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One Hour Mark: Nosferatu

By Andreas

In this image from 1:00:00 into F.W. Murnau’s legendary Nosferatu (1922)*, the captain of the riverboat Demeter is hard at work. His ship is in peril, and his entire crew is dead. Only one option remains: he must quickly lash himself to the wheel, and do whatever it takes to get his ship and its cargo to safety. It’s that old cliché of a captain going down with his ship. Unfortunately, as a title card informs us, the Demeter is the “Ship of Death”—and as such, both the ship and its poor, unknowing captain are doomed.

If only the captain could’ve seen the low-angle shot that precedes this one, wherein the gaunt, rat-like Count Orlok (Max Schreck) stalks across the deck. It’s an iconic horror image, and with good reason: the odd angle emphasizes the evil strangeness of Orlok’s posture and gait, as well as the totality of his hold on the ship. He doesn’t need to skulk around in the cargo hold anymore; now he can skulk out in the open. No crew members are around to impede him, and the captain’s too busy panicking and tying himself down.

Yes, it’s one of those classic we-know-more-than-they-do moments, when the disparity between our knowledge and the character’s is the source of terror. Normally, the captain’s actions would be brave and heroic. Normally, the ship would be threatened by something external, like pirates or bad weather—anything but vampires. Lashing himself down now, however, is like buckling your seatbelt in a burning car. The ship itself is diseased, and in a few moments Orlok will be the only passenger left.

As much as we implore him, the captain refuses to look up and realize his mistake until it’s too late. He’s just as oblivious as a sexually active babysitter in an ’80s slasher movie. By the time he shifts his attention away from the knot he’s tying, Orlok has circled around the deck and is lurking off-screen, about to descend. The scene ends with an ominous fade to black, signaling the consolidation of the vampire’s shipboard control. The whole build-up to the captain’s demise takes only five shots, with two angles and no camera movement. It’s both economical and terrifying.

So here’s a salute to the captain of this ill-fated ship, and to F.W. Murnau for immortalizing him in the annals of horror history. He may not have been the most observant sailor to captain a plague-ridden vessel, but at least he was committed! He knew his ship was in trouble, and he did what seemed right. Well, he gets an A for effort in my book. Sometimes, especially when you’re a minor character in a vampire movie, you just can’t win.

*At least, according to Kino’s 2002 DVD. Different editions of Nosferatu (and there are many!) have different running times.

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Opening Pandora’s Box

In honor of The Film Experience’s most recent entry in its “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, I’m finally going to talk about the woman whose visage graces the Pussy Goes Grrr banner. That’s right: we’re going to look at the quintessential flapper Louise Brooks and her best-remembered role – as Lulu in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), or Die Büchse der Pandora if you know German. The challenge of the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series is, fittingly, to pick your favorite shot from the film in question. Therefore, I’ve picked a single image to summarize how I feel about this movie. I decided to go minimalist.

This shot comes midway through the film, as Lulu lingers around the home of her now-dead lover Dr. Schön. She hears his son, Alwa, in the next room, and sneaks in on him, dressed only in her bathrobe. But before she does her sneaking, she peeks her head into the doorway and glances in. Her expression slowly changes from one of carefree curiosity to the seductive grin you see above. I just love how she’s occupying this in-between space, getting her act ready (Lulu’s always performing), about to descend upon Alwa.

Pabst’s complex, shifting mise-en-scène does such a great job of visualizing the terms of the film’s conflicts. Here, for example, we’ve got a single vertical line splitting the frame, concealing Lulu’s all-too-desirable body. It’s like a curtain about to rise. This image has other metaphorical implications that I like: 1) the opening door is obviously reminiscent of a certain mythical, evil-releasing act associated with Lulu, and 2) it’s a sign of how easily Lulu is able to navigate the confines of Pabst’s frame. This is a movie about an unstoppable force (Lulu) bypassing one immovable object after another. Lulu’s ease of movement reminds me of Chaplin in Modern Times; they’re both surprisingly capable of moving through crowds, social entanglements, and geopolitical boundaries.

I really enjoyed this shot from early in the film because it demonstrates the sheer energy and the unmatchable vivacity that Brooks brought to this role. Like other great silent actors/actresses, she could express herself visually as clearly as if she’d used her mouth. No words are necessary when you’ve got body language like Louise Brooks. Her physicality, her audacity, and her eroticism all bypass verbal self-expression entirely; throughout the film, she communicates strictly on a visual level.

This facet of her performance, in concert with Günther Krampf’s textured, gorgeous photography, make Pandora’s Box a supremely sensual film. Many of the male characters self-righteously complain about Lulu’s promiscuity, but ultimately everyone wants her to open that box. All their hypocrisies are proven false by the raw, beautiful power of Brooks’ performance. It’s a performance with so many subtexts; it’s one that encapsulates so many of the moral and sexual dilemmas of the 1920s, both in Germany and the United States. Brooks as Lulu takes every option into consideration.

This image looks almost like a religious ceremony in progress, as the Countess’s fixation on Lulu makes the rest of the party recede into the background. This moment, like so many in Pandora’s Box, is all about desire, and Pabst shows this with silence in ways that wouldn’t work with sound. If it had been made a couple years later, so many of the film’s subtleties would’ve been crushed under torrents of crackly dialogue and ambient noise. But, working at the tail end of the silent era, Pabst and his team turned out one of the most profoundly sensual, sexual films of that or any time.

Louise Brooks’ performance as Lulu calls to mind Norma Desmond’s famous battle cry: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” And what a face! Pandora’s Box is great erotic melodrama and social commentary, but above all it’s a triumph of iconography. Lulu is a mystery to the men around her, a fluctuating set of behaviors and whims, and since she’s a consummate silent actress, it’s all made manifest in her face. I’ll end with an image of an image; it suggests that no matter how often Lulu is treated as an object of the male gaze, they can never truly know her. She’s just unknowable. She’s Lulu. And she’s Louise Brooks.

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Gardens of Artistic Delight

The other day I was driving past Lake Minnetonka, thinking about how much this area sucks, and then started wondering what I would prefer. And I realized that I wish it were more like this.

Mmm, forbidden fruit.

This is a detail from the center panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s great, beautiful triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. A night spent examining this painting is what Ashley and I consider our first date – and it certainly beats going to some random movie or eating dinner. Why did it come to mind when thinking about how to fix the Lake Minnetonka area? Because around here, everyone cuts up the lake and seals off their own little spots – either they’ve got lakeside property that they hoard like a defensive rodent, or else they’ve got some boat they’re obsessively proud of, or some other bullshit attitude toward the lake that comes down to “this is mine.” Well, fuck that. And it occurred to me that the opposite attitude – “this is ours,” more or less, with “ours” referring to all of us, everyone who lives here – is wonderfully embodied in Bosch’s frolicking debauchers, all naked and gleefully having whatever kind of fun they want to (albeit amidst scads of 16th century Dutch symbolism). Honestly, why can’t we have more of this?

I want a peach/flower submarine, dammit.

And don’t give me any of that “It’s completely physically impossible” bullshit. If all the uptight, self-obsessed suburbanites that live around here would just start acting a little more nude-friendly and orgiastic, soon everybody could be hugging owls, eating enormous, allegorical strawberries, and fucking everyone else out in the open. So, to make it short, that’s the reality I want to live in. Even if it is deliberately surreal and a giant religious metaphor. With mermaid knights, too!

And now, I think I’ll talk about something I should’ve brought up a long time ago. There is a blog. I haven’t been there for a while, but when I’m not indulging in punk cabaret, it’s one of my major sources for music. It’s called “Music for Maniacs,” and its premise is carved out of sheer awesomeness. As the homepage explains, it’s “the Web’s longest-running strange-music blog! Dedicated to extremes in music and utterly unique sounds.” Strange, extreme, and unique, in this context, translate into outsider, avant-garde, and novelty music, along with weird, out-of-left-field recordings from mainstream artists, or else music that’s extreme just because it’s so bad. (If you’ve ever heard of The Shaggs, you know what I’m talking about.)

Singing Sadie: Australia's multi-untalented queen of nostalgically obscene ditties

It’s all well and good to gravitate toward “great” works of art, after all – your Citizen Kanes and Hamlets, your lovely lovely Ludwig Vans and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bands. But sometimes you just need something that, good or bad, is out of the ordinary. Weird. Or, if you’re me, then you need it more than sometimes and you end up writing about it ad nauseum. My point is that Music for Maniacs is a great source of weird, and provides a needed service on the Internet. They introduced me to the untalented, yet weirdly wonderful Singing Sadie. They uncover long-buried treasures, whether sublime or, uh, not so sublime.  I see M4M (as the blog’s author calls it) as providing a service not unlike my beloved publishing house Feral Press: turning over those big rocks in the garden of culture and bringing all the worms and pillbugs out into the sunlight. So go browse through M4M’s archives, check out some mash-ups or long-dead musicians you’ve never heard, and dive into the world of weird music. It’s very worth the effort.

Speaking of something that’s worth the effort, I finally finished Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1980 mega-film Berlin Alexanderplatz this morning. It’s pretty much the longest narrative film ever made (15 1/2 hours), and it earns the title. Incidentally, it’s also a great, visually impressive, emotionally involving film about a simple man who longs for escape but finds his environment (the scummy yet resplendent Weimar Berlin of 1926-28) perpetually dragging him down. That man is Franz Biberkopf, played to perfection by Günter Lamprecht. Franz is an endlessly fascinating, well-developed character, yet one of his defining characteristics is that he’s so ordinary and complaisant. As the film starts – the first episode is fittingly entitled “The Punishment Begins” – Franz is being released from Tegel prison after serving 4 years for killing his girlfriend Ida. (The verdict was manslaughter, and the murder itself, in which Franz mercilessly beats Ida with a shaving brush, is repeated periodically throughout the film.)

The Punishment Begins: Franz Biberkopf leaves prison

Franz vows to go straight, but is unprepared for the trials he’ll face. From episode to episode, he meets a variety of characters, each played by a member of Fassbinder’s stock company (and surrogate family). As enormous a film as it is, a synopsis could never do it justice, but suffice it to say that Franz encounters one challenge after another, and is frequently overcome. Some characters help him (the maternal whore Eva pops up now and then, played by The Marriage of Maria Braun‘s Hannah Schygulla, and there’s also Franz’s old friend Meck) while others put further obstacles in his way – the gangster Pums, the unscrupulous peddler Luders, and the sniveling, stuttering villain who’s also Franz’s best friend, Reinhold (Gottfried John).

Berlin Alexanderplatz might be interesting to examine (if one had the inclination) vis-à-vis a film made shortly after it’s set, Fritz Lang’s M. Although Fassbinder had the benefit of hindsight, both films still follow helpless protagonists (Franz due to his past and economic conditions; Hans Beckert to his own psychotic impulses) trying to navigate through a city (and nation) teetering dangerously close to the abyss of Nazism. I’ve thought in the past about the German New Cinema: if the orphaned Werner Herzog, through his remake of Nosferatu, sees himself as a child of Murnau, whose legacy is Fassbinder picking up? His Lola refashions elements of The Blue Angel – so maybe, with his glittering visual excess and doomed heroes, he could be the offspring of von Sternberg and Lang. Just a thought.

Mieze screaming in the pink glow of neon lights

So, Berlin Alexanderplatz… where to even start discussing this movie? I haven’t yet mentioned one crucial character: Mieze, aka Sonia, whose real name is Emilie Karsunke. An innocent, joyful prostitute (man, this movie piles up contradictions) introduced to Franz by Eva, she rapidly forms a close attachment to him, making up for all the brief, shallow relationships Franz has throughout the film’s first half. She’s played by Barbara Sukowa, who’s cute as a button, wears a little ribbon in her hair, and is prone to breaking into ecstatic screams around the people she loves, Franz und Eva. (Or not-so-ecstatic, like after she receives a particularly brutal beating from Franz that’s terrifyingly reminiscent of Ida’s murder.)

Berlin Alexanderplatz is on one hand a study of the blithely childlike couple of Franz und Mieze, each of whom have an uneasy, uncertain relationship with Reinhold, and on the other hand a probing look at the very specific historical conditions that force Franz from place to place, like hands moving a pawn across a chessboard. It’s also a masterpiece from a brilliant but troubled director, as well as a very personal one – Fassbinder claimed that the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz saved his life, that he knew it by heart, and that Franz, Reinhold, and Mieze were all him in different ways. He had an amazing devotion to the project, and it shows; only such devotion could produce a work of this magnitude, and yet have it all come out coherent and beautiful.

Fassbinder, who made 40 films, yet died at age 37

I’m still pretty much at a loss as to how I can get a handle on this movie. It’s so sprawling and has such dramatic breadth. It’s been said that the novel’s author, Alfred Döblin, was inspired to write it by reading Ulysses. Well, along those lines, I say this: if there’s a way to turn a novel as allusive, complex, and defiantly literary as Ulysses into a movie, Fassbinder found it. The narration (provided by the director himself) recites newspaper headlines, crime statistics, poetry unrelated to the plot; the length doesn’t seem excessive, because Berlin Alexanderplatz is so broad it needs a full half-day to unravel. It speaks of violence and theft and their effects on Franz’s precarious psyche; there’s the impossibility of being as sweet as Mieze in so sour a place as Berlin; and then the omnipresent problem of politics, as Franz goes from selling Nazi newspapers to attending communist rallies, without ever ideologically committing himself. Unless, of course, you count the ideologically of “trying humbly to get along in the world.”

The fact is that to get through the whole movie, you need to have some level of commitment to these characters, their personalities and experiences, even their disastrous mistakes. Special kudos should also go to Xaver Schwarzenberger’s cinematography which lets eyes and skin shine in the city lights and lets us see the beauty in beer, hats, and bird cages. For such an abysmally gritty place, it sure looks great. If you’re still not convinced that Berlin Alexanderplatz is worth spending so much time on, take a look at the trailer. It’s a great movie and even if you’re not a hardcore cinephile, even if you wouldn’t normally go out of your way for an art film – you should still watch it. It’s a valuable experience, and it’s very worth the effort.

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