Film History part I
written by J.A.Bohr
continued from Page Two
The film opens with a sorcerer in a large chamber. Centred along the back wall is a set of stairs. The sorcerer moves (in an exaggerated style - foreshadowing the biomechanics of German Expressionism) to the rear, picking up a giant gold scarab, summoning a cauldron, and throwing the scarab into the magic cauldron. Flames rise from the cauldron as the scarab transforms (using jump cuts) into a woman with large wings (dragonfly appearance). The woman turns the cauldron into a large (nearly filling the scene) fountain. Coloured water begins to flow out of the fountain, turning into fire. The sorcerer dances wildly as the coloured flames fall around him. The last flame effect shows the woman centred atop the fountain as fire spirals around her (through the use of superimposition). The fountain disappears as two assistants join the winged woman. They chase the sorcerer around the chamber, catch him, and throw him into the cauldron where he disappears in a puff of smoke. The last shot shows the assistants on each side of the winged woman as she flutters her wings.
What is so stunning about The Golden Beetle is the colour. This film is so fully tinted in all scenes that it comes chromatically alive, making the water jets flicker and the fireworks explode. The difference in colouring technique is evident by the smoother transitions from frame to frame (which is much different from the use of colour in Edison's films, in which the colour "flickers" more from frame to frame). As in Trip to the Moon, it is difficult to determine if any themes were being portrayed in The Golden Beetle (Never mess with golden scarabs found lying around in chambers? Or is there significance to the fact that a woman plays the spiritual beetle?) or if this is simply a mythological tale put to film. Because it contains no intertitles to build theories from, I will not try to overanalyse this film. This film was recently restored by Kino International, and few "English" translations or reviews on this film are readily found. Chomon and the Pathe studios is not the only place the influence of the fantasy stage work of Melies can be seen. German Expressionism builds from the style of stage sets introduced by Melies to try and capture the "Mental Landscapes" of insanity in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
The history surrounding German Expressionism and the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, is that of a war-torn Germany (WWI having just ended) undergoing a social revolution led by Bolsheviks. Soldiers returning from the war formed into groups called the Freikorps. "Germany's Social Democratic party broke apart during the war, and in the chaotic first years of the postwar republic, the German Socialist party (SPD) and the German Communist party (KPD) fought each other in the streets."8 The Bolsheviks were even able to take over Berlin for a few weeks. As the Freikorps returned to Germany, they travelled through the country battling worker's uprisings. It is in this social environment that Robert Wiene directs what is known as the "inner narrative" of Dr. Caligari.
As historical reference, Fritz Lang was originally hired to direct the project. Robert Wiene did direct the inner story. Fritz Lang was then used to direct the "framing" sequences. The writers of Wiene's inner narrative were unhappy with the addition of the "framing" narrative. They felt it left a feeling that Germany was fine, and Francis (our lead) is emotionally stressed. Understanding the chaos that rampaged German cities at this time, it is easy to see that this might not have been the notion writers wished to portray. This point alone leads to many fascinating political discussions on the final narrative versus the inner narrative, but that is for others' papers. It is the "look and feel" of Dr. Caligari which has influenced many of the directors and writers of what will become known as Science Fiction and Horror. Dr. Caligari is a 51 minute (the copy I viewed) film about insanity and the interaction between man and authority buried in symbolism.
The film begins with two men telling stories in what seems like a garden (realistic looking trees and shrubbery surround the men). As a ghostly woman (Jane) passes the men, Francis (on the left) begins telling about the first time he encountered Caligari. This is where the Wiene film begins. Throughout Wiene's section of the narrative, we see that the whole world has become "unreal". Walls lean and bend impossibly, light is "painted" onto the scenery where the sun would fall, and items which fill the set are deliberately exaggerated out of proportion (ie. chairs, stools, desks and doors).
continued on Page Four