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.

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Faust (1926), dir. F.W. Murnau

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Screening at The Old Rep Theatre, with a new live score composed by Matt Eaton and Gareth Jones, as part of the Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham

Seeing a a new score performed against a nearly century old film is an indescribably wonderful experience, animating the carnival sensation of life in the town and the elemental forces of the storm, giving the film a new life. It’s a little modern compared to other scores – but it works incredibly well. I could almost feel the music go through me – hopefully I’ll have a similar positive experience when I see John Carpenter play live later in the year.

Faust is a far cry from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1592), repeated over and over through A-Level English Lit classes. Because Marlowe didn’t have Mephisto mixing cocktails with a woman who would very much like to fuck him. Honestly, I think I prefer Murnau’s rendition of the myth.

Rather than the younger man of Marlowe’s play, ageing for decades before Mephistopheles finally pulls him down to Hell, here Faust is an old man, tempted by Mephisto to reclaim his youth (and by extension a romance with Gretchen.) Marlowe damned Faustus with inevitable eternal damnation, yet Murnau redeems Faust.

Faust never has a sense of the truly irredeemable: Mephisto tricks him, rather than tempting him outright. All Faust wants to do is bring life back to the town he loves in the face of death. He becomes a ‘miracle maker’ in the same vein as Jesus, but is then rejected by society like Frankenstein was when they find he cannot face the cross (because Faust is definitely a vampire.) Gretchen is also ostracised by society, left to freeze to death with her baby, before a group of knights condemn her as a “baby murderer” and burn her to death. Because these are definitely Christian values. Faust seeks power through the wrong means, not entitled to godly powers as a mortal, but he is admirable. He does not want the wenches or the orgies or the crown that Mephisto tempts him with: all he wants is a normal life of good.

The visuals are the other important aspect of this film. Visually stunning, we are entranced within the heavenly battle between an angel and Mephisto; between good and evil. Humanity is reduced to mere ants, able to be wiped out through one storm through the power of Mephisto. The planets become tiny globes. Murnau animates words, coming to life in emphasis. The universal concept, love, stands out, moving towards the screen. Over the mountains, the superimposed Gretchen screams out, to be heard by Faust. Faust and Mephisto float in the air over trees and rivers over to the palaces in Italy – an image that every adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1843) must have taken influence from.

Medium Cool (1969), dir. Haskell Wexler

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Medium Cool is of its time. This is not a criticism; it is its reason for being. Its genre is difficult to categorise, because it throws convention out of the window. In essence, it becomes a ‘time capsule’. It encapsulates a period where narrative is not necessarily its most important element, and is decidedly experimental.

Having never existed in 1969, I cannot fully judge how well it captured the period, only speculate. We see strobe lit raves with live performers singing about hippies and psychadelia within politically charged lyrics); a modern, more casual sexuality; campaigns for Robert Kennedy’s election; MLK’s speeches about finding the kingdom of God; lake-side baptisms; civil rights protestors; dominant police forces; the role of a cameraman; run-down, minority neighborhoods, defined by early seasons of Sesame Street  (1969-present); Eddie Adams’ iconic ‘gun to the head’ image from Vietnam, reproduced from magazine pages on John’s apartment wall.

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There are still pertinent questions here. Our image of MLK today relies upon forgotten aspects: we remember “I have a dream”, but we forget that he was a reverend, powerful within the spiritual part of the black community; too we forget the more vitriolic speeches, and we forget his equally important peers. The film raises questions around civil rights protesters, drawing parallels with modern fights for equality, and the post-Ferguson consciousness around police brutality. Where a black woman demands her voice be heard in the media, and let her define her own identity, these battles are still not won. When a child bemoans the dominance of the television in classroom, not as an educational aid, all I can think of is how in high school I had substitute teacher lessons watching everything from Mr Woodcock (2007) to Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2008). This is not the same world, nor a different world.

Photographic and videographic journalism faces new dangers today: more prevalent, but also more risky, war journalists captured or murdered by ISIS. The film presents us with the idea of respect with the cameraman: both giving respect to your subjects, and being respected. In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, we see a black protestor lecture our protagonist; another man speaks, with a color photograph of MLK behind him on the wall. In the confrontation with the police, the cameraman becomes an obstruction.

Eileen searches through the crowd of protestors to find her boy, only to be enveloped into them; a bystander becomes the guilty. She stands apart from them, with her bright yellow dress creating a contrast; she has individuality, yet is simultaneously a part of a mass consciousness. Like the degrading “human interest” stories the Black Panthers speak of, the narrative of the film is a “human interest” story, profiling characters as a means of exploring a wider issue, of creating a connection with the audience. Eileen is our interest amongst an indistinguishable crowd; too often we think of mass crowds, rather than acknowledging that there is a story, a personality and a history behind each protestor.

The camera plays an interesting position here. We frequently break the fourth wall, with John speaking into the camera, or by looking at a cameraman, staring out at us. We are ‘filming’ by watching the film, creating a record of it through our lenses (our eyes) within our memory; but the camera pointed towards the cameraman is doing the same, albeit in a physical manifestation as a negative; the camerman is doing the same through his camera. In a sense the subject becomes active; the disconnect between cinematic reality and our reality become lost. The film’s cinéma vérité style never truly creates the feel of documentary because of its character driven narrative, yet there is also a sense of immediacy, especially during the scenes of the convention.