Pandora’s Box (1929), dir. G.W. Pabst

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On a Sunday afternoon in early December, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Pandora’s Box at the Phoenix Cinema (not to be confused with Leicester’s Phoenix), with a live piano score by Stephen Horne. Alongside fellow silent film enthusiast and Conrad Veidt lover Max, Max had attended their showing of Häxan (1922) a month earlier, with live narration by Reece Shearsmith. As we took the train down amid the chaos of cancellations, we sat down to an ornately decorated screen, as though in the pre-digital age of decades ago, before physical film projection was usurped by bootleg VHS tapes, torrents, DVDs and streaming, the pillarbox screen the centre of attention amid the wooden seats. Critic Pamela Hutchinson provided a brief introduction to coincide with her BFI Film Classics monograph, outlining some of the initial negative critical responses.

Though Pabst can often be overlooked in Weimar Cinema, he tackled social issues throughout his silents and talkies against the emerging New Objectivity. Adapted from Frank Wedekind’s plays Erdgeist (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904), Wedekind’s narratives had been translated to cinema before with Leopold Jessner’s 1923 film, but Pandora’s Box became captivating through the energies of Pabst and Louise Brooks.

Greek mythology surrounding Pandora’s box and our relationship with evil may be diluted by time’s passage, the symbolism of Pandora reappropriated as a Danish jewellery company and the planet of Avatar (2009). But Lulu (Louise Brooks) explores this imagery well, embodied within Brooks’ cinematic image. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood (1982), both Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl were “conducting an investigation into [Pabst’s] relations with women”, interested in the “flaming reality” of “sexual hate.” In his insightful 1983 essay Lulu and the Meter Man, Thomas Elsaesser argues Wedekind explored the femme fatale, and associations of transgression, violation and desire through the social milieu of class division. Pandora’s Box confronts not only bourgeois values but the male power curtailing the freedom Lulu seeks. Lulu’s relationship with newspaper publisher Ludwig Schön is formed of convenience of social standing, alongside his engagement to the daughter of the Minister of the Interior, Charlotte von Zarnikow, caught between the power of the press, sexuality and the political elite. Lulu is an alluring temptress to male authority; Rodrigo Quast seeks to exploit Lulu as part of his trapeze act, with Pabst’s fast editing adopting theatricality as she dons her outfit, stunning the theatrical audience and the viewer themselves. Like the carnival freakshow of Freaks (1932), Lulu has a sexual and romantic identity of her own, beyond the dehumanising gaze placed upon her by accepted societal values.

Schön’s double-edged threat – forcing Lulu, with his gun, to stage her own suicide, is itself coercive, taking agency from her death away from her, an impossible choice captured in immaculate detail by Günther Krampf. As Schön becomes a victim of the very suicide threat he levelled, Lulu’s judicious process is tragic: in the trial, she is faced with five years for manslaughter, despite her victimhood. Framed in close-up, Pabst captures the emotion and power of the desperation of her tears, faced with a jury who never knew. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood, Pabst had no “stock emotional responses”, but sought actors to reach emotion “like life itself”. As the fire alarm is set off as a cunning escape, Pabst captures the unfolding chaos wonderfully. Lulu isn’t far away from the feminist heroine Angela de Marco in Married to the Mob (1988): facing presumed guilt against her husband’s murder in the bathtub by a bullet, we witness structures of power against her, through her avoidance of cops and her biased interview. As Elsaesser argues, Brooks’ Lulu is presented “practically without origin, or particular cultural associations”, with sexual desire part of a “more generalized structure of exchange”; sexuality lacks emotional engagement, with sexual acts and Reichsmark holding equal value. J. Hoberman writes that Pabst sought to create a fractured sense of eroticism, wanting “men in the cast to feel Brooks’s skin and have the actress get under theirs.”

In Lulu’s adventure in London, Pabst makes Lulu’s presence against male power most explicit. The mythology of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl) is buried within sensationalism of the press and tabloids and the police letter coining the killer’s name, enduring through the mystery of the ambiguity of his identity. The concept of the Ripper has a morality to it: a mutilator and murderer of prostitutes, attacking female sexuality in the slums and poverty of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly. Equally, the Ripper was formed against waves of Jewish and Irish immigration altering make-up and sentiment within 1890s London. The pervasiveness of representations border on the ridiculous: in film, the fictionalised killer of Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), the time travelling pursuer of H.G. Wells in Time After Time (1979), a frequent foil to Sherlock Holmes across mediums, and in comics, the Gotham-based serial killer of Gotham by Gaslight (1991) and its giallo fan film Ripper (2016), the subject of Alan Moore’s From Hell (1989-98), an alter ego to Mr. Hyde in Thunderbolts #167 and the foe of IDW’s Doctor Who comic story Ripper’s Curse (2011). As Hutchinson notes, “sexually motivated murders”, or “Lustmord“, “filled newspapers and narratives in 1920s Germany”, from ‘The Butcher of Hanover’ to the Ripper’s role in Waxworks (1924) and Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera. The conflict between Lulu and the Ripper, her reflection and the Ripper’s knife – recalls Lulu’s previous use of the gun, returning to the paradigm between Lulu’s agency and victimhood. In the Christmas mistletoe, Pabst builds a remarkable sense of suspense, seeking the reveal of who moves first.

Louise Brooks will always be defined by her age: as the 21 year old actress in Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, the disjuncture of seeing her graceful ageing in her latter years in Lulu in Berlin (1984) and Kenneth Tynan’s rediscovery in his New Yorker piece The Girl in the Black Helmet. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s eponymous 1991 song itself embraces the temporal disjuncture of “ghosts of long ago”:

And all the stars you kissed could never ease the pain

Still the grace remains, the face has changed

And you’re still the same

Having appeared in the avant-garde Denishawn troupe as a teenager and as a Broadway dancer, Brooks’ rising star emerged. As Hoberman notes, Pabst was inspired to cast Brooks after watching A Girl in Every Port (1928), attempting to borrow her from Paramount before she quit over a salary dispute. As German cinema fought against national boundaries, in a silent landscape supported by international coproductions and the universal language of the human face, American actress Louise Brooks could act alongside her German counterparts (with an Austrian director), a boundary that would continue to be stretched through the multilingual talkies that emerged, with a differently recorded version for each major market. Equally, as Siegfried Kracauer highlights in From Caligari to Hitler, the emergence of Kontingentfilme, or quota films, increased the distribution of foreign exports, with an increasing Americanization of Weimar cinema seeking to cater to American styles (1947:135).

Women in film are often underestimated, especially in melodrama, with “woman’s pictures” exploring women’s lives in deep, meaningful detail. With a handful of films, Brooks’ face joined the pantheons of women of early cinema, including Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, decades before Monroe rose to fame, in part through her interwar flapper design. Kracauer notes critics found Pabst “fundamentally wrong” in adapting a “literary play”, with characters serving to “illustrate principles” (1947:148). Lulu is not just a character, but a symbol of female morality and sexuality. As Elsaesser argues, Lulu’s lack of family ties, social obligations, education and culture, and her freedom from guilt and conscience, assigns her as a “construct, not a sociological portrait”. Lulu is but an alluring, unreadable cinematic face of ambiguity and mystique, to read onto how we wish. Designer Gottlieb Hesch drew a sharp visual dichotomy through the contrast of Lulu’s costumes, between the purity of her white dresses and the sinful darkness of her black dresses, taken to full advantage through the film’s monochrome locations and cinematography. In Asphalt, we follow another woman on the other side of the law: Else moves through Berlin’s urban criminal landscape in her need to survive, frequently interacting with police, using sex appeal to seduce men and explore her femininity just as Lulu did the same year.

Pandora’s Box carries illicit beauty as we witness the dance between Lulu and Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), continuing their motions despite leering male onlookers, a rebuke to male power. Decades later, the lesbian sexuality of Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), Carol (2015), The Handmaiden (2016), Thelma (2017) and the Black Mirror (2011-present) episode San Junipero remain rare delights as we deconstruct the fetishising and eroticising male gaze, the emaciated international form seeking to conceal these relationships. The boat’s gambling den becomes but another Weimar underworld, alongside the havens of Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922) and crime and kangaroo courts of M (1931), and, as Elsaesser writes, a “fictional metaphor for the economic chaos of the Weimar Republic”, but the underworld connotes a distinctly queer connotation, only emphasised by the West German-era underworlds of Fox and His Friends (1975) and the Isherwood based Weimar-era underworld of Cabaret (1972); Dietrich’s bisexuality made her but another element within this underworld. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood, her residence at the Eden Hotel gave her a firsthand look at Weimar Berlin’s decadence, highlighting “girls in boots, advertising flagellation”, “agents pimped for the ladies”, sportsmen arranging “orgies” and the drag queens outside Eldorado, and the “feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians” at the Maly.

But Pandora’s Box is as much about Berlin as fleeing Berlin. With her passport, Lulu flees alongside her best friend, Alwa Schön (Francis Lederer), in far from ideal, squalid conditions. Like the foundational directors, seeking greater profits who fled to Hollywood, like F.W. Murnau, E.A. Dupont and Ernst Lubitsch, or fled anti-Semitism, like Fritz Lang, or Nazi-era directors like Douglas Sirk, or child refugees like Mike Nichols, without mentioning actors like Conrad Veidt, experienced dislocation from the country they were raised and born in amid developing tensions, adopting the United States as an inherited home. Dr. Mabuse der Spieler conveyed an international heist, but under the auspices of organised crime. Alwa and Lulu flee the country with urgency, emerging in Christmastime London that cannot escape Lulu’s inevitable fate, even amid the festive goodwill of Christmas puddings, window displays, gifts, snow and the marching Salvation Army. Posters, echoing the citywide search of M, warn of a criminal on the loose. Brooks was American, but in the following years, the Weimar cinema followed an inevitable collapse and migration. As Hutchinson argues, “geography carries crucial meaning”, highlighting Wedekind’s and Brooks’ own stays in London.

Günther Krampf’s immaculate visions have a tendency to be burned into cultural memory with his iconic image of the creeping shadow of Nosferatu (1922), but Krampf’s incredible eye is no stranger here either, illuminating in light the sinister London fog, prefiguring the film noir and its own femme fatales. Stephen Horne’s score provided a great compliment, integrating atmosphere, sounds of the train and fragments of Christmas carols within his piano performance. Like the greatest of live scores, Horne elevated the film he performed against to a place of beauty.

Der müde Tod (1921), dir. Fritz Lang

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Alongside Murnau, Lang may be one of most influential voices of Weimar cinema. Lang innovated: Metropolis (1927) presented a spectacular vision for the future of science fiction, combining sets, models, mirror effects, glass plates and multiple exposure to spectacular effect. As Hollywood tried to find aesthetic utilisations for sound cinema, from the musical performances in The Jazz Singer (1927) to the cries of the crowd in The Man Who Laughs (1928), Lang used sound radically in M (1931), from Beckert’s signature whistle to a kangaroo court demanding justice. In exile, Lang relished in developing film noir’s shades of grey.

Weimar cinema rose from the ruins of war where others struggled to survive. Germany built its infrastructure through the state-sponsored consolidation of UFA, centralising its assets. Its cinema had reach: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) found audiences in Paris and London, as Europe began to recover from war. But Weimar cinema has implications few others do. As Siegfried Kracauer argues in his influential thesis From Caligari to Hitler (1947), the nation’s cinema symbolised its monologue intérieur: inaccessible layers of the German mind. Kracauer, part of the Frankfurt School alongside Adorno, Horkheimer and Benjamin, began questioning the role of the passively consumed mass media upon masses.

As Lang told director William Friedkin in a 1974 interview, he had watched his first film in Brussels around 1917/18, a film about the French Revolution. Lang was wounded fighting in the Austrian army, feeling a duty to serve. As a dramaturge, he turned scripts around in 4 days, over a glass of wine in the evening, working alongside wife Thea von Harbou on the screenplay for The Indian Tomb (1921). Der müde Tod was Lang’s follow-up to his first major work, Die Spinnen (1919), and has largely remained an unacknowledged lesser work. But Lang sets a high bar, and Der müde Tod is up there with his finest.

Although Lang’s faith was never strong, aspects of his Catholic upbringing pervade Der müde Tod. Metropolis brought the mythical Tower of Babel to life, embodying the cathedral sculptures of the Seven Deadly Sins. The morality of M touches upon questions of worth that pervade criminology, theology and the very fabric of humanity. Der müde Tod, through the idea “love is strong as death”, draws upon the Biblical Song of Solomon, as a young maiden takes a suicidal potion to bargain with Death, wanting only for her fiancé to return. Der müde Tod is rife with symbolism: the maiden ascends white steps through a church door, finding herself in a room of candles. Each flame burns out, representing life, evoking the light of God from Christian tradition. In spectacular effect, Death cradles a newborn in his arms, only to dissipate as the young flame burns out. In its Arabian episode, Lang suggests universality to faith: during Ramadan celebrations, a mosque’s caliphate contends with infidel the Frank as they fight to the death.

The romanticism of Der müde Tod, as an anachronistic small, German village met by the embodied figure of Death may seem familiar, emerging from gothic tradition. In Nosferatu (1922), Count Orlok haunts the village of Wisborg, laying death in his wake. In Faust (1926), Mephisto raises his cloak over a village, leaving only darkness; Faust bargains, but refuses to fall to temptation. In his massively popular young adult novel The Book Thief (2005), Zusak conforms to this tradition, using the first person perspective of Death as omniscient narrator amid the bloodshed of World War II. Zusak’s Death contends neutrality: “I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the As.” Lang’s Death never agrees to mortality, but acts upon its behalf.

As Tom Gunning argues in his analysis in The Films of Fritz Lang (2000:28), the Death of Der müde Tod represents a breakdown of the act of mourning in the wake of World War I, a surrender to death, invoking Freudian psychoanalysis. World War I concluded only three years beforehand, wounding Germany’s spirit, military and collapsed empire. In Kracauer’s argument, a Germany caught between “the cataclysm of anarchy or a tyrannical regime” resorted to “the ancient concept of Fate”, creating a “majestic event that stirred metaphysical shudders in sufferers and witnesses alike.” (1947:89) Lang’s humanised agent of Fate supports tyranny, emphasising the “irrevocability of Fate’s decisions.” (1947:91) Though Lang’s Death suggests predestiny, as he tells in the Friedkin interview, he never believed in it: “fate is something that you make out of your life.” Although Lang never draws explicit connection, he recalls seeing posters in Berlin of man dancing with death.

Lang’s Death is not our traditional image: he has no skeleton face or cloak, adapting to black clothing, a hat and an emotionless stare, riding his carriage. As the clock strikes 12, amid a bell-ringer’s announcement, generations appear as ghostly apparitions through a wall, souls still haunting this Earth. For Luis Buñuel, the scene in the cemetery proved an inspiration, writing that “this film spoke to something deep in me; it clarified my life and my vision of the world.” Lang poses a moral question to the value placed upon life. The maiden across the film’s episodes seeks a person to take her fiancé’s place, arguing with those with few days left: the beggars, infirm, elderly. But for all their days and weeks, life remains valuable. Death reunites her with her fiancé: her soul lifts away from her body as apparition, meeting with her fiancé’s soul upon the fields of a spiritual realm. Der müde Tod’s conclusion draws parallels to the ending of Intolerance (1916), in the fashion of Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011): the victims of conflict emerge together in angelic clouds and love, feeling death no longer.

Lang’s films often represent conflict with authority. As Kracauer argues, Weimar cinema questioned “what might happen if tyranny were rejected as a pattern of life” (1947:88). In Metropolis, Lang depicts the working class in subterranean factories, in revolution against industrialists. M contends with forces controlling the city: police, politicians, criminals and business owners. Though Lang met with Kracauer many times at MOMA, unaware of his book, Lang largely rejected Kracauer’s thesis. As he told Friedkin, he felt his book “did a lot of damage, especially for young people who believe in it”. Lang’s Death acts within a world controlled by man: within our world, going into land ownership buying a garden next to a graveyard. The village’s council are caught in unending, petty debates, refusing to close matters.

Through its six verses, Der müde Tod adopts a fable-like, poetic structure. As Gunning writes, its verses acts as a device in a struggle with a “systematic order”, where Lang’s power as director commands a “Destiny-machine” in a “battle to control the narrative structure”, using the Hall of Flames as a switchboard. Gunning compares Lang to Méliès, controlling dissolves and the temporality of the editing. Lang interweaves tales of Arabia, China and Venice, removed from the confines of time and space, between cultural barriers as Intolerance did with ancient Babylon, Palestine, France and the United States. Lang presents the universality of death and love: in Arabia, the Caliph sentences Zobeide’s lover, the Frank, to death; in Venice, Death is embodied as a servant of Fiametta, forming a poisoned dagger against her lover; in China, the Emperor’s archer plots to kill Liang, lover of Tiao-tsien. Though Caligari may be the most overt example of expressionism, Weimar cinema was versatile, from costume dramas to detective stories to social dramas and comedies.

Lang never presents an authentic slice of other cultures, but relies upon the performative and the theatrical, using yellowface and brownface; A Hi, a Chinese magician, has villainous talons, an Orientalist stereotype. (Lang’s Arabian vision influenced both early versions of The Thief of Baghdad (1924/40).) Lang is interested in adventure, with swordfights and magic carpets, princesses and castles. Without the limitations of sound cinema, Lang relies on visual spectacle within a medium emerging from vaudeville. Lang creates impressive sets, just as Griffith recreated ancient Babylon with thousands of extras. As Kracauer enthuses, “the pictorial visions are so precise that they sometimes evoke the illusion of being intrinsically real”: Venice became a “drawing brought to life”, whilst the carnival procession “resuscitates genuine Renaissance spirit”. Lang uses calligraphy evoking Arabic and Mandarin script, setting the scene for each culture.

The Chinese segment embraces spectacle: the magician turns people into pigs, cactuses and elephants, creating a walking miniature army from stone; animates text within the air. Weimar cinema animated text in a way few others had until modern digital typography, from “love” moving across the mountains in Faust to “I must become Caligari” upon the screen in Caligari. In a yellow-tinted scene, Lang flies a magic carpet through the air, simultaneously embracing effects whilst telling a narrative. Years on, Lang applied similar genius to the visual spectacle of the modernist architecture of Metropolis. Disappointingly, Lang’s colour timing betrays inconsistency: the flame of the fire of the burning building pierce out in bright red, but cuts in the following shot to the blue of the sky at night. Death watches out at us in bright orange.

Though Der müde Tod will never be Metropolis or M, it remains a strong early point in Lang’s seemingly insurmountable career, now allowed a new period of reappraisal thanks to a new release from Masters of Cinema.

The General (1926), dir. Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton

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Screening at Cinema City, with a Q&A with UEA film scholar Peter Kramer

 The General is a film everyone knows. Every time we see a train depart off its intended course, it owes at least something to The General. The General has lodged itself into popular consciousness: yet when it was released, much like Citizen Kane (1941), or The Shawshank Redemption (1994), or Blade Runner (1982), it received mixed reviews, met as a commercial failure. Harold Lloyd remained the most popular silent comedian in the United States; Keaton’s career at United Artists was at an end. But The General underwent reappraisal: Kramer notes that during the last years of Keaton’s life, he witnessed the film’s revival, finally recognised as the masterpiece he believed it to be.

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The film’s imagery has become a part of the popular consciousness

I didn’t laugh at a single gag in The General.

This should perhaps be a problem, but the film remains a sight to behold for its scale. Lloyd may have been just as daring with the spectacle of his films, hanging from a clock above a skyscraper in Safety Last! (1923), or caught between crowds in Speedy (1928), but Keaton shows a true mastery of visual composition and the movement of gags: bridges collapse, dams flood, battles rage amongst trees. The film may be constrained to a railroad (filmed on the Eastern Railway in Oregon), but there is an expansiveness few could achieve; Keaton pays close attention to the geometry of the frame, framing his character as an outsider. We become in awe of the immensity of the landscape as the train cuts across it; Keaton’s framing of the battle scenes, men reduced to mere pinpricks or illuminated in silhouette, can only bring to mind later war epics.

Dziga Vertov avoided using intertitles to profess cinema as a new medium distinct from bourgeois forms, with documentary realism, but Keaton’s sparse reliance (besides brief exposition or dialogue) on the intertitle draws the viewer’s attention to the visual.

As Tony Zhou explains in his video essay Buster Keaton: The Art of the Gag, Keaton, with his roots in vaudeville, kept his focus on what could be achieved in camera, rather than relying on editing techniques or camera effects. The General’s sole visual effect appears in one shot, as Keaton’s protagonist Johnnie peers through a peephole cut into a tablecloth to view the capture of his fiancée Annabelle, superimposed upon the frame.

But my audience seemed split: The General is a funny movie. It’s something to laugh at, enjoy, have a good time with. Enjoy the spectacle – why apply pretentious intellectualism to every frame that passes the eye?

But The General is a film about the American Civil War. A silent comedy telling a historical narrative isn’t uncommon: though Lloyd and Chaplin drew much focus to the present day, films like The Gold Rush (1925) looked back to the 1890s, a period best remembered today as a breakfast cereal. The railroad is a new frontier, the train a symbol of modernity: one of many important inventions of the 19th century that rapidly reshaped life as we knew it in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, creating a new sense of connectedness in a country on the verge of war. Even one of the earliest silent films, The Great Train Robbery (1903), perhaps the first Western, focused on the railroad.

Just as with other comedians who grew out of the silent era, The General draws a duality between modernity and change against established tradition. In Speedy, Lloyd’s protagonist must fight to preserve New York City’s heritage, ensuring the last horse-drawn carriage in Greenwich Village is not dismantled by bully boys or business tycoons, in a city fast adapting to automobiles and the subway; in Modern Times (1936), Chaplin’s Tramp tries to keep up with the mechanical pace of modern industrial life, when all he wants in life is the woman he loves.

But then what about the Civil War? The American Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history, seems to have faded from memory: cinema focuses on different wars, celebrating heroism yet advocating pacifism in Hacksaw Ridge (2016), or reducing Vietnam to a mere backdrop to cinematic franchises for X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and Kong: Skull Island (2017).

Cinema focuses on the Before through the slave narratives of 12 Years a Slave (2013), or the After, stripping the Western to a set of codes and conventions, celebrating a heroic dualism whilst reinforcing problematic images of Native Americans.

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Perhaps one of the film’s most interesting aspects is its focus on the American Civil War, an era easily presented through problematic portrayals

Where we invoke the American Civil War, it is almost always racial: in Lincoln (2012), Spielberg valorises Lincoln’s efforts to control the House and pass the Emancipation Proclamation. Meanwhile, Free State of Jones (2016) drew most of its attention for its focus on a white saviour narrative.

Silent cinema carries an uneasy heritage. The Birth of a Nation (1915), perhaps the first blockbuster, based on Griffith’s memories of his own father, drew sympathy to Southern slave owners, was met with protests by the NAACP and sparked the resurgence of the KKK. The Civil War may feel an eternity ago, yet cinema began less than two decades after the end of the war; by the 1920s, it remained in living memory. In Speedy, we become acquainted with a group of elderly veterans, recounting their stories of the war in a bar.

It still carries implications today.

The Civil War, as one of the earliest wars to carry a photographic record (alongside the Crimean War), seems the earliest war to carry a degree of cinematic accuracy, creating a moving record of the period impossible at the time, before even World War I, World War II or Vietnam could become truly visual wars through news coverage.

The General seems largely apolitical: the farthest acknowledgement of slavery is through a Cotton Growers Exchange amongst the storefronts in the background of a shot. Chaplin was more political, satirising Hitler’s fascism in The Great Dictator (1940), eventually branding him as un-American. Yet the film’s paradoxical approach to war raises something of interest.

As Kramer emphasised, the film’s title doesn’t refer to Keaton’s character: it refers to his engine. The film draws a duality between deserter and soldier: in the opening scene, Johnnie is rejected at enlistment, displaying an apathetic rage, retorting “if you lose the war, don’t blame me.” Unlike the slave owners, he becomes regarded as a disgrace to the South.

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Johnnie is dissuaded from joining the war at the recruitment office; his role as a train driver is considered too important to sacrifice

Johnnie tries to avoid the war – he’s a train driver, first and foremost, holding onto his existing way of life amidst the chaos of war, yet no longer able to even spend a comfortable night in bed. In one sequence, the train passes by a battlefield emerged out of nowhere; Johnnie is a side character to a historical epic, placed as protagonist. Later, he stands aside from a group of marching soldiers, almost flattened as he tries to cross the road alongside Annabelle.

As the opening intertitle informs us, there are two loves in Johnnie’s life: his fiancée Annabelle, and the General. The film is on the verge of creating a screwball comedy love triangle; Johnnie brings home a framed photograph to Annabelle of him and the train.

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One of Johnnie’s two loves – the General herself

Unavoidably, Johnnie becomes caught up in war: he must facilitate it, carrying soldiers and cargo upon his train. The narrative arc proves Johnnie’s worth as a soldier, unwittingly appointing him as lieutenant in the closing scenes. Johnnie adopts the role of soldier as performance, taking neither side, adopting the uniform of both North and South, creating a patchwork identity. He must rescue his fiancée  from the deliberating North, soldiers who are implicitly rapists, stealing a uniform to escape. He becomes regarded as a Union spy and a saboteur, knocking down power lines, disrupting train tracks. Whether intentionally or not, Johnnie must determine the outcome of the battle on Rock River Bridge; he can’t even swing a lance, yet he must fight – and create chaos.

He adopts his identity wholeheartedly: Johnnie waves the Confederate flag, before swiftly being knocked down. Where today the flag must be removed from South Carolina flagpoles, erased from the bonnet of The Dukes of Hazard (1978-85), or unwittingly worn by Radar in Paper Towns (2015), here it is a symbol of the war. Yet as Johnnie embraces Annabelle, kissing her whilst leading men to battle with his lance, he will never commit fully to this identity.

Yet what of the role of women? The screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s seemed to present men and women in equity and romantic harmony; or, still to this day, women as housewife and sex object. Some female filmmakers, like Alice Guy Blaché, were able to make a living in early cinema, but this was an exception. Annabelle may be Johnnie’s love, and she may be able to drive a train, yet she is regularly excluded from the film’s narrative. She conforms to the trope of the damsel in distress, captured by the North; becoming literally faceless as Johnnie places her in a sack for storing boots, throwing her into a train’s cargo, allowing her body to be crushed and trampled; later, he pelts her with water.

Kramer questions whether she holds more agency than we suspect: Annabelle controls Johnnie’s destiny, wanting him to be an ideal man, pushing him towards being a soldier. Yet these readings should not excuse the fact that the films of the 1920s were largely far from feminist.

But can we really declare The General as one of the greatest films ever made? As the cinematic library has expanded, its ranking in Sight & Sound has declined. The position of films in the popular consciousness is, as ever, in flux. The power of the silent, or indeed of the American Civil War, is always changing.

The General is an essential of silent cinema: but it is not a masterpiece, nor is it even necessarily a comedy as we understand it today. Chaplin and Lloyd may perhaps even be a greater watch. But The General still demands to be seen, if only ever once.