Combustible Celluloid
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With: Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Kortner, Carmen Cartellieri, Fritz Strassny, Paul Askonas, Ruth Weyher, Ilka Grüning, Jack Trevor, Pavel Pavlov, Hertha von Walther, Renate Brausewetter, Colin Ross, Alexander Granach, Max Gülstorff, Lilli Herder, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Karl Platen, Fritz Rasp, Eugen Rex, Ferdinand von Alten, Gustav von Wangenheim, Ruth Weyher
Written by: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer, Louis Nerz, Maurice Renard, Karl Abraham, Hans Neumann, Colin Ross, Hanns Sachs, Arthur Robison, Rudolf Schneider
Directed by: Robert Wiene, G.W. Pabst, Arthur Robison
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 350
Date: 03/18/2013

German Expressionism Collection (2008)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Shadow Plays

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Kino brings us another of their new box sets filled with repackaged titles from their library, although this one features two brand-new releases, Robert Wiene's The Hands of Orlac (1924) and G.W. Pabst's Secrets of a Soul (1926). Both films play on the then-current fascination with psychology and the idea of the subconscious. The Hands of Orlac tells the story of a famous pianist who loses his hands in a train wreck and has them replaced with the hands of a murderer; he then begins to think that he is killing people against his will. Wiene's presentation is heavy-handed (no pun intended) and too long; Karl Freund did it much better, with a few added elements, as Mad Love (1935). (The disc comes with a trailer for that film as a comparison.) Pabst's film is more interesting. Though he was known as a realist, he employed Expressionism for a dream sequence, showing the subconscious fears and desires of his main character, a scientist played by Werner Krauss. The scientist suddenly becomes terrified of knives and imagines that he'd like to kill his wife by slitting her throat. A psychoanalyst scrutinizes the man's dreams to figure out what's really going on. The dream sequences are eerily effective, and Pabst manages to build up the mystery toward a satisfying conclusion.

After that, the set comes with Wiene's essential The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), an unquestionable landmark in cinema. Krauss stars again as the doctor, who enters a carnival with his main attraction, a somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) who predicts people's deaths (and may well be the cause of same). When his best friend is found murdered, Francis (Friedrich Feher) immediately suspects Caligari and sets out to prove his hunch. Rather than attempting to capture "realism," which was the general method of the time, Wiene went the opposite route, slathering the screen with forced perspectives and all kinds of bizarre diagonals and slants; there is hardly a right angle to be found in this film. It results in vivid, dreamlike logic and a terrifying lack of control. A prologue and epilogue were apparently added over Wiene's objections to lessen the overall impact of the film's sheer, unrelenting madness. Interestingly, though this film influenced everyone from Murnau and Lang to Hollywood filmmakers of the 1940s -- and still influences certain filmmakers today -- Wiene himself never had much of a career.

The fourth film in the set is Arthur Robison's Warning Shadows (1923), which tells its story partially through shadow puppetry, but it's unbearably slow and I have never been able to finish watching it.

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