous offer of help from another planet. Any contract with a devil must always come at a price… and there was more to come.

The wheels of industry turn
Directed by Hans Werckmeister, Algol was a lost film for many years and was only recently recovered, leading to the Edition Filmmuseum restoration. What is now on evidence still feels like it may be missing the odd fragment as the story sometimes makes an unexplained leap or two. There is also no English translation on the print and so tonight’s projectionist had to project one onto the title cards: live music, live visual mix… silent cinema really comes to life at the Barbican!

The story is in four parts with a prologue establishing the existence of a shadowy planet, Algol, which watches down on Earth with unknowable intent embodied in the figure of Algol (John Gottowt) a being who rules and perhaps is that world. Trivia... in reality the Algol System is in the Perseus Constellation and is known as the Winking Demon Star because of its unusual light variations.

John Gottowt
On Earth men hack at coal in the saturnine darkness of mines – hell is underground as well as out in space and, indeed, one of the characters is even called Peter Hell (although Hell is German for bright, intelligent or fair). Robert Herne (Emil Jannings) is one of the strongest of the miners toiling away with the aid of his love Maria Obal (Hanna Ralph) a woman who’s thoughts run as deep as the mines and who holds a candle not just for Robert to work by but, in her heart, for Peter Hell (A Cottage on Dartmoor’s Hans Adalbert Schlettow).

They are visited by the daughter of the mine owner, Leonore Nissen (Gertrude Welcker) who, having come of age, is to inherit the business. She views the workers with a mixture of compassion and tredidation with a little more than passing concern for Robert as she is almost squeezed against the rock face by his masculine bulk.

Hanna Ralph
It’s always a pleasure to watch Herr Jannings at work and, as ever, he is a master of physical expression, looming large over his pickaxe, a surly mountainous man… unimpressed by this new owner and her efforts to reach out.

It is now that Algol intervenes, travelling from his world to emerge in the mines in the guise of a worker. Robert takes him under his wing and offers him board at Maria’s house. Algol takes a shine to her to the extent that he wishes he could be human at one point but Maria’s heart is torn between Robert and Peter who soon announces that he is leaving to travel.

Algol enraged
At some point Algol decides to challenge this new world and as his thoughts turn dark he vows to become a devil: to torture these humans who he wanted to emulate.

He spots Robert’s heightened sense of social responsibility and ego, then offers him a year-long deal during which he will have access to power from Algol with which to make his mark. The bargain echoes those made in The Student from Prague, in which Gottowt played another demonic figure with a sinister trade to make, and Faust in which it was Janning’s turn to bargain.

Emile Jannings
Robert seizes his chance with both hands and establishes a mighty power plant capable of supplying the whole World indefinitely. Endless energy means there’s no need for coal and fearing for their livelihood the miners round on Leonore. Robert arrives to save her and his former colleagues: half of the plant’s profits will go to them and the country shall be a paradise for the partially employed as the rest of the World pays all it can to secure the endless energy…

The World enslaved by power
Robert marries Leonore whilst Maria is frightened away by this new enterprise and heads off with returning Peter to the pastoral peace of the neighbouring state: a place where the simplicity of life on the land seems to make the people happier.

Time moves on and new generations arrive; Robert is feted as the most important man on the planet and plans to pass the secret of the perpetual power onto his effete son Reginald (Ernst Hofmann). But Reggie is easily distracted and is targeted by Yella Ward (Erna Morena) a vamp of the highest order who entraps the young man with her huge dark eyes, imploring him to take his father’s secret before she will give of hers…

Yella has Reggie just where she wants him...
Meanwhile, old Peter has passed and his son has grown up to be the spitting image… complete with his father’s nobility and leadership qualities. They have to trade their produce for power from the Herne plant and as the demands become ever more ruinous he vows to take the fight to Robert: share the power with the World and do not use it for selfish profit...or else.

Peter makes his way to the Herne estate and climbs over the wall to encounter Robert’s daughter Magda (Käthe Haack) and there’s an instant connection of course... She leads him to her father who welcomes the son of his old friends. He won’t like what he has to say though…

Peter leads a revolt...
No spoilers…  All the pieces are in play for the final act - will Reggie be able to ward off Yella's manipulations, can Magda and Peter overcome their parent’s differences, has Algol only set out to destroy and when will there be a harvest for the World? It’s a huge story and one that has enduring relevance...

Werckmeister pulls the elements together well even though there are those narrative jumps that may be down to lost material… for a film with such an obviously-large budget you’d expect he’d have enough spare to make the few additional shots that would better explain Algol’s motivations or show Robert revealing his secret to Magda?  Minor quibbles aside,  Algol is most definitely an experience and a bare-knuckle ride through many moods from the alien mystery of Algol, the grinding mining, grand houses, poor houses, garden parties, orgies, industrial espionage, political intrigue, pastoral idyll to weird dirty dancing – after almost two hours and hundreds of shots you certainly know that you’ve been in a cinema!

Sebastian Droste: "Two ladies, And I'm the only man, ja!"
Janning’s performance matches this intensity throughout as does John Gottowt's - Algol’s fury seems to know no bounds… Counter-balancing this is the show of elegant restraint from Hanna Ralph as Maria who always knows… The expansive cinematography of Axel Graatkjaer and Hermann Kircheldorff adds to the feeling of Algol as a major event and this must have been one of the biggest releases of the post-war period. We are lucky to still have it.


Along with The Student of Prague, this film has been on the Edition Filmmuseum forthcoming releases list for some time with its projected DVD having it twinned with Karl Grune’s Schlagende Wetter (1923). There is a tantalizing two minute sample on the site from which I have appropriated some of the images above… As you can see, it’s their copyright so, please go ahead gentlemen and release the darned thing soon: you have the power.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The bringer of peace… A Message from Mars (1913)


Science fiction has always been more about Right Here rather than Out There and the late-Victorian/Edwardian vogue for the genre often focused on the military threat from other worlds. There may be a line between War of the Worlds, imperial expansion and the boom of the 1950s which was arguably more about the insidious threat of creeping communism than invasions from space. Get to the sixties and, well, the enemy was definitely our own governments as the new wave of Philip K Dick, Harland Ellison et al struck out against totalitarianism in our name.

Alien races could also use their advanced states to help rather than humble… as this recovered relic from 1913 demonstrates. Aliens were to be admired, better versions of ourselves and proof that improvement can be continuous: our conscience… reminding us of social responsibilities and of the gap between the rich and the deserving poor.


E. Holman Clark and the orginal Charles Hawtrey
A Message from Mars is Britain’s first feature-length science fiction film – maybe even her first feature film - and has now been restored to full length following painstaking restoration based on two shorter versions and a tinted print by the BFI National Archive. The film simply hasn’t been seen in its original length and format for a century and makes for strangely familiar viewing… Mars is studio-based and looks a little like ancient Rome with Martians dressed in the kind of clothes favoured by Alistair Crowley for his weekend hobbies whilst there are stunning shots of Trafalgar Square and London streets more of the nineteenth than twentieth century: a window on a lost world.

The silent streets of London
The film was based on a popular stage play from 1899 by Liverpool-born writer Richard Ganthony and adapted for the screen by director J. Wallett Waller. The film’s star, popular theatre player Charles Hawtrey (no relation to the Carry On star who changed his name for the association…) recreates his stage role with relish playing Horace Parker a self-obsessed gentleman about town who has no time for anyone but himself.

Events begin on the Red Planet where the court of Mars is about to find Ramiel (E. Holman Clark) guilty of transgressing one of their most sacred laws. Using a viewing device the court looks down on their neighbouring planet to observe Parker’s repeated acts of un-kindness as he barges a poor match seller away at Trafalgar Square, refuses to pay after watching a Punch and Judy show and spurns the pleas for help of a worthy tramp (Hubert Willis) who has fallen on hard times.

Such a mean old man...
As punishment Ramiel is sent to Earth to change the course of Parker’s lamentable existence… he must get the Earthman to act out of kindness in order to win back his place in Martian society.

Parker is so self-engrossed he refuses to make himself ready to take his pretty fiancé Minnie Templer (Crissie Bell) to a party but when she arrives with her Aunt Martha (Kate Tyndale), Minnie lets him off and makes sure he’s comfortable… you can see how their relationship works (even though he looks twenty years too old for her). Things backfire as smoothie Arthur Dicey (Frank Hector) arrives and offers to take Parker’s belle to the ball… but he’s too lazily complacent to notice.

Busy doing nothing
Cue Ramiel’s timely apparition at Parker’s front door… he looks around then disappears again to re-appear in the corner of Parker’s study. Parker tries to bluster his way past the Martian with a mission but is buffeted by telekinetic waves – a smart special effect from Waller that still looks pretty cool today.

Ramiel uses the Force
Ramiel forces Parker outside and in the direction of unfortunates… he begrudgingly buys a posy from a tearful flower-seller, gifts a tramp some money and eventually – reluctantly – gives a wad of cash to aid a man mown down by a motor vehicle: he looks like a lost cause.

Summoning the spirit of Christmas present, Ramiel shows him the impact of his selfish ways on Minnie who is beginning to enjoy Dicey’s company at the Clarence’s shindig… but he still doesn’t look like budging.

Parker is shown Minnie dallying with Dicey
No spoilers… In desperation Ramiel transforms Parker into a pauper – a tramp just like the man he refused to help. Hungry and with his wealthy sheen removed will this be the move that finally changes his thinking? Can he win back Minnie, find his compassion and help Remiel recover his own place back on Mars?

A Message from Mars is clearly of its time but from A Christmas Carol through It’s a Wonderful Life to Groundhog Day (even The Lego Movie!) we all love a little magic realism that holds a mirror up to our own guilty lives: a quick fix – well an hour or two – that shows us that even though we’re bad we’re not all that bad.


It’s fascinating to watch a British feature from this period and Waller shows himself to be up to speed with the latest innovations in his choice of shots – the narrative flows seamlessly as characters’ eye-line’s lead onto each scene shift, the camera pans and the actors use the framed space to maximum effect. There’s even a superb shot of a fire engine tearing through Edwardian streets.

The acting is a little stagey but very well done with Hawtrey the stand out as the puffed-up Parker – a rich man fighting for his right to go through life with the snooze button switched full on. He has range though and he’ll get to show it.


E. Holman Clark is grumpily ethereal as Rameil – a man-Martian intent on rescuing an alien’s life rather more than his own (we never find out what it was he did to deserve this) whilst Crissie Bell fizzes as the patient Minnie somehow infatuated with London’s laziest…

The restoration looks stunning given the age and there are some frames that are so clear it almost looked like this was some kind of practical joke – a modern pastiche – but no, that’s what you get for six months of painstaking diligence. There’s a short feature on the work on the BBC arts page: a frame-by-frame labour of love.

Chrissie Bell: Edwardian elegance
The film also features a new score from Matthew Herbert, Creative Director of the New Radiophonic Workshop. Herbert used a genuine 1913 piano to create scratchily ambient music along with a welter of “found sounds” from motor cars to burning wood. It’s not to everyone’s taste perhaps but it works well for me in highlighting the uncanny extra-terrestrial intervention: another red world...

A Message from Mars was released on 12th December on both the BFI and BBC Arts players and is available to watch for free! So, go ahead and fill your boots and thank both organisations for this early present: A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, every one!

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Justice through knowledge! - Different from the Others (1919)


This is a remarkable film and one that survives only in partial form: that it survives at all given what was to come is all the more extraordinary…

Paragraph 175 in the German Criminal Code made homosexuality illegal and contributed to the loss and wreckage of so many innocent lives whilst also acting as a fertile area for blackmail and extortion. Shockingly it wasn't repealed until 1994 (after decades of amendments) which shows, in nothing else, how incredibly advanced this film was and how brave. In an age when many leading straight men, like Conrad Veidt, might still think twice about playing a gay character, the future star of Caligari took up the challenge for director Richard Oswald’s film.

Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld
The script was co-written by Oswald with Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld a “sexologist” who also part-funded the film through his Institute for Sexual Science… Hirschfeld was a man on a mission to educate people about the normalcy of the homosexual condition – its existence in nature across, species and for humans across class and the social divide:

“Love for one of the same sex is no less pure or noble than for one of the opposite. This orientation can be found in all levels of society, and among respected people. Those that say otherwise come only from ignorance and bigotry.”

His words could be from decades later and indeed there are similarities in story with the 1961 British film Victim in which Dirk Bogarde’s married lawyer is blackmailed over his sexuality. Sadly there are probably still some who would find the film shocking: this is still a hot topic as the recent debate over equal marriage has illustrated.

Paul and the parents
Chunks of the film are missing but the restoration viewable on the Kino DVD pieces the story together with additional title cards and the odd still. The film was censored from the get go and became something only fit for scientists to watch and study which makes it strange that what’s left focuses so much on the male interactions and not their family members of both sexes: too inflammatory?

Conrad Veidt plays successful concert violinist Paul Körner and the film opens in his well-appointed flat as he reads newspaper stories describing inexplicable suicides of young men. He suspects he knows the reasons for their demise and has a vision of great homosexual men who were victimised for their orientation: Leonardo da Vinci, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Oscar Wilde and others.

Fritz Schulz and Conrad Veidt
He is approached by a young violinist Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schulz) who wants to become his pupil and,  after getting agreement from his parents the two begin working together and very quickly form an attachment.

Meanwhile Körner's Father (Leo Connard) and mother (Alexandra Willegh) try to push him towards marriage and he refers them to his specialist, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld (who plays himself) who explains his sexuality to them: “… he is not to blame for his orientation. It is not wrong, nor should it be a crime…”

Bollek spots his opportunity...
Körner and Kurt get spotted out walking by one Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel) someone we learn very quickly has been blackmailing the violinist and who decides to pump him for further funds in the light of this new “evidence”.

Körner tries to hide this from Kurt but after the two surprise Bollek in their flat a fight breaks out and all is revealed. Kurt runs away leaving Körner heartbroken. He thinks back to his days at school and his expulsion after being found kissing another male student, then onto university where he couldn’t connect with any women.

School days
He tried hypnotherapy as a cure but it was only when he met the Doctor that he was able to respect his own sexuality.

Kurt’s sister Else (Anita Berber), has her own feelings for Körner but he takes her to one of the Doctor’s lectures in which he espouses his theory of graduated sexuality – men with female elements and vice versa with some frank photographs of "virile women" and "a man with female feelings...".  Obviously research into human sexuality has advanced but how would this have played to audiences 95 years ago? Else starts to understand and to support her friend in different ways.

Virile women and a man with feminine thoughts
Mild spoilers: Körner reports Bollek for blackmail and the two have their day in court in something like a dual trial one for extortion and the other for breaking Paragraph 175… how will the two gain justice?


Too much of the film is missing to judge its overall direction but I like Oswald's settings and the way he deals with the romance. The lack of episodes involving the families does diminish the broader drama but that's nobody's fault but the censors. There is however, more than enough of Veidt’s acting to be convinced of his excellence. He’s an extraordinarily protean performer not only using his shallow cheeks and electric eyes to convey emotion but also the torture expressed through his malleable physique.

Conrad Veidt
Reinhold Schünzel makes for a thoroughly dis-likable rogue whilst Fritz Schulz is good as the vulnerable young man who might just provide hope for a better future.  As the good Doctor implores:  “You have to keep living; live to change the prejudices... …restore the honour of this man… and all those who came before him, and all those to come after him. Justice through knowledge!”

An appeal made all the more poignant given the ensuing decades in which intolerance was refined into a grotesque art form in Germany. Justice will out and you have to keep on believing that...

Available from Kino and Amazon.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Nothing is real... Die Puppe (1919)


A subversive fairy tale in a film played out from a child’s model set up by the director… The Doll (Die Puppe) shows the post-modernist verve of Ernst Lubitsch to stunning affect, aided by the powerhouse comic miming of Ossi Oswalda. Quite clearly The Wildcat wasn’t the first example of the director playing with form and formula in glorious fashion: you keep expecting a Marx Brother to pop up, a lumberjack or maybe the Spanish Inquisition.

This was one of five features the director completed for UFA in 1919 although it was filmed in late 1918. It’s hard to imagine the mood in Germany at that time and perhaps this film is part of an escape to fantasy in those dark, defeated days.

Ernst Lubitsch gets his dolls house in order
It certainly looks like it as Lubitsch sets about constructing the dolls’ house at the start of the film: a small wooden cottage set atop a steeply-sloped paper mache hill. As the dolls become people we see one of the characters roll down the life-sized steepness directly into a square pond cut in the “ground”… he calls upon the Sun to dry him off and sure enough it emerges from behind the clouds to smile its warmth on his drenched clothes.

Sunshine dry-cleaning
The film has its own internal logic and is superficially a fairy tale only with characters driven by very adult motivations. There’s a young noble man apparently terrified of woman, a young boy who talks and thinks like a man (very Almodóvar!) and a woman who’s a doll who is actually a woman. Add the monks – pious on the outside and gorging pies on the inside and you have a world in which the deceptions of distrustful and selfish humanity distance them all from the truth.

Gerhard Ritterband and Victor Janson
Lubitsch took the basis for the story from the story by Ernst Hoffmann which inspired the ballet Coppélia and created something a little darker with co-screenwriter Hanns Kräly. The young man with the wet suit is Lancelot (Hermann Thimig) the nephew of the Baron of Chanterelle (Max Kronert). The Baron is nearing the end of his life and to ensure the continuation of the line, pressures Lancelot to get married.

On hearing of the potential availability of such an eligible bachelor, the local maidens begin to gather much to Lancelot’s discomfort: he is terrified of the prospects and runs for his life from the 40 women hoping to attract his attention.

Ich möchte kein Mann sein!
He makes his way to the nearest Abbey to ask for sanctuary interrupting the monks’ meal. These are no ordinary brothers: they gorge on vast quantities of meat and worry about their funds running out… yet to the outside world they are frugal as would be expected. Lancelot is welcomed into their midst but is only given scraps of bread as they continue their feast.

Monks munching
It is only when one of the monks sees an advert from the Baron offering his nephew 300,000 francs if he takes a wife that they take an interest in the young man… the ecclesiastic air is filled with bitter irony. But he cannot be with a woman… but one of the monks remembers that there is a man in the town who makes life-like dolls indistinguishable from real life: Lancelot can marry a mechanoid, collect the cash and – of course – hand over the money to the monks!


Lancelot goes off to the house of the bizarrely-coiffured Hilarius (Victor Janson) who is busily creating a new doll in the image of his daughter Ossi (Ossi Oswalda) aided by his outspoken young apprentice (Gerhard Ritterband).

There’s great scene in which Lancelot is escorted into the middle of a large room and then as Hilarius turns a wheel, dozens of designer dolls stride out form their storage shelves to embrace him: he’s as frightened of them as he is of the real thing.


They’re all a bit saucy for him and Hilarius decides that his newest creation would be the purest and goes to fetch the Ossie doll… unfortunately by this stage there has been an accident and the doll is broken. Ossie, naturally, stands in for the doll whilst the apprentice – whose fault it is – fixes things.

Ossi Oswalda
Off goes Lancelot with the girl-not-doll to arrange the marriage of man and mannequin as soon as possible. Ossi Oswalda revels in the role and her timing is absolutely spot-on as every smirk, gurn and slap is choreographed perfectly with Lancelot’s inability to spot the obvious. At their wedding she hungrily devours cake almost in front of him whilst enjoying a dance with the guests without his noticing his only comment is to marvel at her “intricate mechanism” when she reveals that she can dress herself.

The Baron meets the bride
Who is this young man and why is he so obtuse?

The couple go off to the monastery where the money is to be handed over, the model is to be mothballed and Lancelot can rest a lot… but really there’s too much mischief in Ossi for this story to end like this…

Lancelot and his lady
Die Puppe shows Lubitsch’s mastery of his content and also his uncanny ability to throw subversion into the heart of his comedy: the surface pantomime has clear secondary meanings but many of these have deeper and challenging interpretations. Yes the monks are corrupt but why does Lancelot agree to their weird plan when they will gain more than him? The Lord moves in mysterious ways but not as mysterious as organised authority perhaps… And love, true love, comes in the most unexpected circumstances…

Hilarius has a hair-raising experience (that's Lubitsch's pun not mine!)
I watched the version on Eureka's Masters of Cinema box set Lubitsch in Berlin: Fairy-Tales, Melodramas, and Sex Comedies – an essential set which I’m sure you’ve already got! If not it’s available from Amazon.

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