Given the importance of this period, the American Cinematheque will be screening The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Algol on April 30 at the Egyptian Theater. The latter is a brand-new, restored version that will be shown for the first time in America, according to Munich Film Museum director Stefan Drößler, whose archive restored the movie to its current form. Between screenings, there will be a discussion monitored by John Iacovelli, Emmy-winning production designer and art director. He will be moderating the panel with LACMA curator Britt Salveson and Munich Film Museum director Stefan Drößler. They will indulge the audience in an examination of cinema during this period, Walter Reimann’s work in these movies, and Reimann’s ground-breaking design.
Why care about silent cinema?
Stefan Drößler answered with a counter-question:
“Why should you not care for silent films? Today the moving pictures are present everywhere and I think it is quite important to learn about them. How to deal with them, how to understand them, and if you care for moving images and their origins and where they come from, then automatically you will come back to the silent films. At the end of the silent film period, visual language was highly developed in a way - the sound film was a step backward. Suddenly the films began to be very stagy again, that means they became more or less filmed theater pieces. Not all the films, but many of them. Because they could not move with the sound they were not able to move within the films. The camera was very static and suddenly the movies didn’t necessarily become better or advanced in their techniques. So in the late 20s, you have a highly developed film language and many films that express everything visually without the need for sound or music or dialogue. This is a quality the silent films have and when you show them to an audience, many people will understand them. It was a universal language, and suddenly when the sound came you had a language barrier. So these films, when you see them today, are very often very modern and can be understood by everybody. That is one of the many reasons why it could be useful to deal with silent movies.”
Silent cinema can be a different experience for the audience from today’s cinema. Even nowadays at times, silent movies are played alongside a live orchestra. Other times, such as during the American Cinematheque viewing of Algol and Dr. Caligari, there will be a specialist attending to discuss these movies with the audience. It offers a different sort of participation.
The American Cinematheque will not be showing just any silent movies. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Algol are both movies that belong to the cinema of the Weimar Republic and are regarded as expressionistic movies. The sets of both movies were designed by the same set designer, Walter Reimann, whose works can still be seen as an important influence in today’s cinema. Britt Salvesen elaborated on the significance of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in film and art history.
“Caligari remains fascinating to filmmakers and artists because it is a pure example of protagonists' inner psychologies being manifested in the external world. Although photography and film can depict the physical world in all its detail, in the hands of artists like Reimann, it can also depict the mental world in all its irrationality. Caligari's complex narrative structure -- with framing devices, dream sequences, and so on -- also departs from naturalism and pulls the viewer into an alternative realm. Reimann constructed this world with very limited means and humble materials. This opened up the possibilities for cinematic genres that are still vibrant today: noir, horror, science fiction. I have had the chance to work on [LACMA] exhibitions about Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro, two directors who carry on this visionary tradition.”
These two important assertions from Drößler and Salvesen note an important point regarding why silent movies are so essential and will not fall into oblivion. First, because of their universal language and secondly because of their strong influence in movies and within modern arts.
Cinema of Weimar Republic
The Weimar Republic (1918-1933) is an important period of German history because it was the first time in which Germany had a parliamentary democracy. The name derives from the city where the constitutional assembly first took place. Although Germany struggled with the aftermath of World War I, it enjoyed a great liberty within the world of art, including cinema. This period is often dubbed to be the Golden era of German silent cinema. John Lacovelli expressed the importance of the era as follows:
“There was a brief shining moment in the late 1920s for German cinema, a cinema that was uncensored and striving to deal with changing social mores and the advent of the machine age. Cinema was dealing both with the advancement of art as manifested in Expressionism and an exciting experimental cinema reflecting the ideals and promise of the short-lived Weimar Republic.”
Parallel to popular mainstream movies, this era led to the development of art cinema, which expressionist silent cinema is renowned for. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Algol are two prime examples of this.
These movies are as essential to cinema as they are to art. Britt Salvesen explains why:
“The films of the Weimar era have contributed to the world of art, in part because they came out of the world of art. Most of the people involved in set design and art direction were trained as fine artists. Reimann, for example, was a painter and illustrator before he got involved with cinema, and he brought with him an art-historical knowledge of composition, perspective, and typography -- all of which helped him create effective distortions of these classical methods in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The pioneers of Weimar cinema were also eager to establish the aesthetic credibility of their new medium. One way they did this was by referencing various periods in art history -- Fritz Lang quoted from romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, whereas Reimann was interested in more recent Expressionist art.”
This makes expressionist silent movies a treasure for cinema and arts. Accordingly, the value of a newly restored movie such as Algol becomes increasingly more relevant, especially because as Munich Film Museum director Stefan Drößler mentioned, there are so few of them.
“The German Expressionist film was a movement which lasted only a few years and after a handful of films it was already finished because the people didn’t like to see these over stylized films that much. The last films didn’t even find distribution in Germany--they only sold them to foreign countries.”
In this respect, Algol is even more important and a silent movie that movie lovers should familiarize themselves with. Drößler mentioned that the movie is so exceptional because it attempts to use expressionist elements in a way which gives it a new perspective—in combination with other film styles.
“This movie is the only movie that I know of that does not use the expressionistic style so consistently, not like Caligari which plays continuously within an expressionistic décor, but [Algol] mixes this style and uses it as just one element in this movie. Thus, here we have expressionistic style elements, which stand next to documentary shots, and shots that were filmed in realistic sets…The movie goes a step beyond and shows how it is possible to work with an expressionistic décor but combine it with other design elements.”
This is just one of reasons Algol is so interesting, and Drößer touches on other aspects as well. The movie was extremely relevant during that time period, dealing with topics that were of concern to German citizens living after World War I, but it also carries great relevance today.
“It is a kind of science fiction film which was developed after the first World War. In the first World War, the people in Germany--especially during the winter time--had a big problem. They had no energy to heat, many people were freezing. Knowing this, the story is a utopian science-fiction story, where somebody finds the solution to have eternal energy. So the story starts with a very mystical beginning where somebody finds a way to catch the rays of the star in heaven and transform the light of these rays into eternal energy. So all of these desires of having no further freezing winters, to be independent of energy sources, is expressed in this film. Later on the film shows how the owner of this eternal power comes to power and blackmails other countries. At the end of the film, even his own son revolts against the father and the whole machine gets destroyed. It is quite an interesting ending. I am pretty sure that this film was seen by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang before they did Metropolis - this is the blue print for the ending of Metropolis. On the other hand, there are a lot of references in this film to actual problems and events.”
These actual problems can be summed up to energy crises and problems we are still dealing with in the 21st century.
“You see how one man becomes the most powerful man in the world, through financial success, where you can draw interesting parallels [to today]. You can see what kind of effect such events have on market movements. The movie has many interesting connection factors, one as a historic document but also on social process, which are reflected in the movie. It is not simply an old film that has nothing to tell us today.”
Both movies were successful, though they did face some tough times. Drößler mentioned the difficulties Dr. Caligari had in Los Angeles, while it was a huge success in New York and Germany.
“It was not that successful in Los Angeles…it was only shown one or two days because there were protests by the Association of the Film Workers against this movie. They were afraid of an invasion of German films in America. There was an inflation in German film industry, so it was very cheap to buy German films and export them. They disputed that the Germans can produce a film so cheaply that it could become a danger to America. So after these protests, the cinema owners in Los Angeles had to stop the screenings. It was re-released later, but it was not well known in Los Angeles on the West Coast, but on the East Coast in New York, it was a sensation. However, outside of New York it was not that successful because it was a film for intellectuals.”
Dr. Caligari was a major production, yet Algol was produced by a small production company called Deulig (Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft), which was not part of the big Berlin film companies. “That is the reason why this film did not screen for long. It was successful in the first release, but that’s it, and then again even in German film books it is very rarely mentioned.”
Just as Algol faced challenges during its time, this continues to be the case.
Restoring and promoting Algol
According to Drössler, the restoration process of Algol - which took place parallel to other projects - took about 2 years and was riddled with the usual restoration difficulties. One thing that makes Algol so interesting is how the movie was found and the cooperation involving its restoration.
“Enno Patalas, the former director of the Munich Film Museum, was quite happy when he conducted research on the expressionist cinema and discovered the print of this film in the Russian Film Archive and restored it here in Munich. Some years ago I was invited to Latin America to take part in discussions about film restorations and to do a lecture in Chile at the Chilean Film Archive. Suddenly, on the last day the head of the archive told me that they have some German nitrate films and one was the strange science fiction film Algol. I was totally fascinated because it was an original nitrate print. It had already some decompositions and it was not complete. Little pieces were missing, but we never knew how the films were tinted and toned until then, so we found an agreement with the Chilean Film Archive. We combined our film elements and did the restorations as you can see them now. In its current version, the film is more complete and has full image quality and has all the tinting and toning that the film had during its original distribution. We didn’t even know that this film was distributed in Latin America - a little like Metropolis, when everybody was a little surprised that the print of the long version of Metropolis was discovered in Latin America. Since then, we tried to bring [Algol] to festivals and show it at special screenings. The film becomes more and more popular."
An even bigger challenge was promoting a lesser-known film such as Algol. Drößler explained:
“Of course it is always much more difficult to restore an unknown silent film instead of a big name. When I restore a film like Metropolis, which is famous in the world and I have a new version, which is more complete and more beautiful and brings the film back to the glory of its premiere, then everyone will applaud you. When you restore a film that nobody knows and it is an unknown masterpiece then it is very, very difficult, because all of the cinemas and festivals are reluctant because they have never heard of this film before…so even if you need funding to preserve the film, it is much easier of course to get funding for a known title than an unknown title. So when we restore a film it is also essential to promote the film. The first step of any restoration is always to conduct research on the background of the production, the story, the reception of the film at the time - to look at all the documents about the film, so we have good knowledge, which we will need for the restoration itself…I don’t just restore a film for it just to stay in the archive, I want the film to be seen and screened and to get an audience. So I have to see how I can convince other people to show it, how we can release it to the audience. In [the Munich Film Museum's] case we have founded an archival DVD label, which puts our films, if it is possible, in a legal way and the rights owners agree that it is in public domain, that way we can release the film on DVD. This does not mean that the DVD should substitute a cinema screening, but it further promotes the film…and maybe then they are motivated to loan the master file or the print from us for real screenings. This is, in my eyes, also the task of the film preservationist, not only to restore the film but also to see that the film is seen and doesn’t disappear.”
The restoration process, as well as the promotion of movies like Algol, already indicate the importance of the international cooperation of film archives. Just like Algol, many other films could not have been restored or gained recognition without the cooperation between archives and an organization such as FIAF (Fédération International des Archives des Films).
The importance of FIAF and archives
Literature does not disregard the importance of ancient mythologies from Greece or neglect the importance of Shakespeare and the likes, nor should the role German Expressionist cinema played in movie history be disregarded. In order to preserve movie history and help us understand it better, film archives have been established all over the world which collect, research, restore, and conserve audiovisual footage, as well as newsreels in order to preserve their national heritage. FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives) is the association that unites most important film archives. Stefan Drößler stressed the relevance of such an organization.
“An international exchange is essential and important. Movies have been distributed worldwide and were conserved in different places around the world. It is our [archive’s] job to merge all these elements together. FIAF is the one organizations under which all these archives come together, under which the exchange of contact and contribution takes place…Of course, it is also the task of FIAF to represent the interest of the film archives outwards.”
Algol is just one of the many movies that were restored in an international undertaking, as both versions of the movie were found in different archives in different parts of the world. Today, FIAF has once again an important role to play when it comes to preserving new movies, especially digitized movies. Drößler mentioned:
“We are once again in a transitional phase where people treat film material carelessly and think that once they digitize their movie, it is rescued. The originals are therefore not saved or stored properly because many believe that the digital version is enough for the future. Our job as archivists is to save the original data, because it keeps the movie in best format, without any changes and impacts. Hence, it is crucial for FIAF to represent this consciousness to the outside and let the voice of the archives be heard.”
FIAF was founded on June 17, 1938 in Paris during the transitional period from silent movies to talkies. Among its founding members are the Cinémathèque française, Germany’s Reichsfilmarchiv, the British Film Institute, and the Museum of Modern Art Film Library. Back in the 1930s, the major problem was that no one cared much for silent movies and many of them were either thrown away or demolished, which is why many film archives were founded during that period as well as FIAF. This was the first major transitional phase of the FIAF. Now with digitalization, it is facing its second major phase of upheaval.
The Hollywood connection
As mentioned in the beginning of the article, German cinema had a big influence in Hollywood. “This influence can be thoroughly proven, especially within the film noir of the 40s,” said Drößler. This can be seen in film noir and how they worked with strong shadows and dark pictures. The connection to a movie such as Dr. Caligari cannot be disputed. While some film workers escaped the wars in Europe and settled in America, many times Hollywood also invited talents from the old continent to come to Hollywood and produce movies, such as Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Hollywood is the making of different immigrants from many backgrounds who brought their talents from many countries and helped to shape Hollywood.
In order to understand the history of movies and even the current film capital, it will take further research, especially research that spans across different continents. Only this will help us to understand the history, style, and essence of movies and cinema centers such as Hollywood. As Drößler put it beautifully: “It was this intercultural exchange that made Hollywood huge.”
Silent movies, film history, and international cinema should be topics every film lover grapples with.
Preservationist and Munich Film Museum director Stefan Drößler will also be moderating two screenings from the "Orson Welles: The Studio Years and Beyond" series, which he helped to compile.
Désirée Hostettler is currently an intern at the American Cinematheque. She recently finished her MA in journalism and is currently working on the publication of her thesis topic as a book. Prior to her studies and moving to L.A. she worked as a culture & arts reporter for broadcast and print.