41. Spione

March 22, 1928
Directed by Fritz Lang

Spione is effectively a Mabuse reboot for 1928. Germany has a level of social and economic stability that 1922 Germany did not. The world has gotten better in the intervening years. The currency is stable again. And so instead of a mysterious all-powerful magician who wants to rule the world simply to play with his victims out of cruelty, Spione’s mastermind is attempting to manipulate the international political situation and threat of Soviet Russia to acquire more money.

It’s a more realistic image of a supervillain that reflects that in 1928, instead of abject terror and chaos, there was a political situation where people knew what to be afraid of. While Stalin’s “communism in one country” already acknowledged that the World Revolution was not going to happen, there were still many in Europe and America who hoped or feared that it could. Germany had beaten Russia ten years ago, and now that the Reds had won their civil war and were rapidly modernizing, they might be harboring some thoughts of revenge.

Lang’s filmmaking has grown more sophisticated, but this movie is missing something crucial that Mabuse had. Maybe it’s that after seeing Murnau’s astonishing growth in the last six years, from Nosferatu to Letzte Mann to Faust to Sunrise, a Mabuse reboot that does little more than clean up the details and slightly update the story isn’t enough. It could also be that Mabuse’s power was mysterious and supernatural, as if the world was so confusing and inexplicable that it must be controlled by a superhuman magician. Haghi is a mundane villain – he’s merely rich and has a capable staff.

You didn’t need to be a magician to see that the Silent Age was coming to an end. Metropolis had almost bankrupted UFA and so Lang was not able to develop on that movie’s wonders. If it had been a success, he may have been able to make another masterpiece of that scale. But there’s little in this movie that hadn’t been done already by Lang or someone else. Spione is a tactical retreat into safe territory.


36. Sunrise


September 23, 1927
Directed by F. W. Murnau

Sunrise is a misleading name. This movie is about the moon. The glowing silver orb appears again and again. On both sides of the sky, so that we can’t tell which way is which. Glowing bulbs light up the paths of streets through the city. Car headlights appear out of nowhere, swerving in cacophonies of alarm.

The moon creates no light of its own but through its reflection we make out shadowy forms in the darkness. Moonlight is the allegory of the cinema. We leave our houses to sit in darkened rooms and watch an artificial light show us the truth about ourselves.

Murnau knew he was the foremost auteur of this new art. When William Fox saw Der Letzte Mann, he jumped at the chance to hire him and give him a Hollywood budget, which Murnau did not waste a penny of. He and his Fox colleague Frank Borzage worked closely together, sharing sets, ideas, and the brilliant new star Janet Gaynor.

Their twin achievements are the two ultimate poles of silent cinema. The feminine Seventh Heaven reaches into the deep level of sorrow and despair that an unloved woman can experience, this love is depicted with a soft and friendly warmth. The sun never fails to shine, and our couple are always reunited at 11:00 am. Fox decided to release that one first, so that audiences would fall in love with Gaynor (and it’s impossible not to), before seeing what Murnau would do to her.

Because Sunrise is both a story of darkness and a story of masculinity. Gaynor is a perfect wife from the first frame, and we don’t need any closeups of her to know that. The tension of this movie lies entirely in the soul of George O’Brien’s husband, the man who sets out to murder his wife.

He doesn’t look like he even wants to kill her. He feels he must. It’s a dark unconscious compulsion that he must he venture into the moonlight to confront. For the couple to express their true love, to know themselves as lovers, as husband and wife, they must confront the dark side. She must know that he could kill her whenever he wants, and he must know that his power to kill her is the same power that will protect her from all harm. When she forgives him, he undergoes a second redemption, taking the oath of marriage along with the couple that they both watch, as if spectators watching a performance on the screen.

The superior man loves everyone, but this love must find its root in the love of his chosen woman. They wander the night in the artificial light of the Luna carnival and delight in each other. But the struggle is not yet over. There is an even greater challenge that O’Brien must confront – the darkness of that vast unknowable feminine of nature.

Most men can comfort themselves in the feeling that killing your wife is something only movie villains do, but the truth is that every time a man turns his heart away from his woman, in every moment he closes himself off because he cannot handle the power of her anger or despair, in each of those moments he is killing her. In every moment he must choose, whether to persevere in conquer the feminine and allow it to open into light.

After confronting his murderous desire and deciding once and for all that he must protect, honor, and serve his chosen woman, his masculine strength is put to a final test. He must reckon with Nature herself, the pure primordial feminine force, who has the power to take any of us at any time. A man must dedicate his life to his woman, knowing full well that she will one day die. And there he is – alone in his house, facing the empty bed, with the result he once desired. The moonlight boxes him in as he slumps before the broken rectangles of moonlight on the covers.

The happy ending does arrive shortly, as the bulrushes the man had planned to use to escape his wife end up saving her, but the brutal truth of the empty bed remains for me the true “end” shot. This movie is a celebration of life through the confronting of death. We all must die. You and everyone else. Yet in each moment of our life we have the opportunity to conquer nature, open the world, and allow light to shine.


31. Faust

Faust final

October 14, 1926
Directed by F.W. Murnau

Dr. Faustus was a real person who lived in the early 16th century, and he really did study the occult. In the decades after his death, in a climate of widespread witch-hunts and Lutheran terror, tales about his magical powers and associations with the Devil became legend. Christopher Marlowe’s play was the principal literary source for Goethe, who infused his 1808 play Faust, eine Tragödie with profound philosophical investigations. Goethe’s Faust turns to magic because he has spent his life in a quest for knowledge that has brought him nothing but alienation.

While there’s not a lot of philosophical conversation in the movie, there are plenty of cues to philosophical reflection in the viewer. Created as an expensive prestige picture, the movie is very slow, and you really need to relax and let it unfold at its own pace for it to be watchable. But as long as you don’t lose the story, there are spaces in the luminous sequences to get lost in contemplation of your own life. The themes are all heavy. Death. Aging. The religious path versus the world. The worth of knowledge, of beauty, of sex.

One of the joys of this film is its earthy depiction of a pre-industrial village culture, which here express the full joy and sorrow of being alive. The Easter Parade mirrored by a Burning at the Stake. A visit to the hedge-witch and then a visit to the ale-house. And most of all, the thrall of children’s play that mirrors the adult chase of courtship. Watching adults and children chase each other around, we are reminded of Alan Watts’ comment that Hide and Seek is the proper model for understanding reality. Hide and Seek is the fundamental human activity – it’s a game played in every culture, and infants begin to understand the world through games of peekaboo.

And this movie, this life, is one game of hide and seek. We chase each other, the devil chases us, and we chase him back. We chase after God. We chase after ourselves. The holy spirit is everywhere, but has hidden itself. Because we can’t see it, we pretend it’s not really there. We pretend that we’re not one with God, that isolation and damnation are possible, that we have ruined the lives that were given to us and that we are lost souls. We make believe that we are damned. And we’ve been doing this for so long that we’ve gotten quite good at it. For a hundred lives we seek. And when we find ourselves, when we find God, what is there to do but allow him to hide himself once more, and begin the search again.

Each time you close your eyes for longer, and he hides further away. And you look and look, and think, well maybe this time he did it. He really went away for good. It’s been so long since he was last here. Did it really happen? Am I inventing the memory? I’m alone here, and I always will be, and my body is failing me and I am rapidly approaching death. Forget these foolish notions of God and universal connection. Surely the Earth and power over it is the only thing. After all, you’re on your own, aren’t you? Better make a decision while you still can.

24. Der letzte Mann

December 23, 1924
Directed by F.W. Murnau

The Disorder
I had imagined that reading about the German hyperinflation of 1923, might lift my spirits. Like many others with six figures of college debt and no idea how to pay it off, I dream that such a hyperinflation may happen again. But the story of 1923 doesn’t offer much hope to the downtrodden debtor. Despite the protests from the crowd at zerohedge.com who claim that it’s immanent, or has even already begun, it’s basically impossible that any of us will be rescued from our debts by hyperinflation. Yes, the stock market is overvalued and ready for a crash, and yes, the Federal Reserve’s QE programs are completely untested experiments in free money, but the agents of Capital have many ways to deal with problems, ways that don’t endanger their own positions and don’t endanger Capital itself. Hyperinflation will only happen if Capital wants it to, and if it does happen, Capital will find a way to make sure the debtors pay. They’re probably already working on the problem.

One obvious difference between the current U.S. economy and the German economy of 1923, which is of course not mentioned by libertarian cranks contemplating America’s economic problems, is that Germany had been invaded by France and was under military occupation by January 1923, The French Occupation of the Ruhr provided a rare moment of coming together for the Germans, and the people, government, and even the military all supported a general strike. This policy overtaxed the German government, which was paying out lots of unemployment benefits and not receiving any revenue, and so they turned to printing money into oblivion.

Still, the death of the Mark could have been avoided if the government had merely raised taxes on the rich and on corporations. But Capital didn’t want that. It wasn’t the people who faced massive unpayable debts, it was the government and big businesses that had debts. The people had savings. It was in the business interest to let the Mark collapse. The people lost their savings and used their worthless notes as wallpaper while the industrialists suvived and profited as their loans were wiped out. Further, the death of the Mark betrayed the people’s faith in the republic, which was also desirable to the businesses who despised democracy and wanted nothing more than a return to autocratic rule.

Things got more desperate as 1923 progressed, culminating with the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Hitler of course had been waiting for a moment like this one to make a march on Berlin, just like Mussolini did in Rome. National support for striking workers against the French had been awful. Fight the real enemy, the November criminals, he kept shouting. And he could tell his chance was coming. But the putsch was a total catastrophe. Hitler couldn’t get any of the rulers of Bavaria to back him, and his storm-troopers failed to capture the key buildings of Munich before reports of the incident were telegraphed to Berlin, and the army and police moved against him. Once the guns started firing, Hitler fled his men and was arrested.

There would always be more followers, and he had learned his lesson – never go against the police and army, who will always be natural right-wing allies. Hitler’s trial began in February, and instead of denying his treason, he embraced it, declaring that treason to the hated republic was the most patriotic German act possible. The trial was a national media event, and he went to jail a celebrity, and to many, a hero.

In 1924 the Mark was stabilized and the Dawes Plan flooded the country with American corporate investment. Germany was stable now, thanks to the loans flooding in from corporate America under the Dawes Plan. Der letzte Mann was filmed in 1924 and premiered on December 23rd, three days after Hitler was released from his low-security luxury prison cell. Society may have stabilized, but this movie had been made by people in the throes of catastrophe. The film’s story is a personal catastrophe – the loss of status. of a man who works as a doorman at a fancy hotel in the city, the Atlantic, a job that brings him veneration and a sense of importance. He’s forced out of this job due to his advanced age and sent to work as a bathroom attendant, stripped of the uniform that distinguished him.

The Ego
He no longer stands proud in a resplendent uniform directing traffic, he must hand people towels – towels delivered to him by his new boss, a woman. He may hate the humiliation of working for a woman, but it’s only because his life is ruled by how the community see him, and that community is run by the women that rule the domestic sphere. When he returns to his apartment complex, it’s the women that giggle and point at his shameful loss of status. Their gossip has already informed everyone by the time he gets there. And we do see the world of women – how important women’s work is. We see them beating carpets, polishing, brushing, taking care of laundry, baking the cakes. The love bestowed is unmistakeable. Murnau films these events with even more dignity than the manly work of the hotel lobby.

With their savings wiped out, status was all anyone really had. But this is true not just for those experiencing financial disaster, but for everyone. We worry about how others see us because as far as our egos are concerned, it’s all we are – images for others that we identify with. This self-for-others is not really the real self, but a ghostly double. And so many of these images of the film’s hero, especially in the bathroom, when he is at his lowest, are only images of his reflection – his double – the self for others. In the mirror, or else viewed through a screen or glass – an image for the audience. When he first views his replacement, it’s through the great spinning glass door at the front of the hotel. – the Revolving Glass Door of Chaos.

The Unchained Camera
Previous movies in this story have featured pans on cameras riding on vehicles, but here the camera is set free in earnest. It moves around on tracks, spinning, gliding along the floors, creeping behind and rushing forward, a restless movement appropriate to the dizzy world of modern urban life. The “unchained camera” comes into its own after he comes home, his family and neighbors in the midst of a party, having no idea of his degradation. As he drinks, the camera begins to spin along with his mind, and he passes into a dream, his sleeping face dissolving into a revolving door, in front of which he stands in his uniform, as resplendent as ever. In the dream he is what he once was, young, stronger than anyone, surrounded by crowds who admire him. The camera appears to now be handheld as it takes in the crowd – the chaos of modern society is most clearly expressed through the lens of the dream.

The movie’s title, though it was translated as “The Last Laugh” for American distribution, is “The Last Man.” Who is the last man? Is it a reference to the last man that Nietzsche speaks of in Thus Spake Zarathustra, that product of modern society who lives a meaningless life of comfort and represents the opposite of the Superman? Or is he the last man alive? As the hero is reduced to the bottom of his degradation, the movie shows us its very first title card, informing us that the story proper has ended here, but that an improbable epilogue will follow. Bertolt Brecht was surely paying attention – he would use the impossible happy ending in his epic theatre style as a device of alienation. A single title, completely unnecessary except as a stylistic device to draw attention to the act of creation involved. In the scene that follows, we learn that the degraded bathroom attendant was actually the last man to spend time with a certain millionaire, who died in the arms of the attendant. Due to the stipulations of the millionaire’s will, the attendant is now suddenly wealthy, and this final sequence is his triumph. He spends his inheritance at the same hotel, sharing his money generously. The money has given him back every bit of respect he had lost, and the ironic happy ending is complete.

And as I’m watching this movie, I get a text from my Dad that my Mom was just fired. She’s devastated. Now I need to stop the movie and call her. In 2015, the kind of community depicted in der Letzte Mann is largely gone, broken apart into wholly atomized individuals, alone, alienated, and completely responsible for all of their own problems.

14. Nosferatu – eine Symphonie des Grauens


March 4, 1922
Prana Film
Directed by F.W. Murnau

Like a trip from Lower Saxony to Transylvania, Nosferatu has had its own slow journey to its present place in the canon since its debut in Lenten 1922. That’s not the greatest opening sentence I’ve ever written, but this blog needs to get itself restarted, after my own long and perilous journey writing about the dismal science. In the years since 1922, the vampire has become an omnipresent cultural symbol that everyone can identify, and probably with some boredom. Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula, Jerry Nelson’s Count von Count, Larry Kenney’s Count Chocula, stories of the actual historical Dracula, and of course Robert Pattinson’s Edward Cullen and his myriad parodies have given us representations that are common currency.

To watch Nosferatu, subtract all of that. This is vampire year zero. Bram Stoker’s novel was popular, but not the classic it is today. And that’s just a novel, anyway. This is a fucking vampire movie, where the vampire is not a stock character but a force. That’s what Roger Ebert means when he says this movie “believes in vampires.”

There are at minimum four people we must talk about in this story. We should probably start with the most obscure, Albin Grau. He was an art student in Dresden who was sent to the Eastern Front, survived, and went to Berlin after the war, where he joined the Ordo Templi Orientis. New religious cults were taking off in Berlin. This is the same OTO that Aleister Crowley had maneuvered his way to the head of in Britain, where he was practicing his Thelema religion.

Grau got 20,000 Marks to set up a film studio, Prana Film, right before inflation took off in 1921. The money situation always sucked, and Nosferatu would be the only Prana film. But what a film. Another leap for the medium, like nothing before it. Grau hired director F. W. Murnau, wasted no opportunity. He was also in the First World War, which he also survived, but his lover Hans Degele did not. Murnau was a rising director of horror films, and Nosferatu is his first movie that is easy to see in clear color-tinted celluloid.

Murnau had at the helm F. A. Wagner, a photographer with eyes as modern as ours and the third genius necessary to this production. Here, he shows himself a mastermind of nature photography, taking in the flora and fauna of Europe in  Each image, even of nothing special in particular, is a window into truth.The phantasmagoria of the various forms of animal life, from the Venus flytrap closing on a fly to the microscopic polyp engulfing prey in its transparent body. The rats scurry and disperse, carrying their plague. The werewolf is an hyena, on loan from the Berlin Zoo. Biological secrets revealed in the frames.

The fourth player in this story is Max Schreck, the master who had starred in Bertolt Brecht’s first play. Shadow of the Vampire will later imagine him as an actual monster, but he’s in reality an actor with an incredible theatrical range. He is made to do some things that make him look ridiculous to a modern audience, such as carrying his coffin around the center of town. But of the entire over-acting cast, he towers over everyone. A real menace, responsible for unknown but surely unspeakable actions during the night that threaten to destroy the bourgeois heterosexual marriage. Because this vampire does not lack sexuality. Nosferatu is very sexual, it’s just that he’s not sexy, he’s only ugly.

The most important narrative difference between the movie and the novel is the figure of Van Helsing, who is the principal vampire hunter in the book, but is here reduced to an academic, useless for any practical concern like vampire hunting. Instead, it is all up to Mina, who must give herself completely to rid her town of the plague of Nosferatu. It’s a genuinely moving classic, a joy to watch, but you’ll want to wash your hands afterward. It’s 1922, the high year of Modernism, and in the center of all of it all, Berlin. We’re just getting started.

Ebert, Roger. Nosferatu. Great Movies. http://www.rogerebert.com
Jackson, Kevin. Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens. BFI Film Classics. Palgrav Macmillan, 2013