Skip to main content

The Thompson Library Blog

German Expressionism at the Thompson Library

by Paul Streby on 2020-01-13T12:13:00-05:00 in Film | Comments

Seen any good silent movies lately?  "Silent movies?" you say.  "I don't even watch black-and-white movies!" 

That's too bad, because you're missing out on some really terrific stuff.

Several years ago, movie critic Roger Ebert wrote:

When people tell me that "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" or "Total Recall" are their favorite films, I wonder: Have they tasted the joys of Welles, Bunuel, Ford, Murnau, Keaton, Hitchcock, Wilder or Kurosawa? If they like Ferris Bueller, what would they think of Jacques Tati's "Mr. Hulot's Holiday," also about a strange day of misadventures? If they like "Total Recall," have they seen Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," also about an artificial city ruled by fear?

I ask not because I am a film snob. I like to sit in the dark and enjoy movies.  I think of old films as a resource of treasures. Movies have been made for 100 years, in color and black and white, in sound and silence, in wide-screen and the classic frame, in English and every other language. To limit yourself to popular hits and recent years is like being Ferris Bueller but staying home all day.

I believe we are born with our minds open to wonderful experiences, and only slowly learn to limit ourselves to narrow tastes. We are taught to lose our curiosity by the bludgeon-blows of mass marketing, which brainwash us to see "hits," and discourage exploration.

I know that many people dislike subtitled films, and that few people reading this article will have ever seen a film from Iran, for example. And yet a few weeks ago at my Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois, the free kiddie matinee was "Children of Heaven," from Iran. It was a story about a boy who loses his sister's sneakers through no fault of his own, and is afraid to tell his parents. So he and his sister secretly share the same pair of shoes. Then he learns of a footrace where third prize is . . . a pair of sneakers.

"Anyone who can read at the third-grade level can read these subtitles," I told the audience of 1,000 kids and some parents. "If you can't, it's OK for your parents or older kids to read them aloud--just not too loudly."

The lights went down and the movie began. I expected a lot of reading aloud. There was none. Not all of the kids were old enough to read, but apparently they were picking up the story just by watching and using their intelligence. The audience was spellbound. No noise, restlessness, punching, kicking, running down the aisles. Just eyes lifted up to a fascinating story. Afterward, we asked kids up on the stage to ask questions or talk about the film. What they said indicated how involved they had become.

Kids. And yet most adults will not go to a movie from Iran, Japan, France or Brazil. They will, however, go to any movie that has been plugged with a $30 million ad campaign and sanctified as a "box-office winner." Yes, some of these big hits are good, and a few of them are great. But what happens between the time we are 8 and the time we are 20 that robs us of our curiosity? What turns movie lovers into consumers? What does it say about you if you only want to see what everybody else is seeing?

(Great Movies: The First 100.

I think the key to learning to enjoy silent movies is to think of them as stories told in pictures, and not as films. If you picked up an illustrated book and the people in the pictures started moving around and doing their thing, you'd probably think that was kind of cool, wouldn't you? So why not give some of these a try:

In The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920; call number DVD KINO K 255), the Jews of 16th century Prague face expulsion from the city. To protect his people, a rabbi fashions a golem, an enchanted clay man that is animated whenever a secret written word is placed in its amulet. The rabbi gains an audience with the emperor to plead for the edict to be lifted, with the promise that he will perform some feats of magic while he's there. He takes along the golem, which then saves the emperor and the members of the court when the palace begins to collapse. (The collapse was supernatural punishment after the courtiers ignored the rabbi's warning not to laugh at a vision he was giving them of the Exodus from Egypt. If someone can magically conjure a vision of the Exodus, you probably ought to heed to whatever he says.) The emperor spares his Jewish subjects, so the golem is no longer needed, right? Well, the rabbi's assistant decides to use the clay monster to settle a score before returning it to the storage room. As you might guess, this works out well for no one.

The Golem is not only a compelling horror movie, it is poignant as a sympathetic film treatment of Jews by Germans just a few years before Hitler's rise to power. In the movie, the Jews of Prague were saved by a golem; their real-life descendants were not so fortunate.

A demoted and humiliated hotel doorman has the last laugh in The Last Laugh (1924; call number DVD KINO K 206). Or, at least he does if you continue watching until the end. I'd recommend stopping when the title card appears apologizing for the ridiculous happy ending that was tacked on to an otherwise flawless story.

The hero of the story is an unnamed, fifty-something doorman who is very proud of his job, his uniform, and his hair - both head and facial - and who commands a certain amount of at least superficial respect as he walks through his neighborhood. But when a young twit of a manager sees him sitting down on company time and drinking a shot of liquor (without having seen him a moment earlier unloading a terrifically heavy trunk in the pouring rain), he demotes the aging doorman to washroom attendant, and takes away his ornate uniform. The poor man is utterly broken, and although he tries to conceal his downfall from family and acquaintance alike, word gets out. If the gleeful reaction of his neighbors to his humiliation doesn't make you shudder, you have a soul of tin.

The original, German-language title of the film is Der Letzte Mann, which literally means "The Last Man." Why was it changed to "The Last Laugh" for the English-language version? I think it was because of the artificial epilogue that director F.W. Murnau inexplicably added, in which the doorman inherits a fortune and is somehow relieved of his psychic pain. Phony-baloney happy endings are nothing new to anyone who watches typical Hollywood fare. This is too bad, because life doesn't always have nice, tidy happy endings. As Jack Horner says in Boogie Nights, "There are shadows in life, baby."

Nosferatu (1922; call numbers DVD KINO K 253 and streaming online) is an early film treatment of Dracula, and one of the best known Expressionist flicks. The filmmakers tried (unsuccessfully) to avoid a lawsuit from Bram Stoker's estate by changing the name and details of the story. The film's Count Orlok is the polar opposite of Bela Lugosi's more familiar Count Dracula: sickly, monstrous, cadaverous instead of suave and seductive. The special effects seem amateurish by today's standards, but I still get the creeps when I visualize Orlok rising from a lying position like a garden rake someone had the misfortune to step on.

These three are just some of my favorites. Here are some other German Expressionist flicks in the Media Collection you might enjoy:

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919; call number DVD KINO K 254 and streaming online)
  • Metropolis (1925; call number Video Tape CROW METR and streaming online)
  • Faust (1926; call number DVD KINO K 207 and streaming online)
  • Tartuffe (1925; call number DVD KINO K 320)
  • Waxworks (1924; call number DVD KINO K 256)


This essay first appeared on the Thompson Library's blog in 2006.


 Add a Comment



Enter your e-mail address to receive notifications of new posts by e-mail.


  Follow Us

  Return to Blog
This post is closed for further discussion.