A Brief and Boredom-Induced Guide to German Expressionist Films, Part 2

NOTE: Some of the films I’ll look at in this article deal with content and themes that might be upsetting to some readers/viewers, including the deaths of children (M) and a scene of sexual assault (Variety). I won’t dwell too long on such topics, but there are a few cases where I couldn’t properly discuss the film without addressing them. And we’re gonna talk about Nazis for a bit, so fair warning on that front as well.


And we’re back! Do let me know if you decided to watch any of the films from Part 1 and what you thought of them. In the meantime, let’s finish out this write-up. In the second half of the 1920s and the first few years of the 1930s, German Expressionism became even more ambitious and experimental. This is where we get some of the movement’s biggest achievements, and two particular films from this period are now counted as some of the most groundbreaking, influential movies of all time. And yes, they’re both Fritz Lang.

Film #6: The Hands of Orlac

  • Year: 1924
  • Director: Robert Wiene

Not to be confused with the hands of Orlok, which are also terrifying, along with the rest of him.

Four years after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the director and star of that film reunited for another project. This one was to be a dark thriller inspired by psychoanalysis and the emerging subgenre of body horror. You’d think that would be a great recipe for a movie, right? Right?

…Strap in, folks.

While traveling back home after a successful tour, famous pianist Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) is in a terrible train crash. His hands are too damaged to save and must be amputated, much to the horror of his wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina). But luckily for Orlac, the surgeon attending him, Dr. Cerral (Hans Homma) senses an opportunity for some mad science and gives Orlac a hand transplant, getting the hands in question from a just-executed robber and murderer named Vasseur. Is it just me, or would this be unethical even in the 20s? Orlac is less than thrilled when he finds out who his donor was: mentally crippled by the knowledge that the hands now affixed to his body have committed terrible crimes, he shuts himself away from the world and from his wife. Soon he begins to see visions of a mysterious cloaked man and have flashes of memory that are not his own. When Orlac’s father is suddenly murdered and Vasseur’s fingerprints are found on the body, Orlac must clear his name by proving the impossible: that the murderous spirit of Vasseur lives on through his hands.

The film is based on the 1920 novel of the same name by Maurice Renard. At the time of both the book and the film, the notion of hand transplantation was pure science fiction: successful procedures wouldn’t be accomplished until the late 90s/early 2000s. But the hand transplant is really just a backdrop to the real ideas being explored here. What is the psychological fallout of losing such an essential part of yourself? Or worse, what if such an essential part of yourself was not truly yours to control?

For the first hour or so of its runtime, the movie is actually pretty good at this. Like Caligari, the visuals are quite dark and surreal, albeit more grounded in reality. The darkness continually closing in around Orlac illustrate his mental isolation. The camerawork is fixated on the characters’ hands to the point that it starts to feel a bit suggestive and Freudian, especially since one of Orlac’s primary hangups is that he no longer feels comfortable touching his wife. And while Conrad Veidt’s acting may seem overwrought even by silent film standards, it’s both good and appropriate for the circumstances. Orlac spends most of the film in a horrified daze, keeping his hands stretched out in front of him as though worried they could turn on him or his loved ones at any moment. In a particularly dark scene, he actually grabs a knife and nearly stabs his left hand before being interrupted. All of this stuff adds up to a pretty unsettling viewing experience.

But before long, you start to notice the little details that mar said viewing experience. We don’t get to see Orlac prior to the accident that disables him, so we don’t have anything to contrast his spiral into insanity. But this is nothing compared to the much more important info that the movie withholds from the audience. For example, there’s the fact that Orlac’s father hates him. Like, “wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire” levels of hatred. He’s positively gleeful at the thought of his own son languishing in poverty. Why does he act like this? We never find out. The other characters speak of Orlac Sr. as an evil man who just hates everybody, but there’s clearly something deeper going on in regards to his family. It seems like it’s going to be a big part of the story, like it’s going to cast suspicion on Orlac in the wake of his father’s murder and make him doubt his own innocence. But no, the dad dies and this never gets brought up again. Or there’s the fact that the film seems to be taking place over a fairly short time period, but then someone mentions that Vasseur has been dead for years. The storytelling leaves you confused and disoriented, and not in a good way.

But then you get to the third act, and you realize that this wasn’t the worst of it. No, this was only a dark harbinger of the stupidity to come.

Okay, so, personal preference disclosure time. In stories like this where the whole point is that something supernatural may or may not be happening, I don’t like when the supernatural occurrences are explicitly revealed to be a hoax. And I especially don’t like it when the hoax ends up being part of some gaslighting/blackmailing/fraud scheme. That’s the first twist which happens here. The ominous cloaked figure that Orlac keeps seeing is not a hallucination: he’s an actual guy, and he’s been preying on Orlac from behind the scenes with help from the family’s maid. When Orlac Sr. dies, the stranger summons Orlac Jr. to a secret meeting where he delivers his monetary demands. If he doesn’t get his money, he’ll tell everyone Orlac is the murderer. But who is this guy?

The man then announces that he is Vasseur, back from the dead. And the honest-to-God explanation for his survival is that Unethical Doctor’s assistant resurrected him by transplanting his head.

SURPRISE! Turns out it was just a con man pretending to be Vasseur! Not only that, but he was the real perpetrator of the crime that Vasseur got executed for, meaning that an innocent man was killed by the state and Orlac’s new hands were metaphorically clean all along!

At this point, you may start to suspect that you’ve just been watching a really bleak episode of Punk’d this whole time and vintage Ashton Kutcher is about to pop out and mock everyone. Including the audience. Especially the audience.

And of course, because Orlac learns that his hands weren’t actually those of a convicted murderer, his mental breakdown is instantly cured and he’s free to return to his normal, happy life. THE END.

I don’t know anything about the novel this is based on. For all I know, it’s a spot-on adaptation. But to see this movie be so good in the first hour and then fall off a cliff into Pulpy Nonsense Land is just…disappointing. That’s not to say that I have a problem with pulpy nonsense. I told you guys to watch Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, after all. But in this case, it doesn’t feel right for the story being told. The premise alone has such great narrative potential. Whether you have the supernatural elements be real or not, the psychological rejection of limb transplants is a real thing and could make for a fascinating, tragic story. And The Hands of Orlac is a movie that seemingly wants to be a tragedy but just couldn’t stick that landing. The conclusion wraps things up too neatly, and the happy ending is tacked on and unearned. Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it’s a movie where the final twist makes you see the whole story in a different light. Unlike Caligari, it does this by having the final twist ruin the story altogether.

What I’m trying to say is, just go watch Caligari again.

Film #7: Variety

  • Year: 1925
  • Director: Ewald Andre Dupont

As I said in the intro, German Expressionism started to get more ambitious and experimental as the movement matured. But what does “experimental” mean for an art movement that’s already so unconventional? In this case, that desire manifests as an effort to merge a realistic setting and story with the style and themes of the movement’s earlier triumphs. We’ll see that combination at its best in another film on this list, but this little-known melodrama tried it first.

Variety is a tale of jealousy, regret, showbiz and the destructive power of obsessive love. Our protagonist, a man known only as “Boss” (Emil Jannings) was a great trapeze artist before an accident ended his career. Now he and his wife run a seedy Hamburg carnival while raising their infant son. Dissatisfied with how his life has turned out, Boss begins a passionate affair with an alluring young woman (Lya de Putti) who comes to work at the carnival. Together they run away to Berlin and start their own trapeze act, eventually going into business with the famous acrobat Artinelli (Warwick Ward). But it soon becomes clear that Artinelli is infatuated with Boss’s girl. How will this love triangle play out? Well, Boss is narrating all this from prison ten years after the fact, so take a wild guess.

From a narrative perspective, movies like Variety are a dime a dozen. Boy meets girl, boy and girl meet other boy, boy and other boy fight over girl, boy murders other boy in a fit of rage. It doesn’t have an original bone in its body. So what sets Variety apart from the others and makes it worthy of inspection?

The acting does, first of all. You probably haven’t heard of Emil Jannings, but in the 1920s he was a pretty big star in both Germany and Hollywood. In 1929, he became one of the very first Oscar recipients when he won Best Actor for his performances in The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command. I also feel the need to note that yes, he did become a Nazi and star in propaganda films later on.

(That’s the problem with reviewing movies from this time and place in history: the minute I find someone who seems kinda cool or just someone I want to talk about specifically, I immediately have to google them to figure out if they became a Nazi later. It’s not going to prevent me from talking about their work, but I would personally feel remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that aspect of their lives/careers. It’s complicated, trying to grapple with the knowledge that people who made some great art were also complicit in one of history’s greatest atrocities.)

So, now that we’re all nice and uncomfortable, let’s talk Jannings and how he’s easily one of the two best things about this movie. There’s a lot going on with the character of Boss. Him recounting his tale of woe is a form of penance, not just for killing Artinelli but for abandoning his family. His obsession with making sure he doesn’t lose his girlfriend seems less driven by love for her and more driven by the need to ensure that his poor decision meant something. It gets to the point where he starts to see reminders of his guilt all around him, like when he glimpses a life insurance ad that says “NEVER FORGET YOUR WIFE AND CHILD.” Jannings plays the character with a cold, steely intensity that continually builds up throughout the film but is stripped away by remorse in its final moments. He brings to life the tragedy of someone who realizes that he had something good all along and threw it away to pursue what he thought he wanted.

But the indisputable star of this movie? Why, it’s none other than Karl Freund and his camera. That’s the other thing which makes Variety remarkable to watch: the camerawork. Because the visual design of the film is more realistic than other examples of German Expressionism — no exaggerated sets or makeup or special effects — the way it gets inside the characters’ minds and emotions is with striking, unconventional camerawork.

Way back when I talked about The Mummy, I mentioned how Karl Freund invented what we call the unchained camera. Having an unchained camera means it’s not fixed to a tripod, so you can tilt it, raise it, use it while it’s moving, etc. to get thousands of shots that couldn’t be done before. It’s basically the innovation that made modern cinema possible.

In Variety, Freund uses the unchained camera to incredible effect by using it to put the audience right in the middle of the trapeze sequences. He’s able to create POV shots from the characters as they’re performing their trapeze act, so it’s like the audience is swinging around in this blur of lights with a sea of distant faces below them. Or he fixes the camera to the trapeze itself, so you’re swinging around with the character as you watch them. During the pivotal scene where Boss discovers his lover’s infidelity, the camera rapidly spins around the room to simulate his disjointed frame of mind. It’s still pretty cool filmmaking today, and in 1925 it must have been astonishing.

I’ll admit the movie is kind of a hard sit, even if the camerawork doesn’t make you dizzy. None of the three main characters are all that likeable. There’s Boss, who’s an adulterer and eventually a murderer. His girlfriend is depicted as a wily temptress who lures him into doing wrong. Then there’s Artinelli, who at best is kind of a sleazeball and at worst is an outright rapist. The scene where he initiates a relationship with the female lead is pretty obviously non-consensual on her part. He invites her into his room, tells her to close the door behind her — the frightened look on her face when he says this is enough to make you shudder — and starts telling her about how he’s secured an American tour for the trio. When she doesn’t reciprocate the way he expects her to, he forces himself on her while angrily demanding her gratitude. I don’t know what’s worse, the scene itself or the fact that the girl is happy to be in a relationship with him afterwards.

Variety is a mixed bag of a film. On one hand, the plot is boring at best and sometimes uncomfortable to watch. On the other hand, the cinematography is dazzling, as are the glimpses into the theater scene of 1920s Berlin. There’s a variety (no pun intended) of entertainment acts put on display throughout the film, and most of them are rather impressive in their own right. It creates a picture of a diverse, fascinating world that you would like to spend more time exploring. Just maybe not with these protagonists…

Film #8: Metropolis

  • Year: 1927
  • Director: Fritz Lang

Well, this is it. The big one. That Which Is a Big Freaking Deal.

If you’ve heard of any movie on this list, odds are that movie will be Metropolis. Whether you know anything about it or not, you’ve undoubtedly felt its influence on pop culture. Movies like Star Wars, Blade Runner and The Matrix, dystopian fiction like 1984 and The Hunger Games, just about anything that can be described as retro-futurism — all of it can be traced back to Metropolis. It’s the original epic science-fiction movie.

In the distant future, the shining city of Metropolis is a high-tech paradise…for a few. While wealthy businessmen and their sons live in luxury and engage in hedonistic pleasures, a whole other world lies beneath their feet: the underground city of the workers, where hundreds of people slave away at machines until they drop dead at their posts. For the innocent young Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the city’s architect and leader, these strict class divisions are something he never knew existed. But his world abruptly changes when he catches a glimpse of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a priestess from the workers’ city, and instantly falls in love with her. In her speeches to the workers, Maria predicts the coming of “the Mediator,” a messiah with the wisdom and compassion needed to help the city’s people resolve their differences. Freder and Maria come to believe that he could be the Mediator, but his father, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), sees their blossoming relationship as a threat to his utopia. He seeks the help of a mad scientist named Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), and together they formulate a plan to discredit Maria and leave the workers without a leader. But Rotwang has plans of his own, and no one is prepared for what happens when his terrifying Machine Man is unleashed upon the city…

It feels like a disservice to condense a discussion of Metropolis into only a few paragraphs. Both its flaws and its triumphs give me so much material to talk about. Its most enduring quality, of course, is its visual majesty. The hypothetical future envisioned by Lang is brought to life in gorgeous detail. The upper echelons of the city are packed with stunning Art Deco skyscrapers and monumental Greco-Roman architecture. Cars zoom along a labyrinth of suspended highways, and biplanes soar between the buildings. Meanwhile, the workers’ world is dominated by cold Brutalist architecture, foggy hallways and giant machines that often resemble grotesque monsters. Karl Freund’s cinematography really helps communicate the intended scale of the world: even when you’re just watching this movie on a laptop screen, everything feels big.

We expect to be astounded by the futuristic visuals when we’re watching Metropolis. What we may not expect — I certainly didn’t, but was delighted by it nonetheless — is how Gothic the film is at the same time. Take, for example, Rotwang’s lair. It’s stated to be centuries old, and from the outside it looks like a spooky old witch’s hut. Inside, his laboratory of bubbling beakers and electrical coils is something right out of the Universal Frankenstein films. You can tell that both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein were taking cues from Metropolis in this regard, especially when the story touches on the twisted relationship between Rotwang and his Machine Man. Rotwang built the robot as a replacement for his deceased wife, and later on, he gives it the appearance of Maria as part of his and Joh Fredersen’s plan to fight the workers. The scene where he does this is particularly spectacular, with special effects that honestly outshine some of the stuff Universal would do in the following decade. Everything with Rotwang and the Machine Man is probably my favorite part of the movie. Klein-Rogge plays the perfect evil scientist with manic facial expressions and wild gesticulations, and Helm is no slouch either. When she’s playing the real Maria, she’s demure and gentle. When she’s playing the Machine Man disguised as Maria, she’s a spastic, bloodthirsty inhuman force. You can see a little Bride of Frankenstein in her fluid, almost animalistic movements, and that probably wasn’t a coincidence: Helm was one of the actresses considered for the role of the Bride before Elsa Lanchester was cast.

This all goes hand in hand with the other big thing about Metropolis that took me by surprise, which is how intensely religious the story is. This movie is packed to the gills with Biblical imagery and allegory. Hell, it’s basically a sci-fi retelling of the Tower of Babel story and the Book of Revelation at the same time.

In the first half of the film, the script uses the Tower of Babel as a way to illustrate the class divisions of the city. Maria recounts the original Bible story to the workers and reinterprets it as a story about a labor dispute. While the tower signifies a glorious future in the eyes of its designers, its name becomes a curse word for the mistreated workers building it. “People spoke the same language,” Maria says, “but could not understand each other.” This is why Metropolis needs the Mediator, because otherwise the management and the labor will never see eye to eye.

The second half of the film is where the Revelation allegory really comes into play. Robot Maria is explicitly compared to the Whore of Babylon, driving men to murder and suicide over her. But the character also encompasses elements of the False Prophet and the Antichrist, particularly when she incites the workers into launching a violent rebellion that destroys their city and nearly kills their children. Freder sees a set of statues depicting Death and the Seven Deadly Sins, and later he imagines them coming to life and attacking him. And to top it all off, the final scenes of the film take place inside and in front of a magnificent Gothic cathedral.

There are aspects of the film that don’t hold up under scrutiny, mainly its big moral. An issue as complex and touchy as labor-management relations can’t be simplified down to “if we learn to play nice then everything will be okay.” This is one reason why Fritz Lang soured on the film later in his life, as he noted in an interview published after his death:

The main thesis was Mrs. Von Harbou’s, but I am at least 50 percent responsible because I did it. I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that’s a fairy tale—definitely. But I was very interested in machines. Anyway, I didn’t like the picture—thought it was silly and stupid—then, when I saw the astronauts: what else are they but part of a machine? It’s very hard to talk about pictures—should I say now that I like Metropolis because something I have seen in my imagination comes true, when I detested it after it was finished?

from Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors by Peter Bogdanovich

Other reasons why Lang didn’t like the film may have included the fact that the Nazis were rather fond of it — I guess they missed that whole part where tyranny is bad and you can’t just genocide the people you don’t like — and that it was subject to some pretty brutal cuts and censorship. When Lang died in 1976, most available versions of the film were significantly shorter than his original cut, and it was believed that about a quarter of the removed footage had been lost altogether. Luckily, that wasn’t true. The best version of the film currently available (and the one I would recommend for first-time viewers) is the 2010 two-and-a-half hour cut based on a nearly complete copy of the film found in Buenos Aires in 2008. A few key scenes are still missing, but it’s probably as close as we’ll ever get to seeing Metropolis the way Lang intended.

And you should see it! Yes, the plot and dialogue aren’t always the best, but the incredible visuals and effects really do outshine the flaws of the script. And honestly, I don’t think the script is that bad. It’s got a relentless optimism to it that makes it endearing. The heroes aren’t necessarily ordained by destiny to become the saviors or chosen ones: they choose those roles for themselves because they want to do the right thing and help their fellow man. It’s a story about how small deeds can have a big positive impact on the world, and you know what? Sometimes we just need a story about that.

Film #9: M

  • Year: 1931
  • Director: Fritz Lang

When I decided to do this two-part series, there were two films in the Criterion Channel’s program that I had seen before. One was Nosferatu, and the other was M. And I’ll be honest, I was not super hyped at the prospect of rewatching M. You see, it’s an extremely hard sit. That’s not to suggest that it is a bad film — it is quite the opposite, in fact. Fritz Lang considered it his masterpiece, and I’m inclined to agree with him. It’s easily one of the most powerful films you’ll ever watch, but it’s also one of the bleakest and most depressing. It asks some very difficult and uncomfortable questions about society, mental illness and the true meaning of justice. And it’s not afraid to admit that there are no clear answers to said questions.

Also, it will make you never want to hear “In the Hall of the Mountain King” ever again.

A child murderer is roaming the streets of Berlin. Several kids have turned up dead in the last few months, and the latest victim, Elsie Beckmann, has just been found. Accusations are flying around, and the whole city is gripped by terror. The police, led by Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) are clamping down on the criminal underworld in an effort to find any leads on the case. In return, the crime lords of Berlin, led by a man called Safecracker (Gustaf Gründgens) enact their own plans to find the child killer so the authorities will stop bothering them. But when the criminals do track down the child killer, they don’t find the ruthless monster they’ve been expecting. Instead they find Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a frightened and broken man tormented by his homicidal impulses and the guilt of his terrible crimes. The question, then, is this: does a man like Beckert really deserve to be killed for what he’s done?

I mentioned earlier that German Expressionism got more experimental by trying to combine the themes and emotional heights of the movement with a more realistic world. M is where we see that combination at its very best. It has a real, modern-day setting, and it’s by far the most grounded of the German Expressionism films. It’s a long way from the sweeping grandeur of Metropolis to the claustrophobic grittiness of Hans Beckert’s Berlin. The cinematography is slow and contemplative. Static shots lasting several seconds allow you to really take in what you’re seeing — or to imagine what you’re not seeing, as is the case when poor little Elsie never comes home. It’s an immersive approach to filming that allows you to feel like an observer in the world and not just outside it. This was also Lang’s first sound film, and he took great advantage of the new ability this gave him. He used voiceovers and offscreen sounds to tell his story, had characters’ actions motivated by sound and used the contrast of silence and noise to create tension.

M was also one of the first films to utilize what we call a leitmotif. This is an idea that originated in opera, and it refers to when you have a tune or piece of music representing a key character in your story. The Jaws theme is a leitmotif, for example. Whenever you hear it, you know that shark’s a-comin’. And it’s the same idea here. Other than brief scenes of a character playing an instrument, the only music that appears in the film is when Beckert whistles the tune of Evard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt. The audience quickly learns to associate the song with Beckert and with his crimes. It even becomes crucial to the plot, because it’s how a blind man is able to identify Beckert as someone who had a little girl with him on the day Elsie Beckmann was killed.

Another thing that makes the film feel very down-to-earth compared to the rest of the German Expressionist movement is how procedural it is. Beckert doesn’t really enter the story until the halfway point: the first half of the film is all about the city’s efforts to track him down. Lohmann and the police have modern forensic methods like fingerprint records and handwriting analysis, while Safecracker and the criminals have a vast network of eyes on the ground that they use to survey the whole city. There’s a bit of social commentary in how the film juxtaposes the two main search efforts. The police and the mob come off as being more alike than we’d care to admit — and the mob is the one that finds Beckert first, seemingly accomplishing in a matter of days or weeks what the police couldn’t do in several months.

The only downside to the film’s emphasis on this investigation process is that it makes the movie a little too slow at some points. This mainly becomes an issue in the last half hour or so. After the mob has finally captured Beckert and carried him off, we have to backtrack a bit and spend several minutes with Lohmann figuring out what’s happened and where Beckert is now. On one hand, that setup is necessary for the ending. On the other hand, it disrupts the momentum of the story right when the tension has reached its most critical point.

But you know what? None of that really matters once you get to the last ten minutes of M. Because those last ten minutes are a devastating knockout.

This movie gives itself an apparently impossible task: presenting the audience with a character who murders children and then making you sympathize with them. How could you possibly sympathize with someone like that? But by some convoluted witchcraft, M makes it happen. And by “convoluted witchcraft” I absolutely mean Peter Lorre. Holy shit, Peter Lorre is incredible in this movie. And not only was this his first major film role, he had mostly done comedic roles beforehand. Talk about showing just what you’re capable of.

Hans Beckert is neither evil nor unrepentant. He’s a man with a dangerous mental illness, and he’s more aware of that than anyone. In the climax of the film, Beckert is hauled off to an abandoned factory and put before a kangaroo court organized by Safecracker. The criminals and civilians present give Beckert the pretense of a real trial, complete with defense attorney, but it’s obvious that they’re just planning to kill him then and there. Beckert’s demands to be handed over to the police are met with derisive laughter,, so he has no choice but to defend himself to the angry mob.

This is a brutal sequence to watch, and it’s made better/worse by the fact that you can understand where both sides are coming from. Beckert gives a passionate, chilling monologue about how it feels when his violent urges show themselves. “Who knows what it’s like to be me?” he shrieks, curled up on the basement floor. “I have no control over this, this evil thing inside me. The fire, the voices, the torment!” It’s a scene that embodies the core ideas of German Expressionism while defying the conventions of the movement at the same time. Because it’s a deep dive into the fractured reality of an insane mind, but it doesn’t need to convey that insanity with striking effects or trippy visuals. All it needs is a tight script and an outstanding performance.

Beckert’s mental state is pitiable, but it doesn’t absolve him of his deeds. He knows that he doesn’t deserve to go free, so his argument is that he should at least be handed over to the state and given a fair trial. In the eyes of those judging him, however, he’s already proven himself too dangerous to be kept alive. A state trial would result in him being institutionalized rather than killed, and he could possibly escape or be released at some point. It’s a fear that you can understand, especially since we know Beckert was in a mental institution at one point but was declared cured and released. At its core, this is a grieving community that wants justice. And why should the man who murdered their children get to live?

Eventually things come to a head, and the crowd rushes at Beckert — then a police whistle sounds from offscreen, and everyone in the room slowwwwly puts their hands up.

So what happens to Beckert after he’s given his fair trial? Is he institutionalized, or is he given the death penalty?

We never find out. Just as we’re about to hear the sentence, Lang cuts from the courtroom to a shot of the grieving mothers waiting outside. “This will not bring our children back,” Elsie’s mother says, weeping. “One needs to keep closer watch over our children.” And as the screen fades to black, she adds “All of you.” Lang’s message is clear: no matter what society does about criminals like Hans Beckert, we’re still left with an irreversible tragedy at the end of the day. The least we can do is take care of the people we love and hope that the next tragedy doesn’t happen to them.

If Metropolis is the blueprint for science fiction in film, then M is the blueprint for cinematic crime dramas and psychological thrillers. Its gritty, pessimistic realism and focus on procedural investigation make it an early example of film noir, a genre that Lang would make some significant contributions to later in his career. But nothing else he did is quite as raw and unrelenting as M. It’s designed to make you uncomfortable and make you ask questions about your own morality. There will be some people who just can’t sit through it, and that’s okay. This is not a “movie night” movie. This is a “you’re gonna need to mentally prep for what you’re about to see” movie. But I think it’s an extremely important movie nonetheless. Eighty-nine years later, it still has the power to horrify us and break our hearts like few other movies can.

Film #10: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

  • Year: 1933
  • Director: Fritz Lang

Well, we’ve made it to our last movie in this list. And we can’t be on our merry way without pausing to wave goodbye to our favorite crime lord wizard, can we?

Ten years after his criminal empire was brought down, the notorious Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is stuck in an insane asylum, wasting away in a catatonic state. He never speaks or responds when spoken to: all he ever does is move his hands in a scribbling motion, as though he’s trying to write something down. Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi Sr.), the man looking after him, gives him a pencil and paper, and suddenly Mabuse is writing day and night. His rambling notes gradually form a manifesto detailing the foundations and instructions for a new wave of crimes and terrorist acts…crimes and acts that start coming true in real life. Berlin’s top inspector, Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), is on the case. He starts to suspect that Mabuse not be as mad as everyone thinks and is secretly the mastermind behind this new crime wave. There’s only one problem — Mabuse has just died. Then why are there men carrying out his ghastly instructions, men who receive cryptic messages from a mysterious unseen figure who calls himself Mabuse?

The way I see it, Testament is a hybrid of Fritz Lang’s earlier pulpy works and the dark realism of his later period. This is exemplified by the fact that it’s not just a sequel to Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, but also a sequel to M. The events of that film are never explicitly mentioned, but Wernicke is playing the same character he did there. The look and feel of the film also has a lot more in common with M than it does with the original Mabuse. Gone are the glamorous mansions and gambling halls. In their place are stern offices, cold asylum rooms and forgotten, decaying hideouts. Instead of an action-packed mystery, we have another slow and deliberate investigation with a gradually increasing sense of dread packed into every scene. And when there is some action, it’s not the fun kind. It’s grim and disturbing, like the sequence towards the end of the film when the villains start a massive fire at a chemical factory.

At the same time, however, Testament hasn’t lost sight of its roots. We do get a bit of delicious pulpy nonsense in here, albeit in more muted form: car chases, jewel heists, rooms rigged to explode, a contrived romance subplot that might actually be worse than Twilight. Life hack — if you want a girl with a crush on you to go away, look her dead in the eye and say “I’ve killed two people!” She’ll probably announce that she doesn’t care and you’ll end up making out, but at least you tried.

And, of course, there’s the telltale German Expressionism strangeness. Having this film be the last one on our list kind of brings our whole journey back to where it began, because Testament has a lot in common — both its visuals and its narrative — with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. A few key moments display some of the same trippy set design we saw back then, giving us a glimpse into the broken minds of its insane characters. The whole story begins when one of Lohmann’s former coworkers, a fellow named Hofmeister, frantically calls him with news about a mysterious criminal syndicate. Before he can give any more details, he suddenly disappears in the middle of the phone call…and turns up in an insane asylum a few days later, believing he’s still on the phone with Lohmann. When Lohmann comes to visit Hofmeister, we get a glimpse of what it looks like inside his mind. He imagines his cell as a transparent room with a transparent desk and furnishings, stretching walls and sharp, jutting angles. What makes this image even more memorable is that it’s only onscreen for a few seconds, and then we snap back into the real world.

But the most fascinating aspect of the film is Dr. Mabuse himself, as you would expect. Though he doesn’t have much screentime in the film, he makes his presence felt in every scene. The first time around, he was an evil genius with near-limitless power over the human mind and will. This time, he just might be an omniscent supernatural force pulling strings from beyond the grave. You know that one Obi-Wan Kenobi line right before he dies? “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”? Kinda like that. And in the scenes where Mabuse is actually onscreen? Oh boy…

I’m gonna go ahead and spoil the big twist for you, if my comparing this to Caligari didn’t give it away already. Professor Baum is the one who’s been running the crime syndicate and carrying out Mabuse’s orders. As he assembled the manifesto, Baum came to revere Mabuse as a genius who saw the world as it really was: heartless, corrupt, beyond salvation, needing to be broken and purified through a reign of terror. Eventually, he becomes so entrenched in his delusion that he believes he is Mabuse.

The film never spells out exactly what is going on with this character. It’s ambiguous as to whether Baum was simply a madman who found a god to latch on to, or if something more sinister was at work — that is, if Mabuse’s spirit actually influenced him and took over his body. Considering all the blatantly supernatural stuff that we saw Mabuse do in the first movie, I for one am totally willing to buy the interpretation that his ghost possessed a dude. I’m also willing to believe that because of one major scene in this movie, which is easily the scariest scene in any of these films outside of Nosferatu.

Shortly after Mabuse has died, Professor Baum is in his office late at night, reading through the manifesto. As he flips through the hundreds of pages (many of which look like Expressionist art with exaggerated letters and grotesque illustrations), he feverishly whispers the words of the document to himself. Then a frail, creepy wisp of a voice joins in, and he looks up to see the ghost of Mabuse sitting in the chair on the other side of the desk. But this is not Mabuse as he looked in life: his eyes are huge, wide ovals with pupils so tiny you can barely see them, and the top of his skull is gone, exposing his brain. As he keeps whispering his own words about an empire of crime and terror, he suddenly switches places so that he’s standing right behind Baum. Then he slowly sits down in Baum’s chair, the images of the two men overlapping before Mabuse fades away.

Now if that doesn’t read like a possession scene, I don’t know what does. That is some Get Out-level freakiness right there.

But it’s not just what Mabuse does in the movie that makes him so fascinating to talk about here, it’s what Lang was trying to say with the character. Let’s recap: we’ve got this madman full of hatred and violence, locked away from the world. While he’s imprisoned, he begins to write a manifesto describing his ideal world order and how to make it a reality. His ideas spread, leading to the creation of a cult-like group that carries out acts of terrorism in his name. Now, are we talking about Dr. Mabuse and his testament? Or are we talking about Adolf Hitler and Mein Kampf?

The parallels are too obvious to ignore. You have the idea that the world needs to be saved from itself, that the current world order is corrupt and needs to be destroyed. You have the all-powerful leader who demands total loyalty from his followers and proof that they’re willing to do whatever he wants. Those who show the slightest apprehension are promptly killed. And though Testament was made several years before the Final Solution was enacted, thinking about all this puts a ghastly new light on the scene where two characters are locked in a room and forced to wait for their own deaths. It’s a bomb, not a gas chamber, but still.

Did the actual Nazis pick up on this stuff? Oh, you bet they did. Hitler came to power in January 1933, shortly before the film was set to premiere, and the Ministry of Propaganda banned it by the end of March. The film ended up premiering in Budapest, and it wouldn’t be publicly screened in Germany until 1961. Even then, it was edited.

The intricate layering of styles and biting social commentary make Testament a fascinating and watchable film. I wouldn’t call it the best Fritz Lang film or my favorite one of his: it’s not as fun as the first Mabuse or as visually astounding as Metropolis. But it’s got a pretty tight plot, some creative ideas and a villain unlike any other. And at least this one isn’t four and a half hours long.

Epilogue

As you’ve probably guessed, Fritz Lang didn’t stick around Germany for long after Testament got banned. He was part-Jewish on his mother’s side, though she had converted to Catholicism and he had been raised Catholic. While he certainly wasn’t a Nazi sympathizer, his wife and longtime writing partner, Thea von Harbou, unfortunately was. They divorced sometime in 1933, around the same time he finally left Germany for good.

Lang ended up resuming his film career in the United States. While he never quite replicated the majesty of his greatest works, he nevertheless became known as a film noir pioneer with successes like Scarlet Street, Human Desire and most famously The Big Heat.

The rise of the Nazis brought this chapter of German Expressionism to a close as filmmakers fled the country and those who remained pivoted to propaganda films. But the movement never truly died. I think it might be more accurate to say it diffused through the film world. Lang wasn’t the only prominent figure from the movement to start working in America. Karl Freund emigrated a few years earlier and worked on Dracula and The Mummy, as we already know. F.W. Murnau came over in the late 20s and made the romantic drama Sunrise, an Expressionist-styled film that’s still regarded as a masterpiece. Actors associated with the movement, like Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre, found success in America as well.

Today, we can see the legacy of German Expressionism across genres and throughout film history. Alfred Hitchcock incorporated many of its techniques into his films, as did Orson Welles, Billy Wilder and others. Tim Burton built his career on paying homage to German Expressionist classics like Caligari and Metropolis. And I’ve already mentioned how the latter influenced just about every sci-fi movie ever made.

So yeah, I think it’s safe to say that German Expressionism never really died. It lives on, like our creepy new friend Dr. Mabuse, still working its magic.


And there you have it. A not-actually-that-brief trip through a short but very important period in film history. I’d like to think that we all had fun and/or learned something here. I certainly did. The next Horror Is Universal will be coming soon, and I’m working on a new short story that I’ll either post here or submit for publication. In the meantime, stay safe and healthy and have a wonderful day.

— Dana

One thought on “A Brief and Boredom-Induced Guide to German Expressionist Films, Part 2

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