Production stills have played a large and peculiar role in my movie-watching life. Seeing a haunting image from some unfamiliar film can set me off into reveries, and make me crave the opportunity to see the mystery movie itself. I guess this explains my otherwise bizarre quest to watch every film illustrated in Denis Gifford's A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, but it doesn't stop there.
I must have seen the above image from Karl Grune's 1923 Die Straße (The Street) in some ancient volume on expressionist cinema, and it stuck in some dusty corner of my brain ever since. It may have also gotten aligned with the dream sequence from Wild Strawberries where Victor Sjostrom observes a watchmaker's sign, a clock without hands. (Along with movie stills, such signs have an inexplicable atmospheric value of their own.) Maybe the book was Siegfried "laugh-a-minute" Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler, I don't know.
I maybe forgot there was such a film, and certainly didn't expect to ever get the chance to encounter it, since, like Robert Weine's Raskolnikov and Alexander Wolkoff's incredible-looking Geheimnisse des Orients (Secrets of the Orient, 1928), it never seemed to turn up in repertory screenings, on TV (some hope!), or on home video.
And then comes the internet, and file-sharing, and fan-subs, and I suddenly can access all this stuff that's been denied to me because it has no release, anywhere. Picture my cyber-supplier as a post-war English spiv, lurking on a street corner in a long raincoat stuffed with AVI files, while I loiter nearby, afraid to approach. I get up my courage, the movie is discretely tucked into my pocket, and I hurry off, ashamed but excited.
Anyway Die Straße, in this age of white-hot technological revolution, falls into my hands, and I watch it, and it turns out so can New Yorkers who make it to the retrospective Weimar Cinema, 1919-1933, Daydreams and Nightmares. Grune's movie screens on the 19th and 28th of December, and is definitely closer to the nightmare end of things...
"And when he had crossed the bridge, the shadows came forth to meet him."
A middle-aged, married man feels the lure of the nocturnal streets (evoked in a swim of carnival images, dissolving together in sinister Germanic merriness with the pale, lined face of an awful-looking clown grinning in phony benevolence over all) and skips out on his downtrodden wife in search of illicit pleasures—but gets more than he bargained for at the hands of a treacherous vamp and her seedy cohorts, with a back-room gambling den and a slum tenement as the arena in which he is first cheated of his money, then framed for murder.
Somewhere between a city symphony, a kammerspiel, an expressionist nightmare, a proto-noir, a morality tale, and Eyes Wide Shut, this very unusual film tells a simple story with as few intertitles as possible. Maybe even fewer than that. Plunged into the story without any clue to who the characters were, I felt initially quite adrift, wondering if missing footage or titles might have supplied answers to my crowding questions. The way the soundtrack on my off-air recording seemed to fluctuate randomly between "hot jazz" and "Ignor Stravinsky falling down a hill" likewise made me feel punch-drunk, bewildered and itchy.
Anton, screen right.
But somewhere around the twenty minute my brain adjusted to 1923 modes of communication, to the extent that I was able to recognize a startlingly youthful Anton Walbrook as one of the film's Pinocchio-type shady villains, although it was only when I checked the IMDb, which doesn't list Walbrook (not even as Adolf Wohlbrück, his name at the time, before that Christian name went inexplicably out of fashion), that I realized that the movie's blind man was played by Max Schreck. So the Nosferatu star wasn't, as claimed in Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a genuine Transylvanian bloodsucker talent-scouted by F.W. Murnau? You mean the movie lied?
Max, screen left.
With actors like these, you're no doubt already getting some flavor of Die Straße, but there's more. If this film were a stew, it would be pungent, spicy and rich. Grune's playground is an enormous artificial street, and a diorama of the city laid out across a river, creating a stylized reality which isn't quite in the domain of pure expressionism, but sometimes sidles up to it with a sly look. The protagonist's stairwell looks quotidian enough, except it's a good thing he doesn't have kids, since the rails of the banister are so widely spaced a toddler could easily slip through. Maybe they really had stairs like that in Weimar Germany, who knows? A country about to give birth to National Socialism probably wasn't too concerned about basic health and safety issues. Meanwhile, in the dimly-lit stairwell of the poor and wicked characters (class fear being a distinct underlying motivation of the drama: bourgeois gentleman, know thy place!) is a real Der Golem set of rough-textured lumpy curves.
The World Turns.
Grune's narrative approach is a mixture of keen observation of his actors, who are both sculpturally and behaviorally expressive and evocative, and psychological effects of the kind later adopted by Hitchcock, as when a nightclub seems to spin around the head of a fuddled drunk. When the philandering anti-hero/sap takes off his wedding ring, he sees an image of his wife inside the golden band: an image that swiftly recedes into the darkness, allowing him to pocket the giveaway jewelry and get on with wooing the Bad Girl (Aud Egede Nissen, I think: the credits are incomplete, and the character "Dirne" is never referred to as such in the surviving intertitles of the print I saw).
And what of the all-seeing eyes of the optician's sign? I was not disappointed by that image when it appears in the film, especially as the spectacles light up in omniscient neon as the guilty protagonist approaches, and he cowers in guilt before their searing glare. The idea of an optical advertisement as symbol of the watching God made me think of The Great Gatsby, and I got a thrill when quick research revealed that Fitzgerald's book wouldn't be published for two years. Time enough for him to have seen Die Straße, and for that striking shot to have impressed him as deeply as it later would me, all those years later in Edinburgh College of Art library.
"Lucky to be alive."
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.