It Began In Germany: the origins of horror

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Horror has had a rough year in 2011, both in cinemas and on our DVD shelves. As late into the year as October (the month in which horror is god) the only effective genre films have been those that merged together horror with comedy (Attack the Block and Tucker & Dale versus Evil for instance). Everything else has been shown on the festival circuit, which means they won’t see the light of public consumption until 2012. Failing that the peak of horror has potentially been saved for the final months of the year. Now instead of picking fault with the poor films that have been released thus far this year, let us travel back to the origins of the genre and to Germany where three select films were made that proved to be intrinsic in the development of the genre. Those three films are Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and the Carl Boese and Paul Wegener co-production Der Golem. It would be erroneous to talk about these films for what they are now; instead it would much more productive to understand what they signify.

 

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu is one of the many classics from one of the great voices of the silent era, F.W. Murnau. This film is Murnau’s most universally well-known thanks to Max Schrek and the fantastical mythology of the man, with theories that he was a vampire fuelled by his lack of reflection, a theory that was brought to the screen in the film Shadow of the Vampire. One of the standouts of silent horror and German Expressionism, Murnau’s film was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with names and details changed because the studio could not obtain rights (“vampire” became “Nosferatu” and “Count Dracula” became “Count Orlok”).

Count Orlok is the genesis of the vampire, everything positive about this horror stalwart is a recognizable trait of Nosferatu. The vampire played by Max Schrek cuts a grotesque figure. Gaunt and elongated, his bald head and long fingers, this is a monster. He carves chaos across the European seas, sending people mad before taking them for sustenance; the people confuse his wrath for the plague. If nothing else, Nosferatu serves as a counter-point to the contemporary watered down vision of the vampire.

All of this may be true, but the enduring facet of this horror legend is the imagery. This is one of the prime exponents of German Expressionism with the contrast between light and dark played to maximum effect in the climactic moments where Schrek stalks up the stairs. All you see is his grotesque shadow and even now, some 89 years later, that image has the power to startle. It’s quite incredible. The story itself is something of an anti-climax, serving as a precursor of sorts to the array of pathetic deaths the dark lord suffered during the era of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Hammer Horror.

 

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Das cabinet des Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene, is one of the most influential films in the formation of psychological horror. The premise at its most basic level is about a series of mysterious murders and the following investigation, which leads the case towards a mysterious elderly gentlemen and his carnival exhibition. This elderly gentleman is Dr Caligari and he presents the fair going public with his somnambulist, Cesare, a zombie-like creature who possesses foresight in his few waking minutes.

There are three components which exemplify the importance of Dr Caligari. The first is the structure; as it opens, the narrator and chief investigator states that a ghostly girl who wanders by is his fiancée, he then goes on to describe his unbelievable tale. This is one the earliest examples of the framing device used in cinema. Secondly, the crimes are solved at the climax and it is revealed to be Dr Caligari and his ominous Somnambulist – or so it seems. Dr Caligari is actually the director of a mental health institute and all the other people in the case are all fellow in-mates at the asylum: Cesare, his fiancée, everybody. Wiene’s film is credited as being the first film with a twist ending; subsequently, it champions the concept of the unreliable narrator. Shutter Island echoes this beat for beat.

When the twist has been revealed, certain aspects of the film become much less ambiguous. It is an expressionist piece, so the black and white make-up plays a huge role in the look of the film. The stylistic tropes are also brought into consideration for the set design; the shapes of designs of the architecture are distorted, warped and far from natural. It is all in his mind. It may be redundant to comment on the dated nature of the piece, it is 91 years so it’s appropriately dusty, yet the ideas and the concepts included make this essential for anyone interested in horror and its roots.

 

Der Golem (1920)

Lastly is Der Golem, or as it was released in America, The Golem: How he came into the world, one of the early examples of the creature feature before the 1950s got its hands on it. The premise is of a small Jewish community who face exile because of their anti-Christian ways and their dabbling in the black arts. As a means of protection they seek solace in the dark arts constructing a man of clay and seeking the aid of the gods to give life to their golem to serve as a guardian. By presenting the Jewish faith in such a way, there were claims at the time that the film-makers harboured anti-Semitic sentiments.

That might have been true at the time, to the contemporary eye; however, the loudest fixture is the design of the golem. Played by co-director Paul Wegener, he has the presence of a Frankenstein-like creation, only his head is adorned by what looks like the hairpiece from a child’s doll. It makes for an interesting, occasionally hilarious juxtaposition. To add to that misfortune, they initially have the golem chop wood and go to the shops to get groceries. It’s not until the last 25 minutes that the film morphs into what could be interpreted as a horror by having the creation turn on creator. In one scene which is jarringly violent for a silent film, the golem throws a man from the top of a tower, and the camera shows all before revealing the limp corpse on the floor nearby.

Wegener does cut a foreboding on screen presence even if it only comes from his towering height. A line could be drawn from the golem to the silent slasher icons of the 1970s and 80s via the B-Movies of Roger Corman et al.

Although Der Golem and Doctor Caligari are stated by some as perfect double-bill bedfellows, these three very different films are inescapably influential. Horror might have evolved and mutated beyond all recognition, yet it would be folly to ignore the roots a great deal of which had their genesis in these three unassuming films from 1920s Germany. If you take your horror seriously, these three are an essential part of your curriculum.

Robert Simpson

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