June 18, 2004

Poetry of the silent era

Thanks to the wonders of Amazon (how on earth did we ever survive without Amazon and its used book equivalent, the excellent alibris?), an essay by film critic and historian David Robinson on the great German expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which, if I'm not mistaken, was once described as the first horror film. (Certainly untrue -- Edison's film company made a short version of Frankenstein in 1910.) But it's probably the first great horror film.

Wonderful as the essay is, I bought the volume because it offers a translation of the script in the back of the book. I've read a fair number of stage plays, a movie script or two (for talkies), but never a script for a silent film, and was curious to see how Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, the two writers, put the story of Caligari on paper.

At this point, I haven't gotten to the script itself yet, because Robinson's essay is so engaging, and dispels so many of the myths that had grown up around the film, something I might write a bit about later, with reference to the great Washington Irving short story, The Adventure of the German Student, the text of which is online here. But back to scripts --Robinson quotes a few excerpts from the Caligari script in his essay, and they are not particularly impressive as literature:

A spectral-looking old man, in a dark, flying cloak and high cylinder hat, trots along the street, following the procession. His hands, clasped behind his back, hold a walking stick. His head recalls that of Schopenhauer. He stands still for a moment, and before going on, solemnly leafs through the pages of a large book which he takes out of his coat pocket. Then he appears satisfied and goes on his way.

Janowitz went on to make a career out of claiming that Robert Wiene, the director of Caligari, ruined or even "raped" their script. Mayer went on to develop a style of writing for silent pictures that seems poetic in its own right. Robinson provides an exerpt from a 1925 script he did for F.W. Murnau, who had directed Nosferatu in 1922, for Tartuffe:

Closer shot: The first floor.
Darkness of night.
But! Descending the first flight of stairs;
like a shadow; at first unrecognizable.
It is. He stands.
Only a black shape.
Does he look upwards, slightly?
Slow pan
upwards: Above Tartuffe's door:
A second door.
Attic door.
Lit from behind.
And there: The shadow of Dorine.
Combing her hair.
Then: suddenly: the light
Has it gone out?
It has.
And so!
Closer shot: Tartuffe.
Returning his gaze.
This way.
Slowly. Pale in this
black night.

I can't quite reproduce all the spacing of the original -- it looks better on the printed page -- but even so, the passage seems so evocative, the language so strong. I've never seen Murnau's Tartuffe, but I've added it to my list of things to do...

Posted by Ideofact at June 18, 2004 11:57 PM