The Spirit of Revolution: How World Cinema Defined the 1920s

1920s World Cinema - The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

There is a certain strain of self-identified cineaste for whom “year zero” is 1977. Within this historical myopia, anything which resides beyond the bounds of the Saturday serial pastiche George Lucas and his ilk transformed into the predominant cultural form is but a hazy outline. Yet they may find that the cinema of the 1920s has much to offer them, as many of its conventions were taken up by the new era of spectacle that signalled the end of the New Hollywood sensibility at the turn of the 70s. The visual syntax of silent cinema has much in common with the “story through motion” approach of contemporary action cinema; equally, it was an international form, reaching across linguistic boundaries in a way the modern globalised franchise film is seeking to emulate in its quest for fresh markets.  

There has been a tendency to dismiss silent cinema as an evolutionary stage towards the form’s fullest expression, its obsolescence assured with the release of The Jazz Singer (1927). Yet far from being creaky museum pieces, the silent works of the 20s brim with invention, pushing forcefully against technological and social boundaries. There is a danger and dynamism to 20s cinema which was gradually eradicated by the standardisation of production processes. The form was still being settled, and this allowed for innovation to flourish among its mavericks, maniacs and martinets. There is in the masterworks of the 20s a thrilling sense of the possibilities inherent within the medium. (The coming of sound actually served to arrest film’s development, slowing it to stasis as the industry struggled with the evolutionary teething troubles of implementing this new technology.) 

Silent cinema offered a creative parity wherein the vision was king; where the work of directors like Carl Theodor Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein and Abel Gance could stand alongside Hollywood’s early epics; while Yasujirō Ozu and Alfred Hitchcock were formulating their singular styles as the sound era dawned. Dreyer brought a humanity and intimacy to his work, a poetic realism hitherto unseen on the screen. Dreyer exemplified this dramatic humanism in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); for Dreyer, faces become landscapes, captured with the same pictorial rigour as the countryside in The Bride of Glomdal (1926). Shooting predominantly in close-up, the slightest external inflection can signify the most tumultuous internal upheaval. Maria Falconetti’s Joan passes through incredulity, anguish, resolve, defiance and rapture; it is a captivating physical performance, buttressed by Dreyer’s ability to generate spatial tension. Dreyer delineates the centre of the frame as the nexus of spiritual power, strength and constancy; the characters’ proximity to that centre vacillates over the course of Joan’s heresy trial. Joan occupies the centre at the moment her death is assured; the Dutch angles and vacant spaces are left to Joan’s interlocutors as her belief overrides her fear. Dreyer promulgates an unadorned register, dispensing with theatricality to manifest the camera’s potential for unearthing the subtle instantiation of inner worlds. 

Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc

Gance is remembered for his towering Napoleon (1927), yet The Wheel (1923) cannot be overlooked. Both Napoleon and The Wheel are epics, though they document characters on opposing ends of the social spectrum. Gance helped to redefine the conventions and expectations of the medium, bringing a pioneering sophistication and ambition to his characterisation. What distinguishes Gance is the psychological complexity of his subjects; he sees this equally in the train engineer Sisif as Napoleon Bonaparte; they are both afflicted by an all-consuming and ultimately destructive desire, an internal excess projected onto the world, for which they must face their exile. Gance locates a universal emotional current which is articulated in his striking use of light, inventive superimpositions, fluid camerawork and vivid staging. There are glimpses of the grandeur he would achieve with Napoleon.

Napoleon is a cinematic landmark which is rightly regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. It is still a strikingly modern experience; a whirlwind of invention filled with frenetic editing and vertiginous handheld camerawork, it feels like a dispatch from a lost future in which a cinema of pure visual sensation prevailed. Gance’s camera is alive, bobbing on the back of a horse, swinging over a crowd like a pendulum and recoiling from a canon blast. Gance packs the frame with detail; superimpositions are layered like the accretion of feeling; scenes pulsate with the energy of the crowd; faces are bathed in a palette of impressionistic primary colours. Napoleon is an exhilarating, unrelenting marathon which places the viewer “in the thick of the fire.” It is the thrill of the visceral, a language beyond words, building to an astounding finale in which three separate frames are lined up to comprise a single panorama. Gance threw down a gauntlet which few filmmakers have had the audacity to pick up.

Napoleon Movie Film

Eisenstein demonstrated the tenets of his groundbreaking montage technique with a trio of extraordinary works — Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October 1917 (Ten Days that Shook the World) (1927). In these three seminal pieces, Eisenstein conceives cinema as a vanguard, as the purest and most potent consciousness-raising instrument. Eisenstein’s command of scale and use of crowds is breathtaking, yet he never loses sight of the humanity which underscores these stories of struggle and upheaval. Eisenstein envisages history as a profoundly personal process, creating a heightened realism which evinces the “revolutionary élan” of the period. The metaphorical charge of these works is matched only by their technical bravura; Eisenstein wears his symbolism lightly in the advancement of his social critique. 

Eisenstein shoots his proletarian subjects at empowering angles, lending them a valiant patina that stands in contrast to the sinister dimension of entrenched power. The workers are portrayed as reluctant merchants of revolution, scaling the sheer cliff face of history. In Eisenstein’s schema, man and machine merge, just as fiction and documentary converge; there is a synchronisation of movement, a unity of purpose, that is truly galvanic. These works abound with stunning set-pieces like the iconic “Odessa steps” sequence in Battleship Potemkin, which has oft been imitated and parodied but never replicated. Eisenstein’s camera is probing and propulsive, an accusatory eye delving fearlessly into every crevice of the narrative milieu. As with the work of Leni Riefenstahl, Eisenstein’s films transcend their ostensibly propagandist aims by dint of a stylistic refinement; there is an almost avant-grade flavour to some of Eisenstein’s juxtapositions. In Eisenstein’s hands, the camera becomes a weapon. 

1920s World Cinema - Battleship Potemkin

At the same time in the Soviet Union, Dziga Vertov was expanding the parameters of the documentary form, culminating in his masterpiece, Man with a Movie Camera (1929). In contrast to the anthropological detachment — and questionable authenticity — of Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Vertov becomes one with his subjects; his camera does not create distance, but engenders solidarity in its intoxicating tapestry of everyday life, ushering the gritty lyricism of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926) and Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora (1928) onto the streets. Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1928) brims with a similar energy, capturing a day in the city with breathless momentum. In line with the times, 20s cinema was a cinema of movements; existing structures were challenged and discomfiting questions were posed. Surrealism flourished in Europe; with the likes of René Clair, Jean Vigo, Germaine Dulac and Jean Epstein finding in cinema a means of replicating the motions of the unconscious; Dadaism added the moving image to its arsenal of provocation; Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s collaboration, An Andalusian Dog (1929), is still regarded as the most potent example of cinematic surrealism.

Another major movement of the 20s was German expressionism, whose influence far exceeded its duration (helped in no small part by many of its leading figures fleeing Germany in the30s to settle in Hollywood). The German expressionist aesthetic heavily influenced the Universal horror cycle of the ’30s, and came to be the template for film noir’s post-war trauma. Yet it grew out of a very specific set of concerns; the movement became a means of addressing the dread and dislocation of Germany’s defeat in World War I. The landscape of German expressionism is one transfigured by extremes of light and geometry; the signifiers of stability have been twisted into dizzying new configurations; shared trauma is embedded in its foundations. Such uncertain territory is fertile ground for a figure like Dr. Caligari.

Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) functions as both commentary and prophecy; it speaks to the loss of institutional authority and the unconscious yearning for the sanctuary of domination. The hypnotist Caligari (Werner Krauss) arrives in Holstenwall and instantly transfixes the villagers with his “spectacle”: the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who has spent all of his 23 years in a perpetual slumber, only to be animated at his master’s behest. Cesare is a figure from the recesses of the collective unconscious, rising from the depths into which civilisation had been sucked, a reminder of the barbarity that can be harnessed in service of the powerful. Writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz were avowed pacifists who used this story to illustrate how the abuse of power can lead to collective madness. Its message was particularly pertinent in the wake of World War I, and would be so again. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari distinguishes itself in its art direction, which has a consciously otherworldly quality; its heavy chiaroscuro and irregular structures evoke a faintly recollected dream, an unsettling approximation of reality, equal parts Kurt Schwitters and Ludwig Meidner. 

1920s World Cinema - The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

German expressionism abounds with figures of authority who take advantage of their skills and social standing to impose their will on the masses: from the play on Dr. Jekyll in The Head of Janus (1920) to the rabbi who creates the creature in The Golem (1920) to the crazed scientist in Metropolis (1927). Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) introduced audiences to a character who uses his mesmerist abilities to “gamble with people, with money, with destinies,” for whom plausibility and prestige are weapons in the rigging of “the Great Game.” Like any practitioner of “the occult sciences, Mabuse hides in plain sight, donning multiple disguises to further his campaign of “mass suggestion” and “waking hypnosis.” Mabuse is a protean figure who descends on the turmoil of Weimar Germany “like a beast of prey.” Mabuse stands in opposition to the profligacy and lassitude of the epoch, evoked by Lang in high-modernist interiors where constructivism, primitivism and tasteful abstraction intermingle. Yet there is something seductive about Mabuse; he embodies the desire to abdicate individual agency in service of “a superior, hostile will” to find a stable identity in the elevation of strength. Dr. Mabuse the Gambler points towards the presence of “something stronger than me” with the capacity to envelop the individual in a debilitating embrace.

By the end of Germany’s “Golden Twenties,” expressionism had set the conventions of cinematic science fiction with the futuristic edifices of Metropolis, but it also reshaped the contours of horror. A materialism entered the genre which reflected a new unease. The threats horror offered up began to feel all too grounded in reality; folk myth and actuality were drawn into uneasy proximity as the dimensions of the psychic rupture created by mass carnage came into focus. Viewers came to realise that the monsters were living within society. A taste for the gothic was rekindled in the wreckage as conceived cruelties and abominations expanded to hideous proportions. F.W. Murnau’s variation on Dracula, Nosferatu (1922) brings forth a figure to stand alongside The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s Cesare in embodying the chaotic new constituent that had risen from the aftermath of war. Count Orlok is a malformed, malign spirit who haunts the interstices of the conscience; granted entry by greed, feeding on the despair and desire he finds inside. Max Schreck’s Orlok presages Lon Chaney’s invocation of deformity (subconsciously mirroring battlefield scars); but where Chaney does so to generate pathos for his benighted souls, Schreck’s intent is to conjure a spectre from the depths. 

The idea of societal damnation is central to both Nosferatu and Faust (1926); Murnau depicts tribunes of civilisation entering into destructive pacts with dark forces. In Nosferatu, estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent to Transylvania on the promise of “a nice bit of money,” scorning the superstition of the locals as he inadvertently unleashes Orlok on his wife, Ellen (Greta Schröder). Orlok heralds the arrival of “the Great Death” to Hutter’s home city, just as Faust’s (Gösta Ekman) bargain with Mephisto (Emil Jannings) plunges humanity into a Manichean wager between the demon and an Archangel (Werner Fuetterer) for the soul of mankind. Murnau positions disease as a vector of judgement; “the blood of humankind” becomes the currency of the pain and exploitation the characters endure. As with Mabuse and Caligari, Orlok and Mephisto are agents of decline and disorder who engage these societies in a form of seduction, flattering and finagling until they get what they want; they are emotional tyrants, human will bent into torturous new forms. Faust remains a chilling visual feast, full of striking moments like the demon’s wings enveloping the village. Murnau uses shadow to create frames within the frame, heightening a feeling of confinement and presentiment.

1920s World Cinema - Faust

A psychological tone crept into the horror genre in this period, as the concerns of the individual began to take precedence. Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (1921) is part Dickensian chiller, part social-realist character study, using its supernatural premise to excavate the life of David Holm (Sjöström), an alcoholic whose death on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve consigns him to “perform the forlorn duty” of driving Death’s carriage. Sjöström grounds his horror in a psychological authenticity and sensitivity (it’s clear to see why he was so highly regarded by Ingmar Bergman), offering a treatise on the nature of service which presents the terror of liminality: temporal, existential, social and emotional. Benjamin Christensen’s proto-docudrama Häxan (1922) sought to disassemble the myths of damnation by placing them in a psychological context, identifying superstition as a manifestation of hysteria and trauma. In dramatising the historical figure of the witch, Christensen highlights the social dynamic at play in the pursuit of witchcraft (those deemed guilty were exclusively poor women). Christensen marries Dreyerian refinement with surrealist forays into the grotesque which certainly informed the conventions of horror. 

Wiene abandoned the lavishly expressionistic production design of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for a more sparse formulation in The Hands of Orlac (1924). Orlac opts for the lugubrious over the hyper-stylised; its denuded sets are illuminated with islands of light amidst a sea of darkness, forging a threatening, proto-noir aesthetic. In its depiction of an injured pianist who receives the hands of an executed murderer, Orlac foreshadows some ugly social currents, echoing the concerns of the eugenics movement. What follows is a primitive form of body horror, as Orlac grapples with the idea that his refined spirit has been contaminated by these “murdering hands,” which compel him to criminality. G.W. Pabst also broke with the tenets of expressionism for his “psychoanalytic film,” Secrets of a Soul (1926); yet despite its intent to inaugurate a new objectivity, Secrets of a Soul features one of the great dream sequences, prefiguring some of the era’s great surrealist works. Though it gives way to didacticism, Secrets of a Soul is an attempt to explore Freudian concepts in its story of a scientist who develops an irrational aversion to knives; the figure of horror here is Freud’s conception of the id, with which this pillar of respectability does battle. Equally, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (1926) equates the mind with forces of nature. In his use of Dutch angles, heavy shadow and rapid cutting, Kinugasa seeks to mimic a state of subjectivity to which only the inmates of its rural asylum are attuned. It is a social ghost story, encapsulating banishment and detachment. 

1920s World Cinema - A Page of Madness

Before the influx of German talent altered the tenor of American cinema, it was the Austrians who were synonymous with European sophistication in Hollywood. None more so than Erich von Stroheim, whose slyly subversive sensibility foreshadowed the Pre-Code era. Though Foolish Wives (1922) and Greed (1924) now exist in a compromised form, what remains offers a tantalising glimpse of Stroheim’s craftsmanship; his camera is trained on its subjects like a withering glare, luxuriating in the depths of corruption it is unearthing. Josef von Sternberg emerged with two innovative genre pieces which signalled the sensuality and scrupulous composition that would characterise his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich: Underworld (1927), the film which popularised the gangster genre, and The Last Command (1928), a romantic war film with a satirical edge. Murnau followed in Ernst Lubitsch’s footsteps to make Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), a romantic fable which retains a residual darkness and gothic unease in keeping with Murnau’s past work. Louise Brooks went in the opposite direction, forsaking Hollywood to work with Pabst on Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (both 1929), which extended the complex sexuality seen in Marcel L’Herbier’s modernist romance The Inhuman Woman (1924). For all its instability, Europe still offered a refuge to those unwilling, or unable, to function within the narrowing possibilities afforded by the increased bureaucratic and moral strictures of Hollywood.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.