#154 (tie) – Vampyr (1932), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

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Dead or alive. Allan Grey, or perhaps just a dream self, stares through a coffin window. Such stark lighting and inventive camera angles work to create a nightmare world of danger and confusion in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr.

If there is a difference between horror and suspense, it might might be said to come down to a question of opacity. Horror shows its hand; suspense keeps it hid but implies strongly. But perhaps more importantly, suspense isn’t necessarily meant to scare so much as to create a mood, an atmosphere in which anything — probably the worst anything — can happen. Despite featuring an undead blood sucker, a malevolent doctor, and a one-legged murderer, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) can’t really be said to be a horror film. It does, however, create a morbidly grim atmosphere that also manages to playfully tap into the realm of dreams and nightmares. The film is awash in strange lighting schemes, misbehaving shadows, off-kilter angles, and unorthodox performances, the sum of which create a picture that engages even as it strains comprehension. Vampyr is a movie of details more than a movie of scares, but its deliberate pace and bravura camerawork create a compact world of hypnotic beauty and grimy tension. (73 min.) Continue reading

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#36 (tie) – Metropolis (1927), dir. Fritz Lang

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Futurama. The prototypical mad scientist Rotwang shows off his mechanical hand and his mechanical-man to Joh Frederson, the effective ruler of Metropolis, the dystopic society created by director Fritz Lang.

Above ground, a towering, glittering city filled with a pleasure-seeking elite. Below ground, the tenement colony of workers who operate the massive machines that drive the city above. Metropolis (1927) is the story of a young man and woman who try to break down the divide between the classes in the name of love and common humanity. But little of that matters, because the film is foremost a canvas on which director Fritz Lang creates some of cinema’s most enduring images and characters. The most expensive silent film ever made, Metropolis represents ground zero for cinematic science fiction — even more so than A Trip to the Moon. Every cinematic dystopia from Blade Runner to Akira to The Matrix owes a debt to Metropolis‘ title city. The novel Frankenstein may have created the mad scientist, but it is the performance of Lang regular Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the fiendish inventor Rotwang that serves as the model for every deranged scientist to come. And Metropolis‘ most famous creation, the Machine-Man, was effectively cinema’s first robot (and served as direct model for C-3PO in Star Wars). In all, Metropolis is a simplistic take on class conflict, but one told on a grand scale and with a visual inventiveness that has kept it relevant and eye-popping for over 85 years. (150 min.) Continue reading

#127 (tie) – The Last Laugh (1924), dir. F.W. Murnau

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Pride cometh… Emil Jannings stars as a man defined by his job at a luxury hotel, who loses everything when old age leads to a humiliating demotion in F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh.

Some people live for their work, even when it isn’t the most groundbreaking or vital of gigs. In F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann, 1924), Emil Jannings plays a man whose entire life is defined by his job as the doorman of an upscale hotel. His doorman uniform isn’t just the symbol of his occupation, but serves as a marker of distinction and eminence in the working class apartment block where he lives with his niece. As the day laborers shuffle off to work each morning, Jannings can glide through the tenements like a general surveying the troops. But when the aging doorman loses his position, his world crumbles down around him, leaving him humiliated, fearful, guilt-ridden, and ridiculed… at least until an unexpected series of events befalls the poor man. Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund’s silent drama/comedy tells a simple story through striking sets and compositions, inventive camera movements, and (almost) a complete lack intertitles, creating a new language of cinema in the process. (90 min.) Continue reading

#117 (tie) – Nosferatu (1922), dir. F.W. Murnau

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Stranger in the night. Count Dracu… er, I mean, Count Orlok haunts the minds and plagues the bodies of his shipbound victims in a scene from the silent horror film Nosferatu (1922).

Nosferatu has long been considered a horror movie staple, and it is the earliest film on the Sight & Sound Top 250 list by German director F.W. Murnau. Between 1922 and his untimely death in an automobile accident in 1931, Murnau produced four movies now considered by critics to be among the very greatest ever made, with his 1927 film Sunrise (#5) being the highest ranked silent film on the list. Nosferatu was the first attempt to bring Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the silver screen, but it was filmed without securing the rights from the author’s estate. Consequently all of the characters have different names and some story details were changed in the hopes of avoiding a lawsuit (it didn’t work, they were sued and most prints of the film were destroyed as a result). So while it is a familiar story, Nosferatu gives it a spin all its own and produces one of the most iconic villains of cinema — the hideous bloodsucker Count Orlok. (92 min.) Continue reading

#235 (tie) – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), dir. Robert Weine

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Fractured fairytale. The somnambulist hauls his victim over the German Expressionist rooftops of the warped world of Dr. Caligari.

An early foray into cinematic horror, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920) features some of the most wildly distorted sets the movies have ever seen. A touchstone of German Expressionist cinema, the film largely ignores naturalism of any kind in its settings, instead creating its own looming, jagged world in which terrible events transpire. The story revolves around a series of mysterious murders that occur shortly after a fair comes to town. A featured spectacle at the fair is the cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which houses Cesare, a young man who is almost permanently asleep and can supposedly divine the future. Soon suspicion swirls that Dr. Caligari is responsible for the murders, but proof is elusive. (75 min.) Continue reading

#235 (tie) – The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), dir. Fritz Lang

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Driven ’round the bend. Madness, fear, and the looming spectre of Nazism drive the twisted criminality in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), the last film Fritz Lang made in Germany before fleeing to the United States.

“Humanity’s soul must be shaken to its very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crimes. Crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is fear and terror. Because the ultimate purpose of crime is to establish the endless empire of crime.” So reads the scribbled ravings of Dr. Mabuse, a criminal mastermind driven insane before his arrest a decade earlier. In the aftermath of horrible events like the Boston marathon bombing it is a sobering (if not distressing) thought that director Fritz Lang was addressing the same sort of dreadful activity 80 years ago as the Nazis began their meteoric rise to power. This was the final film that Lang, whose mother was Jewish, made in Germany before fleeing the country. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, 1933) is nominally a sequel to Lang’s very successful silent film Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), but it is also a semi-sequel to Lang’s previous movie, M (1931, we’ll get in to that below). Confined to a mental institution, the insane Mabuse endlessly pencils out complex criminal schemes which appear to be replicated in the real world by a criminal gang that uses terror and fierce loyalty to reach its destructive ends. Not just another crime film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse delves into strange realms of madness in a Germany that was itself on the verge of insanity. (122 min.) Continue reading

NiL – Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), dir. Fritz Lang

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You are getting creepy, very creepy. Fritz Lang’s 1922 epic about a criminal mastermind and hypnotist is full of innovative and interesting scenes, like the one above showing a victim’s perspective as he begins to succumb to Dr. Mabuse’s hypnotic gaze. This film is not in the Sight & Sound Top 250.

We are straying a bit from the general format of the blog with this entry to present a film not in the Sight & Sound Top 250 — Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922) — mostly because our next blog entry is the sequel to this film. This four-and-a-half hour, silent crime epic was a big hit for Lang, and introduced a character he would come back to twice more in his directing career. Mabuse is a brilliant psychologist turned criminal mastermind, who crafts elaborate plots to manipulate world markets but isn’t above using his mastery of hypnosis to cheat at cards. The brilliance of the character and his spiraling decline offer up the chance for Lang to engage in some wonderfully stylized imagery and bravura action sequences — but perhaps not enough to justify the runtime. (271 min.) Continue reading