Just after the First World War the first imaginatively genuine film made its appearance amongst the hundreds of formalized movies. This break in the monotony, the gleaming ray of light , deserves our closest attention. Like a drop of honey in an ocean of salt water, The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari appeared in the films during the year 1920. Almost immediately it created a sensation by nature of its complete dissimilarity to any other film yet made. It was, once for all, the first attempt at the expression of a creative mind in the new medium of cinematography.
Robert Wiene's Imaginative Masterpiece
Griffith may have his place as the first employer of the dissolve, close-up, and the fade, but Griffith's contribution to the advance of the film is negligible when compared with the possibilities laid bare by Wiene's 'The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari." The movie was made in 1919, a period, which will be remembered for its expressionism and cubism. When the scenario for Caligari was first handed to Wiene, the manuscript specified none of the style that appeared in the production. In form, the original scenario was conventional. But Wiene saw an opportunity of getting away from the customary by giving the scenes in Caligari settings and forms which intensified the thoughts and emotions of the characters.
In 1919, The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari put forward these dominating facts, which have lain at the back of every intelligent director's mind to this day: that for first time in the history of the cinema, the director hard worked through the camera and broken with realism on the screen; that a film, instead of being realistic, might be a possible reality, both imaginative and creative; that a film could be effective dramatically when not photographic; and finally, of the greatest possible importance, that the mind of the audience was brought into play psychologically.
The settings, which were almost entirely composed of flat canvas and hanging draperies, furnished with such simple objects as ladder-back chairs and stuffed horse-hair sofas, were painted with two intentions in mind: primarily to emphasize the distortion of the madman's mind through whose eyes they were seen, and secondly to provide interesting decorative values of tone. It may, perhaps, be asserted that this film has dated. Technically, as regards camerawork, stock, lighting, this is correct and naturally inevitable. But in meaning, content, suggestion, treatment, and above all entertainment, The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari is as convincing to-day as when seen years ago. It is also true that surrealism and neo-realism have superseded expressionism in the minds of avant garde, but this does not alter the fact that expressionism plays a large part in the film.
Wiene 's film certainly influenced some of the more advanced American directors, but taken as a whole the productions of Hollywood remained on their former level. What the movie did, however, was to attract to the cinema audience many people who had hitherto regarded a film as the low watermark of intelligence.
Pure Fictional Cinemas
After the success of Cabinet of Dr.Caligari, not until 1924, with the exception of Nosferatu (1922), a film wholly justified the position of cinema. During the intervening period many remarkable films were released, chiefly in Germany and Sweden, which evidenced that brains were at work in Europe, but these were of less significance than would first appear. In 1925 'The Last Laugh,' the joint production of Murnau, Mayer, and Freund definitely established the film as an independent medium of expression. It was a remarkable example of filmic unity, of centralization of purpose and of perfect continuity.
Not a written or spoken word was necessary to the correct unfolding of the theme. By psychological understanding, every action suggested a thought to the audience, every angle a mood that was unmistakable in meaning. The Last Laugh was cine-fiction in its purest form; exemplary of the rhythmic composition proper to the film. After 1925, the German cinema, to which students of the film were looking for further progress, began to decline, largely on account of the general exodus of talent to Hollywood. An argument for the failure of these films is the knowledge that the cinema is essentially modern, and modernism is, above all things, anti-romantic and experimental, reflecting as it does the spirit of the age.
The 1927, Metropolis by Fritz Lang, may not be a pure filmic expression, but it contained scenes that for their grandeur and strength have never been equaled either by Britain or America. Metropolis, with its rows of rectangular windows, its slow-treading workers, its great geometric buildings, its contrasted light and shade, its massed masses, its machinery, was a considerable achievement, and the architecture was story in itself. Fritz Lang is not only a showman, he is reckoned as a director of decided film intelligence, of broad views, of rare imagination, of artistic feeling, who is not afraid to put his amazing conceptions into practical form, using every technical resource of the studio to do so.
Meanwhile, it must be remembered that America was producing films in vast quantities during the years that cinema was discovering its aesthetic qualities in Europe. The American cinema as a whole naturally demands wide investigation, which will follow at a later stage, but at the moment it is important to mention two outstanding tendencies that had grown up in Hollywood. A school of light, domestic, drawing room comedy, displaying a nicety of wit and intelligence, had developed, to be carried eventually to high as a degree of perfection as this lighter side of film allowed. It had its origin in Chaplin's memorable satire 'A Woman of Paris' (1923) and 'The Kid' (1921), as well as in Ernst Lubitsch's brilliantly handled 'The Marriage Circle,' made in the following year.
Along these lines the majority of Hollywood's young men worked with superficial skill, to produce many effervescent comedies and farces, sparkling and metallic, which provided light entertainment for the audiences of many nations. In contrast, with this movement in the studios, there had appeared a small group of directors who showed a preference for constructing their films around natural incidents and with real material; a tendency that had possibly grown out of the early Western picture. Robert Flaherty, Merian Cooper, Karl Brown formed the nucleus of this group, to whom where should be added John Ford, and Victor Fleming, by reason of their isolated pictures which fall into this category. To Flaherty, however, must be given the full credit for the first film using natural resources, the inspiring Nanook of The North, in 1922.
Apart from these two tendencies, only the work of Erich Von Stroheim, Henry King, and the individualistic films of Charlie Chaplin, Keaton, and Douglas Fairbanks, emerged with real seriousness from the mass of machine-made movies up till the time of the dialogue film. Investigations of these works along with cinematic advances in Soviet Russia and Asia will be followed in the later parts.
The Oxford History of World Cinema, edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith
The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari - Wikipedia
German Expressionism - Wikipedia