Monday, 22 February 2016

A hard day’s night… Von morgens bis mitternachts (1920) with Stephen Horne & Martin Pyne, Barbican

"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.

Ernst Deutsch
Von morgens... was almost too radical to be released – either stylistically or politically - and details of its initial distribution are a sketchy as the painted sets. Karlheinz Martin’s film certainly avoided any commercial success and, thanks to a limited run in Japan a copy was preserved and then discovered in 1959 long after being written off as lost.

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
Von morgens bis mitternachts (From Morn to Midnight) might well be the high-water mark of Weimar expressionism – a drowned world of pained dislocation that makes Caligari look almost mainstream. Robert Neppach’s sets are off the scale eccentric and combined with Carl Hoffmann’s cinematography serve to rob the audience of any anchor in reality throughout the whole film: we’re as lost as the cashier who reaches in vain for his ideal and his truth…

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
Their styles blended perfectly and matched the swirling mood of the visuals from the stentorian Brechtian swing of the opening  – I think the boys have located the next whiskey bar alright – to the dislocations of the psychedelic cycle races and the fuzz-toned piano strings for the glimpse of the Cashier’s domesticated alienation .  At times I was reminded of the heavy modern jazz of The Bad Plus (known for unconventional covers of The Pixies, Nirvana and Black Sabbath) as well as the more experimental adventures of Uri Caine (whoprovides similar service for Gustav Mahler) - it was silent film accompaniment as aerobic workout and no less than this powerfully-strange film deserved - a hi-energy approach that must have blistered a few fingers and banged a few nails!

Unlike Caligari it is more difficult to pinpoint this film’s intent and story. The stage play looks more precise in terms of narrative and it would surely be cheating to use its seven acts to illuminate the film’s five… We have to go on what we see.

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.

Erna Morena
Ernst Deutsch plays the Cashier in a regular-irregular bank. He is married with a piano-pounding daughter and an elderly mother to maintain. He is clearly a worried man – it’s painted all over his face, especially round his right eye – but he needs the work.

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
But the money is important for the Lady must buy a picture… she is so desperate she is persuaded by a young man (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) at her hotel to offer her precious pearls as security.

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...
The Cashier rushes out into the street – his life in shreds and has a series of encounters with women, all played by Roma Bahn, a Beggar, a Whore and finally a Salvation Army Girl. In each case the woman’s face is replaced by a skull – an example of what Stephanie Bird sees as Expressionism’s misogyny – death connected to female sexuality? Of course Roma Bahn also plays The Cashier’s daughter.

Bicycle race
The Cashier travels in search of meaning for his money and ends up betting heavily on cycle racing in one of the film’s outstanding sequences: painted crowds cheering on the distorted wheels of chance: all the confusion of a real sporting event without the needs for a scorecard.

Society is layered just like the audience for the races
The cheapest seats are up top....
The Cashier’s search continues as his day raises far more questions than answers: will he find enlightenment before the clocks strike midnight…Can the Salvation Army help him in this hour of need?

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.

Destiny thy name is Roma Bahn
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.

Times up


  1. I was going to mention "A Page of Madness" and then saw that you already had! I had completely forgotten anything to do with the plot, haha (I have the EF DVD, but haven't watched it in a couple of years). This is a truly strange film, but I much enjoyed the ride - such unique and off-kilter visuals.

    1. It rewards repeated viewing - pretty hard-edged and disorientating - my other half didn't like Page of Madness for the same reason! But she enjoyed this performance - the music made it. And, the genuine expressionist article... Thanks for reading SP! Paul