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The Forgotten: Negative Space/Capability/Attitude

Karl Heinz Martin's Von Morgens Bis Mitternacht (From Morn to Midnight, 1920) comes on like a parody of a German Expressionist classic, so archetypal are its distorted, hand-painted sets and distorted, hand-painted actors. Undeniably beautiful, it throws in the whole rhomboid kitchen sink, attacking what appears to be a fairly naturalistic, if melodramatic, story with theatrical artifice and painterly style until it fringes on the animated cartoon. It's an exciting way to render real life stories cinematic.

Unfortunately, the film is without English translation at present, which leads to two thoughts, slender things to suspend this lush series of images from, but hopefully just strong enough to do the job without this article fluttering to the floor like a pack of cards.

Thought 1: it's quite restful and interesting to watch films with no translation, even talkies. Von Morgens Bis Mitternacht is silent, and therefore a lot of the plot comes across clearly without language, but some of it involves banking, and matters of finance always cause my brain to glaze over, and I resort to telling myself things like "Well, it's alright really because I can still tell who the baddies are..."

Keats spoke of "negative capability," the power to enjoy things without understanding them, to relish mystery without requiring a solution, and to appreciate art without being able to fit it into a rational box. Although, there's always a frustration with movies where one is shut out of the linguistic side, since you know you're not getting the full experience. It's like pan-and-scan, only with words. 

Nevertheless, the sensation of being transplanted into a foreign film without textual guidelines is in some ways exhilarating, like disembarking sans phrase-book in some picturesque troublespot.

Thought 2: someone should release a giant box set of all the obscure German silents that don't have a home on home video, and all the less obscure ones too. It's ridiculous that Robert Weine's Raskolnikov doesn't exist in a watchable form, not to mention Karl Grune's Die Strasse and Lupu Pick's Sylvester. Hell, Lupu Pick deserves his own box set just for being called Lupu Pick.

Such a box set (the big German one, not the Lupu Pick speciality) would cast a wide net over all modes of expressionism and Kammerspiele in Weimar Germany. It would be as long as a shelf, and have a running time of about a year. And it still wouldn't be enough.

I'm very interested to hear what films readers would nominate for a "Forgotten Expressionists" DVD box set.


The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

David, when you say ‘without English translation’ do you mean something other than english subtitles? because the Edition Filmmuseum promises those:
This film looks great – it’s especially a shame that Karl Heinz Martin’s theatrical work is completely lost to time… As for films missing on DVD, what about Leopold Jessner’s “Backstairs” (1921, with sets by Paul Leni)? More Kammerspiele than expressionist maybe, but still fascinating. I’ve never seen “Earth Spirit,” his Wedekind adaptation, but why not put that in the box set as well?
NRH, absolutely. While it’s great that Waxworks has a release, (with Rebus Film included!), Leni is seriously underrepresented. Tren, alas, the copy that found its way to me was minus any subtitles: the risks of accepting gifts from unfamiliar sources. Great news that the film is available region-free and with various subtitles, including English. I must upgrade to a legit copy immediately.
It seems ridiculous that “Backstairs” isn’t available. I haven’t found a “gray market” version of it either. Are the German archives (I guess it’s mostly the Murnau Stiftung) more than usually tight-fisted? “Prince Kuckuck” is the Great Lost Leni, I think.
Great title, anyway! There seems to be a release of Backstairs from Grapevine, and while far from pristine, it looks to be better quality than a lot of the items in their catalogue. Worth investigating…
Oh, there it is. Part of the Henny Porten collection!
A few years ago myself and my wife went to the German Expressionism show at the Paris Cinematheque, an absolutely unforgettable experience (Pose in a recreated set from Caligari! Muse over the detailed plans of Fritz Lang’s giant dragon from Die Nibelungen!) but the clips from this film made the greatest impression on us. Delighted to discover there’s a dvd, that’s her birthday present sorted….
Excellent! I don’t know how it plays as a narrative, but as a sinister flickbook of McBoing-Boing craziness, it’s seriously compelling.
Well, given that the clips from this jostled for space on the Cinematheque’s screens with all the great and famous classics of Expressionism, it certainly says something that we came out chattering excitedly about Von morgens bis mitternachts. It is quite something.
At least one IMDb review complains that the style doesn’t compliment the narrative. But I’d be quite happy for it to totally overwhelm the narrative, I should think. What story could compete with those images?
The English subtitled DVD version of the film is released by Edition Filmmuseum a few months ago. You’re right, there are too many Weimar films that deserve a digital treatment including Von Gerlach’s Vanina. Many times I tried to imagine the scene the young couple are chased by the despotic ruler based on Krakauer’s description of the scene.

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