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This film is described in its opening title card as "A cultural and historical presentation in moving pictures in seven parts." It begins with a history of sorcery and evil spirits, showing a series of frightening artwork creations from many different cultures. Then, miniature mechanical devices depict hell. More drawings follow, explaining how witches were forced to show their allegiance to the Devil by kissing his backside. The live action begins at about 13 minutes in, in a witch's house in 1488. Other witches arrive, bringing rotted body parts from criminals that were hung on the gallows. A woman arrives asking the witch to make her a love potion (with disgusting ingredients) that will make an old, fat monk fall in love with her. (She's no prize herself.) Meanwhile, two medical practitioners pray for forgiveness before cutting open a dead body to better understand how diseases are able to kill. A spying neighbor alerts others, decrying the men to be witches. Then, there is a change-up in the plot as we observe the same irrational fear of "the Devil". Benjamin Christensen himself plays this character, and must have relished it, utilizing the same tongue-wagging lasciviousness that Gene Simmons would perform so well in the rock band KISS. Way ahead of its time, this film uses stop-motion animation and reversed film footage to demonstrate various supposed powers of the Devil. It then moves on to scenes of the Spanish Inquisition (without any Monty Python humor) that depict the supreme ignorant power of the church. An old woman is accused by young idiots of witchcraft, and when the church intervenes, things don't go well for her. We next see a black mass where witches fly on broomsticks, arriving in droves, with the attendees kissing the Devil's ass to confirm themselves to him. This portion of the film offers extreme hallucinatory images of demonic shenanigans, and it's hard to believe it was released in 1922. However, its overwhelming sense of doom comes not from the "demons" but rather the irrational, fearful actions of the self-righteous nutcases who prevail over them. This is best demonstrated in the scene where a younger monk is whipped by an older one, only to be forced to condemn an innocent young woman. Another sequence involves human-sized animals involved with witch confessions, supposed bewitching activities as "documented" by the church, the actual use of torture devices, even self-punishments in the name of God. The final portion of the film takes place in the modern day and equates now-understood psychological conditions and behaviors with early history's predilection for being "bewitched".
Danish writer-director-actor Benjamin Christensen developed this movie over a two-year period, and it was financed by the Swedish company Svensk Filmindustri. It reveals how, throughout history, misunderstanding of mental illnesses and other diseases prompted accusations of witchcraft. It was the most expensive Swedish film made to date and was banned in the United States for years. Other countries removed scenes of nudity, sexual perversions, and torture. Today, it is considered Christensen's greatest film. He would go on to work in America, directing Lon Chaney in the Russian-set drama Mockery. He then worked on The Haunted House (1928), Seven Footprints to Satan (1919), and House of Horror (1929), but later returned to Denmark. Häxan was released in a shorter version in 1967, with narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz music score, becoming a huge hit with the counter-culture. This movie was shot in Hellerup, Denmark at the Astra Film Studio from February to October 1921, with only evenings used for filming. One of the most subversive films of the silent era, it was proclaimed by many critics upon release to be unfit for public exhibition. Actress Astrid Holm previously appeared in Körkarlen.
Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (aka Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror) (March 4, 1922)
This film was directed by F.W. Murnau, and was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, against which his widow sued for plagiarism, winning in an English court that could not enforce destruction of all copies since it was made in Germany. It starred Max Schreck as "Count Orlok" (instead of Dracula), Gustav von Wangenheim as "Thomas Hutter" (instead of Jonathan Harker), Greta Schroder as "Ellen Hutter" (instead of Mina Murray), Alexander Granach as "Knock" (instead of Renfield), and John Gottowt as "Professor Bulwer" (instead of Van Helsing, though this character's activities are not of the vampire-hunting variety). The studio, Prana Film, was helmed by occultist Albin Grau, and this was its only film, declaring bankruptcy to escape the lawsuit from Stoker's widow. A stunningly visual film, F.W. Murnau achieved a nightmare-like dream logic to the storyline, which was brought to life by director of photography Fritz Arno Wagner. The standout performances are those of Schreck, who embodies the rat-like vampire, and Granach, whose wonderfully eccentric performance brings both comedy and madness. Set in the fictional city of Wisborg, Germany in 1838, Hutter is sent by real estate agent Knock to visit Count Orlok in Transylvania. Hutter's wife Ellen is visibly taken aback by his travel plans, as if she can predict the outcome. As Hutter gets closer to the vampire's castle and stays at an inn, a werewolf (played by a real hyena) prowls the countryside. Eventually, Hutter's carriage drive and assistant refuse to go any further, and he is picked up by a coach enshrouded in black. Some of the special effects such as the reverse image of the coach are extremely effective, others are rather comedic, which may or may not have been intended. At the castle, Hutter meets Count Orlok, whom the title cards also refer to as Nosferatu and the death bird. The vampire attempts to drink the blood that flows from Hutter's hand when he accidentally cuts it. When Hutter awakens the next day to find the Count missing and fresh punctures on the front of his neck (unlike all other vampire films in which these appear on one side), he assumes the wounds to be from mosquitos. He sends a letter to his wife via a horse-riding mail carrier, and later, the Count signs the paperwork purchasing a house across from Hutter's own home in Wisborg. The vampire comments that a photo he views depicting Ellen emphasizes her "lovely neck." A book that Hutter reads alerts him to the existence of vampires and he quickly suspects Orlok. The wonderful castle location affords all sorts of nightmarish doorways (which open by themselves) and shadows. Orlok continues to weaken Hutter with repeated feasts. Ellen, meanwhile, seems able to "view" what is happening to her husband even though they are separated by much distance. Soon, Hutter finds the Count resting in a basement coffin, and later, watches Orlok piling coffins onto a coach, then climbing into the one on top as the horses pull it away into the countryside. Hutter escapes the castle but is injured and later awakens in a hospital. A race ensues as the recovered Hutter tries to get home before the vampire, who has taken a sailing ship as his mode of transportation. One by one he kills off the crew. As the ship approaches Wisborg, an excellent title card reads, "The death ship has a new captain." Orlok later carries one coffin to his new home as people from the town find the ship's log and assume that the plague is to blame for the deaths of the crew. The townspeople are warned and predictably panic. As the bodies pile up and everyone assumes it is the plague, Nosferatu grows stronger than ever. When Knock escapes a psychiatric prison after murdering a guard, he his chased through the streets and over the rooftops, with them declaring him a vampire. One of the finest images is Orlok staring out of an upper window across, towards Ellen, who has by now read the book about vampires and knows what to do to kill Orlok. The vampire goes to Ellen as her husband leaves to find help. The ending is very effective, and once again, Murnau's use of shadows effectively demonstrates the power of the vampire.
Screenwriter Henrik Galeen had already worked on The Golem: How He Came into the World and relocated the story of Dracula to a fictional German harbor town called Wisborg. Exterior shots were taken in Wismar, Lubeck, and nearby locations in Germany. The exteriors of the "Transylvania" scenes were really shot in northern Slovakia. Interior shots were done at the JOFA Studio in Berlin. There was only one available camera, meaning only one original negative. The ending of the film was completely rewritten by Murnau himself, and a storyboard was prepared that closely resembled each filmed scene. Unlike Stoker's novel, Orlok kills all of his victims and does not turn them into vampires. He must avoid sunlight, which will kill him, while in the novel, Dracula is merely weakened by it. Murnau was a World War I veteran, homosexual, and stood between 6'4" and 6'11" according to disputed sources. His other existing films all retain a significant power and magic, and Faust is featured later in this book. A lost film, Der Januskopf, is another unauthorized version of a major work (this time, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and featured Conrad Veidt along with a relatively unknown Bela Lugosi. Murnau later established a film studio with Veidt prior to emigrating to the United States and working in Hollywood, only to die at age 42 as the result of an automobile accident in which a 14-year-old Filipino servant boy had been driving instead of Murnau. At his Berlin funeral, among the 11 attendees were Emil Jannings, Greta Garbo, and the eulogist, Fritz Lang. Garbo had a death mask made of Murnau, which she kept. In the 1930s, a "sound-disc" version of Nosferatu, using massive re-editing, was released under the title The Twelfth Hour: A Night of Horror, and featured sound effects but no dialogue, along with a happy ending. This new version featured unused scenes filmed by Murnau as well as newer scenes especially shot. The appearance of Max Schreck as Count Orlok heavily influenced the look of the villain in Stephen King's Salem's Lot. Director Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu as Nosferatu the Vampyre, starring Klaus Kinski. In Shadow of the Vampire, a fictionalized account of the filming of this movie is presented. In a totally bizarre event, there was a break-in of Murnau's grave in 2015, and his skull was removed from the rest of his skeleton. Since there have been other strange occurrences at his gravesite, it may be sealed off from the public soon. Actors Gustav von Wangenheim and Alexander Granach would work together again in Schatten – Eine Nächtliche Halluzination in 1923. Granach would appear alongside Bela Lugosi and Greta Garbo in the comedy Ninotchka in 1939, and the same year, uncredited, as a soldier in the remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
This movie (later released under the titles Destiny and Behind the Wall) features some of the same set designers who worked on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Written and directed by Fritz Lang, the film offers the three lead actors in multiple roles, along with a few of the supporting cast similarly appearing more than once. It was inspired by an Indian mythological tale, Sati Savitri, which in Hindu mythology, depicts a devoted wife who was able to bring her husband back from the grasp of the God of Death. Lang's film was created soon after his mother died; it reveals his feelings about life and death. Death's ghostly appearance was derived from a childhood dream that Lang had when he was extremely ill during childhood. There are characters with similar appearances in his later films Metropolis and While the City Sleeps. When first released, German critics were not positive, but French critics and audiences loved it, resulting in later success in Germany. Its art direction, photography, and special effects have been widely praised throughout many years. Avant-garde/surrealist director Luis Buñuel, who with Salvador Dali made the disturbing short film Un Chien Andalou (aka An Andalusian Dog) loved The Weary Death, stating that it made him realize that films were going to be his future. Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Fairbanks, and Ingmar Bergman also were highly impressed and influenced. Appearing in The Weary Death is the intense-featured Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who not only was uncredited as the murderous criminal in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but also featured in Lang's Metropolis and as the criminal mastermind in Dr. Mabuse the Gambler and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Though working with Lang multiple times, Klein-Rogge's wife Thea von Harbou left him to marry Lang. Regardless, all three worked together on The Weary Death and numerous other films. Bernhard Goetzke's appearance is similar to how Fritz Lang himself appeared in The Plague in Florence, and how Conrad Veidt looked in the bookstore scenes of Uncanny Tales. The film's creative tinting in various scenes is effective heightening the drama and tension. The set design is highly creative and impressive, capturing the appearance of each location. Special effects such as the army of miniature soldiers and horses that emerge from a box below the magician's legs are extremely well-done. It appears that the film company, Decla-Bioscop, spent a 1921-era fortune on this production. A wonderfully restored version of this film was released by Kino in 2016 on Blu-ray, aided by the F.W. Murnau Foundation.
The release date of January 1 had special significance to the plot, and with the film shot from May to July in 1920, there was plenty of time for preparation. Double exposures were made in the camera, using multiple passes of film, allowing for what appears to be 3-D spectral images – a difficult feat since the hand-cranked cameras had to be manipulated with exact precision. Stanley Kubrick was aware of this film and incorporated several themes and sequences into The Shining. This is an absolutely amazing film with a central plea: Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped." Whether you are religious or not, this idea of wanting to overcome all of life's mistakes and rise to the ultimate noble self-actualization, is beautiful. The amount of work it took to create what appears on screen is awe-inspiring, especially since everything had to be done in camera. This film is based on the novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!" by Selma Lagerlöf. While watching the film, it is hard not to notice physical similarities between Sjöström and the modern-day actor John Cleese, and also between Hilda Borgström as his wife and the classic actress Lillian Gish. It is sincere all the way through, with excellent performances all around, and its overwhelming melancholia is oppressive, though its ending ends on an upbeat note. It's hard not to think of "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens as the plot unfolds. Actress Astrid Holm, who played Edit, also appeared in Häxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages). Victor Sjöström (pronounced SEE-strom), also created He Who Gets Slapped featuring Lon Chaney – not a horror film, but an excellent and moving drama. He later anglicized his last name as "Seastrom". Though stopping his directing career in 1937, he continued on as an actor, most well-known for his lead role in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries from 1957.
This film was described by one reviewer as being "as cheerful as a hanging." Indeed, its horrific premise hangs like a black curtain over the characters. Chaney is excellent in his approach to Blizzard, capable of playing all nuances of a madman. Appearing in one scene was Italian actor Cesar Gravina, who had a long career that included horror films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Man Who Laughs. On Lon Chaney's order, no trick camera angles were used to conceal his legs. He wore an extremely tight harness that held his legs, bent up against his lower back. Its leather boot stumps and straps were complicated and very painful – he could only be in the apparatus for a short time before his legs needed to be massaged because of lack of circulation. It was this early role that resulted in many critics commenting on his "masochistic" tendencies – doing anything and everything possible to achieve the most bizarre characterizations. There are a few scenes in the film that detail Blizzard's plan to ransack San Francisco, and in these flash-forward sequences, he is seen with legs, commanding his army of criminals. There was a short epilogue sequence filmed that showed Chaney, out of character, to reassure audiences that he was not an amputee, but this was not included in the finished film since the flash-forward portions sufficiently demonstrated the fact. Lon's costume from this film has survived, kept in the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, and examination of it reveals its special tailoring with an extra-long and full back portion to conceal his doubled-up legs. Regardless, the contraption caused significant strain not only to his legs but also lower back. For his pains, Goldwyn Pictures paid him $500 per week – a career high – though they were actually willing to go as high as $1,500 – something he would remember later. His performance is not only one of a corrupted soul, but of a tortured man secretly wanting a normal (and even loving) life, highly nuanced for such an early movie. There are also plenty of scenes of vice and crime that made the final cut. These would never have been allowed in the coming 1930s with the storm of censorship that developed. Wallace Worsley, who directed, would go on to helm The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Chaney, using techniques even beyond those developed for The Penalty.