Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Expressionism in Cinema – review

Editors: Olaf Brill & Gary D. Rhodes

First published: 2016

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: One of the most visually striking traditions in cinema, for too long Expressionism has been a neglected critical category of research in film history and aesthetics. The fifteen essays in this anthology remedies this by revisiting key German films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), and also provide original critical research into more obscure titles like Nerven (1919) and The Phantom Carriage (1921), films that were produced in the silent and early sound era in countries ranging from France, Sweden and Hungary, to the United States and Mexico. An innovative and wide-ranging collection, Expressionism in Cinema re-canonizes the classical Expressionist aesthetic, extending the critical and historical discussion beyond pre-existing scholarship into comparative and interdisciplinary areas of film research that reach across national boundaries.

The review: Whilst expressionism covered a range of films, readers of the blog will be aware that there was a prime example of expressionism in the vampire film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. This book does, obviously, cast its net wider than I would normally look at for review but it has (as well as mention of Nosferatu in several chapters) a chapter on Nosferatu specifically, as well as Genuine – a tale of a vampire and Drakula Halála (1921).

Drakula Halála was a Hungarian film from 1921 directed by Károly Lajthay and is a lost film with just a few stills surviving. The title means The Death of Dracula and it is the chapter on this film I will concentrate on (although the other two mentioned chapters are very worthwhile – as is the volume as a whole). What Gary D Rhodes unearths for the chapter is both astounding and absolutely essential to the student of the Media Vampire.

The first thing we see is from a trade publication announcement for the film, in 1921, posted in Képes Mozivilám that incorrectly attributes the novel Dracula to H G Wells. He then teases us with a set report from a journalist from the publication Színház és Mozi. One thing that struck me was the likening of Dracula “a phantastic creature” to “some kind of modern Bluebeard” then he tells us of Dracula’s aversion to the cross as he tries to marry the heroine (of the film) Mary Land in a hall where “Beautiful women parade through it, all dressed in dreamlike costumes, all of them being Drakula’s wives.” This is, to my knowledge, the first use of the word wives in association to the women in Dracula’s castle – though there are certainly more than three brides in this film.

However most exciting was the fact that there was a novella written to tie in with the film and although the film is lost the novella is not, and the author translated it in full for the chapter.

Within the novella we get a mystery. Mary Land goes to an asylum for the insane to visit her father, who dies in her arms. However she sees a man in the asylum she believes to be her old music teacher. He claims to be Drakula the immortal. After being accosted by two other inmates who pose as doctors Mary is persuaded to stay at the asylum and rest before travelling home. Is the resultant kidnapping by Drakula just in her head, a figment of imagination brought on by the shock of the attack and losing her father and projected into her nightmares?

Drakula claims to be immortal and fears the cross – rearing from it. Of course the idea of pulling away from the cross was previously shown, cinematically, by Georges Méliès in 1896, though it was Mephistopheles who was so affected. Drakula is called the Devil’s son in this and has hypnotic eyes – in Stoker's novel it is Van Helsing who uses hypnosis and this, to me, seems to draw a simile between Drakula and Svengali (incidentally Paul Askonas, the actor who played Drakula, had played Svengali in the film Trilby (1912)) as well as introduce the vampire’s hypnotic eyes to the cinematic vampire. Whilst Nosferatu introduced the vampire being vanquished by the rising sun it seems Drakula Halála moved towards such lore when Drakula exclaims “I hate the sunlight! It forces me away. But I shall see you again, tonight!

What we don’t get is overt vampirism. Drakula will make Mary his bride with a kiss – and, of course, a kiss was used in Dracula (the novel) as a euphemism for a bite – but we do not see a bite or a reference to the drinking of blood. The poster for the film, however, did depict Drakula with fangs. The living dead are referred to but then this is used to describe the asylum’s inmates – perhaps Mary’s struggle with Drakula is her own struggle to maintain sanity and thus not join the ranks of the living dead/insane? Interestingly the inmate who claims to be Drakula is killed – hence the film’s title – by means of a bullet, but the bullet does pierce the heart.

Rhodes has given us a treasure and whilst the volume is expensive, as it is an academic reference book, the chapter makes the volume absolutely essential for the student of the media vampire. 9 out of 10 reflects this and reflects the quality of the other chapters.

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