"No money in the World can buy anything of value... Money is the most miserable trickery!"
This was a fascinating opening to the Barbican’s series of Weimar expressionism which, it turns out, was far less a movement than a triptych. Introducing the screening Stephanie Bird, Senior Lecture in German at UCL, explained that expressionism was an extension of romanticism but, in its truest form, was limited to very few films of the 500 or so produced at the time.
Only this film, Caligari and the closing segment of Waxworks, can be considered purely expressionistic… even though elements of technique are commonly overlapping – atmospherics intended to show interior states but almost all using more conventional narrative structure and design.
As it was this might well have been Von morgens bis mitternachts’s UK premier?
Martin had directed the stage version of Georg Kaiser’s 1912 play on its debut in 1917 (it was revived at the National Theatre as recently as 2014) and so knew what he was dealing with… and was able to take off confidently in a more cinematic direction. Expressionist art and theatre had been popular since before the war and expressionist elements were used in across different media without infusing overall substance. Take for example, the striking advertising for some post-war Murnau films that promise Caligarian experimentation whilst the films themselves deliver more conventionally.
|The Lady reclines|
The film was accompanied by an improvised score from multi-instrumentalists Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute and more) and Martin Pyne – a percussionist, vibraphonist and composer who has worked with Stephen on a number of other projects including Berlin, Symphony of a City and The Battle of the Somme.
|The Cashier's cosy yet "nauseating" home life|
The actors are integrated into the sets their expressiveness strictly limited by the style of their surroundings. Conversely what we see is what they feel – a scrappy, uneven and rough-cut slash of life. A cashier trapped behind his till bars as surely as in any prison and a world unfinished in our perception by inherent contradictions and irreconcilable knowns and unknowns.
So, what makes him take the biggest step of his life when an attractive Italian Lady played by Erna Morena (who also starred in the expressive if not expressionist Algol (1920)) arrives to cash in a cheque. There is something wrong and the payment cannot be made – the Bank Manager (Eberhard Wrede) has beetle-like suspicions: yet another person trying to cheat the system he serves.
|Money can't buy you love|
The Cashier so wants to help that he casts all thoughts of family away and steals the money from his bank. He takes the stolen cash to the lady in her hotel and is confused by her acquisition – he does not understand the painting: “is it you?” She laughs at him and his petty desire and is now further removed as she falls back striking a pose exactly as in the abstract painting.
|A street girl also has the face of Destiny...|
|Society is layered just like the audience for the races|
|The cheapest seats are up top....|
Von morgens bis mitternachts is available on DVD from Edition Filmmuseum if you’re feeling in a questing mood but the contemporary film industry obviously either didn’t see the point or were too concerned by the film’s less than enthusiastic take on capitalist society at a time when the German economy, already in tatters, was burdened with war debt and on the verge of three years of hyperinflation during which revolutionary alternatives began to abound.
And yet, the film made it to Japan. You have to wonder about its influence there – A Page of Madness deals on similar feelings and is an even more dislocated tale.
Next up in the series is Caligari itself featuring a four-hander from Neil Brand and John Sweeney… not to be missed. I hope they have their clothes suitably painted with white angles and star-bursts.